For eight decades (1900-1980), White Motor Company was a mainstay of American automobile, truck, bus and agricultural tractor manufacturing.
1924 white motor company wrecker. Jim Allen/FreightWaves @ Iowa 80 Trucking Museum
White Sewing Machine Company
The White Sewing Machine Company was started in 1858 by Thomas H. White and others in Templeton, Massachusetts. In 1866, the company was moved to Cleveland, Ohio. The company did well, and each of White’s three sons (Walter, Rollin and Windsor) joined the company that bore their name.
Just before the beginning of the 20th century, Thomas White purchased a Locomobile steam-powered automobile; however, the car’s boiler was unreliable. His son Rollin worked to improve the design of the boiler; he developed a water tube steam generator with two significant features and patented his steam generator in 1900. He offered his design to Locomobile and other companies with no success. However, he persuaded his father to let him set up a workshop in one of the White Sewing Machine Company buildings so that he could manufacture an automobile of his own design.
By the end of 1900, 50 automobiles had been built and were tested before being put up for sale in April 1901. This led to the formation of the White Motor Company as a division of the White Sewing Machine Company. Walter was the company’s president, Windsor was responsible for marketing and Rollin headed manufacturing and design.
The name given to the automobile was the White Steamer, and the cars were successful from the start. Success was enhanced when Rollin won a 10-mile race in 1901 in a Steamer at Detroit’s Fairgrounds, and again in 1902, when he drove a specially designed car at a Cleveland track. Rollin was awarded a gold medal for his steam engines at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The engines were used in trucks named Stanhopes.
In 1905 the automobile company was separated from the parent White Sewing Machine Company. A 1907 model of the White Steamer was an early part of the first White House fleet of automobiles. The Secret Service used the car to follow the horse-drawn carriage of President Theodore Roosevelt. Notably, President Roosevelt was the first sitting president to ride in an automobile; he rode in a White Steamer in Puerto Rico in 1902.
In 1909, President William Howard Taft had the White House stables converted into a garage and four automobiles were purchased, including a 1911 White Steamer. The White Model M-7 cost $4,000 and generated 40 horsepower. The purchase of the car by the White House generated excellent publicity for the White Motor Company.
(Photo: Mary Baker Eddy Library)
Conversion to gasoline-powered engines
However, the White Motor Company built its last steam-powered automobile in January 1911, and began to build gasoline-powered cars and trucks instead. The company had produced over 9,100 White steam-powered autos, a total higher than the more well-known Stanley Steamers.
White had investigated the various gasoline-powered vehicles available at that time and licensed the rights to the design of French automaker Delahaye in late 1908. Production of gasoline-powered autos and trucks began in 1910.
In 1912, the company teamed with Riddle Hearse and Ambulance Company of Ravenna, Ohio, to build its new gasoline-powered vehicles. White manufactured the chassis and Riddle manufactured the vehicle bodies. The vehicles were sold through White dealerships.
In 1916, Rollin White left the company and founded the Cleveland Motor Plow Company to manufacture tractors based on a design he had developed. The name of the company was changed to Cleveland Tractor Company in 1917, and “Cletrac” was used as a trademark beginning in 1918. The company was successful; the tractors were popular for more than two decades until the company was sold to the Oliver Corporation in 1944.
World War I
Although Rollin White was missed, the White Motor Company continued to do well. By 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I, sales of White trucks had surpassed those of the company’s cars. By war’s end, the company had manufactured 18,000 trucks for the U.S. Army. With the peacetime demobilization and downsizing of the military, many White trucks were sold as Army surplus.
A focus on trucks, difficult times and harmony
In the space of just a few years White had become one of the world’s largest truck manufacturers. In a market with many competitors, the White Motor Company sold 10% of all of the trucks made in the U.S. Because of market conditions and the success of its trucks, the decision was made to end the manufacture and sale of White automobiles in late 1918. From 1919 through World War II, White produced a variety of trucks, from light delivery trucks to heavy-duty tractors, as well as small touring buses that were used primarily in U.S. national parks.
A 1925 White Motor Company touring bus. (Photo: Western Reserve Historical Society [wrhs.org])
During the Depression, White Motor Company’s sales dropped. After the death of Walter White in 1929, the company’s top executive was no longer a member of the White family. Robert Black became the company’s president. Because of the deteriorating economic conditions the company was forced to merge with Studebaker in 1932; however, a newly reorganized White Motor Corporation came into being in 1934. At this time the company was producing several models of trucks, farm equipment and the small touring buses.
Employees started one of the country’s first automobile unions and went on strike during the mid-1930s. Unlike the tactics used by many companies at the time, Black held meetings and spoke at length with striking workers. The strike was settled; Black instituted a number of reforms, polled customers about White vehicles and met with employees regularly. As World War II approached, he had returned the company to prominence.
World War II
As in World War I, White manufactured trucks and other vehicles for the U.S. military. The company designed and (with other companies) manufactured the U.S. Army reconnaissance vehicle, the M3 Scout Car. White also manufactured the M2, M3, M13 and M16 half-tracks during World War II.
White Motor Company was very successful as a military contractor; the company ranked 54th among U.S. corporations based on the value of World War II military production contracts, and it prospered. Over 4,000 men and women were employed by the company during the war.
A half-track built by the White Motor Company for the U.S. Army. (Photo: wrhs.org)
By war’s end, White was a leader in the U.S. and world truck markets. In the post-war years, the company led in the heavy-truck and farm equipment markets. It purchased a number of smaller truck manufacturers and small farm machinery companies. Ironically, it purchased the Oliver Corporation, which had earlier bought Rollin White’s Cleveland Tractor Company.
However, White Motor Company’s primary focus was heavy-duty trucks. Among the truck manufacturers White Motor Company acquired were Sterling, Autocar, Diamond T and REO. White also agreed to sell Consolidated Freightways’ Freightliner trucks through White dealerships, an arrangement that lasted from 1951 until 1977. White continued the manufacture and sale of Autocar-branded trucks after that company’s acquisition. And White took the Diamond T and REO brands and combined them as the company’s Diamond REO division.
A 1962 White tractor at the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum looks ready to pull a trailer. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)
Challenges in the 1960s
Black retired from the company in 1956, beloved by White employees. Management turnover and changing market conditions led to lower sales during the 1960s. White Motor Company attempted a merger with its original owner (now known as White Consolidated Industries). However, the federal government did not approve the merger. White Motor Company opened manufacturing facilities in Utah and Virginia because they were non-union, right to work states, but this provided little relief. The former president of Ford Motor Company, Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen, was brought in to run the company; he was successful for a time, but the company’s decline continued. Later, the federal government reversed itself and approved the merger with White Consolidated, but that merger never occurred. Merger talks with Daimler and Renault also took place, but again, neither came to fruition.
White created the Western Star division in 1967 in an attempt to sell more trucks in the western U.S. and Canada. At the time, White was manufacturing trucks under the White, Autocar, Diamond REO and Western Star brands; the company became known for its “Big Four” brands until it shut down Diamond REO in the mid-1970s. Although it bought the Sterling Truck Company in the early 1950s, White had never used the Sterling name. This was transferred to Freightliner when the companies ended their relationship in 1977. Later, the Sterling brand was used by Daimler Trucks (which bought Freightliner in 1981) from 1997 to 2008.
White is acquired
Unfortunately, White Motor Company was insolvent by 1980. Swedish truck and automobile manufacturer Volvo AB acquired the U.S. assets of the company in 1981. Two Canadian companies purchased the Canadian assets of White Motor Company, including a manufacturing facility in British Columbia, as well as the Western Star name and models. The White Motor Corporation ceased to exist in 1985, after a run of more than 80 years.
Volvo manufactured White and Autocar branded trucks during the 1980s. Meanwhile, Western Star continued independently in the U.S. and Canada. Western Star also bought cab-over-engine models built by Volvo-White and branded them Western Star. They were sold in Canada until the early 1990s.
General Motors and Volvo merged their North American heavy truck divisions in 1988. This led to the creation of Volvo GM Heavy Truck Corporation, and subsequently to a new truck brand – White-GMC.
The Western Star assets were sold in 1990 to an entrepreneur from Australia. In 1995, General Motors sold its portion of the joint venture to Volvo; it subsequently rebranded White-GMC vehicles as Volvo and Autocar. Western Star was resold to DaimlerChrysler AG and was then merged with its Freightliner subsidiary.
Volvo (now Volvo Group North America) stopped using the White name. However, Volvo used the Autocar nameplate until 2000, when it withdrew the trademark from the market. It later sold the rights to the Autocar name to Grand Vehicle Works, along with the Xpeditor low cab-forward heavy-duty truck. The Xpeditor is still manufactured under the Autocar nameplate. This is the last piece of the White Motor Company – once the leading commercial vehicle manufacturer in the U.S. – in existence.
In business, companies come and go. But during its existence the White Motor Company made a positive impact on the trucking industry.
An early White Motor Company truck looks great in this photo. (Photo: wrhs.org)