article published in the October 2005 Farm Collector Magazine, which
I have been contributing to for several years, tells of an early
U.S. government directive to all wagon manufacturers.
Dated Jan. 1, 1919, the directive stated that, "all wagons must
be made to conform to the auto track wheel width of 56 inches."
Though the world relied almost entirely on horse power at the time
there was no doubt the new-fangled automobile was a proven item
for the future. Most people realized the wooden-wheeled farm type
wagon would eventually become obsolete and be replaced.
The blending of the two evolutions of past and future would require
major changes, including model and part standardization.
Standardization already had begun earlier with U.S. auto manufacturers
adopting the European 56-inch wheel width. When the United States
entered World War I
in July 1918, the Conservation Division of the War Industries Board
in Washington, D.C., took advantage of the war situation and ordered
the directive as a war measure.
Reasons given for this directive include savings in fuel and repairs
as all vehicles would fit the standard tracks or ruts. No matter
where auto owners resided or traveled the tracks would fit. Third,
materials would be saved by standardization as models, designs and
parts inventories could be drastically reduced. Fourth, the savings
from these reasons could be applied by manufacturers to building
a better, more economical product.
Reading between the lines in trade publications of the time, the
real reason for the change probably came from auto maker Henry Ford.
Ford attributed his success in assembly-line-manufacturing to the
fact he vowed not to allow himself to build more than one type of
automobile at a time. His method brought a steady supply of autos
that were cheap, durable and easy to obtain parts for and repair.
He also allowed you to choose any color you wanted, as long as it
Wagon manufacturers immediately complied with the government directive
and moved to standardize as quickly as possible. Only buckboards
and buggies were exempt from the directive. The change was drastic,
as one wagon trade publication stated more than 5,000 different
designs of wagons were being manufactured in the U.S. at the time.
each wagon buyer seemed to have specific personal requirements resulting
in approximately 700 different size, width and strength wagon wheels
available for use. The new directive meant the old adage of building
a wagon to fit each customer's demands was to become a thing of
These many changes were mostly responsible for moving wagon manufacture
from individual blacksmith shops into large factories where better
control could be maintained over material quality and delivery schedules.
Like Henry Ford's belief, fewer designs and models allowed greater
economy in the manufacturing process.
Only one group was opposed to the directive. Cotton farmers in the
Deep South preferred a wider track wagon chassis to make loading
and hauling cotton bales easier.
Eventually all opposition was settled and the auto track became
standard throughout the world.
© Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" December
26, 2007 Column
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