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Texas | Columns | "It's All Trew"

Standardized
wheel widths
kept you in a rut


by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew

An 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 was black.

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.

For example, 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 the past.

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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