Freightliner Trucks is an American manufacturer of heavy duty trucks, chassis and semi-trailer trucks in the United States. The company was founded as Freightliner Inc in 1942 and is now a division of Daimler Trucks North America, a subsidiary of the German Daimler AG. The company is known mainly for the heavy duty class 8 diesel trucks that it produces, as well as class 5-7 trucks.
As of 2005 Freightliner is the largest manufacturer of heavy duty trucks in North America with annual earnings of over $32 billion (2006 est.) and over 22,000 employees (including Detroit Diesel). Because Freightliner LLC is a wholly owned subsidiary of Daimler, a non American corporation, it is not included in Fortune 500 rankings. It is comparable to the 125th largest company in those rankings based on the criteria used.
In the 1930s, Consolidated Freightways decided to produce their own truck line out of reconstructed Fageols, after finding that most heavy trucks had insufficient power to climb the steep grades in the mountain regions of the western United States. The trucks were branded "Freightliners", with the first units produced in Consolidated Freightways' maintenance facility in Salt Lake City ca. 1942. After production was interrupted during WWII, manufacturing began again, in CF's home of Portland, OR. In 1949,the first truck sold outside of Consolidated Freightways went to fork lift manufacturer Hyster, also based in Portland. Today, that truck is in the Smithsonian collection in Washington, D.C.
Lacking distribution capability, and seeking higher volume to reduce production costs, In 1951,CF entered into an agreement to sell their trucks through the White Motor Company, of Cleveland, OH, and their dealer network in the US and Canada. This relationship endured for the next quarter century, and the co-branded "White Freightliner" cab-over-engine models became a familiar sight on the highways across the continent.
Manufacturing began in Burnaby, B.C., in 1961, to reduce the duty penalty on the complete vehicles sold in Canada. Assembly plants in Indianapolis and Chino California complemented the main plant on Swan Island in Portland, serving the U.S. market. In 1969, a new assembly plant was opened on North Basin St., which was then converted to parts production.
White Motor Company became troubled in the 1970s. Expansion into white goods and agricultural equipment consumed capital without producing a return, and the relationship with Consolidated Freightways became frayed. In 1974, the distribution agreement was terminated, and Freightliner Corp. began life as a freestanding manufacturer and distributor. Many of the first dealers were from the White Motor Co. network, but some entrepreneurs also signed up to represent the trucks without the White Motor Co. franchise as a complement.
At the same time, the company introduced its first conventional model, an adaptation of the high cab-over-engine mainstay product. HCOE's accounted for well over 50% of the U.S. market in those days, owing to overall length regulations that limited the bumper-to-taillight dimension of a semi-trailer unit to 55' on interstate highways. Conventionals were popular on western roads due to more convenient ingress/egress, better ride, and easier access to the engine for servicing.
In 1979, a new plant was constructed in Mount Holly, North Carolina, and a parts manufacturing plant in Gastonia, North Carolina, both in the Charlotte metropolitan area. Volumes continued to increase.
1979 marked a consequential event in the evolution of Freightliner, and of the whole trucking and truck manufacturing industries. President Carter signed into law bills deregulating transport both on the ground and in the skies, altering the "rules of the game" for both. The echoes are still being felt today, with the financial crises being endured by the mainstream airlines. Deregulation changed the economics of trucking, and removed the protective shield of regulated carriage that protected carriers from competition and allowed the Teamsters Union to develop a stranglehold on the nation's economy by virtue of the Master Agreement with all significant freight transport companies.
Three years later, the Surface Highway Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 relaxed weight and length standards and imposed a new excise tax on heavy trucks and the tires that they use. No longer was the overall length of semi-trailer combinations restricted; rather, only the trailer was specified, to be not greater than 53' in length. Individual states retained more restrictive overall length laws, but fundamentally, the rules had changed forever.
Consolidated Freightways, a traditional, unionized carrier that flourished in the pre-deregulated era, realized it was in a fight for its life. In May 1981, Consolidated Freightways sold its truck manufacturing business and the Freightliner brand to Daimler-Benz, allowing it to concentrate its management attention and financial resources on its traditional trucking business. Around this time, the Chino and Indianapolis plants were closed permanently. Consolidated Freightways continued carrier business until 2002, when it ceased operation on Labor Day weekend.
In 1989, Freightliner acquired a standing plant in Cleveland, North Carolina, near Statesville, that had been producing transit buses for German manufacturer MAN.
In 1991, the company displaced a poor-selling line of Mercedes-Benz medium duty vehicles with an all-new, range of medium duty trucks designed for North America that the company called the Business Class. Sharing some cab components with the Mercedes-Benz LKN mid-range European cabover, the truck was a conventional design which was the first all-new entry in the medium-duty market in over a decade. It proved quite successful.
Another pronounced downturn in the industry's fortunes necessitated drastic measures to restore the company to financial health, and Dr Dieter Zetsche, now the Chairman of Daimler's Board Of Management, was dispatched to lead the project as CEO. The Burnaby assembly plant was closed, a new facility in St. Thomas, Ontario, replaced it, and cost reduction programs across the company restored profitability when the market rebounded.
Significantly, production of Freightliners also commenced in Santiago Tianguistenco, Mexico, about 30 miles (48 km) outside Mexico City, in a plant owned by Daimler-Benz and also producing at that time buses, Brazilian-sourced medium-duty trucks, and compact Mercedes-Benz passenger cars.
The 90s were a go-go era for truck manufacturers in general, and for Freightliner in particular, under the leadership of flamboyant James L. Hebe, a former Kenworth sales executive who joined the company in 1989. Freightliner made numerous acquisitions:
1995 - Oshkosh Custom Chassis in Gaffney, South Carolina becomes Freightliner Custom Chassis, producing the underpinnings for walk-in vans used by companies like UPS to deliver parcels and Cintas for uniform laundry services; diesel recreational vehicles; conventional school buses; and shuttle buses. The Oshkosh and Freightliner partnership has dissolved, and Oshkosh is not affiliated with Freightliner any longer. 1996 - American LaFrance, a 130 year-old manufacturer of fire apparatus that was Mr. Hebe's first employer. LaFrance had fallen on hard times and was moribund at the time of the acquisition.
1997 - The heavy duty truck ("AeroMax") products of the Ford Motor Co. were acquired, and renamed Sterling (from an early White Motors brand). Ford dedicated its Louisville, KY, facility to more profitable light truck production
1998 - Thomas Built Buses, of High Point, NC, producer of all classes of school bus bodies, and forward control chassis.
2000 - Western Star Trucks, Inc., the successor to the White Motor Co. of Canada, and its assembly plants in Kelowna, BC, and Ladson, SC.
2000 - Detroit Diesel Corp., Redford, MI, the former General Motors subsidiary had been revived by Roger Penske and was attractive to DaimlerChrysler as a point of entry into the North American heavy duty diesel industry. This company was actually acquired by another unit of DaimlerChrysler, but operations were gradually integrated into Freightliner.
Throughout this era a number of small fire and rescue apparatus manufacturers were acquired and rolled into the American LaFrance entity.
By 2001, the company was awash in used trucks it couldn't sell, and saddled with a number of non-performing operations at a time when the core business, still the Freightliner over-the-road truck offerings, was in recession. Former Freightliner CFO Rainer Schmueckle was dispatched by DaimlerChrysler to once again turn the company around. The Kelowna Western Star plant was closed, as was a Thomasbuilt facility in Woodstock, Ontario and parts manufacturing at the old Portland plant was discontinued. American LaFrance production was consolidated in the former Western Star plant in Ladson, SC, but the attempt to integrate specialized emergency vehicles into a company noted for high volume production capabilities proved unworkable, and American LaFrance was sold in 2005 to a private equity fund.
After DaimlerChrysler sold the Chrysler division and changed their name to Daimler AG in 2007, it was announced Freightliner LLC will become the new Daimler Trucks North America,LLC on January 7, 2008.
In 2007, Freightliner laid off 800 US workers from their Portland, Oregon plant, relocating manufacturing work to their new multimillion-dollar plant in Mexico. However, plans to close the plant completely were dropped in September 2009, and it remained open to produce military vehicles.
Today, Freightliner remains active in heavy-duty trucks, and in commercial vehicles in classes 5 through 8 in North America. It leads the school bus, diesel Class A recreational vehicle chassis, and walk-in van markets. Its Detroit Diesel and Mercedes-Benz engine offerings are also industry leaders. The Freightliner badge also adorns the Sprinter, a Class 2 van produced by Mercedes-Benz in Europe and marketed through Freightliner dealers, as well as through Chrysler dealers as a Dodge-branded offering.
Tesla Motors is supplying battery packs for Freightliner's Custom Chassis Electric Van.