by Jason Cisper
In 1917, truck tires were made of solid rubber, keeping travel largely urban. These solid tires minimized speed, provided a rough ride, and kept gasoline mileage to a minimum. But Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. aimed to change all that.
Goodyear, after extensive research, developed their first pneumatic (air filled) tire. To prove that the concept was not a fluke, Plant Manager Paul Litchfield developed a special truck line - the Wingfoot Express - to test the tire's effectiveness.
When the first of these trucks was introduced for a trial run between Akron, OH, and Boston, nonbelievers scoffed. But on April 19, a five-ton Packard truck with air-filled tires set out to silence the naysayers.
Equipped with what was probably one of the first sleepers, the truck was designed to make the 1,540-mile trip nonstop. The Wingfoot carried extra water, oil, gasoline and tires, as well as an air compressor. The Goodyear team had calculated that the trip would take approximately seven days.
Three hours into the journey, the truck became stuck in the mud up to its axles - a problem that would occur often during the trip. The crew that followed the Wingfoot on its historic trip - comprised of several engineers, a garage manager, a publicist, a photographer and a test-car driver - were forced to help dig the truck out of the mess. Delays were inevitable.
Bridges, long accustomed to supporting the weight of a horse and carriage, collapsed under the weight of the massive Wingfoot. The crew had to stop regularly to change tires. Near Jeanette, PA, the truck's engine gave out, stalling the journey for three days.
Despite the many obstacles, each day brought new people into contact with the Wingfoot crew.
"Every place we stopped we got a crowd," recalled one of the truck's co-drivers. "People would come around, kick the tires and want to know if they were solid or pumped up . the trip would have been impossible with solid rubber tires."
After 18 days, 23 hours, and 30 minutes, the Wingfoot Express limped its way into Boston. Hundreds of Goodyear employees met the truck with cheers and applause, even though the trip had taken much longer than planned. A brass band pumped out celebratory music.
Once they were back in Akron, the Wingfoot engineers went back to work on the pneumatic tires. They strengthened the bead in each tire, and made the sidewalls heavier. By the third trip, the Wingfoot was able to make the one-way trip in the planned seven days.
Over the next several months, a number of trucks were built in the image of the Wingfoot. They carried loads ranging from Red Cross supplies to aircraft tires. A convoy of Wingfoots carried 75 Boy Scouts on a trip along the East Coast without a single tire failure. And in 1918, one of the trucks traveled from Boston to San Francisco in 14 days - four days quicker than the Akron-to-Boston trip, and set a record for the fastest transcontinental trip by a motor vehicle.
One month after the first Wingfoot Express made the historic trip from Akron to Boston, Goodyear President Frank Seiberling said to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "The introduction of the motor truck into our commercial life sounds like the death knell of the short line railroad."
In 1926, Goodyear retired the Wingfoot Express. But the pneumatic tire had caught on with a vengeance. The number of solid tires produced was on a steady decline, and eventually rendered extinct. Seiberling's prediction was on the fast track to becoming reality.