The last pioneer of the development of the Freightliner truck
Glenn Watkins passed away March 17, 2013. During his long life, he witnessed the birth of the Freightliner truck, the sale of the company in 1981, and subsequent years under the ownership of Daimler.

Michael Gully, OOIDA Senior member
Quincy, IL

Earlier this year, Glenn W. Watkins died at age 95 in Clackamas, Ore. While many may not recognize his name, Freightliner history buffs call it “the end of an era.” Glenn was the last living pioneer of the development of the company.

He was an extraordinary person. His memory and ability to reflect on the development of Freightliner all the way up to his passing was remarkable.

He began his trucking career in Spokane, Wash., on May 1, 1939, for Consolidated Freightways as an apprentice mechanic. He had been offered an office job for CF for 30 cents per hour, but took the shop job instead for 24 cents an hour because he thought he would learn more in the shop than in the office. Glenn would later become shop foreman of the CF Spokane shop.

Ken Self, another of the original pioneers of the Freightliner truck, was later hired at CF by Glenn. The two would work hand in hand the remainder of their professional careers on the development of the Freightliner truck.

Leland James, president of Consolidated Freightways, had the desire for an aluminum cabover. Glenn and Ken Self were part of the original team of fewer than eight to build and develop that truck.

The two initially built trucks from scratch on the shop floor of Consolidated Freightways before there even was a  Freightliner name. The trucks would be referred to as the No Name Trucks. The name “Freightliner” was introduced in 1942.

Glenn and Ken would be the two longest-serving pioneers of the Freightliner from its official corporate beginning in 1942 until the time of its sale in 1981.

When Ken moved from Spokane to Portland, Ore. to serve as production manager for the newly created Freightliner Corp., Glenn followed. In 1953, Glenn was promoted from production manager at Freightliner to its factory sales and service manager in Portland. In 1955, Glenn was promoted to its national service manager. He traveled the entire country trouble-shooting trucks and training the dealers on the serviceability of the Freightliner.

He was promoted to vice president of sales and service for Freightliner in 1964. Glenn frequently told stories that he would be on the road weeks at a time training the White dealers how to sell and service Freightliners. When business was bad, Glenn would be told not to come back to Portland until he had enough truck orders to keep the plant running.

Tom Taylor, president of Freightliner in the 1950s, would tell Glenn when he came back with a file of orders, “I don’t know what you are doing to get those orders, but keep doing it.”  

In 1976, Freightliner entered into a marketing agreement with Volvo Trucks to sell its product in the United States. Glenn was named vice president of sales and service for Freightliner and Volvo Trucks USA at that time. As the company grew, the sales and service were eventually separated into individual functions. At the time of Glenn’s retirement, he held the position of vice president of customer relations.

The original pioneer team at Freightliner developed a culture second to no other truck manufacturer. The pioneers were focused on lightweight trucks that were also very serviceable. Trucks designed initially by mechanics from the shop floor were made efficiently and friendly to work on.

The Freightliner culture would revolve around becoming the “Hallmark of Custom Built Trucks.” 

In the early days, many trucks were developed as first model for a customer need or idea. The words “no” to a customer for its individual needs were not part of the Freightliner culture or vocabulary. If a customer had a unique need, Freightliner would build it. Freightliner had trucks in the 1950s that achieved 4 million miles. One truck, known as the Hyster Truck, is on display in the Smithsonian. It was restored after achieving in excess of 4 million miles.

Glenn frequently told stories on the development of the Freightliner, his trips involving sales and repairs. In Glenn’s early years with Consolidated Freightways, they never retrieved a broken-down truck with a tow truck. Glenn was a territory service specialist for Consolidated Freightways.  

He changed rear ends, clutches, transmissions and radiators all along the road. During the winter months, it was the road driver’s job to keep the fire going in the barrel to keep the two warm.

Glenn was in the Marines during World War II for a very brief time. Since Consolidated was hauling a considerable amount of tonnage for the war effort, it was decided Glenn was a valuable person to keep the Consolidated Freightways fleet running.

Consolidated Freightways and then Freightliner contributed more innovations during its developing years than any other trucking company. New Freightliner components, as Glenn would tell the story, would be tested for a million miles in the CF fleet before ever being introduced to the customer trucks.

After retirement Glenn also assisted Ken Self in the building of two miniature Freightliners. Ken had served as president of Freightliner and then as chairman of the board just prior to his retirement. The 2/3-size miniature Freightliners are on display at the Pacific Northwest Truck Museum in Brooks, Ore.

Glenn’s other hobbies included fishing and enjoying his beach home in Neahkahnie Beach, Ore. Glenn and  wife Margie traveled the world. One of his memories is the 1968 flight he was aboard from Tampa, FL, when it was hijacked to Cuba. After a three-hour layover, he returned home safely, armed with Cuban cigars and rum.

Glenn was very fond of his career with Freightliner. From its development on the shop floor of Consolidated Freightways, Glenn would rise from apprentice mechanic to vice president of the famous nameplate. Prior to its sale to Daimler Benz, Freightliner had earned the reputation of the truck built to satisfy the driver, mechanic and owner as “The Efficient Machine.”

The driver’s comfort was important for the day-to-day operation, but mechanic ease remained a focus. Glenn told of sending engineers to the shop floor to attempt to remove or replace a part. He would give stern orders after the hands-on-deck examination to improve its ease of repair, removal and replacement. Achieving a truck appreciated by its drivers and functional for its mechanics resulted in operators who were happy with the efficiency of the truck.

Glenn retired in 1982, one year after Daimler-Benz bought Freightliner. He truly was the last pioneer of the development of the Freightliner truck.

His stories and memories of Consolidated Freightways, Freightliner and the trucking industry will be remembered, but we miss them being told by Glenn himself. LL