But Nikola, with its hydrogen trucks, and Tesla with its all-electric models, are hardly the first truck makers to turn to electricity.
Commercial Truck company of Philadelphia built 5-ton electric trucks as far back as 1912. We know because two of these C-T Model A 10 trucks showed up for sale on simultaneously on Hemmings Motor News last month.
Both belonged to the Curtis Publishing Company, which printed and distributed the Lady’s Home Journal, the Saturday Evening Post, The American Home, The Country Gentleman, Holiday, and Jack and Jill.
The company maintained a fleet of 22 Commercial Trucks, built nearby, to haul coal and rolls of printing paper to their plant, and to distribute the publications to the post office and to local newsstands.
The Model A 10 trucks were rated at 5 tons, but records show they regularly hauled 10 tons of newsprint and magazines back and forth from the train station to the post office.Two others in the fleet were used to haul coal back from the station to run the printing presses.
1912 Commercial Truck in service with Curtis publishing
Curtis Publishing ran the trucks in three shifts, sharing drivers. Since it took hours to load and unload 10 tons of cargo, one truck, with fresh batteries, would be driven to the post office laden with finished magazines for delivery. A second truck would be stationed there empty and charging, which the driver would then take to the train station to be loaded with paper and pick up a third truck, already loaded, to drive back to the printing plant.
Six drivers would do the same thing 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Each truck carried as much as 661 tons of freight a day and worked 48 hours straight.
There was no gearbox. Instead, the trucks had a second wheel below the steering wheel on the column for forward and reverse control. Drivers turned it clockwise for forward, or counterclockwise for reverse. With mechanical brakes on only the rear wheels, giving the truck some reverse power was also helpful for stopping.
Drivers sat up front, high above the headlights.
Bodies were made of Red Oak, and the trucks initially had an open cab with a convertible top shielding the driver. Later, removable steel cabs were made by a local body shop. Each truck weighs 15,700 pounds.
The trucks employed four-wheel drive, using a single 16-hp GE electric motor behind each wooden wheel with its solid rubber tire. Top speed was 12 mph empty—2 mph above the legal limit in 1912— and 8 mph fully loaded.
These A 10 Standards, with a 132-inch wheelbase, ran on nine 500-pound 5-ft. long, lead-acid batteries producing 10 volts and 382 amps. They were charged six hours a day while being loaded or unloaded. Little seems to be known about the range of the trucks with these batteries, but they can also be driven with modern 12-volt automotive starter batteries.
The original batteries could also be exchanged, and Curtis would swap in new, charged batteries before it sent the trucks out on their daily rounds. After 10 years, the batteries could be rebuilt and reused. The C-T trucks remained in service with Curtis Publishing for 50 years, until 1962.
As of this writing, two, from the same publishing fleet, are for sale in the classic car classified magazine (and website) Hemmings Motor News. Both were used to ferry paper and magazines back and forth from the train station to the printing plant to the post office (rather than coal.) Each still has its original truck number nailed to the nose. The seller of the green No. 4 in West Virginia, with well-worn paint an no original batteries, wants $40,000. A dealership in Chatsworth, Calif. is selling the restored red No. 8 for an undisclosed asking price.
If a Tesla semi can sell work for 50 years and sell for that kind of money in 56 years later, it will be doing well.