Before Freightliner, there was Corbitt Truck

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 24, 2012

“The Star of the South,” by Dick Callaway, Walter R. Turner and Charles W. Wadelington.
By Pete Prunkl
For the Salisbury Post
SALISBURY — To many in Rowan County, trucking means Freightliner. But our Cleveland mega-employer was a latecomer to overland transportation. It was born in 1942 in Portland, Ore. Corbitt Truck Co., the subject of a new book, originated in 1910 in Henderson, N.C.; it was our state’s only home-grown truck assembly plant. The plucky rural company didn’t believe in specialization. It produced tractor-trailers, fire trucks, moving vans, tobacco haulers, troop carriers, school buses, crane carriers, road scrapers, farm tractors and more.
“The Star of the South,” by Dick Callaway, Walter R. Turner and Charles W. Wadelington, is a quick, informative and engaging read with only 72 pages of text, photos and sidebars. For data hounds, they added end notes, a comprehensive index and six appendices. Want to know which companies across the country bought Corbitt trucks, the year and model of Corbitts still on the road, production figures and a timeline of the first to last Corbitt vehicle? It’s all included.
Corbitt trucks were the inspiration of Richard J. Corbitt (1873-1961), an ambitious young man from rural Vance County, N.C. With a small work force, he quickly moved from horse-drawn buggies in 1899 to cars in 1907. Corbitt produced an experimental truck in 1909, and his company was in full production mode one year later.
The early 20th century was a highly competitive time for America’s burgeoning trucking industry. There have been more than 600 named truck builders in the United States since 1900. Many builders merged with larger firms while others were in business only a few years. Corbitt, the South’s only truck assembly plant, survived the Great Depression and World War II because its founder emphasized practicality, power, performance, efficiency, quality and on-time delivery. Unlike many competitors, Corbitts were plain and simple trucks that could be built with local labor, not Detroit technicians.
World War II was Corbitt’s high point; the post-war years its lowest. Beginning in 1940, with a $1.4 million contract in hand, Corbitt designed and built 250 cargo and troop carriers for the Army. By war’s end, that order had ballooned to 3,211. This versatile six-wheel workhorse “represented the pinnacle of Corbitt’s success,” say the authors. If you have seen John Wayne war movies, you will recognize this iconic truck. Thirty-one percent of Corbitt’s entire production over 45 years came from World War II military vehicles.
After the war, weak demand, labor issues and an aging founder with no family successor spelled trouble for Corbitt. In 1955, the Corbitt plant ceased to operate as a truck manufacturing business.
Over its 45 years, Corbitt designed and fabricated very few models or working parts. They assembled most of their trucks using parts purchased from at least 100 suppliers in and out of North Carolina. Their motors came from Hercules, radiators from Perfex and brakes from Bendix-Westinghouse.
Reading between the lines, it seems that Corbitt generally followed, rather than set trends. For example, the cab-over-engine design was invented in 1932. That innovation shortened the cab and lengthened the trailer giving trucks more cargo room. Corbitt’s first cab-over-engine was a 1950 special order, and it was an astonishing 12 feet tall. The one remaining “moving skyscraper truck” is the star attraction at Corbitt reunions.
“Star of the South” is filled with fascinating stories that enliven Corbitt’s history. Full pages are devoted to Corbitt’s role in transporting Howard Hughes’ infamous Spruce Goose and its adaptive reuse of front ends from the classic 1934 Auburn. Proceeds from this handsome paperback will advance the work of the Corbitt Preservation Association. Copies are available at the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer. Call 704-636-2889.