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Mack Trucks: Born In Brooklyn Grew Up In Allentown

By Frank Whelan
Published On: Aug 04 2011 06:45:43 AM CDT
Updated On: Jul 08 2011 03:04:05 AM CDT

The names William, Augustus and Jack may sound like three guys in a musical trio. But put the last name Mack behind them and you know it's trucks and not tunes they would be singing.

One hundred and ten years ago, in July 1901, the three Mack brothers, then wagon makers located in Brooklyn, NYC, decided to expand their limited partnership and incorporate themselves as the Mack Brothers Company.

It was a way of celebrating the fact that they had survived the Panic of 1893. They were now the leading wagon supplier to New York dairies. The dairies used old fashioned horsepower to see that milk bottles found their way to the stoops of the city.

But an even more exciting thing happened to the Macks in 1901. A friend of Jack had recently acquired a new gas-powered Winton automobile and invited him to go for a ride. As the big touring car glided down the street, the inventive mind of Jack Mack was working. While Jack had been experimenting for years with building motorized wagons, perhaps there was a future in oversized multi-passenger vehicles.

And it happened that brother "Gus," short for Augustus, had a friend who had been after him to build a sightseeing bus for his tours of Brooklyn's popular Prospect Park. After much trial and error, the vehicle was finished and became the talk of the city. By 1904 the Mack's bus business was taking orders from as far away as Havana, Cuba.

Now the Macks were in a tight but enviable position. They were building buses and trucks, and they needed to expand. But Brooklyn just did not have the room. It was then that brother Joseph, who was in the silk business, told them about an empty industrial building in the bustling industrial community of Allentown. Jack, whose love affair with the internal combustion engine was to become legendary, embarked with Joe on a 14-hour car trip across the horrible dirt roads of New Jersey to see the Allentown building. That they could have done it in two hours by train was apparently not considered.

Jack took one look and decided that the building located in South Allentown along the banks of the Little Lehigh Creek, known as the old Weaver-Hirsh foundry, was ideal. It offered plenty of space and, as they planned to make their own parts and motors, they would need that.

Workers and machinery began arriving in December. On January 2, 1905, Mack Brothers Motor Company was registered at the Lehigh County Courthouse.

The Mack brothers probably would have been surprised if someone had told them they had just created an automotive legend. In those early years gasoline trucks were still considered untried vehicles. Wagon men would often get into fist fights with truck drivers for frightening their horses as they passed them on the highway.

But gradually the new trucks were taking hold. In 1911, finding local banks could not supply the capital they needed, the Mack brothers brought in investment banker J.P. Morgan who arranged a merger with a Swiss firm called Saurer Motor Co. and Hewitt Motor Company of New York. The merger formed the International Motor Co., a holding company that served as a selling and servicing division. It also led to the departure from the company of Jack Mack who did not fit into the international setup Mack Trucks had become. "Gus" also left the firm with only William staying on until retirement in the 1920s.

These changes put Mack on the world stage and led to its reputation for quality. As for many Lehigh Valley companies, the outbreak of World War I in Europe led to overseas contracts. Starting in 1915, Mack was providing trucks to the British Army.

These trucks with their sloped hoods and low-slung lights seemed to form a face. British soldiers were convinced they resembled a bulldog, their informal national symbol, and started calling them the bulldog truck. American doughboys adopted it and, in 1932, so did the company. The symbol was designed by Alfred Fellows Masury, Mack's chief engineer. It was one of the last things he did for the company. A year later Masury was among the 73 passengers who lost their lives in the crash of the U.S. Navy's airship Akron off the coast of New Jersey.

The recession of the early 1920s was a hiccup for Mack. Their plants expanded. Puffing steam engines were a regular feature, bringing in materials. By 1925 Mack's 5-C plant was rising on the south side of Allentown. The company ran half page newspaper ads touting a million feet of factory space in their Allentown plants.

Steam shovels were turning earth that only a few years before had known only a plow. Hundreds of workers would find jobs building the busses and fire engines that became part of Mack's legend. "Business men" read a Mack ad from the 1920s, "who have closely followed its progress and development still regard it as an infant industry with a tremendous future before it."

The Great Depression of the 1930s slowed Mack. But by the mid-30s the company had begun to revive. In 1936 the International Motor Company. changed its name to Mack Manufacturing Corporation.

The approach of World War II led to a flood of government contracts coming to Mack. When the U.S. entered the war in 1941, Mack once more became a heavy truck supplier to the U.S. Army. By the time the war was over, Mack had supplied the Allied forces with 4,500 five-ton four-wheeled trucks and almost 26,000 six-wheeled trucks.

The post-war years were to bring even more changes to Mack. They have included highs and lows. Plants have been opened and closed and foreign ownership of Mack created controversy. But its primary assembly plant remains in Lower Macungie Township. The 2009 announcement of the departure of Mack's headquarters from Allentown to Greensboro, North Carolina stunned many. But all that was far in the future the day, 110 years ago, that Jack Mack took a ride.