By TED LATURNUS
An article The Vancouver Sun on Friday, February 8, 2002
If you were a beer drinking truck aficionado 50 or 60 years ago, you might have been lucky enough to see what some consider to be the most beautiful truck in the world. For almost 20 years - from 1936 to 1955 - the Labatt Streamliner was a common sight trundling around Canadian cities. It was especially welcome by those who have a taste for the barley sandwich, as it was used to haul beer from brewery to bar.
More than that, the Streamliner won a "Best Design" award at the 1939 World's Fair in New York and was the first tractor-trailer rig in Canada equipped with air brakes and an anti-jack-knifing device.
It was, by anyone's standards, an art nouveau masterpiece, guaranteed to stop truck drivers, beer drinkers, vintage car buffs, and just about anyone else in their tracks.
|The sight of the Streamliner will revive memories for many Canadians. The truck has a wind-cheating shape and a high-gloss white oak and birch wood interior.|
Designed by Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, who also conceived the landmark 1935 Chrysler Airflow and 1933 Nash, the Streamliner was meant to be a kind of motorized goodwill ambassador for Labatt's, and its drivers were trained and expected to assist other motorists with breakdowns, flat tires, and so on.
Constructed specifically for Labatt's, the Streamliner was also meant to give the company "instant identity" and "provide a viable alternative to rail." Originally co-built by the White Motor Company of Canada, Fruehauf Trailers and Smith Brothers Body Works, the first Streamliner delivered in 1935 - was the world's first truly aerodynamic truck. Only one survives - the bright red 1947 model pictured on this page - which, after a seven-year restoration project, was put back- on the road again in 1984. It is now touring Canada on its way to the winter Olympics, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
To get the Streamliner back to its original specs was far from straightforward. Despite the fact that the restorer, Joe Scott, posted a reward for any information leading to the recovery of a tractor unit, none surfaced. Nor were there any blueprints or diagrams available.
This meant the truck, frame, interior, and just about everything else had to be built from scratch. To come up with an authentic streamliner body, Scott downloaded photos of the original trucks into a computer and slowly put together a set of drawings.
The finished product is apparently accurate to within one-thirty-second of an inch. The trailer unit, surprisingly, was found almost intact in a field in Ontario, serving as an office for a construction company.
Because of its unique aerodynamic design, the Streamliner has a wooden body tub, with rolled aluminum sheathing tacked in place. Hundreds of individual pieces of wood were used in the body construction, as well as 30 different hammers to pound the metal into the right shape. The interior of the cab and trailer are finished in white oak and birch wood, and originally, beer was carried around in wooden barrels. The paint job consists of five coats of primer, five coats of bright red, and five more coats of clear-coat, with real gold leaf lettering.
Power is delivered by a White Mustang 386-cubic-inch in-line six-cylinder "flathead" gas-powered engine that develops 135 horsepower. It's mated to a five-speed transmission and a single reduction rear axle. It has air brakes front and back, and the cab is fitted with a hydraulic hoist that allows the driver to tilt it over for engine access. Empty, the Streamliner and trailer weigh 10 tons and can haul another 8.5 tons of cargo. Benny DiFranco, the Streamliner's manager and driver, says that it has a top speed of about 80 km/h (50 mph), which, for its day, made it quicker than just about everything else. What a concept: The fastest beer truck in the country.
I had an opportunity to drive the rig when it was in Vancouver this week and behind the wheel, it's more comfortable than you might think. The shift lever is a steel rod that juts out beside the driver's seat, and if you double clutch, the transmission is actually pretty civilized. There is no synchromesh, so when you slow down, you have to stop and start all over again in first. Power isn't exactly overwhelming, but the streamliner can keep up ... at least when it's empty. Just take the turns wide and be patient. I was actually surprised at how driveable the rig was ... not at all difficult.
In the 25 years I've been writing about cars and bikes, I've piloted some pretty wild and woolly creations. Everything from quarter million dollar luxury sedans to race-prepared sports cars to vintage flivvers to 300 km/h motorcycles. After driving the Labatt streamliner, I think I've about covered it.
Ted Laturnus is co-host of Driver's Seat, which airs Sundays on Global TV