All aboard! When almost every new car rode the rails

Long before new-car owners enjoy their first pleasure cruise, their cars have already taken one—the ride from the factory to the dealership. Although many of those trips now take place on the interstate aboard a semi-trailer truck, there was a time when nearly every new car rode the rails, first in boxcars and later in special “autorack” freight cars. Today, new vehicles make the journey in innovative railcars and inter-modal containers. 

Hear that train whistle? All aboard!

When car buyers in rural areas were few and far between, it made sense to simply ship a car or two inside a boxcar. As demand grew, American auto manufacturers teamed up with the railroad companies to build a better mousetrap—several times, in fact. The first was a 50-foot boxcar (10 feet longer than a standard boxcar) that took advantage of the wasted overhead space. Using raised steel racks, it could carry up to four sedans per boxcar. Loading and unloading wasn’t exactly convenient, however, since each car had to be pushed inside, the first two cars had to be jacked up, and then the other two could be rolled under the first two.

Open-air flatbed train cars were also used to piggyback automobiles in the 1940s and ’50s, but when 85-foot train cars came into existence, it became possible to fit 10 vehicles on two-tiered autoracks and 12–15 cars on three-tiered racks.

1960 Plymouth-Chrysler cars
1960 Plymouth-Chrysler cars in a three-tiered autorack St. Louis – San Francisco Railway Company

According to Railway Age, the introduction of the 1971 Chevrolet Vega sparked more innovation. To keep costs down to around $2000 apiece (that’s a little more than $14K today), Chevy’s Lordstown, Ohio, auto plant wondered if it could fit 18 of the compacts onto one flatbed train car, since shipping three more cars would greatly reduce the overall transportation cost.

Engineers at General Motors and the Southern Pacific Railroad put their heads together and came up with an idea that not only accomplished the task but succeeded beyond expectations. Instead of loading the cars horizontally, they created a special autorack called the Vert-A-Pac, which could hold as many as 30 Vegas straight up and down, their noses pointed to the ground. The Vert-A-Pac reduced per-car transportation costs by about 40 percent.

Vegas in a Vert-A-Pac
Vert-A-Pac system Chevrolet

There was one little problem, however: Chevy wanted to deliver each Vega in ready-to-drive condition, which meant topping off all fluids before loading them onto the train. According to Railway Age, in order to stack the cars without the fluids leaking, Vega engineers designed a special oil-pan baffle “to prevent oil from entering the No. 1 cylinder of the car’s inline-four engine. Batteries had filler caps located high up on the rear edge of the case to prevent acid spills. The carburetor float bowl had a special tube that drained gasoline into the vapor canister during shipment, and the windshield washer bottle stood at a 45-degree angle. Plastic spacers were wedged between the powertrain and chassis to prevent damage to engine and transmission mounts. The wedges were removed when cars were unloaded. The doors were closed with a forklift tractor.”

Although the Vega wasn’t a great car—it had a reputation for unreliability, rust, and poor engine durability—it managed to last seven years and, of course, its short wheel base allowed for innovative shipping. When Vega and its rebadged sibling, the Pontiac Astre, were discontinued in 1977, so were the Vert-A-Pac racks.

Today, shipping anything via the railroad isn’t as common as it once was. Still, according to the Association of American Railroads, 75 percent of new cars spend some time aboard a train, but trucks are gaining ground. In April, FreightWaves reported, “General Merchandise railcar traffic that competes with trucking simply isn’t keeping pace with trucking’s annual growth rate.”

With that said, perhaps the next time you see a Vega you’ll think about trains—and the car’s first long ride on the rails, facedown with its tail in the air. What a headache that must have been

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