Autorack cars are a staple of railroads today, but they have a unique history many people may not realize.
The modern incarnation of autorack cars dates to the 20th century. However, the idea of transporting vehicles — initially wagons — dates to the earliest days of railroading.
The early years
Joseph Ritter von Baader (1763-1835), a German engineer, is an oft-overlooked railroad pioneer. Circa 1822, he proposed hauling wagons on flat cars, much like the piggyback shipping process of the 20th century. However, it doesn’t appear his idea gained much traction, at least initially.
Evidence indicates that when the Liverpool & Manchester Railway opened in 1830, the railroad hauled coaches on flat cars. In the United States, the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) similarly transported coaches.
Around this time, in the United States, former President John Quincy Adams traveled on the B&O between Baltimore and the “Relay House,” a former eating house on the railroad. For the journey, the railroad loaded Adams’ wagon onto a “four-wheel platform-car.”
More recent developments
The first autorack cars similar to the ones we know today entered the scene in the 1920s. But, railroads did not experience a proliferation of autorack cars until the 1950s.
At the same time, as truck traffic increased, railroads developed a way to haul trailers.
By the latter half of the 1960s, piggyback cars were a common sight on the nation’s railroads. By 1967, railroads carried half of all vehicles produced in the country to distribution centers.
That same year, railroads carried more than 1.2 million trailers, an increase of 3.8 percent over 1966, The Associated Press reported at the time.
Toward the end of the 1960s, General Motors and Southern Pacific partnered to develop a car specifically to haul the new compact Chevrolet Vega. The new railcars, known as “Vert-A-Pac,” could hold 30 Vegas, which Chevrolet produced from 1970 to 1977, in a vertical, nose-down position.
General Motors and Southern Pacific also teamed up on the Stac-Pac. The specialized railcar was designed to haul a dozen Oldsmobile, Buick, and Cadillac models.
The cars traveled in an enclosed tri-level container. An 89-foot flatcar could carry four of these containers.
While most people associate autorack cars as a freight car, but one railroad famously adapted them for their passenger service. On Dec. 6, 1971, Auto-Train Corporation launched a new form of passenger rail when it began the original incarnation of the Auto Train between Lorton, Va., and Sanford, Fla., allowing passengers to drive to one terminal and ride the train to the other and continue their road trip.
Amtrak today runs the Auto Train.
Early autorack cars were open-air cars, making them susceptible to vandalism and theft, and vehicles transported by rail often arrived either damaged or missing high-end accessories. Today’s autorack cars feature closed sides and interior adjustable decks, allowing the cars to handle automobiles with body styles and heights.
A version of this post first appeared on the Southeastern Railway Museum website.