Every kid who loves cars, enjoys playing with an autorack. Not a real autorack — the miniature ones made of plastic that can often times store your prized Matchbox or Hotwheels cars. Besides kids getting all psyched over the look of hundreds of cars stacked in ways that shouldn’t be scientifically possible, what’s the deal? And what are those vertical “Vert-A-Pac” cars actually “doing”? It looks like some bizarre ritual from a nature documentary…only with cars instead of a pride of lions.
Here’s the deal. Back in the early days of automobile manufacturing, there were so few cars being built that they could easily be transported in railroad boxcars 2 or 4 at a time. As we all know, however, the auto-industry went “Boom!” which meant that the railroad company needed to adjust to the rapidly growing industry. They built longer boxcars, and added double-side doors to the ends for loading and unloading. This made more room for cars (and probably more room for hobos), but loading was uneconomical and frankly a little awkward. By the 1940s, car manufacturers looked toward the Circus — and not only because they were distracted by clowns, jungle cats and bright colors. It was the way circuses transported their vehicles by using a string of long flatcars. In the 1950s, railroads finally took the hint and started hauling cars “circus style.” No funny business — they just used a system of temporary ramps and bridge plates to unload and load automobiles onto a much larger flatcar.
They could now safely store at least 6 automobiles into each flatcar, but what about all that space above? Can’t let all that glorious empty space go to waste can we? Not with a bajillion dollars in automobiles at stake. Like true captains of industry, the smart guys at the railroad and the automakers decided to do something about it, and built an extra rack where automobiles could be loaded. In order to load vehicles by driving them the entire length of the train, foldaway bridges were added at the end of each flatcar deck. Say goodbye to clunky specialized loading equipment! Now cars could ride the rails on top of one another by using sturdy racks. Now they just needed a high enough ramp…
In 1954, Volkswagen engineers in Germany invented what was the first official autorack by creating a flatcar that was big enough to haul 10 vehicles (Pretty schnazzy, Ja?). Over the years auto racks have gotten bigger and bigger…and BIGGER. Back in the ‘70s, General Motors came up with the Vert-A-Pac shipping system to double transportation of the Chevrolet Vega on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Instead of 15 Vegas, GM was able to ship 30 Vegas per rail car. This kept shipping prices down and allowed the prices of the Vega to remain as low as possible. It was a win-win-win for everyone: more money for GM and the railroad, and lower prices for the consumer. It also created more cozy space for all the cars who are now a little less lonely traveling stacked safely together on an autorack. They love it!
Unfortunately, the Vert-A-Pac car shipping method was an idea from General Motors that wasn’t 100% perfection. Sorry fellas (picture overzealous execs in polyester bell bottom suits high-fiving each other in a board room). When it was actually applied, let’s just say that a few things went wrong. Not all cars survived their vertical journeys, and towing companies at the unloading docks made a bundle by hauling away all the cars that wouldn’t start. Evidently GM required the Chevrolet dealers to replace the fluids of the Vegas to get them running again. You know what they say about the “best laid plans of mice and men” — they don’t always work out (or something like that). Despite its shortcomings, the autorack has revolutionized the auto industry, and has made it possible for the automobile to continue its reign as the king of the open road. Now where’s my autorack? It’s Hot Wheels time!
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