The Alco truck that drove to Petaluma with a load of soap in 1912, the first transcontinental delivery made by automobile. (Photo/Courtesy Sonoma County Library)
The Alco truck that drove to Petaluma with a load of soap in 1912, the first transcontinental delivery made by automobile. (Photo/Courtesy Sonoma County Library)

110 years ago, ‘motor wagon’ delivery was all the rage

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More than 105 million vehicles were registered in the United States as of 2020, according to government data. Our cities are built on car travel. Even San Francisco — with its system of historic streetcars, light rail and electric trolleys — had close to 500,000 registered vehicles in 2021.

But 110 years ago this month, when we wrote the following, cars were still pretty new and exciting:

“San Francisco is steadily taking its position well up toward the top of the list of American cities that have adopted the motor-driven commercial vehicle, and as a result the number of dealers handling this type of automobile is steadily increasing,” we wrote in a Feb. 7, 1913 column headlined “Notes from the Automobile World.”

While there had been a surge of early interest in electric cars, by 1913, gas-powered cars had already become standard. The “Motorwagen” had been built in 1885 by Carl Benz, in Germany, but the commercial gas-powered auto industry in the U.S. didn’t truly take off until Oldsmobile and Ford began modern production in the first decade of the 20th century.

It wasn’t just individuals who were interested in this new technology. We quoted one O. C. McFarland as saying: “The modern motordriven delivery wagon of proper construction has proven beyond a doubt the only practical solution of the delivery problem in growing cities. It is not only quick and more satisfactory, but it is also less expensive than the horse-drawn vehicle.” (He had a reason for making the point, since the Osen-McFarland Auto Company, of which he was manager, sold such wagons.)

For a period in the teens, we ran a regular column on automobile items of interest. The 1913 column informed readers about the very first transcontinental automobile delivery — a 1912 feat that involved a truckload of soap that went from Philadelphia to Petaluma on a truck made by the American Locomotive Company (ALCo).

That company, we wrote, “has just issued a most interesting booklet, in itself a work of art, giving the history of the Alco truck from the start to finish of the 4,145-mile haul of three tons of soap from Philadelphia to Petaluma.”

A 1913 ad from this paper for the local Renault dealer
A 1913 ad from this paper for the local Renault dealer

We also discussed the aviation model by Renault, which was receiving a lot of interest, according to the local Renault branch manager. A flying car? Not exactly.

“The principle of the thing is that the roof slides back at the will of the occupants of the car, so that they may gaze skyward and see all there is to be seen without leaving their limousine. Aviation meets are numerous in France, and at these the ‘aviation’ type of Renault is proving extremely popular.”

McFarland’s company was pushing the International Auto Wagon, purpose-built for deliveries.

“The peculiar demand which this model supplies comes from the farmer and the small merchant, which includes the grocer, the butcher, etc.,” McFarland was quoted as saying. “Before the advent of the motor car these men, week days, delivered their goods or went to town from the farm for necessities in a light wagon. On Sundays and holidays an extra seat was put in the box body and the family enjoyed an outing, a ride to the park, or a little way out into the country, or to the town church from the farm. This is just what this new motor vehicle is doing for these men, only it is extending the possibilities of longer journeys on their day of rest or vacation.”

The clincher? Any merchant in the city would understand.

“It is easy riding and still easier of handling. Its power and ability to negotiate the San Francisco hills has been a revelation.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.