Diamond T Doodlebug

The Diamond T Doodlebug is one of the vehicles featured in my book, Weird Cars.

One of the best things anyone interested in cars can do is to read Horizons by Norman Bel Geddes, the vaudeville magician, stand-up comic, theatrical set constructor, and industrial designer. Born in 1893, he lived during a time when the concept of speed was just beginning to sink in with the American people—and Bel Geddes made a career out of helping to design what this fantastic future ought to be like. Horizons is a book filled with many general observations that are now quite outdated, but the book is beautifully illustrated and will send you decades into the past—looking forward, of course, to the year 2000, when we were to be commuting in our flying cars.

He designed the General Motors pavillion, Futurama, for the 1939 World’s Fair. He did cocktail shakers, teardrop cars, airport layouts, and even the case that housed the Harvard Mark I, one of the world’s first electro-mechanical computers. Take that, Jony Ive.

His influence stretched so far that many consider him to be an architect of what we now consider to be American design; it’s this eye for the fantastic that drew petroleum giant Texaco to Bel Geddes’ design firm.

Marketing gasoline—or, rather, a brand of gasoline—is mostly about perception. Texaco knew this, and was busy curating an image of technological progress through the design of its branding, stations, uniforms, pumps, and signs—this sort of thing is commonplace now but certainly wasn’t in 1933. As Special Interest Autos notes in its 1995 profile of the Doodlebug, at the time Texaco’s fleet was managed by Howard W. (Zip) Kizer, who thought that since he was paying for custom tanker truck bodies anyway, why not make them look as eye-catching as possible?

It’s important to know that if you think cars in 1933 looked old-fashioned, with their chunky frames, upright radiators, and generally simple-looking cabins (with not much space!), trucks were practically neolithic. The automobile itself was less than 50 years old at that point, and most trucking and service companies defined the status quo: buy engines and chassis from a truckmaker, then ship the parts to a coachbuilder who will design and install a body on top. Even today, Pininfarina—with a badge stuck to the side of most modern Ferraris—was founded as a coachbuilder by Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina. It is one of only a handful of old-school coachbuilders that still survive.

While the design for the Doodlebug came from Bel Geddes’ studio and team of designers, its body was crafted by The Heil Co., a coachbuilder in Alabama. Founded by Julius P. Heil, a German immigrant who would eventually become the governor of Wisconsin and give the state its “America’s Dairy Land” nickname, Heil Co. still exists today as a manufacturer of truck bodies…specializing in designs for waste collection.

I’m not sure what anyone would have thought as they pored over the initial drawings, or stared wide-eyed at its shape as it neared completion. I do know that if you made a living building trucks, putting a futuristic streamliner together for Bel Geddes and Texaco would have been the best gig in the industry.

Its friendly Iron Giant face and its yule-log body helped conceal a very Tatra-like rear-mounted engine, believed to be a Hercules L-head six. Hercules engines were prized for their durability—ideal in this application stuffed in the rear of the Doodlebug, with a large radiator at the very back. A four-speed manual transmission was operated—along with the clutch and pneumatic brakes—by air pressure.

If you think modern driver’s aids have gone too far, get this. Because the driver wouldn’t have been able to hear the engine revs and a tachometer cable wouldn’t be able to stretch the length of the truck, a novel solution was needed: a microphone mounted in the engine compartment was wired to a speaker in the cab—just like some automakers do these days in order to make the car sound more exciting.

Completed Doodlebugs, once added to the Texaco fleet, were pumped fat with home heating fuel. The new trucks  were chosen for the job in order to win over homeowners who were tired of seeing dirty coal trucks on their rounds. After all, nothing says sleek and modern like a bright red streamlined truck with a sharp, well-dressed delivery man behind the wheel.

Though Bel Geddes may have been a devoted set designer and a patron of the arts, it’s a special kind of genius that figures out how to put some theatre into everyday life.