The Ever Expanding History of the Front Load Refuse Truck

1952-1959: Humble Beginnings and Radical Ideas

One of the first front loaders built by Bowles for United Rubbish. It features an articulated lift arm with a fixed refuse trough for hand-loading

    The birth of the front loader, purpose-built for refuse service, can most likely be traced to the year 1952. Phil Gentile Sr. and Samuel Vincen Bowles designed a special truck in Sun Valley, California for Gentile's refuse company United Rubbish. The first ten trucks created had a fixed bucket, permanently attached to a pair of articulated lift arms that emptied into an open dump body. These were mostly used for residential and bulk waste collection. Evolution quickly took hold of their brainchild, and by late 1954 Bowles was manufacturing front loaders with fully enclosed dump bodies, equipped with a hydraulic-powered packer blade. More importantly, the fixed bucket had given way to a forklift type coupling method, for handling detachable containers of different sizes. These containers could be left on-site at any business or residence. This was a truly revolutionary breakthrough in the collection of refuse. A single driver with a high-capacity packer truck could now service multiple, large containers and theoretically never have to exit the vehicle. Of course, in actual practice, the driver did exit the truck quite frequently, mostly to roll containers into position and other tasks. In fact, it was common practice to completely remove the doors from the cabs of refuse trucks in the early days. With the Bowles loader, the die had been cast, and refuse collection practice would never be the same.

    The Bowles "Pull-type" packer system was something unique to his front loaders in that horizontal, single stage cylinders were located inside the body, pulling the blade from front to back over the length of hopper. This cleared the hopper area for incoming refuse, and compacted the entire load as the body became filled. This patented design was never duplicated by later competitors, who instead opted for "push type" packers, with vertically mounted rams located ahead of the blade. Push packers would quickly become the industry standard, as manufacturers could easily make a half-pack or full-pack model by simply changing the stroke of the packing ram. Push packers were less susceptible to cylinder damage, since the rams were not operating in the refuse load as on the pull type system. However, the pull-type packer maximized payload by virtually eliminating the dead space ahead of the packer panel.

The Bowles front loader with pull-back type packer blade dominated the west during the 1950s

Video of a Bowles Pull-Back type packer as used on a 2000 model Compaction Control Industries front loader. The packer blade is little different from first models produced nearly a half-century earlier.

Video courtesy of Bill Tetreault
with special thanks to Local Rubbish Co. of Los Angeles

    In the wake of the first Bowles front loaders, other Los Angeles-area companies also began to market their own specific designs. Towner Manufacturing of Santa Ana was an early (and unlikely) entry into fledgling industry. Seemingly out of nowhere, a company that had specialized in farm implements fielded the "Nu-Way-Pak Sanitary Van" in 1955. This front loader is most notable for being one of the first full-pack models, with an advance-design reinforced body and a packer, which delivered 24,000 pounds of pressure. Unfortunately, Towner's unique method of coupling to their container was incompatible with the popular Bowles fork system, and never really caught on. Only a handful of Towner bodies were made, with several sold off to movie studios, doomed for use as background vehicles in films.

Towner packer body looked like a model from the future back in 1955. Unfortunately, their trunion container coupling
method (with arrester hooks atop the body) was incompatible with more popular fork systems

    Somewhat better received were models that emerged from Cook Brothers, a company known for construction equipment and concrete mixer bodies. In 1956, a designer at Cook Brothers named Henry Harbers patented a front loader with a hydraulically actuated, pivoting torque tube which spanned the ends of rigid lift arms ahead of the front bumper. This torque tube supported the forks, providing a wrist-action to keep the container level during the lifting cycle. It also allowed the forks to "go negative" enough to pick up a container from off of a raised loading dock. Cook Brothers did not remain in the refuse body business for long, but Harbers' simple improvement had far-reaching consequences, being incorporated into the lift arm of virtually every front loader built since that time, a milestone in front loader technology.

    By the close of the 1950s the front loader system had spread like wildfire in Southern California, changing the face of refuse collection forever. Bowles continued to lead the pack by constantly updating and refining his designs, quickly setting the standard for West Coast builders. Bowles focus on refuse equipment, with no sidelines, probably also gave the company an edge against competitors who were unsure of their commitment to the industry. Despite several companies throwing their hats in the ring during those early years, only one other company, Western Body and Hoist, was in a position to seriously challenge Bowles at the start of the 1960s.

Starting in 1956, Cook Brothers produced many interesting lift arm designs, including a simplified pivoting front torque tube,
which became an industry standard. By 1960, they had left the refuse body field

    Meanwhile in the East, similar developments were occurring in the refuse hauling industry. In 1953, brothers Robert and Howard Aldredge of Dayton, Ohio created a front load arm for use with a detachable container system based on the Holmes-Owen Loader. They filed for a patent in 1955, but were unable to find a manufacturer. In the same year that the Aldredge brothers applied for a patent, George Dempster unveiled his newest offering to his already successful refuse line; the Dempster Dumpmaster. This first generation version of the Dumpmaster featured a licensed variation of the Holmes-Owen arm (very similar to the Aldredge design), fitted on a heavily modified Pak-Mor or other suitable side-load compaction body. Unlike the Bowles fork & pocket method, Dempster initially used a self-leveling horseshoe style coupling for connecting with their containers, which had small stubs or ears protruding from their sides. This early model Dempster front loader proved unsatisfactory in a number of respects. Articulated arms based on the Holmes-Owen design (sometimes referred to as "broken arms") were subject to very high stresses. When the arms had been raised to a certain point, the front section pivoted at the arm joint and literally threw the contents of the refuse containers into the body. The Harbers-type pivoting fork shaft quickly made these early arms obsolete. There were safety concerns as well, shared by the rest of the industry, in that travel path of the lift arms passed close-by the doors of the truck cab. This posed a danger to the driver who could be crushed by the moving arm, or trapped in the cab, and unable to exit in an emergency. Early lift arms also necessitated the use of folding rear view mirrors.

    In a bold move, Dempster quickly abandoned their first generation model and completely redesigned the Dumpmaster for 1957, manufacturing the entire assembly at their plant in Tennessee. This new body had a completely different look and offered the first of several industry standards from Dempster. The '57 Dumpmaster now sported gooseneck shaped, Over-the-Cab (OTC) lift arms that completely cleared the cab doors throughout the container lift cycle. Container coupling was changed to the more efficient forks, which engaged pockets on the sides, rather than on the bottom of the can. The compaction body was also new, a heavy-duty, full-pack ejection body with a telescopic cylinder developing 58,000 lbs compaction force. This about-face by Dempster probably made for a few unhappy customers and distributors, who had already invested in the early (and now) incompatible system. But it was a wise move, and undoubtedly saved Dempster from oblivion. Indeed, on the strength of the new design, Dempster would eventually catapult to the top of the industry.

Early model Dempster Dumpmaster: (Top row) Coupling with and lifting container (Lower Left) Demonstrator with Pak-Mor body
at the 1955 APWA show (Lower Right) City of Asheville, North Carolina Dumpmaster with 20-cubic yard Paka-Van body

    Bowles had also begun offering OTC lift arms by the late 1950s, but Dempster had been first to the patent office. Armed with their newly approved patent, they filed an infringement suit against Bowles and a consent decree was issued, preventing Bowles from selling their model FL-3 and FL-4 OTC lift arms. A consent decree indicates that Bowles voluntarily agreed to cease production of the OTC arms, but did not admit to having infringed Dempster's patent. This was probably the best Bowles could hope for at the time, since a long court battle would have been costly. Dempster's strategy seems obvious; by going after Bowles, the biggest of the western independents, they would discourage any of the other smaller firms that might have attempted to market their own OTC arms. To finally slay the "Goliath" Dempster, the independents needed a "David", and this champion came in the person of one Arthur E. Bausenbach of Buffalo Metal Container. Bausenbach had once been the first eastern distributor of Bowles equipment, and was making his own front loaders by the early 1960s. He filed and won a counter-suit against Dempster in 1965, the court ruling that "prior art" had already been established in the 1950s, and the "goose-neck" OTC arms were merely a logical solution to the problems presented by the straight, over the wheel arms. While this victory broke open the market for companies to equip trucks with the safer OTC arms, builders on the West Coast still produced trucks with the straight "over-the-wheel" style arms well into the late 1960s.

Dempster wasted little time correcting the deficiencies of the early Dumpmaster. Their 1957 version looked as if it had come from an entirely
different company. Over-the-Cab (OTC) lift arms were a quantum leap for safety, and massive new packer body was the mightiest in the industry

    In Michigan, Lodal introduced a front loader container system specifically for refuse work in 1957. Called "Load-a-Matic", this was technically an accessory lift arm assembly to be mated with a suitable third-party packer body. The Hydro E-Z Pack side loader appears to have been the popular choice in the early years, until Lodal developed their own body. Load-a Matic was based on the original Lodal lift arm of 1952, operated by twin long-stroke rams, but now added a detachable container coupler in place of the fixed bucket. The Lodal method of container hookup was not only ingenious, but also simple and effective. The Dempster and Bowles type system of coupling containers was very much like that of a forklift, with two long forks sliding into horizontally disposed slots on either the sides or bottom of the container. With the Lodal system, a single triangular plate, pivotal slightly on the loader frame, engages a corresponding V-opening on the container. Thus only the apex of the triangle needs to catch in the container, and then the triangle is tilted and/or the frame hoisted to move the container into alignment and drop into positive engagement. Once the container is inverted during the dumping action, arrester hooks welded below the V-opening are automatically locked via linkage into the loader frame, preventing the container from sliding off the triangle and into the body. The triangle single-point coupling system is still in use by some haulers today, available from Lodal and other builders by special request.

Valdosta, Georgia used the Lodal system with unique triangular coupler which enabled driver to hookup from an angle
Body is the Hydro E-Z Pack, which was common mate with the Lodal until they developed their own packer

    Refinements to Cab-Over-Engine (COE) design by motor truck manufacturers in the 1950s also greatly benefited the refuse industry, and the front loader most of all. While chassis style was not a major concern to the side and rear load trucks during the Post-War years, the development of COE trucks had a direct impact on making front loaders safer and more operator-friendly. Many haulers still preferred the conventional cab for front loaders because its engine placement provided a counter-balance while tipping the loaded body. But new tilt-cab COE trucks with forward seating positions and massive windshields offered dramatic improvements in visibility. This was the ideal truck for front loader bodies, as drivers were now able to actually see their forks as they connected with the pockets on the bottom or side of the container, rather than relying on helpers or "luck" to hit their mark. It was a match made in heaven, even if the trend toward the COE-FL was somewhat slow at first. The International Harvester CO series and White's Model 3000 were early favorites, and were joined by the new Ford C-series in 1957. The 1960s brought COE trucks with ever-shorter bumper-to-back-of cab (BBC) dimensions, and the conventional cab largely vanished from front loader service altogether.

The 1950s brought a number of modern tilt-cab designs that were ideally suited for front-loader service. Visibility was dramatically improved,
overall length shortened, and the turning circle was reduced The set-back axle also improved weight distribution.
Shown above are popular tilt-cab models built by International Harvester and Ford Motor Company


© 2012 Zachary Geroux and Eric Voytko
All Rights Reserved
Photos from factory brochures/advertisements except as noted
Logos shown are the trademarks of respective manufacturers