Whattoff Motor Company

The Whattoff Motor Company was founded in 1928 by Joe Whattoff as a filling station with two service stalls employing one additional person who was assisted part time by the two Whattoff sons.  The plant included a small office area and a slightly larger service area with a total of 1000 square feet of floor space and an estimated 7,000 square feet of lot space.  As business as a service station and Studebaker dealership expanded, the company moved in 1939 from its 2602 Lincoln Way site around the corner to 118 Hayward.

A Better Idea

by George Hamlin

It all started with this one customer who came into the Whattoff Studebaker dealership in Ames, Iowa, in early 1952 and inquired about the price of a pickup truck.  He was interested in deleting the box from the order, and Vernard Whattoff casually asked why: chassis-and-cab orders were common enough on the larger trucks, but not on the 3/4 ton jobs.

The man was in the business of transporting trailers -- mainly what were then called house trailers until that name got tarnished by association with trailer parks, so they became mobile homes.  His problem was meeting different overall length requirements of the several states, primarily the one he was based in.

To understand the trucking business in the 1950's requires knowing about Iowa's famous 45-foot limit.  Other nearby states permitted longer combinations, but the Iowa legislature was not convinced that tractor trailer rigs over 45 feet long were safe.  (Iowa was also just about the last holdout against the double bottom road trains that came in 20 years later.)  The truckers complained, loudly; they applied political pressure at all levels (including the federal level, which is how they got the double bottom rigs legalized in all states); but they had to put up with the limit because Iowa sat astride America's main east-west routes: U.S. 6 and U.S. 30.  The favored route was U.S. 30, because it bypassed the metropolitan areas of Omaha-Council Bluffs, Des Moines, and the Quad Cities (Davenport-Moline-Bettendorf-Rock Island), while U.S. 6 plowed right through them.  For a while the truckers threatened to bypass Iowa entirely, but the threat was empty because the alternative was U.S. 40 down in Missouri.  Choosing that route meant putting up with Kansas City, Saint Louis, and Springfield (Illinois), plus a long detour up U.S. 66 to get to Chicago.  Under the circumstances, most truckers chose to establish big marshaling yards at Denver and change trailers.  Clearly, however, this sort of option was not available to the transporter whose cargo was the trailer rather than the contents, so these operators had to keep the length of the prime mover as short as they could.

Whattoff's customer wanted, in effect, a tractor, but not the regularly available ones, rated at 20,000 pounds G.V.W. and up.  They were too much, both in capacity and cost, just to haul empty house trailers around.  Besides, they still had too much wheelbase and a 5th-wheel hitch, useless for house trailers.  He wanted a 3/4-ton tractor.  His solution was to make his own by cutting the frame of a pickup and shortening the wheelbase, mounting the hitch right behind the cab.  The resulting wheelbase would turn out to be about 80 inches, and for those who haven't thought much about that before, we will assure you that an 80-inch wheelbase on a full-height vehicle does not give a boulevard ride.  Whattoff tried to bring the subject up gently; Won't that ride a little hard? he asked.  Not with a trailer behind, that is, but while deadheading -- returning home empty after the trailer has been delivered.  Sure, said the customer.  But you just have to put up with it.

But it was the safety aspect that really bothered Vernard Whattoff.  A vehicle like that, operating on 2/3 of the wheelbase it was designed with, was flat unsafe.  It would do peculiar things on washboard surfaces and corner strangely, even on dry pavement.  What it would do in an Iowa winter was something else again.  And it was then that Whattoff's inventive mind changed the trailer transport business with a casual question.

I was coming home for lunch one day and I suddenly thought, say, why don't we make a truck with a telescoping frame?  Such a truck could have it both ways:  full wheelbase for riding empty, short wheelbase for towing.  Whattoff called the prospect and asked him if he would be interested in such a vehicle, and he expressed a reluctant willingness.  First, of course, Whattoff had to prove the thing could be built.  We ordered a new 3/4 ton frame from South Bend.  Frame only, says Whattoff.  We were too chicken to experiment with a whole truck.

The Dealership that Could

Whattoff Motor Company was well situated for off-center assignments like the telescoping frame.  The family business was started by the senior Whattoff around 1928 as a garage and gas station.  Brothers Don and Vernard took it over around 1939, just in time to leave it for World War II, so their father came back to keep the business going for the duration.There were no cars, and there was no gas, says Don. He repaired bicycles, anything he could get.  The brothers took the business back after the war, and in 1947 decided to take the Studebaker franchise.  Early results were terrible, says Vernard. Four, six cars a month.  But then it took off: by 1951 or so, we were selling with Chevrolet and Ford up here (Ames is about 30 miles north of Des Moines and its businesses can reach not only that metropolitan market but the local Iowa State University-oriented community and the agricultural heartland of Iowa for miles around).  Once we did 24 cars in a week.  The local Chevy and Ford dealers didn't like us a lot.  We even tried to cut into the police business, sold 2 or 3 cars to them, but they didn't work out.  (The city of Ames was always willing to consider alternative police cars; in 1959 it bought Edsels.  They didn't work out, either.)

Steady growth attended the dealership, and in 1955 the brothers decided to move from the in-town location at 118 Hayward to a new site outside of town: 3605 West Lincoln Way.  Automobile fanciers will recognize that a street with that name either is, or was, U.S. 30; as observed previously, one of the major east-west transcontinental arteries.  In the days before U.S. 30 bypassed Ames, that street carried all the east-west traffic not interested in going through Des Moines.  Automobile customers coming in to Ames from the west had to pass by Whattoff's , and the truckers passed it every day.  The operating principles never changed during all this time: Vernard was general manager, Don was sales manager, and the customer was king.  We tried to go by the Golden Rule and it worked, says Don.

All of Ames was pretty Studebaker-conscious in those days, and when the Lark came out, Whattoff made the most of it.  Locals were treated to the sight of a brand-new salmon-painted V-8 Lark that just cruised the streets all day long, obviously with orders to wear out the tires as quickly as possible.  Nobody but the street rodders could keep up with the thing; it left traffic lights and stop signs at astonishing speeds, always attention-getting but never obnoxious.  Limited national acclaim came when the brotherhood in the Iowa State chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chipped in to buy a new car for their beloved housemother -- and chose a Lark.  (The joke was on them; they bought the lady a six.)  Perhaps the high point came when Whattoff bid on a large fleet order for the Iowa Highway Commission -- and smugly walked off with an order for several hundred cars.  That first success was followed by others in 1959-60, putting hundreds of Studebakers in the state fleet.  The Chevy and Ford dealers didn't like that too much, either.  We made very little per car on those fleet orders, says Don.  The idea was mainly to get more Studebakers on the street.

But it was going to be trucks where Whattoff Motor Company left its mark on the Studebaker story.

Success the First Time

With the experience available to it in 1952, the Whattoff back shop was well equipped to tackle conversion of the 3/4-ton truck to Vernard Whattoff's idea.  The new frame came in from Studebaker and the boys started marking and measuring,  says Vernard.  And cutting.  They needn't have feared working on a whole truck, because the telescoping frame worked out on the first try. Once we had the frame, we went over to the dealer in Webster City, bought another pickup, and moved everything over.  Most of the driveline was unchanged, although the driveshaft caused some momentary thought.  A telescoping shaft was considered and rejected because the lengths didn't work out right, and because the trucks would sometimes be operated at high speeds  (I've seen 'em do 100 miles an hour).  Precision engineering would have been required, and the shafts are out in the weather, which would have interfered with the precision.  So two shafts were supplied, with slip yokes on the transmission and differential (depending of the application, one 20 to 24 inches, the other 55 to 60 inches long).  Shortening and lengthening the frame was accomplished with a cable winch and a 2-ended pulley setup.  In its shortened version, this hauler came down so short that the rear wheels actually rubbed the back of the cab, so clearance space was cut into the lower back cab corners.

A common size for a house trailer -- ah, mobile home -- in those days was 8 by 35 feet; so to meet the 45-foot limit, Whattoff's prototype was rigged so that its overall length could be cranked down to 10 feet.  The 2R11 pickup was chosen to get the Commander six, and the Borg-Warner overdrive transmission was modified with a toggle switch to provide the operator with six selectable speeds.

Brakes were easy.  Long brake hose, says Vernard.  Just loop it and hook it.  When we were lengthening the truck, we'd just unhook it -- if we didn't forget.  The handbrake cable was shortened with a pulley rigged to the operating handle.  The rear was converted for dual wheels.  Other folks were using 1/2 ton trucks for this work, or even a car, always with single rear wheels.  Our trucks always had duals, even the 3/4 ton version.  We pressed out the studs and got longer ones.  This trick, we might add, is a tribute to the Studebaker chassis, because just putting duals on some rear axles will cause bearing failure, even reversing the wheels will cause failure in marginal designs -- for example, on the Volkswagen bugs when the rodders tried that stunt.

And there on the shop floor stood a completed truck of new and inventive design.  The Whattoffs named it the Trailer Toter and began to market it through the steady stream of interstate traffic that came by their door.

A Growing Business

The Trailer Toter took off steadily and profitably.  It did not take long for Whattoff to become a major player in the truck business, and the dealership was having an effect in both South Bend and Detroit.  We needed lots of heavy-duty equipment once we really started selling Toters, says Vernard.  We made Toters out of Studebaker trucks of all types, with engines of all kinds.  The 5-speed overdrive transmissions, for example; Studebaker made them available for the Toter operation at Ames.  We started pushing Studebaker to offer a Diesel 5-10 years before it finally did.  It was nominally a condition of franchise that a Studebaker dealer had to buy some trucks along with the cars, and most of them chose to buy the cheapest pickups and sell them at cost just to meet the requirement.

They were required to do that on paper, chuckles John Duncan, who during this period was Studebaker's Fleet Sales Manager. But so many of them didn't bother, and mainly it ws overlooked.  They [in South Bend] were so tickled any time somebody ordered a truck they didn't know what to do.  But Whattoff was really selling lots of trucks.

Vernard Whattoff agrees.  We were getting Studebaker to offer more equipment while other dealers were grumbling about having to sell a couple of pickups.  When the Toter operation began, Studebaker's largest truck dealer was Freeman-Spicer in South Bend, but Whattoff soon overtook the home-town folks.

Around 1956, when the E28 came out, we became the largest Studebaker truck dealer, says Vernard.  The other truck makers were not unaware of what was happening, either.  G.M., Ford, International engineers would come out here.  They'd look at our relatively small shop, without sophisticated tools.  Then they'd look at the finished product.  They couldn't understand how we did it.  The finished product was maturing.  There was now some major surgery in front to cut down on the wasted space in front of the radiator.  This meant removing the fiberglass front (Vernard!  Where did you put all those things/) and shortening the hood a little, but the basic Studebaker appearance remained.  Even the open STUDEBAKER nameplate was retained, but reinstalling it in the shortened hood caused the E and the B to be unnaturally joined upon close inspection.

In 1958 Whattoff added the International line. We were loyal to Studebaker but you'd better give the man [the customer] what he wants.  It helped expand the business.  We can testify, having heard it more than once, that a customer asking after conversion on another make would be told, We have better luck with Studebakers.  Such a response had even more credibility when it came from a dealer who handled more than Studebaker.  Meanwhile, the development of the Toter continued.

We had one experimental job, a one-off Studebaker, that we did, recalls Vernard.  It had a one-man cab.  On the right were the tires, tools, and gas tank.  It was wrecked.  The central idea with that truck was the same as always: get the length down.  Eventually they got the length down to 8 feet; the Toter 8 was built from 1960 through 1963 on Studebaker chassis, with some 4 - 53 GMC and some Chevrolets.  The wheelbase was 64-88-112 inches, giving overall lengths, bumper to ball, of 8 - 10 - 12 feet.  The front end surgery required for this one changed the looks of the truck completely, involving as it did the removal of all the space in front of the radiator.  The bumper was flattened and brought way back; the fenders and hood were sectioned, folded back, and rewelded; and a new stylish grille was bolted on to what was now a completely flat front.  We went out and bought some cold-air registers, chuckles Vernard. Later on we upgraded them a little.  They still looked like cold-air registers, but Studebaker used the same idea on its 8E Diesel fronts, and all of the other truck makers have picked up the idea of a snubbed nose to save length.

There was another group of 25 Toter 8's built between 1962 and 1965 on a special chassis.  These jobs were own make Whattoffs, and used Studebaker, International, or Detroit engines with the International Sightliner cab.  That cab, once seen never forgotten, had a remarkable 48" overall length bumper to back of cab, and the operator has the feeling that he is driving a window.  In a very real sense, the driver is the first thing to get hit in one of these cabs, and they were not a commercial success for International.  But, Boy!  Were they short.  And about this time things began to happen that changed the nature of the Trailer Toter business.

The first was minor:  the name was changed to Whattoff Toter.  (Remember, Trailer meant trailer park.) The next was far more important:  Studebaker went into the toter business.

The toters were doing well enough that they decided it would be good for them to build it themselves, recalls Vernard Whattoff.  They never asked us about it; they had Bock do it in Elkhart.  Whattoff and Bock were not strangers; Whattoff had a sales and service branch in Elkhart (then, as now, the heart of the trailer -- er, mobile home industry, with something like 160 factories in the immediate 2-state vicinity during the glory days).  Bock himself had done some mild conversions similar to those done by Whattoff. He actually made light of our work, to tell you the truth.  And Elkhart was, of course, closer to South Bend.  But still: was this a crummy trick to pull on your biggest dealer, or what?  I don't think they treated us very well, agrees Vernard.  The greatest exposure they had to the toter business was through their Ames dealer.  but they decided they wanted to build them -- and instead of coming to us they went to Elkhart.  The Whattoff copies, of course, were just that: copies.  What about infringement suits? Our family lawyer had handled all our stuff, and he muffed it on the adjustable frame, so we had no patent, no protection.  We went to a patent lawyer in Des Moines for our 4-way adjustable hitch; the hitch is still selling, so we have had some royalties over the years.

What did they have in mind in South Bend, anyway?  Why did Studebaker elect to enter the toter business in such a back stabbing fashion?  I told them they were crazy not to go to Whattoff,  says John Duncan.  The thing Studebaker did never got off the ground.  I don't think it hurt Vern financially -- Studebaker made very, very few of them -- but it had to hurt his feelings.  I said, here's a guy, he's been buying a lot of trucks from you ... they thought they could do a better job of it, but of course they couldn't.

In the end it didn't matter much whether Bock, or Studebaker, or anybody else, was making counterfeit Studebaker/Whattoff Trailer Toters, because the third development was when Studebaker quit the truck business.

When the new facility was in the planning stage, 1969-71, and when the financing was being arranged, there was no way of foreseeing the gasoline crisis of 1973.  It began in a limited way during the summer -- those attending the SDC International Meet in Colorado Springs that July will long remember the uncertainties of the trip, the gas stations that limited everyone to 10 gallons per stop, the lines in Colorado.  The Yom Kippur War began on 6 October, and the Arab oil producing nations announced a total embargo on oil exports to the United States on the 19th.  The Federal government contributed to the panic by panicking itself -- students of infamous dates will remember that the 55-mph national speed limit was imposed on the several states on 2 January 1974.  By the end of the month there were long lines nearly everywhere, panic on the highways, fist fights in the gas stations, and uncertainty in the showrooms.  First to feel the pinch were the manufacturers of recreational vehicles; Winnebago almost went under, Elkhart had visions of being a ghost town, and trailer sales just died.  That meant the market for Toters was almost completely gone, while the transporters waited to see what would happen.  Had the Toter operation still been in its old quarters on Lincoln Way, it could have ridden the crisis through, but down on the Interstate, with the new mortgage, it didn't have a chance. Mobile home deliveries were off 83 per cent, 1973 to 1974, recalls Vernard Whattoff. We left the building in November 1974, and sold it in July 1975.  From a position of dominance in the toter business, Whattoff Industries had been in the new building less than three years before it was destroyed.

Whattoff Industries, that is.  Not Vernard Whattoff.

Whattoff had, of course, the International line and the expertise to build Toters on anything after Studebaker quit trucks.  And there was still the ability to do original thinking.  The 4-way hitch, the first telescoping mirror (mounted on two square tubes across the front of the cab), leaf springs mounted on one end in a coil-spring box to take care of the hard riding problem when riding empty, a remarkable quick-change ball held in place by removable wedges -- We tried a lot of things -- and a matchless nationwide reputation, particularly in the Midwest and the East, gave Whattoff Motors, soon Whattoff Industries, the basis for continuing even stronger than before.  There was a new Toter available, a special 60-inch job on the International 1710 cab-over-engine; the hitch was within inches of the engine, way down under the cab.  Customers from all over wanted Toters, and the business outgrew the quarters on West Lincoln Way.

We were really crowded by 1969, says Don Whattoff.  We either had to stop the growth or enlarge.  We had the Toters, we had Simca for a while, and we had Toyota.  We were partners on the west end, but we decided the best thing to do was split up.  I stayed out on the west end, and I ended up with Toyota and Dodge.  Vernard took the Toters to the new location.  And the Whattoff Toter business was really poised to hit the big time.  The state was relocating U.S. 30 onto a new limited access superslab south of town, and Interstate 35 had come up from Kansas City and Des Moines, headed for Minneapolis/St. Paul a few years before.  A Toter dealership at such a high-traffic interchange would be perfectly suited to Whattoff's interstate clientele, and Vernard Whattoff put up a huge building there.  Whereas his production on Lincoln Way had been 25-30 jobs per month under normal circumstances, the new location would give him the capacity of 2000 jobs yearly.  Personnel went from 10-12 to 60-70.  The business moved in 1972.

The timing could not have been worse.

After the Party Was Over

Whattoff Toters had the best name in the business, and that breeds customer loyalty.  Some trucks started coming back in during 1975-76 for parts and service, says Vernard.  That helped clean the inventory out, although the finance company took a beating.  We actually built a few Toters in 1975 on a scratch basis, farming the work out here and there.  In 1976 we built a few more; New Way in Des Moines did a few for us.  By 1978 we were going great guns, comparatively: one a week or so.  We get several calls a week, and we farm the work out.  We get Kenworths, everything, a few every year.  The average day for now consists of some time spent arranging business for the company (name changed again: Whattoff Enterprises), enough to keep the operation going and income incoming, and some time spent doing the Lord's work.

I don't know anyone who is as devoted to the Lord's work as he is, observes brother Don.  Not 8 hours a day, more like 18.  He works a truck in here and there.

Although the numbers are smaller now, the influence is still felt.  The Whattoff name is still revered in its field, and Studebaker truck fanciers in particular ought to recognize the debt they owe to Whattoff Motor Company and the Whattoff Trailer Toter.  Much of the romance, excitement, or whatever-you-will of the later Studebaker trucks would simply never have been, without the Trailer Toter and Vernard Whattoff.

He was a pioneer, acknowledges John Duncan today.  He was always pushing us to upgrade those trucks, things we might never have done otherwise.  Like the 5-speed overdrive: he wanted that because his customers were coming back empty.  He really made a difference.

Donald Whattoff's portion of the Ames automotive empire continues on Lincoln Way, right where it was.  It's the oldest Toyota dealership in the state now, he observes.  I sold out around 1976, but I still own the building and lease it to the present dealers.  The old building at 118 Hayward is still in the family, too; there are several businesses in it now, and the seven Whattoff children are partners in its operation.  The experts told me seven partners wouldn't work, muses Don.  I thought different.  Same way Vernard and I operated; the Golden Rule.  It's working out fine.  I'm kinda proud of everything we did now, looking back at it.

As for Vernard Whattoff, is he perhaps still sore at Studebaker?  No, in fact the opposite: he is trying to reacquire some of his Studebaker past.  Out in the weeds behind the big building is a 1953 2R11 Toter, one of his first, which he wants to restore. I need a Commander engine and a 3-speed overdrive.  I had them both new, but they disappeared in the auction.  Is this truck maybe the first one, the one they built for that original customer, the man who started Vernard Whattoff thinking about Toters?  Definitely not, for a very simple reason.

You know what?  chuckles Vernard Whattoff. That guy -- we never did sell him a truck.


Vernard Whattoff was a member of Campus Baptist Church, the Christian Business Men's Association, the Studebaker Drivers Club, and The Gideons International.  He maintained that his life's purpose was to help and encourage everyone to share the love of Christ with each other, according to the Ames Daily Tribune.  Vernard fell into poor health and moved in 2002 to Plano, Texas, where other family members lived.  He died on 13 May 2003, at the age of 87, and is buried at Ames Municipal Cemetery.