Story by Steve Gundale, Manager of Corporate Communications
came the stock market crash. Then the banking system collapsed. Industrial
output dropped by 50 percent in five years and hourly wages dropped by
60 percent. Unemployment soared to 25 percent and homeless people filled
"Hooverville" shanty towns in communities across the country. Times were
hard and America struggled with the Great Depression, the greatest economic
challenge in the nation's history.
1934 was not a promising year to begin a new business. Earl Oren, however,
saw the glitter of golden opportunity in the infant trucking industry.
Using his living room as his office, he courageously chose that moment
in history to open his own trucking company. He incorporated the firm
as Dart Transit Company four years later in 1938.
Dart was a contract carrier, hauling canned goods and meat products. Dart's
first rig was a new 1934 Ford tractor, purchased for $600, and an 18 foot
trailer, custom built at Flour City Body Company in Minneapolis. Because
times were hard, Mr. Oren could not afford to buy additional equipment.
Instead, he turned to owner-operators who provided both equipment and
labor. Many were farmers driving their farm trucks during the off-season.
As entrepreneurs like himself, Mr. Oren felt that independent contractors
had more ambition and needed less supervision than employee drivers.
The war years soon followed. With rationing of essential products, fuel
and tires disappeared. Drivers disappeared as well, drawn away by the
personnel needs of the military. Dart was nearly dormant during these
years, and Mr. Oren worked in a defense plant to feed his family.
entrepreneurial spirit was very strong, and after the war he revived his
trucking company. He was not afraid to do things his own way - even if
it was far different from the rest of the industry. That same attitude
continued into the next generation when Earl's son, Donald G. Oren, joined
the business in 1953. By 1955 the business was doing well enough to move
into its first real office behind a gas station on University Avenue in
St. Paul, Minnesota. Time after time, Donald and Earl found themselves
on the cutting edge of change. Much of their energy focused on acquiring
additional operating authority and developing high-cube trailer designs.
Dart pioneered many of the systems and equipment innovations that shaped
the growing trucking industry.
Founder, Earl Oren in 1988
By the mid-1970's, Dart advertised itself as an innovative carrier that
would design equipment, routes, and schedules to meet individual customer
requests. As a pioneer irregular route carrier, Dart offered "door-to-door"
service that was faster and cheaper than service provided by rigid competitors
restrained by slow and expensive cross-dock operations. Dart grew, while
competitors disappeared one by one.
Dart was a major refrigerated carrier in the '70's, hauling meats for
Armour and Swift from packing plants in South St. Paul. In 1975, the company
moved to a larger facility on University Avenue in St. Paul. Installing
a computer, Dart became one of the first trucking companies to computerize
its dispatch functions. It also grew from a five-state regional carrier
to a 48-state carrier that offered direct service from plant to plant,
long before anyone coined the term "just-in-time service."
As a customer driven carrier, Dart was eager to exploit business opportunities
by offering specialized trailers and services. The company stayed a step
ahead of competition by offering trailers that were two or three feet
longer than competitors' trailers. When 32 footers were standard, Dart
offered 35 footers. By the mid-70's, the industry standard reached 40
feet. Always ahead of the competition, Dart touted its newest innovation
- an "extra high cube" van measuring 42 feet long, 92 inches wide, and
99 inches high. The Orens, however, were not content. Pursuing innovation,
they continued to push the length limits to 45 feet, 48 feet, and eventually
53 feet. Trailers also grew to 102 inches wide and 13 feet 6 inches high.
Their innovations also included patented design features. Some features
increased usable interior trailer space - crowned floors, thin wall construction,
larger door designs, and pallet pinwheeling. Others made loading and unloading
easier - roller bed trailers for cans, and hydraulic lift gates for rolls
of paper delivered to printing companies without docks. Dart also developed
a high-cube thin-walled refrigerated trailer to haul frozen food and return
with cans on pallets. This was an exclusive Dart design for 10 years.
Pioneers, Norman Bunde (left) and Oscar Campbell (right) were among the first contractors with Dart Transit.
Their 1934 gasoline powered Ford truck had two 55 gallon drums for fuel tanks.
A round trip between St. Paul and Chicago paid $13, according to Campbell.
Innovation involved more than patents and new designs. Innovation also required extensive
legal work to obtain operating rights for longer, wider, and higher trailers.
The entire nation has benefited from the Orens' work. One of Dart's current
trailers efficiently hauls as much cargo as seven or eight of Earl's first
trailers. This benefits consumers with lower transportation costs and
substantially fewer trucks on highways.
In 1984, Dart opened Fleetline as a Texas-based carrier to participate
in a large intrastate Texas market. The two companies together continued
to introduce new trailer designs that included a "Superwide" thin walled
53 footer with fiberglass reinforced plywood walls. The thin wall design
provided enough additional interior space to allow pinwheeling of can
pallets. Pinwheeling was another Dart first, providing 13 percent more
can capacity in a 53 foot trailer, and 15 percent more can capacity in
a 48 foot trailer. This design was followed by an even thinner aluminum
"plate wall" that wrung 101 and 1/2 inches of interior width from a 102
inch wide trailer. Fleetline built the country's largest fleet of 57 foot
plate trailers for the Texas market.
Taking advantage of its computer capabilities, Dart offered contractors
immediate "on-demand" settlements. Highway Sales Inc. offers a lease-purchase
program that helps drivers become owner-operators through affordable truck
ownership. The Highway Sales lease-purchase program proved an enormous
success. By 1999 the total number of successful lease buyouts surpassed
1,000 tractors, with more than 700 additional new and used trucks sold
with conventional loans.
Dart moved to its current location in Eagan, Minnesota in 1989, setting
the stage for another decade of change. The company provided contractors
with additional services at the new facility: a large trailer repair shop
and truck wash, fuel islands, and low-cost truck repairs through another
affiliate, Pro Stop Truck Service. Trailers also continued to change with
the addition of air-ride suspensions and a change to composite trailer
walls - a three-ply construction of steel and plastic that is stronger
and lighter than earlier materials.
Dart's customer service offering also broadened during the 1990's. Direct
satellite communication with its owner-operator fleet provides shippers
with instant load information. Dart provides dedicated service to customers
needing customized service, and logistic services to shippers wishing
to outsource transportation management. Warehouse facilities provide customers
with another tool to control inventories and delivery schedules. Brokerage
services provide shippers with more flexibility during peak shipping periods.
Acquisition of an intermodal company provides access to freight moving
While Dart led the trucking industry through enormous changes during its
long history, Dart remains an entrepreneurial, family owned company, with
a third generation of Orens on its management team. Dart continues as
a customer driven carrier, tailoring its services and equipment to the
needs of shippers.