Labatt Streamliner; courtesy
Labatt Streamliner; courtesy Click image to enlarge

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By Bill Vance

Although Prohibition ended in Ontario in 1927, beer advertising continued to be banned in the media. Brewers sought legal ways to keep their names in front of the public, and one of the most imaginative came from the Labatt Brewing Company of London, Ontario: Labatt’s “Streamliner” tractor-trailers.

In the 1930s, Labatt changed from shipping beer by rail to hauling beer by road. Needing a new fleet of large trucks, they decided to combine highway delivery with mobile advertising. They wanted more than the drab, rectangular haulers then in use so they conceived the Labatt Streamliner as a stylish rolling billboard.

Labatt turned to Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, a Russian-born Count who escaped to France following the revolution. After studying art and engineering he became art director for Belgian custom coach builder Van den Plas. He emigrated to the United States in 1928 to style everything from American Austins to supercharged Auburns.

Sakhnoffsky was engaged to design the Streamliner in 1935, and ultimately designed four generations. Although all were ahead of their time, the last one of 1947 was the most dramatic.

Labatt Streamliner; courtesy
Labatt Streamliner; courtesy Click image to enlarge

The cab-over-engine tractor had a beautifully curvaceous shape. The rear of the cab swept down in a steep, unbroken line ending at fully skirted dual wheels. The equally striking trailer complemented the cab’s fastback shape with a roof arcing gently front to rear. Sakhoffsky’s trade-mark central dorsal fin decorated the rear of the roof. With the dual wheels fully enclosed the tractor-trailer unit had a smooth, integrated appearance.

Fifteen Streamliner bodies were completed in 1937 by Smith Brothers of Toronto out of hardwood and aluminum. Fruehauf produced the single-axle, low-bed trailers, and White Motor Co. supplied the tractor chassis. The futuristic Streamliner won the “Best Design” award at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

The streamliners were the first Canadian tractor-trailers with an anti-jack-knifing device in the fifth wheel, and the first to use air brakes. Power came from a White “Mustang” 6.3-litre (386 cu in.), 135-horsepower six-cylinder engine driving through a five-speed transmission.

1948 Labatt Streamliner
1948 Labatt Streamliner; photo by Bill Vance. Click image to enlarge

The Streamliners met Labatt’s requirements for more payload and higher speed. While typical tractor-trailers hauled five tons and attained only 56 km/h, the Streamliners carried 8-1/2 tons and reached 80 km/h.

The Streamliner’s appearance was enhanced by a dramatic red paint treatment decorated with genuine gold leaf script. Labatt’s Highway Courtesy Program featured smartly uniformed drivers trained to assist in everything from flat tires to accidents. They generated positive publicity for Labatt on Ontario roads.

The last generation Streamliners were ordered by Labatt in 1941 but the Second World War delayed the first roll-out until 1947. In addition to the 10 Streamliners, there was a special order for one from Princess Julianna of The Netherlands, who stayed in Canada during the war. She admired the Streamliner so much she wanted one to transport her ponies!

Labatt Streamliner; courtesy
Labatt Streamliner; courtesy Click image to enlarge

This would be the last fleet of Streamliners. Although making a bold styling statement, their time was passing. The bodies were expensive and time consuming to build and the cargo capacity was becoming small by contemporary standards. The shape was not very efficient, and the side-opening doors precluded pallet loading. And other methods of advertising were now available.

The Streamliners were retired in the mid-1950s, and gradually faded from memory. Then in 1977 Joe Scott of London, Ontario, along with Labatt, decided this piece of Canadiana should be preserved. Joe had recently retired from the presidency of White Truck Sales in London which serviced the Streamliners. With Labatt’s financial support, Joe and brother Bob, a long time Labatt employee, set out to find a 1947 Streamliner for restoration.

They eventually unearthed six trailers in Ontario. One was a construction field office, and although tatty, it was restorable.

The tractor was another matter. They wrote to every White branch in North America without success. A $500 finder’s reward generated wide publicity, but no tractor. Joe however, for some unexplained reason, was able to purchase a batch of fenders in The Netherlands. Perhaps Julianna had them in reserve.

The determined Scotts finally found two 1947 White cab-over trucks and set out to recreate the Streamliner tractor. Working from photographs and using a computer, blueprints were developed with accuracy within 1/32 of an inch (0.8 mm) of the original tractor’s dimensions and shape.

Using panel beating hammers and a metal-shaping wheeling machine, the aluminum cab was painstakingly recreated. The project was finally completed and the authentically restored 1947 Streamliner was on the road in 1983.

The Streamliner was honoured by appearing on a Canadian postage stamp in 1996. Owned by Labatt, the Streamliner is a roving goodwill ambassador that appears at fairs, exhibitions and other public events, To the delight of everyone, its horn doesn’t just toot, it plays “How dry I am.”

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