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Factory to Dealer--Across the Seas

For our final installment in our series on how cars get from the assembly line to the showroom, we'll look at what happens when the journey requires crossing large bodies of water.

MV Faust maxing out on a cargo of MINIs.

While airplanes have been used to deliver hyperexpensive luxury cars like the "revival" Stutzes built in Italy in the 1970s...

A Stutz Blackhawk arriving by air freight....and unfinished bodies for the semi-handbuilt Cadillac Allanté, air freight is enormously expensive per pound, making it uneconomical for moving large numbers of cars between continents--at least, not if you want to have a snowball's chance of competing on price and turning a profit! That leaves cargo ships as the mode of choice for imported and exported mass-market vehicles.

Until the 1970s, automobiles were shipped in the holds of general cargo ships, loaded and unloaded one at a time by the ship's derricks.

1955 Nashes being loaded for export in Milwaukee New Saabs being unloaded at New Haven, Connecticut, in October, 1964As the number of vehicles being shipped across the oceans grew exponentially in the early '70s, the need arose for a ship that could carry more of them at one time and be loaded and unloaded faster. In 1973, the first "Ro-Ro" ("Roll on-Roll off") pure car carrier, MV European Highway, went to work for Japan's K-Line. While a contemporary general cargo vessel might be able to carry five or six hundred cars at best, European Highway could hold a whole Autobahn's worth, 4,200 vehicles.

Believe it or not, she's still in service at age 39. Here's a video of her departing the port of Tokyo last August.

Car carriers like European Highway are parking decks with engines, strictly form-follows-function affairs.

Sing it with me, people! "Ro, Ro, Ro your boat..."

Loading is just what the "Ro-Ro" name implies: cars are driven off the dock and up the ship's gangway and parked and secured on the cargo decks inside.

To unload, you just reverse the process.

The largest of these floating parking decks now in service are the "Mark V" class vessels operated by Norwegian shipping company Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics, such as MV Tønsburg pictured below. They are roughly the size of an Iowa-class battleship--870 feet long, with a beam of 106 feet---and weigh in at 76,500 gross registered tons. (Does that make them "Iowa-class parking decks"?) The Mark Vs can hold 8,000 automobiles, which is about a two weeks' supply of new Audis or BMWs for North America.

MV TønsbergWhile they're far from the prettiest things afloat, the Ro-Ros are an impressive engineering achievement, and their design is a challenging exercise in naval architecture. Every ship needs watertight integrity, of course, but none more so than a ship with long open decks like a ferry or a car carrier. If the ship is steaming through rough seas and any significant quantity of water gets into the car decks, the "free surface effect" of the liquid running back and forth can quickly destroy the ship's stability and cause it to capsize--this was the underlying cause of some of history's worst ferry sinkings, and a contributing factor in the Costa Concordia disaster last January.

The free surface effect was not, however, the cause of the most well-known shipwreck involving a car carrier, the "loss of stability incident" which befell MV Cougar Ace on July 23, 2006. The crew was draining and refilling the ballast tanks--something required by the EPA for all ocean-going ships entering U.S. territorial waters--when Cougar Ace took a hit from a large wave at the worst possible moment.

It wasn't even carrying Edsels or Vegas, that's the sad part.Spectacular images of the giant car carrier flopped over on her side appeared in newspapers and news websites the world over. The story of the salvage crew's against-all-odds success in saving the vessel, which cost the life of one of them, is a compelling one. The automotive press also made note of the wholesale scrapping of the 4,600 Mazdas on board.

The result of all this attention was the ultimate in 21st-century fame for the Cougar Ace, its very own Internet meme.

One last fun fact before we close: history records that there was a fresh-water predecessor to the likes of Tønsburg and European Highway. During the last century, new automobiles were sometimes carried as deck cargoes on Great Lakes bulk freighters.

New rides on a Cleveland-Cliffs ore boat sometime in the 1930s.This was a sort of a proto-Ro-Ro service: the cars were loaded by driving them up a ramp. The photo below shows some 1949 Chevys in the process of loading. It appears that they're being parked on a wooden false deck built over the cargo hatches.

"The legend lives on from the Chevy plant on down...."The shipping of cars on lake boats started in the 1920s and appears to have mostly died out in the early 1960s, a time when Great Lakes ships started carrying self-unloading gear which takes up much of their deck space. However, I remember seeing an old newspaper photo of a smaller laker with a deck cargo of mid-70s AMCs that got stuck in the ice.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

The photo of MV Faust came from Jalopnik. The photo of Nashes being slung aboard a freighter came from the Milwaukee Public Library's collection. The newspaper photo of Saabs being unloaded originally appeared in the New Haven Register on October 14, 1964. The cutaway drawing of a Ro-Ro is from the website of H.C. Bennett Company, which is in the logistics business. The photo of MV Tønsburg is from Wikipedia. The photo of prewar cars on a lake boat is from Cleveland State University's "Teaching & Learning Cleveland" history collection. The photo of '49 Chevys on a laker comes from The Old Motor magzine's blog. The "Failboat" image came from Know Your Meme.


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If you want to see the volumes of cargo carried trans-ocean, check out the piece on the Maersk shipping lines in Business Week within the last 6 - 8 months. They have several huge cargo ships, and each one is designed to carry 18,000 containers.

My Grandpa saw a bit of this post. He told me that back in the day, he used to operate a crane at one of the docks, since the company that he used to work with held the contract.

He told me that it wasn't uncommon for a workday of unloading cars -one by one- and other goods (and loading goods to be exported) to last over 24+ hours! There were occasions that after a long day at work, a ship would dock and he had to go and man the crane for an undetermined amount of time.

The dock-works usually happened once a month, when the cargo ships came. Grandpa worked on this for 4 years, but even he's not sure of time and date. He had to stick with it, or else someone else would take his place...

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Pictured above: This is a forlorn Chevy Vega photographed by reader Gary Sinar. (Share yours)

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