Texaco’s Futuristic Streamlined Doodlebug Tank Trucks
The Texaco Doodlebug was an important design for several reasons. Basically, it erased all vestiges of 1930s car and truck architecture. There were no fenders, no hood, no cowl, no runningboards and no flat, upright windshield.
The passenger cabin got blended into the overall design, and the Doodlebug’s simple breadloaf shape was all of a piece. Except for the applied headlights, the Doodlebug could have been designed today.
Doodlebug’s driver fills the underground tank of a Texaco service station, probably in Illinois in 1935, judging by the license plate. Colorized image courtesy of Imbued with Hues.
The Doodlebug driver sat far ahead of the front-axle centerline, meaning he must have had a rough, choppy ride. Drivetrain stood at the rear. Identity of the four men remains unknown, as does the date and locale of this photograph.
And notice the details. The truck used curved side glass and a compound-curved windshield. This last feature didn’t see mass production until Chrysler reintroduced it with the 1957 Imperial. The “through” body sides wouldn’t see production until the 1946 Kaiser and Frazer. And the eyebrows over the full wheel cutouts had to wait until Oldsmobile made them a focal point on the 1966 Toronado.
In Texaco’s patent drawings, it’s easy to see how the Doodlebug tapered toward the rear and also had considerable uninterrupted tumblehome. Both features were highly unusual in that day of mostly boxy body shapes.
But the Doodlebug’s overall height was what surprised most people. The truck stood a mere 72 inches tall, only four inches more than a 1933 Ford. No one built trucks that low back then, and many of today’s SUVs stand taller.
Norman Bel Geddes’s design firm created the Doodlebug’s clean design, and the Heil Co. in Alabama built an unknown number of these futuristic tank trucks. Some apparently transported gasoline while others carried home heating oil – or a combination – in their segmented tanks.
In the early 1930s, Texaco hired two industrial designers, Norman Bel Geddes and Walter Dorwin Teague, to give Texaco a clean brand image. Together, they came up with Texaco’s famous red T-star and the block-letter logo. They also styled the attendants’ white uniforms and the architecture and color schemes of the stations themselves.
Bits and pieces of the Doodlebug design appeared in Bel Geddes’s 1932 book, Horizons. Among the illustrations, his so-called Motor Car #8 and Motor Coach #2 clearly show elements of the Doodlebug. And while Bel Geddes doesn’t mention the Doodlebug as such, this truck was, in my opinion, one of his design firm’s very best efforts—and surely one of the most radical “streamlined” tankers commissioned by Texaco.
Big Oil at that time was battling Big Coal, each vying for the home heating market. Coal and oil trucks were usually filthy, covered with dust, grime and residue. Big Oil, including Texaco, wanted to put forth a cleaner, more progressive image than Big Coal, so the first step was to have Bel Geddes and Teague design a series of sanitary, streamlined, eye-catching tank trucks. These were sometimes painted white to show their cleanliness, although all Texaco Doodlebugs seem to have been black.
First April 1933 design patent shows individual tanks along the body. Each filled separately from above and was surrounded by a railing.
Texaco’s tank trucks doubled as rolling billboards, especially the Doodlebugs – probably the most striking and successful from an aesthetic point of view.
Mechanically, Doodlebug bodies were built by the Heil Co. in Ft. Payne, Alabama. The trucks used Diamond T chassis, with a Hercules L-head, six-cylinder engine mounted longitudinally in the rear and a large radiator behind it. Air pressure actuated the clutch and four-speed gearbox, using the same pneumatic system as the brakes. Because the driver couldn’t hear the engine, Heil mounted a microphone in the engine compartment and a speaker in the cab so he could tell when to shift.
Second October 1934 design patent shows revised and cleaner lines with the individual tank fillers underneath flush diamond plate doors. This styling drawing is much closer to the finished product with the exception of the rounded side doors.
Most records regarding the Doodlebugs seems to have been lost. Neither Heil nor Texaco could tell me how many Doodlebugs were built or where they saw service. One of our photos shows an Illinois license plate, and it’s reasonable that all these tankers saw duty in cold climates.
One additional note: I’ve heard that a well-known movie/TV actor and auto enthusiast had, at one time, planned to have a Doodlebug replica built in California. Those plans, though, apparently got shelved, but I still have hope.
Note: By Michael Lamm. Portions of this article appeared in Special-Interest Autos magazine. Michael Lamm © copyright 2015.