Independent Trucks: one of the most iconic skateboard companies in the sport's history | Photo: Independent Truck Company

Independent Trucks is one of the most popular skateboard companies in the world. Here's how the iconic brand conquered sidewalk surfing.

A skateboard comprises three major components or parts.

There's the board - or deck - which has been subject to wild variations in shape, size, and decoration over the years.

Then you've got the wheels, which have gone from steel to clay to urethane. And finally, the trucks, the metal things that hold those wheels in place.

In the 1960s, the Chicago Roller Skate Company was the leading manufacturer of skateboard trucks.

They made a few modifications to improve maneuverability, but with the limitations of the clay wheels, there was little incentive to explore further possibilities in truck design.

However, when the second skate boom hit with the introduction of Frank Nasworthy's urethane wheel, innovative truck makers like Bennett, Tracker, and Gullwing Trucks were positioned to grab the market from Chicago.

They were the ones who saw the potential in the new wheels and were able to respond to the need for new truck designs.

Bennett and Tracker dominated the truck market in the initial stages of the second wave of skateboarding.

But in the late 1970s, the alliance of the Ermico Enterprises/NHS/Santa Cruz companies blasted the competition with their remarkable Independent Trucks.

The appearance of Independents on the scene sparked further truck innovation.

The amount of research and development the truck makers put into perhaps the least glamorous aspect of skateboard design illustrates the increasing sophistication of the whole skateboard industry during the 1970s.

Bennett Trucks: founded by architect-engineer Ronald Bennett

Bennett Trucks

Ronald Bennett was an architect-engineer from Orange County who set out to redesign the skateboard truck and make it more functional.

In a June 1977 interview with SkateBoarder magazine, it was clear that Bennett understood the problem with the conventional roller skate truck.

"In order to get the truck to turn, it had to be loosened up so much that it got speed wobbles," Ron stated.

In 1975, Bennett introduced the Bennett Hijacker. It was truly different from traditional trucks.

The kingpin was placed well below the axle, meaning that skaters would not have to worry about the kingpin dragging on the ground.

The parts were of high quality.

Bennett used aircraft-quality locknuts and a special compound for his "rubbers," the part that fits between the kingpin and axle.

The only area where Bennett's trucks seemed to have a problem was the baseplates - they tended to break.

Fortunately, the baseplates came with a guarantee - you could mail them back to Mr. Bennett, and he would replace them for free.

Although Bennett's were the freestylers' choice, slalom skater John Hutson also won several contests using the quick-turning Bennett trucks.

In 1978, the company introduced a new baseplate and truck design made of a super-light metal compound - Magalum.

These new trucks were called Bennett Vector (One and Stak + Trak).

However, as truck competition heated up, Bennett was forced to start promoting other products.

Eventually, Bennett concentrated on his Lightbeam and Spacedeck boards and stopped advertising his trucks towards the end of the 1970s.

Tracker Trucks: founded by Dave Dominy and Larry Balma

Tracker Trucks

Tracker Trucks began in 1974 when a carpenter named Dave Dominy rode a skateboard that had a set of Cadillac urethane wheels attached.

After this, Dave and his friends went to La Costa and started riding the area's impressive downhill roads.

When Cadillac introduced their superwide wheel, "The Stoker," Dave thought traditional trucks looked "really dinky."

"I decided to modify a set of Sure-Grip trucks to make them wider and higher so that they would be stable and strong, and I called on Larry Balma to help me build the prototypes," remembers Dave.

Together, Dave and Larry started working on Dave's concept of a truck that would be stable, controllable at high speeds, and strong.

Dave had long been trying to develop a small product he could mass-produce, and the prototype truck seemed to fit the bill.

The trucks' wide axles made for excellent stability, and their large size looked perfect with the new large wheels.

Another major difference that set Tracker Trucks apart was that they did not have a nut below the rubbers - they used just one nut for adjustment.

Although slalom skaters were quick to pick up on the innovations of the Tracker, others were less enthusiastic.

As Larry explains, "The Tracker was different. It was wide compared to the Bennett or Bahne. So we'd bring it to a shop and tell the guy, 'Here's a new truck.' The response was sometimes, 'It won't work, it won't turn.' Then we'd say, 'Come out in front,' and we'd show them you could do everything on it better."

During that first year, shop owners were still cautious; some worried that a rider's back foot might hit the wheel with the wider trucks.

"We'd explain to them that boards would get wider," recalls Larry.

Eventually, Gordon & Smith started distributing the trucks, and things began to take off.

After the initial success with the Fultrack, Tracker introduced the Halftrack and Midtrack for other types of riding, including freestyle and vertical.

Their lighter, yellow magnesium trucks introduced in the late 1970s were extremely popular. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and well into the 2000s, Tracker continues to be one of the most popular trucks.

Gullwing Trucks: founded by Mike Williams

Gullwing Trucks

Skater Mike Williams had already made a name for himself in both downhill and slalom before he approached a manufacturing company about an idea he had for a new truck design.

He had been searching for a better-designed axle and would spend his free time thinking of ways to improve upon the skateboard truck.

By the fall of 1975, he had determined what he wanted and went to see a San Diego aerospace tooling company called HPG IV.

With the help of designers Bill Brawner and Walt Tiedge, Mike Williams significantly transformed the look of the traditional skateboard truck.

Gullwing's "split axle" truck was truly revolutionary.

Not only could you adjust the tension of the truck, but you could also adjust the turning radius.

The trucks became available commercially in January 1976. In the first month, HPG IV sold 800 trucks.

Eleven months later, sales had increased to 13,000 per month.

Mike Williams quit his night job at a shipbuilding company and went to work full-time at HPG IV as a pro.

Over time, Gullwing modified their split axle trucks and smoothed out the design. The split axle became a groove, and eventually, the groove was replaced.

Independent Truck Company: founded in 1978 by Fausto Vitello, Eric Swenson, Jay Shuirman, and Richard Novak

The Birth and Rise of the Independent Truck Company

Despite their popularity, the Bennett, Tracker, and Gullwing trucks had limitations in their turning capabilities.

In the mid-1970s, Fausto Vitello and Eric Swenson formed Ermico Enterprises to produce a truck that turned well in the streets.

Fausto's friend, John Solomine, designed the truck, and Eric and Fausto acquired the necessary manufacturing equipment.

They purchased welders and drill presses, borrowed a lathe, and set up shop on Yosemite Avenue in San Francisco.

The truck was called "The Stroker," which was rather unusual.

While most trucks in the 1970s retailed from $6 to $16 each, Strokers came in at a whopping $26.95 each.

The truck had an incredibly complex steering system with springs, sockets, and other intricate mechanisms.

Despite the amount of engineering and technology thrown into the truck, it had some major drawbacks.

"The problem," explained Fausto, "was that the truck turned too much - it had too many springs."

"It needed dampeners to avoid problems with wobbles. Although we tried to put dampeners inside the truck, there was no space."

"The Stroker" turning system did manage to cause quite a sensation on the downhill circuit, however.

Downhiller Terry Nails put a Stroker on his revolutionary aluminum skate car to compete at the Signal Hill Races.

His was the first streamlined skate car, and it turned many heads.

"The Signal Hill Race was initially rained out, and we were the only ones there with this streamlined skate car," remembers Fausto.

"When it was rescheduled, an additional four skate cars had been built by other competitors."

There were both good and bad stories at the Signal Hill race.

Unfortunately, Terry put his brakes on too late and crashed, but he was still able to place second.

The Stroker system had also gained much attention from other competitors, and Ermico's name started to spread.

The Stroker: one of Independent Trucks' best-selling models

The NHS/Ermico Enterprises Alliance

While The Stroker had some partial success, John Solomine went back to the drawing board and came up with the Rebound Truck.

Rebounds featured two separate kingpins for greater adjustability.

Ermico Enterprises manufactured the trucks, and they were distributed by NHS, the same company responsible for marketing Road Rider wheels and Santa Cruz Skateboards.

With this distribution agreement, the seeds of the NHS/Ermico Enterprises alliance would begin to germinate.

In the late 1970s, Northern Californian skaters John Hutson and Rick Blackhart were gaining a reputation as masters in their respective fields.

John was dominating the downhill and slalom scene, while Rick was known for his incredible vert abilities, which rivaled any pro from down south.

"Rick was the ace of Northern California," recalls Fausto Vitello.

John was riding for Santa Cruz (NHS) and winning many contests on Bennett Trucks.

Although pros like Henry Hester were riding Trackers and suggested that he do the same, John had other ideas.

"I found Trackers too stiff, and I needed the ability to turn. The Bennett Trucks were way more responsive."

"NHS was interested in developing a new truck that would combine the best design features of both Tracker and Bennett."

John began consulting with Jay Shuirman and Richard Novak of NHS to create a unique steering concept.

The idea was to build a truck that provided independent suspension for each wheel. This is similar to the type of wheel suspension you would find on an automobile.

The goal was to make each wheel move independently from the other, ensuring a very responsive truck.

Over several months, Jay refined the truck, and eventually, three sets were manufactured.

According to John, the ride was unbelievable. "They had better turning than Bennett."

At the time work was being done on the independent suspension trucks, Fausto Vitello met up with Rick Blackhart and his friend Kevin Thatcher.

They, too, were looking for an alternative to Tracker and Bennett. As Fausto recalls, Rick knew exactly what he was looking for.

"He told me, 'Fausto, you produce a truck that turns more and hangs up less, and everyone will ride it.'"

During the late 1970s, skateboarders had become more interested in vertical skating, thanks to people like Tony Alva.

Tony was instrumental in pushing the sport towards a more aggressive edge and moving skaters away from downhill, freestyle, and slalom.

This is not to say that downhill, freestyle, and slalom were completely abandoned - while vertical skaters like Rick Blackhart and Steve Olson were involved with the testing of the trucks, so too was slalom rider John Hutson.

After the fourth or fifth prototype and much deliberation, the new truck emerged. But what to call it?

An Independent Success

Oddly enough, even though the truck had nothing to do with independent suspension, it was named "The Independent."

Ermico Enterprises started to manufacture Independents in 1978. There were two models available - the 88 mm and the 109 mm.

The success of the truck was almost instantaneous.

"At the Newark contest in 1978, Bobby Valdez switched his Tracker Trucks to Independents. He did the first invert, a front side roll in, and won the contest," recalls Fausto.

Within six months, Independent Truck Company grabbed a 50 percent market share.

While the Independent truck was a big hit with skaters, it was to have an even more dramatic effect on the skateboard industry.

Tracker Trucks responded with their lighter Magnesium truck along with their plastic white Coper.

Independent shot back with the Kevin Thatcher-designed Grindmaster device.

"This was a spoof of Tracker's Coper, and yet it sold millions," notes Fausto.

Santa Cruz (NHS) enjoyed success in three ways - they had a significant share of the board, wheel, and truck market.

Tragically, Jay Shuirman died of leukemia at the age of 40 in 1979.

As one of the key developers of Independent Trucks, he left an indelible mark on the world of skateboarding.

One wonders what other things he might have been able to develop had he been given a chance.

Words by Michael Brooke | Skateboarder and Author of "The Concrete Wave: The History of Skateboarding"

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