Luella Bates: the First Female Lorry Driver

By Charis Gambon

Lorry driving was originally believed to be a male profession and in many ways is still heavily dominated by men even now in 2021. According to a British government statistics report on domestic road freight from 2019, only one per cent of lorry drivers are female. 

Lorry driving is not a profession females are traditionally encouraged to do and even in America, where lorry driving is a bigger profession, only six per cent of drivers are female.

The world’s first female lorry driver is believed to have been an American woman called Luella Bates. Luella was born on 17 October, 1897 in Wisconsin, US. She began her trucking career during World War One, when she worked for Four Wheel Drive Auto Company from 1918 to 1922. She gained her driver’s license in January 1920 and became the first female truck driver, as well as one of the earliest truck drivers as a whole.  

Luella Bates driving a Model B, four wheel drive truck

Luella Bates was the first of six female employees at the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company chosen as test and demonstration drivers, and worked as a four wheel drive truck driver. During the course of the war, the company hired 150 women who all successfully passed their course in automobiles, proving that women were capable of the same jobs as men. 

During World War One, Luella was a test driver traveling throughout the state of Wisconsin in a Model B truck. After the war, when the majority of the women working at Four Wheel Drive were let go, she remained as a demonstrator and driver. 

Luella went on tours across the US serving as tester, demonstrator, mechanic, and ambassador for the Four Wheel Drive company trucks. She attended all sorts of events, from state fairs to auto shows, to display the power and versatility of four wheel drive trucks.

Luella Bates unloading sand in a Model B four wheel drive truck

In a newspaper article from The Daily Republican on 30 June 1920, an article about Luella poses the question ‘Can a girl be as good a mechanic as a man?’. Luella argued that women could, of course, be equally good mechanics as men and argued, “Didn’t the war prove that women could step into virtually every branch of industry and successfully replace men?”

Luella believed that gender did not have anything to do with a person’s ability to carry out a job and that women proved they were perfectly capable during World War One.  She argued that time and training were what made a good driver and mechanic not gender. She said, “The other women undoubtedly would have become as good a mechanic as the men if they had remained.”

Luella is a perfect example of why women should reach for the career they desire even if it’s in a sphere heavily dominated by men. A woman can do anything she sets her mind to and will succeed if she lets nothing stand in her way. Women can learn a lot from the determination and success of Luella Bates.


Recommended Reading

‘Women in Transportation History: Luella Bates, Pioneering Truck Driver’: https://transportationhistory.org/2017/03/03/women-in-transportation-history-luella-bates-pioneering-truckdriver/

‘Luella Bates, pioneer truck driver’, The Daily Republican, 30 June 1920 – https://www.newspapers.com/clip/1261324/luella-bates-pioneer-truck-driver/

Howard W Troyer, The Four Wheel Drive Story (1954)


About the Author

Charis has a History BA from Nottingham Trent University and is starting a MA in the History of Warfare at the University of Birmingham in September 2021, where she will complete her thesis on women and warfare.

She has been interested in military history for as long as she can remember and has been raised with it prevalent as her family has a history of joining the military. She’s also interested in women’s history, particularly women breaking into male-dominated spheres, and thinks women’s history should play a more prevalent part in the history we’re taught.

Charis also runs an online educational history project called Living History Live on Facebook alongside two female historians. It came about during the first Covid-19 lockdown to ensure that history was still being taught. She also has a role on the committee for a reenactment society called The Mid Victorian Militia. 

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