This company's founder, August Charles Fruehauf (1868–1930), was born in Fraser, Michigan, the son of Charles and Sophia Fruehauf. He began his career as a Detroit-area blacksmith and carriage builder. In 1914, a local businessman named Frederic M. Sibley asked Fruehauf to build a trailer which could be towed behind a Ford Model T and transport a boat to upper Michigan. Fruehauf successfully built the device, and Sibley requested he build additional trailers for use on his lumber yard. Fruehauf would call them "semi-trailers", and his product proved popular. In 1918, he incorporated his business as the Fruehauf Trailer Company.
The semi-trailers soon demonstrated their practicality and orders came in from competing lumber dealers and any manufacturer who wanted to expand their customer base. Closed van trailers were designed and put into service. Industries like dairy and fuel oil were revolutionized with this "go-anywhere" type of transportation. Capitalizing on August Fruehauf's slogan, "a horse can pull more than it can carry, so can a truck", the company continued to grow.
Fruehauf developed semi-trailers for use in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. Developing over 150 patents for military products alone, these were eventually introduced into commercial use. Among them were early versions of the shipping container used on some U.S. railroads and, after 1956, on the ships of Pan-Atlantic Steamship Company, the ship line controlled by container pioneer Malcom McLean and later known as Sea-Land. Fruehauf contributed to the creation of the American Trucking Association and were instrumental in the creation of the interstate highway system as advisors to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Fruehauf purchased competing companies to acquire distribution, new technology or geographic advantages. Warner-Fruehauf in Baltimore, Hobbs from Texas, and Strick in the Midwest. On February 28, 1947, the Fruehauf Corporation purchased the Carter Manufacturing Company. Carter was started in 1927 and based in Memphis, Tennessee, with another location in Birmingham, Alabama. The Carter Manufacturing Company was involved in the manufacturing of trailers from the Carter plant. As with Warner-Fruehauf in Baltimore, all trailers made out of the Memphis and Birmingham plants were called Fruehauf-Carter.
During the U.S. guided missile boom in the mid 20th century, Fruehauf developed and manufactured missile vehicles, ground-based and submarine-based missile launchers, transporters/erectors, shipping containers, ground handling equipment, equipment shelters, and other components for the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force. This included systems for the Atlas, Bomarc, Corporal, Falcon, Genie, Hawk, Matador, Nike Ajax & Nike Hercules, Jupiter, Polaris, Redstone, Regulus I & II, Sergeant, Thor, and Titan missiles. To meet increasing defense contract work, the hub of the company's ground handling/ground support equipment (GHE/GSE) production was placed at its plant in Delphos, Ohio. The company also provided the Army with 5,000-US-gallon fuel tank semi-trailers and 12-ton semi-trailers. At its plant in Fullerton, California (previously owned by Hanson Bros.) it manufactured 15-ton amphibious lighters and reusable metal shipping boxes for military purposes. Both Detroit and Fullerton branches of the company's Military Products Division took part in the U.S. space program, producing among the other things Gemini practice recovery spacecraft.
In 1959, the company, Roy Fruehauf, Teamsters Union President Dave Beck, and others were indicted on charges that the company had illegally lent $200,000 to Beck in 1954. The Teamsters had previously lent $1.5 million to Roy Fruehauf to finance a proxy fight against his elder brother, Harvey, and Roy Fruehauf was alleged to have returned the favor by making the loan to Beck. As the Teamsters represented some Fruehauf employees, the loan was alleged to be an illegal gift or bribe, in violation of the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the indictment in 1961, but the case was subsequently dismissed.
Following the death of August's sons, Harvey, Harry and Roy Fruehauf, the Fruehauf family was no longer in charge by around 1965. Resting on the laurels of the preceding decades, management would not make the tough and difficult personal sacrifices needed to withstand economic challenges. While the company eventually diversified and expanded its operations, financial issues resulted in the sell-off of company divisions in 1989. The truck trailer unit continued operation as Fruehauf Trailer Corporation.
The company declared bankruptcy on October 7, 1996. An axle plant in Ohio was sold to Holland Hitch Company on February 18, 1997, and Fruehauf's United States manufacturing and sales business was sold to Wabash National on March 17, 1997. Prior to the bankruptcy, the Bellinger Shipyard owned by Fruehauf in Jacksonville, Florida, was sold to M. D. Moody & Sons, Inc. for $1.9 million in 1995 and then the Jacksonville Shipyard was sold to developers in 2014. Companies in France, Mexico, New Zealand and Japan continued to operate under the Fruehauf name.
Fruehauf France's 65% shares were sold to the biggest Polish trailer company Wielton.