While commonplace today, RoRo vessels were not always the method of choice for shipping cars by sea. Prior to the 1950s cars were shipped in ordinary cargo liners, where they were stowed more or less at random on top of the other cargo and were often loaded onto ships by crane using special slings, the so-called Lift-on/Lift-off (LoLo) method. But as the decade came to an end, a more novel way to load vehicles was put into practice.
Curiously enough, the catalyst for this sea change in shipping was both necessity and a Swedish visionary named Captain Bengt Törnqvist. A captain on a ship engaged in taking American cars through the Great Lakes, Törnqvist knew there had to be a more efficient way to do his job, and he conceived specially built car-carrying vessels. Törnqvist brought his idea to several Swedish shipowners, none of whom felt his concept had any merit. And then in 1953 he met Olof Wallenius.
Twenty years earlier Mr. Wallenius, an enterprising entrepreneur, had set up his own shipping company that was thriving. After hearing the captain’s proposal to build special vessels for car transport, Wallenius saw the potential but wisely decided to test the Roll-on/Roll-off (RoRo) concept. He requested that a tanker he had ordered, the Jakara, be converted into a bulk carrier and be equipped with tailor-made car decks that could be converted on return trips to carry grain, coal or other bulk cargo.
The trials proved successful, so by 1955 Wallenius Lines had taken delivery of its first two specially built car carriers, the Rigoletto and the Traviata. The locks on the St Lawrence Seaway determined their dimensions, and while cars were first loaded onto their decks by LoLo, the Rigoletto and Traviata soon became the “guinea pigs” for the revolutionary idea of driving the cars onto the vessels via sideports. This was quicker and also minimised the risk of damage to the cars while they were taken on and off the ships.
The timing was perfect for Wallenius, as the following year his company signed a five-year contract with the latest American obsession: the Volkswagen. Up until then, cars moved primarily in only one direction - from North America to Europe. The contract comprised the entire export of Volkswagen cars to the US, and when first signed it represented one of the biggest deals ever made in Sweden. By the 1960s, Wallenius had no fewer than 400 departures each year from Europe to the US.
Wallenius Lines’ first vessel with a bow door, the Aniara, was delivered in 1963 as part of a series of vessels intended for trade in the North Sea and the Baltic. In the Aida series, loading was done via the stern, which proved to offer more efficient cargo handling.
Bengt Lundqvist, Technical Director at Wallenius Shipping during the 1960s, said that one of the most important decisions Olof Wallenius ever made was when he switched the company to RoRo. Seven RoRo vessels were built between 1964 and 1967, all of which featured sideports and shipborne ramps to simplify process of getting the drivable units onto the vessels. With their increased capacity and proven loading and unloading process, they contributed significantly to the development of the way cars and equipment are shipped today.