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In 1853 Franz Saurer (1806–1882) from Veringenstadt, Germany established an iron foundry for household goods near the Swiss town of Sankt Gallen. Eastern Switzerland was a center for both embroidery and embroidery machine development.

The embroidery industry experienced many ups and downs due to fashion, trade policies and world wars.  Saurer diversified into petrol and diesel engines, and then trucks to reduce its exposure to this volatility. However, Saurer continued to innovate and is still a leader in schiffli embroidery machines.

From 1903 onwards Saurer concentrated on the production of commercial vehicles which soon gained a good reputation. The company ran subsidiary companies in Austria (1906–1959, in the end taken over by Steyr-Daimler-Puch), France (1910–1956, taken over by Unic), the United Kingdom (1927–1931, taken over by Armstrong Whitworth as Armstrong-Saurer), and in Germany (1915–1918, taken over by MAN).

In Italy, the Officine Meccaniche (OM) manufacturer was for many years licensee of Saurer engines and other mechanical units, which they used in their own ranges of trucks and buses. In Poland the state-owned Państwowe Zakłady Inżynieryjne produced license-built Saurer engines (powering, among others, the 7TP and 9TP tanks) and coach chassis used in the Zawrat bus.n the United States, the Saurer Motor Truck Company, headed by C.P. Coleman, had the rights to manufacture and sell heavy trucks under the Saurer brand name at its plant in Plainfield, New Jersey (which commenced operations in November 1911).

On September 23, 1911 the Saurer Motor Truck Company merged with the Mack Brothers Motor Car Company of Allentown, Pennsylvania, headed by J. M. Mack, to form the International Motor Truck Company (IMTC). IMTC would continue to make and sell trucks using the Saurer name until 1918. In 1922 IMTC would become Mack Trucks, Inc.

Saurer trucks were developed along the years into four basic ranges:

  • A-type (1918)
  • B-type (1926)
  • C-type (1934)
  • D-type (1959)

It was the B-type that established Saurer's international reputation as a builder of long-lasting trucks.

In 1929 Saurer acquired its Swiss rival, Motorwagenfabrik Berna AG of Olten, but the Berna name was allowed to continue, badging the very same Saurer models.

From 1932 on, trolleybuses were a very significant segment of Saurer production. Typically Saurer, or Berna, trolleybuses featured Brown, Boveri & Cie or Société Anonyme des Ateliers de Sécheron (SAAS) electric equipment and Carrosserie Hess bodies. Saurer trolleybuses operated in most of Central Europe countries, and still do in several of them.

In World War 2 a restructured type BT 4500 and 5 BHw of Saurer trucks were used to gas people in the Nazi Chełmno extermination camp. Extermination vans were adapted, when they went in for repair, to carry the optimum number of people who could be gassed in the time it took to drive them from Chelmno to the woods where they were disposed of in ovens. There was concern about the strain on the front axle if too many people were loaded to be gassed, but as piles of bodies were always closest to the doors there was no strain on the front axle.

In 1951 Saurer and its Italian licensee, OM, reached an agreement by which Saurer would market in Switzerland OM's light and medium-weight trucks and buses, using Saurer-OM and Berna-OM badges. This was successful and lasted until Saurer closure.

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