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14 Things You Might Not Know About U-Haul

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If you’ve ever pulled up housing roots, you’ve probably realized that your accumulated possessions are more than enough to fill up a 26-foot-long rental truck. That’s good news for U-Haul, a company with 70 years invested in offering a fleet of vehicles to transport everything from furniture to cat stowaways. (More on that later.)

If helping entire households transplant themselves sounds like a mammoth undertaking, it is: The family-owned and operated company has seen its share of growing pains over the years. Check out some facts on corporate fistfights, a CEO fond of tossing money out the window, and which of their moving supplies are safe to eat.

1. THE COMPANY COMPARED ITS TRUCKS TO COVERED WAGONS.

When Leonard "Sam" Shoen and his wife wanted to move from Los Angeles to Portland in 1945, they found that no one was willing to rent them a one-way trailer. Shoen, who had just been discharged from the Navy, saw a need to enable families in a post-World War II economy to relocate on their own. He began U-Haul that same year, with the company comparing the trucks to the covered wagons of the early frontier. Customers could rent the trailers for $2 per day—a small price to enable what Leonard's son Joe would later call a “better life.”

2. THE ORANGE COLOR SCHEME IS A SAFETY THING.

Originally, Shoen had painted his trailers black. That proved to be a problem when he made a turn at a four-way intersection and got hit by an oncoming vehicle because—according to the other driver—he couldn’t see Shoen. The U-Haul owner immediately set about copying the bright orange design he had seen on highway barricades so his fleet would be visible to other drivers on the road. The distinctive paint job also made the vehicles double as portable billboards for the company.

3. THEY TRUSTED THEIR TRAILERS TO COMPLETE STRANGERS.

Before U-Haul was able to establish a footprint in every major city across America, their strategy was to entice local business owners to become “agents” for the company by dropping off rented trailers at motor vehicle service stations. Customers would drive to their destination, find a station, and leave the trailer (trucks weren’t introduced until 1959) along with a packet of information about becoming an official dealer. Though it risked losing their haulers to disreputable owners, the tactic paid off: By 1954, the company had over 1000 locations.

4. THEY USED TO RENT VHS TAPES.

The oil crisis of the 1970s closed many service stations, a fixture of the company’s business. Opening self-contained rental facilities enabled U-Haul to stamp their familiar orange brand across a variety of rentals: RVs, jet skis, lawn mowers, paint sprayers, and even party supplies were among their offerings in the 1980s. The most dramatic off-message business: VHS tapes. U-Haul opened seven locations in Michigan in 1985 that rented movies [PDF]. (It operated under the name Haullywood Video Rentals.) Customers could also make use of a free VCR rental that was customized with the familiar orange chassis. Lack of inventory and competition from the thousands of video stores that popped up that decade suffocated their business, though, and the company soon returned to their core hauling services.

5. THE FAMILY GOT INTO A NASTY FEUD.

Shoen’s 12 sons and daughters often had disparate ideas for the direction of the company. In 1979, the founder made son Sam Shoen CEO, leading Sam’s brothers, Joe and Mark, to quit. Hostilities boiled over to the point that, according to Bloomberg, Leonard once accused the duo of being involved in a plot to murder Sam’s wife, Eva, in 1990. (She was shot and killed during an attempted robbery.) Mark filed a defamation suit that was thrown out of court due to his status as a public figure. According to the Associated Press, a man named Frank Marquis confessed to the murder during his 1994 trial. His arrest grew out of a tip that came in after a segment on the crime aired on Unsolved Mysteries.  

6. A STOCKHOLDERS' MEETING ERUPTED INTO A BRAWL.

The Shoens’ familial strife came to a head in 1989, when many company principals were in attendance for a shareholders' meeting in Reno, Nevada. According to The Los Angeles Times, Mark Shoen got into a verbal altercation with brothers Sam and Michael. Tempers grew so heated that Michael was “pummeled” by Mark and Joe. The senior Shoen, who had been forced into retirement during the power scuffle in 1986, observed of his business that he had “created a monster.”  

7. THE FOUNDER LIKED TO TOSS MONEY OUT OF WINDOWS.

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Though the company seemed relatively calm under his watch, Leonard Shoen was far from being a demure chairman. To demonstrate the ease with which a corporation could waste money, Shoen arranged for a visual by appearing in front of employees during a meeting in 1970 and tossing $1000 out of the window. Anyone who found the action objectionable was forced to watch it anyway: Shoen had placed an armed guard at the door.

8. THEY ONCE BANNED FORD EXPLORERS.

Besieged by complaints of turnovers and vehicular accidents owing to improper loading precautions on their trailers, U-Haul took the unusual step of refusing to rent trailers to anyone intending to attach one to a Ford Explorer beginning in 2003. According to a 2007 Los Angeles Times feature, the company’s reasoning was that Explorer SUVs were frequently the target of safety litigation, inviting greater potential for U-Haul to become involved in a lawsuit. (Defective tires on 1998 Explorer models resulted in several fatalities.)

9. THE CEO GAVE OUT HIS PERSONAL PHONE NUMBER FOR ANYONE TO USE.

When news media, including The Los Angeles Times, reported on a series of turnover accidents involving U-Haul fleet vehicles in 2007, current CEO Edward “Joe” Shoen didn’t hide behind a corporate-speak press release: He appeared on Inside Edition to explain that the accidents were likely due to improper loading. If any customer had questions about the vehicles or the company, he said, they could phone him directly. He kept his promise: Shoen has answered the phone on Mother’s Day, at home, and at 5:45 a.m. Most days he’ll get between three and 10 calls. “Sometimes, though, someone may post something angry on the Internet with my phone number, and then I’ll get 100 calls in one day,” he said in 2013.

10. CATS LIKE TO HITCH RIDES IN THE VEHICLES ...

Marco Varisco, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Several felines have been discovered among boxed-up belongings in U-Haul vehicles. One stray used a truck as a delivery room, giving birth to a kitten as a family drove from Florida to Utah; a cat missing for nearly two years was found across the country, tucked away in a U-Haul, and returned to its owner thanks to a microchip. The cat, Kevin, was an orange tabby.

11. ... AND SO DO PYTHONS.

While litters of kittens are adorable discoveries, monster reptiles are significantly less charming. An Oregon customer drove a U-Haul truck for an entire day without realizing a 3-foot-long ball python had been curled up in the passenger-side leg space right next to him. No one is entirely sure how the snake got in the cab.

12. MARRIAGES HAVE BEEN PROPOSED INSIDE OF THEM.

Indiana resident Mark Nolt hatched a unique plan to propose marriage to his girlfriend, Kim Shannon, in 1992. Nolt took her to a drive-in where he and a friend had spent the afternoon preparing a truck to look like a cozy dining area with a table, chairs, and flowers. The friend, Kyle, called it “exquisitely tacky,” but it apparently had charm: Kim said yes.

13. THE SPACE ABOVE THE CAB IS CALLED “MOM’S ATTIC.”

Though the origin of the name remains a mystery, the company has a specific label for the small storage space that appears above the driver’s cab on its trucks and vans: Mom’s Attic. The area is usually reserved for fragile items that may not survive a trip in the body of the vehicle. U-Haul claims items stored here are as stable as they would be in the cab itself.  

14. THEIR PACKING PEANUTS ARE EDIBLE.  

Citing concerns over the lack of biodegradability of conventional Styrofoam packing peanuts, U-Haul opted for a more eco-friendly alternative in 1993. Their in-house peanuts are made of corn and potato starch that totally dissolve in water, eliminating both environmental harm and the potential for a child or pet to harm themselves via ingestion. U-Haul staffers have even eaten the peanuts to demonstrate their virtues—though we wouldn’t recommend it.

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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The iMac Was Almost Called the MacMan
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After breaking out with its Macintosh line of personal computers in the 1980s, Apple was in a slump. Sales had flagged as Microsoft's Windows operating system made waves. In 1998, the company was set to unveil a product that it hoped would reinvigorate its brand.

And they almost blew it.

According to Ken Segall, the advertising genius behind their "Think Different" campaign, Apple founder Steve Jobs was expecting the iMac to reverse the company's ailing fortunes. Where older Macs had been boxy, beige, and bland, the iMac came in an assortment of colors and had a transparent chassis that showed off its circuitry. The problem, as Segall writes in his new book, Insanely Simple, was that Jobs didn't want to call it the iMac. He wanted to call it the MacMan.

"While that frightening name is banging around in your head, I'd like you to think for a moment about the art of product naming," Segall writes. "Because of all the things in this world that cry out for simplicity, product naming probably contains the most glaring examples of right and wrong. From some companies, you see names like 'iPhone.' From others you see names like ‘Casio G'zOne Commando' or the ‘Sony DVP SR200P/B' DVD player."

According to Segall, Jobs liked the fact that MacMan was slightly reminiscent of Sony's Walkman branding concept for its line of cassette players. (Later, Sony had a Discman, Pressman, and Talkman.) But Segall, who named products for a living, feared the name would take away from Apple's identity as being original. It was also gender-biased, and alienating an entire demographic of consumers was never a good thing.

Instead, Segall suggested "iMac," with the "i" for internet, because the unit was designed to connect easily to the web. Jobs "hated" the idea, along with other suggestions, even though Segall felt the iMac could provide a foundation to name other devices, just as Sony's Walkman had. Segall kept suggesting it, and Jobs eventually had it printed on a prototype model to see how it would look. After encouragement from his staff, he dropped MacMan. With this key contribution, Segall made sure no one would be lining up to buy a PhoneMan 10 years later. 

[h/t FastCoDesign]

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