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Part 1: The Car Carrier Story "A Reservoir of Innovative Technologies" History

Today, car carriers are loaded and unloaded by simply driving the cars on and off. This method, now commonplace, was a revolutionary concept in 1965, when MOL introduced the Oppama Maru in Japan.


The Era of General Cargo Freighters

Before seaborne transport of automobiles by specialized carriers became common, vehicles were loaded and unloaded one by one using cranes, and transported by conventional liners that carried mainly general commodities. Loading and unloading operations with cranes required great care and took a lot of time - only 15 cars could be loaded in an hour. It was also difficult to avoid cargo damage due to accidental contact of cars and the collapse of other stacked cargo as the vessel pitched and rolled during the voyage.


Introduction of Car Bulkers

As transport of automobiles between Europe and U.S. increased, vessels with some stowage space designed for cars were launched. Those vessels at the time were called "car bulkers," and could transport bulk cargo as well. Movable car decks were installed so these ships could transport automobiles on outward voyages and bulk cargo such as grain on the homeward leg. At the time, these combined carriers were considered the epitome of transport efficiency. Automobiles were loaded and unloaded by the lift-on/lift-off (LO/LO) system, which used onboard cranes.

Development of the roll-on/roll-off (RO/RO) system made loading/unloading operations much faster and resulted in much less cargo damage than with the LO/LO system. It was a completely new idea - just drive the cars on and off the ship. In 1965, MOL launched the Oppama Maru, which was equipped with Japan's first RO/RO system loading/unloading equipment specifically for automobiles. Cars could be loaded at a rate of 100 units per hour, drastically shortening loading/unloading time and greatly reducing cargo damage.

Rampways for stowage were placed at the stern and center of the vessel. The Oppama Maru, which set the stage for today's specialized car carriers, represented a new era in automobile transport technology. The Oppama Maru reflected a new approach - designing and developing a ship for a specific mission, and meeting the challenge of future demand.

1965: Oppama Maru launched

Oppama Maru

The vessel was equipped with Japan's first RO/RO loading/unloading system specifically for automobiles.

Capacity (small passenger cars): 1,200 units.

  • The Oppama Maru featured a five-deck and six-stowage layer structure.
  • It also had an ingenious technology called a "car lifter," allowing perfectly lateral movement of cars loaded from the elevator with a system of rotating pipes. This made it quick and easy to move vehicles in the narrow space available.
  • The vessel could be used as a bulkship when the movable car decks were lifted up.
  • It had a capacity of 15,000 tons of wheat or other grain.
  • It was equipped with cranes for loading/unloading bulk cargo.


Age of PCCs

The mid-1960s brought the launch of pure car carriers (PCCs), which transported automobiles only on both outbound and inbound voyages. Loading/unloading relied on the RO/RO system introduced on the Oppama Maru. PCCs do not have cranes because they are designed to transport only automobiles.

In the 1970s, the main demand for automobile transport was handling exports from Japan, particularly small passenger cars. The theme of PCC design was to carry as many small passenger cars as possible. So designers minimized the height of the car decks, allowing more decks and increasing capacity. Until the mid-1980s, PCCs were used mainly to transport small passenger cars, and most car decks had very low ceiling heights of 1.65m.

The first PCCs could accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 small passenger cars. Since then, as exports of Japanese cars continued to expand, PCCs grew larger,
carrying 4,000 units, 5,000 units, and 6,000 units. The ships also became faster to improve their turnover rate and further boost efficiency.

1971: PCC Canada Maru launched

Canada Maru

Capacity: 2,000 units (small passenger cars)

  • This was MOL's first PCC. The cargo was loaded at a rate of about 250 units per hour.
  • There were nine decks, almost like a multi-story parking garage. We struggled with this innovative form to reinforce its structure, particularly the contact points between decks and bulkheads.

1982: PCC Clover Ace launched

Clover Ace

Capacity (small passenger cars): 4,518 units.

  • The Clover Ace had 12 decks. The fourth and sixth decks were liftable, so the ceiling height could be adjusted to accommodate all kinds of vehicles.

1988: PCC Eternal Ace l launched

Eternal Ace

Capacity (small passenger cars): 6,500 units.

  • This was the world's largest car carrier at the time.
  • It had 14 car decks.
  • Car decks were placed even above the lay-up deck on the bow to maximize capacity.
  • The Eternal Ace marked the origin of today's advanced car carriers.


The First PCTC

By the end of the 1970s, pure car and truck carriers (PCTCs) were introduced to transport tall and heavyweight cargo such as trucks, buses, construction machinery, and agricultural equipment, which had become mainstream. Most of the car carriers constructed since the mid-1980s were PCTCs. This is because demand for transport of tall and heavyweight cargo increased, while car exports from Japan (particularly small passenger cars) decreased as automakers localized production.

Standard PCTC features include liftable decks that can be raised or lowered to adjust deck height, and reinforced decks and rampways. Transport was varied by mixed loading of taller and heavyweight cargo as well as small passenger cars only. This allowed us to offer more flexible services.

1997: PCTC Polaris Ace launched

Polaris Ace

Capacity (small passenger cars): 4,100 units

  • About 70% of the stowage space can accommodate tall and heavyweight cargo, and the rampway capacity is 80 tons to allow loading of heavy construction machinery.
  • It is a mid-size car carrier, which can serve on most routes such as Latin America, Australia, and the Middle East.