How Are Cars Transported to Dealers?

Cagri Sarigoz Cagri Sarigoz · Updated March 8, 2023

Cars parked on a dealer's parking lot

Millions of cars are shipped every year throughout the U.S. In 2020, the auto industry sold approximately 14.5 million light vehicle units – 3.4 million cars and more than 11 million light trucks. In 2020 there were 18,260 dealers across the U.S. selling these light vehicles. These dealers create 1.9 million jobs across the whole country. Fun fact: in 2019, the Idaho-based Dave Smith Motors was the leading car dealer in the U.S. based on the number of vehicles sold, selling almost 9,000 new and 7,700 used cars. 

But how do the cars get transported from the factory to the dealers themselves? This article will provide you with a few answers to that question. Essential to this answer is that there are many modes of transportation within this vivid industry, transporting heavy items from all over the world to the U.S.

Cars Getting Shipped by Sea

One standard model of vehicle transport for the car industry is via sea. It’s the primary mode of transportation of international trades, whenever the cars have to be transported overseas. While some planes also offer car transport, it stays limited to singular vehicles, while vessels can haul a huge load. Specialized car carriers are so-called RoRo ships. RoRo stands for ‘roll on, roll off’ and refers to the way cars can be driven on and off the boat. These carriers are often divided between Pure Car Carriers (PCC) and Pure Car and Truck Carriers (PCTC). 

Before the industry developed these vessels, cars were shipped with conventional cargo ships. These vessels were loaded and unloaded by crane, which is neither safe for the vehicle nor for the other shipments onboard the vessel. The heightened demand and the car industry’s rise demanded safer and specialized transport options. In the early 1950s, Wallenius designed the first specialized car vessels with technologies developing since then. The now-standard RoRo method was first introduced in 1963.

These specialized ocean vessels can transport up to 8500 cars – This is the capacity of the biggest Pure Car and Truck Carrier called Höegh Target, which can load cargo weighing up to 375 tonnes. While this ship is an outstanding example, most car vessels can transport between 4,000 and 5,000 vehicles. There are five docks in the U.S. where these vehicles can arrive and get unloaded for further transport.

Cars Getting Shipped by Rail

Statistics show that over 70% of all the cars traded in the U.S. travel at least a part of their journey via rail since rail shipping is the most cost-efficient transport method for long routes. Sometimes the cars are loaded directly on car racks at the factory; other times, vehicles get transported by truck to the rail yard.

So-called auto racks or auto carriers are usually divided between bi-level (two decks) and tri-level (three decks). Two-deck auto carriers are used for larger vehicles, like trucks, large SUVs, or minivans. They usually hold 8-10 cars. The three-deck variant is generally used for smaller vehicles and has 15 cars, five on each level. A train specialized for moving vehicles can carry up to 800 cars.

The vehicles are usually loaded and unloaded via so-called buck loaders. These are mobile ramps that can be raised to the height of each deck. Afterward, the cars can be driven on and off the auto racks and secured after arriving in their traveling position to guarantee damage-free travel. 

More classic or custom vehicles are often transported in enclosed trailers since they protect precious cars from weather circumstances, like solid sun or rain, damaging the vehicle. Under these circumstances, fewer cars can be transported.

Cars Getting Shipped by Truck

The downside of rail transport is a lack of flexibility regarding the destination location. Almost every new vehicle will at some point travel by truck from the factory to the dealers. Transportation companies like CitizenShipper work with a vast network of drivers, making transports to every small town dealer in the U.S. possible. 

Modern car-carrying trailers can carry up to 12 vehicles. The tractor can support four cars, and eight can be carried by the double-deck trailer. The ramps of the trailer can be lowered and raised to guarantee a smooth loading of the truck. Experienced drivers can manage this loading process within 90 minutes. 

By the way: While many drivers are fighting the fear behind an open-trailer truck that a vehicle could fall onto the highway, these incidents are officially extremely rare since each car is secured at four points through chains and straps.

Also, truck transport offers an enclosed transport option. While these trucks are usually the same size as the previously mentioned open trailers, close trailers can just transport 7-8 cars due to the restrictions surrounding the walls. Therefore, enclosed truck car transportations are often more expensive. 


There are many ways to transport cars to a dealer, each with pros and cons.  The technologies around car transportation have developed a lot in the last decades, making vessels, trucks, and trains more efficient in the capacity of cars they can carry. Which one fits an individual dealer the best depends highly on the particular circumstances of the sale. Often a vehicle goes through all of these transportation methods throughout its ways from the factory to the dealer and finally, to its new home.