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R. Allender & Co.
R. Allender & Company, Chevrolet El Morocco, 1956-1957; Detroit, Michigan
 
Associated Builders
 
     

Allender was not a coachbuilder in the traditional sense, but rather a customizer as the 1956-1957 El Moroccos were face-lifted Tri-Five Chevrolets with bone stock drivetrains and interiors whose bodywork was restyled to resemble the 1955-1957 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, Seville and Brougham. Although the cars were only produced in limited numbers, the handful that survive have attained a legendary status amongst Chevrolet collectors and continue to be the most valuable Tri-Five Chevrolets. 

R. Allender & Company was owned by Reuben Allender, (1897- ?) a wealthy Canadian who made a fortune by selling war-surplus textiles in Detroit. Ruby – as he preferred to be called - was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1897 and from an early age developed a knack for ‘horsetrading’. In a 1990 interview with author Jerry Heasley, his daughter Gloria recalled: 

"Ruby bought a pair of scissors, a tiny pair that he always kept in his vest pocket. And, he would go from place to place, looking at materials that different people or companies had, and he would cut off a little sample, then go sell it, and come back and buy the stock. He was always with that little pair of scissors in his pocket, and it was kind of a symbol to him."

Following a move to Detroit in 1924, Allender ventured into surplus automotive textiles (seat covers, headliners, rubber mats and carpeting) and soon established an office on Verner Highway in downtown Detroit. Although the country was in the midst of the Depression, business must have been good for Allender as he built a custom home in Detroit’s exclusive Sherwood Forest subdivision (19379 Warrington Dr.) in 1932.

Following the end of World War II, R. Allender & Co. became heavily involved in the purchase of surplus Army textiles which could be purchased for pennies on the dollar. The firm owned so much material that they were forced to relocate to a giant warehouse at 1966 E. Forest St. Ruby’s son Joe recalled an incident where Allender & Co. resold surplus WWII parachutes back to the Army at a large profit, and the hoopla that followed which culminated in his traveling to Washington to give testimony before a committee investigating military procurement contracts.

Steve Allender, Ruby’s grandson, recalled another incident in an interview with Jerry Heasley that appeared in the October, 1990 issue of Special Interest Autos:

“One day, a solicitor came to Ruby's office selling shoe laces at 25 cents per pair. One of the office workers sent him away, but the room was all glass windows, and Ruby caught a glimpse of a man leaving. Busy on the phone, Ruby nonetheless rushed out the door and beckoned the man come back, then bought some shoe laces, and took the surprised fellow upstairs to present him with the problem of what to do with tons of surplus (nylon cord) stock from one of the big tire com­panies. Ruby believed in the worth and ingenuity of every man, which was reinforced when the shoe lace salesman advanced the idea of re­claiming the material as fishing line, if it could be so separated. Ruby liked the idea and came up with a machine to process the material, eventually selling fish­ing line by mail order."

During the 1950s Allender & Co. began to buy surplus automotive trim, hardware and weather-stripping and bought or leased space at a number of downtown Detroit facilities, one of which was the former Alden Park Manor garage on Van Dyke St­., near E Jefferson Ave., to store it. 

Reuben Allender was a longtime Cadillac owner who envisioned a smaller, easier to maneuver Cadillac that his grandchildren could learn to drive with. He purchased a new Eldorado Biarritz convertible in 1955 and reckoned that with some additional bodywork, the new 1955 Chevrolet could be re-styled to resemble the Eldorado. The 'El Morocco' was one of Manhattan's most popular night spots during the 50s, and only a couple of letters needed to be replaced to create ‘El Morocco’ out of ‘El Dorado’.

Although some articles have stated otherwise, author Jerry Heasley's 1990 SIA article states that Robert Thompson, an experienced tool & die maker who started working for Allender in 1955, was not only in charge of the project, but also designed and engineered both editions of the El Morocco.

Work on the vehicle commenced in late 1955 and the decision was made early on to create the vehicle’s tailfins out of fiberglass. Another Detroit firm, Creative Industries, was hired to create the molds for the project and Cyril Olbrich, an experienced fiberglass fabricator, was hired to manufacture and install the car’s unique fiberglass components. Olbrich was a 28-year-old engineer who had previously worked on some fiberglass projects in connection with Creative Industries and came highly recommended. 

The 1956 prototype closely resembled Allender’s Biarritz from the rear, and $40,000 was budgeted for the project which commenced on the first two floors of the old Alden Park Manor garage (located on Van Dyke near the intersection of E. Jefferson Ave.). Thomp­son fabricated the vehicle’s unique body-side moldings and located many of the needed components in R. Allender Co.’s own warehouses. The few metal parts that couldn’t be found were fabricated by Wettlaufer Engineering Corp., a Detroit-based automobile body and trim supplier that was owned by the Pioneer Engineering Mfg. Co. of Warren, Michigan.

Donor cars were purchased from Detroit’s Don McCoullagh Chevrolet at $50 over cost, and Allender used off-the-shelf parts wherever possible. The 1956 El Morocco included a Kaiser-Frazer horn button for its hood medallion, ’55 Willys dash panels for the door top saddle moldings and '55-'56 Dodge Coronet taillights mounted side-by-side above faux exhaust ports that resembled those used on the real Biarritz. One of the surviving 1956 convertibles does not use the ports seen on the prototype as it has genuine chrome exhaust tips exiting underneath the bumper - as to whether that was an option, production change or restoration error is unknown. The front bumpers included fiberglass reinforced ‘Dagmars’ made from reversed ’37 Dodge headlight shells and the rear fins were edged with trim supposedly sourced from a 1955 Ford.

The tops of the Bel-Air’s rear fenders were sawn off and the distinctive fiberglass tailfins bolted in place and blended into the rear quarters with epoxy resin. Plexiglas tailfin extensions were fitted on top of the Chevrolet hood ornament to create a mascot reminiscent of the targeted vehicle. The body-side moldings were specific to the El Morocco and bisected the Willys saddle moldings at the leading edge of the rear quarters. The block lettering of the chrome ‘El Morocco’ badge was virtually identical to that found on the real thing, save for the slightly different spellings. 

In the September 1956 issue of Motor Trend, staff writer Don MacDonald remarked:

"There should be ready acceptance. The public is al­ready brainwashed into the belief that Cadillac's, and particularly El­dorado's, fins represent the epitome of motordom. Unfortunately, many be­lievers can't afford the real thing; El­dorado sales do not reflect their true popularity. We can't help but agree with Allender that a Chevrolet-based miniature at $3250 complete. . . should be a hot seller."

Many of the 1956 El Moroccos came equipped with a continental kit which brought the price up to $3400, roughly $1,000 more than a comparably equipped Bel-Air. The unique wheel covers closely resembled Cadillac’s Sabre-Spoke wheels and were sourced from the Sid Sykes Co. a large Detroit-based manufacturer’s representative. Identical wheel covers can be found in the 1956-57 J.C. Whitney catalog and it’s likely Sykes Co. offered the wheel covers to other outlets as well.

In the fall of 1957, Allender requested Thompson to design and engineer a totally redesigned El Morocco ‘kit’ for the new 1957 Chevrolet that resembled the just-introduced 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham. All of the 1956 El Moroccos were built using Bel-Air donors, but for 1957 the two- and four-door hardtops were built using the less expensive Chevrolet Two-Ten. The convertible was only available in the Bel-Air line so that model continued to be used on the 1957 convertible.

Meanwhile, Olbrich had become frustrated with the admittedly poor working conditions (eg: power for the 2nd floor workshop was supplied by a single extension cord plugged into an outlet on the first floor) and quit just as the 1957 El Morocco was being planned. At that time, experienced fiberglass fabricators were few and far between, and he was ultimately hired by B.R. (Robert) "Woody" Woodill, a Downey, California Dodge/Willys dealer who distributed the limited production fiberglass-bodied Woodill Wildfire kit cars from 1952-1956. 

Robert Thompson decided to forego the troublesome fiberglass fin extensions and build the entire vehicle from steel. The tail fins and integrated rear bumpers and roll pan were furnished by Wettlaufer Engineering, who had built some of the trim for the 1956 edition.

The L-shaped lower bodyside moldings, chrome plated lower rear-quarters and unusual stepped rear tailfins of the 1957 El Morocco were lifted directly from the Pininfarina-built Eldorado Brougham. When viewed from the rear, the 1957 El Morocco sedans could easily mistaken for the $13,000 coachbuilt Cadillac, at least from a distance.

In 1980, Collectible Automobile’s Jerry Heasley interviewed Bill Barger, one of the craftsmen who performed the El Morocco transformation inside Allender’s shop. Barger was what was known in the business as a bump man, one of the bodybuilders skilled in the art of working with steel and lead. As was the practice at the time, most body craftsmen and painters were paid by the job, not by the hour. The men worked in teams, supervised by a foreman who received a set amount per operation. Depending on the time constraints or the complexity of the work, it was up to the foreman to hire additional staff to work underneath him if the job required it.

Barger recalled that donor car’s interiors and exterior hardware were removed, then set aside for reuse or sale to local collision shops. Once stripped, the cars were moved upstairs to the second floor where Barger would start grinding off the paint where the car’s numerous holes were going to be filled-in.

The holes left by the 1957’s rocket hood spears were filled in by scrap steel, then filled with lead and filed smooth. Smaller holes on the front fenders and body sides required only a bit of lead filler, then work commenced on welding on the steel rear tail-fin extensions. The welds were ground down, and the seams built up with lead, until the panels looked like they came out of Cadillac’s stamping plant. The replacement rear roll pans were now welded to the car, and the car readied for paint which was applied in a makeshift paint booth that was also located on the second floor. Once dry, the cars were returned to the first floor and the cars interior was replaced and the El Morocco kit installed.

For 1957 that included an Eldorado-style honeycomb stainless-steel grill, the front bumper with relocated turn signals, chrome-plated brass lower rear quarter panels and ribbed rear license plate surround and bumper panels which included dual rear taillights. Other items included the L-shaped side moldings with integral faux air scoops and custom-built bi-lateral combination rear bumpers and exhaust ports which included ‘Dagmars’ taken from the front end of a 1954 Mercury.

The fins included small red taillight lenses from a 1956 Plymouth and edge moldings that looked as if it they were taken directly from a real Brougham. The same chrome block ‘El Morocco’ badges that appeared on the 1956 models returned on the 1957s, however it’s hood ornament did not, it was decided to eliminate it altogether. 1957 owners could equip their cars with leftover wheel covers from the 1956 model or new triple-spoked models introduced that year.

Production numbers vary depending on the source, but the most often quoted total for 1956 is twenty - two hardtop coupes and eighteen convertibles, however Robert Thompson, the car’s designer and chief engineer believes the actual number is lower. For 1957 the total is estimated at no more than 16. The generally accepted numbers are two hardtop coupes, ten 4-door hardtop sedans and two convertibles.

Allender had hoped lower prices would spur more sales, so the prices were kept in line with the 1956 models, the convertible sold for $2950 and the two and four-door hardtops priced at $2750 and $2800 respectively. However, Chevrolet increase the prices on their 1957 models, so the $800 markup on the 1956 versions dropped to well under $600 on the 1957 version - and Allender had to spend the bulk of that on the conversion process.   

Not surprisingly the project was scrapped, despite the fact that Allender had hoped to bring out a 1958 version. The firm never had an outlet for distributing the vehicles, the El Morocco was only available directly from Allender’s 1966 E. Forest St. Office, and the subject of warranty work was noticeably absent from the firm’s press releases and advertisements. 

Initially Allender had hoped to interest a few Chevrolet dealers in handling the car, but any experienced dealer could tell you that if somebody had $3000 cash to spend on a fake Cadillac (I doubt that Allender offered any factory financing), it wouldn’t be too difficult to come up with another thousand or two to buy a real one. Even Cadillac’s top of the line Seville and Biarrtiz could be purchased used for prices close to that of a new El Morocco. Aside from the economics, another possible contributing factor was that the totally redesigned 1958 Chevrolets looked nothing like 1955-57 Cadillacs that Allender drove and enjoyed. 

Of the original thirty El Moroccos produced, only a handful are known to exist today, one 1956 convertible and six 1957s, two 4-door sedans, two 2-door sedans and two convertibles. Allender wouldn’t be pleased to know that his ‘Baby Cadillac’ is either ignored or chastised by Cadillac collectors today. However, the car is highly regarded in the Tri-Five Chevrolet community and what few cars remain are considered more valuable than the Cadillacs they tried to emulate.

Three 1957 El Moroccos – one two-door, one four-door and one convertible - are on public display at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater in Branson, Missouri. The cars are part of what’s advertised as the ‘world’s largest collection of 1957 automobiles’ and can be seen for a small donation on the facility’s ground floor. 

In the state of Michigan, Allender managed to get the car’s registered as El Moroccos, although the legal procedure he followed, and perhaps more interestingly how it got approved, remains a mystery. The car has also been the subject of a number of erroneous articles that claimed the vehicles were sold by Chevrolet dealers with a full warranty and that the project was ‘approved by General Motors’. Another oft-repeated ‘rumor’ surrounds Cadillac’s getting wind of the project and threatening Allender with legal action fit the project wasn’t canceled. No evidence exists to support any of the above claims, however it’s likely that a few people at General Motors were aware of the vehicle as evidenced by the two following ‘stories’. 

The first GM-related story appears in an article written by Jerry Heasley in the October, 1990 issue of Special Interest Auto:

“In the winter of 1956 two men strode into the office of R. Allender & Company. They wanted to see the new El Morocco. El Morocco? Yes, they'd seen Allender's creation in an article in the paper, and now wanted a real look, and apparently, that was all. Satisfied, they quietly exited the build­ing. A couple of days later, Reuben Allender raised his eyebrows on recognizing the face of one of the men from a wed­ding announcement in the paper. He was John Z. DeLorean.

“Although DeLorean's visit was no in­spection, what he would have been in­trigued to discover was the title to one of these specialty cars. Through ‘fina­gling,’ that first '56 series-produced car was titled as an El Morocco, not a Chevrolet.”

Another GM-related story is told by former Motor Trend editor Joe Wherry in an August 1986 article in Special Interest Autos:

“In early September 1956, shortly before moving from Connecticut to take over as MT's Detroit editor, we attended Chevy's 1957-model press preview in the Motor City. There, a handful of us magazine types were all ears as a local newspaper reporter related an inci­dent concerning the El Morocco. Also listening in, unbeknownst to us, was the much-liked Edward N. Cole, then Chevy general manager and a future GM president.

“Said reporter told us he had a neighbor who knew a policeman who had ‘nailed’ a speeder on Detroit's John Lodge Freeway a few days be­fore. In issuing the ticket (for ‘about twice the legal speed’), the officer had written Chevrolet, customized in the appropriate blank. Imagine his surprise to see ‘El Morocco’ on the vehicle registration ‘when anyone,’ said the reporter, ‘should know a Chevrolet, even if it is a customized '56.’

“‘What's this you're saying?’ We turned slightly and there was Cole, our host. "D'you mean that a Chevrolet was registered under another name?’ he asked in a low voice. ‘That's what my neighbor told me the cop said,’ replied the reporter. ‘I think I need some refreshment.’ ‘So do I,’ said Cole.”

© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com

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References

Jerry Heasley - Reuben Allender’s Fabulous El Moroccos – Special Interest Autos #119, October, 1990 pp54-60

Joseph H. Wherry - 1956-57 El Morocco: Great Idea , But… – Collectible Automobile, August 1986 issue pp8-16

Joe Wherry - Making the Chevy El Morocco - Motor Trend, July 1957 issue

Don MacDonald - El Morocco: the New Baby Cadillac - Motor Trend, September 1956 issue

El Morocco: the 1956 Chevys that Thought They were Eldorados - Special Interest Autos #19 Nov-Dec 1973 pp49-51

El Morocco – Motor Life, September 1957 issue

   
 
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