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Wettlaufer Manufacturing Corp., Automotive Industries, Alton Mfg.
Wettlaufer Mfg. Corp., 1946-1951; Automotive Industries, Inc., 1951-1968; Automotive Industries div. of Donlee Mfg. Ind. Ltd.; 1968-2002; Owendale, Michigan; Alton Manufacturing Co., 1968-2004; Alton Truck Co., 2004-2009; Pigeon, Michigan
Associated Firms
Pioneer Engineering and Manufacturing Co., Wettlaufer Engineering Co.

Because of the secretive nature of their business, Wettlaufer Engineering was not a well-publicized business and very few of the thousands of projects pursued by the firm since 1942 have been written about. Testimony for the firm’s creative and engineering ability can be gleaned from its customer list, which includes General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Packard, Nash, Willys-Overland, Kaiser-Frazer, International Harvester, White, and virtually every name in the automotive manufacturing field. Project specifics  are hard to come by, although it is known they had a close working relationship with Ford Motor Co. for whom they developed the 1951 Victoria hardtop coupe, 1958 Thunderbird convertible and the 1958 Levacar Mach 1 showcar. Another known client was Ruben Allender for whom they helped develop the 1956-1957 El Morocco, which was based upon the current model Chevrolet Bel-Air.

Unlike their main competitor, Creative Industries – who are well-known today due to their having constructed Chrysler Corporation’s legendary ‘Winged Warriors’ – Wettlaufer is almost totally unknown today.

The firm was founded by a talented ex-Chrysler body engineer named Elmer G. Wettlaufer (b. Jul. 8, 1902 – d. Jun. 2, 1993).

Elmer George Wettlaufer was born on July 8, 1902 in Saginaw, Michigan to Conrad S. & Ida (Hohn) Wettlaufer, his father being a Canadian-born carpenter/contractor/erector. Siblings included Flora J. (b.1894); Melinda A. (b.1896); Hazel B. (b. 1898); Albert J. (b.1899); and Herbert Julius (b.1904-d.1996) Wettlaufer.

The 1920 US Census lists him as ‘draftsman’ in a ‘foundry office’ in Saginaw, Mich. His employer was the Wilcox Motor Parts & Mfg. Co. of Saginaw, Michigan. Founded in July of 1916 with $150,000 in capital stock by Rollin H. White of Cleveland, Ohio and brothers’ Melvin L. and Merrill M. Wilcox of Saginaw, Michigan, the Wilcox Motor & Mfg. Co. manufactured complete engines and engine components for White and other automobile manufacturers at its plant at the corner of Rust and Wilkins Streets, Saginaw.

In 1923 he took a position as draftsman in the body engineering department of  Cadillac, returning to Saginaw in 1925 as a draftsman for the Ruggles Motor Truck Co., Saginaw, Mich. After amassing a large fortune during the First World War manufacturing Liberty trucks, Frank Ruggles, the founder of Alma, Michigan’s Republic Truck Corp.,resigned and moved to Saginaw, establishing the Ruggles Motor Truck Co. The light and medium duty truck builder survived into the early Depression at which time Wettlaufer moved to Detroit to take a position with Chrysler Corporation as a draftsman in its Highland Park body engineering department. The move coincided with Elmer's marriage to Iris Evelyn (Jones, b. 1908-d.1995), whose union was blessed by the birth of two daughters; Ann and Joan Susan Wettlaufer.

Wettlaufer eventaully became a body engineer and by 1937 was placed in charge of body design for the commercial vehicle division, being responsible for the body engineering and styling of Dodge, Fargo and Plymouth commercial cars and motor trucks.

While working for Chrysler he crossed paths with a future competitor, Fred H. Johnson (Frederick Hjalmar Johansen) who was working as a Chrysler Corp. welding systems engineer. In 1935, Johnson left Chrysler and founded Progressive Welder Co. (3050 E. Outer St., Detroit, Mich.) where he pioneered the development of portable hydraulic welding guns which used a novel air-hydraulic booster of his own design.

After resigning from Chrysler in 1940, Wettlaufer took a position with the Hydro Mfg. Co., a Detroit-based producer of automobile stampings founded in 1937. Coincidentally Fred H. Johnson was a Hydro director, serving as the firm's vice president after the War.

Wettlaufer realized that the auto manufacturers' engineering departments were ill-equipped to handle all of the special projects neccessitated by the county's entry into the Second World War, so in 1942 he left Hydro and founded his own firm, Detroit Sales Engineering Co. at3048 E. Outer Drive, Detroit. Wettlaufer shared the structure with another firm, Fred H. Johnson's Progressive Welder Inc., which was located at 3050 E. Outer Drive, Detroit.

In addition to project engineering, Detroit Sales Engineering also distributed welding equipment (likely sourced from Progressive), a 1941 issue of Steel reporting:

“Allis-Chalmers Mfg. Co., Milwaukee, has appointed Detroit Sales Engineering Co., under direction of Elmer Wettlaufer, president, representative for its complete line of welding equipment in the lower Michigan and northern Indiana territory.”

During the War Detroit Sales Engineering Co. employed 140 employees, a wartime industry directory listing the firm as follows:

“Detroit Sales Engineering Co., 3048 E. Outer Drive, Detroit 12 E. G. Wettlaufer, Gen. Mgr.; H. Haehl, Asst. Gen. Mgr.; D. Bathey. Sales Mgr.; A. Mularoni, Pur. Agt.. Partnership Emp., M., 120; F., 20; Est. 1942.”

A 1945 issue of Engineering News-Record notes Detroit Sales-Engineering was constructing a plant of their own at 3048 East Outer Drive, Detroit:

“Mich., Detroit — Plant — Detroit Sales Engineering Co., 3048 E. Outer Dr., brick, steel, concrete steel mfg. plant, to Cooper Contr. Co., 572 Maccabees Bldg. Est. $60.000.”

A 1945 issue of Iron Age announced that Albert J. Wettlaufer (b. Aug 17, 1899 – d. Aug. 9, 1958) had recently joined his younger brother as sales manager of Detroit Sales Engineering:

“A.J. Wetlauffer has been appointed sales manager of Detroit Sales Engineering Co.  Formerly sales manager of Briggs Mfg. Co., where he served over 25 yr, Mr. Wettlaufer will take over direction of all sales and service activities.”

Albert John Wettlaufer was born on August 17, 1899 in Saginaw, Michigan to Conrad S. & Ida (Hohn) Wettlaufer, his father being a Canadian-born carpenter / contractor / erector. Siblings included Flora J. (b.1894); Melinda A. (b.1896); Hazel B. (b. 1898); Elmer G. (b. 1902); and Herbert J. (b.1904-d.1996) Wettlaufer. The 1918-1922 Saginaw directories list his occupation as payroll clerk, foundry office, of the Wilcox Motor & Mfg. Co., Saginaw, Mich., the very same firm that employed his younger brother Elmer. On May 2, 1928 he married Irene E. Kelly (b.1902-d.1958) and to the blessed union was born two children; Albert J., jr. (aka Jack - b. 1930 - d. 1996) and Carol (b. 1935) Wettlaufer.

The 1930 US Census lists him as a ‘salesman’ for ‘automobile factory’, Detroit, Mich., the 1940 census list him as ‘general sales manager’ for a ‘body company’, Detroit, Mich. He worked in the sales department at Briggs Mfg. after he left Wilcox Motor & Mfg. Co in the mid-twenties.

In 1945 Wettlaufer hired another former Chrysler Corp. employee named John MacKenzie as treasurer of Detroit Sales & Engineering. MacKenzie was born in Scotland on October 23, 1905 to Donald and Katherine (Morrison) MacKenzie. After graduating from high school, he took night course in accounting and emigrated to the Unites States in 1923, taking a position as bookkeeper with the Canadian Bank of Commerce. In 1925 he was hired as teller at the 1st National Bank of Detroit, and in 1928 joined the comptroller's department staff of the Chrysler Corp. On December 26, 1931 McKenzie married Mary Andrea Buchanan and to the blessed union was born three children; John Buchanan, Mary Joan Donna, and Catherine Ann MacKenzie. He joined Detroit Sales Engineering in 1945, becoming treasurer of Wettlauffer Engineering upon its formation in 1948.

Between 1935 and 1954 Fred H. Johnson’s Progressive Welding grew from a 12-person shop to a 400+ employee firm with annual sales of over $6 million (1954). It is more than likely that Johnson wanted in on the lucrative postwar engineering and model-making contracts that Wettlaufer was receiving, the result being the formation of Creative Industries in 1950. By that time Wettlaufer had reorganized Detroit Sales Engineering as Wettlaufer Engineering Co. (in 1948), and had moved into an all-new dedicated facility located at 19000 W. Eight-Mile Rd., Detroit.

In 1952 Rex A. Terry (b.1911-d.1987), another former Chrysler Corp. body engineer was hired by Johnson to direct Creative Industries’ operations and following Johnson's sudden passing in 1954 at the age of 58, Rex A. Terry became president, his share in the firm amounting to approximately 10% - the remainder owned by Johnson’s heirs. After a public education the Detroit-born Terry embarked upon a course of engineering, and following graduation found employment with the Chrysler Corporation, and by 1945 had become assistant chief engineer in charge of body design with Chrysler's Commercial Car division – the same position formerly held by Elmer G. Wettlaufer one decade earlier.

Wettlaufer established a branch manufacturing facility in Owendale, Michigan in 1946. Initally established to handle small runs of automobile trim pieces (specifically door pulls and armrests), the Owendale facility later got involved in the modification of truck cabs and introduced their own line of sleeper cabs. Known as Wettlaufer Manufacturing Co., the Owendale firm shared officers and directors with Wettlaufer Engineering and was managed bythe firm's treasurer John MacKenzie. Located 110 miles north of Detroit, near Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay, Owendale was selected due to its underemployed workforce, low overhead and the availability of a suitable facility.

In 1947 Wettlaufer hired a small Detroit advertising agency called Allied Artists to come up with some artwork for their corporate advertising campaigns, several of which are reproduced at the right courtesy of the artist, Harry Borgman of Sawyer, Michigan. Borgman had a long career as an illustrator, his work can be found in Ford Times and various advertisements for Chevrolet and others.

Due to the secretive nature of its business, very few projects that Wettlaufer undertook have been written about, with several exceptions; the firs of which was the engioneering for the 1951 Ford Victoria hardtop coupe.

Ford was late to the hardtop game and in 1950 formed a design team headed by Gordon Buehrig (of Auburn - Cord - Duesenberg fame) to come up with some competition for the popular hardtops currently being offered by General Motors (1949) and Chrysler (1950.)

The concept, which dated from the mid-teens, had been mostly ignored by American stylists until after the War, with the exception of a few coach-built examples constructed during the late 1930s. It was reintroduced on the 1949 Chevrorlet Bel Air which was closely follwoed by the Plymouth Belevedere in 1950. Ford management demanded their own sold-roof convertible and as stime was of the essence, Wettlaufer was given the task to engineer in time for the debut of the 1951 Ford lineup.

The target was missed by a couple of months, however, the 1951 Ford Victoria Model 60 was well received - drawing rave reviews from the automotive press, and a flurry of orders from the public. The 1951 Victoria outsold both the Chevrolet Bel Air and  Plymouth Belvedere hardtops, with 110,286 examples being produced during its shortened 9-month production run.

Wettlaufer was rarely mentioned in the motoring press, one exception being a short article distributed on the United Press newswire on October 15, 1950:

“New 'New Look' Is Predicted in Auto Design Before 1953

“Detroit - (UP) - Automobiles will get their second post-war version of the ‘new look’ before 1953, a man who builds cars of the future said Saturday.

“Elmer G. Wettlaufer, in the unique business of making autos for auto makers, predicted ‘some radical appearance chances after the 1951 models — if Joe Stalin will cooperate.’ But the 1951 models and most of the 1952 editions will be limited to ‘further refinements and face-liftings’ of the longer, low-slung autos which emerged in 1947, 1948, and 1949, he said.

“Shapes, Styles

“Wettlaufer is president of the virtually - unknown Wettlaufer Manufacturing Co., which plays a vital part in the auto industry's future styling plans. Its 200 design and engineering experts, model builders, and metal craftsmen put together beautiful full-size cars and trucks that have only one drawback - they won't run. Hand built of wood and metal, the vehicles give manufacturers opportunity to see just what their new models will look like, months before production will begin.

“It's No Secret

“Most auto companies have their own styling and model building facilities. But nearly all of them use the Wettlaufer facilities at one stage or another in their experimental programs.

“Keeping secrets is part of the company's business, but Wettlaufer indicated that future automobiles will see more of the ‘racing type, cosmopolitan look.’

“They won't be any bigger, either, he said. But Wettlaufer, for many years a body engineer with Chrysler Corp., isn't at all sure the ‘small car’ will cut too deeply into the market.

“‘What the American public still wants in a car is a big package at a small price,’ he said.”

A fairly detailed examination of the firm's activities was published in the February 1951 issue of American Magazine:

“Tailor-made Cars

“You got a bargain when you bought your shiny new car. The manufacturer paid $200,000 for the same model to Elmer G. Wettlaufer, 48, of Detroit, Mich. Mr. Wettlaufer gets that much for one car. His unique business is building test of ‘pilot’ cars for leading automobile manufacturers.

“He transforms the designs of a new model supplied by the company, into a complete working car. The firm then tests the car to see if it was ‘right,’ also uses it to plan advertising campaigns.

“From blueprints, Wettlaufer’s engineers and craftsmen make a small model, then a full scale wooden replica, and finally the actual car. Automobile manufacturers hire Wettlaufer instead of using their own shops, partly because he can usually dot it cheaper and partly because their own shops are usually jammed with other work.

“New designs are completed long before cars go into actual production, so Wettlaufer has already turned outs some 1952 models. Each car is kept in a private compartment and, of course, all the work is strictly ‘hush-hush’.

“Wettlaufer launched his business in 1942 with an idea and one order. Then he had just a desk and a phone. Today he operates a plant that employs 250 men and builds one-of-a-kind models not only of cars, but of such varied items as trucks, fountain pens, refrigerators, gasoline pumps, and vending machines. He was born in Saginaw, Mich., and was one of the first kids in his town to own a car, an Overland Ninety. He took it apart and put it together so many times, folks called the road behind his house ‘Gasoline Alley.’ When he was 19 he went to work for Cadillac, and finally wound up as chief body engineer of Chrysler Corporation, where he remained until he went into business for himself.”

The firm’s listing in the 1952 Directory of Michigan Manufacturers follows:

“Wettlaufer Engineering & Experimental Co.; 19000 W. Eight-Mile Rd., Detroit 19 Hammer Forms, Wood; Models, Die; Sheet Metal Work; Mock-Ups, Wood E. G. Wettlaufer, Pres.; H. J. Wettlaufer, Vice-Pres., Gen. Mgr.; A. J. Wettlaufer. Gen. Sales Mgr.; О. С. Davidson, Vice-Pres., Plant Mgr.; J. MacKenzie, Treas.; J. F. McMullen, Sec; R. J. Grubba. Chief Eng.; H. A. Davidson. Fur. Agt. Emp. M. 260, F. 10.”

Wettlaufer was briefly mentioned in an article written by syndicated columnist John F. Sembower that appeared in many of the nation’s newspapers on June 16, 1952:

“Jet-Lined Car Is Vision Of Tomorrow by John F. Sembower

“Public Will Still Dictate Choice

“Detroit, Mich. — Automobiles that Americans will be driving during the next 10 years are not likely to be radically different from those which crowd the highways during the current tourist season. However, there definitely will be big changes. Secreted in shops around this motor capital are the experimental models which determine tomorrow's styles. Occasionally, one of them spins out on the streets and gives passersby a thrill like that which swept through the town when Henry Ford’s Model A, successor to the Model T, appeared.

“Now it may be General Motor's Le Sabre, the jet-lined sport roadster which may contain many of the earmarks of GM's line for the next decade, or the futuristic cars that Chrysler, Lincoln, Packard, Buick and some of the others have been unveiling now and then.

“A glance into the carefully guarded shops of the Wettlaufer Manufacturing Co. here is a look into tomorrow. This fabulous and little-known concern for many years has specialized in design and experimental work for many of the big manufacturers.”

A much more detailed description of Wettlaufer’s operations can be found in the May, 1953 issue of ‘The Great Lakelands’:

“Wettlaufers - A Model Business

“At the unique Wettlaufer Engineering Corporation, located in the northwest section of Detroit, foresight is the chief stock-in-trade. Manufacturers of anything from fountain pens to automobiles can walk into Wettlaufer's with 'the skeleton of a germ of an idea' for a new product and, in a matter of weeks, Wettlaufer will present the manufacturer with a hand-made, working models of the product. That’s their business.

“Testimony for the firm’s creative and engineering ability can be gleaned from its customer list, which includes General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Packard, Nash, Willys-Overland, Kaiser-Frazer, International Harvester, White, and virtually every name in the automotive manufacturing field.

“In the design room, the guided visitor might see a unique three-dimensional drawing of tomorrow’s truck cab. And that shiny mahogany thing in the woodworking shop, the visitors might learn, is the trunk for a 1955 automobile. And (wow?) that super- sleek sports-car body in the metal working shop actually out-Europeanizes the European designers. Questions like ‘Whose is it?’, and ‘when will it come out?’ Are so completely parried that they fall harmlessly to the floor.

“The corporation, which bears the name of its founder, Elmer G.  Wettlaufer, was created eleven years ago to fill a definite need in the realm of industrial experimentation. The original reasons for the founding of the firm are embodied in its statement of services:

“To relieve periodic congestion in the experimental departments of large manufacturers;

“To provide manufacturers with both experienced personnel and adequate development facilities whenever required and at a fraction of normal year-round departmental operating costs;

“To permit centralization of responsibility for an entire experimental program within a single qualified organization.

“Our clients have found that a most important consideration is the fact that our experimental work, from designing and engineering to the final metal working model, is all done under one roof.

“Born in Saginaw, Elmer Wettlaufer was one of the first kids in town to own an automobile. By the time he was 19, Elmer was working for Cadillac; he rose to climax his first 20-odd years in the automotive field by serving as chief truck body engineer for Chrysler. Wettlaufer, as a design executive himself, was intimately acquainted with the difficulties that beset manufacturers in their design and experimental departments.

“The work of most designing departments is apt to be a seasonal thing characterized by extreme congestion at one time and idleness of highly paid employees at another.

“In 1942 Wetlauffer decided to establish a complete design-engineering-model service for those manufacturers who were too snowed under by the present to be able to keep up with the future.

“Sacrificing the security of a highly-paid position in industry, Wettlaufer opened his own office over a branch bank in Royal Oak. Armed with one order, a handful of draftsmen, and a world of vision, the Wettlaufer Engineering firm started operations. In a matter of months, Wettlaufer's gamble paid off as rush manufacturers began beating a path to his door for help. The firm expanded into larger quarters on the east side of the city and, by 1945, rush military-design orders and other business let to the addition of a metal working shop.

“In a few years, Wettlaufer moved to the present location at 1900 W. Eight Mile Road— and the firm is still spreading out. Today the 300 employees at the Wettlaufer Corporation are annually turning out from $3,000,000 to $5,000,000 worth of drawings and models of products for tomorrow. Present officers for the firm include, Elmer G. Wettlaufer, president, H.J. Wettlaufer, vice-president, A.J. Wettlaufer, vice-president in charge of sales, O.C. Davidson, vice-president in charge of the experimental division, John MacKenzie, treasurer; T.F. McMullen, secretary, and Mrs. A.M. Powers, assistant secretary.

“In many respects, the Wettlaufer employees must be wonder-workers, so naturally, the workers in each department must be among the best in their chosen field. Some of the jobs that industry throws at the firm would seem to be formidable assignments for a wizard. For example, several years ago an auto manufacturer gave Wettlaufer a rough design and an order to build a completely new auto body together with the various coupes, station wagons, and other refinements of the same style body. Ordinary working time for constructing the auto body would be 90 to 120 days – but the manufacturers wanted the first body in 30 days, and the others at the rate of one a week thereafter.

“The employees at Wettlaufer beat the first deadline by two days — and the remainder was finished right on schedule. The superior quality of the Wettlaufer team led various Army contractors to ask the firm to produce radically new military weapons and equipment during World War II. Among its other assignments, the firm developed electronically controlled launching units for mines and hand-grenades; built reconnaissance trucks, ‘Swamp Buggies’; charge supports for bombs; developed clutch parts for tanks; winterization methods for tanks and trucks, and many new aircraft parts. During the present national emergency, Wettlaufer’s design and engineering brains have turned their attention to jet aircraft and other military necessities.

“Not all of Wettlaufer’s assignments arrive as the ‘complete ball of wax.’ The firm is highly versatile and, therefore, able to jump in on any phase of the development program of a new tool or product. A manufacturer might come in with a detailed drawing of a product, and the various technicians at Wettlaufer can give him a model in clay, wood, plaster, or steel – or a complete working model of the product.

“The men in the woodworking shops, often referred to as the prima donnas of the design field, probably outshine the old-fashioned Scandinavian cabinet makers when it comes to fashioning shapes of wood. The cabinet makers probably never equaled the Wettlaufer woodworkers, who must hold their tolerances to two-thousands of an inch. Actually, all of the wood, clay, and other models of auto and other parts must be perfect enough to allow the use of them as patterns for Kellering, the process that produces the dies from which parts for finished products must be mass produced.

“The creative business of conceiving, designing and building models of new products is expensive. The minimum rate for a journeyman in the woodworking shops is more than $3 per hour (and one might put in 700 hours making the exact replica of a single new-car trunk lid). An average designer pulls down $10,000 per year. Thus, the man who raises his eyebrow when asked to pay $2,000 for his car would be surprised to learn that the first one of the same thing probably cost the manufacturers $250,000 for the body design alone.

“One of the most important functions of the entire Wettlaufer Engineering Corporation is keeping their secrets vacuum tight. Unlike the average factory, nobody looks over anybody’s shoulder at Wettlaufer. The men in the design division are practically 'committed' to their closed-off studios when working on a new idea for a customer. The only people allowed in such a room are the employees specifically concerned with the project and the customer’s liaison engineer. The fact that the Wettlaufer Corporation has never received a complaint from any customer about "leaking news" is testimony for the trustworthiness of the firm's employees and security system.

“Naturally, ‘Firsts’ in the automotive industry are somewhat matter-of-fact with an enterprise such as Wettlaufer. Their list is much too lengthy to relate. For example, however, Wettlaufer built the first ‘hard-top’ automobile body, conceived the graphic ‘three dimensional’ type of blueprint for shop workmen and originated the idea of putting three windows in the back of truck cabs to eliminate blind spots.

“The corporation has just completed one expansion program, and today office space is being enlarged and tentative plans are being made for the next burst of plant expansion. As the president Elmer Wettlaufer puts it: ‘Millions of dollars’ worth of foresight and ideas are our chief tools and stock-in-trade.’”

In 1952 Herbert J. Wettlaufer (b. Mar 21, 1904 d- Aug 26, 1996), Elmer G. and Albert J.'s youngest brother,joined his brothers’ organization as vice-president and later general manager, the February 15, 1953 issue of Automotive Industries reporting:

“Wettlaufer Manufacturing Corp. – Herbert Wettlaufer has joined the firm as vice president.”

Herbert Julius Wettlaufer was born on March 21, 1904 in Saginaw, Michigan to Conrad S. & Ida (Hohn) Wettlaufer, his father being a Canadian-born carpenter / contractor / erector. Siblings included Flora J. (b.1894); Melinda A. (b.1896); Hazel B. (b. 1898); Albert J. (b.1899); and Elmer G. (b. 1902) Wettlaufer.

After attending the University of Michigan (class of ‘28) in Ann Arbor, Herbert took a position with Michigan Bell Telephone Co. as commercial service supervisor in its Saginaw branch and in 1930 was transferred to its Pontiac, Michigan office. On February 7, 1935 he married Mary Virginia Sullivan (b. 1909 – d. 1990) and to the blessed union was born two children; John C. (b. 1938 - d. 2013) and William H. (b.1943) Wettlaufer.

As mentioned previously, Wettlaufer Manufacturing was a separate firm organized to manufacture small runs of automobile interior parts located in Owendale, Michigan, however the firm's officers were the same as Wettlaufer Engineering's.

The goals of its associated Engineering organization were outlined to the trade via a series of display ads that ran in a number of periodicals during 1956:

“Our Job is Creating New Products for Tommorrow’s Markets

“Our organization, the largest independent experimental engineering company in the country today, has a three-fold aim:

“To relieve periodic congestion in the experimental departments of large manufacturers;

“To provide small manufacturers with both experienced personnel and modern development facilities at a fraction of normal year-round departmental operating costs, and …

“To permit centralization of responsibility for your entire experimental program within a single qualified organization.

“Our clients have found that a most important consideration is the fact that our experimental work, from designing and engineering to the final metal working model, is all done under one roof. Nothing is farmed out. Large and small manufacturers of all types of products… automobiles, trucks, appliances, etc… avail themselves of our skilled specialists and unique facilities.

"If you think we might be of assistance to you, we'll be glad to furnish you with more details concerning our complete creative services in an illustrated brochure entitled: 'From Start to Finish, The Story of Product Development.' E.G. Wettlaufer, President.

“Wettlaufer Engineerimg Corporation 19000 W. 8 Mile Rd., Detroit 19.”

Wettlaufer Engineering also was involved in the design and fabrication of the tooling used to build many of the parts used by Ruben Allender in the manufacture of the 1956-1957 Chevrolet-based El Morroco.

Another known Wettlaufer project was the all-new 1958 Thunderbird convertible. It marked Ford's first attempt at unit construction (aka monocoque), doing away with a tradional steel body attached to a separate steel frame. Ford built a new purpose-built plant to construct the new Thunderbird, which shared the  facility with its unit-body cousins, the 1958 Lincoln and 1958 Continental Mark III.Ford spent $50 million on the new Thunderbird -$5 million for engineering/styling and  $45 million for tooling. Body engineering was subcontracted to the Budd Company and the convertible program was sublet to Wettlaufer Engineering. 

Wettlaufer also supplied the aluminum components used on Ford Motor Co.’s Levacar Mach 1 concept car which debuted in the Ford Rotunda on May 20, 1958 (and was made in 1/25 scale kit form by AMT).

The firm's listing in the 1958 Detroit Directory follows:

“Wettlaufer Engineering Corp., (E. G. Wettlaufer, President; H.J. Wettlaufer, Vice-President; A.J. Wettlaufer, Vice-President—Sales) 19000 & 19800 W. Eight Mile Road, Detroit.”

In 1958 Wettlaufer became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Detroit's largest machine tool & die engineering consultancy, Pioneer Engineering & Manufacturing, forming the nation's largest independent automotive engineering firm with a combined staff of about 750 employees. Pioneer was founded by Albert M. Sargent (b. Sep. 16, 1898 - d. Aug. 13, 1985) in 1931.

Albert Marden Sargent was born on September 16, 1898 in Gilmanton, Belnap County, New Hampshire to Charles P. (b. 1854 - d. 1908) and Alice A. (Dow, b. 1867) Sargent. Siblings included Ruth E (b.1901) and Lottie I. (b.1904) Sargent.

On September 24, 1917 he married Amanda Marie Gagnon in Concord, N.H., his occupation was listed as machinist on the marriage certificate. After the War the couple moved to Detroit where he took a postion with an auto manufacturer as a machinist, which is confirmed by the 1920 US Census which places him in Detroit, his occupation 'machinist' at an 'auto factory', his wif'es name Amanda. Sargent's listings in the 1920-22 Detroit directories confirm his occupation as toolmaker/machinist. Sargent married for the second time on April 4, 1922 to Ruth M. (Hopkins) Sargent - they were divorced one decade later, on January 14, 1932. The 1930 US Census states he was an 'executive engineer.' Pioneer's listing in the 1932 Detroit Directory follows:

“Pioneer Engineering & Manufacturing Co., 8316 Woodward Ave.; Albert M. Sargent, pres.; Ellery C. Pengra, sec-treas.”

On August 31, 1934 Sargent married - for the third time to - Grace E. Moore. The 1940 Detroit directory lists Pioneer at the corner of Melborne and John R. Sts.:

“Pioneer Engineering & Manufacturing Co., 31 Melbourne Ave. Inc. 1931 cap. $25,000; A.M. Sargent, pres.; Eric M. Jacques, v pres.; Frank C. Querry, sec-treas.”

In 1940 Pioneer moved into an all-new facility located at 19676 John R St., Detroit (still standing). The structure, which was designed with security in mind, was pictured in a 1941 issue of Time, with the following caption:

“Maginot for Blueprints

“This plant combines more spy-proof, thug-proof features than any yet built for the U.S. defense program. Half-medieval and half-modern, half-fort and half-factory, it is the Detroit home of Pioneer Engineering & Manufacturing Co., engineering consultants to 450 industrial concerns, many of which are busy making guns, tanks, instruments, planes. Hence Pioneer is full of blueprints of other people’s plants and products – enough to make a spy’s eyes bulge.

“In designing the plant, Pioneer President Albert M. Sargent used recommendations of FBI, Army and Navy. The plant has only one entrance, guarded by a receptionist behind bulletproof glass. Its small rectangular windows are six feet above ground, are made of safety glass, cannot be opened. Thus no bombs can be tossed in, nothing can be passed out. To prevent tampering, intakes for electric and telephone wires are located in a  concrete basement vault to which there is only one heavy metal door and one key. The entire grounds are surrounded by a "man-proof" fence, the single gate is watchdogged by a policeman in a pillbox. The staff (220 engineers and draftsmen) must check all blueprints in & out of a central filing system.”

Pioneer's War-time operations were highlighted in the April 22, 1944 issue of Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record:

“... Its executives sit in consultation with the firms it serves. From these meetings come the strategy – the master plan. This strategy then is carried through to its conclusion.

“Once the plan is ready, designers are on the job, and engineers begin the task of designing and building the special tools. Meanwhile, plant layout men are figuring ways to speed up the flow of materials. Other Pioneer experts are ordering machines. Practical shopmen check the operation of new machines to see that they function according to plan and teach the client’s foremen new tricks in the operation of the new machinery. Meantime, Pioneer cost accountants are installing a modern cost system that keeps vital cost information right up to the minute.

“As the nation struggled free from depression the Pioneer organization grew from short pants into full maturity. It now was handling tough assignments from literally hundreds of the nation’s big companies. There were production kinks at a famous washing machine company and Pioneer eliminated them — Diesel engine problem was a tough nut to crack, but Pioneer provided the firm’s engineers with the ‘fresh slant’ need for its solution – There was need for better textile machinery and the engineers from the Motor City found the answer so that one of the nation’s largest textile mills went ahead with greater efficiency. Farm machinery, automotive and aviation equipment, railroad equipment – and a listing of other industries as long as your arm – began to use the Pioneer service.

“War found Pioneer with hundreds of skilled engineers and production men on its staff and 10 years of practical ‘know-how’ and achievements behind it. Still Pioneer stuck to its formula – do the complete engineering job. Of course, Pioneer executives can’t talk about their war work but they do admit that some of America's vital war secrets have been "hatched" in their engineering offices. President and general manager of the Pioneer organization is Albert M. Sargent, whose greatest pride is the "team" of  industrial experts he has carefully built under the Pioneer banner.

“Sargent held several engineering jobs before organizing Pioneer back in 1931. He was assistant superintendent of experimental engineering for Chevrolet, plant engineer for Detroit Seamless Tube Company; chief engineer for Universal Wrench Company, chief engineer for C&G Spring & Bumper Company; general manager for Michigan Machine Company and vice-president in charge of engineering.”

In 1947 Sargent was given an honorary doctorate in engineering by the Lawrence Institute of Technology, Southfield, Mich. Sargent, a founder and past-president of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, was memorialized by the SME via the annual Albert M. Sargent Progress Award which is given to the SME member who made the  most significant accomplishment in the field of manufacturing processes, methods, or systems.

In early 1953 Michael Pinto, the president of Douglas Tool Co., purchased a controlling interest in Pioneer from its founder, Albert M. Sargent, the January 15, 1953  issue of Automotive Industries:

“Pioneer Engineering Control Changes Hands - Michael Pinto succeeds A. M. Sargent as president. He has named L. A. Curnoe as secretary-treasurer and Clyde Mooney as chief engineer.

“Michael Pinto has been named President of Pioneer Engineering and Manufacturing Company, Inc., Detroit, the largest independent production engineering company in the country, succeeding A.M. Sargent, who founded the company and had served as its president since 1930. L.A. Curnoe has been named secretary-treasurer of the company. In acquiring Pioneer from Sargent, Mr. Pinto, who is also president of Douglas Tool Company, Detroit, emphasized that no changes in policies are contemplated for the company, and that Pioneer would retain its full independent status. His first action as president was to name Clyde Mooney, who has been with Pioneer since its early days, to the position of General Manager in compete charge of all operations.

“Pioneer engineering will continue to earn the fine reputation for superior engineering, rapid service and fair pricing which it so richly earned.’

“He paid tribute to Sargent as the ‘first man to recognize the need for a strong independent engineering industry in the manufacturing field, with courage to launch it in the early days of the great depression.’”

Michael Pinto was mentioined in the April 26, 1958 issue of Pacific Stars And Stripes:

“In 1941 Mike Pinto began work as a one-of-the-boys engineer with a Detroit firm named Pioneer Engineering Manufacturing Co. By 1943 Pinto had salted away $2,000 in the bank and decided it was time to try his hand at being his own boss. If results are a yardstick, he is a pretty good boss.

“He organized the Douglas Tool Co. in Detroit with his $2,000 bankroll and three employees. In 1952 Douglas Tool Co. made $13 million and stocky, individualistic Mike Pinto had not sold one share of stock. ‘We did it ourselves,’ he says. The next year, Pinto noted that his old company—where he had done his engineering for someone else—was up for sale.

“He bought Pioneer Engineering Manufacturing Co., and now is president of both firms.

“Asked about labor problems, Pinto replied, ‘We have none. The skilled professional people who work for me are paid better wages individually than they could ever bargain for collectively.’”

Pioneer / Wettlaufer's listing in the 1960 edition of Industrial Research Laboratories of the United States follows:

“Pioneer Engineering and Manufacturing Co., 19669 John R. St., Detroit 3, Mich., president: Michael Pinto. Laboratories: 19669 John R. St., Detroit 3, Mich.; Wettlaufer Engineering Division, 19000 and 19800, W. Eight Mile Rd., Southfield, Mich. Research staff: S. Paul Burns, Executive vice president and research director; engineers; 5 electrical, 15 industrial, 18 mechanical; 10 mathematicians, 244 auxiliaries. Research on: Mechanical, electromechanical, industrial, automotive body and chassis engineering; prototype models in wood, plaster, clay, plastic and metal; sheet metal and machine shop parts.”

Michael Pinto took a hands-off approach to running Pioneer and its subsidiaries, and in 1962 appointed William P. Panny, as manager and executive vice president. Panny had complete charge of all four divisions, which at that time included Pioneer Industrial Engineering; Wettlaufer Engineering Plant One; Wettlaufer Engineering Plant Two; and the Douglas Tool Co. Wettlaufer plant No. 2 had recently been constructed in Warrend, Michigan at 2500 E. 9 Mile Rd. Panny started his career at Chrysler where he held the post of assistant chief engineer, Light and Medium Trucks, from 1958-1960. He held a B.M.E. Degree with honors from Pratt Institute and a Master of Automotive Engineering degree from the Chrysler Institute of Engineering.

By that time the Wettlaufer family's manufacturing operation in Owendale, Michigan had been sold off to brothers John and Alton MacKenzie, and reorganized as Automotive Industries, Inc. The firm specialized in manufacturing automotive interior components for Ford, initally, interior door pulls and armrests, and later on sunvisors and door panels for Chrysler. In a connected facility they also converted1950s-60s Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, GMC and Mack truck cabs into crew cabs and sleeper cabs. 

Automotive Industries listing in Wards Automotive directory follows:

“Automotive Industries Inc. 7280 Main St., Owendale, Michigan Automobile Parts; Automobile Accessories; Truck Sleeper Cabs. John MacKenzie, Pres., Sales Mgr.; Alton MacKenzie, Vice-Pres., Gen. Mgr., Treas., Pur. Agt.; J.F. McMulIen, Sec; A. J.Wettlaufer, Sales Mgr.; Joe Lorencz, Export Mgr. Emp. M.20, F.60; Est. 1946.”

April 1, 1968 Holland Evening Sentinel:

“Michigan In Washington by Esther Van Wagoner Tufty

“Washington – A small businessman says ‘thank-you’ to his government.

“John MacKenzie, a small businessman in Owendale, calls his congressman James Harvey (R-Mich) to express his gratitude because Small Business Administration loans had taken his firm from the brink of disaster to outstanding success in less than five years.

“Said Mr. MacKenzie, president of Automotive Industries, Inc., ‘since government agencies are likely to received more bricks than bouquets I thought this story would be of interest.’

“Congressman Harvey recounted the story to the House of Representatives.

“MacKenzies’ firm manufactured armrests for the major automobile companies. But in 1963 a change in technology swung his customers to other sources and business came to a halt. Offered a contract for sun visors by Ford, MacKenzie went to SBA for a loan to get materials into the plant so that he could begin production. He received three SBA loans totaling $200,000 and the company began producing 464 sun visors daily.

“Today the plant turns out 12,000 sun visors a day and has 125 people on the payroll. Said Congressman Harvey, ‘I hardly need to comment on the significance of that payroll to Owendale, a town of 300 people, and to the rest of the Huron county.’ Sales for the present fiscal year are expected to reach 2 ½ million.

“Thankful, Mr. MacKenzie wrote a thank-you letter to Robert C. Moot, administrator of Small Business Administration, and then told his story to his congressman. He said: ‘without the cooperation and the understanding of SBA this company would not be in existence.’”

In 1968 John MacKenzie sold Automotive Industries to Donlee Manufacturing Industries Limited of Toronto, Canada, a major player in the automotive interior business, the sale being detailed in theOctober 26, 1972 edition of the Cass City (Mich.) Chronicle:

“Owendale Sunvisor Plant starts $40,000 Warehouse Addition by Kit McMillion

“The next time you’re driving into the sun and reach up to pull down the handy sun visor in your car or truck, chances are about one in four that your hand will touch a product of Automotive Industries, Inc., of Owendale.

“A wholly-owned subsidiary of Donlee Manufacturing Industries Limited of Toronto, Canada, the automotive interior trim, factory produced approximately 3½ to 4 million visors a year, at a rate of about 18,000 a day.

“It's part of a $30 million sun visor business, and also provides a major source of employment with most of its 200 employees coming from Owendale and the surrounding area, although one comes as far as Frankenmuth and the plant manager lives in Lake Orion.

“While only a small part of the total automotive industry, it's a mainstay of Owendale, adding $750,000 in payroll alone to the community this year.

“The industry started in 1946 when Wettlauffer Inc. opened the plant in Owendale. According to present vice-president and general manager Garry Hoffman, the site was chosen at the time because the facilities were available and there was a work force available. It was also the trend at that time to escape the city and open shops in small towns, where post-war wages, taxes and general overhead was smaller.

“Wettlauffer's sold it several years later to John McKenzie of Bloomfield and Al McKenzie of Pigeon, who operated the plant as a proprietorship corporation until its purchase in 1969 by the Canadian firm.

“From a small post-war factory, the business has expanded greatly in recent years and has now outgrown its facilities, necessitating a 10,000 square foot addition to the rear of the building located on Sebewaing Road in Owendale.

“While the original advantages of moving to the countryside after World War II have disappeared, and freight costs are now higher, the plant stays in Owendale because of the trained work force available, said Hoffman.

“The $40,000 addition now under construction will be used for both storage and working space. The main plant now has 25,000 square feet plus an additional 7,000 square feet of warehouse space.

“An old wood shed that stood behind the building was torn down last week, erasing one of the last vestiges of the building's use by a trucking firm years ago. The wood shed was a holding pen for cattle.

“The original building was built in 1926 and used as a store and later a band room for the school before the trucking firm had it.

“Hoffman said when he came to the plant in 1970, only 75 persons worked there. With the increase in business in the last several years, the plant has outgrown its quarters. ‘The orders are here, the materials are here, the people are here, but the building isn't,’ explained Hoffman, who added that the new steel-beam structure was expected to be completed by December.

“This will be the second major construction at the plant site. A brick addition was built in the 1950's and houses the assembly lines tor the visors, die-cutting machines and urethane foam moulding facilities. And several warehouses were built in the last three years.

“The industry's raw materials, however, are still without a proper storage space. Currently a huge 30 x 90 foot circus tent is covering the materials next to the main plant.

“The industry has seen ups and downs, but ‘as the auto industries go, so do we,’ stated Hoffman. Right now the plant is rolling. Thirty-five persons were hired in the past month to accommodate the future expansion, and while there are many new employees, there are still a few who started working there in 1946. Hoffman said they also have a few third generation employees, where grandmother, mother and daughters all work at the same plant. Visors for 1973 models were shipped out as early as August, and already quotes are being made for 1974. The factory is working full steam 6 days a week, three shifts.

“Together with the sister company in Toronto, Automotive Industries is one of four businesses involved in the production of sun visors. ‘Between our sister company in Toronto and us, we do have a major chunk of the sun visor business,’ Hoffman related. Approximately 70 per cent of their volume goes to their leading purchaser, Ford Motor Company. Other buyers are Chrysler, Chevrolet, Dodge, White, Diamond Rio and a California-based motor home firm.

“Besides the 20 different shapes of sun visor, the company uses 40 colors of three different types of materials, mostly vinyl, to make three basic styles of visor. The most sophisticated product has a mirror attached to the visor. A new innovation for 1974 is a flocked material that looks like suede.

“The plant also makes vinyl door panels for Chevrolet, said Hoffman, and ‘angels wings,’ which are the upper rear quarter panel for the interior of a car, for Chrysler.

“In the past, the factory also turned out arm rests, roof rails, golf carts and rebuilt truck cabs into sleepers.

“Another facet of the company that is unusual is the production of urethane foam, a material much like foam rubber used for cushioning. Automotive Industries is the only producer of sun visors that makes its own urethane foam, and also ships 12 million square feet a year to their sister company in Toronto.”

At the time of the 1968 sale to Donlee Mfg., Alton MacKenzie, John's younger brother, purchased the rights to Automotive Industries' truck cab business and moved the operation 6 miles north to Pigeon, Huron County, Michigan, theNovember 12, 1969 edition of the Progress Advance (Pigeon / Elkton / Owendale, MI) reporting:

“A new manufacturing plant is being erected in Pigeon by Alton MacKenzie. The plant is located south of the C&O Railroad tracks on Sturm Road. The new factory will be engaged in sheet metal fabrication for truck and farm implement industries and is called the Alton Company.”

Located at 120 N. Sturm Rd. and reorganized as the Alton Manufacturing Co., MacKenzie abandoned the sleeper cab business, concentrating on building 4-door crew cabs for light, medium, and heavy-duty trucks. In 1980 Jerry Adams joined Alton as vice president and following the June 1983 death of Alton MacKenzie (b. Aug. 30, 1915), he assumed ownership of the firm.

Dodge introduced their full-sized 'club cab' pickup truck in 1973, which was closely followed by Ford's 1974 'super cab' but for reasons unknown General Motors waited until 1988 to introduce their first full-size extended-cab pickup. Prior to its introduction Alton Manufacturing termporarily filled the void with their own 'club cab' which offered Chevrolet and GMC full-size truck owners with a choice of a9” or 24” cab extension.

Alton also supplied Chevrolet and GMC 4-door crew- and extended-crew cabs for Western Hauler, a Fort Worth, Texas manufacturer of custom medium-duty fifth-wheel haulers.  Another customer was Auto Truck, Inc. a Chicago-based manufacturer of 'rail-ready' (aka high-rail) pickups, cranes, welders and inspection vehicles that utilized Alton-built quad cabs. Another customer was Chicago's Peter Pirsch Co. for whom they suppliedfire and rescue truck cabs and canopies. At that time Alton employed fewer than a dozen employees who produced as many as three hundred truck cabs a year.

In 1984 Donlee Manufacturing, the parent company of Automotive Industries, was acquired by Redpath Industries, the November 3, 1984 issue of the New York Times reporting:

“Redpath Agrees To Buy Donlee

“Toronto, Nov. 2 — Redpath Industries Ltd. said it had agreed to acquire Donlee Manufacturing Industries Ltd. for $16 million in cash, $16 million in promissory notes and 400,000 nonconvertible preferred Redpath shares.”

In January of 1994 Aero Detroit purchased Pioneer Engineering & Manufacturing Co., renaming the firm APX International, the August 15, 1994 issue of Automotive Industries reporting on the name change:

“Aero Detroit/Pioneer Engineering of Madison Heights, Mich., North America's No.2 automotive and aviation engineering service firm behind Modern Engineering, has changed its name to APX International. The company was created in January by the merger of product design and prototype development firm Aero Detroit Inc. and tool design and manufacturing engineering firm Pioneer Engineering & Manufacturing Co.”

An August 2, 1994 press release included a few more details relating to the founding of APX:

“Through a January 1994 combination of two respected Detroit engineering firms - Aero Detroit Inc. and Pioneer Engineering & Manufacturing Co. - APX International has become North America's second largest engineering service firm serving the automotive and aviation industries.

“APX International offers a full range of concept-to-production engineering services to automakers and system suppliers - including a suite of rapid prototyping technologies, expert computer-aided design capabilities and special expertise in the production of resin-transfer molded automotive body panels.

“APX International employs some 2,000 professionals and operates 10 major facilities spanning more than 800,000 square feet throughout the metropolitan Detroit area. Its parent company, TAD Resources International, Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., is the largest privately held contract services firm in the United States, providing over 20,000 professionals to over 4,000 client companies in 32 countries.”

Herbert J. Wettlaufer, the founder of Wettlaufer Engineering and Manufacturing, passed away in August 26, 1996 at the age of 92, his obituary follows:

“Herbert J. Wettlaufer, 92, of Coral Springs, FL, formerly of Saginaw, MI, passed away August 26, 1996. He was a member of First Presbyterian Church in Pontiac, MI, life member of the Kiwanis Club, the Elks, and a Mason, also life member of the Telephone Pioneers of America. He attended law school at the University of Michigan, and vice president of Wettlaufer Engineering, Detroit, MI. Survived by his 2 sons, John C. Wettlaufer of Chicago, IL, and William H. (Bonita) Wettlaufer of Coral Springs; grandchildren, Lisa (Michael) Orr, Wyoming, MI, Max Wettlaufer of Farmington Hills, MI, Virginia Wettlaufer of Chicago, John W. (Chris) Wettlaufer of Chicago, Kenneth Churchill of Coral Springs, FL, Angela (Michael) Hegy of Boca Raton, FL; and 3 great-grandchildren, Michael C. Hegy, Jacob F. and Angona, and John W. Wettlaufer II.”

In 1996 Alton Manufacturing's Jerry Adams sold the company to a group of employees headed by Nick Pavlichek, who eventually become sole owner of the firm. In the early 2000s Alton introduced a line of six door medium-duty SUVS they christened the Alton 'XUV'. The firm was an regular ehibitor at the SEMA shows in Las Vegas - where the massive Ford F-650s attracted a lot of attention.  One celebrity Alton XUV owner was Shaquil O'Neill who ordered a silver six-door Ford F-650 in 2004.

For its last years in business, Alton shared a plant with Richmond's Steel Inc. at 6767 W. Pigeon Rd., Pigeon, Michigan. Their last SEMA appearance was in the fall of 2008 and they disappeared following the 2009 Chicago Auto Show.

© 2015 Mark Theobald for

Appendix 1 Wettlaufer Patents:

Combined arm rest and door pull – US Design Patent No. D14896 - ‎Filed Jun 13, 1946 - ‎Issued Mar 9, 1948 to ‎Elmer G. Wettlaufer

Combined door pull-to and armrest – US Patent No. 2601677 - ‎Filed Feb. 9, 1949 - ‎Issued Jun 24, 1952 to ‎Elmer G. Wettlaufer







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