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Biehl's Auto Body Works
Biehl's Carriage & Wagon Works, 1923-1940, Biehlís Auto Body Works 1940-1960s, West Reading, Pennsylvania
 
Associated Builders
Biehl's Carriage & Wagon Works 1903-1923; Biehl Auto Top Co., 1908-1923; Reading, Pennsylvania
     

"A Continuous Line of Quality Coach Builders Since 1820" was Biehl's motto, and unlike many other firm's who made similar claims, in Biehl's case it was true.

George W. Biehl was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania on Feb. 5, 1854 to John A. and Matilda (Wetherhold) Biehl. His father was a skilled carriage trimmer, having entered the trade at an early age in the Kutztown blacksmith shop of his father, George Biehl (b.1813 - d. 1861), who had been working in the trade since he was 7 years old.

Matilda Wetherhold was also from another famous Berks County carriage building family that was headed by her father, William H. Wetherhold. Established in 1862, it became Wetherhold & Wetherhold when his sons William and George joined the firm, and Wetherhold Bros. when its founder retired in 1891.

George W.ís father, John A. Biehl (b.1831 - d.1908), was later apprenticed to an Allentown, Pennsylvania carriage builder where he became learned the art of trimming and upholstery. Once a journeyman, he traveled across the state working for various builders before settling down in Reading where he became associated with the carriage building firm of Conrad Krebs.

After his son, George W., had completed his studies in the Reading public schools, at the age of 13 he entered the trade as a trimmerís apprentice working alongside his father in the Krebs carriage works.

In 1871 George W. Biehl married Emma Morgan, and in short order produced five offspring; George M., Bessie, Alvin J., Herbert T. and Earl. In 1877 Biehl made a bold move and established a carriage works of his own on Readingís Cherry Street, just below Sixth.

Business progressed and in 1880 he moved into larger quarters on Pearl Street, between Cherry and Franklin, establishing an office and wareroom at No. 31 S. Fifth St., Reading in 1882. Biehl produced the occasional pleasure vehicle, but his main line of work was for Readingís businessmen, for whom he produced transfer and express wagons, ambulances, embalmers' wagons and hearses.

In August of 1887, the firm produced a $375 one-horse ambulance for Readingís volunteer fire department.

In 1891 Biehl tentatively sold the carriage works to James Goodman, the son of Reading carriage builder Henry Goodman, but within two years Goodman had stopped making his mortgage payments and Biehl repossessed the firm in 1893. By the turn of the century Biehlís 45 hands were turning out $50,000 worth of vehicles annually.

In 1903, Mr. Biehl admitted a partner, Wilson H. Eisenbrown, the proprietor of Readingís Eagle Wagon Works, and the two plants consolidated into Biehlís growing Pearl St. manufactory.  Six years earlier Eisenbrownís factory had been destroyed by a fire on the night of August 10-11, 1897, and his heavy truck and wagon business had never fully recovered from the loss.

The combined business grew at an exponential rate and in 1904 a third partner, Thomas DeMoss was admitted to the firm which was reorganized as Biehl's Carriage & Wagon Works.

Coincidentally, a G.W. Biehl was listed as the plant manager of another Reading Commercial Body builder, the Keystone Body Works in the April, 1904 issue of Carriage Monthly. Biehl was a common Berks County surname and although both G.W. Biehlís were likely related, they were not the same person.

The December, 1905 issue of Automotive Industries reported that:

ďBiehlís Carriage & Wagon Works, Reading, Pa., have gone into the Auto body building business and have met with unusual success.Ē

By 1907 the partners organized two additional firms; the Biehl Auto Top Co. to provide Readingís motorists with weatherproof tops and accessories, and the Berk Auto Garage Co. for the retail sale, repair and storage of automobiles.

The August, 1908 issue if the Hub included the following:

ďThe Biehl Carriage & Wagon Works, of Reading, Pennsylvania, recently completed for local use an ambulance which is very handsome in design and complete in equipment. It is provided with batteries for illuminating the outside lamps besides one small incandescent light over driver's seat and two colored lights on interior of body. The trimmings are of brass. Instead of the ordinary brake which contacts the tire, a band brake, such as is fitted to automobiles, is used. This arrangement prevents wear and tear of rubber tires. The center panel of body is painted dark blue, while the upper and lower panels are a lighter shade of blue. Striping is gold. The gear is black with light blue and gold striping. The lettering is gold, as well as the circle upon which the Red Cross is painted. A large brass plated gong is secured to the dashboard. The driver's seat is upholstered on sides and back in leather.Ē

The ambulance was built for Readingís fire department at a cost of $826.50. Itís interesting to note that in a thirty-year period, the cost of a horse-drawn ambulance had risen only $450.00, or 120%. During the past thirty years the cost of a modern ambulance rose by well over $100,000, an increase of over 400%.

Biehlís four sons, George M., Alvin J., Herbert T., and Earl worked in the plant during their summer vacations, but it was Earl who decided to make it his lifeís work. After he served his country in the First World War, Earl became associated with the day-to-day operation of the firm, eventually becoming its president when his father retired a few years later.

In 1923 Biehlís Carriage & Wagon Works relocated to a new structure located at Second and Penn Aves. in West Reading.

In 1926, J. George Hoffman, a long time Biehl journeyman, and two other Reading residents, B. Frank Hafer and W. Howard Swartz, purchased a controlling interest in the Boyertown Carriage Works in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, reorganizing it as the Boyertown Auto Body Works.

The three principals, all members of St. John's Reformed Church in Reading, became acquainted through Haferís Sunday school class which was attended by Swartz and Hoffman. For more information on Boyertown, please see the Boyertown entry in the encyclopedia.

As did most mid-sized commercial body builder, Biehl occasionally converted existing long wheelbase sedan and limousine bodies into sedan ambulances, one of which is known to have been built in 1938. In the same year they also remounted a Hahn fire truck body onto a new Ford chassis for a Berks County volunteer fire dept.

During their long history Biehlís produced all sorts of vehicles, but their main claim to fame would be their wood-framed station wagon bodies that they built during the twenties and thirties.

Unlike H.H. Babcock, Campbell-Midstate, Cantrell, Hercules, Mifflinburg, Murray and Raulang, Biehlís never built large numbers of the vehicles until General Motors Buick Division commissioned them to produce a prototype station wagon body for the all-new 1940 Buick Estate Wagon.

During the First World War, George W. Biehlís son Earl had become friends with a young engineering student who became an engineer for the Buick division. When Harlow H. Curtice decided to manufacture a Buick station wagon for the 1940 model year, Earlís old friend recommended Biehlís for the job.

Impetus for the vehicleís production came from an unlikely source, Evelyn ďBunnyĒ McLeod, the socialite wife of Hollywood director Norman Z. McLeod. Harley Earl and Buick president Harlow H. Curtice, a friend of the director, were attending a party at the McLeodís Beverly Hills home when the subject of the Bunnyís lack of Buick ownership arose.

Bunny replied that the reason that she didnít keep a Buick in her garage was due to the fact that they didnít offer a station wagon. Needless to say, upon his return to Detroit, Earl commissioned his staff to design one, and Harlow H. Curtice immediately approved a run of 495 wagons for the 1940 model year.

Using plans supplied by Earlís Buick stylists, the Reading coachbuilder produced a beautiful ash & mahogany prototype body for the proposed Buick Estate Wagon. The body was given the green light and Biehl was given the contract to produce 495 duplicates.

Once completed, Curtice presented the prototype wagon to Bunny McLeod in a special ceremony well-covered by the Hollywood press at the Ambassador Hotelís legendary Coconut Grove nightclub.

The mahogany-paneled, ash-framed Model 59 wagons were built on Buick-supplied cowl and floorpans which when completed were returned to Buickís Flint assembly line for trimming and installation on Buickís 121" 1940 Super chassis.

Thanks to the publicity, the vehicle proved so popular that the contract for the 1941 Buick Model 49 Estate Wagons was given to the Hercules in Evansville, Indiana as Buick felt that Biehl was unable to handle the projected 1000 body order (838 Model 49s were produced in 1941, 328 in 1942).

With the handwriting on the wall, so to speak, the Biehl partners decided to turn the works over to a group of investors headed by a 22-year Biehl employee named G. Harold Guinther. In 1940 he reorganized it as Biehlís Auto Body Works and during the ensuing years relocated the business to 1340 Center Ave. where he turned it into a successful auto body repair business that survived into the 1960s.

The wooden body used on Col. James V. Martinís Stationette, the wagon version of his post-war Martinette sedan,  was built by the Biehl Auto Body Works. The prototype debuted sometime around 1950 and along with the Martinette was produced in very small quantities by Bassonís Industries Corp. of Bronx, N.Y. through 1956.

Today, the former Biehl Body Works is occupied by Reading Rentals Inc., a full service construction equipment rental house.

© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com

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References

Raymond Wolf Albright - Two Centuries of Reading, Pa., 1748-1948: A History of the County Seat of Berks County

Morton L. Montgomery - History of Berks County, Beers Publishing, Chicago, Illinois (pub. 1886)

Morton L. Montgomery - Biographical Annals and History of Berks County, Beers Publishing, Chicago, Illinois (pub. 1909)

Henry W. Meyer - Memories of the Buggy Days (pub 1969)

Mechanix Illustrated Ė April, 1950 issue

Captain James V. Martin - Special Interest Autos #21, March-April 1974

Terry B. Dunham, Lawrence R. Gustin - The Buick: A Complete History

   
 
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