The firm that would later become the Boyertown Carriage Works was founded by a Berk’s County native named Jeremiah Sweinhart in 1872. As did most Pennsylvania-based Sweinharts, he likely descended from Conrad Schweinhardt, a seventeenth century resident of Kunsbach, Wurttemburg, Germany. During the eighteenth century a number of his offspring emigrated to Frederick County, Maryland, and Berks and Philadelphia Counties, Pennsylvania. Once in the States, their surname was commonly shortened to Schweinhart, Sweinhart or Sweinhardt or misspelled as Swinehart, Swihart and Schwyhart.
Many of the Pennsylvania Schweinhardt’s were skilled cabinet and carriage makers such as Josiah Schweinhardt, a similarly-named Berks County carriage builder who was born on June 18, 1813 (d. August 4, 1887) in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
The J. Sweinhart carriage works were located in a small shed located across the alley from his 140 W. Philadelphia Ave. home in Boyertown, Berks County, Pennsylvania. Sweinhart specialized in luxury vehicles such as carriages, buggies, spring wagons and sleighs.
On December 3, 1872, the Boyertown Democrat (Boyertown, Pennsylvania) included the following advertisement:
When Sweinhart advertised in the Boyertown Democrat that he was looking to sell his business in 1884, two respondents, Milton R. Strunk and Horace Fisher met his qualifications, and he turned over his W. Philadelphia Ave works to the two young men and retired.
Milton R. Strunk was born on March 2, 1859 in Milford Township, Upper Bucks County, Pennsylvania to Daniel Strunk. After a public education he was apprenticed to a carriage builder in Spinnerstown, Bucks County and after a number of years in the trade, became associated with Horace Fisher, and for two years adopted the style of Strunk and Fisher. In 1886 Fisher sold his share in the Sweinhart works to Frank H. Hartman (b.1867-d.1927) Hartman was born on January 10, 1867 in Milford Township to Philip and Sarah (Hunsberger) Hartman.
The January 4, 1887, issue of the Boyertown Democrat advertised the new venture:
In 1885 Hartman & Strunk erected a new 3-story wooden manufactory along the alley near Walnut St. (now Third St.) and converted the older structure into their smithworks. A second framed structure was turned into a winter repository and was linked to the factory via a wooden ramp. An additional story was eventually added and converted into a paint shop.
In 1890 Milton R. Strunk sold his share in the firm to Frank H. Hartman who soon expanded into the production of commercial vehicles: bakery wagons, huckster wagons, milk, ice and ice cream wagons, etc. The 1890 Boyertown stage and U.S. Mail coach currently residing in the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles was built by Hartman.
Strunk eventually became associated with the Boyertown Burial Casket Company, becoming its general superintendent when the plant opened up in April of 1893. Under his watchful eye the casket works went from a nominal staff of 40 to over 300, becoming lower Berks County’s largest employer.
Business expanded at a much more leisurely rate at the F.H. Hartman Carriage Works. In the early 1900s Hartman introduced electricity to the works, installing a modern electric forge and two electric motors to drive the belt-driven milling and shaping machines. The conversion was engineered and installed by J. William Shaeffer, Boyertown's first electrician and the father of Erminie Shaeffer, Paul R. Hafer’s future wife.
On January 13, 1908, the stage of Boyertown’s Rhoads Opera House caught on fire during a church-sponsored performance of ''The Scottish Reformation” killing 170 residents. The blaze ranked as one of the deadliest of the 20th century, worse than the better-known Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York that occurred three years later. Whole families were lost in the disaster striking a devastating blow to Berks County’s Pennsylvania Dutch community.
In its aftermath, the Pennsylvania State Legislature and Governor Edwin Stuart passed a number of fire safety standards and building codes that are now taken for granted including marked exits, doors that open outward and easily accessible fire escapes. During the following week, all of the town’s factories were closed save for the Boyertown Burial Casket Company, which worked overtime in order to provide enough coffins for the deceased.
On February 4, 1911, page one of the Berks County Democrat included the following news item:
Milton Derr became president and Morris F. Gilbert (1869-1947), secretary-treasurer of the renamed Boyertown Carriage Works, Ltd.
Morris F. Gilbert was born in 1869 in Pike Township, Berks County, Pennsylvania to Henry S. and Sarah G. (Fronheiser) Gilbert. He relocated to Boyertown in 1886 and commenced his 60-year-long coach building career in the shops of J. Sweinhart, Boyertown Carriage Works’ direct ancestor.
Al Shuler left the firm in 1912, relocated to Reading, Pennsylvania while John Landis sold his share in 1915, electing to trade his smith’s tools for the pen and amortization tables of the life insurance salesman.
As early as 1912 the Boyertown Planing Mill began supplying wood molding to the new Boyertown Carriage Works. Even though their original Rhoads and Jefferson Sts. Plant was destroyed by fire in 1922, the Planing Mill continued to supply much of the Carriage Works framing until they changed over to the all-metal body in the late 20s. When Boyertown started producing bookmobiles, the Planing Mill supplied all of the vehicle’s cabinets and bookshelves. Approaching its second century in business, the Boyertown Planing Mill continues to supply the regions luxury home builders with custom millwork built in its Second and Franklin Sts. factory.
The Anchor Bending Works of Reading, Pennsylvania supplied the carriage works with finished wagon wheels and bentwood roof bows which were used on most of the firm’s delivery bodies.
The Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles has on display what it claims to be the “first commercial delivery truck body” produced by the Boyertown Carriage Company. Built in 1914 for D.S. Erb and Co., the manufacturer of Castle Hall Cigars, it was a simple wooden box designed to be mounted on a Ford Model T chassis. The body was later sold to an Oley, Pennsylvania printer who had it re-lettered in the style of C.S. Bower and Son.
Boyertown built primarily commercial delivery vehicles but built an occasional hearse or invalid coach upon request. Early delivery bodies often included their trademark “Boyertown Bonnet”, more commonly known as a “cadet front”, a sheet-metal covered wood-framed visor that helped ease the awkward height transition from the driver’s cab to the typically high rear cargo area.
Early automotive commercial bodies were typically made from ash frames covered by painted poplar and maple panels, and differed little from their horse-drawn predecessors save for their chassis.
In northern climates both types of vehicle were usually equipped with simple wooden cabs designed to shield the driver from inclement weather. More expensive enclosures included two-piece ventilated glass windshields with roll-up canvas doors equipped with isinglass windows.
By 1918, the majority of the Boyertown Carriage Works’ cabs and commercial bodies were mounted on gasoline-powered light truck chassis as evidenced by the firm’s Armistice Day parade float which carried a banner proclaiming that: “The carriage days are past, now we make truck bodies.”
Some of the firm’s old-timers were unhappy with that fact and up until 1926, the firm continued to produce horse-drawn vehicles. By that time it became apparent that the survival of the firm depended on a changeover to modern metal-framed bodies, however the firm’s current owners, Morris F. Gilbert and Milton Derr, were unwilling to finance the move. Consequently, on March 1st, 1926 they sold a controlling interest in the firm to a Reading-based group of investors headed by B. Frank Hafer (b.1883-d. May 3, 1968), W. Howard Swartz, and J. George Hoffman.
The three principals, all members of St. John's Reformed Church in Reading, became acquainted through Hafer’s Sunday school class which was attended by Swartz and Hoffman.
Up until that time B. Frank Hafer had served as the traffic manager for the Penn Hardware Company, a Reading-based producer of door locks & door hardware founded in 1877 by C. Raymond and Albert A. Heizmann. W. Howard Swartz had owned his own pharmacy at 538 Penn Ave., in West Reading, Pennsylvania and had no experience in the manufacturing field. J. George Hoffman, was the only partner with carriage-building experience, having been a long-time journeyman at Reading’s Biehl Wagon Works which was founded in 1877 by George W. Biehl.
The new partners reorganized the firm as the Boyertown Auto Body Works, and Derr and Gilbert were asked to stay with the firm to help make the transition a successful one. At the firm’s first board meeting Hafer was elected president, Swartz, vice-president and Hoffman, secretary-treasurer. Unfortunately Milton Derr died the following year, however Morris F. Gilbert remained with the firm until his death on October 24, 1947 at the age of 78.
Paul R. Hafer was still in high school when his family relocated to Boyertown in 1926 and he commenced working part-time at various positions in the Body Works under the direction of paint shop foreman Rodie Rothenberger, blacksmith shop foreman A. Willet ("Billy") Geschwind and wood shop foreman Herbert Bender.
When his father initially purchased the firm in 1926 he had requested design assistance from the Fleetwood Metal Body Company, the classic-era coachbuilder located 15 miles away in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania. The experiment was short-lived and after graduation young Paul R. Hafer quickly became acquainted with Boyertown’s drafting department was soon designing many of the firm’s bodies.
In the late twenties and early thirties product-shaped advertising vehicles became popular and Boyertown built a number of them for eastern Pennsylvania businesses. A milk bottle shaped body was built for the Mowrer Dairy of Bethlehem, while a breadloaf-shaped vans were constructed for the following; Maier's Bakery of Reading; Schaible's Bakery of Easton; Schulz Baking Co. of Pottstown; and the Bethlehem Baking Co. of Bethlehem. Other advertising vehicles included a coughdrop box-shaped cargo box for use on Luden’s Model A delivery coupes (Reading, Pa.) and an faux awning-shop body for the Capital Awning Co. of Washington, D.C.
In 1932 a fire destroyed the firm’s three-story wood-frame paint shop which was replaced by a modern 5,000 sq. ft. brick paint shop with individual spray booths.
As the Depression wore on, the partners began to experience cold feet. W. Howard Swartz was the first to sell, and B. Frank Hafer and his son Paul R. Hafer, (b. Nov 7, 1910 – d. Oct 24, 2004) purchased his shares in 1933. Now that Paul had a financial stake in the firm he took the place of Swartz as the firm’s vice-president. Within the year, J. George Hoffman wanted out as well, and his shares were purchased by the Hafer family, who now had complete control of the business. Hoffman became associated with a dairy business in nearby Telford which was reorganized as the Hoffman Dairy Co.
The Hoffman buyout prompted a second reorganization on May 7th, 1934, where Paul R. Hafer was elected president; Mrs. Elizabeth O. Hafer (B. Frank’s wife), vice-president and B. Frank Hafer, secretary-treasurer. The rest of the board; Mrs. Erminie Shaeffer Hafer, wife of Paul R.; and Elizabeth and B. Franks two other sons, Dr. Jesse G. Hafer of Pottstown and Rev. Dr. Harold F. Hafer of Lancaster. The Hafer family traces its history to Mathias Hafer, or Hoefer, a German native who emigrated to Ruscomb Manor township, Berks County, Pennsylvania in 1773.
The manufacture of the delivery body slowly evolved during the first half of the twentieth century. Initially built using canvas, then surface-coated (with pyroxylin) canvas panels (Dridek & Fabrikoid) stretched over a maple or ash frame, thin wooden panels soon took the place of the canvas, closely followed by composition boards made of pressed wood and paper (Agasote, Homasote & Vehisote) then metal-covered plywood (Plymetl & Haskelite) sheet steel, sheet aluminum and finally fiberglass-reinforced plastic paneling.
The materials used to build Boyertown’s framing changed as well. Initially built using bent wood frames with flat and angle iron and brass used to reinforce fragile joints, the wood was soon supplanted by extruded steel and aluminum channels, then stamped steel and aluminum struts, and finally monocoque bodies built from fiberglass reinforced plastic (FRP).
Boyertown supplied some bodywork that was used on the unusual Thorne gas-electric drop-frame delivery trucks that were manufactured by the Thorne Motor Corporation of Chicago, Illinois between 1929 and 1936. The Boyertown metal-framed bodies were sheathed in double-sided Plymetl and were produced for the Schulz Baking Co. of Pottstown and the Heights Baking Co. of Cleveland, Ohio. The Thorne was a small Stand-To-Drive multi-stop vehicle whose gasoline engine powered an electric generator that supplied DC current to an electric motor driving the rear wheels.
Boyertown built hundreds of walk-in route delivery truck based on a Ford 1 ton chassis starting in the mid-1930s. Aimed at Dairies and other multi-stop vehicle customers, the van featured a Ford flathead V8 mounted on a 1-ton 112" wheelbase chassis modified for standing operation. Early bodies were built on the Ford chassis-cowl and featured 18" of the Ford's face protruding from the front of the Boyertown body. Later versions included a much more attractive Boyertown-built front end that were built using Ford's commercial forward control 1-ton chassis.
During the mid-to-late thirties Boyertown produced a large number of streamlined buses, delivery vans, moving vans and horse boxes for regional businesses. Many of the bodies were molded into the cab from the A-pillar rearwards while some COE-based bodies were entirely Boyertown-designed from front to rear.
Boyertown is credited with coming up with the term “Town & Country” in 1938 where it was used a proposal submitted to the Chrysler Corporation which showed three station wagon proposals for the 1939 Dodge chassis. One was called the Town & Country, the second, Country Club Sport, and the third, Country Gentleman. The first Chrysler-produced Town & Country would appear two years later as a 1941 model.
Boyertown’s first all-steel bus body appeared on the 1939-1941 Mack L-25 Bus which was built at Mack’s Allentown, Pennsylvania assembly plant. Designed in association with the Parrish Pressed Steel Co. of Reading, Pennsylvania, the bodies were built using “Dynaloy” alloy steel supplied by the Alan Wood Steel Company.
Parrish proved to be an important business partner as Boyertown converted over to the manufacture of all-steel bodies in the late 30s and would later supply the metal stampings for Boyertown’s trademark Multalloy construction and Merchandiser delivery van bodies.
In 1939, Boyertown submitted preliminary drawings to the US Military for ambulance and mobile machine shop bodies that could be mounted on light to medium-duty four wheel drive truck chassis. The contract was eventually awarded to the firm and construction of the all-steel bodies began in 1940.
Immediately following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Boyertown was called upon to supply the government with additional vehicle bodies and trailers, and the plant soon devoted its entire facility over to War Work.
According to the firm’s official historian, Erminie Hafer, the following Military vehicle bodies were manufactured by Boyertown for the war effort: 1,470 Mobile No.1 Machine Shops; 900 4WD ambulance bodies; 140 Mobile Shoe & Textile Canvas Repair Shops; 40 Mobile No.2 Machine Shops; 30 Mobile Hospital Operating Rooms; 18 Mobile Tire Repair Shops; 3 Mobile Dental Prosthetic Labs; 2 Boxing and Waterproof Packaging Shops; 1 Mobile Radio Communication Unit; and 1 Recruiting Service Unit.
Sixty-nine Boyertown employees served in the Armed Services during the War, and many of their wives worked at the factory for the duration of hostilities.
Colonel Fred S. Robillard of the U.S. Marine Corps was the firm’s military procurement liaison and on May 14th, 1943, he awarded Boyertown with the coveted ArmyNavy "E" Award.
The “E” award was the Army-Navy Award for Excellence in War Production and was normally awarded when a firm completed a large order for the US War effort or filled an order in a short period of time.
At the ceremony, the employees would be given an enameled pin mounted on a card certifying their contribution to the war effort with a message from the president. The employer would be presented with an “E’ flag and banner and outstanding employees would be presented with a special certificate.
Boyertown successfully met their goal of a one-third increase in production and during the next two years four more stars were added to Boyertown's "E" flag.
In 1942 the Hafers converted a new Ford sedan into an ambulance for the Boyertown Lions Club, presenting its president, Earl H. Keim, with the $1,750 fully receipted bill in a special ceremony that took place on November 19th, 1942. On February 26, 1948 the Hafers repeated the act presenting the Boyertown Lions’ Community Ambulance Service with a $4,000 receipted bill for conversion of another new ambulance.
In 1940 a new main plant was erected on S. Walnut St. next to the paint shop that was built in 1932. The firm’s War contracts facilitated the construction of a second addition in 1941 closely followed by a third in 1942, giving them a grand total of 16,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing along the northwest side of S. Walnut St. A new 1,750 sq. ft. corporate office and design center was also constructed in 1942 at the northeast corner of S. Walnut and W. Third Sts.
By early 1943 even more space was required, so a vacant Warwick St. Chevrolet distributor was acquired, giving them another 11,200 sq. ft. Later that year they added another wing to their office building and erected two more storage buildings on their W. Walnut St. complex giving them close to 40,000 sq. ft. of space by war’s end.
The end of the War saw a sharply increased demand for commercial bodies, producing a consequent increase in Boyertown’s demand for iron, aluminum and sheet steel. The firm was forced to return to using wood in some of their bodies as metal was in short supply until well into the late forties. An export office was established in New York City and twenty-five additional distributors were added to their pre-war sales team. A new division called the Boyertown Body and Equipment Company was also established in order to distribute the firm’s various products in areas not already covered by traditional sales outlets.
As previously mentioned, the Boyertown plant had been extensively renovated and expanded during the War and in order to make better use of its new assembly lines two separate manufacturing subdivisions were established; the first for mass production of Merchandiser, Step-N-Serve, and Box Back van bodies; the second for custom bodies.
In 1946 a five acre site was purchased on S. Reading Ave. (Pa. Rte. 562) adjacent to a Reading Railroad siding that was used for stockpiling incoming chassis and completed vehicles awaiting shipment. Also constructed that year was another 8,600 sq. ft. addition at the S. Walnut St. plant as well as an employee/visitor parking lot built across the street from the Boyertown offices.
In October of 1947 Boyertown’s board of directors authorized the purchase of an eighteen-acre tract located east of Boyertown in the hopes of constructing a new 45,760 square foot factory. However construction of the plant at the former site of the Boyertown Ore Company was put on indefinite hold.
In the late forties, Boyertown was one of the first firms to produce electronic field production bodies for the television industry. The very first unit was built in 1947 for RCA, and numerous examples were produced into the late fifties for other broadcasters and regional television stations.
In August of 1948 Boyertown purchased a Franklin-powered Stinson 108-3 Flying Station Wagon and acquired the former Boyertown/Layfield Airport on Swamp Pike in Gilbertsville, Pennsylvania, just three miles east of Boyertown, to house it.
In 1949 the firm won a contract to produce 2,250 Parcel Delivery bodies for the US Postal Service which was followed by a supplemental order for another 225 in June of 1950. Of the original 2500, only a handful remain, one at the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles, another at the National Postal Museum in Washington D.C.
In 1949 Boyertown introduced the Tour Wagon, a modified Merchandiser body designed for camping and extended travel. Built on a forward control 116” to 125” wheelbase chassis, the $3,500 vehicle included a kitchenette, lavatory and sleeping arrangements for four. A special Ford-based Tour Wagon was built in 1951 for Prince Makonnen, the son of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Several hundred of the recreational vehicles were turned out by the firm during the 1950s and early 60s.
Another Merchandiser derivative, the Civil Defense/Fire Rescue body, was also introduced at the same time. Available in a number of configurations, the versatile vehicle included supplemental fire and emergency gear and could be equipped with electric outlets and floodlights powered by an onboard 2500-watt Onan gas-electric generator. The vehicles were also available with folding stretchers, first aid equipment, resuscitators, oxygen tanks or any other rescue gear that might be needed at the scene of an accident, fire or natural disaster.
Mobile canteens and catering wagons were also built using Merhandisers but its most popular iteration was the bookmobile. First produced in 1948, the Boyertown Bookmobile featured a built-in generator and custom-built bookshelves supplied by the Boyertown Planing Mill. It remained a popular vehicle into the 1960s and many were delivered outside of the country to NGO-funded educational programs in Africa, Europe and Southeast Asia through Boyertown’s Export Sales Division.
In 1954, two Expansible Van bodies, similar in design to the slide-out units found on today’s RVs, were built for the US Army for use as mobile canteens, photo labs, and machine shops. Its movable sides allowed the van body to expand to twice its normal size, and when parked side-by-side, two vans could be connected creating a temporary auditorium with seating for 100. The elaborate and complex body proved to be a popular item with the US military and during the late 1970s was used to house ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile) systems. During the early 1980s, a number of Expansible vans were sold to the New York City School District for use as mobile classrooms.
In 1956 a new parts fabrication and warehouse facility was constructed adjacent to a spur line of the Pennsylvania Railroad a couple of blocks south of the Walnut and Third St. plant at the southwest corner of E. Second St. and Englesville Rd. Five years later, a state-of-the-art automated assembly plant was constructed adjacent to the parts fabrication and warehouse facility.
In 1959 Boyertown was awarded a contract to produce 800 mobile ice cream stores on 1-ton forward control Ford chassis for William and James Conway, two Philadelphia brothers who where the proprietors of Mister Softee Inc., an ice cream manufacturer and franchisor now located in Runnemede, New Jersey.
On January 30, 1960 the board of directors elected two non-Hafers to the board; Kermit Lenhart and Gordon Rose. Lenhart joined the firm in 1946 as an accountant and replaced B. Frank Hafer as treasurer. Rose had been with Boyertown since 1936, and was Paul R. Hafer’s executive assistant. In 1965 he became executive vice-president, and in 1968 Boyertown’s vice-president and secretary.
On May 18th, 1960 death came to Mrs. Elizabeth O. Hafer at the age of seventy-five. Vice-president and a director of the company since 1934, she had been preceded in death by her son, the Rev. Dr. Harold F. Hafer of Lancaster. She was survived by her husband B. Frank, Boyertown’s current secretary, and two sons; Paul R., Boyertown’s president, and Dr. Jesse G. Hafer of Pottstown.
On February 8th, 1961, Boyertown president Paul R. Hafer was presented the Boyertown Jaycees annual "Man of the Year" award.
The Boyertown Mini-van delivery body was introduced in 1960 in response to an increased demand for a smaller and more compact urban delivery body. 40 Mobile machines shop trailers and vans were also built that year for the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers.
In 1960 the firm’s shipping and receiving department relocated to the former Merritt Lumber yard on S. Reading Ave. Seven years later, the property located behind the lumber yard was acquired from the Baver Oil Co.
In May of 1961 500 Dodge forward-control chassis were fitted with Parcel Post bodies for the US Postal Service. The bodies featured a redesigned windscreen that allowed its operator to see an object 36” high positioned only 20” in front of the vehicle.
In December of 1960 construction commenced on a new 43,000 sq. ft. addition to the firm’s parts fabrication facility. When completed, the south Boyertown plant occupied a grand total of 168,000 sq. ft.
The September 1961 issue of Boyertown’s house organ, the Busy Body, described the plant layout in great detail:
Now that the new body plant was running smoothly, Boyertown president Paul R. Hafer decided to expand the firm’s board of directors in order to give the firm’s numerous executives a voice in the future direction of the company.
On January 25th, 1964, the following new directors were elected to the Boyertown board; W. Sterling Keller, Boyertown’s director of product development who had started with the firm in 1933 as an electrician; Lloyd B. Fritz, director of production planning who also started out as an electrician in 1939; W. Brooke Fryer, director of pricing and invoicing who started with the firm in 1945 as a bookkeeper; and Harold A. Reitnauer, director of accounts payable who began his Boyertown career as a clerk in 1940.
On January 30th, 1965, additional members were added to the board; Nelson Brensinger, Sr., superintendent of manufacturing and development, with Boyertown since 1937; Willard W. Tretheway, director of purchasing, with the firm since 1948; Paul Youse, director of manufacturing, who was first employed by the firm in 1933 as a painter; and Robert Fleming, executive director of the Boyertown Body & Equipment Co. who had been a Boyertown salesman since 1952.
On January 29th, 1966, two more directors joined the board; Gordon Hunsberger, director of payroll, a payroll dept employee since 1948; and Douglas Rose, director of sales and marketing who joined the Boyertown sales team in 1946.
During 1962 Boyertown entered into a partnership with Smith Delivery Vehicles, Ltd., of Gateshead-on-Tyne, Gateshead, England and the Exide Division of the Electric Storage Battery Co. of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in order to produce an electric-powered route delivery truck.
The Boyertown-Smiths connection had been made in 1957-1958 when the British firm’s managing director was in the United States exploring a partnership with William and James Conway, the owners of Mister Softee, whose mobile ice-cream trucks were currently built by Boyertown.
Smith’s eventually secured the United Kingdom rights to the Mister Softee brand from the Conways and along with a J. Lyons & Co. subsidiary named Glacier Foods Ltd., started producing Mister Softee electric ice cream floats (trucks) in 1959. Smith’s had been impressed with Boyertown’s quality and approached the firm with the Battronic proposal in 1962. At that time Smith was the world's leader in electric vehicles with over 14,000 Smith Electrics in service across the United Kingdom and Western Europe.
The new company was organized as the Battronic Truck Corporation: BAT for battery-powered, TRONIC for its electronic power delivery system. Exide’s parent company had been a pioneer in motor vehicle storage batteries and Smith was a pioneer in the production of electric route delivery vehicles. Boyertown’s contribution was their high-strength, corrosion-resistant “Multalloy” body.
Early Battronics had a top speed of 25 mph and could carry a 2,500 lb. payload up to 62 miles (later 75) on a single charge. On January 10th, 1963, Battronic began active promotion of the new vehicle which was to be built at Boyertown’s new E. Second St. assembly plant. A prototype was constructed using a Boyertown Merchandiser mated to an Exide-powered Smith electric chassis and testing commenced on the streets of Boyertown.
The Potomac Edison Company of Hagerstown, Maryland, took delivery of the very first production Battronic in March of 1964. However, things got off to a very slow start, and difficulties in the importation of chassis and control units from England resulted in the withdrawal of Smiths from the partnership in May of 1966.
Exide and Boyertown remained committed to the project and during the next year the Battronic made numerous appearances across the country, and was even featured on NBC television’s “Today Show” in March of 1967. Boyertown’s Paul R. Hafer drove a Battronic in a documentary on air pollution where he discussed the vehicle’s money-saving pollution-free technology to NBC’s Sander Vanocur.
Hafer also gave testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce and Public Works on March 15th, 1967 in support of a bill sponsored by Senators Edmund Muskie and Warren Magnuson to provide Federal funds to assist in the development and use of electric vehicles.
In 1968 Battronic announced a new lightweight removable battery system that reduced the weight of their original vehicles by up to 1900 lbs. The new removable battery packs could be changed in five minutes allowing a fresh set to power the vehicles while a second set was charging.
After Exide withdrew from the Battronic partnership in September of 1969, Battronic utilized the engineering services of General Electric to help manufacture the Battronic’s complex electrical system.
A small fleet of Battronics were supplied to the US Air Force for use at Langley Field, Virginia in order to demonstrate its advantages to the military, however no orders were forthcoming. With very few exceptions, Battronics were purchased primarily for publicity purposes by electric power utilities and municipalities and despite the fact that ongoing changes were made to increase its efficiency and range, it never caught on with American businesses, its intended market.
Between 1963 and 1983 the Battronic Corp. produced approximately 175 vans, 20 passenger buses (available for 11, 15 or 25 passengers), and at least one pickup truck called the Volta. Surprisingly, Boyertown Battronic parts & service is still available from the Boyertown Trolley Corporation, 3811 W. Nine Mile Rd., in Pensacola, Florida.
In December of 1964 the former Atlantic Aviation Co. plant at 230 S. Reading Ave. was acquired by the Boyertown Body & Equipment Company in order to house their expanding sales staff and service department and 7 years later the firm purchased the two parcels flanking its headquarters, at 220 and 240 S. Reading Ave., from the Boyertown Oil Corp.
In the fall of 1963 Boyertown introduced the Multalloy truck body. The novel construction technique combined steel panels and castings of varying strengths and composition in order to provide high strength and durability while reducing weight.
In 1965 the Boyertown Multalloy Aluminum-Plastic (MAP) delivery body was introduced. Called the Weightsaver Merchandiser, it included a combination of the firm’s Multalloy steel, Aluminum and Fiberglas-reinforced plastic(FRP).
The Aluminum+Plus Weightsaver van body was introduced in 1968 in response to customer requests for a lighter and more corrosion-resistant body. Although it included an HSLA (high-strength low-alloy) steel sub-frame, all visible surfaces were constructed of cast or sheet aluminum (the + referred to the added bonus of aluminum’s anti corrosion properties).
In 1965 the Lawrence Welk Orchestra purchased a Boyertown Multalloy van to transport their equipment around Los Angeles. Plans were also underway in Boyertown to create a transportation museum highlighting the great achievements of the region’s numerous coach builders and automobile manufacturers. The museum was set up shop in a company-owned warehouse on Warwick Street and opened for business in December of 1965 as the Boyertown Auto Body Works Collection of Historic Vehicles of Berks County.
In January, 1968 the Hafer Foundation was established by the Hafer family to oversee the operation and maintenance of the Boyertown Auto Body Works Collection of Historic Vehicles whose name was now shortened to the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles.
In 1966 an IBM computer program for inventory and production control was installed. On May 3rd, 1968, the patriarch of the Hafer family, B. Frank Hafer, passed away at the age of 85. He was the person most responsible for Boyertown’s success, having turned a small local carriage builder into the world’s largest manufacturer of delivery vans.
During the late 60s and early 70s Paul R. Hafer served as president of the TBEA, the Truck Body and Equipment Association. On October 31st, 1969, Arthur Dicker, Boyertown’s director of engineering services joined the firm’s board of directors.
In 1971 Boyertown announced the formation of the Boyertown Leasing Corp., a new division that provided nationwide low-cost leasing and financing for purchasers of Boyertown products. By 1973 the Boyertown Auto Body Works and its various divisions, were one of Berks County’s largest employers, with a staff of over 600.
Boyertown was always looking to fill a niche market and in 1976 settled upon the trolley bus, a modern bus chassis outfitted with old-time trolley bodywork, complete with a driver-operated bell, slatted wooden seats, etched window glass, brass tubing and a rear vestibule. Boyertown manufactured 23- to 36-passenger trolley buses between 1976 and 1990. The trolley’s cost between $70,000-80,000 (maximum capacity on a 36-passenger trolley was 36 seated and 14 standing).
During the 1970s the Continental Baking Co. and other large bakeries might order as many as 1500 vehicles at a time and Boyertown became well-known for their bakery truck bodies. At one time or another, the following bakers utilized Boyertown’s products: Bachman's, Billy's, Bond, Continental, Dewey's, Freihofer's, General, Height's, Hendrick's, Maier's, Mrs. Smith, Mutter's, Pepperidge Farm Schaible's, and Schulz.
Paul R. Hafer, company president since 1934, retired in 1978, turning the reins over to Col. Harry D. Yoder, a retired Air Force pilot who came to the firm from Lockheed in 1971. Later that year Yoder, Kermit Lenhart and George B. Burpee purchased a controlling stake in the firm from Hafer, who stayed on as board chairman. Over 125,000 vehicles had been produced under Paul R. Hafer’s tenure as Boyertown president. Yoder became president, Burpee, vice-president and Lenhart, secretary-treasurer.
By the early 1980s regional bread and milk route delivery trucks had all but disappeared from the nation’s streets, displaced by the modern supermarket whose products arrived around the clock in stainless steel tractor-trailer trucks.
Sales declined throughout the 1980s and in 1985, six younger employees of the firm, who included Keith D. Yoder the Colonel’s son and Ross Renninger, purchased the firm in a leveraged buyout financed by the Meridian Bank. For a number of years Boyertown’s directors had been reluctant to retool the plant in order to produce new products and by 1988, the firm was in serious financial trouble.
Meridian, which was subsequently taken over by Wachovia, the third largest bank in the country, brought in Robert B. Evans Sr. (1906-1998), the former chairman of American Motors, to help rescue the firm, but despite his previous success with AMC, Evans could do little to hold off the inevitable and in 1990 the Boyertown Auto Body Works declared bankruptcy and Meridian disposed of its assets.
Boyertown’s Trolley business was purchased by Arkansas businessman William Placek, who relocated it to Booneville, Logan County, Arkansas. Renamed the Boyertown Logan Body Works, the factory was located in a small factory located outside of Booneville on Hwy 10 East & Mario Del Pero St. The firm went out of business sometime in 1994.
The assets of the Battronic Truck Corporation were purchased by Thomas E. McKean, a small limousine and bus operator located in Pensacola, Florida. He later acquired the rights to the Boyertown Trolleys and combined them into the Boyertown Trolley Corporation.
Located at 3811 W. Nine Mile Rd., Pensacola, McKean continues to stock parts for Battronics, Trolleys and even a few for the firm’s delivery vans. McKean also operates Beach Boy / Beach Bum Trolley, a firm that specializes in the sale and maintenance of used Boyertown Trolleys and Step Vans.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com