“You're the top! You're a Ritz hot toddy. You're the top! You're a Brewster body.” (You’re the Top - copyright 1934 Cole Porter)
With those two phrases, songwriter - and Brewster owner - Cole Porter immortalized the New York City coachbuilder in his hit musical “Anything Goes”. The song was introduced by Ethel Merman and William Glaxton in the 1934 Broadway production, and later appeared in the both the 1936 (Ethel Merman & Bing Crosby) and 1956 (Mitzi Gaynor, Bing Crosby. Jeanmarie and Donald O'Connor ) films of the same title. It also appeared in the 1946 film, Night and Day, where it was sung by Ginny Simms and Cary Grant.
For close to 200 years, the name of Brewster has been associated with the finest carriages and automobile bodies that money could buy. There were over a half-dozen different firms with Brewster in their title, and they were all related in one way or another to James Brewster, a Connecticut native whose roots went deep into American history. In 1620, a group of Puritan separatists led by Elder William Brewster arrived at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts aboard the Mayflower. In 1788 - 168 years later - Brewster’s great, great, great grandson James was born in Preston, Connecticut.
In 1804 at the age of 16, James Brewster apprenticed himself to Colonel Charles Chapman, a carriage maker located in Northampton, Massachusetts. At that time, it was not unusual for craftsman to drink on the job, and one of his earliest memories is of the constant trips he made to procure grog for his fellow workers. Any other apprentice would have been happy for that chore, but the tee-totaling Brewster looked upon the grog and his inebriated co-workers with disgust.
Brewster also attained the rank of Lieutenant in the Northampton militia and seriously considered a life in the military. Luckily he had a conversation with himself that decided his fate once and for all. Writing in his unpublished biography, he recalled: “Which, on the whole, will sound the best in the sequel: James Brewster, the first coachmaker with a competency, or General Brewster, with a writ on his back?”
With 30 dollars in his pocket, and his apprenticeship fulfilled, he set out for New York City in September of 1809.
The stage in which he was riding was delayed in New Haven, Connecticut so he took a short walk around town before coming upon a carriage maker’s establishment on Orange Street. He entered the shop of John Cook, and came out Cook’s new journeyman, forever delaying his job-hunting trip to New York City.
1810 was a busy year for young Brewster. With the $250 he had saved during the previous 12 months working for Cook, he and a silent partner, known only as 'Mr. B', opened up a carriage manufactory at the corner of Elm and High Street. In September Brewster married John Cook's niece, Mary Hequembourg (b.1789-d.1867). Miss Hequembourg was born in 1789 to the former Mercy Cook and a French-born silversmith named Charles Hequembourg (b.1760-d.1851). Mary was originally born in Hartford, Connecticut, but moved to New Haven when her father established a silver smithworks there in 1804.
At that period the principal pleasure carriage was the two-wheeled chaise or gig, and it was not until just previous to the war of 1812 that four-wheeled light carriages were introduced. Brewster was an early adopter of the new style and by the end of the of the hostilities had turned out hundreds of 'Brewster Wagons' for New Haven's merchant class.
Within a few short years expansion became necessary, and in 1821 Brewster purchased the Orange St. shop of his former employer, John Cook. By that time Cook's two sons, Thomas and George, had joined their father and established J. Cook & Sons across the street from their father's original manufactory.
To attract and keep the best workmen, Brewster paid his employees the highest wages, in cash every Saturday night – at that time, most small businesses paid their workers sporadically, often in goods obtained through bartering. Brewster’s aversion to liquor created a temperant working environment for his men, who were rewarded instead with weekly lectures and scientific presentation from professors of New Haven’s Yale University.
Brewster’s work became well-known in the larger cities located along the Cape and Eastern seaboard, and one style, the “Volante” was exported in large numbers to Cuba and South America. By now James and Mary Brewster's blessed union had produced two sons, James Benjamin (b.1817) and Henry Brewster (b. 1824).
In 1827 Brewster established a New York City wareroom, purchasing the former factory of Abram Quick at 52 Broad St. During the next few months Brewster took a steamship to New York every Friday to attend to the satellite branch’s affairs, returning to New Haven the following evening. He kept most of Quick's former employees providing that they pledged to refrain from imbibing while at work.
One of Quick's former men, John R. Lawrence, was placed in charge of the new facility and was made a partner in the enterprise in 1829, when the New York City wareroom was reorganized as Brewster & Lawrence. In 1830, Brewster's bookkeeper, Solomon Collis, was made a partner in the New Haven manufacturing operation which was consequently reorganized as Brewster & Collis.
Brewster's New Haven factory had trouble keeping up with the demand created by his Manhattan warerooms and kept it stocked using carriages purchased wholesale from his former New Haven employer, J. Cook & Sons. Brewster decided to increase the capacity of his New Haven operations and in May of 1832 built a new $20,000 factory on Wooster St.
In 1833 16-year-old James Benjamin Brewster (b.1818-d.1902), the founder’s oldest son, was given a position in the painting department of Brewster & Collis' New Haven factory. After a brief stint in the offices of Brewster & Collis he left to attend Yale University after which he worked for a dry goods business for a short time.
As Brewster now had several partners in charge of his carriage businesses, he found time to pursue other interests, namely the New Haven, Hartford and New York Railroad. He invested heavily in the new firm, which had just started building a line between the three cities, and by 1836 was president of the firm.
A February, 1836 fire destroyed Brewster’s new Wooster St. plant in New Haven causing a $60,000 loss of which only $30,000 was covered by insurance. Although the factory was rebuilt, the Panic of 1837 prompted James Brewster Sr. to withdraw from the carriage business - at least for the time being - and in February 1837 he sold his carriage interests to his two partners, John R. Lawrence and Solomon Collis, who now became full partners in both establishments. Brewster & Lawrence's New York City wareroom became Lawrence & Collis, and Brewster & Collis' New Haven factory, Collis & Lawrence.
In 1850 William H. Bradley bought out Solomon Collis' interest in the New Haven branch which was renamed Lawrence & Bradley. Collis also sold his interest in the New York City firm to Lawrence, who operated it as J.R. Lawrence. In 1857, William B. Pardee became a partner in the New Haven firm whose name was changed to Lawrence, Bradley & Pardee. That firm went on to become one of New Haven’s best know carriage builders and enjoyed a reputation throughout the northeast just before and after the Civil War. John R. Lawrence sold out his interest in the New Haven house in 1868 to his two partners, and two years later Pardee sold his to Bradley, who continued to operate the firm into the early 1870s.
(Coincidentally, A. T. Demarest, another early American automobile body builder, purchased Brewster’s former New Haven factory from William H. Bradley and opened a New York City showroom and Warehouse in 1908. The New Haven plant was closed down in 1916 when Demarest halted all carriage production and concentrated on building automobile bodies in his New York City shop.)
After the New Haven, Hartford and New York Railroad suffered a number of setbacks and financial losses, Brewster resigned from it presidency and began devoting his time and effort to New Haven-based civic projects such as the Alms House and Young Men’s Institute. A hall bearing his name was erected at the corner of State and Chapel Streets in 1845, and New Haven’s Brewster St. was named in his honor. In 1855 he helped establish the New Haven Orphan Asylum and ten year later the Home for Friendless Females. Brewster also spearheaded the construction of Franklin Hall, an early science-oriented New Haven meetinghouse and lecture hall named after Benjamin Franklin.
In 1838 James Brewster re-entered the carriage business forming a new partnership with his eldest son, James Benjamin, and a New York investor named Jonathan W. Allen. A factory was built opposite the Collis & Lawrence on Wooster St. in New Haven and a Manhattan repository was established on Canal Street near Broadway. The New Haven manufacturing operation was organized as James Brewster & Son, the Manhattan wareroom as James Brewster & Co.
It appears as if the senior Brewster was not involved in the operation of either facility as both firms were bankrupt by 1842. In order to salvage his good name, James Brewster Sr. paid of all of his son's creditors, selling off the factory as well as a portion of his New Haven real estate in order to do so.
As did his older brother, James Brewster's youngest son, Henry Brewster (b.1824-d.1887), attended Yale University and in 1844 entered the carriage trade. His employer would be his father. This time the senior Brewster elected to forego the manufacture of vehicles and concentrate his efforts on sales. The Canal street wareroom was re-established as James Brewster & Sons, with James Benjamin overseeing his younger brother Henry until he reached majority (21 years of age) in 1846, at which point he became a full partner - at least on paper.
During this period young Henry Brewster married Miss Charlotte Draper (b. April 3, 1826-d. June 3, 1866), the daughter of William W. and Eliza Green (Chandler) Draper and their blessed union produced two boys; Henry Draper (b. April 4, 1862) and William (b. June 2, 1866) Brewster. Unfortunately Charlotte died the day after William's birth at the age of 40.
In 1848 James Brewster & Sons relocated to larger facilities located at 396 Broadway. An energetic young carriage salesman named John W. Britton joined the firm in 1849. Born on Staten Island in 1823, Britton started off his retail career in the dry goods business, and in 1848 was hired by Isaac Mix Jr. as a carriage salesman in his 440 Broadway repository.
James Brewster took an immediate liking to Britton and in 1851 sent him to New Orleans to establish a southern repository and sales office. The firm joined the handful of northern vehicle manufacturers who established southern sales branches in the years immediately preceding the War Between the States. For a little over a year Britton toiled at developing a clientele for Brewster & Co.'s products, but due to his family's declining health and stiff competition from a local builder named John C. Denman, he called it quits in 1852 and returned to New York.
Despite his failure, Britton returned and soon purchased a small share in the firm from James Benjamin Brewster. While he was gone, the firm had purchased the Union Carriage Co., a producer of coaches and heavy carriages located in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Henry Brewster moved to Bridgeport to oversee its operation.
Another acquisition occurred later that year when Brewster purchased Lawrence & Townsend, a light carriage manufacturer located in New York City on Third Ave. The firm's main partner was James W. Lawrence, who was considered to be one of Manhattan's premiere builders and designers of light carriages. It was reorganized as Lawrence & Brewster with James W. Lawrence and Henry Brewster, partners. To the best of my knowledge James W. Lawrence had no connection whatsoever with John R. Lawrence, a previous Brewster official.
By 1853 James Brewster & Sons controlled two separate factories which supplied their large Broadway wareroom and depository with a complete line of vehicles. Unfortunately the relationship between the two Brewster boys were far from copasetic and had begun to adversely effect the day-to-day operation of the firm.
James Benjamin was the first to propose a split and Henry was perhaps even more interested in a parting ways with his domineering older brother. An agreement was finally reached between all the interested parties and in July 1856 the related James Brewster & Sons and Brewster & Lawrence were dissolved and all of its assets were purchased by a temporary holding company, whose shares were held by James W. Lawrence, John W. Britton, Henry Brewster and James Benjamin Brewster.
The domineering James Benjamin Brewster purchased the 396 Broadway repository and its contents from the holding company, and organized his firm as James B. Brewster.
The remaining partners; James W. Lawrence, John W. Britton and Henry Brewster purchased the Bridgeport, Connecticut and Third St. factories, organizing as Brewster & Company. A six-story structure located at 372-374 Broome St. was leased and turned into a wareroom and repository.
A marketing agreement was negotiated between the two parties whereby James B. Brewster agreed to sell vehicles manufactured by Brewster & Company. James Benjamin also announced his intention to withdraw from the carriage business once his younger brother's firm was on firm footing.
Judging by that correspondence Brewster & Company lost money in 1856 and 1857, and its outlook looked bleak, until a sudden upturn in light carriage sales put them on the right course. A number of new light wagons were developed by James W. Lawrence to meet the demand and by late 1858 sales of the firm's new 'Brewster Wagon' put the firm on firm financial ground. During the same period, James Benjamin Brewster sold his 396 Broadway wareroom and depository and moved into leased quarters at 786 Broadway.
James Benjamin Brewster became envious of his younger brother's success and in 1860 entered into a partnership with another Manhattan carriage dealer named Theodore E. Baldwin, forming Brewster & Baldwin. Soon afterwards the pair entered into a new partnership, Parker, Brewster & Baldwin with the East 25th St. carriage manufacturer John C. Parker. The reorganized firm began offering knockoffs of his younger brother's popular 'Brewster Wagon' which were sold as the 'Parker Wagon'.
The introduction of the Parker Wagon caused the brother's business agreement to collapse and it became apparent that Benjamin was not leaving the carriage business anytime soon. John C. Parker passed away in 1867 and per the terms of their agreement his 145 E. 25th St. factory was inherited by his two partners who renamed the business back to Brewster & Baldwin.
James Brewster Sr.'s exact financial relationship with the two firms is unknown, but based on existing correspondence it is clear he continued to supply both of his sons with advice and ever increasing amounts of capital. He invested in some New Haven businesses, one of which was a carriage maker named G&D Cook & Co. When that firm went bankrupt in 1861 he purchased its assets with two other creditors, reorganizing it as Hooker, Candee & Company. Midway through the Civil War L. Candee withdrew from the partnership and Brewster and Hooker reorganized it as Henry Hooker & Co.
The elder Brewster developed heart trouble in mid-1864 and when he contracted Typhoid fever in the fall of 1866, he knew the end was near. America's most famous carriage maker joined the silent majority on November 22, 1866. He was 77 year old.
On December 9, 1867, Henry Brewster's Brewster & Company opened a new wareroom and repository in a remodeled Fifth Ave. mansion directly opposite Delmonico's Steak House at the corner of 14th St. The reported $40,000 renovation included a first floor showroom that was illuminated by large candle-powered reflectors that allowed restaurant patrons to view Brewster & Company's latest offerings round the clock.
Now that his father was gone, James Benjamin Brewster launched a relentless attack on his younger brother's business. Brewster & Baldwin's 'Parker Wagon' became the 'Brewster Wagon' and the firm was advertised as “the successors of the late firm of Jas. Brewster & Sons, founded in 1838” and his carriages carried 'Old House of Brewster' labels.
In January 1869 James Benjamin Brewster bought out Baldwin's share in the firm, reorganizing as J.B. Brewster Co. in 1870. Theodore E. Baldwin received full title to the pair's former 786 Broadway warerooms as his settlement. J.B. Brewster & Co. was organized with $125,000 in capital stock by James Benjamin Brewster and R.S. Tucker. The pair were also listed as officers of the Flushing Gas Light Co., a firm originally founded in 1855 in order to provide the Village of Flushing with natural gas.
In October of 1869 James Benjamin sued his brother, seeking to prevent Brewster & Company's use of the Brewster name and legacy. After coming to the realization that the suit boiled down to the two brother's use of a common surname, James Benjamin withdrew the suit in early October.
An 1870 Brewster & Company advertisement announced:
For the next year James Benjamin Brewster used his massive E. 25th St. factory as his wareroom while a new showroom built to rival that of his brother's was erected at the corner of Fifth Ave. (160 Fifth Ave.) and 21st Street.
In 1873 Thomas H. Wood patented an improved suspension system for side-bar wagon gear (US pat#139,348) that incorporated a set of extra-long half elliptic springs, in place of the light-weight side-bars that normally ran between the front and rear axles. The springs significantly increased the strength of the union of the body to its suspension, which had long been a source of failure on earlier side-bar equipped vehicles.
The rights were assigned to J.B. Brewster & Co. in 1874 who had already begun manufacturing vehicles using the improved suspension, which were known in the trade as 'Brewster Side-Bar' wagons and carriages. Brewster subsequently licensed the design to a large number of spring and carriage gear manufacturers who marketed them as 'Brewster Springs' and 'Brewster Cross-Springs'.
In 1874 Brewster & Company left Broome St. and moved into a new factory and wareroom at 1581 Broadway at the corner of W. 47th St. Their old six-story 372-374 Broome St., manufactory was taken over by Flandrau & Co., another old Manhattan carriage builder that would survive to build automobile bodies.
As Colonel Paul Downing, writing for American Heritage Magazine, said in 1956:
Brewster & Co. reached the pinnacle of its success at Paris’s 1878 Exposition-Universelle (International Exposition). The finest carriage manufacturers of Europe were assembled to present representative examples of their work to be evaluated and judged by a panel of jurists from around the world. Brewster & Co. presented 13 different carriages - a Landau, a Brougham, a Lady's Brougham, a double suspension Victoria, a Whitechapel Wagon, a Road Wagon, a Racing Sulky, a Cabriolet, a Lady's Phaeton, a Two-Wheeler, a T-Cart, an American Trotting Phaeton, and a Park Drag.
To the surprise of almost everyone, Brewster & Co. won the Gold Medal for the best exhibit and a number of the firm’s craftsmen won distinguished awards of excellence as well. Marshall Macmahon, the President of France, personally awarded Henry the coveted Chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Brewster & Co. was now able to proclaim that it stood alone as “the finest manufacturer of carriages in the world”. Brewster & Company would receive many more honors at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Brewster & Company records from the fiscal year ending in March of 1882 indicate that Henry Brewster's firm sold $435,791 worth of carriages during the year. Assuming that an 1882 dollar is worth approximately 50 2004 dollars, that equals $21,000,000 (21 million dollars) in sales. A fine Brewster carriage at the time cost between $100 and $300, so I estimate that Brewster built somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 carriages during fiscal 1881.
It is estimated that James Benjamin Brewster made as least as much money at the time and in 1882 he relocated his wareroom to an opulent new structure located at the corner of 42nd St and Fifth Ave. (489-503 Fifth Ave.).
After graduating in 1883 from St. John's School in Sing Sing, New York, Henry Brewster’s youngest son William (b.1866-d.1949) joined his father's firm on October 1, 1883 . Although it was expected that he would attend Yale like his father had, Willie – as he was called by his friends – refused, and started out as a laborer at the firm’s old Broome St. shop. He learned the business from the top down, and in 1885 traveled overseas, spending nine months in Europe studying at Paris' Albert Dupont school for Carriage Draftsmen and touring the continent's finest carriage-building houses.
Now accustomed to the European master's exceedingly high standards, young William was convinced they could be applied to the noticeably more relaxed Brewster & Company workshops. Upon his return in 1886, his discerning eye temporarily wreaked havoc in the Brewster shops. If he found an imperfection in the finish of a completed carriage, the offending panel was marked with a disfiguring X using Brewster’s penknife, forcing a complete refinishing of the offending panel.
His older brother, Henry Draper Brewster, had embarked upon a different career having attended Columbia University's Henry Krumb School of Mines. He received a Masters degree in Engineering in 1883, after which he worked for a number of firms in the mining business before becoming associated with his brother at Brewster & Company.
Brewster & Company's John W. Britton had first fallen ill in 1884, and in 1886 the 63-year-old traveled to Carlsbad, Austria where he succumbed to a massive stroke on August 2nd of that year. 64-year-old Henry Brewster followed him in death on Tuesday, September 20, 1887 at his 44 W. 53rd St. residence.
James W. Lawrence had retired Luckily young William Brewster was well-prepared to take charge of the finest carriage building establishment in New York, and arguably the entire United States. Under William Brewster, the firm adopted the slogan, "Carriage Builder for the American Gentleman".
William Brewster married Marie Munger (b.May 20, 1862-d.Feb. 23, 1907) on September 1, 1888 and to the blessed union was born one child, Barbara Brewster, who was born on Sept 6, 1893.
Brewster displayed a number of carriages at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair - aka the Columbian Exposition, as it marked the 400th anniversary of Columbus sailing to the New World - and won a number of prizes and medals to be added to the awards received by his father 10 years earlier.
Brewster & Company made a staggering variety of vehicles ranging from tiny children’s pony carts to massive road coaches built to hold up to 20 adults. Their vehicles were used in practically every state of the Union and many were shipped to the Caribbean and South America. A number of their gorgeous creations are still in existence. The New York Historical Society owns a massive Brewster Pioneer road coach that was used on the 5th Ave to Tarrytown run in the late 1800s. Brewster carriages can also be seen in the Melville Carriage House at the Museums at Stony Brook in Long Island, New York, the Shelburne Museum, in Shelburne, Vermont and at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Edward King, the well-known manager of New York City’s National Horse Show, was once asked whether he considered Brewster to be the Tiffany of carriage manufacturers. He replied:
James Benjamin Brewster's 4 children were all girls, and none of his son-in-laws were interested in taking over the family’s business so Brewster elevated long-time employee J. Colcord Smith to the position of president. In late 1895 nine creditors filed claims totaling $51,106.09 against J.B. Brewster & Co. and the firm was forced into bankruptcy and Edmund Stephenson appointed receiver.
Apparently the firm's assets were reassigned to the satisfaction of its creditors and in April of 1897 Smith headed a reorganization of the firm as James B. Brewster & Co. The new venture did not survive the year and following another bankruptcy the firm was reorganized once again on March 8, 1898 as J.B. Brewster & Company.
Three former J.B. Brewster employees; Cairn C. Downey, Henry M. Duncan, and George M. White had formed a joint stock company with $50,000 in authorized capital. The trio relocated their factory from E. 25th to 215 E. 44th St. and moved the warerooms farther uptown to the corner of Seventh Ave. and 49th St.
85-year-old James Benjamin Brewster lived just long enough to see the very first automobiles on the streets of Manhattan, passing away on March 9, 1902. Unfortunately the partners in the firm bearing his name dismissed the emerging threat to their survival and in May of 1908 were forced to file for bankruptcy after attorneys for several creditors filed papers seeking a receiver.
The firm's assets were listed as $35,000, its debts, exceeding $50,000. Brewster's lawyers stated that "... the failure of the firm was due to the firm's inability to collect accounts, inability to dispose of high-grade carriages and vehicles in the current market without great sacrifice, and a gradual falling off of business due to the competition of the automobile industry."
It turned out that J.B. Brewster's surviving cousin, Brewster & Company, was much better suited for survival. They claimed to have built their first automobile body in 1896 for a prototype electric car built by two New York City engineers, J.A. Barrett and A. Frank Perret. It is likely that other Brewster bodies were built for early electric cars, but Brewster’s ledgers from that time record only the body style and the customer, as the automobile had yet to put a dent in their carriage business.
However, many of New York's best families soon became enamored with the horseless carriage and as they had bought their Broughams and Victorias, and even dog-carts, from Brewster & Company, it was only natural that they should turn to the same firm to build the bodies of their new automobiles.
A Brewster & Company ledger in the possession of the late Brewster employee and historian, Charles H. Willmore (1883-1975), indicates that the first gasoline-powered chassis equipped with a Brewster body (body no.1) was built in 1905 for James H. Moore. The style was a brougham and Willmore believes it was on a Delaunay-Belleville chassis. Body No.2 was a landaulet built on a Panhard et Levassor chassis for Louis Comfort Tiffany. In fact most of the early chassis equipped with Brewster bodies were of French origin and Brewster became the New York distributor for Delaunay-Belleville in 1905. Other early Brewster automobile bodies include a RochetSchneider coupe built in 1907 for the owner of the NY Giants, Andrew Freedman, and a 40-45 Mercedes built for industrialist Pierre F. duPont. In 1908, a landaulet was built for Mrs. Harry S. Bowen on a Rolls-Royce chassis.
At the age of 15, Willmore was hired by Brewster as an office boy in 1898. In a 1971 interview with Hugo Pfau, he recalled that at the time, William Brewster was certain that the automobile would never supplant the horse and carriage. However, another ledger in his possession indicates that Brewster built its last carriage only 13 years later in 1911.
William Brewster was quick to realize that the automobile would soon supplant the horse and on the occasion of the firm’s centenary (1910) moved into a new 420,000 sq. ft. 7-story factory just over the 59th Street/Queensboro Bridge at 27-01 Bridge Plaza, North, in Long Island City, New York. Although a handful of horse-drawn vehicles were built there, the factory was specifically designed for the manufacture of automobile bodies. The building still stands and currently houses the New York City offices of Met Life, a large insurance company.
The fifth and six floors were used for the storage and maintenance of their customer’s off-season bodies. Until the convertible body gained popularity in the mid-twenties, most high priced chassis were sold with a closed sedan or town car body for use during the winter and an open touring for summertime motoring. Someone had to transfer the bodies every spring and fall, and Brewster offered to store, install and service the off-season bodies for a small fee. They were not ignored during their storage, as a small crew periodically cleaned and dusted off the hibernating bodies. Vehicles due for a re-varnish were sent down to the refinishing shop so they could be ready to go for the next season.
Although they were considered Brewster employees, in reality, the craftsmen and apprentices in Brewster & Co.’s body shops were actually independent subcontractors who worked on commission, a centuries-old tradition in the coachbuilding industry. They were nominally "employed" by Brewster & Co., but in reality they operated independently, bidding against each other for every job. During the teen and twenties there were approximately 10 crews, each headed by a master craftsman or foreman as they’re known today. Each crew had their own staff of journeymen and apprentices who did most of the work under the watchful eye of the foreman. The apprentices did much of the tedious hand labor such as shaping and sanding while the journeymen handled the difficult procedures such as laminating, metal shaping and hanging the doors. The journeyman would supervise the final sanding and finishing of the body, and once approved by the master, it was sent to the trimming and upholstery shops where another group of subcontractors finished the body.
Willmore’s ledgers include a number of orders from the metropolitan New York importers of Mercedes, Renault, Panhard and similar luxury chassis. The records indicate that certain bodies were built in quantities of 5 or sometimes even ten examples. For a while Brewster sold Simplex-Cranes mounted with their own bodies, and they also built some bodies for John G. Dale, the New York City Crane-Simplex distributor. A handful survive, the most well-known being a 1918 model formerly owned by John D. Rockefeller Sr. that was fitted with two bodies, the first a closed sedan, the second a touring which is currently mounted on the chassis. It resided for many years in the collection of the late Winthrop Rockefeller at his Museum of Automobiles at Petit Jean Mountain in Morrilton, Arkansas. When he died, it was one of the few vehicles retained by the Rockefeller family and is now on permanent display at the family’s Hudson River estate, located in Pocantico Hills, New York. Willmore recalled a visit to the Brewster plant by Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and all five of their teenaged sons sometime in the early late teens or early twenties.
Speaking of Rockefellers, Brewster kept a record of each family’s family crest and colors, which would be applied to subsequent bodies ordered through the firm. J. P. Morgan's was dark bottle green, the Vanderbilt's, a special maroon, and the Astor's and Stevens' two different shades of blue. Some families had two sets of colors, a darker one for the closed winter car and a lighter color for their fair-weather touring car. Brewster reserved certain colors for the exclusive use of each respective family, and new customers often had a hard time selecting an “available” color. Master painter Theodore (Ted) Proudfoot, handled the majority of Brewster’s pin striping as well as their crests and hand lettering.
In the December, 1921 issue of Autobody, the magazine described the scene in Brewster’s paint department: "The extent to which the demands for exclusive family colors is carried can befit be appreciated by a visit to their [Brewster's] grinding room where there are on exhibition several thousand small panels, each bearing the color of some customer, different at least in shade from that of any of its neighbors. Many Brewster automobile bodies today carry the same colors as the ante-bellum carriages of the owners' ancestors."
As the interior appointments of the vehicle was very important to each and every customer, Brewster provided room on each order form for the size and weight of each customer, and just as importantly, their chauffeur. The seats could be order in a virtually endless combination of styles, colors and materials. Even the density and size of a cushion’s internal springs was optional. Cabinets and interior accessories were available in an equally endless variety of materials, styles and color combinations. Each vehicle was truly custom made to suit the particular requirements of each customer.
Unlike most other American coachbuilders, Brewster specialized in selling complete automobiles rather than just bodies supplied by other dealers. A 1908 Brewster catalog stated they were importers of Panhard, Renault and Delaunay-Belleville automobiles, however surviving records indicate that prior to the start of World War I, most of their sales were on either Delaunay-Belleville or, after 1914, Rolls-Royce chassis for which they were the New York agents. A total of 46 Rolls-Royce chassis were received by Brewster between 1914 and 1916 when shipments ceased due to the sinking of the Lusitania. With their supply of European chassis cut off, Brewster decided to start building their own chassis using a 4-cylinder Knight sleeve-valve engine, named for Charles Y. Knight, its inventor. Although the Brewster-Knight had an oval-shaped radiator, many of its other features, such as the braking system, suspension were modeled after the Rolls-Royce chassis although the chassis was significantly smaller with a 125” wheelbase. The prototype was completed in 1915, and the car was introduced as a 1916 model. For the next ten years, all Brewster-Knights featured a 276.5-cubic-inch Knight sleeve-valve engine that developed 58 hp. The car was built entirely in-house at Brewster’s Long Island City plant, and was not an assembled car, the cast iron blocks were even stored on the factory’s roof to cure.
A wide variety of body styles were available, and included a Glass-Quarter Brougham, a Town Landaulet and a Falling Front Landaulet – all priced between $8,000 and $8,500 in 1916. According to a period advertisement, the Brewster "will cost less in general overhauling in a number of years use, also cause less petty annoyance to the caretaker, than any car made to date." Its short wheelbase made it an ideal vehicle for the crowded streets of Manhattan, especially when compared to gargantuans such as the Packard Twin-Six, which used a 136-inch wheelbase and weighed nearly half a ton more than the Brewster - although a Packard Twin Six limousine plus a fleet of five Model T Ford roadsters could be bought for the same price. However the Knight sleeve-valve engine was significantly quieter than its competition, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Brewster’s select clientele who purchased as many as five hundred examples between 1916 and 1925 when production of the outdated vehicle came to an end. According to Brewster historian Frank E. Wismer III, 23 of the oval-radiator Brewsters are known to survive. One pristine and totally original Town andaulet can be seen at the Saratoga Automobile Museum in Saratoga Springs, New York and another is in the collection of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Early Brewster-Knight town cars and landaulets featured patent leather fenders stitched over a frame of heavy iron wire, 3/16" thick, shaped to follow the lines of the wheels. Also included were individual steps for the rear compartment that featured a splash shield at its leading edge that was also made of leather. Similarly made leather-covered panels were used instead of doors in the open chauffeur's compartment. Rear tonneau panels were made from using composite aluminum and wood construction. All of the tonneau moldings were made of ash and carefully hand shaped and blind-tacked after the exterior body panels were set in place on the framework.
Improved techniques of metal forming developed during World War I changed this, and custom bodies of the twenties usually had moldings rolled or hand-hammered into the aluminum panels. There were still wooden moldings carefully hand shaped and attached to the body frame. The aluminum was then formed over these. Bear in mind that on custom bodies the metal skin was usually formed and beaten into shape right on the actual body frame. Sometimes where an intricate shape was needed, as on a cowl, wooden inserts were first made up of the desired contour and temporarily added to the body frame to form a base over which the metal could be hammered into shape. The extra wood was removed before the panels were finally fastened to the frame.
While the Brewster car had a small Brewster emblem on the radiator shell, the coachbuilder did not use nameplates on the outside of bodies built on other chassis, confining their identification to a sill-plate under the rear doors with the name engraved on it. This was visible only when the doors were opened and even this identification was not always used. There are, however, some distinctive touches which should enable the expert to identify a Brewster body.
They ground and mixed all their own colors, and from 1906 through the late twenties, a large proportion of their bodies were done in a secret oil-based finish that contained no varnish. A body finished with varnish that was regularly exposed to the elements required constant care and a total refinishing every couple of years. There were some downsides to Brewster’s oil finish. As it never dried out, it couldn’t be rubbed out smooth and brush marks used in applying it remained visible on the completed body. However, it was much more durable than varnish and repeated polishing could smooth the surface to some degree, and it didn’t require the extensive maintenance required by varnish. Brewster’s formula was a closely guarded secret and while other body-builders tried to duplicate it, none were successful.
Through the late twenties most of Brewster's bodies were painted either all black, in Brewster Green and black, or in a soft grey with black. Brewster Green was a slightly olive, medium dark shade of green that could be classified as a semi-gloss finish in today’s terminology as it was neither shiny nor completely non-reflective. Several paint manufacturers produced their own version of “Brewster Green” and it eventually became very popular. The conservative color schemes used by the firm matched their equally conservative body design. They featured carriage-derived lines fitted with a minimum of brightwork. In fact many Brewster-bodied vehicles included painted radiator shells rather than the nickel-plated shell supplied by the chassis manufacturer.
Brewster & Co. is credited with the successful implementation of the roll-up window, a mechanical device which replaced the straps found on bodies that dated back to early carriages. Brewster also pioneered the disappearing jump seat as well as removable rear seat cushions with cane work pedestals that allowed the cushions to breathe, thus regaining their shape after each use.
Another cane-related feature that became closely associated with Brewster was the painted faux-cane panel, which became known in the industry as French Cane or Basket-Weave. It was also used sparingly by other coachbuilders, including Locke, Fleetwood, Rollston and Holbrook, but most surviving examples are by Brewster. Although real French woven cane panels were available, they didn’t hold up well during inclement weather and a carriage painter named Barry in Brewster’s employ developed a system that duplicated the look using successive layers of incredibly thick paint.
A number of former Brewster employees disagree on the exact way it was applied.
According to any article written by Francis Nunan Howard for the Rolls-Royce Owner’s club Flying Lady magazine: George Steinmayer and Al Taylor claim it was done by a 3-man team. Two assistants held a straight edge against the body to guide the painter who applied the thickened paint using a pastry tube - a small conical bag tipped with a metal point with a 1/16" hole. However, Leo Peters, who worked for Brewster prior to Steinmayer and Taylor, told Howard that “Barry” used a 3/8" thick smooth board measuring about 6" wide and 2 to 3 feet long into which an impression was made by a steel wheel. The straw colored paint was placed on the board and worked into the pattern similar to the intaglio process of engraving, and the excess wiped off. The board was baked in an oven until the paint hardened and completed board was affixed to the body using varnish which allowed them to fine-tune the final alignment.
Charles H. Willmore recollected that the system described by Steinmayer and Taylor was used, at least while he worked there. He told Hugo Pfau that the pattern was first chalked onto the panel which was typically painted the same color as the rest of the body. The thick yellow and cream colored paint was then carefully applied layer over layer using pastry tubes. Once all the layers had dried, the painter would add highlights and shadows as need so that the finished product was virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.
It’s likely that both methods were used, depending on the size and location of the panel. When the entire rear tonneau or an entire door panel was covered, the method described by Willmore, Steinmayer and Taylor was used. However, when narrow cane panels were required as part of a belt molding or a door frieze, it’s plausible that they were applied in the same manner as a piece of molding, as detailed by Leo Peters.
Brewster's interiors were typically as conservative as their exteriors. They avoided the elaborate wood paneling and cabinetry used by most other custom body builders. In fact, they very often painted the interior woodwork to match the upholstery, which was often pleated in a conservative pattern using the finest materials available. The bronze interior hardware was typically left in its non-reflective natural state, although it was sometimes enameled to match the interior trim or upholstery. Gold plating, exotic animal hides and multi-hued inlaid cabinetry were rarely found in a Brewster body.
Almost all of Brewster’s closed bodies include front doors hinged at the rear – now commonly known as “suicide doors”. This was normal practice with most custom body builders and was used to strengthen the chassis and to help reduce rattles. The center pillars were typically located directly over the middle of the frame rails and included brackets that ran directly from the chassis to the B-pillar greatly increasing the rigidity of the entire body and chassis assembly.
Another distinctive feature was the windshield design of some Brewster enclosed bodies that first appear around 1915. Apparently a number of chauffeurs expressed concerns in regards to the glare of street lights and oncoming vehicles obscuring their vision at night. They did considerable experimenting, finally deciding on an unusual 4-pane design with a two piece windscreen with a stationary lower pane sloping slightly forward at the top from which the hinged upper pane gently sloped to the rear. A triangular pane fitted into both sides of the cast bronze frame which extended up to an outside visor. The angled panes diverted reflections away from the driver's line of vision, and as windshield wipers were not yet invented, they also prevented rain from entering an opened windshield, which was a common problem at the time. Although the design was never patented, it was generally known in the trade as a "Brewster windshield" and was widely copied over the next ten or fifteen years not only by other custom body builders, but also on production bodies both here and abroad.
An improved version was developed a few years later in which a one-piece windshield sloped gently forward from the cowl to the roof. A trapezoidal pane of glass filled the space up to the windshield in front of the side door glass frames in much the same manner as the ventilator panes that became popular in the1930s, except this early example did not open. It included ultra-thin cast-bronze windshield uprights and was an early version of the clear-vision principle popularized by Murphy a few years later. As the multiple posts still interfered with vision a little bit, Brewster’s engineers continued working on the windshield, eventually producing a version where the windows in the front doors raised and lowered at an angle, eliminating the extra pane of glass and improving outward vision yet further.
Brewster is widely remembered as the firm that launched the careers of a large number of automotive designers and coachbuilders. In the 1870s, Henry Brunn, founder of Brunn Carriage Mfg. Co. and the uncle of Brunn & Co.’s Hermann A. Brunn, worked at Brewster as an apprentice and journeyman. James Way, Pierce-Arrow’s body engineer-designer, first worked at Brewster. Way is credited with the design and engineering of Pierce-Arrow's amazing cast aluminum bodies which were produced in-house by the Buffalo, New York automaker from 1904-1920.
Henry Crecelius Sr. was the firm’s chief body engineer from the teens through 1926 when Edsel Ford enticed him to move to Dearborn as head of Lincoln’s new coachbuilding division. Crecelius started with Brewster after working for Locomobile and was a practical engineer who had little patience with the thirty + draftsmen who constituted Brewster's engineering staff at the time. Charles H. Willmore was the department’s supervisor for a number of years, and acted as a buffer between the old-school Crecelius and Brewster’s talented and mostly college-educated draftsmen and designers. One of whom was Raymond Dietrich, who had joined Brewster as a draftsman in 1913. After attending the Andrew F. Johnson Technical School in Manhattan, he left work for Chevrolet as an assistant body engineer. However he rejoined Brewster a year later in 1918. It was under Willmore’s watch that Dietrich and another Brewster designer, Thomas L. Hibbard, became friends. Two years later, Brewster fired the talented pair after discovered that they were peddling designs on the side as LeBaron Carrossiers. Brewster also launched the careers of Harry Lonschein, George Snyder, Henry Crecelius Jr. and Eugene T. (Bob) Gregorie. Lonschein founded Rollston, Snyder first went to General Motors then to Ford in 1948. Crecelius Jr. became F. R. Wood & Sons chief body designer, and Bob Gregorie eventually became Ford’s chief designer as well as a close personal friend of Edsel Ford.
In 1921, Brewster & Co. returned to Manhattan, opening a satellite showroom at 56th Street and Fifth Avenue with Charles H. Willmore in charge. At this time Seymour Baum was the firm’s General Manager, Emil van Cura, their chief mechanic and Henry Crecelius, chief designer. Willmore recalls that Henry and Edsel Ford were frequent visitors to the Brewster showroom as they usually stayed across the street at the Gotham Hotel whenever they had business in Manhattan. At the time of his death in 1975, Charles H. Willmore possessed additional records for Brewster that covered the years that the Fifth Ave showroom was open – 1921 through 1926. During that period Brewster was selling primarily complete automobiles, and the sales were divided in the ledgers by manufacturer: Brewster, Lanchester, Marmon, Packard and Rolls-Royce. A few bodies were also designed and built for imported 20, 20/25, and 25/30 h.p. Rolls-Royce chassis that were ordered through Robert W. Schuette, Rolls-Royce’s original New York City distributor, who was located at 236 W. 5th St.
Willmore’s records also contain a list of people to whom he sent catalogs to while in charge of the showroom. The list includes some of the wealthiest families all over the country, who had either written to Brewster for information or had stopped in the showroom on a visit to New York.
Brewster did not limit their expertise to automobiles. Shortly after the First World War, they company entered the aviation market when it subcontracted for the manufacture of aircraft floats. In 1924, the Brewster and Co. Aircraft Division was established under the direction of Brewster & Co.’s former general manager Seymour Baum. The Depression put a severe dent in Brewster’s aircraft business, and in February of 1932, James Work, a former project engineer at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia purchased the dormant operation from Brewster & Co. He reorganized it as the Brewster Aeronautical Corp. and kept it in its former location, although now as a tenant. Early on Brewster Aeronautical Corp. produced subcomponents for other aircraft manufacturers, but in 1934 they secured a Navy contract for an aircraft of Brewster design - the XSBA-1 scout bomber. The XSBA was an all-metal monoplane that featured a retractable landing gear and an enclosed bomb bay. In 1935 Brewster entered a US Navy competition to build a carrier fighter intended to replace the Grumman F3F biplane. Three companies, Grumman, Seversky and Brewster entered the competition, and after a couple of years of testing, Brewster was awarded the contract.
On June 11, 1938, the US Navy ordered a first production run of 54 aircraft, under the designation F2A-1. The first batch of F2A-1s were scheduled for delivery in May of 1939, unfortunately only one example was ready and that was already on display at the World's Fair in New York. Delays continued, and only eleven F2A-1s were eventually delivered during 1939-1940. Surprisingly, a new version was readied and in early 1941, 2 fighter squadrons aboard the USS Saratoga and the USS Lexington were re-equipped with the F2A-2. The F2A-3 was the last version of the Buffalo to enter US Navy service and the plane was eventually discontinued as a number of unlucky pilots soon found out that it was easily outrun and shot down by Japan’s Mitsubishi’s A6M Zero fighters. The Buffalo holds the distinction of being the first monoplane fighter to be flown off a carrier and a number of F2As later served with distinction as land-based fighters with the US Marine Corps. and British, Dutch and Finnish Air Force. Over a period of 4-year period, Brewster built 502 Buffalos.
In early 1942 B.A.C.’s Jimmy Work got sued for US$10 million for financial misdeeds and the Navy seized the Brewster plant, which had been relocated to the former Pierce-Arrow Building in Long Island City, installing the head of the Naval Aircraft Factory in charge. When the Navy cancelled Brewster's last contract, for Corsair assembly, the company was in serious trouble. In October 1942, Naval management decided to shut down the company, and on April 5, 1946, the Brewster Aeronautical Corp. was dissolved by its shareholders.
Brewster also made a number of speedboat hulls as well. The famed “Mercury” cigarette boat (originally christened Cigarette IV), was built for L. Gordon Hammersley to a design by marine architect Frederick K. Lord in 1925 at Brewster’s Long Island City factory and still exists. Hammersley regularly competed against Gar Wood, the pilot and owner of Miss Detroit, who would later make a name for himself building truck and bus bodies in Michigan.
Another Brewster started his own coachbuilding concern in 1927. Henry Brewster – a distant cousin of Brewster & Co.’s William Brewster - and Harry F. Holbrook, the founder and former owner of Holbrook Co., announced the formation of the H. F. Holbrook-Henry Brewster Corporation. The new firm would produce high-end custom bodies in the former Blue Ribbon Body Co. plant located in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Holbrook served as the firm’s salesman while Brewster, who had some experience in the business, served as designer and body engineer. They built a striking Mercedes-Benz Town Car that appeared on the Mercedes-Benz stand at that fall’s New York Auto Salon and are also known to have bodied a Bugatti.
Both the Holbrook Co. and Brewster & Co. strongly objected to the new firm’s presence at the Salon as they felt it created unnecessary confusion with their existing clients. An illustration of a "Holbrook-Brewster" Mercedes-Benz All-Weather Cabriolet appeared in the November 1927 issue of Spur magazine (an equestrian magazine published by Country Life). It was a beautiful vehicle was painted black and yellow and featured a buffed aluminum hood with tan broadcloth upholstery. 1927 was not the best time to be entering the coachbuilding business (see Waterhouse & Co.) and the new firm failed to attract enough orders to stay solvent. Only 8-10 custom bodies emerged from the Bridgeport plant in their first year although they had some success with their well-built funeral coaches. By the end of 1928, the H. F. Holbrook-Henry Brewster Corp. had closed it doors for good.
When trade with Europe resumed at the end of WWI, Rolls-Royce starting shipping new chassis to Brewster, and the arrangement continued when the Rolls-Royce started production at the Springfield, Massachusetts plant in 1919. However, as the American Rolls-Royce Company gained strength, Brewster eventually lost the bargaining power they once enjoyed as Rolls-Royces’ largest US distributor, and the Springfield firm terminated their distributorship in 1921. If you wanted to buy a Rolls-Royce in Manhattan, you now had to deal with Robert W. Schuette, their sole New York City distributor. Brewster retaliated by importing Lanchester chassis from England and became dealers for Marmon and Packard as well. It’s interesting to note that one of the first Lanchester chassis sold by Brewster went to Henry Ford and it was equipped with a magnificent Brewster limousine body. Within a few short years, Brewster found themselves over-extended, the aircraft division was losing money, sales of the Brewster car had trickled to almost nothing, and they had a large 5th Avenue showroom as well as a huge Long Island City plant to pay for. The interest on the bonds and notes held by Brewster investors were three times higher the amount of the firms net profits between 1923 and 1925.
At much the same time, the capacity of Rolls-Royce Company of America’s Waltham Ave body plant had been exceeded and the Springfield firm began looking for a firm with the capacity to supply them with the bodies that would be needed in the coming years. In 1925 Rolls-Royce and Brewster executives entered into negotiations which resulted in the purchase of Brewster in January of 1926. Rolls-Royce of America paid $202,000 in cash to the Brewster family, assumed a $1,400,000 in outstanding 5% bonds and further guaranteed the principle and interest on a 7% $400,000 seven-ten-year note owed by Brewster. In return, William Brewster, was given a seat on the Rolls-Royce board and was appointed a vice-president of the Springfield manufacturer. He retired two years later in 1927, but remained a director until 1930. Brewster’s Fifth Avenue showroom was closed, as Rolls-Royce already had a beautiful showroom Eighth Avenue and 58th Street which was run by John S. Inskip (1885-1961), a former Locomobile salesman. Robert W. Schuette’s small 236 W. 5th St. Rolls-Royce distributorship was also absorbed by Rolls-Royce of America at the same time.
Willmore returned to the plant in Long Island City, and Carl Beck became Brewster’s chief designer as Henry Crecelius Sr. had left to head Lincoln’s body division. In a marginally related matter, Crecelius told Hugo Pfau that although Stutz had advertised in their 1925 catalog that their new Stutz 8 bodies were "designed by Brewster & Company," in fact Brewster had been involved only in the engineering of the bodies, not in their basic design which had been dictated by the automaker.
Many of the craftsmen from Rolls-Royce’s Waltham Avenue bodyworks were transferred to Brewster’s Long Island City plant to get body production going as soon as possible. New Rolls-Royce chassis were fitted with a temporary driver's seat and weather enclosure and driven from the Springfield works to Long Island City where the Brewster coachwork was fitted. Quite a few Rolls-Royces were sold through the 8th Avenue showroom, so many of the firm’s drivers returned to Springfield on the train.
With the integration of coachbuilding with chassis operations, Rolls-Royce of America, Inc. was able to add its own innovation in marketing. Twenty-eight standardized body styles were offered to the public at prices substantially less than custom body costs. Delivery time was reduced and some of these models could be purchased off the showroom floor.
An undated Rolls-Royce brochure lists eight of Brewster's "Coachwork Innovations":
In 1929, John S. Inskip, head of Rolls-Royce New York sales office, was appointed vice-president in charge of sales and became the guiding force of the firm’s coachbuilding activities for the next few years. Along with Brewster’s designer, Carl Beck, the pair created some of the best looking Rolls-Royce’s ever built. The service department at Rolls-Royce’s Manhattan showroom was closed and the Long Island City plant became the sole New York City service depot for Rolls-Royce.
The December, 1928 issue of Autobody reported on Brewster’s 1929 New York Salon exhibit:
During this period, Brewster designed a series of bodies for the 1930 model 745 Packard chassis. Original built in series of 5 for Packard’s New York City distributor, they became quite popular and were eventually added to the Packard Custom body catalog. Over 300 examples are though to have been built and Inskip obtained a Packard dealership so he could sell the cars in his 8th Ave showroom. There were five models, a convertible sedan, 2 sedan-limousines, an all-weather cabriolet and an all-weather landaulet.
When Rolls-Royce’s Phantom II was introduced in 1929, it was assumed that the Springfield plant would be retooled to produce it in the United States. However, the Depression changed the economic situation in the United States, and by 1930 it became apparent that retooling the Springfield plant was no longer a possibility.
The November 1929 issue of Autobody described the Brewster-bodied Rolls-Royces that were scheduled to appear at the 1930 Chicago Salon:
Sales of the remaining Phantom I chassis floundered and only 100 Springfield Phantom I’s were sold during 1931, and they had been assembled from spares. 73 new Derby-built left-hand-drive Phantom II’s made their way to the US market that year and most were fitted with Brewster bodies. Designated the AJS and AMS Series, (the “A” prefix denoting their final destination, America), they were offered for sale at Rolls-Royce’s posh Manhattan showroom as well as the remaining factory outlets in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Montreal, Palm Beach, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Petersburg and Washington.
Brewster's exhibit at the 1931 Chicago Salon was described in the November, 1930 issue of Autobody:
The caption below accompanied an illustration of the convertible coupe in the same issue:
A striking Super-Sport body was introduced by Brewster at the 1931 New York Salon that became known in the press as the Wind-Blown Coupe. It was featured in two issues of the New York Times - November 30, and December 7, 1930 - as well as in the 1931 Salon issues of Automobile Topics, Country Life, Autobody and Motor World.
Built on a Springfield Phantom I chassis, the car was built for Tommy Manville, an oft-married (13 times!) heir to the Johns-Manville asbestos empire who was the subject of Ernst Lubitsch's "Bluebird's Eighth Wife" a 1938 comedy starring Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert. Manville was also lampooned in Jackie Curtis 1968 play called "Lucky Wonderful".
Manville's aerodynamic coupe incorporated the following of firsts for Brewster.
The car was Brewster’s most written about creation and it’s surprising that only one example was built, but perhaps that’s why it cost $20,000. Manville may have paid Brewster a premium, ensuring it would not be replicated. The car still exists although it’s no longer painted the original seafog grey, a grayish-green color that became popular in the early thirties.
In 1932, another batch of 100 Springfield Phantom I chassis were assembled from spares while 17 Phantom II chassis were imported from Derby.
For 1933 most of the remaining parts were used up, and 50 Springfield Phantom I chassis were assembled. Only 30 Derby Phantom II chassis were imported.
Members of the Brewster family held the $1,200,000 in 5% bonds on the Long Island City property, and in 1933 with interest payments and taxes greatly in arrears, they repossessed the property, waiving any accumulated interest and property taxes owed by the combined Brewster & Co./Rolls-Royce of America Corp. This effectively ended Rolls-Royce’s North American manufacturing experiment. In order to avoid any stigma of bankruptcy having to be borne by Rolls-Royce, the corporation was reorganized as the Springfield Manufacturing Corporation in August of 1934, with Inksip installed as president. At that time, the firm major bondholders held a meeting and strongly recommended that the entire operation be liquidated. However, Inskip had an idea that might keep the firm going, at least for the short term.
During the previous year, E.T. (Bob) Gregorie, a former Brewster designer who was currently in charge of Ford’s design studios, designed an attractive V8 Ford-based roadster for Edsel Ford. With Edsel’s approval, a prototype was built and the resulting vehicle was shown to Inskip in the hopes of having Brewster put the car into limited production. Even though Inskip liked the design, Edsel Ford was unwilling to finance the venture and as Brewster wasn’t in the business of selling sports cars, the stillborn vehicle was driven back to Dearborn by Gregorie. The idea of a V-8 Ford-chassised vehicle appealed to Inskip, however, he envisioned it with a Brewster town car body, an item that might attract customers to Brewster’s empty New York showroom.
At the same time that Inskip was setting up Springfield Manufacturing Corp., he was also working on his new Ford-powered town car. Carl Beck, a former Rolls-Royce body designer who was now Brewster’s chief designer, was put in charge of the prototype’s design.
In a 1960 letter to automotive historian Keith Marvin, John S. Inskip recalled:
Although the cars had Ford drivetrains, they were registered as Brewsters, just like the Knight-engined Brewsters had been in the teens and twenties. Once completed, the cars were shipped to the Rolls-Royce showrooms in New York City and sold for a list price of $3500.
From 1934-1936, three type of vehicles were
produced using the same basic Carl Beck design. 90% of them were built
on the lengthened Ford V-8 chassis and featured the distinctive flared
front fenders, heart-shaped grille and split front and rear fenders.
Most were town cars, but a fair number of limousines and convertible
sedans were built as well, all featuring Brewster’s distinctive
The remaining 10% fall into two distinct groups.
The first were special budget-priced vehicles that were built on a
standard wheelbase Ford V-8 chassis that featured a stock Ford grill,
fenders and bumpers. It’s estimated that 12 of these “Budget Brewsters”
were built. The second group consists of the bodies that were mounted
on non-Ford chassis, of which there are two known examples.
The first, of which a factory photo exists, was
originally a 1936 Brewster-Buick Town car built using a Buick Limited
Model 91 chassis. Originally constructed for Gertrude Sands Whitney,
the wife of Richard
Whitney (then President of the New York Stock Exchange) at a cost of
$18,000, its current owner, (Robert Bahre of Paris Hill, Maine) reports
it was the the last known Brewster
When time came to replace the chassis, Mrs.
Whitney wished to maintain a low profile as her husband had recently
been convicted of embezzlement and was serving time in New York State's
infamous Sing-Sing prison. She had the Town Car coachwork from her 1936
Buick-Brewster Town Car transferred to an all-new 1940 Buick Limited
chassis, which provided her with an essentially new car, carefully
disguised as a older model in keeping with her low-profile lifestyle.
Inskip recalled transferring a number of the
Brewsters to other
chassis, so that's likely what happened to the body on the second
exisiting non-Ford chassised Brewster, a 1939
Brewster/Rolls-Royce Town Car mounted to a 1939 Rolls-Royce Wraith
chassis. Believed to be another Inskip transfer job dating to 1939, the
body on this particular car is beleived to have been transferred from a
used 1934-36 Brewster Ford.
The Brewster was introduced at the 1934 New York Auto Show and attracted lots of attention, mainly because of its unusual styling and low price. Edsel Ford purchased the first example and Inskip marketed the car to New York celebrities through an ingenious plan. Al Jolson was the most recognizable celebrity in New York City at the time, and was an avid automobile enthusiast and collector. Inskip offered Jolson one of the new cars and Jolson jumped at the chance. A black town car with red pin striping was especially built for Jolson with a white-piped red mohair interior that included a radio and a golf bag compartment. Inskip’s gamble apparently paid off and a number of other New York celebrities ordered new Brewsters. Town car owners included Jolson, Edsel Ford, Cole Porter, Vincent Astor, Lily Pons and Gertrude Lawrence. Bandleader Fred Waring and comedian Victor Moore each owned one of the 12 Brewster convertible sedans that were built, and Al Jolson, the car's biggest fan, ordered one of the even rarer convertible coupes - only 8 were built. A one-off Brewster woodie wagon was also built but not by Brewster, it was re-bodied by a subsequent owner and started life as a town car.
Brewster historians have a hard time accounting for the 300 Brewsters that Inksip claims to have built between 1934 and 1936. Ford records indicate that 135 V-8 cowl and chassis were shipped to Brewster. If you add the handful that were built on other chassis, that gives a grand total of about 140 Brewsters, slightly less than half of the 300 claimed by Inskip. According to the Brewster Car Society 39 exist today, and most of those have been lovingly restored.
According to Inskip, the Brewster venture initially proved profitable, but after continued mounting losses, the firms directors and bondholders insisted on closing down the firm, so in July of 1935, bankruptcy proceeding were instituted in the New York District Court. The receiver, Victor R. Tyler, found that reorganization would be impossible, and in June of 1936, Federal Judge H.W. Goddard ordered that the firm be liquidated. The posh East 57th St showroom was abandoned in August and the Springfield Manufacturing Corp. and its wholly-owned Brewster subsidiary were purchased by Michigan’s notorious Dallas E. Winslow. Winslow and Co. specialized in buying bankrupt manufacturing and automobile companies. He had just purchased Pierce-Arrow and had also liquidated Syracuse, New York’s Franklin a few years earlier. The sale to Winslow produced enough money to give Springfield’s bondholders 20 cents on the dollar, but owners of common stock were far less fortunate and received next to nothing.
Winslow reorganized the firm as Brewster and Company Inc., and leased the former service depot from the Brewster family. The former New York City Pierce-Arrow service depot had been located right next door, and he consolidated the Rolls-Royce and Pierce Arrow service operations in the Brewster building. However, Winslow soon realized he had bought not one, but two dinosaurs, and held an auction on August 18th, of the following year to get rid of them. At the auction, John S. Inskip was the successful high bidder on most of the remaining Rolls Royce parts inventory, and also purchased a number of Rolls-Royce chassis and Brewster bodies.
Inskip had managed to obtain the New York distributorship for Rolls-Royce and leased the former Rolls-Royce Long Island City repair depot and body shop from the Brewster family, giving a number of former Rolls-Royce and Brewster employees a much-needed job.
Most of the cars Inskip imported at that time were equipped with British or French coachwork but he did build a handful of Inskip-badged bodies on Phantom III and Wraith chassis. A small batch of Packards were also sold by Inskip prior to WWII that were fitted with a combination of leftover Brewster bodies, plus a few new ones built to order.
Cartoonist Peter S. Arno’s 1939 Albatross prototype was built in Inskip’s Long Island City body shop. The 1939 Mercury chassis was a stretched to 137” and Inskip fashioned a body to Arno’s design that looked like a 540 K Mercedes similar to those made by Erdman and Rossi.
In a 1960 letter to Keith Marvin, Inskip took credit for most of his firm’s designs, but it is much more likely they were designed by either Carl Beck or Charles H. Willmore who continued to work for him at J.S. Inskip Inc. Hugo Pfau claims that R. L. Stickney designed some of them as well, which is plausible as Stickney worked for industrial designer Henry Dreyfus and is known to have produced a number of free-lance body designs during this period. Willmore was in charge of the Inskip body shop which remained in the old Brewster building until 1942 when it was relocated to 327 East 64th St. After the war ended Inskip moved the service operation across the street to 304 East 64th St and opened a new Rolls-Royce showroom at 24 East 54th St.
G.N. Georgano, the British automotive historian wrote:
For a brief period after the war they built a few special custom bodies on the Silver Wraith chassis that were most likely designed by either Carl Beck or Willmore, both of whom worked for Inskip for a number of years. In fact, Willmore became manager of Inskip’s Manhattan showroom where he sold Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Aston-Martin, Riley and MG automobiles. Inskip opened additional sales office in Providence, Rhode Island and West Palm Beach, Florida during the 1950s. He also marketed a 4-place MG TD during the 1950s that featured a lengthened wheelbase. When Inskip passed away in 1961, Willmore went to work for a Volvo dealer near his home and continued to sell automobiles until he passed away in 1974. Inskip’s son-in-law, George Jessop, took over the New York City operation, and closed down the 54th St showroom, consolidating operations at 64th St. Inskip stopped handling Rolls-Royce cars in 1967.
Rolls-Royce historians estimate that at least 425 Rolls-Royce chassis were fitted with Brewster bodies between 1914 and 1937, and a surprising number (close to 200) remain in the hands of museums and collectors. An equally astounding number (52) of Brewster-badged automobile exist as well, 13 of the first series (1915-1925) and 39 of the second (1934-1936).
After he resigned from the firm bearing his name in 1927, William Brewster spent most of his time at Manhattan's Union Club at Fifth Ave. and 51st St. and when it moved uptown in 1933 he retired to Bridgeport, Connecticut where he passed away in November, 1949 at the age of 83.
Inskip's Rhode Island dealership is still in business, although it no longer handles the marque. However it does sell Acura, Audi, Bentley, BMW, Infiniti, Lexus, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Volvo. See inskip.com for more information.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com with special thanks to Frank E. Wismer III
A description of the Brewster plants from the July, 1912 issue of Carriage Monthly:
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com