Walter O. Briggs was born in Ypsilanti, Michigan on February 27, 1877 to Rodney D. Briggs and Ada (Warner) Briggs. At the age of 14 he joined his father, a locomotive engineer, at the Michigan Central Railroad where he worked in the rail-yard as a $20 per month laborer. He worked his way up to Michigan Central’s Detroit car shops where he worked as an upholsterer, eventually becoming foreman of the department.
Walter resigned in 1902 to work as a plant superintendent for the C.H. Little Co. a Detroit-based building materials supplier formed in 1887 by Charles H. Little. Two year later he resigned to take charge of the upholstery shop for a small Detroit carriage builder named B.F. Everitt Co. Byron F. (Barney) Everitt was a Canadian immigrant who had started his career as a carriage trimmer for Chatham, Ontario’s Wm. Gray & Sons Carriage Co. In another of the great coincidences in early automotive history, Wm. Gray & Sons supplied Henry Ford’s Windsor assembly plant with automobile bodies from 1906-1912.
In 1899 Everitt moved to Detroit where he opened the B.F. Everitt Co. at 63-65 Fort St. Their main business was the building and repair of horse-drawn vehicles, but early a few bodies for built Ransom E. Olds and Henry Ford. One of Everitt’s first employees was Frederic J. Fisher, the eldest son of Norwalk, Ohio’s soon-to-be-famous Fisher Brothers. Fred left in 1904 to go to work for the C.R. Wilson Co. at about the same time that Walter O. Briggs joined B.F. Everitt as an upholsterer.
A contemporary of Everitt’s stated: "he has made, painted and trimmed more automobile bodies, twice over, than any other concern."
Due to Briggs’ previous experience in the field he was soon in charge of the shops, becoming vice-president and two years later, its president. Meanwhile Everitt and a former Ford Motor Co. production manager named Walter E. Flanders, had invested in the former Wayne Automobile Co./ Northern Mfg. Co. in the hopes of building their own automobile. With the help of the Wayne’s designer, William E. Kelly, and a third investor, William A. Metzger, the former sales manager of Cadillac, Everitt and Flanders formed a new company, the Everitt Metzger Flanders Automobile Co. in 1908 (E-M-F, 1908-1912). Production of the low-priced E-M-F commenced at the same time as the Model T, and sales were brisk.
However, the firm’s directors couldn’t get along and in 1909, Byron F. Everitt and William A. Metzger resigned from the board in order to build a competing automobile - the Everitt (1910-1912). Capital for the new venture was provided by the sale of the B.F. Everitt Co to Walter O. Briggs for $50,000. Following the sale, Briggs reorganized it as the Briggs Mfg Co. who at that time were providing upholstery for many early Detroit-based automakers such as Abbott, Chalmers, E-M-F, Ford and Paige.
Following a protracted lawsuit, E-M-F was completely taken over by their distributor, the Studebaker Brothers, in 1912. A few years later, Everitt, Metzger and Flanders, put aside their differences, producing the Rickenbacker automobile at the end of WWI.
Ford played a larger role in the fortunes of Briggs Mfg. starting in 1910 when they got a large order for 10,000 Model T interiors. Many years earlier, James J. Couzens had worked with Briggs at the Michigan Central Railroad as a railroad car checker. Fortune followed Couzens and he was an early investor in the Ford Motor Co., and by 1910 was Ford’s chief financial advisor. Couzens later became Ford Motor Co.’s Secretary and Treasurer, the City of Detroit’s Mayor from 1919-1922 and Michigan’s US Senator from 1922 until his death in 1936.
With the addition of the Sterling Auto Top Co. in 1917, Briggs was now able to supply Ford and others with convertible tops and top mechanisms, and the acquisition of the Detroit Curled Hair works gave Briggs a steady supply of the horse hair used in stuffing their upholstery.
As sales of the Model T soared, more skilled upholsterers and manufacturing facilities were required so later that year the Murphy Chair Co. was purchased by Briggs. Murphy was a continuation of the firm of C.H. Dunks, an early Detroit manufacturer of bed springs. It was purchased in 1872 by Michael J. Murphy, a Canadian originally born in Sarnia, Ontario. His younger brother James F. Murphy joined the firm in 1883 which by that time was engaged in the manufacture of chairs and other upholstered furniture. At the time of its purchase by Briggs, Michael J. Murphy was the firm’s president and James F. Murphy, secretary-treasurer. The Murphy Chair Co. plant was located in Detroit on Harper Ave. at the Lake Shore & Michigan South Railroad crossing and is unrelated to the more recent Owensboro, KY firm of the same name.
Briggs introduced their revolutionary Essex closed coach body in 1922. It was the first closed vehicle available at a price close to its open-bodied brethren. Originally priced only $300 more that a comparable 1922 Essex touring, within three years, its popularity enabled Hudson to reduce its price so that both the 1925 Essex touring and coach were priced the same. That forced the competitors to do the same and within a few short years, the open touring car was a thing of the past.
The popularity of the closed car meant that more sheet metal stamping capacity was needed, so in 1923 Briggs purchased the Michigan Stamping Co. Coincidentally, Michigan Stamping’s original Chesterfield, Michigan plant was run from 1903-1913, by John William Murray, the founder of the J.W. Murray Mfg. Co., a firm that would soon become Briggs chief competitor. However, by the time of the purchase, Murray was no longer with the firm.
Michigan Stamping was an early supplier to the Ford Motor Co. and along with a competitor, Parish & Bingham, produced most of the Model T’s chassis. Michigan Stamping frames have a M.S.B. pennant on the frame while Parish & Bingham frames feature a P&B inside a circle. Business was sufficient that a new plant was built closer to their main customer on Mack Avenue in 1916 and this is the same plant that later housed both Briggs and, through 1979, the Chrysler Corp.
In 1924 Briggs took their firm public, and with 60% of its stock, Walter O. Briggs became a multi-millionaire overnight. The following year, Briggs Mfg. Corp. produced half a million automobile bodies, posting an $11 million profit, and its shareholders received an incredible 200% dividend.
Ripe with cash, Briggs acquired the former Meldrum Ave. (between Mack and Benson) plant of the American Auto Trimming Co. from their parent, the Gotfredson Truck Corp., for $1,500,000 in May of 1925. Benjamin Gotfredson had formed American Auto Trimming in 1909 to supply smaller Detroit automakers with upholstery and paint facilities. In 1911, a Canadian subsidiary was formed in Walkerville, Ontario and US branches were established in Cleveland, Ohio in 1916, followed by a fourth plant in Los Angeles, California. The firm was a major supplier to Ford and up until the sale to Briggs had been their chief competitor. Another plant on Detroit ‘s Vernor Highway was purchased later that year and in December, Briggs started building bodies for Willys-Overland’s new companion car, the Whippet.
In 1926, Walter O. Briggs named a Detroit banker named John H. French as the new president of Briggs Mfg. Co. and installed himself as chairman. French took care of the firm’s day-to-day business while Briggs worked on his real estate businesses and on other projects such as the acquisition of LeBaron Inc.
Walter O. Briggs started making secret negotiations with LeBaron’s Ralph Roberts in 1926 to move LeBaron from New York City to Detroit. The primary purpose of the takeover was to secure the LeBaron name as well as its talented designers, which would help Briggs attract more customers for their series-built custom bodies. Briggs was not only Detroit's largest independent body producer, it was also the richest, and Brigg’s generous offer was too good to pass up. All three LeBaron partners agreed, and the merger was publicly announced near the end of 1926 and took place in early 1927.
For the first year, Roberts commuted between Detroit and New York, but eventually moved full time to Detroit. A new studio was set up on the 4th and 5th floors of Briggs' Mack Avenue plant, called the LeBaron Studios, manned by Roberts and his staff of hand-picked designers. Roberts continued to work on the LeBaron series customs but also did work for Briggs production body division from time to time. He’s credited with the design of the Briggs’-built 1928-29 Ford Model A Fordor Sedan bodies. Apparently a Lincoln LeBaron sedan attracted the eye of Henry Ford who showed it to Walter O. Briggs proclaiming "Walter, there's our new Fordor sedan". The car was in dealer's showrooms in a remarkable six months and is easily distinguishable from Murray-built 1928-1929 4-door Model A's by its resemblance to the redesigned 1930 Model A four doors. LeBaron is also credited with the designs of all of the Briggs-built open bodies for the Ford Model A.
The influx of Briggs’ money helped move the Bridgeport plant to larger quarters at the former Robert Bosch Manufacturing Co. plant in Bridgeport. Now that they were rich, Hinman and Seward retired, and Ray Birge, who had previously worked for Buffalo, New York’s, American Body Co. was hired to run the plant.
LeBaron’s New York office was also moved to more prestigious quarters at 724 Fifth Ave. where Hugo Pfau and Roland Stickney worked under Roberts designing bespoke bodies for local distributors and production bodies for Briggs customers. Pfau recalled that they even did some design work for Long Island’s Fairchild Aviation.
An interesting item can be found in the February 26, 1927 issue of Automotive News. Apparently Walter O. Briggs wanted to buy out his prime rival, Murray, and the paper ran a story that stated a Briggs/Murray merger was "being considered." Henry Ford reasoned the merger of his two largest body suppliers would not be in his best interests, so a week later, a large Automotive News headline proclaimed "Briggs Mfg. Co. Not To Merge With Murray Corp. of America."
Briggs built all of Ford’s open-cab pickup truck bodies from 1925 through 1932 as well as the Model T and Model A pickup beds, plus a large portion of Ford’s closed truck cabs. Ford’s early pickups used a non-retractable canvas top with integral canvas and isinglass side curtains to keep out the elements.
One of LeBaron’s first jobs for Briggs was the design of the 1928 Graham-Paige. Flush with cash from the sale of Dodge to Dillon-Read, the Graham Brothers – Ray A., Joseph B. and Robert C. - purchased the Paige-Detroit Motor Co. during 1927, and asked Briggs to design them a new automobile. Hugo Pfau and Roland Stickney of LeBaron’s New York office were assigned the project and they came up with a very attractive car with a rounded-off Hispano-Suiza-inspired grill and front end. In place of their standard renderings, Briggs/LeBaron supplied the Grahams with a clay replica of the car to better visualize its unique styling features. Hugo Pfau believes that this was the first use of a clay model to sell a client on a new design.
Initial bodies were built by Briggs, however as sales took off, the Grahams purchased the old Harroun Motor Car factory in Wayne, Michigan and turned it into the Graham-Paige Body Corp. which eventually supplied 90% of the firms coachwork. However, LeBaron got the contracts for most of Graham-Paige’s custom bodies including the attractive dual-cowl phaetons and town cars seen in the late twenties.
Just as Ford was ramping up for the introduction of the Model A, a huge fire leveled Briggs’ Harper Ave. factory, leaving them with little to no space to manufacture the thousands of bodies they had hoped to sell to Ford. Since their other three plants - Mack Ave., Meldrum Ave, and Vernor Highway – were busy with other projects, a deal was struck with Ford where Briggs leased the 1.64 million sq. ft. Highland Park Model T plant which had been mothballed following the end of Model T production. Briggs signed a five-year renewable lease at $800,000 per year. Remarkably, the lease did not prohibit them from manufacturing bodies for other auto manufacturers, and for many years Briggs built Chrysler bodies inside a portion of the huge plant. Briggs later leased space in Ford’s Cleveland, Ohio assembly plant where they built fordor Model A bodies which were shipped to Ford’s eastern US assembly plants. Briggs also supplied legacy body parts for Fords Model T throughout the 1930s.
Ford built most of their own production bodies for the Model A, however both Briggs and Murray were their largest outside suppliers of complete bodies, producing all of Ford’s Model 155 Town Sedans and Model 165 Fordor Sedans. Four Door Model A body style suffix's indicate who made the body. An A indicates a 1928-1929 Murray body, B indicates a 1928-1929 Briggs body, C indicates 1930-1931 (early) Murray body, and D indicates 1930-1931 (early). Budd Mfg., Hayes Body Co. and Midland Steel Corp. all supplied Model A stampings and steel sub-assemblies and later on Budd built complete truck cabs and van bodies as well.
Briggs supplied the Type 135A taxicab bodies for the 1928-1930 Ford Model A. The body differed from regular 4-dr sedans in that it included a rear compartment divider that included jump seats and a small storage compartment that extended in the space normally occupied by the front seat passenger.
Ford's beautiful new Model A Type 295-A Town Car Delivery that was introduced in 1930 was also built by Briggs. Designed for exclusive shops and small parcel delivery services, it was loosely based on the Ford’s tudor sedan, and featured an open driver's compartment, coach lights, and stainless steel trim.
Briggs also built another rare Ford commercial body, the 1931 Ford Model 66A Deluxe Pickup, the first swept-side pickup available, and the antecedent of the Ford Rancheros and Chevrolet El Caminos of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. First built exclusively for General Electric Co. refrigerator salesmen, Ford eventually offered the body to the public, although only 293 were produced. Available only in closed cab form, its side panels overlapped the rear cab pillars and were attached to the cab with carriage bolts. The box was topped off with chrome-plated brass rails giving an elegant look to this rare Model A, which was usually painted in white.
A similar body was also built by Briggs for the larger Model AA chassis. The Type 229-A Deluxe Express Body also included overlapping side panels and a swept express body that fit flush with the cab. The body could be outfitted with a built-in tool chest and wrecker hoist and made an ideal automobile service truck for car dealerships and larger garages.
For many years, LeBaron Inc. supplied Grover C. Parvis, the head of Packard New York’s custom body department, with both town car and limousine bodies, and he was not always happy with the results. Birge made it a point to visit Parvis on a regular basis to ensure that LeBaron’s quality improved. He promised Parvis that he would bring up the level of quality in our bodies to a standard at least as good as Rollston's, which produced the finest (and most expensive) bodies at the time. Unfortunately for LeBaron/Briggs, Birge succeeded so well that he was recruited by Horace W. Potter to work at Packard's Custom Body Department in Detroit, a division he later headed.
Fortunately, Briggs had just bought the Phillips Custom Body Co., and Edwin P. Carter, their manager, capably assumed Birge’s former position. When the Eastern LeBaron operation was closed down in 1930, Carter moved to Detroit and took over the LeBaron-Detroit plant for Briggs, which he ran until the start of WWII.
Early jobs built at the Meldrum Ave. plant included sedan limousines and town car bodies for Stutz as well as small series for Chrysler, Packard and Hudson. Starting in 1928, convertible roadsters were built for Lincoln and a large contract was negotiated with Stutz where LeBaron-Detroit built all of their production bodies. However, Stutz wanted to paint and upholster the bodies in their Indianapolis plant, so they were supplied with bodies-in the-white, or primed bodies without paint or upholstery. Several hundred convertible sedans were also built for Pierce-Arrow “in the white”. With the exception of the two Waterhouse phaetons built for Col. Prentiss, all Marmon Sixteen bodies were built by LeBaron-Detroit, although they were designed by Walter Dorwin Teague Jr. and not LeBaron.
The Depression put an end to LeBaron's activities in New York City. Briggs closed down the Fifth Ave. office at the end of October, 1930, and the Bridgeport, Connecticut body plant two months later. The last bodies built in Bridgeport were a series of convertible roadsters that were used by both Packard and Pierce-Arrow. As they were typically ordered in batches of 25, a number of unfinished bodies were shipped to Detroit to be completed when the plant closed down.
Roland L. Stickney decided to remain in New York and went to work for industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. The terms of his contract with Dreyfuss allowed him to do some moonlighting for Judkins, Rollston and Brewster and he continued producing automotive designs up until WWII. Stickney gave art lessons as well, and one of his students was George Hildebrand, a talented illustrator who later worked for Rollston, industrial designer Helen Dryden and General Motors. Hugo Pfau was given a job in Detroit with Brigg’s sales organization, but moved back to New York in the early thirties and went to work for a Long Island Ford dealer.
John Tjaarda (von Sterkenburg), was recruited from GM’s Art & Colour in 1932 to assist Roberts, and was put in charge of Briggs’ Body Design and Engineering Department. Both Roberts and Tjaarda served similar functions, although Roberts concentrated on series customs while Tjaarda worked on standard production bodies. The major difference is that Roberts’ designs usually ended up with a LeBaron body tag, while Tjaarda’s work remained anonymous, save for the highly publicized Briggs Dream Car that appeared at the 1933-34 Century of Progress exhibit in Chicago that was based on Tjaarda’s earlier von Sterkenburg rear-engined prototype.
As was their chief competitor, Murray, Briggs was often given the responsibility of building complicated body styles that Detroit’s automakers couldn’t handle on their own. One of the most complicated was the convertible Victoria. The style became popular after a Packard Coupe Cabriolet had won the Grand Prize at the 1928 Monaco Concours d’Elegance. It was a convertible coupe that had been built by the Brussels coachbuilder Carrosserie Van den Plas in 1928 for exhibition at the Paris Auto Salon to a design attributed to “Count”Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, their in-house designer. Its blind-quarter Victoria style can be traced back to a fixed-roof coupe built in France sometime in 1926.
The October 1927 issue of Omnia, a popular French automotive magazine, showed a four-place cabriolet body on a 9CV Peugeot chassis. Gaston Grummer & Cie, showed a convertible Victoria on a 15 CV Renault chassis, and the Brussels coachbuilder, D’Ieteren Freres, built an example on a Minerva chassis during 1928. So by 1929, it was already an established style on the Continent, and a number of Europe’s major coachbuilders, including Graber, Erdmann & Rossi and Hibbard & Darrin had built variations of it.
With help from LeBaron’s designers Briggs produced a number of convertible Victorias between 1930-1934 for Chrysler, DeSoto, Dodge, Plymouth and Rockne, and from 1930 on, built all of Plymouth’s production bodies.
Beginning in 1932, Ralph Roberts spent a good deal of time in England, helping set up Briggs Motor Bodies Ltd. in Dagenham, Ford of England’s primary body supplier. It was formed in 1930 and originally operated inside of Ford’s Trafford Park plant. When Ford opened up the Dagenham factory, Briggs built a factory next door and within a few years was turning out 250 bodies a day. Briggs also attempted to try to get other British manufacturers’ business and Roberts spent a good deal of time in Dagenham, right up until the start of WWII, commuting back and forth 3 or four times a year.
During Roberts’ long absences, Tjaarda was put in charge of the combined studios which over the next decade produced numerous production designs for Ford, Lincoln, Chrysler, Hudson, Stutz, Graham-Paige, Plymouth and Packard. During that time, some of country’s most talented designers worked under Roberts and Tjaarda. They include: Philip O. Wright (‘34-‘39), Alexander Sarantos Tremulis (‘37-‘38 + ‘40-‘41), Holden (Bob) Koto (‘33-‘39), Hugh Galt, Joe Thompson, Fred Walthers, Matthew Schumr Sr., Jack Morgan, William Flajole, Walt Wengren, Rhys Miller, Jack Wilson, Howard Bonbright, Clarence Karstadt and Albert W. Prance. Prance later assumed Tjaarda’s duties as Briggs chief designer in 1941.
According to Hugo Pfau: "One of Prance's ideas was to develop a steel station wagon body, but with exposed wooden trim. It was no longer a functional part of the body structure, and Prance and his associates developed methods of bonding the wood to the steel panels so that relatively thin sections could be used. This led to the Chrysler Town & Country of 1946 and the Packard Station Sedan of 1948."
LeBaron-Detroit, as Briggs’ Meldrum Ave. plant was called, supplied untrimmed "bodies-in-white" to Stutz, Marmon and Pierce-Arrow as well as the many series customs turned out for Chrysler, Hudson, Packard and Lincoln. The Stutz bodies were finished at the former Hale-Kilburn factory in Indianapolis where the rest of Stutz's bodies were painted and trimmed.
Ford introduced their new line of commercial chassis in 1932. Now available with the new flathead V-8 and designated Model B or BB the new double drop chassis featured better springs, a new low-slung appearance and the possibility of substantially more power.
Between 1932 and 1934 the Mingel Co. of Louisville, Kentucky supplied the wood for Ford’s V-8 Station Wagons and both Murray and Briggs assembled the bodies which were then shipped to a regional Ford assembly plant to be mated to an awaiting chassis. The contract with Mingel ran out in 1934 and the woodwork for all succeeding woodies came from Ford’s Iron Mountain facility. 1935-36 station wagons were assembled by Briggs & Murray, while 1937-1941 wagons were built by Briggs, Murray and Raulang.
For 1933 Briggs supplied Ford with a brand new sedan delivery body. No longer based on the Tudor sedan, the new body had a longer wheelbase with a corresponding longer rear quarter panel, a large 36" square rear door plus the narrower front doors of the Fordor sedan. With the new double drop frame, the 1933 was one of the nicest-looking sedan deliveries of all time and when equipped with the optional V-8, is a rare and highly valued collector's item.
During the late twenties and early thirties, the majority of Briggs output went to the Ford Motor Co. whose purchasing manager, A.M. Wibel, was one of the most feared men in Detroit. He required that all of Ford’s supplier make their books available to Ford accountants, and went so far as to dictate who much profit would be made by each supplier, frequently holding competitions between competitors to see who could produce a specific part at the lowest possible price.
Ralph Roberts recalled: "Briggs operated with Ford without a contract, on 'Open Book,' which was a complete breakdown of materials and labor in minutes and fractions for each operation. This was in a constant state of flux due to engineering and specifications changes. To this basic cost was added overhead and 'profit,' always subject to debate."
For example in 1929, both Briggs and Murray supplied Ford with identical Model 155 town sedan bodies. The Murray body cost Ford $237.98 while the Briggs body cost eight dollars less, $229.71. The amount of profit allowed by Ford was typically ten percent. So to an outside observer it appears that Briggs made a $23 profit on every Model 155 town sedan body sold to Ford. Unfortunately for Ford’s suppliers, they had to pay for their labor, overhead, capital expenses and stockholder dividends out of their 10% “profit”.
Another “debate” involved whether Brigg’s should buy its own steel. While going over Briggs’ “Open Books”, Ford’s purchasing director, A.M. Wibel discovered that they had been marking up the price of the raw steel in addition to getting their normal 10% profit on the finished bodies. From that moment on Ford bought all of Brigg’s steel, and expanded the Ford buying program to a number of other suppliers as well.
Despite the low profit margins allowed by their largest customer, Briggs high volume was responsible for their outstanding profits which were sometimes as high as $5-10 million, even during the Depression, where they only suffered only one year of red ink (1932).
While Briggs’ investors were well-rewarded they were not so generous with their own employees who were amongst the poorest paid workers in the auto industry. During the depths of the Depression, Henry’s Ford’s assembly line workers were paid $1 an hour, while a comparable worker at Briggs was paid only a fraction of that amount – sometimes as low as $.10 an hour.
Briggs’ long exploited workers decided to fight back in January of 1933. In an article called “The Detroit Strike” that appeared in the February 15, 1933 edition of The Nation, reporter Samuel Romer detailed what happened:
Another major strike took place 4 years later, on January 18, 1937, when 2,000 UAW workers walked out of Briggs’ Meldrum Ave. plant after 200 workers were laid off. After a 12 short days, the workers were reinstated, however Briggs was a frequent target of the UAW throughout the decade.
Alexander Sarantos Tremulis, one of Briggs’ designers at that time recalled: “Briggs was becoming a hotbed for strikes... I well remember the overturned Mack Ave. streetcars and walking through screaming picket lines to get to work. I also recall that when the temperature reached 90°, the workers walked off their jobs. One time when they walked off, the assembly line kept going and 40 or 50 bodies dropped from the fourth floor to the ground. It made a fantastic sound."
LeBaron designers were responsible for the design of the aerodynamic 1933 Ford V8 and the influences of various Briggs’ and LeBaron designers can be seen in a number of vehicles they designed later on. Historically, Briggs most important designer was John Tjaarda, and his most important design, the Briggs Dream Car that was exhibited at the Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition (1933-1934). Tjaarda based it on a series of aerodynamic monocoque rear-engined cars he began working on starting in 1926 called the Sterkenburg Series, named after his family’s Tjaarda van Sterkenburg estate which was located in the Dutch province of Friesland.
The very first Sterkenburg was designed while Tjaarda was working for Rochester, New York coachbuilder Locke & Co. He continued working on the vehicle in his spare time and even entered it into a contest while working at General Motors’ Art & Colour. Harley Earl showed very little interest in Tjaarda's design and after some unsuccessful attempts at getting it financed he went to work for Briggs, who were more receptive to the streamlined concept.
At about the same time Briggs had hired a friend of Edsel’s named Howard Bonbright, in a bid to get more business from Ford. Bonbright was put in charge of Briggs’ Ford Policies and Relations Department and one of its first projects was a unit-bodied, rear-engined car based on Tjaarda’s Sterkenburg concepts. Three proposals were submitted to Edsel, the first a unit-bodied rear-engined car that closely resembled Tjaarda’s original concept. The second looked just like the first, but substituted a conventional front-engined drivetrain. The third was a convertible coupe version of the first rear-engined design.
Briggs built a full-size wooden mock-up of the first rear-engined prototype for exhibition at the December, 1933 Ford Exhibition of Progress in New York City. The car then made the rounds of a few of the country’s larger Lincoln dealers, winding up at the Chicago Century of Progress exhibition where it was prominently displayed in the Ford Rotunda for the rest of 1934.
Although, that particular vehicle never made it to production, Tjaarda’s basic design served as the basis for the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr. The production Zephyr featured Tjaarda’s bridge-truss structure with a conventional front-engine layout and drivetrain. With input from Edsel, Ford’s E.T. (Bob) Gregorie restyled Tjaarda’s Sterkenburg concept creating one of the most striking cars of the pre-war period. The Zephyr provided the basis for Lincoln’s 1939-1948 Continental and heavily influenced other builder’s streamlined offerings during the later thirties and forties.
The engineering work of Tjaarda is also evident in the monocoque designs of the 1934 Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow. Holden “Bob” Koto facelifted the 1935 Ford to become the 1936 model and assisted Ford designer E.T. “Bob” Gregorie in the design of the Zephyr front end. The work of Philip O. Wright can be seen in the streamlined Packard LeBaron’s of 1934-35, the 1935 Ford and the 1935 Chrysler and DeSoto Airstream. Alex Tremulis is credited with the aerodynamic Thunderbolt retractable hardtop convertible of 1940 and Ralph Roberts handled the design of its sister showcar, the Newport parade phaeton. Six examples of each idea car were built and taken around the country to introduce Chrysler’s all-new 1941 line-up.
Ironically, Ray Dietrich joined Chrysler Corp.'s Art & Colour staff in 1932 and worked indirectly with Briggs and LeBaron on Chrysler Corp. styling projects through 1940.
The clay model was used extensively under Roberts’ and Tjaarda’s tenure at Briggs. They became a major ingredient of Briggs’ successful styling presentations to Ford, Packard, Plymouth, DeSoto, Dodge, Chrysler, Hudson, Studebaker, British Ford, Graham, and Franklin. Additionally, if they placed their body orders with Briggs, auto manufacturers would get the use of Briggs/LeBaron’s designer’s and body engineers at no additional cost. Briggs employed a number of talented engineers in addition to their much-recognized designers. Albert Ball and Trygre Vigmostad served the firm for many years in their experimental laboratories, and Briggs’ capable body engineering department was headed by Clifford Doty.
As the 1930s wore on, Briggs built more and more bodies for Chrysler and fewer and fewer bodies for Ford. According to records in the Ford Archives, in 1936, Briggs supplied them with 66% of their outside bodies and their most popular style was the deluxe fordor sedan. That figure had fallen to 27% in 1939, and most of those were for either Lincoln or Mercury. Ford built their own tudor and fordor sedans, Budd built most of Ford’s commercial bodies and Murray supplied Ford with limited production models such as the coupes, convertibles and station wagons. Briggs was relegated to providing both complete bodies and sheet-metal subassemblies for the new Mercury and complete bodies for Lincoln’s Zephyr. Briggs also supplied Ford with most of their legacy sheet metal replacement panels.
Briggs's main customers - Ford, Chrysler, Packard and Hudson - had each set up small design departments of their own, so they weren't so dependent on Briggs for new ideas. As a result, there were inevitable cutbacks in the Briggs/LeBaron styling staff in the years leading up to World War II. During the same period, the LeBaron name and division became less important for the firm, although it remained a division of Briggs right up until the Chrysler buy-out.
Although Ford and Chrysler were historically Briggs’ largest customers, throughout the 1930s they supplied Hudson, Graham, and Packard with trim and sheet metal stampings. Their relationship with Packard dated back to their purchase of LeBaron and starting with Packard’s all-new 1941 Clipper, Briggs built all of Packard's production bodies up until the Chrysler takeover.
During World War II Briggs was a major supplier to the US Armed forces, producing over a billion dollars’ worth of stamped steel and aluminum products. A record workforce of 31,000 built the following assemblies: aircraft gun turrets, doors B-26 c, bulkheads B-26c, outer wings A-20g, wing tips A-20g, ailerons A-20g, outer wings B-17g, wing tips B-17g, stabilizers B-17g, fins B-17g, ailerons B-17g, flaps B-17g, ducts B-17g, flaps B-29, tank hulls T-26-90 and 26-105, aft bomb doors B-29, forward bomb doors B-29, nose wheel doors B-29, outer wings B-29, tools, dies, fixtures, trucks, cabs and tops, tank hulls, ambulance bodies etc.
Since the mid-thirties the Henney Motor Co. of Freeport, Illinois built all of Packard’s professional cars and limousines. After the War they resumed production and built 3,000 long wheelbase Packard Clippers through 1947. However demand for their hearses and ambulances had skyrocketed after the war and they no longer had the capacity to renew the contract. Consequently Packard had Briggs, their production body builder, produce the long-wheelbase limousine from 1948 through 1950 when the model was discontinued. A handful of long wheelbase limousines were built between 1953-1954 by Henney, but they were all custom ordered, unlike the earlier limousines that were standard Packard offerings.
Briggs passed away on January 17, 1952 in his Miami, Beach, Florida winter residence from complications arising from a kidney ailment. For the previous 12 years, Briggs had been paralyzed from the waist down, but conducted business from his wheelchair. His son, Walter O. (Spike) Briggs Jr. was Briggs Manufacturing’s executive vice-president and took over as chairman later that year. Brigg’s son-in-law, W. Dean Robinson, remained the firm’s president.
The family expressed a desire to sell their 19% controlling interest in the firm, and Chrysler Corporation, Briggs’ largest customer made an offer to purchase the entire US body building operation, lock, stock and barrel for $35 million. The sale took place on December, 29, 1953, and Chrysler assumed control of all of twelve Briggs plants - 10 in Detroit plus 1 in Youngstown, Ohio and another in Evansville, Indiana. The Conner Ave. plant that had been building all of Packard’s bodies was leased to Packard to avoid any conflict of interest. Briggs’ plant in Dagenham, England was sold to Ford Motor Co. Ltd., Ford’s British subsidiary.
Although the Briggs name vanished in 1953, the LeBaron trade name would reappear on a number of specially equipped Imperials from 1958 through 1973. It became a distinct model in the Chrysler lineup starting in 1977. The K-Car based LeBaron debuted in 1982 and the model continued to be offered in a variety of configurations, convertible, front wheel drive or rear wheel drive until 1995. The name became the property of Daimler-Chrysler following Daimler-Benz’ takeover of Chrysler in 1998, but so far hasn’t been used by the German automaker.
During the depths of the Depression, Briggs’ excess capacity and expertise in deep-draw metal stamping created a new outlet for Briggs’ stamped steel products. In 1933, Briggs engineers determined that their huge deep-draw metal presses could stamp out a sheet-metal bathtub just as easily as an automobile hood or fender. Once covered with a porcelain finish, the resulting bathroom fixture weighed only 100 lbs. – a dramatic weight savings when compared to the 300-400 lbs. of the traditional cast-iron tub. They much lighter tubs were stackable as well creating a very attractive product to the nation’s builders and plumbing contractors.
Introduced under the Brigsteel Beautyware brand, the new fixtures quickly became popular and helped boost Briggs’ profits. They soon expanded into steel plumbing fixtures and introduced colored porcelain, which was available in 4 different colors. Following the war, the division was renamed Briggs Beautyware and they launched a program of expansion, purchasing the Abingdon Sanitary Manufacturing of Abingdon, Illinois in 1946.
When the Briggs family sold their body plants in 1953, they kept the Briggs Beautyware division, which continued to return large profits well into the 1960s when they purchased one of their major competitors, the Case Manufacturing Co. of Robinson, Illinois in 1963. Case had developed the one-piece toilet and put Briggs on the cutting edge of the industry. In 1973, Briggs built the Knoxville Steel Plant, the largest porcelain-on-steel plumbing ware manufacturing plant in the world.
Briggs was purchased by Cerámicas Industriales, South America (CISA) - the second largest china producer in the Western Hemisphere – in 1997, and just last year, Cementos Bio Bio, a large Chilean cement producer, purchased a 40% interest in CISA.
Now headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina Briggs Plumbing Products, Inc. has manufacturing facilities throughout the Americas and three distribution centers in the continental United States.
The Detroit Tigers
If you do an internet search on Walter O. Briggs today, the only references you’ll find deal with his ownership of the American League's Detroit Tigers baseball team. Briggs owned a portion of the team from 1920 until his death in 1952, and owned it outright starting in 1935 when co-owner, Frank J. Navin, passed away. During his tenure, the Tigers won the 1935 World Series as well as the American League pennant in 1934 and 1935. Originally called Navin Field (after principal owner Navin), the ballpark changed its name to Briggs Stadium in 1938 and finally to Tiger Stadium in 1961. Walter O. Briggs Jr. inherited the Tigers from his father and owned the team until 1956 when it was purchased by Fred Knorr and John Fetzer.
Briggs also helped found the Detroit Zoo in 1928, and personally paid for many of its first exhibits. He also contributed to Eastern Michigan University and the Detroit Symphony.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com
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