The Derham family turned out $15,000 to $20,000 custom built auto bodies for such notables as Joseph Stalin, Pope Pius XII, King Farouk, President Eisenhower, Gary Cooper, Raymond Loewy and their limousines were used in fifteen coronations around the world. They were also the longest-lived American body builder, and the only classic-era coachbuilder that survived the Depression.
Orphaned at a young age, 16 year-old Joseph J. Derham (1865-1928) came to Boston, Massachusetts in 1882 after completing his apprenticeship as a wheelwright in County Galway, Ireland. He soon found employment in the Philadelphia carriage shops of Ned Wiles. He reached his majority (legal age of independence) in 1887 and left Wiles to open his own shop at the junction of Lancaster Pike and Haverford Road in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, which is located 11 miles west of downtown Philadelphia.. Known as Joseph J. Derham's Rosemont Carriage Works, his reputation grew and his Landaus, Victorias, Meadowbrooks, Phaetons and Broughams were soon in demand with wealthy Philadelphians who lived along the “Main Line” aka Lancaster Pike or present day Route 30. (Wiles spent the last years of his life working for his former employee in Derham’s Rosemont Shops.) Derham developed a good working relationship with his next-door neighbor, a blacksmith named Tom Ryan who did all of Derham’s early smith and forging work.
While the Rosemont Carriage Works were being built at 1234 Lancaster Ave, Joseph Derham did a small amount of work with Tom Ryan, who had a blacksmith shop on the property adjoining the carriage works. Ryan later did all of 'the forgings and blacksmith work for Derham, until their volume of business became such that they had to set up their own facilities. At this time there were many carriage makers in the Philadelphia area. Among the better known metro Philadelphia builders were Collings (of Camden, N.J.), Rech-Marbaker and Wolfington, all of which later dabbled in automobile and commercial body work. But only Derham would survive past the Depression. By his own admission, only the carriages produced by Brewster & Co. of New York enjoyed a reputation equal to that of J.J. Derham’s.
Derham married Philadelphian Christina Hart, in 1902 and six sons - four of whom later joined the company (Enos, Philip, James & Joseph Jr.) - were born during the following decade.
For twenty years Derham carriages were produced in ever increasing numbers, and with constantly improving quality. The business, which in addition to new production included annual refinishing of all varnish work, had become quite large and soon outgrew the original Rosemont Carriage Works building.
Derham built very few commercial bodies, but at least one pickup-style express body is known to have been built on a 1907 Locomobile Model H chassis.
Derham’s earliest automobile work consisted of constructing enclosed bodies for customers who owned open touring cars, but desired to drive them through the winter months. Typically the customer would come in to have the bodies swapped in the early spring and late fall. After performing the body exchange, Derham would re-varnish, then store the body not currently in use until the next change of season. At that time it was cheaper to swap the bodies than to own and operate two different vehicles. By the early 1920s the expensive changeovers diminished as most wealthy people either owned both a summer and winter vehicle or utilized transformable town cars or convertible landaulets that could be driven year round.
Some thrifty Main-liners mounted their Derham bodies on a succession of different chassis, rather than pay to have a new body built every few years. One memorable customer was Mrs. Louise Audenreid, who initially came to Derham in the early teens desiring to have her 1907 Zeidel body transferred to a new chassis. Unfortunately the Zeidel’s body wouldn’t fit on the new frame, so she commissioned Derham to construct a replica body that would. She returned in the early twenties to have that body transferred to another chassis, this time a Pierce-Arrow. Once again, the body wouldn’t fit so another duplicate 1907 Zeidel body was built for her. She returned for a third and final time in 1938 for her third replica body which Derham built and fitted to a 1938 Packard Super Eight chassis. While many coachbuilders would consider such work as distasteful, Derham didn’t. They would perform most any task that a customer desired, a policy that helped them outlast every other American coachbuilder of the classic era.
By 1916, the three oldest Derham offspring, Philip, James & Joseph Jr. had joined their father as apprentices at the firm which was then managed by James M. Hart with Harry Kerr in charge of purchasing.
Early on, Derham built small runs of duplicate custom bodies for New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania car dealers who were looking for custom bodies at a production body price. Now commonly referred to as semi-custom bodies, they were typically designed in conjunction with a large metropolitan dealer or dealer group who would then order 5 or more duplicates for exclusive sale through his dealership. They would be sold as custom bodies, but cost substantially less as the cost of the tooling could be spread out over a production run. The more bodies built, the cheaper they could be built.
For orders of twenty or more, it became feasible for Derham to build small assembly lines with individual hammer forms for the cowls, doors, and other body panels. Even on such a small number of bodies the benefits of mass production enabled them to produce a high quality body at an attractive price.
For example the New York Packard dealer had their own custom body department headed by Grover C. Parvis. Derham would take a few sketches to Parvis’ office and together they would review them, choosing the most saleable candidates for a limited run of from 10 to 20 examples of each. Derham would then try to get additional orders for the same designs from other regional Packard dealers, which would spread the cost of the tooling across the highest possible number of examples, further reducing the costs for both Derham and its car dealer customers. Derham had similar arrangements with the Philadelphia Packard and Hudson dealer as well.
This semi-custom work for Packard and Hudson produced so much additional work that in 1916 Derham purchased an additional plant in downtown Philadelphia to use exclusively for series-built bodies. Located at 237-245 South 12th St and Locust St, the former Fulton-Walker truck body plant was ideally suited for the task and James Derham, the eldest son, was placed in charge of it. The suburban Rosemont facility continued to house Derham’s one-off custom body shop as well as serving as the firm’s showroom and storage and repair depot.
During the First World War, the three eldest Derham boys - Philip, James & Joseph Jr. - all served in the US Armed Forces while Enos, the youngest, remained in Rosemont to finish his high school studies. When James enlisted in the US Navy, his father, Joseph Sr. took over the Philadelphia plant and placed his brother in charge at the Rosemont facility. Even though he was only sixteen, Enos was eventually forced to take over the day-to-day operations of the Rosemont facility when his uncle became seriously ill. To his credit, Enos managed to finish high school and keep the Rosemont shop operating through the end of the War.
Luckily all 3 Derham sons returned home safely after the Armistice was signed in 1918. Enos was sent off to Cornell University to study engineering while his older brothers assumed control of the firm. Joe, Jr. was soon put in charge of drafting and body design, James helped out his father with sales, Philip served as manager of the downtown works and longtime employee Harry Kerr stayed on as purchasing agent. In 1920, the Derham Corporation’s officers were as follows; Joseph J. Derham, Sr. president; Joseph Jr., secretary; James P. treasurer; and Philip A. general manager. Enos was kept busy during his summer vacation producing mechanical drawings of his brothers, Joseph's designs.
Shortly after Enos graduated from Cornell, his brother, Joseph, died leaving a deep hole in both the Derham family and its body-building operation. Enos hadn’t planned on joining the firm after graduation, but his father convinced him to work in the shops on a trial basis. He soon assumed all of Joseph's production responsibilities, and gradually learned design from one of the firm’s old-timers who had worked with his brother before his untimely death. Enos background was in drafting, rather than drawing, a skill that proved to be an asset in the days when most designing was based on line drawings. By the mid-twenties, Enos Derham had established the Derham look, an unusual blending of both conservative style, continuity and flavor that one experiences when looking at any one of their creations.
At the same time, Derham now had a workforce of 200 that produced an average of one finished body per work day, with gross sales of over $1,000,000. The vast majority of these were series customs built for the regional Packard and Hudson dealers, but a few dozen were one-off customs built for the wealthy inhabitants of Philadelphia and New York City.
In addition to their series-built bodies, Derham built custom bodies on any chassis the customer supplied, from the fine European marques such as Rolls-Royce, Isotta-Fraschini, and Mercedes-Benz, through the top of the American market, Packard, Locomobile, Pierce Arrow, all the way down to the Ford Model T.
Enos Derham fondly remembered one special Model T built in 1920 for the daughter of Philadelphia socialite Mrs. W. Plunkett Stewart. Her daughter’s elderly chauffer had never learned to drive anything other than a Model T, so Mrs. Stewart commissioned Derham to build a slightly smaller, but identical copy of her Rolls-Royce’s Town Car body for mounting on a new Model T chassis. It featured a fully collapsible leather roof and was finished with a yellow chassis and wheels, a black tonneau and a navy blue cowl chauffeur’s compartment. When her daughter was married a few years later, she had the body transferred to a Chrysler chassis.
Another memorable body was built in 1921 for Robert W. Schuette, Rolls-Royce’s New York City agency. Built using a current model 40-50hp chassis, the body was designed to resemble a late 19th century automobile, with an open four-door touring body with a Victoria top. Derham hand-formed the metal fenders to resemble the metal framed patent-leather examples found on the very first motor cars. The radiator and headlamps were painted black, and huge nickel carriage lamps finished off the unusual vehicle.
Ansley H. Fox was a successful Philadelphia businessman known to both the Derhams and their competitors, the Fleetwood Body Co, located in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, 50 miles to the northwest of Rosemont. He introduced his luxury Fox air-cooled automobile in 1922 and commissioned both firm to produce the custom coachwork. He awarded Fleetwood the contract to design and build the Fox’s open bodies, and gave Derham a similar contract for the company’s closed bodies. Derham’s closed Fox bodies were built in the downtown Philadelphia plant and closely resembled the semi-custom Packard bodies that were also built in the same facility. Total Fox production amounted to between 500-800 units, with at least a quarter of them built in the Derham shops.
When Thomas L. Hibbard and Raymond Dietrich founded the famed LeBaron Carrossiers design firm in 1920, they had no manufacturing facilities of their own and contracted out their work to a number of regional northeast coachbuilders. From 1921 through 1924, when LeBaron merged with the Bridgeport Body Co., Derham built a number of bodies for LeBaron, including a magnificent Isotta-Fraschini shown at the 1922 New York Auto Salon.
The bulk of Derham's early 1920s bodies were the more formal chauffeur-driven closed town cars and landaulets, but by the late twenties, they began to produce a larger number of sporty coupes and convertibles as well as a few open phaetons and an occasional roadster.
In the early-to-mid twenties, custom body builders did a surprisingly large amount of print advertising. Derham ads appeared in local Philadelphia theatre programs, as well as national magazines such as Vanity Fair and Country Life. At one point they even rented out a billboard along Route 30 just outside of Atlantic City, New Jersey, which at that time was a popular vacation destination for wealthy New Yorkers and Philadelphians.
Although Derham didn’t advertise to the same extent as their competition and never printed the lush catalogs and sketches issued by other classic-era body builders. A few one-page illustrated flyers were given out at the NY, Chicago and LA Salons but for the most part Derham delegated that responsibility to the dealers that sold their products.
A small un-illustrated Derham catalog was produced in the early thirties that pointed out to potential customers that during the carriage days “the name Derham stood for the highest form of vehicle expression,” and that the chassis of choice that was sent to Derham would then serve as “the basis of a 'body portrait' of YOUR individuality.”
The annual New York Salon issue of Vanity Fair complemented a Packard Town Car that they displayed at the 1924 Salon. The magazine noted the vehicle’s fine styling and unusual color combination, “light purple lake and black, trimmed in red”. Autobody magazine routinely covered Derham’s latest salon creations throughout the 1920s.
One particularly demanding Derham customer was the mayor of Palm Beach, Florida. In 1927 Major Warburton ordered a sedan limousine body from Derham for mounting on a new Lincoln chassis. Designed from top to bottom by the Major, the coach featured a special rear seat that allowed the major to travel in an almost horizontal position. He designed a very rectangular body with a very low roof for its day. The rear compartment was to be trimmed entirely in leathers and all exterior brightwork was either eliminated or painted black to match the somber-looking black and grey body. When the completed vehicle was finally delivered to the Major, his wife had a fit as she had no input into the vehicle’s design and totally hated every inch of it. The car was returned to Derham and the horizontal rear seats were replaced with normal ones, the exterior was repainted in canary yellow and the previously de-chromed trim was re-plated.
Herman C. Brunn, Francis Willoughby and Enos Derham have all emphasized how important the design and fitting of the rear compartment seats and cushions were to a coachbuilder in the 1920s and 30s. In many instances, the comfort of the seats was the principal reason the body was being ordered in the first place.
A town car body for a new Pierce-Arrow chassis was ordered by a long-time Ventnor, New Jersey customer. As they already had rear seat specifications from her previous body, they neglected to have her come in for a fitting for the new one. Upon delivery of the vehicle, she realized that she had not been to the Derham factory for her customary seat fitting session, and complained that the seats were unsuitable. It took three more fitting appointments before she was satisfied. As you can probably guess, she eventually settled for the seats that she had originally dismissed as unsatisfactory.
A Buffalo, New York customer ordered a new Mercedes-Benz with an unbelievably long 173” wheelbase in 1927 and commissioned Derham to build a close-coupled body that would further emphasize its great length. Derham designed a 2-door body and placed it at the rear of the chassis in the customary location and custom fabricated an extra-long hood and cowl assembly that contributed to its long and low appearance. A few years later, the vehicle was returned to the Derham works for its annual service and a former Mercedes-Benz employee recognized the chassis, as he had helped to build it while employed at the German manufacturer.
One successful Derham body design of 1928 was a 4-passenger convertible phaeton originally built on a Hispano-Suiza chassis for the Countess Holstein. While on display in the Lancaster Ave showroom, Derham managed to sell two duplicates to two prominent Philadelphia citizens, Mr. Thomas Gimbel , the son of Jacob Gimbel, the founder of Gimbel’s Department Stores and socialite Miss Eloise Geist , the daughter of Clarence Henry Geist , a Philadelphia utility magnate and Florida real estate developer. Both were built on the much more affordable Chrysler Imperial 80 chassis. Derham continued to make copies of the phaeton through late 1929 and sold a few Packard-chassised examples. Lincoln included the Derham design in its 1930 catalog and eventually sold twenty examples.
Disaster struck the Derham organization in 1928 when the firm’s patriarch and founder, Joseph J. Derham died unexpectedly at the age of 63. His passing caused a rift between his offspring that threatened to change the course of the firm for the first time. Philip wanted the firm to modernize by greatly increasing its production, thereby reducing its per-unit costs by utilizing the proven economies of scale theories then prevalent in the auto industry. However, James and Enos, his two younger brothers were opposed to any drastic changes, and wished to keep the firm running as their father had intended. The majority views of James and Enos prevailed and Philip left the company to form his own firm. Funded by a Bryn-Mawr-based European car importer by the name of William Floyd, the Floyd-Derham Company was formed in 1928 with William Floyd Sr., president; Philip Derham, Vice-President; and Floyd’s son William Jr., Secretary. Philip Derham handled all the design and drafting work while the actual bodies were built at Alexander Wolfington, Sons and Company, a well-known Philadelphia commercial body builder.
The Floyds already had a high visibility showroom and service depot in Bryn-Mawr located less than a mile from Derham’s Lancaster Ave. showroom. When the Floyd-Derham name was added to the Floyd’s Brwyn-Mawr showroom, it caused quite a stir as well as a bit of confusion in Rosemont as to who was who. Floyd-Derham’s first Salon entry was a Minerva that they exhibited at the Chicago Salon in the Fall of 1928. At December’s New York Salon, they exhibited an Isotta-Fraschini convertible sedan at the Isotta-Fraschini stand, but unfortunately it was the last time that the firm’s work would appear at any salon. It was early 1929 before the first few Floyd-Derham bodies appeared and by that time, the stock market crash was looming on the horizon. Although Floyd-Derham had a backlog of orders, the Floyds imported car business began to flounder and they pulled the plug on the Floyd-Derham project. Luckily for Philip Derham, his work attracted the attention of Duesenberg, and he was soon hired on as their chief designer and body engineer. James and Enos Derham felt some responsibility for their brother’s misfortune and as their firm’s name was involved, they helped Wolfington Sons and Co complete the remaining orders at their own shop.
Not surprisingly, there was an announcement in early 1930 that Alexander Wolfington, Sons and Company had "resumed the manufacture of custom bodies." And among their first products was a gorgeous Duesenberg convertible sedan that was designed by Philip Derham for John B. Stetson, a member of the Stetson Hat family who was also the ambassador to Poland from 1925-1930 (Duesenberg chassis #2147). Wolfington also built another Duesenberg for John Eberson, a movie theater designer later in the same year (Duesenberg chassis #2240). This is the more famous Wolfington "Royal Phaeton" dual cowl phaeton that currently resides in the automotive collection of the Reynold's Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Canada. The vehicle's unusual design is jointly credited to Floyd-Derham, John Eberson and J. Herbert Newport, who had recently joined Derham on the design staff at Duesenberg.
Aside from the bad blood felt within the Derham family, the departure of Philip Derham proved to be almost as damaging to the Derham. Not only did Philip use the family’s name for his own shop, he took along a number of long-time employees and lured a number of Derham’s customers to his new business. The new Floyd-Derham Co. created confusion among Derham's old customers who didn't realize there were two separate companies. But luckily the firm was short-lived, and James and Enos Derham took care of any problems that may have been caused by the associated firm.
As the American automobile manufacturers already had their own annual event originating in 1900 at the Grand Central Palace, the Importers’ Automobile Salon was started in 1904 as an alternative showplace where American importers could display the finest automobiles from the European Continent and Great Britain to prospective American buyers.
Initially these cars were shown with coachwork from the finest houses of Europe, but within a few years, American coachbuilders began to exhibit at the event. The rules were gradually relaxed to allow the introduction of a handful of high-priced American chassis, providing they were displayed by an American coachbuilder. The first few Importer's Salons were held on the upper floors of Macy's Department Store later moving to Madison Square Garden and the Hotel Astor's Grand Ballroom. By 1919, the event had moved to its final location, the ballroom of New York’s posh Commodore Hotel. In the 1920s, the “Salon” circuit expanded to include annual shows at Chicago’s Drake Hotel, Los Angeles’ Biltmore and San Francisco’s Palace. In most cases, admission to the Salon, for the public as well as the exhibitor, was by invitation only, with each exhibitor being allotted a limited number of invitations. There were daytime showings for various groups such as the press, chauffeurs, local businessmen, and auto industry executives, but the Salon’s main purpose was to showcase the industry’s latest creations to their wealthy customers. The annual Salon was an eagerly awaited social event that every well-heeled family planned to attend. Dress was strictly black tie, and it was written up in the society pages of the nation’s greatest newspapers and magazines such as Vanity Fair and Country Life.
Every custom body builder in the country depended on the Salon for a large portion of their business, and even the projected sales totals for each day were published in the pages of the New York Times. While most of the 'selling' effort was exerted by the salesmen of the various chassis manufacturers, a representative of each coachbuilder, ideally one of the owners, was required to be present in the event that a prospective customer required something special, or wished to place a custom order. Each coach builder was allowed a maximum of 4 automobiles, to which he paid a fee to the Salon which typically amounted to $500 per vehicle. Typically the builder would be reimbursed by the manufacturer (s) of the chassis they had on display, as the coachbuilders were usually too small to afford such an extravagant expense. Derham, for example, might receive an order from Packard for ten examples of a certain body design. They would agree to exhibit an example of the body at each of the 4 salons and Packard would reimburse them for a portion of their expenses.
Derham first exhibited at the 1925 New York Salon, and continued to exhibit at the Commodore through the 1931 show which was held in late 1930. They were not present at the final New York Salon which was held the following year. Both James and Enos Derham would represent the firm at the New York Salon as it generated a large amount of business for the firm. The Chicago, LA and San Francisco events would only require that one of the brothers be present.
The week of the annual Philadelphia Automobile Show was also important to the Derhams. Throughout the 1920s they would place one or two cars in the Walnut Street lobby of Philadelphia’s luxurious Bellevue Stratford Hotel which was also the home of the city’s first auto shows. Unfortunately the hotel is mostly remembered as being the source of the deadly Legionnaire’s disease outbreak of 1976.
Occasionally a Derham design would prove so successful that several hundred copies of it would be produced over a two or three year production run. The novel convertible roadster body they built for display on a Packard 433 chassis at the 1928 Salon was one of their “home runs”.
A Packard-bodied 433 convertible roadster included had a skimpy top and side curtains for emergency weather protection; while their 433 convertible coupe included roll-up windows and a cumbersome hinged top that folded back into a rather large and unsightly heap behind the front seat. Derham’s convertible roadster body featured wind-up side windows combined with a sturdy yet lightweight top that folded neatly into a boot no larger than that found on the standard Packard 433 roadster. The novel convertible top featured flaps around the window openings that formed a waterproof and weather-tight connection with the rolled-up side windows. The top could be raised or lowered without exiting the cars by using a crank conveniently installed behind the front seat. This Derham design was eventually mounted on Packard, Pierce Arrow, Franklin, Stutz, Rolls-Royce, Lincoln, and Duesenberg chassis and was even offered by Derham as a leather-covered metal faux-convertible top. From 1928-1932, Derham produced over 100 examples for Packard, 30 for Lincoln, and 20 each for Stutz and Pierce-Arrow.
In addition to their style and limited availability, custom-crafted composite bodies offered their purchasers the peace of mind of owning an extraordinarily strong body made with heavy cast bronze joints and precisely fitted screwed and glued ash frames. An inspection program initiated by Lincoln in the mid-twenties ensured that any custom body sold through the factory met their rigid standards for both strength and quality. They employed a handful of inspectors who made periodic visits to every coachbuilder that supplied Lincoln with production or custom coachwork. Every step in the assembly and finishing process was overseen by the inspectors, and they greatly contributed to the high standard of bodywork put out by America’s coachbuilders in the late twenties and early thirties.
While visiting the Derham showroom in the spring of 1928, Duesenberg’s vice-president, Walter Ames, noticed a tiny series 81 Pierce-Arrow town car that had been commissioned by an eccentric Philadelphia socialite. Tired of transporting her friend around in her regular-sized town car she had Derham built her an elegant body designed to carry a maximum of two passengers. Ames imagined the elegant-looking Derham body fitted to one of his brand new 143” Duesenberg Model J chassis, liked what he saw, and ordered two duplicates for Duesenberg.
Derham went on to build almost 40 bodies for Duesenberg’s Model J and SJ chassis, including the town cars mentioned previously, plus several series of sedan, phaeton and convertible sedan bodies, including Derham’s best known classic-era creation the low-slung dual-windshield sport phaeton Tourster. One limousine included a specially ordered rear quarter window that omitted the customary vertically actuated regulator, opting instead for a window that slid back into the quarter panel to accommodate a client’s inclination for spitting his tobacco out a window. The client told Enos “I chew tobacco. When I want to spit, I want to spit. I don't want to crank windows. I've done my damnedest to find a car with a window I could slide open and closed without a lot of fuss, but it seems that the only way I can get one is to have you build it for me.”
As time went on, Derham depended more and more on their customer’s eccentricities for a greater portion of their business as the town car and limousine bodies then offered by Packard, Pierce-Arrow and others were of comparable quality and would suit most anyone but the most demanding customer.
Following the First World War, American coachbuilders experienced some additional business caused by the growing “isolationist” movement spearheaded by the industrialist Joseph P. Kennedy and aviator Charles Lindberg. The anti-FDR “isolationists” advocated an American hands-off policy in regards to the events taking place in Europe and Germany that would eventually lead to the Second World War.
Wealthy Americans didn’t necessarily support the movement but at the same time they didn’t want be seen as opposing it either. So instead of buying a European-made luxury chassis such as a Hispano-Suiza, Isotta-Fraschini or Rolls-Royce, they purchased an American-made luxury chassis and had their coachbuilder disguise its American origins. Derham did quite a bit of this type of work in the late twenties and early thirties using Lincoln, Pierce Arrow, Crane Simplex and Locomobile donors. One faux Rolls-Royce was constructed for Philadelphia financier E. T. Stotesbury on a Locomobile chassis. Another faux Hispano-Suiza roadster was crafted by Derham using a Lincoln chassis. Cost was not a consideration as when the cost of disguising the American chassis was added to the Derham-built body, it would often exceed the price of the original European car it was modeled after.
Although the causes of the current anti-French-German-Spanish sentiments embraced by some Americans are different, the effect is similar to that experienced before World War II; the faux-Hissos and Isottas being the 1930s equivalent of our “Freedom Fries”.
As stated earlier, the last salons attended by Derham attended were the November, 1930 Chicago and December, 1930 New York Salons and the Los Angeles Salon in early 1931. As the custom body builders dealt almost exclusively America’s wealthiest individuals, they remained isolated to the initial effects of the Depression. However by mid-1931 its impact hit home and Derham withdrew from that fall’s exhibitions which would ultimately prove to be the last great American Salons.
Derham’s November, 1930 Chicago display featured a gray Lincoln convertible phaeton that was clearly modeled after a similar design shown by Hibbard & Darrin at the previous season’s Paris Salon. In an article written years ago by Thomas Hibbard, he mentioned that Hibbard & Darrin had licensed some of their signature convertible designs to Derham. However, in a later article, Enos Derham did not recall the arrangement, stating that Derham had merely copied the designs as did many other builders at the time. Fifteen duplicates were sold by Lincoln on 1930 chassis, however only five more were built during the following model year.
Also shown on a Packard 845 chassis was a semi-convertible Packard 4-door sport sedan with chrome-plated window frames and hinged center pillar that could fold out of sight when the windows were lowered, creating an early four-door hardtop, a design that became very popular during the 1950s. Although the roof was fixed in place it was contoured to look like a real convertible, and was covered with a padded fabric roof to further enhance its “convertible” image.
Derham continued a strong relationship with Franklin, exhibiting a four-passenger Victoria brougham on a 1931 Airman chassis. One of the most attractive bodies to ever grace the air-cooled chassis, Derham called it a "Sportsman's Coupe," and it featured a very low roofline and a close-coupled 2-door body whose rear seat passengers rode in front of the rear axle. The rear seats could fold down, leaving the entire rear compartment for hauling the spoils gathered during a successful hunt. Unfortunately only three copies were ordered, and only one is known to exist today. By comparison, a rather normal-looking Franklin Town Car shown by Derham at the previous year’s Salon resulted in 25 sales.
The fourth vehicle on Derham’s Chicago stand in 1930 would ultimately become their most famous creation. Designed by Gordon Buehrig, the Duesenberg “Tourster” was a low-slung dual cowl sport phaeton that included a rear seat windscreen that could be raised and lowered using a hand crank. Finished in green leather with a green and yellow exterior, the striking vehicle caught the eye of film actor Gary Cooper, who purchased it a few weeks later while it was on display at the Los Angeles Salon. Fleetwood later “borrowed” Derham’s novel rear tonneau windscreen for use on a line of phaeton bodies placed exclusively on Cadillac’ massive V-16 chassis. At the subsequent New York Salon, the Duesenberg Tourster was replaced by another Buehrig design, this one an attractive convertible sedan that like the Tourster, would later be produced in quantity by Derham. Called the Sport Convertible Sedan, its hood and cowl line swept back to its rakish Vee-d windshield which flowed into a handsome body behind which a gorgeous fitted trunk resided creating a gorgeous rear end befitting its magnificent chassis.
While 1930 proved to be a bad year in Detroit, the Derham plant continued to work at full capacity turning out full custom bodies for their exclusive Pennsylvania and New Jersey clientele as well as hundreds of series built semi-customs for Stutz, Duesenberg, Lincoln, Pierce Arrow, Franklin, and, Packard. Their convertible roadster body was in great demand as were their handsome 4-passenger convertible phaetons. The 1931 Salons (which started in the fall of 1930) would prove to be the most spectacular in the events 28 year history. Unfortunately by the time the 1932 Salons premiered, many coachbuilders (including Derham) were in poor financial shape and couldn’t afford to participate.
Duesenberg’s Los Angeles factory branch had some luck in the early thirties selling vehicles to Hollywood’s elite. Gary Cooper was the first big celebrity to drive a Derham-bodied Duesy and eventually ten Derham-bodied phaetons were sold, with popular movie stars Joe E. Brown and Johnny Weissmuller among them. While the west coast movie community was relatively unaffected by the Depression, there were just not enough sales to provide any sort of stable market for the firm.
Luckily a few orders for their popular Packard chassised hardtop convertible sedans continued to trickle in through 1932. One was built for Mr. P. Anthinson of Minneapolis, Minnesota on a Packard 745 chassis whose wheelbase and hood were lengthened by 3” to further emphasize its long and low silhouette. Another was built in 1932 for an executive of the Campbell Soup Co. by the name of C.M. Dorrance, on a Packard Model 906 12-cylinder chassis. Customers were few and far between at the Derham shops during 1933, however New Brunswick, New Jersey’s most famous citizen, Robert Wood Johnson of Johnson & Johnson fame ordered two special vehicles. The first was a black berline-landaulet on a 145” Lincoln KB chassis that was totally devoid of any chrome or badging. Its companion was a convertible sedan built on a Pierce-Arrow V-12 chassis, again black in color with very little chrome and no identifying marks.
While the 1920s were the golden age of custom body building, the 1930s were its dark ages. The Depression took a firm grip on the nation and even those who could afford a custom body, ordered less ostentatious vehicles. One by one, the independent custom body builders went out of business. Holbrook, Locke, Merrimac, Walter Murphy, Rollson/Rollston and Waterhouse didn’t last through the early thirties, while Judkins, Willoughby and Brunn only survived through the generosity of Edsel Ford. All the other surviving firms – Fleetwood, LeBaron, Seaman, and Dietrich were now owned by large Midwest automakers and no longer depended on custom body commissions for their livelihood.
Luckily for Derham, most of their customer base was located nearby, typically within an hour or two’s drive of metro Philadelphia. Consequently, the Lancaster Ave. shops enjoyed a brisk business in the refurbishing, rebuilding and restoration of not only their own custom bodies, but of other makers as well. Derham also transferred old, yet still useful bodies from tired and worn out chassis and mounted them to new ones. This little bit of surgery gave existing custom body owners an apparently "new" coachbuilt car at a considerably lower cost than if they built a new body from scratch.
At about the same time, Cunningham, Brewster and Derham experienced much the same revelation. The three firms felt there was a market for a low-priced semi-custom body mounted on the low-priced Ford V-8 chassis. Cunningham’s was the least successful, as well as the most costly of the three experiments, while Brewster’s was the most successful, with over 50 examples produced from 1934-37. Derham’s total output amounted to a little more than a few dozen units, but as they were the only firm to stay in business through the end of the decade, their Ford V-8s were arguably the most profitable of the three experiments.
During 1934 Enos Derham was put in touch with a local Ford dealer who had a several dozen Model A Town car bodies in storage. In late 1929 Ford introduced a limited edition Town Car version of the Model A. As nice as the Model A Town Car was, it was a classic example of the wrong car at the wrong time. Large Ford dealers were forced to buy them anyways, and the expensive cars failed to sell, they typically cut their losses and sold the chassis to local commercial body makers, and either destroyed the bodywork or put them in storage.
Derham felt that a new low-priced custom-bodied vehicle could be sold to some of their old customers who had the money, but were unwilling to be seen in an expensive new luxury chassis in the depths of the Depression. A custom-built Derham body would have made such a vehicle too expensive. However, the unused Model A Town Car bodies were just what the doctor ordered. Derham bought all the bodies that he could locate, and mounted them on new Ford V-8 and Plymouth chassis. So for about half the cost of a new semi-custom Packard or Lincoln, Derham could offer their customers a very attractive alternative. These vehicles helped the firm to keep in touch with their old customers, who they hoped could be counted on to return for more profitable custom coachwork commissions when the economic climate improved.
In 1936 Derham built a Sport Station Wagon for George W. Elkins, the owner of Philadelphia’s famous Elkins Amusement Park. Built using a 1936 Packard 120 chassis, it utilizing a 120 sedan’s front end and rear fenders with a sheet metal over wood frame body that was finished in black with a Derham padded top and faux cane beltline. A wrought iron ladder attached to the rear bumper led to a custom roof rack that made it possible for four people to stand upon it at a Race, Horse Show, or other outdoor event. A side-opening sedan delivery rear door replaced the standard clamshell tailgate. Also included were special cut-down front doors that appeared a few year later on Dutch Darrin’s famous Packard roadsters.
Later that year, Pierce-Arrow commissioned Derham to build a prototype Town Car body modeled after Brunn’s popular Metropolitan Town Car or Town Brougham. The reason for the commission remains unclear as Brunn was already supplying its Buffalo, New York neighbor with the exact same body. Mounted to a 1936 Pierce-Arrow V-12 chassis with a 147” wheelbase, the one-off Derham Town Car was very attractive and miraculously survives today. By the time the car was completed, Pierce-Arrow was in such poor financial shape that they had resorted to building travel trailers in a last-ditch attempt to stay alive. Not surprisingly, no further work came from the Buffalo manufacturer and within the year they had closed their doors.
Derham built a gorgeous fastback four-door sport sedan on a 1937 Lincoln Model K that featured an oversized sun roof that rode back on tracks on top of the roof, rather than the customary below the roof above the headliner. In 1938 it was sold to a New York City Resident, Thomas Morris. Fortunately, the car still exists. It's owned by Edmund Burchman and recently won its class (American 1925-41 Closed) at the 2004 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance.
In 1938 Mrs. Ledyard Heckscher of Radnor, PA had the Lancaster Ave shops transfer her 1929 Brunn town car body from her 1929 Lincoln chassis to a new 12-cylinder Packard 1608 chassis. When gas became scarce during the Second World War, Mrs. Heckscher returned to the Derham shops and purchased their last remaining horse-drawn carriage which she used during the War on her frequent 18 mile journeys between Radnor and downtown Philadelphia. In the same year Derham transferred a 1922 LeBaron transformable landaulet body from its original Packard chassis to a much more modern 1938 Chrysler C-20 chassis. While it may not have been the most attractive conversion, it helped pay the bills. A rather spartan 1938 Packard Super Eight Touring (a budget-priced phaeton) was built for the Amtorg Trading Company, of New York, that was destined for the garage of Russian dictator Josef Stalin. It was unusual in that it was built without any side windows. A Cadillac coupe was modified for DuPont executive H.G. Haskell in 1940 that featured the first use of a molded foam rubber seat cushion.
One unusual-looking invalid car was built in early 1940 on a Cadillac Series 75 chassis for Irving R. Strauss of Behnar, New Jersey. It featured an unusual-looking extra-tall roofline similar to that found on a modern limousine equipped with commercial glass. The main feature of this body was a disappearing inclined ramp the fit under the rear compartment floor that could be pulled out and used from both sides of the car. Also included was a back seat that was cut in two, one half was replaced with a portable wheel chair luxuriously upholstered to match the car’s interior. A totally flat floor was also installed so that the chair could be easily rolled into the space then securely locked in place. The Barclay Portable Chair Auto Body Corp. at 55 West 42nd Street also specialized in the conversion of invalid cars. Its owner, Wright Barclay, had patented an auto ramp and wheelchair in the early 1930s that looked remarkably similar to the arrangement used by Derham. He even sent a threatening letter to Derham’s current client threatening action if any of his patents were used in the conversion. Derham had dealt with Barclay before, and assured their customer’s attorney that they would indemnify Mr. Strauss in the event of a lawsuit.
In addition to their invalid cars, Derham also built at least one professional cars during the late 1930s. It was an attractive 1938 Lincoln Zephyr Ambulance that was commissioned by two Chester, Pennsylvania sisters, Mrs. Arthur E. Copeland and Mrs. Gideon M. Stull, for donation to a local hospital. Mrs. Stull’s husband owned the local Ford-Lincoln dealership (Gash-Stull Inc.) and supplied the chassis. As with most other Derham conversion of the period, the car was built using a standard wheelbase 5-passenger V-12 Zephyr sedan with a side-hinged rear door grafted onto the body's extended roofline.
At about the same time, both Derham and Brunn & Co. of Buffalo, New York, decided that their futures lay in the modification of existing bodies, rather than building entire bodies from scratch. Unfortunately for Brunn, their cars were part of a pilot program for Buick that was axed by GM brass before production commenced and the struggling firm was soon out of business. Derham was in an entirely different situation, their Desoto-Plymouth dealership and good relationship with Chrysler put them in a good position to market their conversions, and they remained an important part of their business from the late 1930s through the late 1960s.
Derham produced a fair number of “converted” town cars built using existing long-wheelbase 7- or 8-passenger limousines. They would remove the stock windshield and the front portion of the roof back to the B-pillar. Parts of the front door above the belt-line were cut away, and installed extra-tall (by 3”) chrome-framed convertible-style windows in their place. A slightly higher (by three-and-a-half inches) windshield frame was made from cast bronze and a new piece of safety glass installed in it. Derham typically painted the wood-grained dash to match the body color and would sometimes damascene the instrument panel and glovebox door for a more custom look. A division window and storage compartment would be built and inserted directly behind the driver’s bench seat. A lightweight removable canopy was then fitted over the driver’s compartment that could be stored behind it when not in use. The factory upholstery would remain, with only a minimum of work required to cover the lower portion of the divider with matching upholstery. Typically the rear quarter windows were removed and covered with sheet steel over which Derham’s trademark padded-leather top would be installed to finish off the job. A true custom town car was ready for the customer in as little as a week compared to the 2-3 months typically required for a true composite custom body. The body work involved was minimal and its low cost enabled Derham to sell their custom conversions for a fraction of the $15,000 needed to build a true coachbuilt custom. Popular options included a completely new interior, an electric division window and custom paint schemes. For budget-minded customers, the same look could be accomplished using a totally enclosed 7- or 8-passenger limousine that didn’t require the expensive bodywork and new windshield. The padded top could be extended forward to the top of the windscreen, or could be built from the B-pillar giving the impression of a town car but at a much-reduced cost. While Derham was not the first coachbuilder to put a padded-leather top on a vehicle, they were clearly responsible for making it a popular accessory and it ultimately became known in the industry as a “Derham Top”. Enos Derham recalled, "One day a man from the (Cadillac) factory asked how many of these we were selling a year. Like a jackass I wrote and told him. The next year they brought it out at the (Cadillac) factory."
Derham started building LaSalle and Cadillac town car “conversions” as early as 1935 and Dick Kwak of Gloversville, (Albany) New York owns one. His is a 1936 Cadillac Model 60 Derham town car that was ordered through the New York City Cadillac Branch for Broadway producer Anthony Farrell. It was shipped to Derham with it's interior untrimmed - as per it's build sheet - then modified to suit Mr. Farrell and his chauffeur. The Rosemont shops received lots of work from the New York City distributor after Fleetwood discontinued Cadillac's custom body program and the relationship remained strong through the early 1950s.
In the middle thirties Derham became a Plymouth-DeSoto dealership to help supplement their steadily declining coachbuilding income (they remained a Plymouth-DeSoto dealer into the late 1950s). The also hoped that their connection with Chrysler might get them some custom body commissions from Detroit. Their hopes were realized in 1937 when Joseph Frazer, then Chrysler's vice president for sales, offered them the opportunity to build a small series of convertible Victoria & convertible sedan bodies for the Imperial Custom Eight chassis. Unfortunately sales were less than spectacular and only 10 examples of each were built between 1937 and 1939.
In 1937 Derham constructed a magnificent aerodynamic 1938 Imperial Custom Town Car for Mrs. Walter P. Chrysler. Painted black, the gorgeous car featured a self-contained teardrop-shaped rear compartment equipped with a sharply raked windshield. Derham offered a number of custom roof treatments for the Chrysler chassis from 1937 through 1942. Most common was their padded-leather top which could be ordered through any Chrysler dealer. They also offered owners of 5- and 7-passenger sedans the option of blanked-in rear quarter windows with or without the padded-roof treatment. A Derham-bodied Imperial phaeton was also offered through 1940, but there were few takers.
In conjunction with Chrysler, Derham built 3 special long wheelbase Chrysler Imperial phaetons for use at the 1939-1940 NY Worlds Fair by visiting dignitaries. One of the cars was later modified with a bullet-proof enclosure and rearward facing jump seats by Derham for use by King George VI of England when he and his wife visited the Fair on June 10, 1939. When the Fair closed in 1940, Chrysler gave one of the cars to New York City and that vehicle served as the city’s official parade vehicle for almost twenty years. Two of the cars are on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan and the other is on loan to the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in nearby Auburn Hills.
Derham also built one of Major Bowes legendary Imperial limousines for Chrysler in 1939. Major Edward Bowes was the popular host of radio’s “Amateur Hour” which Chrysler had sponsored from the mid-thirties through the Major’s death in 1946. Every few years Bowes’ contract stipulated that he get a new limousine from the sponsor, and for 1939 Chrysler chose Derham to customize it. All of the Major’s vehicles served as a mobile office and were equipped with a cooler, a phone, writing desk, Dictaphone and room for his personal secretary.
Derham built a few custom Chrysler New Yorker convertibles just before WWII. One 1942 example featured an attractive chrome spear that ran flowed gracefully from the top of the front fenders to a dip in the middle of the doors, blending nicely with the vehicle’s new wrap-around grill and chrome rear fender accents. They also installed a smart-looking Derham fabric top on a 1941 Lincoln Continental Coupe that included blanked-in rear quarter windows.
A little-known fact about a number of custom body builders was their work in modifying vehicles for use by special needs customers. Both Derham and Bohman & Schwartz specialized in this very rewarding, yet demanding work.
As far back as the mid-1920s, Derham built a Transformable Town Car (landaulet) for a Cadillac chassis that looked normal when viewed from the outside. While most landaulets rear roofs were rarely lowered, the wheelchair bound owner of this one used it all the time. His chauffeur would lower the top, then use a hoist installed overhead to lift his employer over the side of the body and into the Cadillac’s rear compartment. The driver would then raise the roof and be on his way. Derham installed a removable rear seat that could be quickly fastened to the hoist, speeding up the entire loading and unloading process. How the chauffeur got his employer out of the car once they reached their destination remains unanswered. Later bodies were typically modeled after a side-servicing funeral car. Built using a pair of center-opening passenger doors fastened at a removable B-pillar or center post, the passenger’s front seat was tipped forward, allowing a wheelchair plenty of room to maneuver into the rear compartment, which was also modified with a flat floor.
Another pre-war Derham specialty was the collapsible cabriolet (or landaulet), with a fixed center section, one-piece windshield, a collapsible rear roof and a removable cover over the open chauffeur's compartment. Cadillac released only three of its 1940 Series 75 chassis to outside coachbuilders. Two went to Derham; the first a Cadillac Town landau limousine built for Jessie Woolworth Donahue, daughter of retail magnate FW Woolworth. The second a Cadillac Town Landau Limousine built for Mrs. Florence Parker Lambert Busch, wife of Budweiser heir Adolphus Busch III. The third 1940 Series 75 chassis went to Brunn and was ordered by E.J Kulas, president of Otis Steel Company and former general sales manager of Peerless Motor Car Company.
Rather than shutting down their operation during WWII, James and Enos Derham decided to keep their shops open and took on a number of contracts that would keep their skilled staff busy for its duration. Derham built a prototype multi-purpose utility body for a large New York City Dodge dealer that was ideally suited for Dodge’s half-ton VC military vehicle chassis. The Derham prototype would eventually become the model for Dodge’s VC-6 and WC-10 Carryalls. Unfortunately, Derham’s Lancaster Ave. shops were too small to produce the quantities required so the contract to build it was awarded to a much larger Detroit-based commercial body builder (McCabe-Powers?).
In the middle of 1942, they got a contract with the Navy to produce mobile canteens that were badly needed by Philadelphia’s busy naval shipyards. Material restrictions limited the use of metal to the canteen’s exterior walls and chassis so the bulk of the trailers were built of wood framed plywood panels, which made them extra tough to clean and maintain. Derham was subsequently awarded another contract to build floats for the Navy’s Stearman N3N3 bi-plane. According to Enos Derham, in the course of negotiations, the Navy questioned Derham's ability to perform work of a sufficient quality. He presented them with Derham’s current body design catalog and the matter was put to rest. Another contract was landed to produce bulkheads for the Vickers PBY, the PBN, and the PBY-SA aircraft. The three contracts kept the Derham shop busy for the duration of the war. Even during the war, Derham managed to find time to turn out a custom 1941 Crown Imperial wood-bodied station wagon built in 1943 for a prominent New Yorker named Allan J. McIntosh.
Shortly after the end of the War, Derham received two unrelated orders from two different customers who each wanted a pair of vehicles customized. And interestingly enough, both commissions involved Lincoln’s popular Continental Coupe.
Two 1946 "Chrysler Continentals" were built for Harry Rosensteil of Schenley Distillers. Mr. Rosensteil admired the Lincoln Continental’s classic lines, but refused to purchase any product made by Henry Ford. (Ford’s very public anti-Semitism turned off more than a few customers during the thirties and forties.) To solve this dilemma he bought two new 1946 Chrysler Club Coupes - one a Saratoga, the other a New Yorker - and had them shipped to Derham. Upon their arrival, the bodies were cut off from the windshield back and a framework of ash was built on the bare chassis. Derham’s craftsmen then fabricated aluminum panels fashioned after those of the 'Continental Coupe', and the end results were very faithful to it. Enos Derham later recalled that the two cars set Rosenstiel back about $21,000 - $4,000 for the donor vehicles and $17,000 for the bodywork. The Saratoga was painted Maroon with a gray leather interior and a tan Haartz cloth top. The New Yorker featured a gray-green pigment with red leather trim and a gray Haartz top. Both cars still exist; the Saratoga was recently sold at a Nevada auction and the New Yorker resides with a California collector.
Early in 1946 industrial designer Raymond Loewy commissioned Derham to customize two 1941 Lincoln Continental Coupes for his own personal use. Working directly from Loewy’s sketches, Derham created a pair of eye-catching dream cars for the designer and his wife. Both cars were identical, differing only in their paint schemes. Raymond’s car was painted a two-tone red and black while his wife’s was finished in a solid purplish gray. Loewy requested a slew of custom features and body modifications which included front and rear fenders that flowed into the body which was lowered six inches over the frame. The front half of the roof was removed, replaced by a removable Plexiglas canopy. Blind rear quarters were installed behind the B-pillars that were fitted with two, round opera windows. Push buttons located in the front and back seats operated the windows in the doors, and gold-plated trim contrasted with the chrome bumpers and wheel covers. The thin chrome circle surrounding the “RL” monogram on the cowl came from a Frigidaire refrigerator, a product Loewy had redesigned and had made famous. One of the vehicles, now painted green, is currently on display at Danville, California’s Blackhawk Collection.
In the late 1940s Heriberto Lobo of Havana, Cuba commissioned the brothers to build him a limousine that allowed him to stand upright while entering and exiting the vehicle. Derham fashioned a folding all-metal rear compartment roof that could be folded forward allowing Mr. Lobo to get in and out of his dark blue Chrysler limousine without stooping.
During 1948 Derham produced a number of unusual vehicles for a varied groups of clients. Early in the year, Mrs. Marjorie Merriweather Post Davies, the only child of Postum Cereal Company founder C. W. Post and former wife of E.F. Hutton, wrote to James Derham; "For many years I have been using a Barker body, which was built in 1927. It has been changed to five different chassis. It is definitely of the brougham type. I have come at last to the point of view that I really need a new body . . ." James sent her a portfolio of some recent Derham broughams, but some confusion arose in regards to her next reply which stated “I want the back seat placed in such a way that there are at least 14 inches of air space behind it. I very definitely do not care for the type that drops off the back." After a few more confusing exchanges, Enos Derham decided to send her a sketch. He selected a Barker body from a 1927 catalog and carefully modified it so it would fit on a late-model Imperial chassis. She replied enthusiastically, “The sketch shows very clearly what I have had in mind. I should now like to have full details, please. . . You may call my secretary and make an appointment." James Derham made the final arrangements and Mrs. Davies signed a contract for the $19,000 vehicle, which was delivered later that year.
Later that year, Gordon Buehrig approached the brothers with a commission to build the body for a modern American sports car he was designing for a group of Connecticut investors who hoped to build copies of it for use by competitors in the annual Watkins Glen road race in New York State. Built on a new Mercury chassis, the unusual looking car featured a torpedo-shaped central fuselage with separate fenders that enveloped each wheel – those in the front turned with the wheels while steering. The car was to be called the TASCO, an acronym for The American Sports Car Co. The financing never materialized, and although it’s attributed to Buehrig, the vehicle was largely designed by its investors, and to his death, he considered the design a failure. It’s mainly remembered today as the first vehicle equipped with a T-Top, and it’s on display at the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana. Buehrig had worked with the brothers once before and was responsible for the design of what proved to be their most famous creation, the Model J Duesenberg-Derham “Tourster”.
Late in the year, Derham completed two unusual Dodge “observation cars” for a Brooklyn, New York Dodge dealer named C.M. Bishop. The vehicles were designed by industrial designer Donald Deskey and featured a very modern roof treatment that was strong enough to allow their owner to stand on top of them at polo tournaments. The first was built on a two-door Dodge coupe, the second on a long wheelbase Dodge 7-passenger limousine.
Derham modified a number of postwar Series 75 Cadillacs, and a trio of 1948’s were the subject of a feature in the June 1989, Classic Car. All were converted from standard Series 75 4-door limousines. Two were made into Town Cars by removing the roof area over the front compartment and modifying the top of the windshield and vent windows so that the removable roof could be easily fitted and snapped in place when the compartment was closed during inclement weather. The header board above the division window was reworked to seal against moisture, and the front lip of the roof above the B-pillars included a slot for the roof material to slide into when not in use. The third was a Series 75 convertible sedan (or phaeton) built by removing the entire "greenhouse" of the donor limousine. As on the Town Cars, the top of the windshield was modified to accept the convertible top which was locked in place as on a normal Cadillac convertible. The 1948 Series 75 was still based on the pre-war limousines which featured a windowless rear quarter panel. The large rear quarter of the convertible sedan was also windowless and when lowered, resides inside the rear of body shell below the beltline. Derham had to narrow the rear seat cushion to accommodate the top mechanism. During the late Forties and early Fifties, demand for Derham’s Chrysler conversions fell while orders for their Cadillac Series 75 limousines increased.
A July 23, 1949 Saturday Evening Post article by William Stevens and Jay J. Dugan included color pictures of the TASCO, the two-door Deskey “observation car”, Senor Lobo and his no-stoop limousine plus a large picture of Loewy standing next to his 1941 Continental with his wife at the wheel. The article also included the names of a number of Middle Eastern dignitaries and heads of state who rode in Derham creations. They included King Farouk of Egypt, Bechara El-Khoury – the president of Lebanon, Atla Bey Ayoubi of Syria, King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, and King Abdullah of Jordan. Derham’s most famous Middle Eastern commission was a 21½-foot-long gun metal grey 1947 Packard convertible sedan they built for the Sheik of Kuwait.
Derham had a April 22, 1950 Business Week magazine article on the firm reprinted in brochure form for distribution to prospective clients. Included in the article/brochure were a number of Derham’s current and former clients who at that time included: industrial designer Raymond Loewy, Pope Pius XII, Cardinal Spellman, The Duke of Windsor (ex-King Edward), Harry S. Truman, songwriter Cole Porter, Gary Cooper, Louis B. Mayer, James Forrestal, publisher Herbert Pulitzer, opera diva Lilly Pons, symphony conductor Leopold Stokowski, ex-criminal Charles Allen Ward of Brown & Bigelow, retailer Rodman Wanamaker, financier Bernard Baruch and heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post Davies.
Undoubtedly the most beautiful of all postwar Hudsons were the three customized sedans built by Derham between 1948 and 1952. The first was built for the widow of Hudson’s founder - Roy Chapin, Sr. Derham transformed a 1948 Commodore Eight into a formal sedan with the addition of a curved-glass divider window and a padded-leather roof with blind quarters and a custom-built oval rear window. The large rear window of the Hudson’s were discarded and replaced by a built-up a wood framework into which Derham set a much smaller rear window more in keeping with formal look of the vehicle. Metal panels where hand fabricated and installed over the wooden rear window insert allowing a smooth transition to which the thickly padded Derham top was attached. A second was built for Hudson’s president A.E. Barit using a 1951 Hornet. It differed from the Chapin car in that it had a flat divider window and was updated in 1952 and 1953 to look like a brand-new Hudson. Barit’s Hornet now resides in the vast collection of the Henry Ford Museum. The third copy was built for a friend and neighbor of the Chapin family named Richard Webber. His car was built using a Brewster Green 1951 Commodore Eight and was built without a divider window.
James Derham had always handled the firm’s day-to-day business affairs and when he passed away in 1956 Enos was forced to handle those duties in addition to designing and overseeing the construction of all of their custom vehicles as he had since the late 1920s. Later that year, the company performed an important job for the Ford Motor Company. Using a concept designed by Ford’s John Reinhart, Derham built a very handsome Lincoln Continental Mark II convertible for introduction by Ford at the Texas State Fair in Dallas that October. A Continental Division press release dated October 12, 1956, read:
The official Mark II convertible project never got any further than this one car however Hess and Eisenhardt built two examples for the Chicago, Illinois Ford marketing branch which, unlike the Derham, a hard boot conceals the convertible tops. One survives and is currently owned by Continental collector Barry Wolk. He writes:
Quite a few Continental Mark II hardtops have been modified into convertibles during the past few decades, but only three were built in 1956-57, one by Derham and two by Hess & Eisenhardt.
After the Derham Mark II convertible came off the show circuit, its engine and drivetrain were updated to 1957 specs and the car was given to The original red and white interior was changed to ivory and turquoise, and the car was given to William Clay Ford, for his wife's use.
One unusual Derham project was a $10,000 formal alteration done to a 1962 Corvair. The car featured filled-in rear quarters, a smaller rear window, a leather covered top, new leather seating built with real seat springs, a burled walnut dashboard and door inserts, wire wheels, and other finish and trim details too numerous to list. It was shown by it owner at the 1963 New York Automobile Show who planned to produce his “Formal Corvair” on a limited basis, but no orders resulted.
Al Garthwaite Jr., former president of Conshohocken PA's Lee Tire and Rubber Company, bought the Derham building and the business in 1964. At that time J.H Grotz was Enos’ right-hand man and the pair continued to do an occasional restoration although the bulk of their business was now in armoring Cadillac and Lincoln limousines using half inch bulletproof laminated Fiberglas. The Fiberglas completely surrounding the passenger compartment coupled with its 1½ ” bulletproof glass windows, produces a vehicle capable of withstanding any known assault weapon short of a tank. Derham charged from $10,000-$20,000 for the armored conversions which was added to the cost of the donor vehicle.
Derham’s classic vehicle restorations averaged somewhat over $10,000 each. No firm price could be quoted beforehand, since until the work was started there’s no way of telling what problems may be encountered, or what body parts needed to be hand-made. As late as 1967 they continued to advertise their restoration and classic car sales services in Antique Automobile magazine.
Garthwaite produced a sales catalog using J.H Grotz's line drawings in 1967. Although his designs were on contemporary chassis from both Lincoln and Cadillac, and were chiefly modifications to the production bodies, they gracefully blended past elegance with modern styling. The text in the catalog informed customers of the Derham policy that had been in existence since 1887: "Your choices are limited only by your imagination and desires. What you want, we will build." Part of the purchase agreement with Derham was that Garthwaite keep the name alive and keep the firm in its original building. Enos Derham continued to work in a small corner of the shop on a very limited basis until 1971.The rather distinctive building became a Ferrari dealership called "Algar" after its owner and in 1972, along with Luigi Chinetti, Garthwaite became the sole importer of Ferrari in the Eastern U.S. The new firm, now called Chinetti-Garthwaite Importers, needed more space, so they moved to a larger building closer to downtown Philadelphia. From the mid 1970s through 1988, the old Derham building housed a Porsche-Audi dealership. However Ferrari restructured their American sales structure and bought back Chinetti-Garthwaite’s right to import. So later that year, Garthwaite moved his Algar Ferrari dealership back into the Derham Building where it remains to this day.
The final event in the long history of the Derham Body Company came with the death of Enos Derham in March of 1974. For close to a century the small metropolitan Philadelphia coachbuilder produced work of the highest quality and survived through two World Wars and the Depression, three events that ultimately ruined all of its contemporaries.
FYI: Noted Ferrari collector and expert, Stanley Nowak (author of the Dalton-Watson book “Ferrari on the Road” – and co-author of a couple other Ferrari Books) had planned a book devoted to Derham in the late 1970s but unfortunately Nowak passed away in 1991 and the manuscript was never published.
Upon his death, Enos Derham willed his rather extensive archives to the Classic Car Club of America who keep it in the the club’s Noel Thompson Research Library which is located at the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com