Raymond H. Dietrich was born in 1894 to a Bronx upholsterer. From an early age he became interested in drawing, so when he reached the age of twelve, his father sponsored his apprenticeship as an engraver with Manhattan’s American Bank Note Co., the world's foremost engraver and printer of bank notes, stocks and bonds.
Today, child labor is frowned upon, but Dietrich was grateful for the experience and later wrote:
By the age of sixteen, Dietrich had became more interested in baseball and earning money, so he left American Bank Note, taking a job at the David Schmidt Co., a small Manhattan firm that manufactured piano hammers for Steinway and other quality instrument makers. A skilled pitcher, Dietrich also picked up some extra money pitching for some of New York’s numerous semi-pro baseball teams. The extra money earned playing ball – $50-$100 per game, according to Dietrich (who must have been using 1958 dollars) - helped finance his night school education in the arts which helped land him a job at Brewster & Company in 1913 as a delineator. The automobile had recently caught his attention, and he reasoned that working for Brewster was one way to get involved in the burgeoning industry.
At Brewster, sketches by one of the staff designers would be presented for approval by the customer. Once approved, one of their large staff of delineators would produce a full-sized side and front elevation for the body. That draft would be turned over to one of Brewster’s master craftsmen who in turn would produce the framework and body panels that would ultimately result in a finished Brewster automobile body. The drafts were void of any surface details or framing cross-sections and were used mainly to double-check the placement of the seats and the doors with the dimensions specified on the customer’s order. A master craftsman’s decades of experience and the original artist’s rendering would determine exactly how the framing and exterior details were implemented.
Although they were considered Brewster employees, in reality, the craftsmen and apprentices in Brewster & Co.’s body shops were actually independent subcontractors who worked on commission, a centuries-old tradition in the coachbuilding industry. They were nominally "employed" by Brewster & Co., but in reality they operated independently, bidding against each other for every job. During the teen and twenties there were approximately 10 crews, each headed by a master craftsman or foreman as they’re known today. Each crew had their own staff of journeymen and apprentices who did most of the work under the watchful eye of the foreman. The apprentices did much of the tedious hand labor such as shaping and sanding while the journeymen handled the difficult procedures such as laminating, metal shaping and hanging the doors. The journeyman would supervise the final sanding and finishing of the body, and once approved by the master, it was sent to the trimming and upholstery shops where another group of subcontractors finished the body.
As did the masters of many other guilds – a good example would be the Masons – the master coachbuilder closely guarded the secrets of his particular method of body construction, sometimes even from his own apprentices.
Luckily, there was a technical school located in New York City that prepared students for their apprenticeships. Located at New York’s Mechanics' Institute at 20 West 44th Street - between 5th and 6th Avenues - the Technical School for Carriage Draftsmen was founded in 1870 by an ex-Brewster draftsman names John D. Gribbon. In 1892, Andrew F. Johnson, another former Brewster employee, took over as instructor in chief. A large number of the coachbuilders took his course, either in person, or by post using a correspondence course that Johnson introduced soon after his arrival. Commonly called the Andrew F. Johnson School, it was the only one in America that taught free hand, geometry and full size drafting courses designed specifically for coachbuilders.
The terms of Dietrich’s apprenticeship included a course of study with Johnson. The school required a sponsor, and Willie Brewster signed off for his eager employee. Even though he worked a full work week - 60 hours – at Brewster, an additional 12 hours were spent at the Mechanic’s Institute campus every week.
Dietrich reviewed his busy schedule:
Dietrich graduated from the school in 1917, and left Brewster at the same time. Although he was now one of their most promising designers, he felt that a job that had been offered to him by Chevrolet would help his understanding of the emerging field of mass-produced automobile manufacture. Additionally their design studio was located on West 56th St and his salary would get a substantial boost as well – from $28 to $50 per week. For a little over a year, he produced technical drawings showcasing ideas discussed at body and chassis engineering meetings as well as sub-component assembly manuals for Chevrolet’s unskilled assembly-line workers.
Willie Brewster then enticed him back from his new employer with a generous job offer of $75 per week, which he quickly accepted. Dietrich’s experience with Chevrolet’s engineers would prove valuable in ironing out problems with the new Brewster-Knight automobile. During the ensuing year, Brewster had hired another ambitious young designer who had previously worked for Cleveland’s Leon Rubay Carrossiers and Chicago’s C.P. Kimball & Co. That chance meeting would eventually result in the formation of America’s best-known coachbuilding partnership.
Thomas L. Hibbard (1898-1982) was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1898. Even before he had graduated from High School, he had set his sights on a career as an automobile designer and secured employment as an apprentice designer with Cleveland’s Leon Rubay Co.
In 1915 Walter White had hired Rubay to design the new gasoline-powered White automobile and provided Rubay with the capital - $300,000 - to build his own body plant. The Leon Rubay Co.’s new factory was located at 1318 West 78th St. on Cleveland's West Side, and had a contract to build all of White’s automobile bodies. As Rubay was more of a salesman than a draftsman, Hibbard was soon producing most of the firm’s body drafts, and eventually many of its designs. In his short stay with Rubay, Hibbard designed bodies for White as well as the H.A.L. 12-cylinder, built by Cleveland’s H.A. Lozier.
One day at work, Rubay introduced Hibbard to a young friend of his who was keenly interested in the construction of automobile bodies, and assigned him the task of giving the teenager a thorough tour of the Rubay plant. Roberts recalled, "I told Mr. Rubay that I was interested in how bodies were built and designed. Rubay called a young man over and told him to show me the works. That fellow was Tom Hibbard."
Roberts grew up near Cleveland’s Peerless assembly plant and filled his schoolbooks with drawings of automobiles. Rubay was a friend of the family, and had invited Ralph to visit him at work. Hibbard and Roberts were fairly close in age and hit it off right away and they continued to correspond with each other for the next several years.
Hibbard’s work attracted the attention of the long-established Chicago coachbuilder C.P. Kimball & Co., who lured him to Chicago with the promise of a substantially larger salary and the title of chief designer. Hibbard worked for Kimball (39th and Michigan Ave.) for about a year, designing all of their bodies as well as representing the firm as their regional salesman.
While Hibbard was working for Rubay, they were producing wing assemblies for the Army Signal Corps. When pressure to join the escalating War in Europe became too great for Hibbard, he enlisted with the Signal Corps. and was sent to France. Luckily, the Armistice was signed soon after his arrival, so he applied for a job with the famous Parisian coachbuilder Kellner et Cie. Jacques Kellner offered him a position, but he was unable to secure his release from the Signal Corps., and was forced to return to the United States. Near the end of 1918, he was discharged in New York City, and conveniently found a job open at Brewster & Co., who at that time was short-handed in the drafting and design department. Although he was hired as a designer, he was relegated to producing body drafts where he was assigned a table adjacent to Ray Dietrich’s.
The two talented, yet frustrated, designers were about the same age and soon became friends. During lunch they discussed the possibility of organizing a company that designed and engineered automobile bodies. They decided to resign from Brewster in 1921, which gave them enough time to save the money that would be needed to support a new organization.
Their plan was to become both automotive architects and contractors. They would create the renderings and full size body drafts for a customer, then arrange to have a local or regional coachbuilder build a prototype body. They would charge each customer, either a large flat fee or a small design fee combined with a royalty if the body would enter volume production. Alternatively, their customer could order just the design and body drafts, then arrange to have the body built themselves.
Although Dietrich claims they were the first to introduce that particular business model, other free-lance designers were already active in the field. George P. Harvey and George J. Mercer were already established free-lance designers who offered much the same service in New York City - Mercer’s office door even included the phrase “Automobile Body Architecture”.
Somehow word of their proposed venture reached the desk of Willie Brewster - most likely through their immediate superior, Henry Crecelius Sr. or Brewster’s nephew, Harry, who also worked in the drafting room. An angry Brewster confronted his two talented employees, who admitted the rumors were true.
Dietrich remembered the confrontation in vivid detail:
As the names of Dietrich and Hibbard were unknown to anyone outside of Brewster, a clever new name - LeBaron, Carrossiers - was arrived at by the two partners using a list of French words that had the ring of prestige and could be easily pronounced through a telephone.
In February of 1920, space was leased on the 5th floor of No. 2 Columbus Circle, a prestigious office building located at the point where Broadway intersects Central Park South in the heart of New York City’s automobile row - Broadway between 40th and 70th Streets. The original building no longer exists as it was razed in the 1960s to make way for Huntington Hartford's Gallery of Modern Art.
They sent out announcements to all of the area’s imported automobile dealers and waited for the crowds to materialize. For a couple of months, the only thing that appeared was stacks of bills and a pair of growling stomachs. But Grover C. Parvis, of New York’s factory Packard distributor eventually called for an appointment. Parvis was in charge of their custom body department and had heard of the pair and their new enterprise on a routine visit to Brewster & Co. He wanted the pair to produce the designs and body drafts for a 7-passenger limousine body that he was planning on having built by Fleetwood. The design was approved and when delivered, Parvis cut a check made out to LeBaron, Carrossiers for $450 - $50 for the design and $400 for the body drafts. LeBaron was finally in business. Now that they had successfully sold a design, it was possible to approach the European agencies with greater confidence. They even offered a budget-priced $25 side-elevation pencil sketch that the dealers could use to show prospective clients.
Thomas Hibbard’s friend, Ralph Roberts, had just gotten his Bachelors of Science degree from Dartmouth, and was invited to visit LeBaron’s brand-new New York office. It so happened that business had increased to the point where more help was needed and Hibbard offered Roberts a job saying: “See what you can do to help us so we can have more time to work on the drawing boards."
Roberts was appointed the office manager and was handed a notebook and assigned a desk in inner part of the office. The drafting tables were located by the outside window, Hibbard’s covered with the firm’s designs and Dietrich’s loaded with body drafts. Roberts recalled: "Ray was a draftsman, a rapid one."
The rent for the office was $100 per month, a considerable amount for the time, but not surprising as No. 2 Columbus Circle was owned by William Randolph Hearst. The early LeBaron operated on a shoestring and sometimes the rent went unpaid. Roberts recalled: "If they got on us, we would have to go out and get advances from some of our clients." Luckily not many office supplies were needed, as the pair of designers had hoarded most of what they would need while working at Brewster.
Roberts was in charge of the ledgers that indicated who owed money to LeBaron and to whom LeBaron owed money to. However, Roberts recalled that during LeBaron’s early days, his bookkeeping was unnecessary: "I would get stuck. Ray would say, 'What's biting you, Ralph?' I would say, 'I can't figure out what Packard owes us.' Ray would say, 'They owe us $25 for this, $20 for that, and we haven't completed the $10 item. They owe us $45.' He had it all in his head; he didn't need me."
Soon after Roberts arrived in New York, the decision was made to incorporate, as they hadn’t had the money to do it until then. Roberts was offered a partnership for a mere $700, the fee that was required by the firm’s attorney to file the papers. He borrowed it from his mother, and became a full partner, although he wasn’t allowed near the drafting boards - his job was to run the office and to handle the clients.
As the fledgling firm could ill afford to pay for advertising, Roberts and Hibbard wrote general automotive pieces for popular magazines such as Vanity Fair, Country Life, Cunarder, Town & Country, Spur and Arts & Decoration in return for advertising. For the most part, Roberts wrote the articles and Hibbard did the illustrations, although Hibbard wrote a series of technical coachbuilding articles on his own for inclusion in Motor Life and Autobody.
As business improved, an unmistakable sporting style began to develop: "We made them look like they were going places" said Roberts.
One of LeBaron’s early clients was William Cooper Procter, the president of Proctor & Gamble. He purchased a Rolls-Royce chassis and had Dietrich install rhinoceros horn handles in the interior of his opera brougham. LeBaron also outfitted a fleet of Rolls-Royces for the Maharaja of Baroda, the ruler of one of India’s largest and wealthiest states.
Another one of LeBaron’s early customers was York Motors, New York’s Lincoln distributor. When Henry Leland's sophisticated, yet homely Lincoln finally arrived in September 1920, its antiquated coachwork – designed by Angus Woodbridge, Leland’s milliner son-in-law - was widely ridiculed by both dealers and customers alike. Like Henry Ford, Leland failed to appreciate the importance that styling played in the evolving 1920s marketplace.
However, York’s president, Milton Budlong was not discouraged. He was confident that an attractive, modern body mated to Leland’s chassis would fly out of the showroom, and commissioned LeBaron to build him a real attention-getter, a sporty 4-passenger phaeton. The caveat was that it had to be completed in time for display in his showroom during the upcoming 1921 New York Auto Salon, which opened in just 21 days.
The only available builder on such short notice was Smith Springfield in Springfield, Massachusetts. The body drafts for the dual cowl phaeton were completed within three short days and driven in person to Springfield. The completed car was delivered to the York Motors showroom on time, as promised. Budlong told Dietrich that for the very first time, Leland’s fine chassis was mounted with a body which did it justice. As predicted, the car was a great success, and resulted in a series of orders for LeBaron through the next couple of years. In 1922 they produced a very attractive close-coupled sports sedan for one of Budlong’s clients. A picture of it was included in an early issue of The Lincoln magazine and resulted in hundreds of inquiries to the manager of Lincoln. Apparently LeBaron’s work for York Motors did not go unnoticed by Edsel Ford, and a number of months later, LeBaron received a lucrative contract to design production bodies for the now Ford-owned Lincoln.
Captain Ugo d' Annunzio, the flamboyant owner of Isotta Motors Corp., was another early customer. D’Annunzio, New York’s IsottaFraschini distributor, was the son of the Italian Nietzschean poet, black magician, anarchist and aviator, Gabriele D'Annunzio.
A chauffeur-driven cabriolet was commissioned by d’Annunzio for exhibit at the 1922 New York Auto Salon and LeBaron arranged to have the body built by Derham. Unbeknownst to d’Annunzio, the body had a serious design flaw that prohibited the rear doors from opening when the top was lowered.
The tops half of the doors were hinged along the lower interior edge of the window frame, so that they could be folded inside the body when the convertible top was lowered, providing the appearance and practicality of a touring car. LeBaron’s design dictated that the door’s upper window frames be straight and at right angles with the sides, while the bottoms of the door were arced, as was the custom at the time. Unfortunately, when the upper portion of the doors were folded inward and down - flush against the insides of the doors - they extended beyond the rounded corners of the door frames, producing a door that could not be opened or closed, while its window frames were folded.
LeBaron knew how to correct their mistake, but there was insufficient time to do so before the Salon, so they took a gamble and exhibited the car with the roof and window frames raised, the only way that the doors could open and close freely.
Luckily for them, the flawed car was purchased at the salon by an elderly woman who had no intention of ever lowering the top, so the flawed engineering remained undetected until Dietrich wrote about the incident at length in a 1958 article. The 1922 Salon marked LeBaron’s first appearance at the annual event which was held at New York’s Hotel Commodore. The firm exhibited four cars in all, two on imported chassis - Isotta-Fraschini and Minerva - and two on American - Peerless and Lafayette. The “Importer’s Auto Salon” was organized in 1904 for the purpose of providing automobile importers a place to exhibit their wares, which at that time were prohibited form the New York Auto Show. Eventually coachbuilders from both side of the Atlantic were invited to contribute, opening the door for American chassis providing they sat beneath a body built by one of the custom coachbuilders. To insure that such mistakes would never be repeated, Dietrich and Hibbard made it a point to visit all of their subcontractors on a regular basis.
Dietrich ran into his old employer during the November, 1922 event:
Although most of LeBaron’s business came from car dealers, walk-in traffic could provide a lucrative diversion. A handful of very particular clients would occasionally want to see how a particular body would look on various chassis, and LeBaron was more than happy to provide the service. First the particular style of body would be decided upon, then a series of sketches could be produced showing their client how the body would look on the popular chassis of the time. LeBaron had “arrangements” with many of the establishments that lined New York’s automobile row and received a commission or “kickback” whenever a LeBaron client purchased one of their chassis’.
In much the same way, chauffeur’s would also get “commissions” by steering their employers to one particular marque or coachbuilder. As the chauffeur was responsible for the car's mechanical upkeep, the choice was not purely arbitrary, however, his commission would typically amount to 10% of the total purchase price of the vehicle, an amount that was split between the chassis vendor and the body builder.
Soon after the end of the 1922-23 Salons, a representative of the reorganized Locomobile contacted LeBaron to see if they were interested in becoming consultants to the Bridgeport, Connecticut, automaker. Locomobile had been recently purchased by Willy Durant and Ted Jackson, their vice-president, felt they needed help refining the designs of their upcoming models. They also planned on having a custom body program for Locomobile’s Senior models. Dietrich accepted the proposal and attended a number of meetings in Bridgeport during the year.
However, LeBaron was not the only game in town. Locomobile’s former designer, J. Frank deCausse had created a competing firm in New York much along the lines of LeBaron after Locomobile went bankrupt in 1921. Durant had awarded deCausse the contract to design production bodies for his upcoming Flint automobile which was being manufactured in Michigan. LeBaron had also submitted designs for the Flint, but Durant decided to limit their expertise to his premiere line.
LeBaron also designed a series of production body styles for the Crane-Simplex luxury car, which was built in small numbers during 1923 on Long Island. They also found themselves with numerous orders precipitated by their successful Salon premiere. By the end of 1923, LeBaron had built on Packard, Lincoln, Locomobile, Pierce-Arrow, Cadillac, Simplex-Crane, LaFayette, Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce, Minerva, Delage, Fiat, Hispano-Suiza, Isotta-Fraschini and Renault chassis.
Dietrich later revealed: “Never could we have kept up the grueling pace of this phase if it had not been for our training in short cuts at Brewster. As a result of our specialized training, we had also developed an ability for visualizing a finished design. This was invaluable when creating original designs and styles without precedent - the styles which eventually became our hallmark.”
Early in 1923, Paul Ostruk (1886-1967) , New York ‘s Minerva distributor, ordered two bodies through LeBaron that he wanted to have built by Van den Plas in Brussels, as the bodies could be built for far less in Europe due to the current strength of the dollar. LeBaron was thinking along the same lines and wished to procure a Hispano-Suiza distributorship in New York and also wanted to look into the possibility of opening a branch office in Europe. As Hibbard spoke French, it was decided that he would travel to Europe that March to oversee the construction of the bodies as well as to arrange for the distributorship and to scout for a suitable address for LeBaron. As money was always tight at LeBaron, Roberts remembered apologizing to Hibbard about the third class steamship ticket he was given for the journey. Hibbard invited a new friend of his named Howard R. “Dutch” Darrin along for the trip.
Ideally, LeBaron wanted to get the chassis on consignment, however that notion failed to fly with Hispano-Suiza executives, however they were offered a New York distributorship for $10,000. Hibbard wired the LeBaron office with the good news, but Dietrich and Roberts were unable to secure the needed financing in time and the deal fell through. Hibbard remained in Europe ostensibly to stay until the bodies were finished, however he had other plans.
Enter Howard R. “Dutch” Darrin (1897-1982). Darrin was a multi-talented athlete, inventor and entrepreneur from Cranford, New Jersey, who joined the staff of Automobile Topics at the tender age of 10. The magazine was run by a friend of his father’s named Frank Roach, and Howard was allowed to help out by cutting out newspaper clippings for its editors. Darrin also developed an appetite for football and even attended the Carlisle, Pennsylvania football camp run by the legendary Glenn “Pop” Warner. Although he never played professionally, he played lots of Army football while serving in France during WWI.
Prior to his Army service, Howard had designed an electric gear-shift for John North Willys, using two small motors supplied by his father, a Westinghouse engineer. While in the service, he developed a fondness for airplanes and after his discharge in 1919, used the money he had saved to help found Aero Limited, one of the nation’s first scheduled airline carriers. Using surplus Curtis HS-2L sea planes, Darrin and his partners offered air mail and passenger service between Atlantic City, New Jersey, Nassau (Bahamas) and three Florida cities, Palm Beach, Miami and Key West. The airline was successful until four of their pilots perished when the plane ferrying them between Palm Beach and Miami crashed at sea. Darrin and his partners sold the entire operation to another operator and Dutch returned to New York in1921 and tried his hand at selling stocks, bonds and pre-enjoyed luxury cars.
Darrin had purchased two Delage chassis from Walter P. Chrysler - who at that time was experimenting with imported chassis in the Elizabeth, New Jersey Willys plant - and made the rounds of New York’s body builders looking for suitable bodies to complete the vehicles. It was in this capacity that he was introduced to Thomas L. Hibbard by his friend “Tiny”, another car broker/dealer who frequented the LeBaron office. Hibbard was impressed by the entrepreneur’s impeccable taste and intuition for all things esthetic and the pair soon became friends. It’s not known whether Darrin commissioned those bodies from LeBaron, but both were sold, one to Al Jolson who was starring in Bombo at the time. Although Darrin was supposedly married in 1919, he rarely mentioned it, and in fact, enjoyed quite a reputation as a ladies man through most of his life. The shy and reserved Thomas L. Hibbard fully expected to have a very good time in Europe with his more outgoing companion.
After surveying the wealth of business opportunities available in Europe, the pair decided to stay in Europe to form a partnership to sell luxury motorcars in Paris. Hibbard & Darrin, not LeBaron, would open up a design office in Paris and design bodies to be built in Brussels, and then offer them to wealthy Europeans in their Minerva showroom.
When word of Hibbard’s resignation reached Roberts and Dietrich in New York, the pair were not amused, to say the least.
The first thing that Dietrich and Roberts did was to hire an illustrator, as that was Hibbard’s chief responsibility. Luck would have it that one of the best illustrators in the industry, Roland L. Stickney, was available. For a number of years he had served under Franklin deCausse at Locomobile, but left the Bridgeport, Connecticut, automaker after it went into receivership in 1921. He spent the following year doing free-lance renderings for deCausse and Locke, and was thrilled to get a full time job with LeBaron. Frank W. Pease (1897-1943) was hired at about the same time to assist Dietrich with the body drafts, allowing him more time to tend to more pressing matters. Pease had operated his own automobile architecture firm in Hyde Park for a number of years, and had exhibited at the 1921 New York Auto Salon. He eventually became chief engineer of the Hayes Body Co., but his promising career was cut short by World War II.
In a 1982 interview Roberts recalled that he and Stickney worked well together. "On a quiet stock market day, I visited Edward F. Hutton, a potential customer," Roberts says. "He outlined the car he wanted. I called Stickney. We had a bird language that we both understood. Stickney would have the illustration ready by the time I arrived at the office."
In addition to doing some of the designing, Stickney turned out the beautiful water-color renditions which graced many LeBaron catalogs as well as others during the following years. Among others, he illustrated a Rolls-Royce catalog in 1925 and also did the renditions for the Salon issues of The Lincoln magazine during most of the 1920's.
During the summer of 1923, 15-year-old Hugo Pfau (1908-1978), was hired as LeBaron’s office boy and an apprentice draftsman. Pfau recalled that in discussing his proposed salary, Ray Dietrich pointed out that his (Dietrich’s) starting salary at Brewster was $9 per week, for a full sixty hours of work. The 15-year-old Pfau was probably thrilled when Dietrich offered him $5 per week for only 30 hours of work. Pfau was still in high school, but spent most of his afternoons and Saturdays at the LeBaron offices.
Although Pfau was not the famous body designer as he sometimes inferred in his articles, he is responsible for some of the current interest in custom bodies. His passion for the subject blossomed in his retirement when he wrote about the great body-building firms firm of the classic era in his two books, The Custom Body Era and the Coachbuilt Packard. He also wrote an amazing series of coachbuilding articles in Cars & Parts magazine (plus a few in Motor Trend and the Classic Car) that to this day remain a major source of information on many of these long-forgotten firms.
The Bridgeport Body Co. was one of the two Bridgeport manufacturers that supplied bodies to their cross-town customer, Locomobile. After Locomobile’s 1921 bankruptcy, Clarence W. Seward (1875-1966) and James H. Hinman (1882-1962), Bridgeport’s two owners, courted a number of regional chassis manufacturers as well as body designers such as deCausse and LeBaron looking for work. LeBaron had utilized the body builder during 1922 and 1923 and was satisfied with their work. In the summer of 1923, LeBaron entered into a major contract with Billy Durant’s reorganized Locomobile, and a merger with the Bridgeport body builder began to make a lot of sense. The move was initiated in the fall of 1923 by Seward and Hinman who proposed a merger in exchange for stock. Dietrich thoroughly discussed the matter with Roberts and the merger took place on January 7, 1924. The new firm was called LeBaron, Inc. with Clarence W. Seward, president; Raymond H. Dietrich, vice-president; James H. Hinman, treasurer and Ralph Roberts, Secretary. Dietrich and Roberts held a marginal controlling interest with 105 shares a piece, while the Bridgeport partners each held 100 shares.
As automobile architects, Dietrich and Hibbard enjoyed much critical success, however they had not attained financial success. When Hibbard bailed out, he surrendered his shares with no second thoughts and no monetary compensation. The remaining partners reasoned that the survival of LeBaron necessitated being able to manufacture their own bodies, and hoped that it might bring them financial rewards as well.
Dietrich recalled the reasons for merging with Bridgeport: “We respected each other's standard of quality. Even though the distance from New York was greater than we wanted, the area provided a source of top flight craftsmen. The plant had extra footage for expansion and suited our needs. There was a meeting of the minds, and luckily we saw eye to eye… It was a personal blow to me when we could no longer use the name which had such éclat. "Incorporated" was no fair exchange for glamour!”
Although the upcoming merger with Bridgeport was on their minds, preparing the slew of cars that needed to be readied for the December 1923 New York Auto Salon took first priority. Starting in September, orders started pouring in from New York’s European and American agencies for bodies that needed to be completed in time for the upcoming event. As the space they used the previous year wouldn’t be large enough for their anticipated entries, LeBaron petitioned the Administration Board of the Salon for more space. They complied, allowing them to exhibit using 3 booths, one listed under LeBaron, one under Dietrich-LeBaron and third one under Hibbard-LeBaron. This gave LeBaron a total of twelve vehicle entries instead of the four that would have been allotted under a single booth.
LeBaron also coordinated the design and manufacture of Locomobile’s Salon displays at the 1923 New York Salon. A total of seven custom-bodied Locomobiles were displayed at a Salon that prohibited the exhibit of American chassis. However, they could be shown on one of the coachbuilder’s stand providing they were clothed in a custom body. Through careful negotiations, Locomobile bodies appeared at the Brewster, Demarest, Derham, Holbrook, Locke, and LeBaron stands.
Early in 1923, LeBaron was contacted by Gaston Plantiff, a Ford executive who worked out of their New York City office. He wanted to take a look at the designs that had been done for York Motors, Lincoln’s New York City retailer. Apparently Edsel Ford had heard about the LeBaron-bodied cars and wanted to take a look at them. The designs were delivered, but LeBaron received no more requests from Plantiff for what seemed like an eternity. In December, Plantiff called once again inquiring as to whether Dietrich would be available to accompany Edsel Ford on a tour of the upcoming New York Salon. “Would I be available! I would have crawled there on broken bottles” recalled Dietrich. Up to that time, the only work LeBaron had received from a major automaker was the Locomobile contract. Dietrich hoped that the afternoon with Edsel would result in some work from Lincoln as well. During their tour of the Commodore ballroom, Ford told him about Lincoln’s custom body program, and Dietrich expressed an interest in becoming part of it. Apparently the two gentlemen hit it off as Plantiff made a third call to the LeBaron office in January of 1924 asking for some specific drawings which resulted in the creation of a whole series of sample bodies for Lincoln during the coming year.
At the 1923 Salon Dietrich also discussed designing bodies for Packard with its president, Alvan Macauly. Although he was not as receptive as Edsel Ford was at the time, he did invite Dietrich to come for a visit in Detroit. Dietrich was eventually summoned to Detroit and had a meeting and tour of the plant with Macauley, who suggested that there might be a place for LeBaron in Packard’s future. Indeed there was, but Dietrich, had left by the time the arrangement materialized a few years later.
During the winter of 1923-24, Dietrich spent lots of time on the road, typically traveling to Bridgeport twice a week, not to mention his periodic visits to Detroit and the yearly sojourn to the Chicago Auto Salon. LeBaron hired Werner Gubitz (1899-1971) to assist Stickney and Pease in the office. Gubitz had worked with Stickney at Locomobile and was an excellent designer and illustrator who would later become chief designer for Packard.
Speaking of Packard, 1924 marked the appearance of LeBaron in the automaker’s custom body catalog. LeBaron had been building bodies for their New York City distributor since 1920 and up until that time had resisted LeBaron’s numerous inquiries.
Following the 1923-24 Salons, LeBaron received a commission from their old friend Captain Ugo d’Annunzio for two very special Isotta-Fraschini’s. One was sold to Gloria Swanson, and the second to Rudolph Valentino. Unfortunately, Valentino never rode in his, as he died very suddenly a short time before it was to have been delivered. After his death, the car was put on display in Captain d’Annunzio’s Isotta showroom, and attracted multitudes of mourning fans. Other orders included; a town brougham for Flo Ziegfeld’s Rolls-Royce and 3 separate bodies for the Crane-Simplex’ of Mrs. John Wallace Riddle - the wife of the ambassador to Argentina. Dietrich even managed to find time to help build a baby carriage for Edsel Ford.
LeBaron also produced designs for other builders that would be built and sold without mention of their LeBaron origins. Demarest and Locke used their “ghost” service as did Fleetwood, whose New York office was located in the same building.
By the time the 1924-25 Salon season commenced, a crew of 50 was busy putting the finishing touches on the cars that would be shown at the New York and Chicago Salons. Once again LeBaron had 3 booths, although Roberts-LeBaron took the place of Hibbard-LeBaron, both in the directory and the Commodore Ballroom.
Dietrich started making occasional trips to Detroit to discuss upcoming LeBaron commissions and to take a look at LeBaron designs that were entering into mass production at Lincoln’s body suppliers.
Edsel Ford would typically order five to ten examples of a particular design, and if it proved popular back in Detroit, it would slated for mass production at Murray. However, LeBaron would receive a licensing fee in addition to the money already paid out to design and build the prototypes.
A Lincoln LeBaron limousine was leased to the US government to serve as transportation for President Calvin Coolidge, between 1924-29. Like many of LeBaron's designs, Lincoln later introduced it as a catalog custom and had it built in Detroit by the Murray Body Corp.
Murray also supplied Lincoln with LeBaron-designed two and three-window sedans and Victoria coupes. As with other Lincoln projects, small run of prototypes were first built at the Bridgeport plant, then handed over to Murray for mass production. The original LeBaron prototypes can be distinguished by their cast manganese bronze windshield pillars, which look quite thin next to the composite steel-faced wood pillars on the Murray production bodies.
Edsel Ford must have been very pleased with LeBaron’s work as he instructed Allan Sheldon, Murray’s president, to travel to New York to discuss bringing LeBaron to Detroit area to build custom and semi-custom work for Lincoln. As in was still December of 1924, the busy Salon season was coming up, so a follow-up meeting was scheduled to take place in Detroit during January 1925.
At that meeting Sheldon and his attorney submitted a proposal to purchase a controlling interest in LeBaron, and to move the entire operation to Detroit. Dietrich returned to New York and submitted the proposal to the rest of LeBaron’s board. Roberts banded together with the Hinman and Seward, who all agreed that they would be fools to relinquish control of such a well established business. Roberts recalled: "We refused the offer, because they wanted control of LeBaron." He later revealed that he was grateful to Seward and Hinman for helping LeBaron weather a “crisis that otherwise would have probably put us out of business”, and that he was unwilling to sell out the firm’s two senior members.
However, Ray Dietrich had other ideas: “Suddenly I realized that even though my persuasiveness had not won them over, in the process I had convinced myself that a move to Detroit was the only way to expand and broaden my scope in custom coach work.”
The LeBaron directors offered to sell the entire operation, lock, stock and barrel to Murray for $250,000. Dietrich objected to the price, stating that as they didn’t even own the Bridgeport factory, the firm was barely worth $50,000.
A February meeting was set up between Sheldon and Dietrich in Detroit to discuss the matter, and according to Roberts he was also planning to attend. At the last minute he became ill, so Dietrich traveled to Detroit alone. Roberts probably had an idea of what was about to happen but reminded Dietrich, to “look, and talk, but don't sign."
Although Dietrich assured Roberts he wouldn’t, it came as no surprise to anyone when he returned to New York with the news that the $250,000 offer had been declined. Dietrich recalled, “Neither did it set well when I revealed Murray Body was chiefly interested in my services, and that Mr. Sheldon had made an offer to me which was identical with that which would have been offered LeBaron.”
Sheldon had made Dietrich an offer he couldn’t refuse, namely Dietrich Inc. Ray would own 50% of the firm, and would have his own factory, plus his own staff of designers and draftsmen plus a fat contract from Lincoln. Edsel Ford even arranged for Dietrich to rent an apartment nearby his own Jefferson Avenue mansion. Dietrich resigned from LeBaron, and sold his shares to Ralph Roberts.
At that time Murray supplied bodies to Ford, Hupmobile, Hudson, Lincoln and Reo and employed the very capable Amos E. Northup and had little use for Dietrich. Northup had previously worked for Wills Ste. Claire, and brought with him a young assistant, Julio (Jules) Andrade, who later became known for his design of the 1934 LaSalle as a member of Harley Earl's General Motors staff.
Dietrich Inc. was set up as a favor to Edsel Ford, and Murray’s president, Clarence Avery, felt that the $150,000 seed money was squandered, and never got along with Ray. Murray’s brass never expected the firm to make any money, and put the Dietrich Inc. office in a small, dingy portion of one of their Detroit factories where it would go unnoticed. However, Ray Dietrich had other ideas.
Ray enticed a number of former Brewster employees to Detroit to staff it and hired LeBaron’s Werner Gubitz as Dietrich Inc.’s illustrator and designer. Dietrich acknowledged that the firm lost about $130,000 in 1925, but claimed it was due to costs incurred in establishing the new business, such as hiring skilled employees even though there wasn’t enough work to keep them busy. He only lost $35,000 in 1926 and by 1927 was $100,000 in the black.
Dietrich, Inc., outgrew its initial quarters and moved to a larger building at 1601 Clay St. in December of 1925. Early work amounted to designing semi-custom bodies for Lincoln that were built in its Clay St. factory, but within a few short months, a number of Packard dealers started approaching Dietrich with commissions for various custom bodies, among them Grover C. Parvis, a former LeBaron customer and custom body manager of Packard’s factory-owned New York City branch. Most popular were 2-passenger rumble seat convertible coupes, followed by 5-passenger convertible sedans, 5-passenger close-coupled sedans, and lastly chauffeur-driven town cars.
It became obvious that Dietrich Inc. needed a salesman, and Alvan Macauley, the head of Packard, suggested a friend of his son’s named Jack Jarvis. Not only was Jarvis a friend of the Macauley family, but he had 15 years of experience selling Packards. Parvis took a six-week cross-country tour of Packard’s largest agencies with three custom-bodied Packards: a rumble-seat coupe, a convertible sedan and a close-coupled sports sedan, that resulted in 150 orders. Packard brass heard about the successful tour and ordered another 175 examples of the three bodies, the first of many subsequent Packard orders for Dietrich Inc.
That fall’s Salon exhibits – Dietrich Inc.’s first - included two Packards and a single Lincoln and Marmon. A satellite office was established in New York City, so that Dietrich might attract some business from that city’s European chassis vendors. Foster Rozar was placed in charge and answered directly to Jarvis, who remained in Dietrich’s Detroit office.
When freelance designer J. Frank de Causse developed throat cancer in 1926, Franklin, his chief client, hired Dietrich as a consulting engineer to help ease deCausse’s workload. De Causse’s larynx had to be removed and he eventually died of complications in May of 1928. After their first meeting in Syracuse, Herbert H. Franklin offered Dietrich a new Franklin of his choice for the drive back to Detroit. Dietrich assumed all of Franklin’s design work in 1927 and designed a spectacular Franklin prototype for the 1928-29 Salons called the “el Pirate”.
El Pirate was the first American car with doors that flared out to cover the running boards, an innovation which led to the eventual elimination of the running boards in the late 1930s. However, the design did not originate with Dietrich. A well-know Brussels coachbuilder named Snutsel had introduced the flared lowered doors seen on "el Pirate" in 1927.
El Pirate also featured skirted rear fenders and a very low roofline, a feature that could be found on contemporary Hibbard & Darrin designs. Many of the features found on the Pirate were seen a couple of years earlier on a streamlined 1925 Bugatti Type 30 whose coachwork was designed by the famous French airplane designer Etienne Bunau-Varilla. Even though the "el Pirate" was not entirely original, it was a dramatic showpiece for Franklin, and helped to increase the Syracuse automakers sales during the year.
The February 1929 issue of Autobody included a small picture of the "el Pirate":
Another similar Dietrich design called the Deauville also made it to production, and along with a handful of Dietrich-built production Pirate sedans and phaetons, they continue to be the most sought-after Franklins of the classic era.
Dietrich also did work for other automakers and was responsible for the 1927 Erskine that Studebaker showed at both Olympia and the Paris Salon. Gordon Buehrig left his engineering job at Detroit’s Gotfredson Body Co. to come and work for Dietrich Inc. in 1926 and may have been responsible for some of the firm’s exceptional work, although he received no individual credit. He left in 1927 to work for a succession of employers - Packard, General Motors and Stutz – before settling down at Duesenberg in 1929 where he became famous. Werner Gubitz was also responsible for some of Dietrich’s designs and was eventually hired away by Packard in 1927. He later became their chief designer and was responsible for some of the most gorgeous Packards of all time during the early- to mid-1930s.
When Dietrich’s lease expired on their now-cramped Clay St. plant at the end of December, 1926, they moved into the spacious former-Leland Lincoln plant located at 1331 Holden Ave., at the corner of Holden and Hamilton. Through the kindness of Edsel Ford, Dietrich was able to buy the $400,000 building for the same monthly payment as they were making on the Clay St.nue plant’s lease. So in addition to its booming design business - Chrysler, Dodge, Franklin, Lincoln, Packard and Studebaker - Dietrich Inc.’s semi-custom production body business expanded to become the largest in the country, producing from 18-25 bodies per week, or in excess of 1000 bodies per year. Their customers included Chrysler, Lincoln, Packard, and Pierce-Arrow.
A Sea foam grey Lincoln rumble seat convertible coupe won Dietrich Inc. the best of show at the 1927 Paris Salon, and went on to win top honors at Milan and a gold medal at Monte Carlo.
The design most associated with Dietrich Inc. is the convertible sedan and by 1928 they were being turned out on Chrysler, Lincoln and Packard chassis. What set Dietrich’s apart from the others – primarily Murphy and LeBaron - was the inclusion of a small rectangular window that was located between the front and rear door windows.
During the late twenties both Murphy and LeBaron convertible sedans used a heavy cast bronze center post from which the front and rear doors were hung. It provided sufficient strength to carry the weight of the doors, but was very costly to produce. Dietrich accomplished much the same thing using conventional body construction, but there were some drawbacks, namely the 8” space between the front and rear doors and the corresponding 8 to 10” metal-framed window that sat on top of it. The front doors were hinged at the A-pillar as is the standard practice today as the composite wood and metal B-pillar couldn’t support the weight of both doors. The center glass could be folded down or totally removed depending on the vehicle. The major benefit to the initial Dietrich Inc. version was its much lower price, but many considered the design to be awkward.
When Hibbard and Darrin developed an improved version that used an inverted trapezoid between the front and rear door glass, Dietrich “borrowed” it, and included it on the Franklin “el Pirate” showcar and on a number of subsequent Dietrich convertible sedans. However, by 1929, Dietrich reverted to the Murphy and LeBaron system with the doors hinged on an all-steel T-shaped B-pillar, and all of their convertible sedans from 1930 on include it.
An attractive convertible Victoria appeared in 1929 on both Lincoln and Packard chassis that was based on the successful Waterhouse model that had recently become very popular. The initial versions had small rear quarter windows, but versions with fully enclosed rear quarters soon joined them, and became the more popular of the two styles. By that time, Brunn, Fleetwood, LeBaron, Murphy and Rollson all had competing versions, and the style was soon offered by every American luxury chassis builder.
The December 1928 issue of Autobody described the Dietrich convertible Victoria that was seen at that winter's salons:
Dietrich’s business took a turn for the worse at the beginning of 1929. Instead of a normal replacement order of say, 25 examples of a certain body, only 10 or 15 might be re-ordered. As the year went on, the orders decreased further, and when Black Friday rolled around on October, 28th, Dietrich Inc. was in trouble. However, their financial crisis was not apparent to anyone visiting the Dietrich stand at the 1929-1930 Salons. The November, 1929 issue of Autobody included the following description of Dietrich's Chicago exhibit:
The December, 1929 issue of Autobody included pictures and descriptions of two Dietrich-bodied Franklins seen at the New York Salon:
Always optimistic, Dietrich felt that they should try to weather the current financial crisis, but he was overruled by Sheldon and Avery and was forced to resign the presidency of his own firm in September of 1930. L. Clayton Hill, Murray's assistant sales manager, was put in charge of Dietrich Inc. and most of the firm’s skilled craftsmen were let go.
Dietrich Inc. manufacturing was transferred to surplus space in one of the Murray plants where identical bodies – some bearing the Dietrich badge, and some not – were built for Packard and Chrysler. The Dietrich badge was reserved for Murray’s upscale convertible sedans and Victorias - those equipped with pricier trim and materials.
The November, 1930 issue of Autobody featured a picture and description of the Dietrich Inc. exhibit at the 1930-31 Chicago Salon:
The December, 1930 issue of Autobody featured a picture the following description of the Dietrich Inc. exhibit at the 1930-31 New York Salon:
Packard continued to use Murray’s Dietrich designed bodies for a couple of years, but when it became apparent that Murray had no interest in updating the circa 1929 designs, they hired free-lance designer Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky to update them. He refined the original designs using some visual tricks such as eliminating the side-mounted spares, and installing slanted windshields, thereby creating the impression of greater length without having to re-tool the body.
The "Car of the Dome", a one-off 12-cylinder Packard show car built for the transportation exhibit at the 1933-34 "Century of Progress" Chicago World's Fair was a good example of a vehicle that successfully combined the styles of both designers. It started life as a Dietrich-designed style 3182 Formal Sedan mounted on a 147" wheelbase chassis updated with bumper caps and forward-extended front fenders. De Sakhnoffsky eliminated the side-mounts and extended the hood putting speed spears on the vent doors adding even more length to the already long vehicle.
The October, 1933 issue of Motor described the interior of the car in great detail:
When all-new Packard bodies were introduced in 1935, Murray allowed Packard to affix Dietrich body tags on some of their cars, even though Ray Dietrich had nothing to do with them. The arrangement continued through 1936, when the last Dietrich-badged Packard bodies were completed, although a few leftover bodies were installed on 1937 chassis.
Although he no longer had an interest in Dietrich Inc., Raymond H. Dietrich exhibited as a free-lance designer at the 1930-31 Chicago and New York Salons. The November, 1930 issue of Autobody included the following description of his exhibit:
The December, 1930 issue of Autobody included pictures of three Raymond H. Dietrich designs built by Walker:
Although Dietrich Inc. was no longer part of his life, Ray wasn’t out of work, and he did quite a bit of free-lance design work for his friend Herbert H. Franklin in 1930 and 1931.
Another friend of his was Ray Graham, one of Detroit’s famous Graham Brothers. The 1932 Graham-Paige Blue Streak Eight was designed by Murray's Amos Northup, but Dietrich ironed out some of the final details of Northup's design as an independent consultant to Graham and shares credit with him for the final design. The Blue Streak holds the distinction of being the first American production car to feature fenders that were drawn down to hug the wheels. Although the car was an enormous critical success, it was introduced during the depths of the Depression, and was destined for failure. Dietrich’s contract ended upon the death of Ray Graham, long before the Blue Streak’s failure in the marketplace had depleted the enormous Graham Bros. fortune.
Dietrich moved back to his native New York in 1931, where he had a chance meeting with Walter P. Chrysler while he was having a sandwich and beer at the New York Athletic Club. Chrysler asked if he would be interested in coming to work for the Chrysler Corporation and Ray accepted.
While at Chrysler, Dietrich set up a four year course in body design and engineering at the Chrysler Institute of Engineering. His night courses instructed students on the basics of drafting, art, geometry and problem solving. A number of his students went on to very successful careers in the industry, not unlike the students of Andrew F Johnson, one of his major influences.
While Ray was involved with Dietrich Inc. the terms of his contract with Murray allowed him to do free-lance work for various manufacturers, hoping that the designs might bring about some manufacturing contracts for Murray. However, his contract with Chrysler expressly forbade him from doing any outside work.
As Chrysler had no styling department at the time, Dietrich had to work under Fred M. Zeder, the chief of Chrysler Engineering. Unfortunately, Zeder never got along with Dietrich, and often made Ray's life miserable. However, Dietrich greatly admired Walter P. Chrysler and stuck it out. He was responsible for the redesign of the 1935-1936 Airflows and is credited with the design of the very successful Airstreams which replaced it in 1936-37. Although he left the firm in the middle of 1938, his designs would grace Chrysler products right up until the start of World War II.
In a 1974 interview with automotive historian Richard M. Langworth, Dietrich recalled his experiences at Chrysler:
As Dietrich and Zeder, his immediate boss, had never gotten along, Dietrich was asked to leave after his mentor, Walter P. Chrysler, suffered a major stroke on May 26, 1938. Apparently Morris Markin had heard of Dietrich's availability and asked if he was interested in working for Checker. Markin hired Dietrich as an engineering consultant to the Checker Cab Mfg. Co. at $100 per day.
His first commission involved the redesign of Checker’s welding jigs, later ones included redesigning the Kalamazoo plant’s assembly lines and overhead conveyors. When the War commenced, Dietrich helped design Checker’s famous tank retriever, a huge 16-wheel heavy-duty trailer designed to remove disabled tanks from the battlefield. He also assisted Checker’s Herbert Snow and Jim Stout in designing taxicabs, and was involved in Checker’s stillborn front-wheel drive Model D taxicab. Two prototypes were built and tested, but the tooling required to produce it in quantity proved to be too costly. The Checker A-2, a vehicle that combined the advanced styling of the Model D, but the less-costly pre-war Checker rear wheel-drive chassis, entered production in 1947.
Dietrich continued to do other consulting work and assisted Preston Tucker and Alex Tremulis with the design of the 1948 Tucker automobile. In 1949 he opened up a small design and fabrication firm of his own in Grand Rapids, Michigan, called Raymond Dietrich Inc.
A number of limousines and show cars were built there for Packard, Ford, Checker and Lincoln, including a Lincoln Cosmopolitan limousine for President Harry S Truman. The 4-door convertible had a 145” wheelbase, and weighed just over 6,000 lbs. Powered by a 337 cu in Lincoln V8, the 20 feet long car included retractable steps under the rear fenders, red flashers, a rear-mounted spare, and flag holders on the front bumper. When President Eisenhower came into office, he requested that the car be fitted with a removable dome-shaped Plexiglas bubble-top, so he could wave to the crowds in rainy weather. It was nicknamed “ Ike’s Bubble-Top”. JFK used this car during his Inaugural Parade in 1961, and the car was retired later that year and replaced by the famous 1961 Lincoln X-100 limousine. The Truman car remained on the East Coast where it served as a Ford Motor Company's VIP car for a number of years. In 1967 it joined the Lincoln “Sunshine Special” at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan where it can be seen today.
Raymond Dietrich Inc. also built 2 prototypes for a proposed 1951 Kaiser Convertible and consulted with a group headed by Joseph Frazer (ex-Kaiser-Frazer) and John Roosevelt - the son of FDR - that planned to make an electric automobile based on the design of two French engineers.
Due to unforeseen problems with the UAW in regards to an untenable UAW craftsmen/apprentice ratio and a general lack of work, Dietrich closed the Grand Rapids shop in 1953 and returned to consulting for Checker. He also did some work for Ford Motor Co. and was involved in the design of Continental Mk II which debuted in October 1955. He was also involved with Preston Tucker's Carioca automobile, but Tucker's 1956 death ended the project. He retired from active automotive consultation in 1960, but soon embarked on another career, designing electric guitars for Kalamazoo's Gibson Guitars.
In the early 1960s, Ted McCarty - Gibson's president - asked Ray Dietrich to try his hand at designing a guitar. Dietrich reversed conventional design, putting the longest body horn on the treble side and all the tuners on the treble side, and he made the neck and body a single piece. His design was called the Firebird, and it debuted in 1963 but met with only moderate success before the body shape was revamped into a "non-reverse" style in 1965. Gibson periodically re-releases the Firebird, so I imagine that one of Dietrich's guitars can be purchased for substantially less money than one of his cars.
Dietrich remained in his adopted home of Kalamazoo until a 1969 heart attack prompted a change in climate. As luck would have it, his wife Marion - whom he met and married while working for Chrysler – had once been the manager of the Kalamazoo Symphony and was offered a similar job by the Albuquerque, New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, so they moved to Albuquerque later that year.
Raymond H. Dietrich passed away in 1980 at the age of 86. In 1995, his wife Marion donated his collection of letters, drawings and drawing instruments to the Classic Car Club of America’s Library at the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com