For almost 40 years the FitzJohn-Erwin; FitzJohn Mfg. Co; FitzJohn Body Co; and FitzJohn Coach Co. constructed truck bodies, bus bodies, integral buses and airport limousines in Muskegon, Michigan – its post-War sales slogan being:
Early buses were constructed primarily for REO, but a handful were mounted on third-party chassis such as Ford, GMC, Republic and White, and a line specifically constructed for Studebaker’ bus chassis debuted in the mid-thirties. Chevrolet provided the donors for most of the firm’s stretched mini-buses/airport limousines, although a few Buick stretchouts were constructed and during the Second World War they produced 100 Packard-based coaches for the US Military.
Transit and Intercity coaches wer built from the late 30sinto the early 50s when they concentrated on intercity coaches of which a small number remain in use today, mostly repurposed as recreational vehicles. A handful of the firm’s once-popular stretched airport buses also remain, one of which transported principals of the Manhattan Project while they worked in New Mexico during the Second World War.
The firm was founded by Ohio native Harry A. FitzJohn (b. June 21, 1889 in Toledo, Ohio - d. Jan 8, 1967 in Tinley Park, Cook, Illinois) in 1919.
Harry Alphonse FitzJohn was born in Toledo, Lucas County, Ohio on June 21, 1889 to Alphonse and Sarah May (Fairchild) FitzJohn. His father, a longtime insurance man, was born in Middlesex, England in November of 1849, and emigrated to the United States in 1870. Harry’s siblings included Nellie (b. 1876), Edward (b.1876), Bertha (b.1881), and Frank (b.1884) FitzJohn. Alphonse spent many years as an independent insurance representative, but for a short time worked for the Toledo Blade as a salesman, but after a few short years returned to insurance sales.
Harry A. FitzJohn attended the public schools of his native city until the age of 15 when he took a position with the US Department of Agriculture’s Weather Bureau as a messenger, his appointment being noted in the Dept.’s 1905 annual report as follows:
“Mr. Harry A. FitzJohn appointed a messenger boy at $360 per annum, to take effect on Sept. 1, 1905. His services are necessary in the performance of work of the Bureau at the station to which he will be assigned.”
Harry worked for the Weather Bureau into 1907 when he moved to Detroit to take a position as clerk with the Cadillac Motor Car Co., a job confirmed by his listing in the 1908 Detroit City Directory. One source claims he worked for the Oakland Automobile Co, of Pontiac, Michigan at about the same time (1908), but I could not confirm it. In 1910 he moved to Muskegon, Michigan to take a position with the Hudson Motor Car Co. and in 1912 became associated with the Continental Motors Corporation, as production manager of its Muskegon, Michigan facility.
On April 8, 1912, (April 11?) in Muskegon, he wedded Margaret Pearl Eileen Fallon (b. April 4, 1887 in Chicago, Ill-d.Jan. 1976 in Oak Forest, Ill.), daughter of James Kearn and Mary Ellen ‘Nellie’ (Timberlake) Fallon, of Muskegon, and to the blessed union was born five children: Harry A., Jr. (b.1913), Helen M. (b.1916), Robert K. (b.1919), Thomas E. (b.1922) and Margaret E. (b.1928) FitzJohn. The 1913 Detroit directory (pub.1912) lists him as an ‘agent’, no employer given.
The 1915 Muskegon City Directory lists him as Dept. Mngr., Continental Motor Mnfg. Co., and shortly thereafter he took a position with the Springfield Body Corp., as its Detroit purchasing agent, the September 16, 1916 issue of Automobile Topics reporting:
That position led to his April 1917 appointment as purchasing agent of the Hayes –Ionia Co. of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the ‘Personals’ column of the May 3, 1917 The Automobile:
FitzJohn’s draft card dated June 9, 1917 lists his residence in Grand Rapids, Michigan, his employer Hayes-Ionia Co., occupation purchasing agent.
When the United States entered the World war he was called into service as production manager of the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company, in Dayton, Ohio. During the course of the war, Dayton-Wright produced approximately 3,000 DeHavilland DH-4 bombers and 400 Standard SJ-1 trainers. FitzJohn remained at Dayton-Wright into 1919 when he returned to Grand Rapids, where he’s listed in the 1919 directory as a Mfr.’s Agt., at No. 834, Michigan Trust Bldg.
His decade-long experience in manufacturing left him well-prepared to form his own manufacturing firm and in the Fall of 1919 he formed the FitzJohn-Erwin Manufacturing Company in partnership with L.B. Erwin, W.C. Powell, and T.H. Hume, the November 1919 issue of the Automotive Manufacturer announced the formation of the firm to the trade:
Thomas H. Hume (b. 1889) and Walter C. Powell (b.1879) were both officers and directors of the Amazon Knitting Machine Co. of Muskegon. Hume was also associated with his father in Hackley & Hume, Muskegon’s largest lumber company. Lewis B. Erwin (b. Jan. 21, 1892) was a trained engineer and the son of George L. Erwin, a prominent Muskegon realtor and businessman formerly connected with the Grand Rapids Power Co. (1911), Michigan Railway Engineering Co. (1914) and Gen. Mgr. of the Consumers Power Co. (1921) of Grand Rapids.
The firm’s first plant was a 50’ x 125’ three story brick structure constructed in 1891 for the Nelson Piano Co., at the intersection of Manahan Avenue and Sixth Street in Muskegon Heights. Additional details of the firm’s organization were included in the November 27, 1919 issue of Automotive Industries:
Early on FitzJohn-Erwin specialized in the construction of truck cabs, bus and panel truck bodies for Lansing, Michigan’s REO which were made available through REO’s network of distributors. As were all early commercial bodies, FitzJohn-Erwins were shipped to the dealer, unassembled and crated, to save on shipping and storage costs. Automobile accessories such as battery boxes, etc. were also offered and very soon a line of ‘Fitz-Er’ bodies for Ford Model T and TT chassis were added to the mix. An advertisement in the July 15, 1920 Commercial Car Journal offered the ‘Fitz-Er truck cab’... ‘Built to a Standard’ and available in closed, semi-closed and open styles.
Lewis B. Erwin did not remain with FitzJohn-Erwin long and in 1921 his interests were acquired by the other partners, and the corporate name was changed. Erwin took a position as engineer with the C.W. Spooner Co. of Grand Rapids, later on working for his father at Consumer’s Power Co. His exit coincided with the re-branding of the firm’s bodies from ‘Fitz-Er’ to ‘FitzJohn’.
FitzJohn’s bus body line was explained in detail in the December 22, 1922 issue of Bus Transportation:
Unlike the firm’s ‘knocked-down’ truck and van bodies, FitzJohn’s complex Motor Coach bodies had to be fitted on the donor chassis at the FitzJohn plant by its own skilled mechanics, after which the completed coaches were delivered by rail, or drive-away to individual REO dealers across the country.
1923 advertising emphasized low prices and the company's devotion to standardization:
1923-1924 marked a number of changes for the firm, Thomas Edward Abbott was appointed production manager, the name was changed from Fitzjohn-Erwin Mfg. Co. to the Fitzjohn Mfg. Co., and they moved into a larger facility located on Central Avenue, adjacent to the main line of the Pere Marquette and Pennsylvania Railroad.
The acquisition of the plant was announced in the 1923 issue of the Automotive Manufacturer:
The new plant was outfitted to produce bodies for the new purpose-built REO Model W bus chassis and FitzJohn announced that completed bus bodies would be shipped to Lansing where they would be mounted by REO. Up until that time the firm had constructed mainly transit coaches designed for city service, but a new 22-passenger sedan-type parlor coach debuted for use on REO’s Model W chassis in 1924.
Studebaker commenced the production of a purpose-built 184” wheelbase bus chassis in 1925 and soon-after FitzJohn began supplying the South Bend, Indiana manufacturer with series-built coachwork in transit and intercity flavors.
The firm occasionally constructed bodies on chassis other than REO and Studebaker, and a least one Observation Coach body was constructed for a Republic Model 62 truck chassis in early 1928.
In 1927 FitzJohn constructed a special truck body for two local celebrities, Eva, ‘the human elephant’ and Topsy, ‘the wonder zebra.’ The two performers were the stars of Max Gruber’s, ‘Oddities of the Jungle’ a Muskegon-based circus side-show.
FitzJohn introduced a new line of buses in the late Twenties that were available in both pay-to-enter and intercity versions. Available in seating capacities of 12, 14, 17, 21, 25 and 29 passengers, the coaches were marketed under various names (Utility, Pay-Enter Grand and Observation) and alphabetic Model numbers (Models B, C, D,F, K and L).
The firm’s records start with the 1928 model year in which 271 bodies were constructed, with only 13 more bodies (284) being constructed during the following model year (1929).
Effective January 1, 1929, FitzJohn stopped selling bus bodies through chassis manufacturers and auto dealers and began selling directly to its customers, the January 19, 1929 issue of Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record reporting:
In 1929 a sales office was established in Detroit’s General Motors building (5th floor, suite 208) with Francis W. Feeney as its manager, and he spent many hours preparing press releases for the regional trades of which a few more examples follow. The first is from the October 22, 1929 issue of Michigan Manufacturers and Financial Record:
The next is from the December 14, 1929 issue of Michigan Manufacturers and Financial Record:
A third appeared in the 1930 Detroit Auto Show issue (January 18, 1930) of Michigan Manufacturers and Financial Record:
In 1930 FitzJohn introduced a 21-passenger short-haul bus body for the new 157” wheelbase Ford Model AA chassis that was featured in the automaker’s 1930 Truck Salesman's handbook. It was constructed of hardwood framework with metal bracing with an oiled duck roof, linoleum flooring and body panels made from sheet steel. Included were 3 dome lights, roof ventilators and a hot air heater for the passengers. The front door was folding and an emergency exit opened on the left side towards the rear. Shatterproof glass was a $112 option as was a $40 roof rack. Base price for the body was $1,750, f.o.b. Muskegon.
FitzJohn was hard hit by the Depression and like numerous firm engaged in the auto body business, its sales fell dramatically (by 40%) during 1930. 1931 proved even more disastrous and on June 8, 1931, the company entered receivership, the news being announced to the auto trade in the June 20, 1931 issue of Automotive News:
Although he little to do with the firm’s current problems, FitzJohn was made the scapegoat and during the subsequent reorganization he was forced out of the firm bearing his name. Thomas H. Hume, an original partner was elected president and treasurer and Muskegon local Francis W. Feeney was appointed plant manager, the January 1932 issue of Bus Transportation reporting:
Francis W. Feeney was born in Muskegon, Muskegon County, Michigan on June 20, 1905 to William F. and Mary (Schmidt) Feeney. William and Mary had met while working at the Amazon Knitting Co., which coincidentally was owned by two of FitzJohn’s incorporators, Thomas H. Hume and Walter C. Powell.
His parents later ran their own candy and soda shop at 144 Pine St. after which William took a position with the Muskegon Police Dept. where he attained the position of detective sergeant. Francis also had a younger brother, Kenneth J.(b.1907-d.1973) Feeney who became a physician.
Francis attended St. Mary's Catholic School in Muskegon, Michigan and in 1923 was given a position in the FitzJohn office by the firm’s vice-president (and family acquaintance) Thomas H. (Tim) Hume. He quickly rose up the corporate ladder being appointed purchasing agent in 1925, sales manager in 1929, general manager in 1932, and in 1935 - FitzJohn’s president.
He married Ann H. Anderson and to the blessed union was born two children, MaryAnn (m. DeWitt) and Patrick Feeney. After the passing of his first wife he remarried a widow, Mary M. Tyler, adopting her four children, Stan, Jack, Thomas and Penny (m. Stokey) Tyler.
Feeney spearheaded a 1933 redesign of the firm coaches which became much more streamlined and adopted a numeric system of identification. As before, the firm concentrated on small and medium-sized transit and intercity coaches although a handful of railway coaches (equipped with flanged wheels for use on rails) are also known to have been constructed.
The firm’s most popular coach was the 21-passenger Model 35 of which 198 were constructed between 1933 and 1939 in various iterations; 35A, 35B, 35C, 35X and 35Z. Model 35 advertising stressed its low price - $1,750 f.o.b. – and economy, stating;
Bodies were offered for Ford, Chevrolet and Diamond T chassis and FitzJohn prepared manufacturer-specific ads and brochures that were distributed to each marques distributors.
In 1934 FitzJohn moved into a new building located at 1221 East Keating Ave. at the southeast corner of E. Keating and Roberts Ave., a structure that would serve as their home for the next 25 years.
The new factory allowed the firm to take on larger orders and a line of new sedan-based airport limousines and shuttle buses debuted in 1934, the June 9, 1934 issue of the Ludington Daily News announced its debut:
Sedan-based coaches were becoming popular around the nation and numerous coachbuilders introduced similarly-constructed vehicles during the same period. Most ‘Stretchouts’, as FitzJohn called them, were constructed using frame extension manufactured by Stockbridge, Michigan’s W.G. Reeves.
Reeves had introduced frame extension for Ford Trucks during the late Twenties and starting in 1933 began offering similar extensions for Ford’s V-8 equipped Ford Model 40/46 commercial car chassis. Initially available in two lengths, 18" and 36", Reeves supplied their cut-frame extensions to all three of the firms known to have built professional cars on Ford's commercial car chassis; A.J. Miller, Siebert and the lesser-known Automobile Coach Co. of Kansas City, Missouri.
Soon afterward Reeves began to offer 48”, 54” and 72” extensions and developed a similar line for Chevrolet chassis in lengths from 18” to 72”, many of which made their to professional car builders (hearse, ambulance and airport bus) who specialized in Chevrolet conversions.
FitzJohn’s Chevrolet-based ‘stretch-out’ was marketed as the 'Model 100 Stretchout Master Sedan' and became quite popular with Midwest airlines and surface transportation operators who wanted a budget-priced vehicle capable of carrying 11-15 passengers over a short distance and a reported 776 ‘stretch-outs’ were constructed by the firm over the next decade.
FitzJohn’s full-sized buses became significantly more streamlined as the decade wore on, and the popular Model 35 series was joined by the Model 200 and 300 series which offered seating from 16 to 25 passengers in both transit and intercity editions. The coachwork of the firm’s first all-metal flat-front coach, the Model 250, was sheathed in duralumin and mounted on top of a White Model 706-M COE chassis. The attractive Model 250 intercity coach debuted in 1934 and was eventually replaced by the Model 325 which was constructed into 1940 on both White and Chevrolet COE chassis.
In the fall of 1936, Reo designed introduced their first rear-engined ‘pusher’ bus chassis for which FitzJohn constructed 25 all-metal transit bodies for use as demonstrators by the Lansing, Mich. manufacturer. Designated the Model 350, the attractive coaches were the first FitzJohn’s to feature an entrance ahead of the front axle.
FitzJohn acquired the services of Yellow Truck & Coach’s brilliant body engineer James J. St. Croix (b. Sep. 26, 1894-d. Jun. 1, 1966) at about the same time, and he spearheaded the firm’s move into manufacturing complete or ‘integral’ motor coaches. The Model 325 was discontinued in 1940 and replaced by two new integral St. Croix-designed intercity coaches, the Model 500 Duraliner and the Model 600 Falcon.
The 24-32 passenger Model 500 Duraliner was equipped with a Chevrolet or Hercules engine mounted over the front axle. The Model 600 Falcon was furnished with a Hercules or Waukesha engine mounted behind the front axle, a troublesome position that was eliminated with the debut of the Model 610 in 1940 whose engine resided above the front axle.
The US involvement in the European conflict brought about a pronounced reduction in the availability of raw materials and standard bus production was put on hiatus for the duration of the Second World War. Many of FitzJohn’s skilled mechanics entered the service and those that remained were kept busy constructing war worker coaches and trailer buses – the latter were constructed from disused auto-haulers in order to transport war workers to and from their jobs at regional defense plants. Both products were pictured in the June 1943 issue of Popular Science with the following caption:
The construction of the trailer buses was shared with the Superior Coach Corp. in Lima, Ohio and other mid-west coachbuilders and Fitzjohn completed one 62-unit batch of converted trailers during 1943. Superior and Fitzjohn were just two of the numerous firms that supplied the coaches to the Government and its estimated 3,000 trailers of all types were converted to buses during the War. Another picture of the firm’s auto carrier-based trailer buses appeared in the September 1942 issue of Popular Mechanics with the following caption:
The firm’s long experience in the construction of altered wheelbase Chevrolet sedans (Model 100 Stretchout) put it at an advantage when dealing with the War Production Board and the firm received a number of contracts from the Office of Defense Transportation during the War. Most were constructed using Chevrolet 5-passenger coaches, but one order of 100 Packard-based stretch-outs commenced production in 1942. Total producion of all series 100 strecth-outs was placed at 776 - which incldues the war worker coaches consturcted during hte War. According to George H. Dammann and James A. Wren:
Pictured to the right are a handful of pictures of FitzJohn president Francis W. Feeney explaining one of the Packard’s construction to Joseph B. Eastman, Director of the Office of Defense Transportation. They were captioned as follows:
When delivered to the US Army, FitzJohn’s Chevrolet -based stretch-out was known as the 4x2 US Army "BG1503" 6-cyl. 83 h.p. 3F1R Military conversion. After the donor sedan was cut in half, a set of 72” metal frame extensions were fitted between the two sections, to which was added a centrally mounted carrier bearing, cross braces and a lengthened driveshaft. The white ash center section framework was constructed in a large body-building jig after which it was inserted between the two halves of the bisected body. The center section was fitted with a single pair of doors on the passenger side after which the entire center section was sheathed with molded tempered Masonite panels and fitted with a pair of 3-passenger wood-framed bench seats mounted back-to back.
A restored FitzJohn Packard war worker coach currently resides in the collection of the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The vehicle was used to transport personnel from the train station in Lamy, New Mexico to the University of California's project office in Santa Fe for in-processing, and thence up to the project site in Los Alamos.
The demand for war worker coaches and trailer buses were fulfilled by late 1943 and the War Production Board allowed the firm to commence the manufacture of motor coaches in December of 1943. Production of the firm’s Duraliner and Falcon coaches, introduced just before the start of the War, commenced on a limited schedule into 1945 due to the lack of raw materials and personnel.
The 36-passenger Super Duraliner replaced the Falcon after the 1946 model year and the firm’s transit coaches were now offered in three sizes (27/29-pass., 33/35-pass and 37/39-pass.) and marketed under the Cityliner moniker. The 28-passenger Duraliner remained FitzJohn’s most popular model and between 1946 and 1952 499 examples were constructed – during the same period only 25 Super Duraliners were built and the model was discontinued in 1949.
At the end of the War General Motors couldn’t keep up with the demand for their highly-regarded diesel transit coaches to the benefit of the nation’s smaller bus manufacturers such as Fitzjohn who remained viable despite the fact the continued to offer only gasoline-powered motor coaches.
FitzJohn’s Toronto-based Canadian distributor, J.E. Fawkes, had enjoyed a brisk business both before and after the War and in 1949 it was decided to form a Canadian subsidiary which would manufacture Cityliner transit coaches for the Canadian market in Canada. A suitable facility was located at the Brantford, Ontario airport, the January 1950 edition of Bus Transportation reporting:
The Canadian subsidiary was successful at first but sales dropped off sharply after 1952 and only 197 vehicles had been constructed when the plant was shuttered late in the decade.
A rear-engined Cityliner debuted in 1950 which offered a choice of gasoline (FTG) or diesel (FTD) power for the first time. A commuter version that bridged the gap between a transit and intercity coach was also constructed which included high-backed seats and no center door.
At the end of the War FitzJohn had established a Mexico City office (Omnibus FitzJohn) which was joined by a Cuban sales office in Havana (Omnibus FitzJohn de Cuba) and by 1953 domestic sales were overshadowed by the firm’s exports, which were almost exclusively Duraliners.
Domestic orders continued to trickle in for Fitzjohn’s Cityliner and Duraliner coaches, but like their main competitors, C.D. Beck, ACF-Brill and Flxible, post war sales disappeared once it became known that new Diesel-equipped GM Silversides were available. GM was especially hard to compete against as many independent Trailways and Greyhound operators were required to buy from the General.
In 1954 FitzJohn scrapped its existing models and introduced the Roadrunner intercity coach. Available in gasoline (FIG) or diesel (FID) versions in 33- and 37-passenger versions both of which could be outfitted with air-conditioning and roof-mounted observation windows.
Although the Roadrunner was arguably the firm’s most attractive motor coach to date, it was virtually impossible to compete with General Motors, and most Roadrunners were shipped to Cuba and Mexico. The firm’s last order was to a Mexican operator who purchased 54 Cummins-equipped diesels, the last of which was delivered in May of 1958.
FitzJohn’s Brantford facility was converted over to the manufacture of Bluebird School buses in 1959 and arrangements were made to continue Roadrunner production in Mexico.
At the end the firm’s officers were much the same as they had been since the early 1930s;
“Pres. & Adv. Mgr. – Francis W. Feeney; V-P & Treas. – Thomas H. Hume; Secy. & Purch. Agt – Albert M. Port; Pers. Dir. - J.B. Capdarest; Supt. – G.W. Lindholm.
Francis W. Feeney remained in the bus business, moving to Bruges, Belgium where he oversaw the production of Silver Eagle Coaches for Trailways. He retired in 1966 and moved to Palm Springs, California, passing away on November 26, 2006 at the ripe old age of 101. His obituary appeared in the November 28, 2006 Sarasota Herald-Tribune:
During FitzJohn’s 38 years in business it constructed an estimated 5,300 vehicles. Approximately 40% were truck and bus bodies with the remainder being 2,621 complete buses and 838 sedan stretch-outs and trailer conversions. Its last plant, 1221 E. Keating Ave., remains standing at the southeast corner of Roberts Ave. and is currently the home of a number of small industrial firms, which include the Muskegon branch of Amstore Corp., a Grand Rapids-based manufacturer of store fixtures.
After being forced out of the firm bearing his name in 1931 FitzJohn’s founder, Harry A. FitzJohn, teamed up with Paul O. Dittmar in the design of a 12-15 passenger parlor coach for the Safe Way Lines, a small Chicago to New York operation based out of Harvey, Illinois. Ten examples of the Autocoach are known to have been constructed by REO for the Dittmar-controlled busline, but further manufacture of the Autocoach is undocumented.
(Another Dittmar-badged motorcoach, the DMX, was built in small numbers during the mid-thirties but FitzJohn was not involved in the project.)
The Autocoach project put FitzJohn back in touch with his old friends at REO and shortly thereafter the Lansing-based manufacturer announced a new bus division, the January 1933 edition of Automotive Industries reporting:
In 1936 FitzJohn took a position with General Motors Truck Co. as ‘sales engineer’ of its Yellow Coach division, The Metropolitan reporting:
In 1940, FitzJohn returned to bus manufacturing on a small scale, taking a position with the newly organized General American Aerocoach Co. of Chicago as Sales Manager. The firm was created after it parent, the General American Transportation Corp., a builder and lessor of railroad cars, purchased the bus manufacturing assets of Gar Wood Industries in 1939.
The firm constructed 29 and 33-passenger buses using its predecessor’s welded tube framework, and its early products were indistinguishable from the last Gar Wood motor coaches. An all-new larger coach debuted in 1940 and up until the end of production in 1943, the firm sold approximately 250 Aerocoaches of the Gar Wood type and 300 of the new larger type. When production resumed in 1944 only the larger type was offered and over the next six years, an additional 2,350 buses were built by the firm.
By 1952 it was virtually impossible to compete with General Motors, and most Aerocoaches constructed in it later years (1950-1952) were shipped to Mexico and South and Central America. An interesting sideline was the rebuilding of prewar Greyhound Yellow Coaches with diesel engines and new interiors in the postwar years, under contract to Greyhound. The firm withdrew from business at the end of 1952.
Harry A. FitzJohn remained in Chicago after his retirement, passing away on January 8, 1967 in Tinley Park, Illinois at the age of 77.
© 2013 Mark Theobald for Coachbuilt.com
The following chart was mostly created from information compiled by transport historian Albert E. Meier who published it in the March 1969 issue of Motor Coach Age: