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 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn, New York in October of 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, Leon Rubay introduced Hibbard to Ralph Roberts, a young friend of Rubay's who was keenly interested in the construction of automobile bodies. Hibbard was assigned the task of giving the teenager a thorough tour of the Rubay plant.
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 A. “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 A. “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 (1875-1939) 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 a house across the street from his own Jefferson Avenue mansion. Dietrich resigned from LeBaron, and sold his shares to Ralph Roberts.
With both founders gone, LeBaron should have foundered. It didn't. Captain d'Annunzio, concessionaire for Isotta-Fraschini, immediately ordered a few bodies-and, as Roberts puts it, "things went well." When Dietrich moved to Detroit, Werner Gubitz resigned and went work for his former employer at Dietrich Inc. as chief illustrator and designer. In 1927, the talented Gubitz became chief designer at Packard.
Hugo Pfau graduated from high school in June of 1925 and joined LeBaron as a full-time employee. For the next few years most of LeBaron’s designs came from the drawing boards of R.L. Stickney, however some of those duties were eventually assumed by Pfau.
At this point, the Bridgeport plant was turning out close to 200 bodies a year, many of which were series-built town cars and limousines built for the Lincoln, Packard and Pierce-Arrow factory branches in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. A small number of bodies were built for individual customers, and a handful of factory prototypes were constructed for Lincoln, Packard, Pierce-Arrow and Stutz. Due to a limited capacity, some designs weren’t built in the Bridgeport plant and had to be placed with outside builders.
Paul Ostruk continued to be a good customer and had LeBaron “ghost” bodies for his Minerva dealership that carried a body plate that read “Body by Ostruk”. Similar arrangements also existed between Fleetwood, Demarest, and Locke. The New York based distributors for Hispano-Suiza, Rolls-Royce, Isotta-Fraschini and Mercedes-Benz continued to be good customers and even a few individual bodies were built for the Springfield Rolls-Royce.
Walter O. Briggs started making secret negotiations with Ralph Roberts in 1926 to move LeBaron to Detroit. The primary purpose of the takeover was to secure the LeBaron name as well as its talented designers, which would help Briggs attract more customers for their series-built custom bodies. Briggs was not only Detroit's largest independent body producer, it was also the richest, and Brigg’s generous offer was too good to pass up. All three LeBaron partners agreed, and the merger was publicly announced near the end of 1926 and took place in early 1927.
For the first year, Roberts commuted between Detroit and New York, but eventually moved full time to Detroit. A new studio was set up on the 4th and 5th floors of Briggs' Mack Avenue plant, called the LeBaron Studios, manned by Roberts and his staff of hand-picked designers. Roberts continued to work on the LeBaron series customs but also did work for Briggs production body division from time to time. He’s credited with the design of the Briggs’-built 1928-29 Ford Model A Fordor Sedan bodies. Apparently a Lincoln LeBaron sedan attracted the eye of Henry Ford who showed it to Walter O. Briggs proclaiming "Walter, there's our new Fordor sedan". The car was in dealer's showrooms in a remarkable six months and is easily distinguishable from Murray-built 1928-1929 4-door Model A's by its resemblance to the redesigned 1930 Model A four doors. LeBaron is also credited with the designs of all of the Briggs-built open bodies for the Ford Model A.
The influx of Briggs’ money helped move the Bridgeport plant to larger quarters at the former Robert Bosch Manufacturing Co. plant in Bridgeport. Now that they were rich, Hinman and Seward retired, and Ray Birge, who had previously worked for Buffalo, New York’s, American Body Co. was hired to run the plant.
LeBaron’s New York office was also moved to more prestigious quarters at 724 Fifth Ave. where Hugo Pfau and Roland Stickney worked under Roberts designing bespoke bodies for local distributors and production bodies for Briggs customers. Pfau recalled that they even did some design work for Long Island’s Fairchild Aviation.
An interesting item can be found in the February 26, 1927 issue of Automotive News. Apparently Walter O. Briggs wanted to buy out his prime rival, Murray, and the paper ran a story that stated a Briggs/Murray merger was "being considered." Henry Ford reasoned the merger of his two largest body suppliers would not be in his best interests, so a week later, a large Automotive News headline proclaimed "Briggs Mfg. Co. Not To Merge With Murray Corp. of America."
It was during this time that LeBaron’s most famous design signature, the LeBaron Sweep, began to attract some attention. Its main characteristic was a raised, pennant-shaped panel on top of the hood and cowl that was typically painted a contrasting color. It first appeared at the 1922-23 New York Salon on the Isotta-Fraschini that featured the immoveable convertible top and was later included on a few Lincoln bodies built in 1923 and 1924.
The original pennant shaped panel look awkward next to Minerva and Packard radiators so a more pointed, spear-shaped panel was introduced which started out much more narrow at the radiator then gradually widened as it ran back along the top of the hood until it was seven or eight inches wide at the back of the hood. Once on the cowl, it widened more rapidly but still in a graceful curve, and ended just ahead of the lower corners of the windshield posts where it would run into the forward edge of the side molding.
Starting in 1925-26, the sweep no longer stopped at the windshield but continued along the side of the cowl and swept down just behind and parallel to the side-mounted spares. It first appeared on a Minerva Sport Sedan but because of the fact it was partially hidden on cars with side-mounts, it usually only appeared on cars with rear-mounted spares.
The third and final iteration of the LeBaron sweep first appeared in 1927-28. The downward-sweeping forward thrusting panel was moved rearward to the center of the front doors so that the side-mounted spare tires wouldn’t interfere with it. It was first used on some Packard bodies but gained wide recognition when it was included on the first LeBaron-bodied Model J Duesenberg that deputed at the 1928-29 Auto Salons. Initial versions featured an actual raised panel, but later LeBaron swept panels were simply molded into the hood, cowl and door panels. The true LeBaron Sweep panel disappeared once Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg and Fleetwood started using it on their standard production bodies.
The December 1928 Issue of Autobody described the Duesenberg Phaeton mentioned above as well as the famous Lincoln Aero-Phaeton, a Stutz Roadster-Phaeton, Stutz Town Brougham, a Lincoln Town Car and 3 Packards that would all be seen at the upcoming Salons.”
The one-off Lincoln Aero-Phaeton described above was built to reflect Ford's commitment to the aircraft industry. After exhibit at the 1928-29 New York and Paris Salons, it toured the country, stopping in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, where it was finally purchased by the owner of a Washington State flying service. The car's fenders and body panels were finished in polished aluminum and the cars padded leather interior flowed over the tops of the body, just as that of an open-cockpit aircraft. The boat-tailed body even featured dash-mounted altimeter and compass and a non-functional tail-mounted rudder. The un-restored, all-original car still exists, and is owned by Stan Lucas, a Long Beach, California collector.
For many years, LeBaron supplied Grover C. Parvis, the head of Packard New York’s custom body department, with both town car and limousine bodies, and he was not always happy with the results. Birge made it a point to visit Parvis on a regular basis to ensure that LeBaron’s quality improved. He promised Parvis that he would bring up the level of quality in our bodies to a standard at least as good as Rollston's, which produced the finest (and most expensive) bodies at the time. Unfortunately for LeBaron/Briggs, Birge succeeded so well that he was recruited by Horace W. Potter to work at Packard's Custom Body Department in Detroit, a division he later headed.
Fortunately, Briggs had just bought the Phillips Custom Body Co., and Edwin P. Carter, their manager, capably assumed Birge’s former position. When the Eastern LeBaron operation was closed down in 1930, Carter moved to Detroit and took over the LeBaron-Detroit plant for Briggs, which he ran until the start of WWII.
Early jobs built at the Meldrum Ave. plant included sedan limousines and town car bodies for Stutz as well as small series for Chrysler, Packard and Hudson. Starting in 1928, convertible roadsters were built for Lincoln and a large contract was negotiated with Stutz where LeBaron-Detroit built all of their production bodies. However, Stutz wanted to paint and upholster the bodies in their Indianapolis plant, so they were supplied with bodies-in the-white, or primed bodies without paint or upholstery. Several hundred convertible sedans were also built for Pierce-Arrow “in the white”. With the exception of the two Waterhouse phaetons built for Col. Prentiss, all Marmon Sixteen bodies were built by LeBaron-Detroit, although they were designed by Walter Dorwin Teague Jr. and not LeBaron.
The October 1929 Issue of Autobody described the LeBaron Panel Brougham that was exhibited at that Fall’s Paris Salon:
The following issue of Autobody described the vehicles that would be shown at the upcoming American Salon:
The Depression put an end to LeBaron's activities in New York City. Briggs closed down the Fifth Ave. office at the end of October, 1930, and the Bridgeport, Connecticut body plant two months later. The last bodies built in Bridgeport were a series of convertible roadsters that were used by both Packard and Pierce-Arrow. As they were typically ordered in batches of 25, a number of unfinished bodies were shipped to Detroit to be completed when the plant closed down.
Roland L. Stickney decided to remain in New York and went to work for industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss. The terms of his contract with Dreyfuss allowed him to do some moonlighting for Judkins, Rollston and Brewster and he continued producing automotive designs up until WWII. Stickney gave art lessons as well, and one of his students was George Hildebrand, a talented illustrator who later worked for Rollston, industrial designer Helen Dryden and General Motors. Hugo Pfau was given a job in Detroit with Brigg’s sales organization, but moved back to New York in the early thirties and went to work for a Long Island Ford dealer.
The November, 1930 issue of Autobody described the cars that would appear on the LeBaron-Detroit stand at the upcoming Auto Salons.
The Packard and Pierce-Arrow bodies were built on speculation rather than against firm factory orders. Packard and Pierce-Arrow would supply LeBaron with a chassis for a series of bodies, then LeBaron would be paid as each individual car was sold. The plan ultimately benefited both firms, Pierce-Arrow and Packard would get flashy cars into their showroom to help sell their regular models, and LeBaron stayed in business.
John Tjaarda (von Sterkenburg), was recruited from GM’s Art & Colour in 1932 to assist Roberts, and was put in charge of Briggs’ Body Design and Engineering Department. Both Roberts and Tjaarda served similar functions, although Roberts concentrated on series customs while Tjaarda worked on standard production bodies. The major difference is that Roberts’ designs usually ended up with a LeBaron body tag, while Tjaarda’s work remained anonymous, save for the highly publicized Briggs Dream Car that appeared at the 1933-34 Century of Progress exhibit in Chicago that was based on Tjaarda’s earlier von Sterkenburg rear-engined prototype.
Beginning in 1932, Ralph Roberts spent a good deal of time in England, helping set up Briggs Ltd. in Dagenham, who became Ford’s primary body supplier. Apparently Roberts spent a good deal of time in Dagenham, right up until the start of WWII, commuting back and forth 3 or four times a year. During his long absences, Tjaarda was put in charge of the combined studios which over the next decade produced numerous production designs for Ford, Lincoln, Chrysler, Hudson, Stutz, Graham-Paige, Plymouth and Packard. During that time, some of country’s most talented designers worked under Roberts and Tjaarda. They include: Philip O. Wright (‘34-‘39), Alexander Sarantos Tremulis (‘37-‘38 + ‘40-‘41), Holden (Bob) Koto (‘33-‘39), Hugh Galt, Joe Thompson, Fred Walthers, Matthew Schumr Sr., Jack Morgan, William Flajole, Walt Wengren, Rhys Miller, Jack Wilson, Howard Bonbright, Clarence Karstadt and Albert W. Prance. Prance later assumed Tjaarda’s duties as Briggs chief designer in 1941.
According to Hugo Pfau: "One of Prance's ideas was to develop a steel station wagon body, but with exposed wooden trim. It was no longer a functional part of the body structure, and Prance and his associates developed methods of bonding the wood to the steel panels so that relatively thin sections could be used. This led to the Chrysler Town & Country of 1946 and the Packard Station Sedan of 1948."
LeBaron-Detroit, as the Meldrum Ave plant was called, supplied untrimmed "bodies-in-white" to Stutz, Marmon and Pierce-Arrow as well as the many series customs turned out for Chrysler, Hudson, Packard and Lincoln. The Stutz bodies were finished at the former Hale-Kilburn factory in Indianapolis where the rest of Stutz's bodies were painted and trimmed.
In 1934 the former LeBaron Inc. plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut was put back to use by Clarence W. Seward and James H. Hinman. The former owners of the Bridgeport Body Co. re-opened their original Bridgeport firm to build wooden station wagon bodies. Although factory “woodies” were available on Ford and a handful of other chassis, if you wanted a wagon on a luxury chassis such as Packard or Cadillac you had to have it custom made by a small firm like Bridgeport. When more factory-built wagons became available in the late thirties, Seward and Hinman lost many of their customers and closed for good in 1938. Clarence W. Seward suffered a stroke in 1939 and passed away soon afterwards.
LeBaron designers were responsible for the design of the aerodynamic 1933 Ford V8 and the influences of various Briggs’ and LeBaron designers can be seen in a number of vehicles they designed later on.
The engineering work of John Tjaarda is evident in the monocoque designs of the 1934 Chrysler and DeSoto Airflow. The basic bridge-truss structure of the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr was taken directly from his Century of Progress design that debuted in 1933. Holden “Bob” Koto facelifted the 1935 Ford to become the 1936 model and assisted Ford designer E.T. “Bob” Gregorie in the design of the Zephyr front end. The work of Philip O. Wright can be seen in the streamlined Packard LeBaron’s of 1934-35, the 1935 Ford and the 1935 Chrysler and DeSoto Airstream. Alex Tremulis is credited with the aerodynamic Thunderbolt retractable hardtop convertible of 1940 and Ralph Roberts handled the design of its sister showcar, the Newport parade phaeton. Six examples of each idea car were built and taken around the country to introduce Chrysler’s all-new 1941 line-up.
Ironically, Ray Dietrich joined Chrysler Corp.'s Art & Colour staff in 1932 and worked indirectly with Briggs and LeBaron on Chrysler Corp. styling projects through 1940.
The clay model was used extensively under Roberts’ and Tjaarda’s tenure at Briggs. They became a major ingredient of Briggs’ successful styling presentations to Ford, Packard, Plymouth, DeSoto, Dodge, Chrysler, Hudson, Studebaker, British Ford, Graham, and Franklin. Additionally, if they placed their body orders with Briggs, auto manufacturers would get the use of Briggs/LeBaron’s designer’s and body engineers at no additional cost.
Briggs's main customers - Ford, Chrysler, Packard and Hudson - had each set up small design departments of their own, so they weren't so dependent on Briggs for new ideas. As a result, there were inevitable cutbacks in the Briggs/LeBaron styling staff in the years leading up to World War II. During the same period, the LeBaron name and division became less important for the firm, although it remained a division of Briggs right up until the Chrysler buy-out.
When Walter O. Briggs died in 1952, his family decided to sell their 19% controlling share of the firm, and Chrysler Corporation, Briggs’ largest customer made an offer to purchase the entire operation, lock, stock and barrel for $35 million. The sale took place on December, 29, 1953, and Chrysler assumed control of all of eleven Briggs plants. The plant that had been building all of Packard’s bodies was eventually sold to Packard to avoid any conflict of interest.
The LeBaron name would reappear on a number of specially equipped Imperials from 1958 through 1973. It became a distinct model in the Chrysler lineup starting in 1977. The K-Car based LeBaron debuted in 1982 and the model continued to be offered in a variety of configurations, convertible, front wheel drive or rear wheel drive until 1995. The name became the property of Daimler-Chrysler following Daimler-Benz’ takeover of Chrysler in 1998, but so far hasn’t been used by the German automaker.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com