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Memphis Coach Co.; Memphian
Memphis Coach Company, 1955-1961; Memphis, Tennessee
 
Associated Builders
Economy Coach Co.
     

Memphis Coach Co. (aka Memphian) was one of Memphis' "small 4 (Weller Bros., Barnette/Barnett, Comet/Pinner, and Economy/Memphis Coach)" professional car producers that flourished there in the 1940s-1960s.  Located at 2087 York Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee and owned by J.K. Barnett they're best known for their Memphian Edsel, Pontiac, and DeSoto long-wheelbase ambulances.

Sometime during 1955, J.B. Norfleet, a partner in Economy Coach - Memphis' predecessor - left the firm and the remaining partner, J.K. Barnett, reorganized the firm as Memphis Coach Co. re-hiring George Rugger as his sales manager. I have 2 different pictures of the same 1955 Pontiac combination car with commercial glass identified as an Economy Coach in one picture and as a Memphian (the name used by Memphis for their coaches) in the other.

Memphis inherited Economy's all-new 1955 styling which featured distinctive stamped stainless-steel upper door frames and flat commercial side glass. Ambulances were also available with an equally distinctive panoramic rear corner windows. The customer's choice of chassis seemed almost unlimited, with literature showing cars on chassis ranging from a Chevy 150 to Chrysler New Yorkers. Memphians were also built on Chevrolet, Ford, Mercury, Plymouth, and Pontiac chassis through 1961.

Memphis was one of the two coachbuilders known to have built Imperial professional cars in the late 1950's. National of Knightstown, Indiana, built a few and Memphis built at least one 1958 Imperial ambulance that ended up in metropolitan Chicago. It was prominently featured in the operator's Yellow Pages ad which stated the firm used "custom-built DeSoto and Imperial ambulances" exclusively. It was clearly not a National product and featured Memphis' signature roofline, stamped-steel door frames, commercial side glass and quad tunnel lights. A former employee recalled that Memphis also built a long-wheelbase Imperial limousine for a private northeastern girl's school sometime in 1958 or 1959.

Advertised by DeSoto and available through DeSoto dealers, the 1957-59 long-wheelbase Memphian-DeSoto professional cars were amongst the most distinctive coaches of their time. Most coaches were built from stretched (by 24" to a wheelbase of 150") Firedome, Fireflite and Firesweep 4-door sedans and not from stations wagons or Frankenstein-like marriages of 4-door and 2-door sedan parts as sometimes reported.

The leading edges of the rear doors were extended by 12" as were the quarter panels. Stamped-steel upper door frames were welded to the lower doors and Memphis' distinctive commercial glass windows installed beneath the Memphis-built metal roof. The distinctive rear license plate cavity was also cut out of the sedan's deck-lid and sectioned into the rear loading door.

Others have written that Chrysler-based short-wheelbase Memphians were built using station wagons, however a 1958 DeSoto factory price bulletin instructs dealers to order Firedome, Fireflite or Firesweep 4-door sedans with a special "heavy-duty 7 or 9 passenger package" if the vehicle is to be converted into a funeral vehicle or ambulance. The $50-100 package included heavy-duty torsions bars, heavy-duty rear springs, heavy-duty shock absorbers, a 70-amp battery, a 40-amp generator and vinyl trim. Careful examination of surviving coaches rear quarter panels and Chrysler data plates betray their 4-door sedan origins as well.

Of course there were a few exceptions; a couple of Memphis-built Dodge and Plymouth chassised coaches were built from 2 door sedans, but existing photos of Chrysler Corp.-based Memphians show the wheelbase and rear quarter panels of a 4-door sedan.  The roofs of Chrysler Corp.-chassised Memphian combination cars and ambulances were raised by 2", a feature that was noticeably absent on Memphis-built dedicated hearses. 

Two 1959 Memphian Dodge military ambulances have surfaced in recent years, and both were built from standard wheelbase 4-door sedans. Memphis deleted the left rear door opening, and the remaining stock right rear door was fitted with commercial-height stamped upper door frames and commercial glass. The difference in side glass length was made up in the rear sail panels. Surprisingly the military coaches were built without a partition, but included Memphis' signature raised roof. Ironically, those weren't the only '59 Dodge military ambulances built in Memphis, as Weller Brothers did a number of short wheelbase Dodge military ambulances as well.

The rarest Edsel of them all is the Memphian high-top ambulance, based on a standard-wheelbase Edsel Corsair 4-door coupe. I know of at least 2 1958 Edsel-Memphians that still exist, one is a 1958 Corsair driver that's a little rough but original and the second, another 1958 Corsair that's rusting away in a scrap yard. These Memphians are not to be confused with the standard (non-raised-roofed) Edsel Amblewagon station wagon conversions built by the Automotive Conversion Corp. of Birmingham, Michigan.

A standard-wheelbase 1961 Memphian Pontiac ambulance exists that was built using a Star Chief 4-door sedan. The last known coaches built by Memphis were also their most unusual. A small series of 1961 Pontiac-Memphian ambulances were built for the US Air Force that featured an extended wheelbase (at least 24") and an incredibly tall 48" high steel raised-roof assembly that was placed on top of standard-height Pontiac 4-door sedan doors. The windshield was stock as well, but Memphis incorporated some very unusual rear taillights that were definitely not sourced from Pontiac. The 24" stretch was accomplished using the standard Memphis method. The leading edges of the rear doors were extended by 12" as were the leading edges of the rear quarter panels.

Memphian faded out sometime in late 1961, but that wasn't the end of hearses and ambulances on York Avenue. A few years ago, in the course of a casual conversation that Bernie DeWinter had with a funeral car salesman, the salesman mentioned "Old Man Barnett." He told Bernie that back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he'd routinely pick up Barnett at the airport and drive him around looking for used coaches to sell back in Memphis.

On one of Barnett's buying trips, the salesman's air conditioning quit working. Barnett instructed him to pull into a nearby auto parts store. Barnett got out, went into the store and returned with a small part. He raised the hood of the salesman's car, exchanged the defective item, and when the car started, the A/C was working once again. Ironically, the salesman was unaware that Barnett was the former owner of the Memphis Coach Company.

We shouldn't be surprised that Mr. Barnett was an expert at air-conditioning, as Memphis' former York Avenue plant has been occupied by Barnett Mechanical, a water filtration, ice machine and restaurant equipment supplier since 1957. From 1957-1961, Barnett produced coaches and sold ice-making equipment simultaneously at 2087-2089 York Ave. Up until his retirement, J.K. Barnett kept his hand in the Memphis professional car business, selling used coaches to Memphis-area funeral homes.

Today, Barnett Mechanical is known as the Barnett Group and is run by J.K.'s son, Bruce Barnett. Based in Memphis with offices located in Nashville, TN; Jackson, MS; and Little Rock, AR; the firm supplies regional and international food service customers with a number of refrigerated and non-refrigerated products and services. Apparently the automotive bug still runs in the family as the younger Barnett offers late model import auto's and aircraft for purchase or lease.

There's currently a Sayers & Scovill and Superior dealer in Collierville, Tennessee that calls itself Memphis Coach but it's unrelated to the older firm.

2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com, with special thanks to Bernie DeWinter IV.

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References

www.barnettusa.com

The Professional Car (Quarterly Journal of the Professional Car Society)

Gregg D. Merksamer - Professional Cars: Ambulances, Funeral Cars and Flower Cars

Thomas A. McPherson - American Funeral Cars & Ambulances Since 1900

Walt McCall & Tom McPherson - Classic American Ambulances 1900-1979: Photo Archive

Walt McCall & Tom McPherson - Classic American Funeral Vehicles 1900-1980 Photo Archive

Walter M. P. McCall - The American Ambulance 1900-2002

Walter M.P. McCall - American Funeral Vehicles 1883-2003

   
 
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