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A.J. Miller Co.
A.J. Miller Company, 1853-1956; Bellefontaine, Ohio
 
Associated Builders
Miller-Meteor
     

The A.J. Miller Company first began the manufacture of horse carriages in 1853; the company went on to manufacture its first wagon for the dead in 1870 or 1871. Production of carriages, wagons and other horse-drawn vehicles continued along with the occasional hearse into the 20th century.

Miller also had a small branch factory in Muncie, Indiana that was established in the 1860s. It was sold in 1878 to two former employees, William Kinsley and William H. Knapp, who subsequently moved the firm to Iola, Kansas in and renamed it the Iola Carriage Works in 1882.

The firm's founder and president, A.J. Miller, was also the president of the city's Bellefontaine Automobile Company. The Bellefontaine was a low production luxury automobile also produced from 1908-1916.

In 1914 Maurice Wolfe, owner of Piqua, Ohio's Meteor Car Company, made a deal with Miller to supply Meteor with professional car bodies with Wolfe furnishing Meteor chassis in return. The first Miller-bodied Meteor was sold in 1915 and the arrangement continued until 1917 when Miller decided to manufacture a complete professional car on their own assembled chassis.

The all-new 1917 Miller coaches had 52hp Continental six-cylinder engines mounted in their own long wheelbase assembled chassis. The carved-sided eight-column hearses were available with removable panels that covered large plate-glass windows between the 2nd and 3rd column. The 1917 Miller coaches were easily identified by their small coach lamps and distinctive vertical oval windows which were both located just behind the driver and right front passenger doors.  In addition to their own complete coaches, Miller also supplied bodies that could be mounted on any chassis the customer desired. 

By 1922, Miller was building on the sturdy Studebaker Big-Six chassis, the less expensive Dodge commercial chassis, or on their own 55hp or 75hp Continental-equipped assembled chassis. In addition to their traditional 8 and 12-column glass and carved-panel hearses, Miller offered a stylish 7-passenger sedan-ambulance on a shorter 126" wheelbase Studebaker Six. 

For 1923 Miller offered a stylish landau limousine which featured 3 identical side-windows and a faux landau bar at the rear. Also available were the shorter-wheelbase side-loading sedan-ambulance introduced last year as well as their conservative 8 and 12-column carved-panel and glass-sided funeral coaches.

Landau bars were becoming popular by 1924 and A.J. Miller introduced a limousine-style ambulance with a landau bar-equipped padded top on a Studebaker Big Six chassis. Disc wheels were standard on all models including the slow-selling columned and carved funeral cars.

In 1925 and 1926 A.J. Miller offered coaches on a choice of manufacturer's chassis which included their standard Studebaker chassis or a new extra-long 60hp Nash Advanced-Six chassis. Miller ambulances included a sink with running water, a rear compartment heater, medical storage cabinets, folding attendant seats, and a collapsible Bomgardner gurney that latched firmly to the coaches' interior.  Miller also offered a few parlor-car buses on Studebaker chassis in the same year.

Miller was one of the first coach builders to invest in metal-panel stamping equipment, and their 1927 coaches featured stamped-metal window ways and a stylish rear-end previously unobtainable except through hours of hand labor. Buyers could have their stamped-metal Miller coach mounted on either a Packard (6-cyl for $3350 - 8-cyl for $4400) or Nash (Special Six for $2250 - Advanced Six for $2500) chassis depending on their budget limitations. Their new ash-framed stamped metal bodies were easily adapted to created either leather-backed funeral coaches, sedan-ambulances or windowless service cars.

For reasons unknown, during 1927 the Miller Company invested in a huge amusement park located in Texas that was located on Lake Worth, a man-made lake that was built to provide Dallas and Fort Worth area residents with a public beach and bathing facility.

Casino Park (also known as Lake Worth Amusement Park) was built by Dallas entrepreneurs, E.A. Albaugh and French Wilgus. Along with Miller, the pair sunk over a $1 million into the playground, hoping to make Casino Park the largest amusement park in Texas as well as the Southwestern United States. The huge park consisted of rides, a midway, a boardwalk, bathhouse and swimming area, and a huge ballroom and casino attempting to attract newly-rich oil magnates and cattle barons from the surrounding area. 

Casino Park is best-remembered for "The Thriller", a mile-long roller coaster that was the largest in the southwest with three trains carrying 24 passengers apiece that flew along a wooden framework with drops measuring from 14 to 72 feet. The Thriller was one of only three roller coasters in the entire country at that time which was equipped with safety wheels that rolled between both an under and overhead track that made a derailment virtually impossible.

Like many amusement parks, it went into decline during the depression and was closed before WWII although the main ballroom remained standing until 1973.

For 1930 and 1931 Miller continued to offer a full line of coaches albeit with slight reduced prices and a new budget-priced line built on inexpensive Nash chassis. Aerodynamic swept front-fender styling was offered by Cadillac and Packard which were Miller's preferred chassis this year. When a Packard 626 commercial chassis arrived at Miller, it already included a two-piece drive shaft and a 31" extension and required almost no extra work from Miller. Even with Gordon spare tire covers, prices ranged from $2000 for a Miller-Nash Mt. Vernon funeral car to $4600 for a top of the line Miller-Packard Chief funeral coach which was billed as the "Boss of the Road". Bernie DeWinter reports that Miller also built a single Cord L-29 ambulance sometime prior to 1932, one of only five L-29-based professional cars known to have been built.

In 1932 Miller redesigned their coaches to reflect the auto industry's fascination with streamlining. The top of their metal-stamped bodies followed a graceful arc from their sloped windshield all the way to the bulbous rear end. Leather-backed landau roofs, popular just two years earlier, had been supplanted by new metal-back painted roofs. Some 1933 coaches included V-shaped windshields and beaver-tail rear ends. Miller favored skirted-fender General Motors chassis but also mounted some coaches on Cadillac, LaSalle, Packard, Pierce-Arrow and REO chassis. A low-priced Benjamin Franklin line appeared in 1933 and could be mounted on Chevrolet, Dodge, Nash or Ford passenger car chassis.

In Wagner's Ford Trucks since 1905, he theorizes that Miller and others used the then-popular W.G. Reeves frame extension kits when extending a Ford chassis. It's certainly a possibility as Miller's low production couldn't justify the expense of building their own frame, especially when Reeves kits were already available. Reeves made extensions for Ford Model A, AA, B, BB commercial chassis as well as model 40 and 46 passenger car chassis. The commercial extensions were available in a number of popular sizes and the model 40/46 passenger frame extensions were available in both 24" and 36".

As Miller mad their own hinged A-pillars, the suicide front doors of the 1933 Ford passenger cars were not used on the 1933-34 Miller-Ford professional cars in the Benjamin Franklin line.

1934 saw the introduction of A.J. Miller's Art Model hearse, a vehicle very similar to some earlier examples made by Eureka. The beaver-tailed Art Model was available in either limousine or town car style and featured a long arched-column starting just behind the driver's door that extended to the top of the casket compartment and swept back down to the back of the coaches' rear fender. Two vertical columns supported the center portion of the arch and either windows or carved drapery panels were placed between the columns. Although the columns and carved drapery inserts looked like intricate wooden carvings, the were actually stamped steel or aluminum panels. The panels were generally body-colored although many had contrasting columns and carved panel highlights. Miller even sold one all-white Art Model children's hearse on a 1934 Willys chassis.  Other Art-Model equipped chassis included Packard, Pierce-Arrow, Cadillac, LaSalle, Buick, Nash, Hudson, and at least one Dodge in addition to the Willys.

The rest of the 1934 Miller line shared the same basic framework as the Art Models but they used Miller's limousine-style side window stampings in place of the art-carved sheet-metal. Service cars used a slightly longer and taller body that was probably assembled using leftover panels from the early 1930s.

Miller's Art Models proved to be very popular in the revitalized mid-Thirties professional car market. 1935 mailings showed a large variety of Miller coaches mounted on different chassis that included Chrysler, Ford, Packard and Pontiac. Early Art Models hearses were rear-loading but Miller offered a side-loading edition in 1936.  Three distinct styles of bodies were used by Miller this year. The first resembled a windowless panel delivery and included a large embossed stamped side, usually without side doors, and was used exclusively for service cars and municipal ambulances and hearses. The second type was dedicated side-loader and featured a very high beltline that made its already low rooftop seem even lower. It was new this year and included incredibly wide center doors and fastback rear-end styling. The third type was used for both the Art Models and for Miller's regular limousine-style rear-loading hearses and ambulances and was introduced in 1934. 

In 1936 Miller replaced wooden sills and floorboard structure with modern stamped-metal pieces, taking their coaches one step closer to 100% steel construction. Art-Model hearses were now available as side-loading coaches with either windows or faux-carved panels mounted inside of the exposed stamped-metal columns. Even though the majority of Miller's bodies were steel, they continued to use fabric tops up until 1940. Chassis favored by Miller in 1936 included Chevrolet, Chrysler, Ford, Hudson and Packard. Optional equipment included spotlights, fog lights, emergency lights, sirens, fender skirts, and frosted, etched, or stained-glass side and rear quarter-windows. 

1937 Millers looked unchanged from the previous year, although they built more Buick, LaSalle and Cadillac coaches than ever before due to the availability of GM's commercial chassis that was designed with the professional car industry in mind. A.J. Miller built a fleet of sightseeing coaches for the famous Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The massive 8-door coaches featured a roll-back canvas roof and were built on a drastically-lengthened Series 75 chassis. One of these coaches was on exhibit at Bill Harrah's Reno, Nevada automobile museum in the 1970s, however it is not listed in the current inventory of the National Automobile Museum and was probably auctioned off when Harrah died in 1978.

Miller had almost completed the move to GM commercial chassis by 1938 although their catalogs still showed a number of Chrysler-chassised coaches. The Art Model introduced way back in 1934 still remained popular and was finally available with optional side-servicing doors cleverly disguised by the stamped-steel side carvings. Chrysler-based Millers were most often service cars and ambulances and were built using stretched Dodge and Plymouth sedan delivery bodies.

A smart-looking flower car appeared in the 1939 A.J. Miller catalog with a business coupe-like top that flowed gracefully into the rear coachwork which included a folded convertible top fashioned out of aluminum that was mounted at the rear of the flower box. Small auxiliary doors appeared just behind the driver's door and could be used to load chairs or embalming supplies under the flower deck when the vehicle was used as a first-call or service car. Miller also offered an attractive triple-arched carved-panel hearse called the Miller Cathedral hearse. Embossed aluminum panels replicated gothic stained-glass windows typically found in churches and funeral chapels.

1940 was a big year for A.J. Miller. The most important event was the introduction of their new "Torpedo"-arched steel body frame that featured modern forward-sloping C-pillars and rear quarter-windows. When combined with the stamped-steel body-sill and floorboard assembly introduced in 1936, the welded-steel bodies were guaranteed to be free from squeaks and included thick insulation that made the Torpedo body free from drum and rumble. Millers were generally mounted on Cadillac, LaSalle and Oldsmobile chassis although a few early Forties Miller-Chryslers ar known to have been built. Ambulances could be ordered with roof-top emergency light pods as well as rear compartment heaters and air-conditioning units. Miller also introduced a new Landau-style hearse that included a padded-top and chrome-plated landau bar that blended gracefully with their new all-steel Torpedo body. The popular "Cathedral" and "Carved" hearses were now built using the Torpedo framework and and could be mounted on either a Cadillac, LaSalle or Oldsmobile chassis.  Also new was Miller's graveside jukebox, the "Miller Music Master". A compact record player/amplifier installed under the right-side instrument panel, it included two remote speakers placed under the hood that could provide music for graveside ceremonies.

Only available on Cadillac chassis until after WWII, Miller's mechanical air-conditioning system was custom-built for them by "one of America's oldest commercial air-conditioning manufacturers" and took up a large portion of the equipment cabinet that separated the driver from the rear compartment.  Early AC systems lacked a compressor clutch and could only be controlled with the blower speed switch.  The horsepower-sapping pump was on whenever the engine was running and the only way to turn it off was to remove the compressor's drive belt. The system was prohibitively expensive, and very few ambulances were AC-equipped.  Post-war systems were cheaper and more advanced, with automatic temperature control and integral AC compressor clutches included.

Quite unfairly, LaSalle had acquired the reputation of being a "cheap" Cadillac and was eliminated by GM just as Cadillac released their new Bill Mitchell-designed models in 1941. The new Cadillac was decidedly forward-looking, side-mounted spares had been eliminated and the new Hydra-Matic automatic transmission was available for the first time having been pioneered by Oldsmobile in the previous year. The prow-nosed look seen in the Thirties was gone, replaced by massive front-end highlighted by the now-famous eggcrate grille.  Headlamps were now mounted in, rather than on top of, the front fenders. Equipped with a Cord-like coffin-nose hood the new Cadillacs were noticeably different from their predecessors and set the standard for American luxury during the 1940s.

1941 Miller-Cadillacs were mounted on the new Cadillac Series 62 and 75 chassis whose styling complemented the streamlined body Miller introduced in 1940. Miller offered price-conscious customers an Oldsmobile-based lineup powered by a 6 or 8-cylinder engine. Bodies were identical to those found on Miller-Cadillacs, but were furnished with less-expensive materials. Miller's limousine style hearses and ambulances were available on either Cadillac or Oldsmobile chassis. The stunning Art-Carved and gothic Cathedral carved-panel hearses  shared the same body framework as the limousine-style coaches and could be ordered on either chassis as well . The only models reserved for Cadillac chassis were the A.J. Miller flower cars which looked very attractive especially when its optional tonneau covered the aluminum flower deck. All 1941 Miller coaches could be ordered with GM's new Hydra-Matic automatic transmission, but thrifty funeral directors and ambulance operators were slow to warm up to the expensive convenience.

1941-42 Oldsmobile front-ends were just as ugly as the preceding year's were so it comes as no surprise that A.J. Miller's Cadillac-chassised coaches were far more popular and Miller's 1942 flower cars featured a new look. The 5-window coupe's rear quarter-windows were now blanked-in and covered by a landau bar. The base of the roof flowed straight back to the rear of the flower box which still had a fake folded-convertible roof. The rear doors were left intact and could be used to load chairs or other graveside necessities. Access to the casket compartment was through the tailgate which had built-in casket rollers that matched those on the compartment floor. The stainless steel steps of the "stair-step flower tray" could be collapsed to form one long stainless flower bed. A large tonneau was included to cover the bed when not in use and hydraulic stair step operation was an extra-cost option.

Miller abandoned professional vehicle production for the war's duration and concentrated on sub-contracts from Curtiss-Wright as well as general government contracts for aluminum boat hulls and sheet-aluminum fabrication. They also built a small number of aerodynamic 1-ton 2-wheel travel trailers for the US Signal Corps that served as mobile communications centers. Miller had invested a large amount of money during the war for new heavy-duty metal stamping equipment and when it ended, they discovered that re-tooling their old circa 1940 dies was cost prohibitive. Consequently new Miller bodies appeared during 1946 that were noticeably more modern than that of their competitors. Some of the best-looking Miller coaches date from 1946-1948. When Cadillac introduced new commercial chassis in 1949, Miller re-designed the bodies once again with less than satisfactory results. Post-war A.J. Miller coaches were distributed in Canada by Dominion Manufacturers Ltd, a old Toronto-based firm who manufactured caskets and other funeral supplies. 

Cadillac chassis were now utilized exclusively and due to shortages of materials and a pent-up demand for new vehicles 1946-1947 proved to be a sellers market. A typical 1946 Miller-Cadillac hearse was priced a full $2,000 more than a similar coach cost in 1941. Actual prices could go rise even higher as all post-war Miller's were sold subject to price at the time of delivery. 

All post-war Miller coaches included rear fender skirts plus optional automatic transmission and air-conditioning. Hearses were available as either dedicated rear-loaders or as 3-way side and rear-servicing coaches with a manual or electrically-operated casket table. Ambulances could be ordered with built-in roof-top warning lights, a choice of sirens plus a long list of emergency medical equipment.  1947 Prices started at just over $5,000 and could easily top $7,000 when fully-equipped. 1948 models remained retained the features of the previous year with the only change being the Cadillac chassis number which was now the Cadillac Series 76 commercial cowl and chassis.

Cadillac's new commercial chassis was available beginning 1949, one year after the introduction of their famous P-38 Lightning-influenced rear fenders.

General Motors stopped building Pontiac sedan deliveries at the end of the 1953 model year and small professional car builders who used Pontiac chassis were forced to switch to the much more expensive Pontiac station wagons. The additional costs involved eventually forced a number of them out of business.

In 1954, Wayne Works of Richmond, Indiana - a large school bus producer - purchased the firm and on March 19, 1956 Wayne announced the acquisition of another professional car maker, the A.J. Miller Company located in Bellefontaine, Ohio, which traced its roots back to 1853. Under this new conglomerate, the company would now be called Miller-Meteor. Manufacturing operations were consolidated at the Meteor plant at 125 Clark Avenue in Piqua.

Miller-Meteor Built exclusively on the Cadillac commercial chassis and the first Miller-Meteor coaches debuted in 1957. The new firm was a success and in a few years had captured 50% of the professional car market.

The 1973 EMS Systems Act* had virtually eliminated all passenger car-based ambulance production by 1977 and Miller-Meteor only built  21 ambulances during the year. Only four were built  in 1978 and by 1979 Miller-Meteor was reduced to a single line of professional vehicles - hearses. With sales down and prospects dim, The company announced the end of operations on November 1, 1979. There would be no 1980 Miller-Meteor products. The company laid-off 252 employees and terminated the contracts of their 34 North American distributors. The rights to the Miller-Meteor name were sold to Collins Industries, Inc who resurrected it 1984 for use on a new series of funeral coaches and limousines.  In 1993, a competitor, CCE, Inc., purchased the Miller-Meteor name and moved production to their Norwalk, Ohio, facility. In 1999 Superior Holdings, a PNC Company, purchased the name and moved the firm to their Lima, Ohio facility were they continued to market hearses under the Miller-Meteor into the late 2000s.

A totally unrelated firm, the Meteor Motor Car Co. (aka Caserta Professional Vehicles/Car Sales of Piqua, Ohio) resurrected the Meteor brand name and either produced or re-badged new coaches and limousines on Cadillac chassis in the early 1990s). As of this writing, Caserta is apparently no longer in business.

*(The 1973 EMS Systems Act - passed in 1974, implemented four years later in 1978 - required that communities receiving federal funds for their programs had ambulances that met new federal specifications. Three chassis styles meet the criteria and are still in use today: Type I uses a small truck body with a modular compartment, Type II has a van body with a raised roof and Type III has van chassis with a modular compartment. Passenger-based vehicles were purposely excluded from legislation and the last American-made automobile-based ambulance was built in 1978. However a handful of automobile-based ambulances are still made in Europe using Mercedes E-Class and Volvo S-60/S-80 chassis.)

2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com

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Pictures
   
 
   
 
References

The Professional Car, Issue #72, Second Quarter 1994

George Hamlin - 1937 A.J. Miller-Packard V-12 Hearse - Packard Cormorant" #113 Winter 2003

Walt McCall - Return To Piqua: The Miller-Meteor Reunion - The Professional Car - Issue #113, Third Quarter 2004

Thomas A. McPherson - Miller-Meteor: The Complete History

Ron Van Gelderen & Matt Larson - LaSalle: Cadillac's Companion Car

Walter M.P. McCall - 80 Years of Cadillac LaSalle

George H. Dammann - Illustrated History of Ford

George H Dammann - 90 Years of Ford

James K. Wagner - Ford Trucks since 1905

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

Carriage Museum of America - Horse-Drawn Funeral Vehicles: 19th Century Funerals

Carriage Museum of America -  Horse Drawn - Military, Civilian, Veterinary - Ambulances

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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Pictures Continued

1941 AJ Miller Body Framework

1941 AJ Miller Cathedral Hearse Interior

1942 Cadilllac AJ Miller Cathedral Hearse

1942 Oldsmobile AJ Miller Carved Hearse

1946 Cadillac AJ Miller Combination Coach

1946 Cadillac AJ Miller Landau Hearse

1946 Cadillac AJ Miller Ambulance

1955 Cadillac AJ Miller Flower Car

1955 Cadillac AJ Miller Landau Hearse

1955 Cadillac AJ Miller Ambulance

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