The story of Ionia’s legendary station wagon bodies starts with the early career of its founder, Donald R. Mitchell. (1903-1972)
Mitchell was born on July 24, 1903 in Owosso, Michigan and his business career flourished from an early age. During the summer, Mitchell and longtime friend Thomas Dewey ran their own landscaping business which both partners abandoned following graduation. Mitchell got a job driving a truck for the Weatherproof Body Co. in nearby Corunna, Michigan and Tom (as in Thomas E. Dewey), went to college, attending the University of Michigan, and later Columbia University. After practicing law, Dewey gained some notoriety as Governor of New York State and as a 2-time Presidential candidate (defeated by FDR in 1944 & Truman in 1948).
At night Mitchell studied engineering at the General Motors Technical School in Flint and by 1921 had become a fully qualified body engineer as well as Weatherproof’s general sales manager.
Weatherproof Body Corp. had started life as the Detroit Weatherproof Body Corp. Located at 202 Saginaw St in Pontiac, Michigan, the firm gained much success in the middle teens as a manufacturer of completely closed tops for the Ford Model T. Immediately following are some of the firm's numerous advertising slogans used during the teens and twenties:
By 1918, they were manufacturing complete sedan replacement bodies, commercial bodies and truck cabs. In late 1919 they purchased the former Fox and Mason Furniture Co. plant in Corunna, Michigan and by 1921 had relocated their entire operation to Corunna, incorporating as the Weatherproof Body Corp. A 1924 directory lists Edwin C. Morine as the firm’s General Manager.
In early 1928 Weatherproof purchased the former Owosso, Michigan facility of the Field Body Co. and commenced production of sedan body sub-assemblies for the Ford Motor Co. Later that year Weatherproof was acquired by the Allied Motor Industries., a publicly traded automotive products holding company for $750,000.
The Field Body Co. was founded in 1918 by John Franklin Field as the Field Mfg Co. (Field Mfg Co. is unrelated to the gaming (poker chips) and pinball machine manufacturer of the same name that was active in the late 20s and early 30s.)
Originally from Ionia, Michigan, Field purchased the former Owosso Carriage & Sleigh Co. plant that was at the corner of S. Washington and W. Stewart St on the parcel of land occupied by the A.O. Smith Co. plant and Bentley Park today.
In 1886, J.A. Cooper established the Owosso Carriage Works at 209 Milwaukee Ave. in Owosso. The firm was reorganized as the Owosso Carriage Company in 1896 and following the failure of Owosso’s M.L. Stewart Bank in 1905, the heavily mortgaged firm was purchased by the Jackson Sleigh Co. of Jackson, Michigan. The firm was reorganized as the Owosso Carriage and Sleigh Co., and all sleigh production was moved from Jackson to Owosso.
An early 1900s advertisement listed A.M. Bentley, as President and J.A. Cooper, owner and boasted that the firm offered over 60 styles of carriages and 30 styles of sleighs and cutters. Annual production exceeded 10,000 vehicles which were produced by 125 craftsmen. Owosso Carriage and Sleigh Co. went out of business in the mid teens and was vacant until Field acquired it in 1918.
A siding of the Grand Trunk Railroad ran into the old carriage factory enabling knocked-down truck bodies to be loaded directly onto freight cars from inside the plant. Field’s mailing address was 201 Milwaukee St. and the firm’s board of directors included John Franklin Field, President; Edward J. Frederick, V.P. and Treasurer and Ann M. Cavanaugh Secretary.
Field and a handful of other light truck body manufacturers emerged in the late teens to take advantage of Ford Motor Co.’s decision to discontinue commercial body production in 1913. They offered a large number of bodies for the Model T including open and closed cabs, canopy express bodies, jitneys, and enclosed delivery van bodies.
Although some very early Ford trucks were sold with commercial bodies, for over ten years Ford gave away their truck body business to independent builders around the country and in 1923 decided to stop being so generous, and implemented a new fully equipped Ford Truck sales program starting with the 1924 model year.
Some of the 1924 Ford brand commercial bodies were built at Ford's Highland Park plant while others were outsourced from various suppliers who included Budd and Simplex Manufacturing. The first body made available was an all-steel express body, a canopy express body became available later in the year in three popular styles; totally open, screen-sided or with roll-up curtains.
The new Ford bodies were stocked by larger dealerships and could be ordered individually through regional Ford distributors by smaller dealers, who couldn't afford to keep them in inventory.
Following closely behind the express bodies was Ford's new enclosed cab, easily identified by its sloping windshield and half moon openings in the rear quarters. By the middle of 1924 Ford had 8 distinct fully equipped (cab, chassis & body) light trucks available across the nation. Within 5 years many of the small commercial builders started in the late teens found themselves out of business, while larger ones prospered, providing that they were official Ford body suppliers.
Much to the chagrin of John Franklin Field, his firm was not selected to supply commercial bodies to Ford Motor Co. and a 1926 newspaper announcement stated that the firm’s assets were sold to the Grand Rapids Trust Company for $121,000.
Ironically, after the Field plant was auctioned off in October of that year to a Grand Ledge, Michigan firm, it was leased by the Weatherproof Body Co. in order to build Model A sedan sub-assemblies for the Ford Motor Co. When Weatherproof failed in 1928, the former Owosso Carriage & Sleigh Co. building was leased to the Burwood Products Co., a Traverse City, Michigan firm known for its injection-molded composite wood and plastic (aka Burwood) picture frames and automotive trim. A December 1932 fire destroyed the old carriage factory whose land is occupied by the vacant Magnatek / A.O. Smith Corp. plant.
Following the demise of Field Body Co, John Field operated a machine shop and Studebaker distributorship in Owosso at 1100 W. Main St.
In 1928 Allied Motor Industries purchased the Henney Motor Co., a professional car builder in Freeport, Illinois as well as the Elgin Clock Co. of Elgin, Illinois. By 1930, Allied’s holdings included the following: American Aeronautical Corp.; American Cirrus Engines Co.; Great Lakes Aircraft Corp.; Henney Motor Corp.; Van Sicklen Corp. (a subsidiary formed to operate the Elgin Watch Co. plant); and the Weatherproof Body Corp. Van Sicklen even got into the automobile accessory business in 1929 when they purchased the rights to the Lorraine Controllable Driving Light, a popular spot light that was typically mounted on the cowl.
Weatherproof was one of many commercial body builders that built mail truck bodies for the US Post Office as evidenced by a July 16th 1930 article announcing a contract for 400 such bodies.
Unfortunately, the market price of Allied Motor Industries shares, feel dramatically following the crash of 1929 and the firm was in receivership by 1932. Most of the firm’s assets were either sold – Henney was sold back to the Henney family – or liquidated. Unfortunately, Weatherproof was in the latter category and two Corunna businessmen, Fred Ritter and Larry Gardner purchased the plant and started manufacturing radio cabinets as the Corunna Mfg Co.
Mitchell had little trouble finding a new job and went to work for the W.F. Stewart Co. of Flint, Michigan, another aftermarket body builder.
Originally from Ontario, Canada, William F. Stewart joined his brother in the Flint carriage-building firm of Stewart & Armstrong in 1868. He later established a second plant in Pontiac. Michigan and eventually took over the firm, incorporating it as the W.F Stewart Co. in 1898. Stewart supplied wholesale parts and subassemblies to many of the regions largest builders including the Durant Dort Carriage Co., the Flint Carriage Co, and the Patterson Co. William F. Stewart was one of Buick early investors and served on its board of directors. Stewart’s first automobile body plant was built on Buick's large Hamilton Farm in 1906, and it supplied all of the firm’s body work through 1908 when that plant was acquired by General Motors.
William F. Stewart died in 1911 and was succeeded by his son, S.S. Stewart, who had joined the firm in 1898. Into the twenties Stewart continued to produce carriage parts as well as phaeton and roadster bodies for Buick, Dort and Chevrolet. They also produced bodies for Durant Motors’ Flint automobile, but following General Motors’ acquisition of Fisher Body in 1926, and the demise of the Flint in 1927, orders slowly decreased and the firm turned to commercial and custom work and even manufactured an airplane in the late 20s and early 30s. The Depression severely curtailed the firm’s auto body business and all coach building activities ceased in 1935 although the firm survived on paper through 1939.
Mitchell was dissatisfied with his prospects at W. F. Stewart and ventured out on his own, forming Mitchell Engineering and the Don R. Mitchell Sales Co. in 1932.
Little is known of Mitchell Engineering’s accomplishments, however Mitchell Sales Co. would soon represent some of the area’s leading auto-related manufacturers. His clients included American Auto-Felt Corporation, Sobenite Corp., South Bend Wood Parts and West Coast Plywood.
Mitchell’s initial success was with South Bend Wood Parts, a mill located in South Bend Indiana that supplied wooden components and sub-assemblies to the transportation industry. During the mid-thirties he brokered deals between South Bend and Chevrolet (Commercial Body Division), Ford (Tri-Motor Aviation) Graham-Paige, Hayes Body Corp., Hudson and Packard.
Mitchell represented another South Bend firm - the Sobenite Plastics Co. Sobenite produced injection-molded components and plastic-coated plywood panels for the commercial body business and automotive industry, particularly their South Bend neighbor Studebaker.
Another Automotive-related client was the American Auto-Felt Corp. of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The firm produced cotton automotive interior padding into the early 1960s, branching out into domestic bedding in 1936.
Mitchell represented the West Coast Plywood Corp. of Aberdeen, Washington in the late thirties. Former Harbor Plywood Corp. President Bob Wuest and Vice-President of Manufacturing Art Welch formed the firm in 1936 after a bitter disagreement with Harbor’s board of directors. They manufactured water-resistant fir and hemlock plywood and components for use by refrigerator manufacturers such as Frigidaire, Kelvinator and Norge. Unbeknownst to many, the frames beneath porcelain-clad sheet-metal refrigerators were made entirely of wood as were most commercial chillers, ice-boxes and meat lockers.
Mitchell became involved with the Ypsilanti Reed Furniture Co. of Ionia in 1936 following the death of the firm’s President, Fred W. Green (1872-1936).
The firm originated in Detroit around 1900 and moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1901. Green, who was born in Manistee, Michigan and grew up in Cadillac, was a partner in the firm and was instrumental in relocating it to Ionia in 1904 to take advantage of prison labor furnished by the Michigan Reformatory. The firm constructed a new factory at 119 South Dexter St. in 1913 and added a second new structure in 1924.
Green was active in politics and served a 12-year term as Mayor of Ionia (1914-1926). He served as treasurer of the state’s Republican Party from 1915-1919 and served two terms as the Governor of Michigan from 1927-1930.
Green returned to private life in 1931 and spent his final years hunting, fishing and tending to the affair of his furniture company. He died in 1936 following a heart attack Green’s wife assumed control of the firm assisted by Fred A Chapman the firm’s Vice-President and founding partners. (1878-1938).
Ypsilanti is remembered today as the firm that mass-produced a line of steel tube-framed furniture designed by the great industrial designer, Donald Deskey. He was hired by Ypsilanti in 1928 to redesign their line of rattan furniture. He subsequently convinced them to introduce a line of tubular steel furniture which debuted as the Ypsilanti Flekrom line.
A 1930 ad for the company pointed out that Ypsilanti Reed had pioneered steel furniture in America, "and in less than two years has assumed outstanding leadership in style and quality in this singular furniture."
Ypsilanti owned a rattan processing plant in Singapore, manufacturing facilities in Ionia, Grand Rapids and Lyons, Michigan and showrooms in Manhattan and Chicago.
Although Don R. Mitchell was initially hired on as a consultant, things changed dramatically following the Oct. 20, 1938 suicide of Fred A Chapman (1878-1938). Chapman had been running the firm since the death of Green and had suffered from gastric ulcers for a number of years. At the time of his death, Chapman was a director of Ypsilanti Reed Furniture and the Ionia County National Bank. He had also served a five-year term as Ionia’s Mayor immediately following Fred W. Green’s victory in the gubernatorial election of 1926.
Mitchell introduced a line of maple-framed folding furniture and started to make wood and tubular metal components and sub assemblies for the region’s automakers.
During this time period, Mitchell organized a firm in nearby Owosso that was unrelated to Ypsilanti Reed Furniture Co. It was called Mitchell Plastics, and it specialized in injection molded knobs, trim, emblems and dashboard face-plates for the automotive industry.
Ypsilanti’s products included seating for cars, trucks & buses, and military truck bodies for various regional manufacturers plus wooden station wagon components and sub-assemblies for Ford Motor Co.’s Iron Mountain factory.
Business steadily improved and Ypsilanti’s prewar employment topped 2400 which included inmate labor supplied by Ionia’s Michigan Reformatory.
Ypsilanti made a handful of prototype wooden station wagon bodies for General Motors starting in 1938 and 1939. Don R. Mitchell’s son Bill believes that Ypsilanti produced only 15-20 wagons in total and recalled that all were finished in olive-drab, indicating they were destined for military production.
Despite published accounts to the contrary - GM factory records indicate that Ypsilanti built 327 (326) wooden station wagon bodies for Buick’s 1942 Model 49 Estate Wagon - Bill Mitchell believes that no further station wagon bodies were built for GM until after the end of World War II, although he does recall that the firm built a couple of olive-drab wagon bodies for Ford in 1941.
(Don R. Mitchell’s son Bill (William F. Mitchell) – unrelated to Bill Mitchell, GM’s chief of design - joined the company in 1947 following a wartime stint as a paratrooper in the US Army)
During the War Ypsilanti manufactured truck cabs, parachute boxes, canvas tents, truck canopies, and tubular metal seating for Willys, GM, Ford and Chrysler. Many Willys G-518 1-Ton Cargo Trailers built by Ypsilanti still exist and are highly valued by military collectors. Although 1-ton trailers were made by many firms, today they’re commonly known as Ben Hur trailers in honor of its most popular manufacturer, the Ben Hur Mfg. Co. of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Ypsilanti Reed Furniture Co. became the Ionia Mfg. Co., in 1942 and Mitchell emerged as the reorganized firm’s new president and chief stockholder. In just under 5 years, Mitchell increased the firm’s revenues from less than $1 million (1938) to over $6.5 million (1943).
During the war the Mitchell employed as many as 11,000 workers in his Ionia, Owosso and Lyons plants and was one of the 4,000 US businesses that gained the coveted Army - Navy "E" pennant for their wartime production excellence. They had a hard time filling new job openings and continued to utilize inmates from Ionia’s Michigan Reformatory right through the War.
Following the war, most of Ionia’s wartime contracts were cancelled and Mitchell scrambled to keep the firm’s plants and 4000 remaining employees busy. They introduced a line of all-metal folding chairs and landed a contract to produce wood and metal television cabinets for Admiral, Montgomery-Ward and Raytheon, producing over 100,000 TV cabinets through the early 50s.
Luckily one of Mitchell’s wartime contacts at General Motors was Charles F. “Boss” Kettering, who helped land Ionia a contract to produce 1946 station wagons bodies for Chevrolet (900) and Pontiac (2500). 554 bodies were built for Chevrolet in the early part of 1947 and from 1946 through 1948, Ionia built all of Pontiac’s station wagon bodies, 18,791 in all. Ionia did not have the additional capacity to build the 15,000+ wagons needed by Chevrolet for 1947 and 1948, so Fisher Body got that contract.
According to Bill Mitchell many of the firm’s wagons were not only built by Ionia, but designed in the firm’s body design and engineering department which was headed by Arthur Green. "Pontiac simply gave them a styling illustration and Ionia's own designers created the design from chassis specifications and a single side view of what the division wanted."
GM supplied the firm with the bare sheet metal floor pan, cowl and A-pillars to which Ionia affixed the wooden body framing, doors, roof and tailgate. Once the completed bodies were finish sanded and varnished they were taken on a freight elevator to the firm trim shop where the padded vinyl roofs were installed followed by the seats, dash, door hardware, side glass, seating, body electrics and finally the windshield.
Although Pontiac and Chevrolet turned to all-metal wagon bodies starting in 1949, Buick did not and Ionia got the contract to produce all 12,791 of their wagons from 1949-1953.
Although Ionia did not assemble the bodies for Ford’s 1946-1948 Sportsman convertible, they supplied all of the wooden components that Ford used to construct the body framing. The same components were used by Mercury for their limited production 1946-47 Sportsman convertibles.
Ionia supplied Nash with the ash-framed mahogany doors and panels that were used to produce the 1946-1948 Nash Ambassador Suburban. Another contract with Chrysler supplied them with Ionia-built components for the legendary 1946-48 Chrysler Town & Country sedan, club coupe, convertible, roadster and brougham.
Ionia’s huge kilns could accommodate two railcars loaded with racked hardwood, which was shipped directly from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula by the Reed Lumber Co. The South Bend Plywood Co. supplied them with exotic timbers and Philippine mahogany.
The Ford Paint & Chemical Co. of Grand Rapids supplied Ionia with all of the chemicals, sealers and varnish they needed for its station wagon bodies
By 1949, over 10,000 craftsmen were employed by the Ionia Mfg. Co., whose multiple factories were now scattered in and around Ionia County, Michigan.
In the early 50s Ionia Mfg. developed a replacement for the WWII Jeep prompted by a 1951 Department of Defense RFP (Request For Proposal) for a Multi-Utility Tactical Truck (MUTT) that was sent out to qualified contractors in the mid 50s. Two different prototypes were developed and they closely resembled the M151 Jeep that was eventually produced in 1960. Unfortunately, Ionia vehicles were not chosen for production and the M151 contracts went to Ford, Hupp and Willys. The M151 MUTT and its variants became the principal combat Jeep of the Vietnam era.
In 1953, Ionia Mfg Co. became a wholly-owned subsidiary of a new firm, the Mitchell-Bentley Corp. The Mitchell in Mitchell-Bentley was Ionia’s founder Don R. Mitchell, the Bentley was Calvin P. Bentley, the owner of the Owosso Mfg Co.
Owasso Mfg Co. was formed in 1893 by Alvin M. Bentley in Owosso, Michigan, a small town located 45 miles directly to the east of Ionia. Bentley was also the President of the Owosso Carriage Co. a firm which became the Owosso Carriage and Sleigh Co. in 1905.
Owosso Mfg. Co manufactured wooden rakes, shovels and tool handles. In 1889 it branched out into millwork, producing a line of wooden screen doors and windows. The popularity of their screens led to the establishment of a second plant in Benton, Arkansas in 1906. During the teens, Bentley acquired the Continental Screen Door Co. of Detroit and put his eldest son, Calvin P. Bentley, in charge.
Bentley’s youngest son, Alvin M. Bentley, Jr. was killed in France during the United States’ short involvement in World War I. Alvin Jr.’s son, Alvin M. Bentley III (1918-1969), was only 3 months old when his father died and was raised by his mother, Helen Webb Bentley. Following his graduation from the University of Michigan, Alvin M Bentley III became a US diplomat, serving in Mexico (1942-44), Colombia (1945-46), Hungary (1947-49), and Italy (1949-50) as vice consul and secretary in the US Foreign Service. Following a stint at the State Dept, he served as one of Michigan’s US Representatives from 1953 through 1961 and ran for the US Senate in 1960 but was defeated by Patrick V. MacNamara.
Owosso’s founder, Alvin M. Bentley, was a friend of William Crapo Durant and was a Buick investor and one of General Motor’s founders and shareholders. He served on GM’s board of directors for many years and was directly responsible for the $30,000 municipal grant that brought William Crapo Durant’s Reliance Motor Truck Co. to Owosso in 1908.
(Bentley returned $12,000 of the $30,000 grant when a November 11, 1911 tornado destroyed a large number of Owosso businesses.)
Durant placed Bentley in charge of the Reliance operation and within a few short months the Owosso plant was turning out heavy-duty Reliance trucks. The 2-ton chassis featured a 2-cylinder 2-cycle powerplant mated to a sliding gear transmission that delivered power to its chain-driven rear wheels.
During 1909, General Motors purchased both Reliant and another Durant-controlled truck manufacturer, the Rapid Motor Vehicle Co. of Pontiac, Michigan. A June, 1910 article in the Owosso newspaper announced that General Motors would be building a new truck plant in Owosso that would create 1000 jobs for the community. Unfortunately, GM’s board ousted Billy Durant a few weeks later and all plans for expansion were put on hold.
In July of 1911, General Motors organized the General Motors Truck Co. by February of 1912 trucks leaving the Owosso Reliance plant wore the new General Motors Truck Co. logo. During 1913 the Reliance plant in Owosso was closed and GM moved all of their truck operations to a new truck plant in Pontiac.
Located alongside the Michigan Central Railroad tracks at the intersection of Chipman St. and W. Main St, Owosso Mfg. Co. grew into one of the largest screen plants in the country. By the mid twenties, the firm was producing 1 million window screens, 450,000 screen doors and 180,000 snow shovels and consumed over 5 million linear feet of lumber per year.
Despite their success in other arenas, Owosso Mfg. Co.’s legacy is their “Humpty Dumpty” brand egg carriers they manufactured in the first half of the 20th Century. The wooden crates protected up to 12 dozen eggs during shipping and were used by egg-producers to transport their fragile contents from farm to market.
Owosso’s Benton, Arkansas plant produced a popular line of bedroom furniture through the early 1950s, when the plant was shut down following the merger with Ionia. Although egg carriers were built in the Owosso, Michigan plant the bedroom furniture was only built in Arkansas.
In 1914, Bentley donated 7 acres of land adjoining the Owosso Carriage & Sleigh Co. plant to the City of Owosso to be used as a Park. Although the carriage factory is long gone, Bentley Park remains popular today occupying the northeast corner of S. Shiawassee and W. Stewart Sts.
When Alvin M. Bentley passed away during the late 20s, his son, Calvin P. Bentley assumed control of Owosso Mfg. Co. Although many Owosso business’s failed during the Depression, Bentley’s large holdings of GM stock helped keep the firm afloat, and the firm remained profitable through the Second World War, when military contracts help reinvigorate the firm. However, advances in millwork led to greater competition in the screen door business and the future of the firm looked uncertain.
45 miles to the west, Don R. Mitchell’s Ionia Mfg. was booming.
Bentley had known Mitchell since his early days as a salesman for the Weatherproof Body Co. In fact, Weatherproof Body Co. purchased the building that had once been home to one of his father’s businesses, the Owosso Carriage and Sleigh Co. (Weatherproof purchased the building when the Field Body Co. failed in 1928. Weatherproof produced sedan body sub-assemblies there from 1928 through 1931.
Calvin P. Bentley knew Mitchell was looking for additional manufacturing space, and approached him with a proposition that he couldn’t refuse. In simple terms, Bentley offered Mitchell a huge increase in production capacity in exchange for a minority share in a new holding company which would be called the Mitchell-Bentley Corp.
In 1953, Ionia Mfg. Co. became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mitchell-Bentley and Don R Mitchell became its president. Bentley became a director of Ionia Mfg., and was elected chairman of the board of Mitchell-Bentley. A number of Bentley family members owned shares in the new enterprise, but Mitchell, as the firm’s major stockholder, controlled the show. In reality the Bentleys had little to do with the day-to-day affairs of the firm and when Calvin P. Bentley passed away in 1964, Mitchell dropped the Bentley name, reorganizing the firm as the Mitchell Corp.
Alvin M. Bentley III retired from politics in the early 60s and was appointed to Michigan’s Board of Regents by Governor Romney. He was also vice-president of the Lake Huron Broadcasting Co., a Saginaw, Michigan firm which owned and operated radio and television stations in Michigan, Texas and Florida. Following a short illness, Bentley died unexpectedly while vacationing in Tucson, Arizona in 1969. He was only 50 years old.
Following the 1953 merger, the sheet-metal presses in Mitchell-Bentley’s Owosso, Michigan plant began stamping out automotive trim, seats, door panels and interior subassemblies for the regions auto manufacturers.
The bodies for Kaiser’s limited-edition 1951-53 Golden Dragon sported gold-plated trim and faux bamboo-vinyl roofs supplied by Ionia. The Golden Dragon was a limited edition version of the Kaiser DeLuxe whose special trim was designed by color and trim specialist Carleton Spencer.
Despite reports to the contrary, Mitchell-Bentley did not build any bodies for the 1951-53 Nash-Healey sportscar. Of the 506 produced, 104 were bodied in England by Panelcraft, and the remaining 401 were built by Pinin Farina in Italy using chassis supplied by Nash in Kenosha, Wisconsin. However, they did furnish the vehicle's fiberglass hoods and decklids and the vehicles were painted and trimmed at the Ionia factory.
Don R. Mitchell of Ionia Manufacturing/Mitchell-Bentley was a silent partner in Creative and owned 50% of the stock. Terry was a close friend of Mitchell’s and their two firms often collaborated on projects including the 1954 Packard Grey Wolf II/Panther showcars, the first Packards to employ a wrap-around windshield.
Designed by Dick Teague using a 3/8 scale model, the Panther’s one-piece fiberglass roadster bodies were fabricated by Creative Industries then shipped to Ionia for trimming and final assembly. Four Panthers were created for the 1954 show circuit and following their retirement, one was presented to Don R. Mitchell and the other to Rex A. Terry.
Those two cars were returned to Creative who cut out the rear lights on both cars, exchanging them for 1955 Packard Patrician ‘Cathedral’-style units. Replacing the tail lights necessitated re-sculpting the rear-end and quarter panels, which were adorned with new gold-plated V's, one on Terry's car and three on Mitchell's.
Leon Dixon explains:
Terry’s car was repainted an iridescent pearl over black and included gold-plated script reading 'Creative Panther' at the leading edge of the rear quarters. Mitchell’s car was painted black and fitted with a one-piece removable black hardtop roof with gold-plated script that read 'Mitchell Panther'.
Ionia also built the trim and interior for the 1954 Dodge Granada, which according to the March 1954 issue of Popular Science was the “…first car ever built on conventional chassis with a one-piece, all-plastic body, Granada even has bumpers, structural body members and body-attaching brackets of glass fibers. Car is 211″ long.” The Granada's fiberglass body was built by Creative Industries of Detroit, Michigan another Mitchell-related enterprise - he owned 50% of the firm's stock at the time.
Ionia also built 1300 1954 Dodge Sierra 4-door station wagons by stretching the wheelbase of the standard 2-door Sierra Wagon from 114” to 119” and splicing in a revised b-pillar and a second pair of doors. The downward swept trim from the 2-door wagon’s rear quarters was transferred to the new rear doors making a very attractive vehicle – especially considering it was cobbled together. Ionia is credited with building the first production bucket seats for a light truck. 8,000 buckets were supplied to Chrysler for use in their 1954 Dodge and Fargo light trucks.
Ionia furnished Studebaker with seats for Commander V-8 Starliner hardtops, Land Cruiser Sedans and Conestoga station wagons. They also furnished the gold-plated trim fro the 1957-57 Studebaker Golden Hawk. Nash was also a customer at the time, and the 1954 Airflyte included seat cushions, armrest and sun visors built by Ionia.
1954’s most important contract was the construction of bodies for Buick’s new all-steel Estate Wagon. Ionia had been building Buick’s wagons since 1949 and were rewarded for their hard work when the Buick contract was renewed. From 1954 through 1964, Ionia manufactured all 139,344 station wagon bodies sold by GM’s Buick division. Ionia supplied Oldsmobile with station wagon bodies beginning in 1957, producing 143,696 station wagon bodies through 1964.
A huge February 11th, 1955 fire destroyed the 4-story former Owosso Mfg. plant on Chipman St, and Mitchell-Bentley estimated the loss at $2.5 million. Luckily the building was fully insured, and a modern 180,000 facility was built adjacent to the ruins. A portion of the new plant was completed in time to build the bodies for the new 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II, the “first-ever passenger automobile bodies to be produced in Owosso” according to an Oct., 1955 article in the Owosso Argus-Press. Mitchell-Bentley built 2,500 Mark II bodies during 1956, and 444 during 1957, its final year of production Priced at $9,700, the Mark II was the most expensive American car of 1956. Ford reportedly lost at least $1,000 on each one.
Ford Motor Co. was a sporadic customer of Ionia’s into the 50s. When Ford shut down wagon production at its Iron Mountain mill in 1950, Ionia was selected to produce their station wagon bodies from 1951-1952. Ford’s new all-steel station wagon debuted in 1953 and production returned to a Ford Motor Co. assembly plant in Dearborn. Ionia also supplied Mercury with station wagons during 1951-1952 and once again from 1955-1957 when 83,335 bodies were supplied to the automaker. Ionia Mfg. built fiberglass hardtops for the 1955-57 Ford Thunderbird and Mitchell-Bentley’s Owosso plant supplied trim for Ford’s ill-fated Edsel division during the 1959 model year.
Following the death of Calvin P. Bentley in 1964, the Ionia Mfg. plant was sold to the A.O Smith Corp. and Mitchell-Bentley was reorganized as the Mitchell Corp. and all operations were consolidated to the firm’s Chipman St. plant in Owosso. Following the retirement of Don R. Mitchell, his son, William F. assumed control of the firm which continued to specialize in stamped-metal body panels, seating, door panels, carpeting, trim and air bags for Detroit’s automakers.
Prior to 1979, Mitchell Corp. produced bucket seats for General Motors and from 1981 through the mid 1990s manufactured buckets for Chrysler Corp.'s and passenger vehicles, minivans and light trucks. Mitchell Corp. also manufactured airbags for Saturn, Breed and TRW starting in the early 1990s, and furnished various interior items for Nissan and Mazda's US assembly plants.
In 1996, Mitchell created a leather-processing subsidiary called the Mitchell Mfg. Group, Inc. which was sold on April 22, 1998 to a group of investors called the Lamont Group. Lamont then changed its name to Mitchell Mfg. Group, a Lamont Group Company and the Owosso subsidiary was renamed Mitchell Automotive, Inc. Things did not go well for the Lamont Group and it closed down Mitchell Automotive in 1999.
The Mitchell Corp. repossessed the factory and put it up for sale. The original asking price for the 20 acre site was $3.7 million and it remained on the market until December of 2002 when it was purchased by Tuscarora Inc. of Chesaning, MI for $2.2 million. Tuscarora was subsequently reorganized as SCA Packaging North America and continues to operate out of the former Mitchell Corp. plant although it no longer manufacturers automotive components.
During the 1990s William F. Mitchell kept a private auto museum at Mitchell Corp.’s Owosso headquarters that was filled with examples of projects that the firm had worked on such as a Kaiser Golden Dragon, the Packard Balboa-X, a Packard Panther and two Packard Caribbeans - one originally owned by Perry Como, the other by Bob Hope.
Mitchell actively collected celebrity-owned vehicles for his museum, which at one time included a 1940 Buick Series 40 Estate Wagon owned by Bette Davis, a 1948 Chrysler Town & Country Convertible originally owned by Robert Taylor, a 1949 Buick Estate Wagon owned by Milton Berle and a 1949 Roadmaster Station Wagon owned by cartoonist Al Capp.
Other Ionia-built vehicles in the Mitchell collection included a 1943 Willys M-100 trailer, an early 1960s Jeep M-151 MUTT, 2 1956 Continental Mk IIs, a 1950 Glasspar, a 1953 Nash Healey, a 1963 Corvette and a lightweight 1964 Buick Wildcat built using a fiberglass hood, trunk and fenders.
In 1953 A.O. Smith began to explore the emerging fiberglass industry with Dow Chemical, forming the Dow-Smith Glass Fiber Division in 1959 (the forerunner of today’s Smith Fiberglass Products). Initial products included fiberglass pipe and fittings for niche applications as well as FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic) automobile bodies.
Ionia Mfg had also assembled bodies for the 1960-1964 Corvettes using fiberglass subassemblies produced by the Molded Fibreglass Co. of Ashtabula, Ohio. Dow-Smith had also been supplying fiberglass subassemblies for the Corvette since 1957, and following their parent company’s purchase of the Ionia Mfg Co in 1964, production and assembly of the C2 body was continued at the Ionia plant. From 1964-1967, A.O. Smith supplied 50% of the bodies used by Chevrolet at their St Louis Corvette assembly plant.
Partially-completed bodies - they were painted and included all of the moldings above the beltline, however the interior remained empty – were shipped by rail to St Louis, Missouri for final assembly. A.O. Smith’s Ionia facility also supplied a portion of the C3’s bodywork through 1981 when all Corvette production was consolidated at the new Bowling Green, Kentucky assembly plant.
Although A.O. Smith’s Ionia plant is best remembered as the producer of the 1964-1966 Corvette, they built or modified a number of prototypes and specialty vehicles at that facility into early 1970.
Dow-Smith were known for their expertise in FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic) bodywork, and in late 1963 Pontiac commissioned them to build the XP-833, a corvette-influenced fiberglass-bodied roadster that would later become known as the very first Pontiac Banshee show car. John Z. DeLorean wanted to produce the car, but GM brass nixed the project, fearing it would hurt sales of the Corvette.
Another project was two fiberglass AMX prototypes built for American Motors following the positive public reaction to the 1966 Vignale-produced AMX showcar. The 2 cars were unique in that they used unitized steel underbody mated to a fiberglass shell, but they never saw production as AMC decided to produce the AMX utilizing thee all-steel Javelin body.
When Shelby American lost the lease for their factory near the Los Angeles International Airport, production was relocated to the A.O. Smith plant in Ionia. Specially optioned 1968 Mustangs (Shelby add-ons replaced stock Ford parts, so the cars were shipped without them) from Ford’s Metuchen, New Jersey factory were shipped by rail to Ionia where they were transformed into Shelby Mustangs using injection-molded fiberglass parts built by A.O Smith’s Dow-Smith division. A.O. Smith also produced the parts used in the California Special conversion. Production ended in late 1969 (1970 model year) following the cancellation of the Shelby Mustang program.
A similar operation converted Cougar XR-7s into XR7Gs. Stock 1968 Cougars were shipped by rail from Mercury’s Dearborn, Michigan assembly plant to A.O. Smith in Ionia where the unique XR7G badges and body parts were fitted. Many XR7Gs were ordered with sunroofs, which required a rail journey to Detroit, Michigan were the American Sunroof Corp. (ASC) fitted the Bosch-sourced sunroof assemblies. XR7G Cougars were only produced during the 1968 model year.
A.O. Smith produced fiberglass and sheet-molded composites in the Ionia facility which was eventually acquired by General Tire (now GenCorp). Today, GenCorp's Heavy Truck Business Group in Ionia, Michigan, is a part of the company's Reinforced Plastics Division and has been a leading supplier of sheet molded composite products for 40 years. The products are used in an array of applications for passenger vehicles, light and heavy trucks and include hood assemblies, fender extensions, side shields and engine covers. GenCorp (formerly General Tire) is a technology based company with strong positions in aerospace/defense, automotive and polymer product markets.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com with special thanks to Leon Dixon