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Montpelier Mfg. Co.
Turnbull Motor Truck and Wagon Co., 1920-1921; Montpelier Manufacturing Company, 1921-1965; Montpelier, Ohio
Associated Builders
 Turnbull & Shelly; Turnbull Wheel Co., 1873-1882; Turnbull Wagon Works, 1882-1917; Turnbull Motor Truck and Wagon Co., 1917-1930; Defiance, Ohio

The roots of the Montpelier Manufacturing Company of Montpelier, Ohio can be traced back to Turnbull & Shelly, a firm founded by David B. Turnbull and S. P. Shelly, in Napoleon, Ohio in 1873 to manufacture wagons wheels and gear. Turnbull had had earlier success in the wheel business, in 1870 he had founded LaPorte Wheel Company, in LaPorte, Indiana. His eldest son, Frederick A. Turnbull became associated with the company and in 1876, they relocated from Napoleon to the town of Defiance, Ohio. 

The 1877 Defiance directory lists Turnbull & Shelly under wagon material manufacturers with a factory located at the northeast corner of Summit and Lincoln Sts. The factory was located on the banks of the Maumee River, giving them a steady supply of local timber which was easily felled upstream then rafted to the factory where it was turned into wagons and wagon wheels. 

By 1880 the business, now known as Turnbull Wheel Company, was the largest employer in Defiance and had annual sales of $500,000, producing an average of twenty wagons and one thousand wheels per day. All three Turnbull children were now in the family business, Frederick A., serving as treasurer, David H., plant superintendent and William, the youngest, the firm’s chief designer and engineer. 

Coincidentally, Defiance, Ohio was also the home of the Defiance Machine Works, a manufacturer of wheelwright machinery that eventually dominated the wagon, buggy, and carriage machinery market. In the late 1800s the firm manufactured spoke lathes, hub turning machines, hub equalizers, rim and fellow bending machines and felloe polishers. 

The two firms cooperated on the development of new products, and a large portion of the Turnbull’s success was due to their association with the Machine Works. 

According to the 1887 State of Ohio report, the Turnbull Wagon Works employed 190 hands, although company histories state the number was twice that amount. Regardless, the firm’s wagon became increasingly popular and by the turn of the century Turnbull was producing 10,000 vehicles per year which were distributed through a nationwide dealer network. 

On Tuesday, March 25, 1913, Defiance’s Maumee River overflowed it banks, seriously damaging most of the town’s businesses, especially the Wagon Works which was located along its banks. The firm did not have any flood insurance and took well over a year to return to full production. 

By the mid-teens it became apparent to Turnbull’s management that the motorized truck was here to stay and they entered into a partnership with the Defiance Motor Truck Company, a local manufacturer of assembled one to three ton trucks, many of which were used for motorizing existing fire apparatus. The reorganized firm was called the Turnbull Motor Truck and Wagon Co., their products, Defiance Motor Trucks and Turnbull Wheels and Wagons. In 1919, Defiance purchased the Turnbull factory to meet expanding demand for their trucks and wagon production was brought to an end in Defiance. 

However, thirty miles away, the small city of Montpelier, Ohio was looking for a tenant for a new factory that had been built in early 1920 to house the William A. Waggoner Talking Machine Company of Fort Wayne, Indiana. 

Waggoner had originally planned on building a plant in New Haven, Indiana, however it was scrapped after the Montpelier Chamber of Commerce enticed Waggoner to relocate to their town by donating 10 acres of land for the factory. Stock was sold to Montpelier businesses and the building was financed through local banks and businessmen. Despite the firm’s claims to the contrary, the Waggoner Talking Machine Company was just another early 20s stock scam and Montpelier’s citizens were stuck with the factory which was already under construction when the truth came out. 

The vacant factory was ideally suited for body building as it included outbuildings for storing lumber, a kiln for drying it and a Wabash Railroad siding located nearby. When it became apparent that no phonographs would be built in Montpelier, the structure was leased to the principals of the Turnbull Wagon Co., who had decided to re-establish the firm in Montpelier. Unfortunately 1920 was not a good time to be entering/re-entering the wheel and wagon business and Turnbull was forced into receivership. 

Word of the Turnbull’s misfortunes reached a Cleveland-based engineer named Harry A Schwartz (1896-1982), who was very familiar with Turnbull as he had recently done some work for the Defiance Machine Works. A group of local and regional investors headed by Schwartz proposed using the plant to manufacture custom and series-built commercial bodes for the region’s numerous small businesses, truck manufacturers and trucking companies. 

In addition to being new and purpose built for the task, the Montpelier plant was also ideally located as it lay smack in the middle of the burgeoning automotive industry, which was centered in Southern Michigan and Northern Ohio and Indiana. 

Although some very early Ford trucks were sold with commercial bodies, Ford discontinued the program in 1913; leaving the field wide open for enterprising commercial body builders through 1924 when the first factory-built Ford Model T pick-ups were introduced. Many of Montpelier’s early bodies were placed on Model T and TT chassis. 

They soon introduced a popular line of sleeper-equipped truck cabs for medium duty truck tractors and began modifying existing cabs for mid-west trucking companies. Despite their advertising claims to the contrary, Montpelier didn’t invent the sleeper - a few years previously a sleeper-equipped 1917 Packard was used by Goodyear on their Wingfoot Express cross-country run/promotion of April 1917. 

As did most other commercial body builders at the time, Montpelier built invalid coaches, police vans, ambulances and funeral coaches. At the 1927 National Funeral Director's Convention, they displayed a $2,000 funeral limousine on a long-wheelbase Pierce-Arrow chassis and the following year displayed a tri-colored Cadillac funeral coach at the same event. 

Their sleeper cabs eventually brought the firm much attention and regional manufacturers, such as Studebaker, began to offer their sleepers as a factory option. 

Montpelier’s next innovation was the side-aisle delivery body which offered its drivers a curb-level entrance and choice of a standing or seated driving position. Although it appeared similar to the DIVCO-built route delivery trucks, the construction was radically different. DIVCO and others (eg. Step-N-Drive, Stan-Drive) used a separate body that was mated to a purpose-built drop-frame chassis. 

Montpelier’s truck were built from standard light truck chassis whose center section had been removed and replaced by a stressed load-bearing platform with an integral floor, creating a semi-monocoque integral body and chassis. 

Although Montpelier’s could be ordered with a number of different chassis, most were built using Chevrolet donors, and were very popular in the mid-west. The side-aisles were marketed through dealer mailings and ads in The Milk Dealer, The Commercial Car Journal and Chevrolet’s dealer-only Silver Book. 

Although the side-aisle delivery was innovative, it was very expensive to produce as the majority of the vehicle and its integrated body/chassis had to be fabricated by hand add when completed had to be competitively priced with its main competitor, DIVCO. Consequently, Harry A. Schwartz needed a more profitable and easier to produce product to sell. His next money-making scheme was outlined in a June, 1938 Chrysler Corporation/Dodge Truck Division news release: 

“A new cab-over-engine for Dodge one and a half and two-ton chassis was announced in Detroit this week. The cab-over-engine is being built by the Montpelier Manufacturing Company. 

“Featuring maximum accessibility, increased loading space and streamline appearance, these trucks are available in wheelbase length as follows; One and a half-ton line, 108,133, and 159 inches; two-ton 108, 133, 159 and 177 inches.

“Special emphasis has been placed on driver comfort and general accessibility. An insulated, hinged hood fully exposing the engine for adjustment work, a wide running board making it easy to step in and out of the cab, and the gearshift lever conveniently located beside the driver are three important improvements. Ventilators are easily operated from the interior of the cab. 

“In this cab-over-engine in both the one and a half-ton and two-ton Dodge chassis, approximately twenty-eight inches of additional loading space is provided without increasing the wheelbase length. Dimension from front bumper to center line of front axle is thirty inches, and forty-seven inches from front axle to back of cab. Cab-to-axle dimensions are sixty-one inches on the 108-inch wheelbase, eighty-six inches on the 133-inch wheelbase and 112 inches on the 159-inch wheelbase. 

“Additional features are special heavy-duty channel type front bumper, eighteen gallon gasoline tank mounted outboard on right-hand side back of cab, heavy-duty front axle with large spindles and bearings, spring equipment and larger radiator core. Vacuum suspended booster brakes and auxiliary springs are standard equipment on the two-ton and available as extra equipment on the one and a half-ton chassis.” 

Montpelier’s was not the first COE, in fact most pre-teen trucks were built with the driver seated over the engine, although the first enclosed cab over engine truck in the modern sense was produced by the Sanford Truck Co. in 1922. With a handful of exceptions, the design lay dormant for the next 12 years but starting reappearing in the mid-to-late thirties. Autocar, Diamond T, Fageol, Federal, Ford, Mack, Sterling and Studebaker offered true COE trucks in the late thirties, but the most attractive were produced by White based on the designs of Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky. Although Montpelier’s weren’t plug-ugly, they couldn’t hold a candle to Sakhnoffsky’s creations.

Montpelier also got General Motors interested in the COE design and offered a conversion for 1937-38 Chevrolet and GMC trucks that was similar to the Dodge conversions. In 1939 production of both the Chrysler and General Motors COEs was transferred to corporate-owner facilities. The designs were sufficiently modified to avoid any legal problems with Montpelier, and the small firm was cut out of the increasingly lucrative COE market. 

Montpelier’s design work spawned a COE delivery van of their own called the Urban, which found favor with hundreds of mid-west bakeries, department stores, contractors and publishers. Built on a forward control Dodge or GM chassis with standing drive, the Urban delivery was much more profitable than Montpelier’s side-aisle delivery trucks despite the fact that it competed directly against International’s Metropolitan vans, which held a considerably larger share of the market. 

Montpelier’s pre-war ads in the Chevrolet Silver book advertised 3 models, their Stand-Up Delivery, Urban Delivery and Side Aisle Delivery. 

During World War II Montpelier produced cargo bodies for the Military’s 2 ˝ and 5-ton trucks, eventually producing over 250,000 examples (includes some post-war production). Due to their meritorious efforts, they were awarded the coveted Army-Navy “E” Award in 1943. 

The E-award was the Army-Navy Award for Excellence in War Production and was normally awarded when a firm completed a large order for the US War effort or filled an order in a short period of time.

At the ceremony, the employees would be given an enameled pin mounted on a card certifying their contribution to the war effort with a message from the president.  The employer would be presented with an “E’ flag and banner and outstanding employees, a special certificate.

On the day of Montpelier’s first award the Army brought a DUKW (amphibious truck), a tank, an armored car and a GMC 2 1/2-ton truck, all of which gave rides to Montpelier’s employees following the ceremony. Soon afterwards, Montpelier received two supplemental E-Awards for their continued wartime service. 

Following the war, Schwartz ended the production of the wood-framed delivery bodies and converted the entire operation over to an all-metal design. The design of the Urban and Side-Aisle delivery vans was updated and when the rationing of aluminum ended following the Korean War, Montpelier began offering the lightweight material as an extra cost option. Most post-war Montpeliers were built on Chevrolet and GMC chassis, although any chassis could be converted to a side-aisle unit. 

Montpelier had been producing a handful of custom-built crew-cabs since before the war and starting in the mid 50s, their crew cabs gained in popularity when they were offered for sale through Chevrolet and GMC dealerships. 

Montpelier’s van remained much the same until 1957 when they introduced their first FRP (fiberglass reinforce plastic) bodies. Large numbers of Montpelier FRP-bodied trucks were sold to Continental Baking (Wonder Bread), REA (Railway Express Agency), UPS (United Parcel Service), Hostess Bakeries, the New York Times and  Chicago Tribune.

At the same time Montpelier introduced a competitor to International’s new Metro-Mite urban delivery van which was called the Mono-Lite. Despite the fact the design was supposedly “all-new”, both vehicles were modeled after the pre-war Stutz Package Car and White Motor Company’s White Horse. 

Throughout the 1950s the White Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio had been buying up smaller truck and specialty vehicle manufacturers, and in 1959, they decided to purchase Montpelier in order to obtain the rights to the Mono-Lite Type 75 urban delivery van. 

Under White’s ownership the Mono-Lite was re-named the White PDQ and enjoyed a moderate success in the marketplace. Harry A Schwartz patented a small fiberglass-bodied delivery truck with a translucent roof in 1960 which was assigned to White. The truck featured an easily replaceable front power train module that could be easily removed for service.

Under White’s John Rundell, the sales of Montpelier-built step vans and side-aisle bodies reached an all-time high and by 1964, the plant was running three full shifts per day. Unfortunately tragedy struck just as the going got good.

Early in the morning of July 28th, 1965, the third shift workers were alerted to a fire in the FRP molding department and by the time the fire department arrived, the plant was totally engulfed. Nobody was injured but the plant was destroyed.

At the time there was a large number of step van and side-aisle delivery body manufacturers and Montpelier’s production made up a small percentage of the market. As White Motor Company’s core business was the production of trucks, and the lackluster sales of the PDQ couldn’t justify rebuilding the facility, it pulled the plug on both the PDQ and its Montpelier operations.

© 2004 Mark Theobald - with special thanks to James H .Schwartz







Bill Priest interview with Peter Costisick on "All Around Williams County"

Les Bagley - Memories of Montpelier Mfg. – Divco News – Jan, 2006 issue

Thomas A. McPherson - The Dodge Story

George H. Dammann - 75 Years of Chevrolet

Don Bunn - Dodge Trucks

Pete Costisick - Anything That Rolls On Wheels

G.N. Georgano & G. Marshall Naul - The Complete Encyclopedia of Commercial Vehicles

Albert Mroz - Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Trucks & Commercial Vehicles

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