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National Body Mfg. Co.
National Body Manufacturing Company, 1946-1968; National Custom Coaches, 1968-1978; Knightstown, Indiana
Associated Builders
Knightstown Body Co.; TEC Coach, 1978-1980s, Goshen, Indiana

Upon his return from WWII service, former Knightstown Body Company woodshop foreman, Vernon Z. Perry purchased the plant of his former firm's competitor, Knightstown Funeral Car Company and staffed it with co-workers from the Knightstown Body Company. To avoid any further confusion, Perry named the firm National Body Manufacturing Co. and would go on to produce hundreds of Chevrolet and Pontiac-based professional vehicles.  

(Not to be confused with National Hearse & Ambulance Company, a Toledo, Ohio firm that distributed The Shop of Siebert's Ford-based economy funeral cars - see Shop of Siebert for their history). 

The first vehicles to emerge from his manufacturing operations at the old Knightstown Funeral Car Company factory were 1946 Chevrolet sedan deliveries converted into standard and extended-wheelbase ambulances, funeral coaches and first-call service cars.

By 1947 National was building a small number of professional cars by splitting a Chevrolet Sedan Delivery chassis in half just behind the driver's door and inserting a custom-built 30" extension between the front and rear halves, a construction method that continues through to this century in the stretch limousine industry.  The insert contained a forward-hinged door that spanned the entire length of the door and matched the styling of the stock Chevrolet. A favorite of small municipalities that couldn't afford a Cadillac-based coach, National offered people on a budget a new ambulance or funeral vehicle for a fraction of the price.

By 1950, National had decided to concentrate on building both Chevrolet and Pontiac-based professional cars and offered both chassis in three model ranges. The Imperial series featured an extended wheelbase of 30" and was offered as an ambulance, a funeral coach, a combination car and as a service car. The Midway series offered the same group of vehicles but with a shorter 18" stretch. Standard wheelbase models were also available. Ambulances and invalid cars were marketed as Ambulettes and funeral service and first-call cars were marketed as Servettes and were also built using Ford sedan deliveries.

For 1951 they introduced the Imperial flower car, their first-ever which was available on either a Pontiac or Chevrolet chassis.

For 1953, National renamed their Imperial, the Deluxe, but other than the name change, the vehicles were the same.  For 1954, National introduced a whole new line under the National Minuteman moniker, and discontinued their mid-priced Midway line.

General Motors stopped building Pontiac sedan deliveries at the end of the 1953 model year and National was forced to switch to the much more expensive Pontiac station wagons. Consequently the majority of GM coaches built from then on utilized Chevrolet Sedan delivery chassis, although quite a few Pontiac and Buick chassis were sold through the end of the decade.

National turned to their slightly more expensive station wagons for their Pontiac chassised coaches and began to offer a Buick-based coach as well. 

An early 1950s National ad boasted:

When converting a Chevrolet Sedan Delivery, furnished to us by customer, into a NATIONAL Combination Hearse & Ambulance, we extend the unit 30" and install 43" doors on each side, build in one recessed attendant's seat, furnish shades, cot holder, choice of removable casket table or turn-over rollers in regular floor, medicine cabinets in partition, sliding glass in partition, safety glass throughout, dome lights in front and rear compartments, blue or red leatherette trim, Armstrong inlaid linoleum on floor, tire compartment under floor on left side, and unit painted to suit customer. Cost of conversion $1995.

These Sedan Delivery units are usually delivered to our plant directly from the Chevrolet factory. When the unit is ordered for conversion, preference is given for quick delivery to us.

National entered the growing airport limousine field in 1955 with an impressive offering of four, six and eight-door models using General Motors' brand-new passenger sedan.  Two-door sedans were used to build the four-door models while four-door donors were converted into six and eight-door models. The four door models were also marketed as sedan-ambulances and included a removable passenger-side center-post and suicide-style rear-hinged back doors to allow easy entry for invalids and gurneys.

Most 1955-57 National funeral coaches and ambulances were built on Chevrolet and Pontiac donors and were offered for the first time with a choice of two head-rooms and two wheelbases (standard plus a 30" extension). High headroom models were available with a choice of an awkward looking bi-level turtle back roof or the more attractive raised roof that gently sloped down to the top of the windshield. Chrysler- and DeSoto-chassised coaches were also available for extra cost, as were Buicks and Oldsmobiles.

General Motors introduced all-new 1958 models and National followed suit with totally re-styled coaches. Station wagon and multi-door airport limousine conversions continued to be offered as well as a new  series of budget-priced municipal ambulances and rescue squad vehicles built using 1/2 and 3/4 ton panel trucks and Suburbans which National marketed as "Carry-Alls". Carry-Alls could also be outfitted as airport limousines and small commuter buses and were available in various wheelbase, door and seating configurations. National built at least one Imperial long wheelbase hearse in 1957 or 1958 that was owned and operated by the House of Diggs Funeral Home in Detroit, Michigan. It featured National's awkward stepped roof rail and flat rear side-door glass and was built using the front doors from a 2-door Imperial hardtop or convertible.

General Motor's new 1959 X-frame chassis forced National to restyle their coaches once again, and for the first time, National Cadillac coaches appeared - available in both standard and extended wheelbase, with or without a raised roof. 1960 and 1961 models remained basically unchanged from the all-new 1959 models. Buick and Oldsmobile coaches increased slightly in popularity and Chrysler Corp.-based coaches were still offered. A 1959 National Imperial long-wheelbase ambulance was advertised for sale in Cars & Parts during 1969 with National's distinctive stepped-roof design. One 1961 National advertisement pictures a pillar-less white Cadillac 4-door coupe/wagon that could be used as a wagon, an invalid car or a service car.

1962-1964 National's were slightly modified featuring a new C-pillar arrangement which allowed for an integral warning light on long-wheelbase ambulances. Funeral vehicles shared the same features and were now known as Knighton's - ambulances were still called Minute Man's.

For the second time in its history, the Flxible Co. of Loudonville, Ohio exited the professional car manufacturing business at the end of 1964. Citing their inability to keep up with greatly increased demand for their transit buses due to a lack of space, Flxible sold their fixtures, tooling, and engineering designs as well as the trade names "Flxette" and "Premier" to National.

In a story in the January 7, 1965 edition of The Loudonville Times, Flxible's president T.P. Butler proclaimed "It takes a specialist to handle the highly specialized business of manufacturing professional cars, and National Coaches was a completely logical choice. They have the experience, the facilities, they do not manufacture a variety of products and they are staffed with highly skilled craftsmen who are masters of the fine art of building fine coach bodies".

Nationals' Vern Z. Perry reassured former Flxible customers that "sales and service of Buick professional cars will be handled through generally the same distributors that have been handling Flxible-Buicks in the past". Butler further emphasized that the transfer "will permit a wide range of models to be included in the future production, such as nine­passenger limousines, service cars and high-headroom ambulances, which have long been desired by the industry".

National introduced Flexible's coachwork on their all-new 1966 coaches introduced in late 1965. The Flxible-based National coaches were easily distinguished from older (pre-1966) National-Buicks by their commercial windshields and driver's door glass and attractive styling.

Although similar in appearance to the Buick coaches produced in Duncanville, Texas by the Trinity Coach Co. it's easy to tell the difference between a 1966 Trinity and a 1966 National/Flxible. Trinity used stamped, painted window frames while National/Flxible used extruded bright metal (chrome) frames. The angles of Trinity's door and window pillars varied from those found on National/Flxible coaches as well.

National announced that sales and service of Buick professional cars would be handled through existing Flxible distributors who would now handle the new National Buick coaches.  Built with the approval of General Motors, National's Buick coaches featured a full Buick new-car warranty.

It's not known if the Flxible takeover helped National's bottom line, but they did manage to survive for another three years marketing their Chevrolet, Buick, Mercury, Chrysler, and Imperial hearses and ambulances.

In late 1968, founder Vernon Z. Perry sold National to a New Castle, Indiana businessman named Warren Morris. Morris changed the company name to National Custom Coaches. Funeral coach production was halted and production was switched over completely to Chevrolet Suburban-based vehicles. They are known to have built at least one 1970 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham Station Wagon for a Dayton, Ohio Cadillac dealer for use as a promotional vehicle.

Under Morris's guidance the company continued to build truck-based multi­door airport limousines and also offered mobile cardiac care units built on Chevrolet Step Van chassis as well as a line of Dodge and Chevrolet-based modular and van-type ambulances and rescue vehicles. National was one of the firms that manufactured those hideous wide-nosed (by 14") Dodge and Chevrolet van-based ambulances in the mid-1970s.

National never attained the sales enjoyed under Perry's helm and with his health failing, Morris sold the firm in 1978 to TEC Coach (now Medtec Ambulance Corp.) which promptly closed the plant and moved the tooling and machinery to their hometown of Goshen, Indiana.

© 2004 Mark Theobald -






Funeral Cars and Ambulances Will Be Built By National Coaches - Loudonville Times, January 7, 1965

The Professional Car - Issue #57 Third Quarter 1990

The Professional Car - Issue #92 Second Quarter 1999

The Professional Car - Issue #93 Third Quarter 1999

The Professional Car - Issue #96 Second Quarter 2000

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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