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Paul Ostruk Co.
Paul Ostruk Company, 1923-1932; New York, New York
Associated Builders
Brooks-Ostruk, Locke & Company

The small but prestigious custom body firm of Brooks-Ostruk was located in the heart of New York’s automobile row at 225 West 66th Street, in a three-story building that was eventually torn down for the construction of Lincoln Center. It later served as the repair depot and body shop for Consolidated Foreign Motor Car Co., the US Minerva distributor owned by Paul Ostruk, one of Brooks-Ostruk’s founders.

Paul Ostruk (1886-1967) was trained as a coachbuilder in his native Bohemia (now Czech Republic), and emigrated to the United States in 1908. He worked for a number of New York City coachbuilders, eventually making his way to A.T. Demarest, a well-known New York City establishment. While working there he became friends with Emerson Brooks (1860-1948), a talented designer who worked for J.M. Quinby & Co. across the Hudson in Newark, New Jersey.

The year was 1917 and both men were facing the loss of their jobs – Demarest was in negotiations to sell their building to General Motors while Quinby’s owners were trying to sell their business.

The two men were well aware of the difficulties they might face, but with Brooks solid connections – at the time he was treasurer of the Automobile Club of America - the pair felt a new firm specializing in European-styled coachwork on camouflaged American chassis would be profitable, so Ostruk, Brooks and Brook’s wife Alice (1878-1926) incorporated the Brooks-Ostruk Co. in February of 1917.

The Brooks-Ostruk shop was tiny when compared to other builders as each of their three floors covered a mere 600 sq ft., allowing only a handful of bodies to be built at one time. It’s estimated that they produced only 15 to 20 bodies per year, every one a full custom, mounted on the finest chassis available at the time. Both men shared the design work with Ostruk supervising construction and Brooks handling the firm’s sales and finances.

Brooks saw to it that the firm’s early work was featured in the leading publications of the day. Brooks-Ostruk coachwork was prominently featured in Vanity Fair as well as the leading coachbuilding magazines, Autobody and Vehicle Monthly.

During the late teens Brooks-Ostruk used unique badging, slightly pointed cycle-type front fenders and a distinctive FIAT-style radiator housing in order to disguise the donor chassis, which were usually obtained from the New York Pierce-Arrow and Packard distributors. They also built on a number of Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost chassis obtained from Robert W. Schuette and even bodied one of the first hybrid-drive automobiles, the Owen-Magnetic.  

The November 1918 New York Automobile Salon - which was held for the final time in the Grand Ballroom of the Astor Hotel - included a White chassis graced by Brooks-Ostruk’s camouflaged bodywork.

By late 1919, the importation of European chassis had returned to normal, and the firm’s small shops were no longer adequate. So in April of 1920, the partners increased the firm’s capitalization to one million dollars and decided to expand operations.

At the 1919 New York Auto Show, which was held at the 69th Regiment Armory, Brooks-Ostruk included a camouflaged Pierce-Arrow - priced at $9000 - plus an older Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost that had been fitted with a “coupe collapsible body” that was priced at $14,000. The Rolls-Royce was not only the most expensive car at the show, but the only foreign chassis exhibited that year. The same vehicles appeared at the November 1919 Auto Salon which was held for the first time in the Grand Ballroom of the Commodore Hotel.

At the November 1920 Salon, Brooks-Ostruk exhibited a club sedan body on a 143” wheelbase Minerva 6-cylinder chassis that was sold at the show for $15,000. At the Delage stand, an unusual 4-passenger 2-dr “Sporting Trap” featured Brooks-Ostruk coachwork as well. Paul Ostruk had just become the New York City distributor for Minerva and exhibited a bare 132” 4-cylinder Minerva alongside the Minerva 6-cylinder club sedan.

The November 1921 New York Auto Salon featured 4 Minerva chassis, a brougham, cabriolet, limousine and a two-window sedan elite - all bodied by Brooks-Ostruk. The sedan elite had been built for Billie Burke, an actress who also happened to be the wife of Florenz Ziegfeld. As it was common knowledge that the Ziegfeld Follies star, Marilyn Miller was in the midst of on again/off again affair with Burke’s husband, the sales staff at the Salon must have fallen over when Miller purchased the cabriolet that was sitting adjacent to the vehicle built for her nemesis.

Brooks-Ostruk’s most celebrated commission was for the Manchurian warlord Chang Tso-Lin (aka Tsan Tso-Lin or Zhāng Zuòlín - 1873-1928), who ordered a 1921 Packard Twin Six limousine from Grover C. Parvis, the custom body manager of New York’s factory Packard distributor. Marshal Chang was appointed the inspector general of Manchuria in 1918 and he desired an elegant limousine that could also protect him in an emergency as China was embroiled in a civil war at the time. The armor-plated rear tonneau featured built-in gun ports and windows with movable metal shutters - as in an all-steel roll top desk. The crowning touch was the menacing forward-facing machine gun that resided on the vehicle’s dash. The $35,000 fortress could be easily converted into a normal-looking vehicle by simply removing the machine gun and raising the metal shutters.

Another famous Brooks-Ostuk customer was Alla Nazimova, who had recently made a successful transition from stage to silent screen. Her Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost was fitted with a Brooks-Ostruk’s Sedan Elite, the same design selected by Billie Burke for her Minerva and by Louise Vanderbilt (wife of Frederick William Vanderbilt, the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt) for a re-body of her Crane-Simplex touring car.

The sedan elite was Brooks-Ostruk’s most popular series-built custom body design during the early twenties. Its leather covered roof and rear quarters provided an elegant alternative to other builders’ enclosed-drive 4-window limousines and town cars.

When longtime New York City coachbuilder Holbrook & Co. left Manhattan earlier in the year (1921), William A Henderson, one of the firm’s designers, decided not to follow the firm to its new factory in Hudson, NY, and went to work for Brooks-Ostruk as its plant manager. His work at Holbrook combined with an earlier stint with the Dort Motor Co. as its plant manager gave him more than enough experience.

The recession of 1921 was wrecking havoc in the luxury car business – Lafayette, Lincoln, Marmon and Pierce-Arrow were all close to receivership – and Emerson Brooks had grown weary of the automobile business - so he and his wife, Alice, offered to sell their share of the business to Henderson, who jumped at the chance. At the next board meeting - held early in 1922 - Henderson was elected President.

In 1913 Brooks founded a group for boys too young to joint the Boy Scouts called the Boy Pioneers of America. His first lodge was headquartered in Montclair, NJ, and within two years, he changed its name to the Boy Rangers of America. Membership grew exponentially, hitting a peak in the mid-twenties of over 8,000 members and 700 lodges in 47 states. The Boy Rangers were absorbed by the Boy Scouts of America starting in 1930 who renamed it the Cub Scouts. By the time Brooks passed away in 1948, the Cub Scouts numbers had grown to over 200,000. He lost his beloved wife Alice in 1926 and devoted the rest of his life to scouting and philanthropy.

Brooks-Ostruk exhibited six creations at the November 1922 Auto Salon – an Isotta-Fraschini limousine, a Locomobile coupe, a Peerless cabriolet, and three bodies on the Minerva chassis. Ostruk had recently been appointed the Belgian manufacturer’s sole US distributor, a deal which prompted a reorganization of the Brooks-Ostruk enterprise, funded in part by the radio pioneer Thomas Garvan.  (Although Garvan made his fortune in early radio, he was keenly interested in transportation and in 1927 he purchased the remnants of the aircraft manufacturer Burnelli, forming the Garvan-Burnelli Aircraft Corp. The firm manufactured small cargo and passenger liners and was eventually purchased by Inglis M. Uppercu, the Manhattan Cadillac distributor who also dabbled in the body building business.)

The resulting firm, the Consolidated Foreign Motor Car Co., became the parent company of the Paul Ostruk Co. Minerva’s captive coachbuilder. However, the arrangement differed from the Rolls-Royce/Brewster relationship in that the Paul Ostruk Co. didn’t actually build the bodies to which their builder’s plate was affixed.

As the former Brooks-Ostruk building on West 66th was barely large enough large enough to house the Minerva service department, a dedicated Minerva Salon was opened on Park Ave. and an arrangement was made with Locke & Co., one of New York’s finest builders, to “ghost” build the Paul Ostruk Co. coachwork. Whenever a Minerva was ordered, Ostruk would design the body, and then subcontract its construction to Locke. In place of the Locke & Co.’s builder’s plate, one that read “Paul Ostruk Co.” was affixed instead.

This arrangement was not an entirely new idea. Three New York designers, George P. Harvey, George J. Mercer and J. Frank deCausse, had been doing the same thing for many years and the recently-formed LeBaron Carrossiers adopted the practice.

However, after LeBaron merged with the Bridgeport Body Co. in 1923, they now had the facilities to build their own bodies, so Ostruk decided to give the new firm a try. Despite the fact that their name didn’t appear on the final product, LeBaron was thrilled to be working for Ostruk, who, according to Dietrich, “had an enviable following in the trade where his work was known as a true criterion of quality”.

The November 1923 New York Auto Salon marked the first appearance of Minervas bearing coachwork “built” by the Paul Ostruk Co.

Raymond H. Dietrich recalled the first body built for Ostruk at LeBaron’s Bridgeport Plant:  

“The first job Paul commissioned us in design and place in the Bridgeport plant was a town car - a really difficult job. Special hand hammered full crown fenders were indicated, running boards of teakwood, a unique folding windshield, and decorative interior appointments. He had deliberately challenged craftsmen in each department by stepping up his standard of quality - which was always very high. We knew this was a test case and that all the dealers would be watching for it in the Minerva showroom. The magnifying glasses would be out. This job was to be considered an example of our potential, it had to be perfect.

“The craftsmen sensed the tension it was bring­ing to the plant. Human nature being what it is, they became self-conscious and tried too hard. We even had trouble with windshield set-screws failing to hold, with buttons on the cushions being out of alignment and pulling loose. The full crown fender surfaces rippled, and the landau leather top would not shrink to its proper tension. The nickel stepping strips on the teakwood running board were mounted with too much variance, and even the weather was against us. The dampness caused the varnish finish to show runs. There was no way to hide our jinx because Mr. Ostruk made an unexpected call to check progress. Instead of another brush with oblivion, his understanding and patience gave us just the push we needed. He gave us an extension of time to allow for corrections, and even went so far as to place an order for four additional jobs before we had corrected the first. In a very practical way he showed confi­dence in our workmanship and standard of quality. When Mr. Ostruk accepted this car, he put us in the spot of at last being recognized as established body builders. 

Apparently Ostruk was impressed and by the mid-twenties, much of Ostruk’s coachwork was placed with LeBaron.

Hugo Pfau, one of LeBaron’s delineators recalled:

“Initially, Ostruk would supply us with a rough sketch of what he had in mind, from which we would do a finished sketch ­ and then often revise it after Ostruk had looked it over. Later on he confined himself to giving us a general idea of what he wanted, with perhaps a few specific features to be included, and leave the actual design to us. Here, too, he would look it over before it was submitted to his customer and often pencil in a change here and there. He had a good sense of proportion and a feeling for line.

“As to the bodies built by Brooks-Ostruk, my recollection of the ones I saw when they were still fairly new is that the workmanship was. good, almost on a par with Locke, which was con­sidered one of the best custom shops in the country. Many of the workmen had been trained in Europe, as was Ostruk himself. In fact, when he closed his body shop, most of his craftsmen moved to Locke or to Rollston, who were just starting in business at the time.

“In appearance, too, Brooks-Ostruk bodies tended to be above average for the period. As I have said, Ostruk had a good sense of proportion. He was also among the first to appreciate that a relatively thick roof with well rounded corners tended to make a car look lower. This when thin, flat roofs were the general style.”

A handful of Paul Ostruk and Brooks-Ostruk bodies survive, mostly on Minerva and Isotta-Fraschini chassis. Ostruk himself once claimed that the Brooks-Ostruk Company had been "responsible for some of the most beautiful creations in the realm of custom bodybuilding."

Ostruk’s Consolidated Foreign Motors remained in business through 1932, and as late as 1930, the Paul Ostruk Co. was still listed as a body builder in the White-Orr New York City Business Directory. Ostruk purchased Hibbard & Darrin’s Minerva distributorship in Paris, France during the late twenties but was forced to abandon the concern when his American business interests failed in the early years of the Depression.

The Depression was not the best time to be an imported automobile distributor, so when Consolidated Foreign Motors went out of business in 1932, Ostruk looked for another line of work. When the Blaine Act was passed on February 17, 1933 (aka the repeal of the 18th amendment or Prohibition) Ostruk became the US distributor for a small Czech brewery in the Bohemian town of Budweis called Budejovicky Pivovary. Its name: Budweiser or Budvar depending on the market. Ostruk distributed the beer from an office at 120 West 42nd Street, in New York up until the start of WWII when all European exports were halted. The label declared it was "imported Original Bohemian Budweiser Beer from Budweis City".

Ostruk’s activites during and after the war are a mystery, but it is known that he died in Westchester County, New York in 1967 at the age of 81.

© 2004 Mark Theobald -







A Bibliography of the History and Life of Utica - Utica Manufacture and Industry: Willoughby Company pp187

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