Owen Brothers was a reorganization of Palmer & Owen, a Lima, Ohio carriage
builder first organized in 1899 by John B. Palmer and Merrill David Owen.
John B. Palmer was born in Columbus, Bartholomew County, Indiana in 1859 to
George W. Palmer a long time Bartholomew County pension officer who also
served two terms as treasurer. At the age of 14 Palmer was apprenticed to
the renowned Rochester, New York hearse and carriage builder James
Cunningham, Son & Company. Following the completion of his term, Palmer
traveled around the country working as a journeyman at some of the
Northeast’s largest vehicle manufacturers.
In the mid 1880s he found employment with the H. Kaiser Kenton Carriage
Works of Kenton, Ohio. This was where he met Merrill David Owen, a Kenton
native and blacksmith. In 1887 Palmer married Caroline Kaiser, the daughter
of his boss Henry Kaiser, but the business was passed on to Kaiser’s sons,
so in 1899 Palmer decided to go into the carriage business with Owen in
nearby Lima, Ohio, establishing Palmer & Owen at the rear of the Stamest
Block at 121-123 West Market Street, one block west of Lima’s historic Town
Merrill David Owen was born in 1870 in Kenton, Hardin County, Ohio to
James Owen a stone contractor. David, as he preferred to be called, entered
the business world as an apprentice blacksmith with the Champion Fence
Company of Kenton. After one and a half years at that firm, he went to work
for Pool Brothers, a well-respected Kenton carriage builder dating from
By now Owen was an accomplished blacksmith, and he was employed in that
capacity by the H. Kaiser Kenton Carriage Works where he met his mentor and
future partner, John B. Palmer. On March 5, 1892, the 21 year-old Owen
married Austa Lynch, the daughter of Kenton businessman Alonzo Lynch. The
newlyweds spent the next couple of years traveling and working in Washington
Court House, Yellow Springs and Defiance, Ohio. They eventually settled in
Akron where Owen found employment with the Collins Buggy Co.
While in Akron David Owen studied drafting and took a correspondence
course in carriage design from the International Correspondence School of
Scranton, Pennsylvania. In 1899, he relocated to Lima, Ohio where he entered
into a partnership with John B. Palmer as Palmer & Owen, carriage builders.
John W. Swan, a Lima machinist and inventor, became connected with the
business and in 1902 David Owen’s younger brother Robert D. was brought in
as the firm’s superintendent.
John W. Swan was a Lima engineer and machinist who in 1902 patented a
gasoline engine and starting device which was assigned to the John W. Swan
Company of Lima, Ohio; J.O. Hover, president; John W. Swan general manager.
In 1905 the John W. Swan Company, Lima, O., changed its name to the Lima Gas
Engine Company; J.O. Hover, president; J.C. Pennell vice-president; Edwin
Christen secretary; E.F. Edgecomb general manager. An early Lima Gas Engine
catalogue shows various Lima natural gas and gasoline-powered engines
ranging from 2˝ to 100 HP. Lima Gas Engine was later reorganized as the
Power Mfg. Co. with G.S. Pike president. Power marketed their engines under
the Primm Brand name.
Robert D. Owen was born in 1871 Kenton, Hardin County, Ohio to James Owen
a stone contractor. He entered the business world as an apprentice
blacksmith and worked for a number of northeastern Ohio carriage firms in
that capacity before relocating to Lima in 1902 to join his brother in the
formation of Owen Brothers.
Swan, Owen and Palmer also established the Lima Motor Car Company*,
dealers in Peerless and Velie automobiles.
*A second seemingly unrelated Lima Motor Car Company was organized in
1919 with $100,000 in capital stock. Shareholders were John J. Wyre, M. L.
Johnson, John R. Oarnes, D. H. Wyre, K. A. Werline. Originally located at
the Corner of Buckeye and Cherry Alley, it relocated in 1921 to larger
quarters at 645 W Market St.
Although Palmer & Owen were engaged primarily in the repairing of
existing coaches and wagons, they produced small numbers of new carriages
and wagons for local businessmen. Tragedy struck the firm on November, 27th,
1905. The next day the Newark Advocate (Newark, Ohio) reported:
“Natural Gas Exploded the First Day It Was Piped Into Lima From Central
Ohio Gas Field.
“Lima, O., Nov 28 – Resuming work after the lunch hour, employees of the
Palmer & Owen carriage factory, in the heart of the business district, were
blown through windows and doors by a terrific explosion that shook near-by
buildings. The cause was an accumulation of odorless natural gas which was
sent through the mains of the company from the Central Ohio fields for the
first time yesterday.
“The gas had leaked underground into the factory and accumulated,
unknown, until it reached the blacksmith’s forge.
“Robert Owen, brother of the junior partner, was badly burned about the
face and body; George Neely, painter, was blown from a second story window
to the pavement and severely injured. Homer Moore and Chas. Thompson were
sent headlong out of the lower doors. Other employees escaped, but the
building was soon in flames, and its contents damaged $5,000. The loss on
the building will reach $1,000, both covered by insurance.”
George Y. Neely recovered from his injuries and would go on to form his
own coachworks (Neely Bros.) with his brother R.M. Neely. Robert D. Owen
recovered from his injuries as well, and in November of 1906 joined his
elder brother Merrill David in the formation of the Owen Brothers Carriage
Co. The December 1, 1906, issue of the Lima Times Democrat (Lima, Ohio)
announced the formation of the new enterprise:
“Clever Foresight Strengthens Their Faith in the Future of the Best City
“New Carriage Firm Owen Brothers to Inaugurate Thoroughly Equipped Plant.
“Another new firm, this time a carriage manufactory of good capacity and
under the direct supervision of two of the ablest men in their trade in the
state, has faith in Lima’s future and will show the public a line of
vehicles for which there will be an ever-increasing demand.
“The Times-Democrat refers to the new carriage building firm of Owen
Brothers, comprising M.D. and Robert Owen, both carriage men of many years
experience. Both are carriage blacksmiths and finished artisans, the former
having worked sixteen years at the trade, while the latter has served just
one year less than a quarter of century with hammer and anvil. In addition
to these accomplishments Mr. M.D. Owen has had fourteen years experience as
a draftsman and is a capable designer. For a number of years these gentlemen
were members of the carriage firm of Palmer & Owen, but dissolution of the
partners having been agreed upon several weeks ago which time the Owen
Brothers decided to engage in business on their own account. For some time a
suitable location for a factory could not be secured, but eventually they
succeeded in securing a lease on the two story brick building directly in
the rear of the Times-Democrat, fronting the alley which runs east and west
between High and Market Streets, connecting Elizabeth Street with the
square. It is also close to the intersection of this alley with the one
midway between Main and Elizabeth Streets, and is convenient of access from
the Square, from Elizabeth, High, Main or Market Streets. This building was
two stories in height and 52 x 52 feet in ground plan. The roof was removed
and a third story added, while a number of additional windows were cut in on
the first and second floors, until now it its one of the best lighted
factory buildings in the city.
“The first floor is devoted to the smith shop - or forge room, the wood
shop and a commodious stock room. There are two forges of the most modern
type, the blast for each being supplied by a smaller circular “blower”
operated by a light powered electric motor. A drill press of the latest
improvements in mechanical connivances of its kind, is in this shop, also
driven by and independent electric motor. In fact Owen Brothers have adopted
this practical and business-like method of power supply, each machine,
excepting in the wood working department, being driven by its own
independent motor of which there are five in the establishment. Another part
of the machine equipment of this department is a very heavy and powerful
tire bender and former for any and all kinds of curved iron or steel, up
into much heavier weights than most machines are capable of handling.
“The smith occupies the west half of the first floor, while the wood shop
is located in the east half, immediately adjoining and each shop is
accessible from the alley by means of large double doors, so that vehicles
may be drawn into either for repair. The wood shop is equipped with the best
in the form of power band saw, rip or cut-off saw and hub boring and spoke
fitting machine. In this department one electric motor will operate all the
“The second floor is devoted to office purposes, a storage room and
commodious and well-lighted trimming shop. The office is located in the
northeast corner, embracing about one third of the width of the room, while
immediately in its rear is the trimming shop, extending to the rear of the
building. The remainder of this floor embracing about two-thirds of its
“The third floor is the paint shop and varnish or finishing department,
and being above the surrounding building, with windows on all sides is an
ideal plan for this class of work, which requires an abundance of light in
order to insure the best results. A large “deck” or rubbing sink at the
south end of the room supplies plenty of room for rubbing down and washing,
the deck being water-tight and connected with the drainage sewer, guarding
against dampness on the lower floors.
“A mammoth all steel freight elevator, 8x16 feet in size occupies the
southwest corner of the building, connecting all floors and facilitating the
handling of work of a heavy or bulky nature.
“The Times-Democrat bespeaks for this new concern a generous portion of
the public patronage knowing the ability and desire of the Owen boys to do
their work promptly and well, at reasonable prices. They have now on hand
the raw material and unfinished parts for quite a number of up-to-date
pleasure vehicles which will be completed as soon as possible, while other
stock is arriving daily, so that by the opening of spring they will be
equipped with a complete line of rolling stock. They particularly solicit
repair work of all kinds in the vehicle line, including automobiles, and
also custom building, such as delivery wagons, light, medium or heavy. The
paint department, as in fact all departments, will be in charge of a
strictly first class painter, and at this season of the year will
undoubtedly soon be busy making old jobs look like new. They are also
equipped for applying rubber tires of various sizes to buggies, carriages
and cars, and will be pleased to quote prices on application.”
Lima’s Owen Brothers (Merrill David and Robert D.) were unrelated to the
Cleveland, Ohio Owen Brothers (Raymond M. and Ralph R.) who built the
1899-1901 Owen Gasoline Carriage (and later on the Owen Magnetic).
The January 16, 1913 issue of the Lima Times Democrat reported:
“Owen Brothers Expand
“Six years ago, in a frame building on Sugar Alley, directly south of the
rear of the Times-Democrat building, Owen Brothers, a firm composed of David
Owen and Robert Owen established a business of repairing vehicles. Today the
architects, Leech & Leech are preparing plans for these same Owen Brothers,
who by June 1st, 1913, will occupy a brick building of their own located at
the corner of Central Avenue and Market Street that will cover 8,400 square
feet of ground and stand three floors in height.
“From the beginning, efficiency and reasonable charges for their work
have been the two cardinal factors upon which their present success stands
and there is no job too large for the Owen Brothers to complete and do
“From a modest start which included principally repair work on vehicles,
the Owen Brothers have grown until today their establishment, running full
time the year through, is turning out automobile work as fine as any in the
"Automobile bodies and tops are two lines in which they specialize, and they
are now building a body for William and Davis’ automobile ambulance which
will be the peer of any ever constructed.
“Owen Brothers have kept abreast of the times and they are a credit to
Owen Brothers built coaches from the funeral director's own designs, or
the customer could choose from standard models. The company lengthened
passenger car chassis especially for their bodies and specialized on
Cadillac, Buick and Cole.
Along with most of their competition, Owen Brothers offered a
limousine-style combination pall-bearers coach in 1916 that could be easily
converted into an ambulance or hearse by removing its seats. Readymade
coaches were available on either a Buick Six or Cadillac Eight chassis. By
1919 Owen Brothers started using a stretched 50hp six-cylinder REO T-6
chassis with a 143" wheelbase for most of their coaches.
Owen Brothers also modified existing horse-drawn hearses and placed them
on chassis supplied by their customer. These adapted hearses are easy to
spot as the roofline and enclosed cabs never match the lines and dimensions
of their horse-drawn donors. Some conversions worked and some didn't, but
Owen Brother's skilled craftsmen turned out quite a few good-looking
For 1920 Owen Brothers offered a new lower-height 8-column coach with a
choice of carved or glass panels. Like Riddle, Owen continued to mount huge
32" coach lamps even at this late date.
Jan 15, 1922 Lima News
“Owen Bros. Build Fine Business
“Motor Hearse Builders Also Do General Automobile Work For Clientele
“Owen Bros., 11-121 S. Central Ave, manufacturers of motor hearses and
who do general automobile work, have been at their present location eight
years. The brick and steel building they occupy was erected in 1913, made
necessary when the progressive business outgrew their original quarters at
the rear of the present site of the Orpheum Theatre on W. Market St.
“Started in 1898
“Merrill D. Owen has been a Lima resident longer than his brother, Robert
D. The former came here in 1898 and began business in partnership with John
Palmer at Market and Union Sts. Carriages were built by then. Palmer & Owen
soon found it necessary to find larger quarters. They located in the Stametz
Building on West Market St. Another move was made to the Heirick Block
nearby. Robert Owen came to the city in 1902 and began as foreman in his
brother’s shop. After John Palmer and the senior Owen dissolved partnership,
the latter took his brother into the business and for five years they did
business at the rear of the Orpheum site.
“The Owen Brothers laid the foundation of their success in Kenton, where
both were blacksmiths. They are of direct Welsh descent and are active and
aggressive business men.
“Win Wide Reputation
“Each year Owen Bros. turn out 125 new motor hearse jobs and the general
auto rebuilding, painting, body-making and top-making work is on a scale too
large to give figures on the amount turned out annually. An average of 75
motor hearses are rebuilt every year. These jobs are sent to all parts of
the United States, as the result of which Owen Bros. enjoy a country-side
reputation for their excellence of their work.
“The plant gives employment to many persons. The number varies but 50 is
considered a good average.”
The 1923-1925 Owen Brothers catalogs featured a full line of
limousine-style coaches and sedan-ambulances mounted on Cadillac, Dodge,
Nash and Studebaker chassis all of which were available as full-time funeral
coaches or as combination hearse/ambulances.
Like many other small builders, the Owen Brothers coaches that appeared
in their 1927 mailers were beginning to look old in the tooth and lacked the
modern long & low look of the large manufacturers.
In 1928 Owen Brothers introduced re-designed coaches. Very attractive but
still not as low and long as the industry leaders, they offered tiny coach
lights and leather back styling. Their top of the line Imperial funeral car
included large arched windows from front to rear that featured intricate
carvings surrounding the top edges of each window as well as dignified
two-tone paint and stylish Gordon spare tire covers. All of their coaches
were available as either rear or side-loaders and Eureka 3-way casket tables
were offered as an option.
Tragedy struck the Owen family when Robert D. Owen passed away
unexpectedly on December 29, 1929. The next day the Lima News reported:
“Owen Services To Be Held At Home Tuesday
“Funeral Services for Robert D. Owen, 58, member of the Owen Brothers
body manufacturing firm, who died at 10 A.M. Sunday from a heart attack,
will be held at 2 P.M. Tuesday at the residence, 626 W. Elm St. Dr. T.B.
Roberts, pastor of Trinity M.E. church will officiate. Burial will be in
“Owen’s physician visited him at 11 P.M. Saturday when he complained of
illness. He apparently had recovered Sunday morning and was reading when
members of the family noticed that he seemed to be asleep. His physician
pronounced death due to an attack of angina pectoris.
“Owen was born in Kenton. He had been a partner with his brother, M.D.
Owen, for 22 years. The firm has manufactured buggies, ambulance and hearse
bodies since 1899. Owen was superintendent in the business when it was run
by his brother, J.B. Palmer and John W. Swan.
“He is survived by his widow; two daughters, Margaret and Hannah, at
home; two sisters, Mrs. Celia Malane and Mrs. Hi Brown of Toledo, and the
As reported in the January 1, 1930 Lima News, just prior to Robert’s
passing, Owen Brothers had entered into an agreement with the Reo Motor Car
Company to supply them with coach and truck bodies:
“Owen Brothers Plan To Treble Output April 1
“Big Expansion Program Underway Following Connection With Reo Motors
“Firm Begun in 1903 With Small Blacksmith Shop Shows Splendid Growth
“Just entering the manufacture of hearse and ambulance bodies on a
national scale, the firm of Owen Brothers begins the year 1930 with great
confidence. The members of the firm predicted Tuesday that by April 1, 1930,
the payroll will be tripled and 1930 is expected to prove a year of
substantial progress and expansion.
“Robert D. Owen, a member of the firm, died unexpectedly last Sunday
morning in his home, 626 W. Elm St. Death was attributed to heart disease.
“Founded in a very small way in 1903 as a blacksmith shop located at the
rear of the old Orpheum theatre on W. Market St., the firm made headway from
the very beginning. Shortly after the business was established the firm
began the repairing of carriages ad buggies and gradually entered the repair
of automobile bodies, specializing in hearse and ambulance bodies.
“In 1913 because of the demands of a greatly increased patronage the
business was removed to larger quarters. At that time the partners bough
the ground located at what is now 111-121 S. Central Ave., and they
immediately erected a three-story brick building, in which the business has
since been located. The new venture represented an additional expenditure of
about $50,000, although the plant is considered worth considerably more than
that in 1920.
“As a result of a policy of extensive advertising the volume of business
has materially increased during the last several years.
“Our business in 1929 showed a substantial increase as compared to with
that done in 1928.” M.D. Owen asserted Tuesday. “We are now engaging in the
manufacture of hearse and ambulance bodes in a national way and we
anticipate a big increase in our business during 1930.”
“We have been building hearse and ambulance bodies for various makes of
chassis. The latest types of machinery and equipment have been installed in
our factory to enable us to turn out the very highest quality of workmanship
and to provide for our larger volume of production.”
“Make Big Connection
“Recently we completed arrangements whereby we will supply hearse and
ambulance bodies for the Reo Motor Car Co., and their 3,000 dealers and
distributors. Also, we will build for them a variety of large commercial
delivery bodies. Before the Reo concern determined on the Owen bodies for
the Reo chassis their experts made careful examinations of the materials and
construction of Lima-made Owen bodies and we feel that the choice of Owen
bodies is a distinct triumph for us.”
“Two funeral cars were recently delivered from the Owen shop to the Reo
company at Lansing, Mich., and were exhibited at an automobile show there,
attended by more than 500 Reo dealers from the central states and Canada.
The cars were then shipped to New York City, to be shown at the National Reo
Auto Show to be held Jan. 4 to 11. A representative of Owen Brothers will be
on hand at the New York display to explain in detail the exclusive and
outstanding merits of the Owen bodies.
“It was explained that Owen bodies are custom-built and have the
reputation of withstanding extremely rough usage. M.D. Owen is the solo
designer of the new ultra-modern Owen funeral town car body and ambulance
“The plant comprises three floors and basement, with a total of 28,800
square feet of floor space. The bodies can be mounted on any make of
chassis. Following the New York display, two new funeral cars will be
exhibited Jan. 20 to 27 at the automobile show to be staged in Chicago.”
Compare the preceding article with the slightly less-optimistic feature
written by Emerson Sherow that appeared in the March 23, 1930 Lima Sunday
“Lima Carriage Works Becomes Big Body Plant
“Growth of Owen Brothers Concern In 32 Years Is Example of Industry Here
“Group of Specialized Shops and Trades Produce High Craftsmanship
“By Emerson Sherow
“Keeping pace with the modern trend in transportation, the Owen Brothers;
Carriage works at 115 S. Central Ave. has emerged from a maker of fine
carriages to a manufacturer of high-class funeral coaches and ambulances.
This transformation has taken place during a period of 32 years, in which
time the firm has always been in control of the Owen family.
“The large shop, three stories high and furnishing 40,000 square feet of
space, is really a combination of industries. Expert cabinet makers, steel
workers, painters and mechanics are required in turning out the products of
the firm – machines which are being used in all parts of the United States.
“Strangely, the factory, which makes products with which much sentiment
is connected, has a quite atmosphere compared with most machine shops.
“Group of Shops
“The first floor is a conglomeration of shops, including the metal
working shop, the repair department, stock room and show room, besides the
“In the metal working shop, with the aid of electrically driven stamping
hammer, the large sheets of steel are hammered into the shapes required for
the bodies of the funeral coaches and ambulances. Most metal shops roll the
sheet into the desired shapes but Owen Brothers feel that hammering produces
a better product. This hammer pounds away at the rate of 1,000 blows per
minute, shrinking the metal into rounded shapes.
“The stock room is adjacent to the repair room, where bodies of all types
of cars are repaired. Expert mechanics rebuild bodies that have been damaged
in accidents or change designs that are slightly out-of-date.
“In the wood working shop on the second floor, the bodies for the
machines are constructed by men who have made a scientific study of this
work. The doors and roofs for the standard bodies are constructed over jigs,
making repairs possible without extensive alterations. Only the best of ash
lumber is used, the required shapes being obtained through the use of power
saws. Other workers on this floor assemble the body frames, binding the
parts together with screws and strong glue.
“The third floor includes the paint shop, where all the bodies are given
a process paint finish when completed, and storeroom for stock bodies and
machines being repaired or redesigned.
“About 40 men are now employed by the firm, which includes 55 employees
when operating at capacity.
“Begun in 1898
“The Owen Bros. Carriage Works came into being in 1898 when a small shop
was set up in what is now the back end of the State theatre for the
manufacture of fine horse carriages. M.D. Owen, the present manager of the
firm, and his brother, the late Robert Owen, who died last December, were
the founders of the company. Owen Bros. carriages enjoyed an enviable
reputation during the early part of the 20th century.
“When the automobile age dawned and the demand for horse vehicles
decreased, the firm turned to the manufacture of automobile bodies and in
1915 erected and moved into the present structure. The manufacturer of
high-class funeral coaches and ambulances displaced the old carriages, many
of which are now included in historical displays throughout the country.
“About 125 new machines are turned out each year, in addition to the
repair work. M.D. Owen said. A large part of this new work is for the Reo
Motor Co., which does an extensive business in funeral coaches and
ambulances. The chassis are shipped to the local factory and the completed
product is sent to Reo dealers in various parts of the country.
“Four standard funeral coach designs are made by Owen Bros. and these are
fitted on Reo, Packard and Cadillac chassis. One of the recently added
machines is a Packard town car ambulance, which is being favorably received,
especially in the eastern states.
“The outlook for 1930 is only fair, Owen stated, but the firm expects to
do an average business.”
Owen Bros. was reorganized and incorporated a few months later as
reported in the May 2, 1930 Lima News:
“Corporate Papers Are Granted Owen Bros.
“Articles of incorporation have been issued by the secretary of state for
Owen Brothers, manufacturers of hearse and coach bodies at 115 S. Central
Ave. The concern is authorized to issue 300 shares of stock, valued at
$30,000. Incorporators are M.D. Owen, A.L. Owen, and Rosabel Owen. The firm
also does auto painting and body repairing.”
Owen Brothers built one memorable coach in 1930 on a stretched
front-wheel-drive Cord L-29 chassis. The low height of the Cord's chassis
made the Owen ambulance body appear top-heavy, especially when compared to
contemporary Kissel and Henney coaches. Another Cord L-29 ambulance with a
white body and black fenders was originally owned by Frank A. Hornstein of
Aliquippa, PA and was allegedly built in 1934 by Owen Bros., possibly on a
used L-29 chassis - as was the custom at the time. These Owen Bros. coaches
are two of only five L-29-based professional cars known to have been built.
The ongoing Depression took its toll on the firm and the firm’s contract
with Reo ended when the automaker halted production of their
152 inch wheelbase chassis. Through the remainder of the decade the firm
kept busy through general auto body repair, commercial work and remounting
used chassis with new or remodeled coach bodies.
Owen’s swan song was two side-loading ambulances they
constructed during 1936-37 on the Cord 810/812 chassis. The first, a
1936 810, was for their Lima, Ohio neighbor, the Bowersock and Chiles
Funeral and Ambulance Service, the second, a 1937 812, was ordered by an
Athens, Ohio livery service operator named Jaeger.
Built using stock 4-door 810/812 sedans, Owen Bros. cut them in half just
behind the B-pillar and inserted a hand-constructed center section between
the two pieces, just as today's modern stretch limousines are constructed.
Painted white, the Bowersox & Chiles car was sold in 1942 to a firm in
Auburn, Indiana. According to Kit Foster, it re-appeared in the
Champaign/Urbana Illinois area in 1964 and was turned back into a stock 810
The Jaeger Cord 812 turned up for sale during the early- to mid-50's and
Bernie DeWinter IV learned that it was subsequently destroyed in an accident
on Route 35, east of Dayton, after speaking to the purchaser of the wrecked
coaches' salvaged motor.
The two Cord 810/812 were the last known Owen Brothers conversions
offered to the trade, although the firm remained in business at least
through 1948 doing auto body repair and painting. Their 111-121 S. Central
Ave. factory still exists and has been occupied continuously by various
automotive repair businesses.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com, with special thanks to Bernie
DeWinter IV and Thomas A. McPherson.