The history of Proctor-Keefe starts in 1912 when Frederick G. Proctor left the body engineering and drafting department of the Packard Motor Company to establish the Motor Truck Body Co.
Frederick G. Proctor was born in Corunna, Ontario, Canada, in 1884. After a public education he emigrated to Port Huron, Michigan at the age of 16, becoming an apprentice machinist. During the course of his education Proctor became interested in mechanical engineering and drafting and served in that capacity first with Detroit’s Murphy Iron Works, the manufacturers of the Murphy Stoker, and from 1908 onwards at the Packard Motor Company.
In 1908 Proctor married Miss Cecile S. Parent and together they produced three children: Edgar Lee, Beth Irene and Dorothy Jane.
The newlywed was eventually placed in charge of Packard’s body drafting department where he became friends with two like-minded Packard body men, E.T. Haugstefer and Harry A. Carrier.
The trio decided to go into business for themselves and in early 1912 organized the Motor Truck Body Co. with Frederick G. Proctor, president; Edwin F. Rauss, vice-president; E.T. Haugstefer, secretary and treasurer, and Harry A. Carrier manufacturing manager. The new firm was capitalized for $10,000 and moved into a small shop at 320-322 Franklin St., Detroit, and commenced the design and manufacture of high-class custom-built commercial bodies.
Although the firm’s main interest lay in the production of commercial bodies, during 1915 they designed an attractive speedster body for the Ford Model T which was advertised as “The Body You Have Been Looking For” in the February 1916 issue of Ford Owner magazine.
Business progressed and they soon organized financing for a new one-story, 64 by 245-ft. building which was erected at 7741 Dix St. at the northwest corner of Central, just down the street from a main line of the Michigan Central Rail Road. An additional 2½ acre parcel was also purchased for future expansion.
The Motor Truck Body Co. became a victim of the post war depression and Proctor brought in a new partner named Frank E. Keefe and together they purchased the interests of Haugstefer and Rauss, creating a partnership, the Proctor Keefe Body Company. They remained committed to the design and manufacture of commercial bodies and were soon Detroit’s largest independent commercial body builder. Rauss would later serve as supervisor of economics and assistant director of Cadillac Motor Co.'s purchasing department.
Keefe served as the firm’s money man, serving as treasurer, secretary and sales manager while Proctor handled the manufacturing end as its purchasing agent, designer and plant manager.
Proctor & Keefe’s F.E. Keefe was not the F.E. Keefe who served as the eastern regional sales manager for the Willard Storage Battery Company, of Cleveland, Ohio during the 1920s.
The 1922 Southern Lumberman’s Directory noted that Proctor-Keefe was a large consumer of basswood, beech, birch, cottonwood, hickory, hard maple, red and white oak, pecan, poplar and mahogany.
Proctor-Keefe are credited with supplying production bodies for Ford’s Model T& TT – Model A&AA Driver Salesman Trucks. Panel truck bodies were also supplied to Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, GMC, Graham and Mack.
Proctor-Keefe provided Ford Model A Truck purchasers with an assortment of specialized delivery van bodies. They offered special light-weight oversized van bodies as well as a line municipal bodies which included ambulances, hearses, and small buses.
They also re-worked standard Ford van bodies for specialized uses. One popular conversion was their small Briggs-based insulated bodies that included locker-type doors for the transport of meat and other perishables.
Small dump and refuse bodies were also offered as was a two-compartment coal body was also offered that allowed operators to make two separate deliveries per trip.
During the late twenties and early thirties Proctor-Keefe produced specially-designed pie wagon bodies for the Pie Bakers of America, the producers of the Mrs. Wagner's Pies.
Two other large Proctor & Keefe customers were Chicago-based Swift & Company and Armour Co. Both meat-packing firms used Ford chassis and ordered hundreds of insulated bodies from Proctor-Keefe during the 1930s.
Proctor-Keefe also offered specialized refrigerated Ice Cream Bodies as well as insulated ice truck bodies (aka mobile ice boxes) which were common before the introduction of reasonably-priced refrigerators later in the decade.
Proctor-Keefe offered a large furniture van body for the 157" Ford Model AA chassis during 1930. The J.L. Hudson Co. used these attractive vehicles in metro Detroit to deliver furniture to their customers.
Ford introduced their new line of commercial chassis in 1932. Now available with the new flathead V-8 and designated Model B or BB the new double drop chassis featured better springs, a new low-slung appearance and the possibility of substantially more power.
Although light truck chassis were normally used, a circa 1932 Cadillac-based paddy wagon was built by the firm for the Detroit Police Department.
Michigan was the first state to ratify the 33rd amendment, repealing Prohibition, and soon afterwards Dodge Bros. released a special brochure entitled Dodge Trucks for the Brewing Industry. Inside were a complete line of Proctor-Keefe brewers bodies, the no. 222 slatted rack brewery body – 120 cases max., the no. 264 lorry type brewery body – 120 cases max., the no. 265 flare board express brewery body – 80 cases max., the no. 266 stake brewery body – 120 cases max., and the no. 267 slatted rack brewery body which could hold up to180 cases.
Proctor-Keefe also offered insulated and refrigerated beverage bodies and the Detroit-based brewers of Bishops’ Ale and Alt Pilsner, Wayne Products/Wayne Brewing Co. (1933-1937) utilized them. 12 Aluminum-bodied beer truck bodies were built by the firm in 1934 for the Detroit’s Stroh’s Brewery Company.
Proctor-Keefe supplied Ford with Suburban-style Ford Panel Deliveries by special order during the mid-1930s. Proctor-Keefe took a standard Panel van and inserted two wide windows on each side of the rear compartment. The same panel-delivery bodies were used for Proctor-Keefe's ambulances and funeral cars.
Most of the firm's conversions had center-opening barn doors, but single side hinged doors were available as well as a multipurpose 3-way gate that incorporated dutch barn doors on the top half and a one-piece tailgate below.
Proctor-Keefe would occasionally produce one-off ambulances and hearses for private concerns. Their truck-based 1935-1936 funeral cars featured subtly-embossed side panels mounted on a stretched Dodge sedan delivery and were mainly used as service cars by funeral directors and municipal coroners.
Although it wasn’t their main line of work, Proctor-Keefe produced a few full-custom pumper and auxiliary light and rescue bodies for regional fire departments.
Proctor-Keefe offered an all-steel "Utility Wagon" on Ford chassis in 1936 designed to compete with the Chevrolet Suburban and Carryall. The rear doors were unusual in that the bottom half folded downward as in a regular station wagon, but the top half featured a pair of barn doors with windows. The rest of the body was filled with extra-wide windows and was probably outfitted as an ambulance as well. Most Packard woodys were built by Cantrell and available by special order only.
During the late thirties Proctor Keefe offered a Deluxe Panel truck body for Chevrolet’s 131” and 157” wheelbase chassis. Chevrolet Silver books of that era show Proctor-Keefe panel type bodies on both as well as turtleback Parcel Post bodies.
During the mid thirties standing drive milk trucks and route delivery bodies became popular and Proctor-Keefe’s 1938 Silver Book ad highlighted the firm’s stand-up delivery bodies.
Ed (Edgar) Proctor and Roy Keefe, sons of the two founders, became associated with the firm in the thirties and in a 1970s interview with Action Era Vehicle, discussed the construction of the firm’s early panel truck bodies:
During the mid-thirties Proctor-Keefe introduced sleeper cabs built using standard Ford, Chevrolet or Dodge cabs. Sleeper cabs of that ear closely resembled today's extended pickup cabs, not the apartment-on-wheels sleepers found on today's big rigs.
Cleveland, Ohio's Truckstell Corporation and other Midwest outfitters used the Proctor-Keefe cabs on some of their heavy-duty long-haul truck conversions. Kenworth is credited with building the first commercially available sleeper cab, which appeared in 1933 and Studebaker is known to have offered sleeper cabs the following year (1934). Custom-built sleeper bodies can be seen on a few late 1920s and very early 1930s trucks however they were built on an individual basis by regional trucking companies and body builders.
During the thirties and forties Proctor-Keefe produced small runs of parcel post bodies for the US Postal Service as well as a number of municipal ambulances, paddy wagons and coroner's hearses. They also specialized in outfitting municipal and volunteer fire departments with ambulances, and fire rescue and salvage truck bodies, all based on their popular delivery van bodies.
Proctor-Keefe and Gerstenslager built large numbers of mail-truck bodies for the US Postal Service mounted on 134" 1941 Ford 3/4 ton chassis. The Proctor-Keefe bodies appear to have used cowl and chassis with their own commercial glass front doors. The Gerstenslager bodies also used the Ford chassis-cowls but included standard Ford front doors.
Proctor-Keefe’s popular squad bodies were multi-passenger vehicles designed for fire department and municipal use. Their standard squad body was built using a large capacity parcel delivery truck with a bi-level rear compartment with seats and windows on the top and cargo compartments underneath. The Detroit Fire Department placed two Cadillac-chassised Proctor-Keefe rescue squad cars into service during Word War II.
The World War II-era Dodge SNL G-657 Mast Parts List included the following body suppliers:
Proctor-Keefe built/modified bodies for the Dodge Power Wagon VC G505-based 1940 Dodge VC6 and G505-based 1942 Dodge WC10, WC-17, WC-26, and G502-based WC-53 carryalls. The bodies for the G-613-based 2-wheel drive ½-ton VC-26 and WC-36 carryalls were also produced by Proctor-Keefe. The carryall shell was built using a stock half-ton 1939 Dodge panel van body, to which Proctor-Keefe inserted four boxed-in side windows, two rows of rear seats, a front jump seat and a combination tailgate/liftgate.
In hindsight one may wonder why Dodge didn’t simply purchase Suburban bodies in-the-white from GMC or Chevrolet as they would not have required modification, however fierce competition amongst Detroit’s automakers at the time made such a transplant unlikely if not impossible.
The VC-6 (24 pcs.), WC-10 (1,643 pcs.), WC-17 (274 pcs.), WC-26 (2,900 pcs.), WC-36 (400 pcs.) and WC-53 (8,400 pcs.) carry-alls were assembled in Dodge’s newly constructed Mound Rd. Assembly Plant in Detroit. It’s doubtful that Proctor-Keefe had the facilities to manufacture/modify the 13,000+ carryall bodies at their small Dix St. factory and surviving photographs indicate that the van bodies were modified at Dodge’s Mound Rd. facility.
The WC-53 Carryall had an open rooftop that was fitted with a canvas covered panel, and was intended for troop transport or light cargo duty. The WC-53 was longer and heavier than its half-ton WC-10, WC-17, and WC-26 cousins but was easily distinguished from them as the WC-53 has rounded front and rear fenders while the others had much larger and longer teardrop-shaped fender openings. Additionally the ¾-ton WC-53 had a flat hood while the other ½-ton carryalls featured a forward sloping hood.
After the war, Ed (Edgar) Proctor and Roy Keefe took over the firm from their fathers, concentrating on the firm’s municipal ambulance, civil defense and police patrol wagons. They also did a substantial business in building crew and sleeper cabs from both standard and COE truck cabs. Proctor-Keefe offered them on both standard and forward control Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, GMC and International chassis.
One of the firm’s final orders was for the Detroit Police Department for whom they built 4 Police Patrol Vans in 1965. Soon afterwards the firm stopped advertising and quietly withdrew from business in 1966.
Their Dix St. factory was purchased for use as a warehouse by Danto's Furniture & Appliance, a large Detroit appliance retailer located two blocks to the south at 7701 W. Vernor Hwy.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com