In 1907 Leon Rubay (1870-1937) joined Rothschild & Co., a large New York City coachbuilder, as manager of their wholesale sales department. Salesmen were frequently called upon to do produce quick renderings when planning a body and Rubay found himself designing much of Rothschild’s coachwork.
Rothschild had been founded in 1906 by Maurice J. Rothschild, the Manhattan representative of the French coachbuilder, Audineau et Cie. Joining Rothschild, the firm’s president, were H.J. Rothschild (his son), W.H. Mendel and Nathaniel D. Reich (1881-1967). However, no Rothschild chassis were forthcoming, but they did build some spectacular coachwork for New York’s Isotta-Fraschini and Benz auto importers.
At the 1907 Salon, which was held at Madison Square Garden, Rothschild had the largest exhibit. A bare Isottta-Fraschini chassis was prominently featured surrounded by 7 additional chassis, all wearing coachwork by Rothschild.
A column in a 1909 issue of the New York Times, called “Enclosed Bodies Popular”, quotes Maurice J. Rothschild:
A 1909 ad states:
In 1910, Rothschild advertised that their factory had moved to a larger building at the corner of 57th Street and 11th Avenue:
In 1910, the W.S. Seaman Co., a Milwaukee, Wisconsin coachbuilder, formed a partnership with Rothschild whereby Seaman produced Maurice J. Rothschild-designed bodies for distribution in the mid-west, and even formed a subsidiary, the Rothschild-Seaman Co. for that purpose. Another Rothschild & Co. satellite sales office was located in Chicago at State & Van Buren Streets.
There was a second Rothschild in the coachbuilding business, but this firm, known as J. Rothschild & Fils, was located in Paris, France and had no known connection to the US Rothschild, although they did have sales branches in London and Liverpool.
At the 1911 Salon, held in the Hotel Astor Ballroom, Rothschild displayed a 50hp Benz with a white gunboat body as well as a 30hp Benz with a black limousine body and red chassis and wheels.
Rothschild greatly overestimated the demand for their closed limousine bodies and by late 1911 there were several hundred unsold bodies-in-the-white on which thousands of dollars were owed. The directors voted upon a voluntary bankruptcy, and the firm's assets were sold at auction in early 1912.
Many of the firm’s bodies-in-the-white were purchased by the Jandorf Automobile Co., a large Manhattan auto parts supplier that was located at 1741 Broadway, in the heart of New York City’s Automobile Row.
A Jandorf ad advertised their newly acquired inventory:
The recently constructed Rothschild plant was sold to Billy Durant and later served as Chevrolet’s New York assembly plant up until 1918, when production was moved upstate to Tarrytown.
When Rothschild closed down, Rubay found a job with Holbrook & Co, another high-class Manhattan coachbuilder that had been formed in 1908 by Harry F. Holbrook and John (Jack) Graham. In 1913, Harry F. Holbrook – an Englishman and the firm’s namesake - turned over the presidency to Graham and resigned. Graham had already assumed day-to-day control of the operation and remained at its helm for the balance of its existence. Holbrook had served as the firm's salesman and designer and when he left the void was filled by Rubay.
While at Holbrook, Rubay hired a delineator names Frederick C. Walther to help produce the numerous body drafts required at the time to produce their custom bodies. Walther had come to the United States in 1914 from his native Germany and would later join Rubay in Cleveland. Walther eventually ended up working for Harley Earl at GM’s Art & Colour and remained with General Motors Styling until his retirement in the early 1960s.
In 1914 Walter White, the vice-president of the White Motor Co., approached Rubay to design the new gasoline-powered White automobile that was planned for introduction the following year. White offered Rubay a much higher salary, providing he moved to Cleveland to oversee the new White’s production.
Stefan J. Kjeldson, a respected New York City-based imported car salesman, replaced Rubay at Holbrook.
Rubay’s designs for the 1915 White proved successful, and he persuaded White to finance him in his own firm the following year. The Leon Rubay Co. was formed in May of 1916 with $300,000 in capital furnished by White, and opened for business at 1318 West 78th St. on Cleveland's West Side. Rubay was allowed to build bodies for other chassis manufacturers as long as he agreed to supply enough bodies for the new White. He enlisted the help of Frederick C. Walther, who resigned from his position at Holbrook and moved to Cleveland.
At the 1916-17 New York Salon, Rubay exhibited a boat-tailed “Dolphin” roadster built with a metal rear deck that housed the car’s convertible top underneath it.
Rubay is credited as being one of the first to introduce aerodynamic principles to production car bodies. His 1917 White touring car bodies featured cowls that flowed into the doors and rear seatbacks that were integrated into the lines of the body, a featured that years later became known as a dual cowl. The Whites featured built-in ventilators and included unusual hemispherical headlights that were also designed by Rubay. Golf club doors first appeared in the US on Rubay bodies, and he also favored rear-mounted spare tires and hidden interior-mounted door handles.
A number of future designers started their careers with Rubay. Previously mentioned was Frederick C. Walther, who later worked for Harley Earl. Another was Amos E. Northup, a former Pierce-Arrow designer who worked for Rubay during 1922-1923. He then went to work for Wills Sainte Claire and later to the Murray Corp., a large Detroit-based production body builder. The famous Briggs designer, Ralph Roberts was too young to actually work for Rubay, but he spent a lot of time at the Rubay factory as a youngster. The most famous designer to work there was Thomas L. Hibbard.
Hibbard (1898-1982) was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1898. Even before he had graduated from High School, he had set his sights on a career as an automobile designer and secured employment as an apprentice designer with Cleveland’s Leon Rubay Co.
As Rubay was more of a salesman than a draftsman, Hibbard was soon producing most of the firm’s body drafts, and eventually many of its designs. In his short stay with Rubay, Hibbard designed bodies for White as well as the H.A.L. 12-cylinder, built by Cleveland’s H.A. Lozier.
Rubay was an early adopter of the European nautical styling trend that became popular in the states following WWI. And also helped introduce beltlines that gently rolled over into the interiors of open touring and roadsters. He favored uncluttered lines and silhouettes and allowed his designers a free hand, encouraging them to depart from traditional American styles.
One day at work, Rubay introduced Hibbard to a young friend of his who was keenly interested in the construction of automobile bodies, and assigned him the task of giving the teenager a thorough tour of the Rubay plant. Roberts recalled, "I told Mr. Rubay that I was interested in how bodies were built and designed. Rubay called a young man over and told him to show me the works. That fellow was Tom Hibbard."
Roberts grew up near Cleveland’s Peerless assembly plant and filled his schoolbooks with drawings of automobiles. Rubay was a friend of the family, and had invited Ralph to visit him at work. Hibbard and Roberts were fairly close in age and hit it off right away and they continued to correspond with each other for the next several years. Their chance meeting at Rubay, led to Roberts hiring by LeBaron a few years later, a firm which he would eventually own when its founders (Hibbard and Raymond H. Dietrich) left to pursue other ventures.
Hibbard didn’t stay very long with Rubay, as his work attracted the attention of the long-established Chicago coachbuilder C.P. Kimball & Co., who lured him to Chicago with the promise of a substantially larger salary and the title of chief designer.
In the meantime, the looming war in Europe brought Rubay a contract to produce wing assemblies for the Army Signal Corps. The contract proved to be lucrative for Rubay, and he made enough money to purchase White’s share in the Leon Rubay Co. The reorganized firm was named the Rubay Company and was capitalized in 1919 for $880,000.
Business took off after the Armistice was signed and Rubay was soon building production bodies for Franklin, Templar and White. While the Franklin bodies were designed in Syracuse by their chief body engineer, William H. Edmond, the bodies built for the H.A.L. and White automobiles where designed by Rubay, as were those built later on for Duesenberg (Model A), Pierce-Arrow (Series 32) and Marmon (34). In fact, early Duesenberg Model A roadsters bear a strong resemblance to the 1916-1917 H.A.L. roadsters.
Following the war, Rubay made a big push into the lucrative bespoke market and displayed Rubay-bodied chassis at the 1919-1921 Chicago and New York Salons. Rubay’s striking European-influenced bodies were very low and streamlined for their day even when coupled to the American chassis they were mounted to which included Locomobile, Cadillac, Packard and Owen-Magnetic. Among the standouts were a 1918 Locomobile touring called the “Coronado” that had unusual kicked-up rear fenders and a unique Victoria-style roof, that Rubay advertised as a “Deauville”.
Rubay advertised their custom coachwork to those who could afford it in a 32 page catalog that was titled “Custom Bodies” and published by Rubay Carrosserie. Two advertisements for Rubay Carrosserie were placed in the Aug 20, 1919 issue of Town & Country:
The December, 1920 issue of The Arrow, Pierce-Arrow’s excellent in-house periodical included the following item which pertained to the upcoming Pierce-Arrow Series 32 automobile:
Apparently Pierce-Arrow wanted to reduce the number body styles from sixty to ten. Up until that time their bodies had been made entirely from cast aluminum panels. Rubay designed a new body that incorporated new aluminum sheet-metal stampings with Pierce’s existing cast-aluminum wheelhousings and window frames. The resulting series 32 bodies were not only stylish, but conformed to Pierce-Arrow’s unusual construction.
Rubay’s wife passed away in 1920, and a depressed Ruby returned to his native France on an extended vacation. While there he was introduced to Paul Bastiens, a Belgian automotive engineer, who convinced Rubay to build his own luxury automobile.
The pair designed the car based on the latest European developments and included four-wheel brakes, a feature found only on a handful of cars at the time. Their target was Brewster & Co.’s Brewster Automobile, which itself was based on the French Delaunay-Belleville chassis and built in small numbers by Brewster and Co. in New York. It had a 118” wheelbase and was powered by a 36 hp 4-cylinder engine designed by Bastiens, and adapted by Arthur M. Dean, an engineer for the Templar Motors Corp., a mid-sized Ohio automaker located in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood. Another Templar employee, production manager Earl Martin, came to work for Rubay when the troubled Templar firm folded in the earl twenties.
Rubay, along with another Cleveland body builder, Lang, built production and taxicab bodies for Templar. Chicago’s Checker Taxi Co. operated about 100 Templar taxis and they were also popular with Cleveland operators such as the Waite Taxicab & Livery Co.
A 1922 announcement in Automotive Industries proclaimed that the Rubay automobile closely followed the design of French automobiles, yet had been adapted to American conditions by American engineers. Only closed bodies would be offered; a four-passenger coupe and sedan, and a 6-passenger town car, cabriolet, and brougham. One of the bodies pictured was a very early convertible sedan, a fixed-roof sedan with collapsing side windows that folded into hinged panels located in the sides of the doors and body.
Rubay exhibited the car at the 1922 New York and Chicago Salons. Fifty cars were planned for, but only three cars are known to have been made (one source says 12, another 75). Luckily a single un-restored survivor - a 1921 Leon Rubay prototype originally owned by Mrs. Frederick C. Walther - exists in the collection of a Cleveland Museum.
Unfortunately, the car was introduced just as the 1921 deflation reached its peak, and small, underpowered European-style luxury cars priced at $4,000 - $5,000 were not well-received, especially when much larger American luxury cars with substantially more horsepower could be purchased for half that price.
Although the Rubay automobile was not a success, Rubay continued to build bodies for Cadillac, Chandler, Cole, Duesenberg, Locomobile, Moon, Owen-Magnetic, Packard, Pierce-Arrow, Rickenbacker, Roamer and Stearns. While most were series-built limited production bodies, Rubay continued to advertise their custom body service in the major publications of the day including Vanity Fair and Town & Country.
Unfortunately, things were not going well for the either Rubay or his business and midway through 1923, he suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized at a Cleveland sanitarium. When released, he returned to his native Paris with his second wife to recuperate, but suffered a relapse when he learned that his creditors were planning to foreclose. Luckily, Rubay’s board of directors found a willing buyer for the Cleveland plant which was sold in January of 1924 to the Baker-Raulang Co., a well-established Cleveland production body builder. Although Rubay went out of business in 1923, Baker-Raulang continued to supply leftover Rubay bodies to Rubay’s former customers and as late as 1927, a Rubay-designed town car body was used on Moon’s Diana Town Car.
During his lengthy recovery, Rubay was visited by his former employee, Thomas L Hibbard, who was now a successful designer and body builder in his own right. Rubay worked a number of years for the French division of Frigidaire then retired to a small estate in Villiers, France with his wife. Leon Rubay passed away in 1937 at the age of 66.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com