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Peter C.I. Stengel, Stengel Carrossier, 1959-1980s; Los Angeles, California & London, England
Associated Builders
Coachcraft Ltd.

Although Peter C. I. Stengel is often listed as a coachbuilder, it’s very likely that he was a designer only, and aside from two well-publicized vehicles it’s doubtful that many, if any other Stengel-designed vehicles were actually constructed. Considering that Stengel designed so few vehicles, it’s surprising that he remains so well-known today.

A purported heir to the J.S. Bache banking fortune, Stengel first appears on the scene in 1941 when he approached the newly-formed Los Angeles coachbuilder / customizer, Coachcraft, Ltd. at 8671 Melrose Ave, in West Hollywood, to build him a four-passenger, two-door coupe on a Mercury chassis almost identical to a custom 1940 Ford coupe that Coachcraft was constructing for Clarence Solomon.

Both cars shared sectioned and lowered hoods, sharply raked windscreens, and a front fender line that blended into the doors, resolving at an upturned spear where it met another line that extended into the rear fender skirts (aka spats or wheel covers).

The two cars also shared a novel Stoessel-engineered side window frame that incorporated both the vent and side windows allowing both to be lowered as a single unit, creating a dramatic roadster-like appearance, especially when the T-tops were removed.

While Solomon’s Ford had a one-piece removable hardtop, the rigid top on Stengel’s Mercury was an elaborate three-piece affair. For cooler, yet pleasant weather, two removable T-tops could be removed and stored in the trunk leaving a Victoria-style half-clamshell roof that provided shelter for the rear seat passengers. So-outfitted, European coach builders would have referred to the car as a Sedanca or Sedanca deVille.  

On warm sunny days the remaining Victoria-style half-clamshell rear roof could be removed allowing all four occupants unlimited exposure to sun. On cool or inclement days, all three roof sections would be installed and the side windows rolled up providing a totally enclosed passenger compartment as in a standard coupe.

Although Stengel took credit for the design of the car, in a 1988 article, designer and historian Strother McMinn attributed its design to a Douglas Aircraft design engineer named Carlton J. (Buzzy) Petersen. During 1940 Peterson had furnished Coachcraft’s Rudy Stoessel with a design for a similarly styled vehicle which provided him with a starting point for Stengel and Solomon’s convertible coupes. 

Although the car was registered as a 1941 Mercury, the donor chassis was a leftover 1940 quarter-ton Ford pickup truck chassis that was purchased from a local Ford dealer. The front clip was taken from a 1941 Mercury while the rear fenders were from a 1940 Ford coupe. Although the identity of the body tub was not noted, it was likely culled from a Ford Motor Company donor.

The interior featured door panels and custom built seats trimmed in two shades of brown with genuine brown and white pony hides covering the seating surfaces. Although today’s PETA conscious celebrities would be taken aback by a real pony skin interior, Western kitsch was popular at the time due to the increasing influence of Gene Autry and other Western Stars. The door tops were trimmed in matching padded, pleated leather surfaces that continued along the top of the dash. The steering wheel and dashboard instruments were standard issue 1941 Mercury items.

Coachcraft finished off the body in a dark Cord blue while the 3-piece top was trimmed in white Burbank cloth, giving it the look of a period Carson top, which was produced across town by the Amos Carson. The flathead Ford V-8 was upgraded with a beefed-up low end, a pair of Meyer high-compression heads and two Stromberg 97 carbs fed through a Meyer-tuned intake. Large chrome plated saucer-style discs were mounted on standard Ford wheels shod with extra-wide Vogue whitewall tires.

The car was completed in August of 1941 and delivered to Stengel who at the time was working in some unknown capacity for the Vultee Aircraft Corporation at Vultee Field in nearby Downey, California. 

Unfortunately the war intervened a few months later and Stengel enlisted in the Army. He sold his 1941 Mercury to a close friend, George Huntington Hartford II, the heir to the A&P supermarket chain.

It’s assumed that Stengel went back to work for his old employer Consolidated Vultee (Convair) at the end of the War, which was now the largest manufacturer of airframes in the United States.

In early 1949 Stengel wrote a letter to the editor of Time magazine which was published in its February 14, 1949 issue:

Since the subject of made-to-order auto bodies belongs to the esoteric, I am horrified at the appellation and price [$30,000] of the ‘sybaritic specimens.’ A ‘Coup de Ville’ is improper French for the wrong type of carrosserie. A Coupé de Ville is a body with an open-type front as the Coach-craft Coupé de Ville I designed in 1940.

Beverly Hills, Calif,”

Soon afterwards Stengel reacquired the car from Hartford and in 1950 returned it to Coachcraft for an overhaul and a new paint job.

It was decided to relocate the headlights behind the grill ala late 1930s Peugeot 402s, and to install body colored covers to hide the original fender mounted units. Concentric ribbed chrome-plated wheel covers were custom machined for the car by Southern California Plating’s George Duvall, and Coachcraft repainted the bodywork bright red and recovered the two removable T-tops in a flat black Burbank cloth.

Stengel drove that version of the car around for a short time, returning to Coachcraft to remove the Burbank cloth from all three removable tops which were subsequently refinished and painted the same color as the rest of the vehicle. At a slightly later date, turn signals were added to the tops of the two front fenders.

Sometime during the mid-50s Stengel relocated to England to take a new position, and he consigned the Mercury to the Pate Auto Museum where it was placed on display for the next 30 years. In 1985 Stengel repossessed the vehicle and had it cosmetically restored for resale. The car was repainted a gorgeous translucent ruby red over a gold base, the windshield frame was gold plated and a Lalique mascot was affixed to the center of the cowl.

Soon after the car emerged from its restoration, it was sold to California-based racecar collector and historian Mark Dees. It was more recently acquired by Washington State collectors Pat and Doris Hart who had it totally restored in time for its debut at the Coachcraft display at the 2006 Amelia Island Concours de Elegance. The entire body was re-sprayed silver and the unattractive pony skin interior was discarded and replaced by tufted blue leather seats and interior panels.

After Stengel’s move to England he wasn’t heard from until late 1959 when he returned to the scene with a 1960 Cadillac station wagon that he billed as the Stengel Estate Carriage. Two renderings of the vehicle was released, one of which was actually built for an American client named Max Hess.

The May 1960 issue of Popular Science included a couple of photos of the car:

“Caddy Wagon Hits the Highways

“If your dream has been for a Cadillac station wagon, they are available now – custom-built. The body of this one, the first to be made, was designed by Peter C.I. Stengel of Hollywood and built by a century-old British coach firm for proud ownership by Max Hess, Allentown, Pa.

“It has a trunk much deeper than most – 115 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat folded, 76 cubic feet with its back up as in the photo at right - and will carry six passengers comfortably.

“The only changes necessary in the standard Cadillac chassis on which it was built were shifting the fuel filler inlet from center to right fender and rebuilding the rear bumper to allow for the deep tailgate.

“Caption 1: Despite Long profiled, the station wagon is no longer than the conventional Cadillac sedan – 225 inches from bumper to bumper.

“Caption 2: Interior finish is of wood-grain Formica with rubber luggage rubbing strips. Spare is in crescent container, tools ahead.”

The same picture and a similar article appeared in the May 1960 issue of Australia’s oldest motoring monthly, Wheels:

“Anglo-American Caddie Wagon

“Built in England for an American owner, Mr. E.D. Hess, this huge Cadillac station wagon was based on a project by Stengel of Hollywood; the design was prepared by James Young of London and the work was carried out by Panelcraft of Putney, London.  Cadillac does not include a station wagon in its range so this unit originally started life as a brand new ‘Sedan de Ville’. The car is finished in metallic pink and the seats are leather. Rear cargo deck and walls are lined with wood-grain Formica, bonded to plywood and aluminum, giving strong panels with high abrasive resistance.”

Advertising cards featuring photographs of the Stengel’s 1960 Estate Carriage list a West Hollywood address, 8610 Sherwood Drive. Coincidentally Stengel’s home/business address was located just two blocks away from Coachcraft who were located at 8671 Melrose Ave. In hindsight, one wonders why Stengel had the Cadillac built in England, especially when Coachcraft was just around the corner.

Hess & Eisenhardt, a professional car builder located in Rossmoyne, Ohio, built a similar wood-style wagon on a standard-wheelbase 1960 Cadillac at the same time. The Hess & Eisenhardt wagon still exists and was sold at the January 2009 Gooding and Company Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona for $66,000. The Stengel wagon also is also extant and is supposedly undergoing a total restoration.

A subsequent card depicts a rendering of a circa 1962 Lincoln Estate Wagon bearing two names, Peter Stengel, Carrossier and Ned North Carrossier. “Ned North Enterprises, 1485 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, Ca.” is stamped on the back.

During the 50s and 60s Ned North operated a small Los Angeles printing company and it’s unknown if had had any other automotive-related enterprises. No photos of a Lincoln wagon were ever seen and no evidence of an actual vehicle is known to exist.

A 1964 issue of the Autocar depicted another new Stengel creation, Le Boulevardier. The caption follows:

“Introducing Stengel’s Le Boulevardier. Latest design from Peter C.I. Stengel, Hollywood, Calif. is a special Rolls-Royce that has been given the French name Le Boulevardier. Three views show the sweep of the body, deck and rear-end fancywork and vertical strip effect carried out across the front.”

Once again no pictures were forthcoming and no evidence of an actual vehicle exist.

The October 24, 1965 issue of the Fresno Bee included a syndicated column by R.H. Hubbard that asked a number of celebrities, “What’s Your Favorite Car?”:

“A Duesenberg and a Mercedes-Benz that once belonged to Hermann Goering have been among the cars owned by Huntington Hartford. But the favorite of the high-living heir to one of America's great fortunes was a 1941 Ford.

‘”It was a special job, with a custom body and baby calf upholstery,’ Hartford recalls. ‘I bought it in California just before I went into the service in World War II, and it was a great pleasure to get it out of storage when I came back in '45. I loved to drive it; it was the closest thing to an American sports car there was in those days. When I left California I gave it back to Peter Stengel, the Hollywood custom car designer who built it. He still owns it, and if I didn't live in New York I wouldn't mind having it again.’”

In 1966/1967 Stengel introduced three new Cadillac designs, the Cadillac Phantasm Sedanca  DeVille Town Car, the Manishoor Estate Carriage (an updated version of Stengel’s 1960 Cadillac station wagon), and a second Phantasm designed especially for Shaikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, the emir of Abu Dhabi.

Color post cards depicting renderings of the three vehicles were sent out to the major US and British automotive trades. The back of the card included the following statement:

“Over one-quarter century of experience and studious application in automotive aesthetics; the integration of unsurpassed quality, exquisite craftsmanship, embodying correct and superior design.”

Once again no pictures of any of the vehicles were forthcoming and there’s no evidence that any of the vehicles were actually constructed. Even if it had been built, the Emir’s vehicle would not likely have been delivered as he was deposed by his brother Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan in a bloodless coup on August 6, 1966.

During the 60s and 70s Stengel wrote a number of letters to the editor of various magazines concerning classic cars, one, discussing an article on old Cadillacs, was even published in a 1970 issue of Penthouse. Many of the letters invariably made some reference to his 1941 Mercury, the 1960 Cadillac wagon, or the town car he designed for the Emir or some other Arab client.

One of Stengel's letters mentions that he was working on a Rolls-Royce project with A.F. MacNeil, the former director of James Young Ltd. Stengel mentions that he sold Rolls-Royce automobiles while he was in California during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The letter gives his name and address as Stengel Carrossier, London.

Robert Granite, Stengel's partner circa 1975-2000, sent me a picture of an attractive 1972 Stutz Bearcat roadster with an unusual two-piece V-windscreen designed by the firm.

The December, 1978 issue of Motor Trend announced that Stengel was planning on producing a Rolls-Royce Phantom Infinity based on the upcoming Silver-Spur with a 10” wheelbase extension and a longer hood to rid the car of the typical shrunken-head Corniche aesthetic. “Ours will be a sedanica deVille of the brougham or classic town brougham deVille style.”

At that time Stengel lived in Chelsea, London, England and a decade later he was proposing the construction of a Turbo Bentley Mulsanne-based sedanca coupe.

Stengel's friend and business partner Robert Granite writes:

"I first met Peter C.I. Stengel in 1963, and for the last quarter of a century, until his death in 2001, I was his partner in the firm Stengel Carrossier.  I have an extensive collection of Peter's work, many drawings and of his projects, and photos of his '41 Mercury Sedenca which I restored for him in 1983, as well as several projects that he worked on with the late Strother McMinn."

As Granite relates above, Peter C.I. Stengel passed away in 2001.

© 2004 Mark Theobald - with special thanks to Robert Granite






Strother MacMinn - Coachcraft: Still going strong - California's sole surviving coachbuilder – Special Interest Auto #8 Sep-Oct 1971

Strother MacMinn - Between Craft & Custom: Coachcraft’s 1941 Mercury Sedanca deVille Automobile Quarterly, Vol. 24 No. 4, pub 1988

Vince Manocchi - Bound by tradition: The Coachcraft Story – Collectible Automobile, October 2004

Car Classics - December 1973 issue

Time Magazine Monday, Feb. 14, 1949

Autocar, November 13, 1959

Anglo-American Caddie Wagon - Wheels (Australia) May 1960 issue

Popular Science - May 1960 - v. 176, no. 5

Automobile Quarterly, Vol. 24 No. 4, 1988

January 1960 Motor Trend pp81

Rolls-Royce Phantom Infinity - Motor Trend, December 1978 issue

May 1959 Motor Trend

Beverly Rae Kimes & Henry Austin Clark Jr. - Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942

George H. Dammann & James K. Wagner - The Cars of Lincoln-Mercury

Walter M.P. McCall - 80 Years of Cadillac LaSalle

Marian Suman-Hreblay - Dictionary of World Coachbuilders and Car Stylists

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