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Superior
Superior Motor Coach Body Company, 1923-1925; Superior Body Company, 1925-1940; Superior Coach Corp., 1940-1989; Accubuilt Inc., 1989-present; Lima, Ohio
 
Associated Builders
Accubuilt; Superior Consort; Pathfinder Coach
     

The roots of the Superior Coach Company date back to 1915 when The Garford Motor Truck Co. of Elyria, Ohio, moved from Elyria to Lima, Ohio, 150 miles to the southeast. Established in 1909 Garford was a leading manufacturer of heavy trucks and had introduced a successful line of 25-29 passenger buses in 1923.

A group of local Lima businessmen sensed and opportunity and formed the Superior Motor Coach Body Co in May of 1923 to construct bodies for Garford's new bus chassis.  A small 12,000 sq. ft. plant was purchased in downtown Lima at the corner of Wapakoneta Rd and Fourth St. A staff of 25 manufactured aluminum-paneled, wooden-framed 25-29 passenger bus bodies under the direction of president, Emmett R. Curtin.

By 1925, the firm required larger facilities and a new 20,000 sq. ft. plant was built on the western outskirts of town at 1200 East Kibby St. A majority of the firm's bodies were now being mounted on Studebaker's popular new bus chassis and the firm reorganized under the name The Superior Body Company.

Encouraged by the emerging funeral coach trade, Superior decided to enter the fray and introduced a line of funeral cars and ambulances mounted on purpose-built Studebaker or Cadillac chassis in 1925.

Their new stylish coaches all used the same basic body and were mounted on specially prepared professional car chassis and featured contemporary limousine styling. Their funeral cars included large windows and fashionable leather-surfaced landau tops while their ambulances featured large frosted rear windows and all the latest accessories.

Identical Studebaker and Studebaker-Superior coaches were marketed by both firms throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, although Superior would mount their bodies on any chassis the customer desired, placing quite a few on Cadillac chassis. 

Their typical landau topped or leather-back coach had a top covered in a synthetic material such as Chase leather, Fabrikoid or Zapon upon which a chrome or nickel-plated faux landau bar was attached. The idea was to give the appearance of a landaulette. A landaulette was generally a formal body with a leather or cloth roof portion over the rear seating area that could be folded back to afford the occupants the pleasure of an open air ride.

A big selling point of Studebaker and Superior-Studebaker was that they could be serviced at any of the 2000+ Studebaker Erskine dealers around the country.

1927 Superior coaches were usually mounted on purpose-built 158" Studebaker professional car chassis although other chassis could be substituted at the request of the customer. One Cadillac chassis featured an attractive town car styled funeral coach that featured a removable leather roof over the driver that could be removed for fair-weather driving.

Studebaker had acquired Pierce-Arrow in 1928 and a striking Pierce-Superior funeral coach was presented at the 1931 National Funeral Directors Convention. It included a free-wheeling 4-speed synchromesh transmission, hydraulic ride control, 4-wheel hydraulic brakes, and a 125hp engine all riding on a wheelbase of 160". The interior was filled with solid walnut fixtures and the seats and upholstery were finished in luxurious mohair. Pierce-Superior coaches could be outfitted as an ambulance or a funeral car and were also available as town cars. 

Superior introduced what they claimed was "the first all-steel school bus with safety glass throughout" in 1931.

1931 and 1932 Superior-Studebakers were priced between $2100 and $2700 and featured oval headlights. Lowered-priced coaches included an 80hp straight-six on a 146" chassis while a 101hp straight-eight on a 158" chassis powered the rest. Well-equipped for the price, they had a good reputation and were best-sellers in the medium-price field. Superior continued to mount bodies on customer-requested chassis. At least one '31-'32 Auburn-chassised ambulance was built, but Cadillac chassis soon became the bespoke chassis of choice starting in 1932. 

1933 Studebaker coaches included their new front end which encased the radiator inside streamlined bodywork and and distinctive V-shaped grill bumper. The wheelbase of their chassis was reduced by 4" to 154" and it fenders were partially skirted. Studebaker went into receivership in 1933, sold Pierce-Arrow to some Buffalo investors, and under the skillful management of the White Motor Co. emerged as a viable firm sporting round headlamps within the year. 

The re-designed 1934 Studebakers featured those small bullet-shaped headlights mounted to the sides of their new narrow and sharply raked grill. President-based coaches were powered by a 103hp straight-8 and included dual sidemounts fully-enclosed in body-colored cellulose housings. All Superior bodies were redesigned this year and featured a high arched-roof, tall windows and extra-wide side entrances that could accommodate any casket or gurney with ease. Less-expensive coaches were built on the all-new Dictator chassis that was powered by a 88hp straight-6 and included new skirted front and rear fenders surrounding smaller 5 1/2" x 17" tires.

While Superior continued to furnish bodies for Studebaker's popular line of professional cars, they also sold their own coaches in 1935-1936 mounted on Pontiac and Studebaker chassis. The streamlined styling introduced in 1934 continued and all coaches were available in either rear-loading or side-servicing versions that used Superior's "Sidroll" loading system that was designed and patented by Superior employee Sydney Paul  The Sidroll system featured built-in rollers heavy-duty rollers that rotated on an axis and eliminated the need for a casket table. Side-loading coaches were easily distinguishable by their extra-wide 54" side doors that were noticeably narrower on rear-loading versions.

For 1937 Ford introduced a new bus-specific chassis, the Model 70. It featured a 171" wheelbase and a 85 hp flathead V8, semi-elliptical springs, a 45 gallon fuel tank and heavy-duty air brakes. Superior produced a new box-shaped 25-passenger forward control school body that was fabricated in sections using an all-steel framework covered by an aluminum skin.

In 1937 Superior put together a partially art-carved model that consisted of removable metal stampings mounted over the side doors and rear quarter windows.  It looked more like a service car than a funeral coach, but when mounted on a Studebaker 6-cylinder chassis, its low price may have attracted a few buyers. All Superior bodies featured a new fastback rear-end treatment that looked great but significantly reduced headroom at the rear of the coach. The 1937 catalog was devoted to Cadillac and Pontiac-chassised coaches as their arrangement with Studebaker was coming to an end. 

Although A.J. Miller had been an early proponent of stamped-metal body construction, Superior was the first coachbuilder to use a 100% steel electrically-welded body shell. This all-new body appeared in 1938 and included a long subtly arched-roof plus a beltline that gently sloped downward to the modern-looking fastback rear-end. Superior's already-wide doors became wider still and could accommodate any casket or gurney without the need for a forward sliding driver's seat or center-split divider. When mounted on a LaSalle chassis equipped with dual sidemounts and wide whitewall tires, the 1938 Superior was one of the most attractive coaches of the late Thirties. The same can not be said of their unattractive art-carved hearse which continued to use the removable stampings introduced the previous year.

Superior's first complete bus was an integral type known as the Avenue, with a Ford V-8 rear-mounted engine, put on the market in 1938 and joined in the next year by an over-the-road version called the Rocket. There was a wartime hiatus, and a redesigned transit bus was again offered briefly after 1946. Probably fewer than 100 Avenue buses were actually sold for transit service, the largest fleet comprising 14 vehicles used to motorize the streetcar lines in Lima (Superior's home town) in 1939.

In 1939 Superior built a custom town car-style hearse for a Michigan funeral director that included internal and external gold-plated hardware, green and silver draperies topped off by turquoise mohair upholstery. Superior also offered optional built-in roof-top warning lights starting this year. Also available was a backlit display that displayed the word "ambulance" mounted between the two light pods.

The company's name was changed to The Superior Coach Company in 1940.

Superior finally introduced an attractive art-carved hearse in 1940. Called the Tarrytown, it resembled the triple-arched gothic coaches from other manufacturers and was a huge improvement over the previous three year's carved coaches. Combination coaches used Superior's patented reversible rollers that disappeared into the floor when being used as an ambulance. Side servicing versions also included the patented Sidroll system that featured  heavy-duty rollers that rotated on an axis eliminating the need for a bulky casket table.

Quite unfairly, LaSalle had acquired the reputation of being a "cheap" Cadillac and was eliminated by GM just as Cadillac released their new Bill Mitchell-designed models in 1941. The new Cadillac was decidedly forward-looking, side-mounted spares had been eliminated and the new Hydra-Matic automatic transmission was available for the first time having been pioneered by Oldsmobile in the previous year. The prow-nosed look seen in the Thirties was gone, replaced by massive front-end highlighted by the now-famous eggcrate grille.  Headlamps were now mounted in, rather than on top of, the front fenders. Equipped with a Cord-like coffin-nose hood the new Cadillacs were noticeably different from their predecessors and set the standard for American luxury during the 1940s.

1941 Superior-Cadillacs were mounted on the new Cadillac Series 62 and 75 chassis whose styling complemented the streamlined body Superior introduced in 1938. The attractive Superior Landau coach was available with a padded leatherette roof or a bare metal roof painted to match or contrast with the rest of the body. Superior also offered price-conscious customers a Pontiac-based lineup powered by a 6 or 8-cylinder engine. Bodies were identical to those found on Superior-Cadillacs, but were furnished with less-expensive materials. The roof-top lighting pods introduced in 1938 were more popular than ever and could be ordered on any Superior ambulance or combination coach.

Superior bodies were redesigned in 1942. Gone was their characteristic rearward-sloping beltine and noticeably arched roof. The new roof was lower and more uniform in height and the beltine now traveled in a straight line from hood to tail. The extra-wide doors that first appeared in 1934 were slightly narrower, but now featured a forward-sloping C-pillar with a correspondingly-angled rear quarter-window introduced on last year's coaches. An electrically-operated casket table was available as was built in roof-top emergency lighting and rear-compartment air-conditioning. Superior continued to use Cadillac an Pontiac chassis for all of their coaches.

Superior had been producing school buses as well as professional cars during the 1930s and 1940s and unlike some of their competition, put them in position to profit from lucrative war contracts. The short-wheelbase school buses were easily converted to troop transport and equipment maintenance vehicles without costly re-tooling. A number of Cadillac and Pontiac-chassised ambulances were supplied to the US Army's Medical Corps and the international Red Cross while portions of the large Superior plant were re-tooled to make huge rectangular field ambulance bodies as well as a few portable rocket-launchers.   

Post war 1946 Superior bodies abandoned the sloping C-pillar/rear quarter-window treatment but were little changed otherwise except for their price. Due to shortages of materials and a huge demand for new vehicles it was a sellers market. The advertised base price of a typical 1946 Superior-Cadillac ambulance was $4,865, substantially more than the identical coach cost in 1941 and the actual prices could go even higher as post-war vehicles were typically sold subject to price at the time of delivery.  The identical coach mounted on an 8-cylinder Pontiac chassis sold for about $800 less. Pod-shaped warning lights and electric siren were optional extras and a fully-optioned air-conditioned Superior-Cadillac Ambulance could easily cost over  $7,000. Superior-Pontiac coaches included fender-skirted Cadillac rear fenders from 1946-1948 but were easily identified by Pontiac's distinctive hood, grill and front fenders.

Material shortages were a thing of the past and in 1947 Superior sold three times the number of coaches they had in 1946 without any significant changes in body-styles or options. Prices were up by about 10% over the already high 1946 levels. Cadillac and Pontiac based Superior coaches continued little unchanged through 1948.

By 1949 Superior had abandoned their Pontiac chassis and decided to switch to the easily adaptable Chrysler Corporation 9-passenger limousine chassis. Badged as either Chrysler, Desoto or Dodge coaches they were available with 6 or 8 cylinder engines and featured a distinctive arched steel body frame that featured forward-sloping C-pillars and rear quarter-windows that closely resembled A.J. Miller's "Torpedo" all-steel body introduced in 1941. Because of Chrysler's shorter wheelbase, the rear side doors were too narrow to allow for side-loading although the radically sloped C-pillars gave these short-lived coaches a more modern-look than their Cadillac siblings. Unfortunately Chrysler discontinued the limousine chassis early in the 1949 model year so production of the Chrysler, Desoto and Dodge chassied coaches came to an abrupt end so very few were produced and none are known to exist today. 

Cadillac's new commercial chassis was available beginning in 1949, one year after the introduction of their famous P-38 Lightning-influenced rear fenders.

(1949-present Superior history goes here)

By 1951 Superior's bus and professional car business had became so brisk that the East Kibby St. facility was greatly expanded and a brand new facility was built in Koscuisko, Mississippi.

Also owned Pathfinder Coach in the 1950s. A budget priced all-steel safety school coach on 137"-212" wheelbase chassis. Pathfinder Coach Division of Superior Coach Corporation, Kosciusko, Mississippi.

In 1960, Superior turned Pontiacs into 9-passenger limousines Major redesign came in 1957, 1965, 1971 and 1977, the year professional vehicles were dramatically downsized.

Consort was the model name for Superior's short wheelbase line of Pontiacs offered from 1961 through 1973 (1974). While they appeared to be modified Pontiac station wagons, they were completely built coach bodies mounted on Pontiac chassis. The proof is in the chassis itself, as Pontiac Bonneville station wagons were built on the shorter wheelbase of lower line Pontiac station wagons, and trimmed as Bonnevilles, but the Consort was built on the longer wheelbase Pontiac Bonneville passenger car chassis, but used stock Pontiac station wagon doors and side glass. The extra length is obvious in the sail panel area behind the rear quarter windows.

In 1950, Cincinnati, Ohio's Ed Robben bought Armbruster, a Fort Smith, Arkansas-based airport limousine maker. Stageway Coaches, a large Cincinnati-based distributor of Armbruster's products was purchased by Robben from Queen City Chevrolet in 1962.  Stageway relocated to Fort Smith and was now given exclusive rights to distribute Armbruster's coaches. Upon Dobben's death in 1966, Milt Earnhart, his son-in-law, assumed ownership, and combined the two operations renaming the firm Armbruster-Stageway Inc.

In 1973, Tom Earnhart - Milt's son and an a marketing genius - joined the firm after graduation from college and eventually assumed  control of the firm. Earnhart sold Armbruster-Stageway to Carmatex Inc. in January 1981 and a few months later purchased the assets and trade name of the now-defunct Superior Coach Co. from its parent company, Sheller-Globe. 

Earnhart then purchased the Sayers & Scovill business and trade name from Hess & Eisenhardt towards the end of the year and transferred all S&S production to Superior's Lima, Ohio facility which was run by Darrel Metzger, Superior's long-time funeral car and ambulance sales manager, and later on - its president.  Earnhart also moved production of Superior-Buick coaches from Fort Smith, Arkansas back to Superior's Lima, Ohio plant. Since the mid-1970s, all Superior-Buick funeral coaches had been built by Armbruster/Stageway and re-badged as Superiors.

To further complicated matters, Earnhart merged with Northeast Ohio Axle in 1985 and the new firm NEOAX Inc, purchased Carmatex Inc., the same firm which had purchased Armbruster-Stageway from Earnhart just 4 years earlier. NEOAX Inc. (aka Earnhart) now owned Superior, Sayers & Scovill, Armbruster-Stageway (Carmatex), and Northeast Ohio Axle.

NEOAX sold off Armbruster-Stageway to Executive Coach Builders in 1989 but kept S&S and Superior, first renaming it S&S/Superior of Ohio, Inc., then NEOAX Inc. Superior Coaches Div. and finally Accubuilt Inc. in 1989.

During 1995, Accubuilt Inc. moved into a new purpose-built, 175,000-square-foot facility in Lima, Ohio. Accubuilt purchased the Eureka and Miller-Meteor trade names from CCE Inc. in 1999 and moved all Eureka and Miller Meteor manufacturing to the Lima plant. 

In August 2001, Accubuilt purchased the assets of Vartanian Industries, a small shuttle and wheelchair van converter and moved their operations to the Lima, plant.

Although the Miller-Meteor and Eureka names were recently retired, Accubuilt continues to manufacture limousines and professional vehicles for 3 distinct brand names: DeBryan, S&S (Sayers & Scovill) and Superior.

*(The 1973 EMS Systems Act - passed in 1974, implemented four years later in 1978 - required that communities receiving federal funds for their programs had ambulances that met new federal specifications. Three chassis styles meet the criteria and are still in use today: Type I uses a small truck body with a modular compartment, Type II has a van body with a raised roof and Type III has van chassis with a modular compartment. Passenger-based vehicles were purposely excluded from legislation and the last American-made automobile-based ambulance was built in 1978. However a handful of automobile-based ambulances are still made in Europe using Mercedes E-Class and Volvo S-60/S-80 chassis.)

2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com

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References

www.accubuilt.com

Allen County Historical Society Museum in Lima, Ohio

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

Ron Van Gelderen & Matt Larson - LaSalle: Cadillac's Companion Car

Thomas A. McPherson - Superior: The complete history

The Professional Car (Quarterly Journal of the Professional Car Society)

Gregg D. Merksamer - Professional Cars: Ambulances, Funeral Cars and Flower Cars

Thomas A. McPherson - American Funeral Cars & Ambulances Since 1900

Walt McCall & Tom McPherson - Classic American Ambulances 1900-1979: Photo Archive

Walt McCall & Tom McPherson - Classic American Funeral Vehicles 1900-1980 Photo Archive

Walter M. P. McCall - The American Ambulance 1900-2002

Walter M.P. McCall - American Funeral Vehicles 1883-2003

Ed Strauss & Karen Strauss - The Bus World Encyclopedia of Buses

Donald F. Wood - American Buses

Denis Miller - The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trucks and Buses

Susan Meikle Mandell - A Historical Survey of Transit Buses in the United States

William A. Luke & Linda L. Metler - Highway Buses of the 20th Century: A Photo Gallery 

 

   
 
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