The E.J. Thompson Co. can trace its history back to the Leidigh Carriage Co.
Col. Christian Leidigh (b.1845-d.1913), a Troy, Ohio native and carriage blacksmith that was associated with Morris Woodhull in the Dayton Buggy Co., established his own firm, the Leidigh Carriage Co., sometime around 1885. The firm’s factory and warerooms were located on Front St. in downtown Dayton.
The firm prospered and Leidigh incorporated it in November of 1890 with a capitalization of $25,000 with the following officers; Christian Leidigh, president, Joseph A. Wortman, vice-president and Edward F. Gerber, secretary-treasurer. An 1891 inspection of the Front St factory by the State of Ohio’s inspector of workshops and factories revealed that the firm employed 60 males, 3 females, and 4 minors. Midway through the year the firm suffered a $7,000 loss from a fire that occurred on May 2, 1891.
Although business remained strong through the mid-1890s, the end of the decade brought a general decline in the buggy business and the firm was forced into bankruptcy on November 1, 1898.
Edward F. Gerber, the firm’s secretary and treasurer, took his savings and relocated to Pittsburgh in 1900 where he established the Gerber Carriage Co. at 115-123 Seventh St, next to the landmark Gerber House which was located at the corner of Duquesne Way and Seventh St.
For a short time, things went well for Gerber, but a May 7, 1904 fire destroyed a portion of the firm’s Seventh St factory. The Scripps-McRae news service provided the following:
Temporary quarters were established at 5917-5919 Penn Ave. and Gerber started reconstruction of the damaged Seventh St facility. The 1905 City Directory lists the firm at both locations, 115 Seventh St and 5917 Penn Ave. However, Gerber found the financial burden too great and Gerber’s largest creditor, the Colonial Trust Co. of Pittsburg, took over management of the firm which was reorganized as the Penn Carriage Co., and held a clearance sale to raise much needed capital. The following advertisement from September 27, 1905 is typical of those placed in regional newspapers at the time:
The reorganized firm struggled as well and the Bank began searching for an interested party who would be willing to not only invest in the firm, but take over its management.
An Indiana native named Edward Judge Thompson, became aware of their opportunity and eagerly took up the challenge.
Thompson was born in Logansport, Indiana on December 9, 1871, to Charles F. and Elizabeth Twells Thompson. As a youngster he traveled the Great Lakes with his father and step-brother Harry ran a Logansport timber and coopering business that had an office in Chicago and a timber forest in Wisconsin. As a teenager he apprenticed himself to a printer after which he served with the National Guard of Illinois and Wisconsin. His dramatic voice and classic good looks led him to a dramatic career for the next seven years, after which he worked in the oil fields of West Virginia.
In the meantime his father and stepbrother had incorporated their Logansport business as the Thompson Lumber Co. Inc. and had established a planing mill in addition to the firm’s large warehouses. When his father passed away in 1898, Edward inherited an interest in the firm and invested the proceeds in a West Virginia oil business. At that time speculators were still finding untapped deposits of oil and natural gas in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
When that enterprise went bust, Thompson began looking for a new challenge and his brother alerted him to the opportunity that awaited him in Pittsburgh. An arrangement was made with the Colonial Trust Co. to purchase the remaining assets of the Gerber Carriage Co. In the meantime, the bank held a fire sale at Gerber’s Seventh St. warerooms as evidenced by the following December 20, 1906 advertisement:
The E.J. Thompson Co. was given control of the both former Gerber Carriage locations on January 1, 1907. By that time Edward F. Gerber had taken on a new partner, J.H. Downs, and re-opened at 15 Darraugh Ave (at River Ave) as the E.F. Gerber Carriage Co. The new firm was active at least through 1910 when the Pittsburgh City Directory listed a new address, 13 Dasher St. The firm withdrew from business shortly thereafter and Gerber entered a new line of work doing business as United Coal Mines Inc., 602 -603-604 Standard Life Building.
Surprisingly 115-123 Seventh St., the building that once housed the Gerber Carriage factory and E.J. Thompson Co., still survives. If you look carefully at the top of the building’s north-facing wall from Fort Duquesne Blvd., you can see a huge faded Gerber Carriage sign.
E.J. Thompson first appears in the 1907 Pittsburgh City Directory as follows:.
The firm was listed in the 1908 International Motor Cyclopedia Yearbook under the Auto Bodies heading as:
The October 28, 1909 issue of the Automobile reported:
The baseball grounds the article referred to was Forbes Field, the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The new Thompson factory was across the street from the home plate bleachers.
Forbes Field, originally located in the Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood, was the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1909 until June 28, 1970, when the team moved to Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh's North Side neighborhood. The stadium also served as the home football field for the University of Pittsburgh "Pitt" Panthers from 1909 to 1924 as well as serving as the home of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Pirates Football team from 1933-1940 when they became the Pittsburgh Steelers who continued to use it until 1963. The short-lived Pittsburgh Americans AFL franchise also called Forbes Field home in 1936 and 1937.
Named for British General John Forbes, the $1 million ballpark was the first US stadium to be constructed entirely of poured concrete and steel. The University of Pittsburgh purchased Forbes Field in 1958 allowing the Pirates to use it until Three Rivers Stadium opened in 1970.
On July 28, 1971 the stadium was demolished and replaced by Wesley W. Posvar Hall, which is situated on the stadiums former infield. The center-field and right-center brick walls are still standing and make up the Center Field Plaza, a commemorative park located adjacent to the University of Pittsburgh campus.
The 1910 Pittsburgh City Directory lists E.J. Thompson Co. at “Forbes Field” Oakland District, Pittsburgh. The were actually located on Louisa St. (later Sennott St.), between Boquet St and Pennant’s Place.
The following short article appeared in Yale University’s ‘History of the Class of 1906’ and was written by Wilson S. McClintock, who became E.J. Thompson’s Vice-president in 1910:
Pittsburgh banker James Crossan Chaplin was E.J. Thompson’s treasurer at that time, and was replaced by John J. Rielly in 1914.
At the 4th annual Pittsburgh Automobile Show, which was held at Duquesne Gardens beginning March 26, 1910, the firm displayed examples of the automobile coachwork. A regional newspaper stated:
The firm’s business picked up soon after the move to the ball field and the construction of a much larger building was proposed. A re-capitalization of the firm took place on January 25, 1912 as outlined below:
A large portion of the new stock was put towards construction of a new 120 x 130 ft 4-story garage which was designed by well-known Pittsburgh architects, Rutan & Russell.
For a number of years the firm was the Pittsburgh distributor of FIAT, Simplex and later Crane-Simplex automobiles, and a disproportionately large percentage of those vehicles were sold with Thompson coachwork. The Pittsburgh branch of the Westinghouse Air Suspension Co. was also located at the Thompson plant.
E.J. Thompson was a member of the Pittsburgh Automotive Association and served as Vice-president of the organization in 1918: F.D. Saupp pres., E. J. Thompson v-pres., W.W. Bennett treas., E.H. Fiser sec.
The 1918 Pittsburgh City Directory lists Edwd J. Thompson, pres E J Thompson Co, h 501 Iroquois apts and Charles A. Sweeney, sec E.J. Thompson Co., h. McKeesport, Pa.
Charles H. Barnard, v-pres., E J Thompson Co h. 5616 Forbes. For the first time the firm’s classified listing was under Automobile Manufacturers, and was absent from the Automobile Bodies heading.
The March 1919 Issue of National Geographic included a full-page E.J. Thompson Co. ad, whose text follows:
A similar ad also appeared in 1919 issues of Life and Forbes Magazines.
The 1919 Pennsylvania Department of Labor’s Industrial Directory states that 110 men, 2 women and 1 minor were employed at the Thompson Co.’s Forbes Field manufacturing facility, 20 of whom worked in the firm’s offices.
During 1919 Thompson made the decision to enter the emerging semi-custom bus and commercial body business and erected a new purpose-built garage and manufacturing facility 3 ˝ miles east of Forbes Field at 214-216 Lexington Ave. N.
On May 5, 1919, Mr. E. J. Thompson persuaded the German-born Pittsburgh-based engineer and designer Nicholas Cartus to take up the building of automobile tops. A.L.(Augie) Nelson was another talented engineer who started his automotive body career at E.J. Thompson where he earned $12 per week carrying glue pots. Nelson went on to design General Motor’s all-steel rooftop (aka turret top) and later invented the first push-button automotive door lock. He ended his career as Vice-president of Engineering with the Hayes Manufacturing Co. of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
By 1920 operations had been transferred to the spacious 22,000 sq ft one-story plant Lexington St. factory. The firm’s officers at that time were as follows: E.J. Thompson pres., J.C. Chaplin v-pres-treas. and C.A. Sweeney sec. A satellite sales office was shortly established in the heart of Manhattan’s automobile row at 1765 Broadway.
In portion of the firm’s Louisa St. factory was leased out to former Thompson vice-president, Charles Henry Barnard, who commenced operations as the Barnard Company. The firm’s officers were as follows: Charles H. Barnard, president; A. J. Symons, vice-president; W. H. Schutte, secretary-treasurer.
Alex J. Symons had been the foreman of E.J. Thompson Co.’s blacksmith dept. and William H. Schutte, manager of Thompson’s body shop. While the Thompson company now concentrated on building bus and commercial bodies and series built automobile bodies, Barnard assumed Thompson’s bespoke custom auto body business.
Charles Henry Barnard was born in Ottawa, Illinois on March 31, 1870 to W. Scott and Susan Harriet Barnard. His father was a supervisor for the Illinois & Michigan Canal, which joined the Chicago River at Bridgeport, Illinois with the Illinois River at LaSalle, Illinois, providing a 96-mile direct water link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.
After a public education Barnard joined the Canal Company where he worked under his father for the next four years. At the age of 21 he became a carriage salesman for the S.G. Gay Co., of Ottawa, Illinois. Two years later he was promoted to superintendent of the firm’s paint department, a post which he held for the next nine years.
In 1903 he left the Gay Co. to take a position as superintendent of the Gerber Carriage Co. When the firm’s assets were purchased by E. J. Thompson, Barnard elected to stay with the new firm, eventually becoming the Thompson Co.’s vice-president in 1912.
When his employer built a new plant in 1919, Barnard decided to remain at Forbes Field and enter the coach-building field on his own. In addition to manufacturing bespoke automobile bodies, the Barnard Co. did a substantial business repairing, re-upholstering and re-finishing existing vehicles.
At that time the Thompson Building was shared by at least two other firms, the Tech Motor Sales Co. and the Westinghouse Air Spring Co. Barnard retired in the mid twenties and Symonds and Schutte took over the firm, re-organizing it as Schutte & Symonds – Automobile - Construction – Painting – Special Bodies. They remained in the E.J. Thompson block which was located at 4107 Sennott St. – Louis St having been renamed as Sennott a few years earlier. Schutte & Symonds remained in business into the early thirties.
Schutte & Symonds were unrelated to the Charles Schutte Body Co. (1910-1926) of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
E.J. Thompson was president of the Automobile Body Builders Association in 1921 and 1922. During the January 1921 Body Builders Exposition at the 12th Regiment Armory, Columbus Avenue, 61st and 62nd Streets in New York City, E.J. Thompson exhibited a Talbot Darracq Phaeton among others.
Through his position in the Body Builder’s Association, E.J. Thompson became aware of efforts of Kenneth L. Childs to introduce composite fabric bodies in the United States.
Childs, a former executive of the Standard Textile Products Co., hoped to convince Detroit to adopt his own rigid-type fabric body for mass production. In 1923 Childs formed the Fabric Body Corporation in Detroit, intending to sell licenses for bodies paneled in Meritas cloth, a product comparable to Zapon and Rexine and manufactured by Standard’s Meritas Mills division in Columbus, Georgia.
Childs had been experimenting with fabric bodies since 1919, first with California-type tops for open touring cars, then closed bodies. In Childs' eyes, fabric was not a substitute for pressed steel, it was a replacement, superior. He backed the outer fabric of his bodies with an expanded metal mesh which gave "fullness" to the material.
His claims for the fabric body centered around silence, marginal weight reduction, what he considered to be ease of production-he developed a method by which body parts could be made as sub-assemblies by unskilled labor-and what he fancied was a luxury finish. Since body production in the U.S. was sometimes as far removed from final chassis assembly lines as another state, Childs' bodies did fit in with American production methods. This was an important contrast with a Weymann body, the covering of which was an on-car function. Nor did a manufacturer need special framing for the Childs: "The Childs principle of mesh backing and fabric is satisfactory with standard body frames intended for metal panels." And he proved it with a demonstration.
Childs took to the road in 1923 with a fabric-bodied Packard built for him at Detroit's Model Body Corporation whose designer, George Mercer, was impressed. Mercer, a well-known contributor to several industry magazines of the day, said of him: "Childs isn't an automotive man but he's drawn on his background for a new body of outstanding originality."
The Packard was an eyeful. Every square inch of its body was covered with Meritas cloth - even the fenders, although humdrum pressed steel was suggested for these appendages on production cars. Childs took the car all over the country during the Twenties, exhibiting it at motor shows to prove the durability of its construction. Not everyone was impressed, of course. Thomas Litle, chief engineer for the Marmon Motor Car Company, thought it was "dull and drab" without mentioning the body by name.
Fabric bodies actually attracted a rather odd interest at the time. Childs got one of his only sizeable orders from an unlikely source. In 1924 the Mengel Body Company of Louisville took out a Childs license to build deluxe "leatherette" sedan bodies to fit the Model T. Several hundred bodies were to be offered as an "accessory item" through Ford dealers. Boxy but neat, the bodywork was well finished and justified Childs' claims for a textured "different" appearance. A new radiator in the Rolls Royce mode completed the "transformation." Mengel later pulled out of the coach building business to become a subcontractor for wood parts supplied to other body makers and to build truck bodies including some for the U.S. postal department.
Childs wanted, of course, to interest Detroit's manufacturers in adopting his body for production and Hudson, Moon, Marmon, Auburn, Apperson, Dodge and Chrysler did build a few for show cars and extra special dealer orders. But little else. Childs licensed the Haynes-Ionia Company, Sedan Body and the E. J. Thompson Company to produce these few orders and then turned his attention to the specialist and custom body field. Here, he was even less successful. Only a few Hudsons and a Merrimac-bodied Lincoln were made. Childs claimed a few licensees in Canada presumably Brooks Steam Motors Ltd. which built some two hundred fabric-bodied cars was chief among these-and six or seven in Europe.
Why so little success? Roy F. Anderson of Hayes-Ionia described the situation well: "While fabric construction does eliminate two difficult-to-control areas in body production, metal working and painting, experience [with fabric bodies] in lots of five hundred suggests there can be considerable trouble with this construction as well as any other." He specifically pointed out the stretching of the outer fabric which required skilled labor-no matter what Childs said-and noted that "hand labor has been the obstacle in the production of fabric bodies, perhaps due to orders which haven't been large enough to warrant special equipment and tools." By the late Twenties too, painting techniques had become so refined that the fabric body offered no savings in construction time over the standard metal production body. By 1928 Childs had disappeared from the body building scene.
Childs licensed his system to Apperson, Auburn, Chrysler, Dodge, Hudson, Marmon, and Moon. Typically the bodies were used only on show cars or a few limited-production custom bodies. Childs was the designer and did not have a factory like Weymann America.
This special body, covered with Meritas fabric, was constructed according to the Childs method. Between 1924 and 1926 Thompson turned out small series of fabric-covered bodies using the Childs system for the Dodge Bros. automobile chassis, which were marketed direct to the nation’s Dodge Bros. dealers. The attractive Thompson Landau Sedans featured a heavily padded top and a distinctive forward slanting oval rear quarter window.
The four-passenger three-door sedan body had a unique fabric outer covering of Meritas leather cloth, rather than painted sheet metal. Built according to the Childs system, body framework was covered with wire mesh which was successively covered with cotton wadding, canvas and Meritas-brand fabric, which was than painted to order, just like a traditional metal-clad body.
In mid-1923 Thompson received a large order from Pittsburgh’s Kaufmann Department Store for 60 delivery van bodies. The 2- to 3-ton 4-cylinder 114-inch wheelbase Autocar chassis were ordered through the Pittsburgh Autocar distributor which was located at the corner of Baum Blvd and Liberty.
In early December, the completed canary yellow and black paneled trucks were delivered to the retailer via a twelve-mile long parade of trucks which wound their way through downtown Pittsburgh en route to the Kauffman Co. headquarters. The parade was covered in the January 1924 issues of the Commercial Car Journal and Autobody.
In the early twenties a number of southern states had state laws prohibiting buses that were wider than 84-inches. At that time most buses were built with a 90-inch wide chassis, so Mack introduced a special 84-inch wide chassis for the Southern markets whose coachwork was furnished by E.J. Thompson. This reduction brought about the loss of one entire row of seats, reducing the passenger capacity to 21 instead of 25 persons. Within the bus and bus body business the skinny coaches were referred to as Dixie Specials.
In early 1924 the Commercial Car Journal announced that E.J. Thompson had built a Meritas-bodied parlor coach, which was touted as the “first fabric-leather coach body to be constructed” using the Childs system. “This body is equipped with Pullman-type berths, wicker chairs, shower bath, toilet, and a kitchen fitted with stove, sink and refrigerator.” The vehicle was intended for long trips and was equipped with two thirty gallon water tanks as well as a similarly-sized septic tank.
Although a large number of buses were built in Great Britain using the similar Weymann fabric-body system, I can find no other instances of any other American buses built under the Childs patents, so it was likely the first and only bus of its kind.
In 1925 the Commercial Car Journal reported that Thompson had built a 5-vehicle fabric-bodied delivery truck fleet for the Select Furniture Corporation of Pittsburg, so it’s possible the Childs system was used on other commercial bodies produced by the firm, but the evidence is lacking.
From 1921 on, E.J. Thompson’s core business was the production of composite wood and metal bodies for buses. A large number were produced for use with purpose-built Mack bus chassis, whose main plant was located in Allentown, Pennsylvania, 275 miles away.
The firm’s experience with Dixie Coaches led to the 1925 introduction of a new observation club car body which was available in both 81- and 90-inch wide versions.
Thompson also furnished bus bodies for some of Pittsburgh’s surface transportation operators which were all controlled by the Philadelphia Company. Although the city had a well-established streetcar system, starting in 1925 they began to acquire a fleet of Yellow Coaches that made direct runs from downtown Pittsburgh to communities outside of the streetcar grid. Many of the bodies on the new Y-Series Yellow Coaches were built at E.J. Thompson’s N. Lexington Ave. shops.
The American Electric Railway Association (AERA) held their 1923 convention in Atlantic City from October 8-12, and E.J. Thompson exhibited a number of coaches which resulted in a number of new commissions from firms located well outside of their normal customer base during the next few years.
Thompson’s parlor cars, luxurious buses typically used by inter-city operators for long-distance routes, were popular with hotels and tour operators. Custom-built vehicles were constructed for firms from as far away as Los Angeles. Known users include the American Auto Tours Company of Los Angeles, California who ordered a Mack observation parlor car, and the West Park Hotel Company of Chicago, Illinois who ordered an identical vehicle for use at the Graemere Hotel.
In early 1925 Better Buses magazine reported that:
In 1927 the Pittsburgh Motor Coach Co. purchased six 21-passenger street-car type Yellow Coaches as well as 10 Parlor Car Type Yellow Buses, all bodied by Thompson.
The ‘What’s new in the bus market’ column in the August 1927 issue of Bus Transportation, Vol.6, No. 8, featured the following announcement:
The article went on to describe one of the 22-passenger parlor bodies:
Faced with increased competition in the bus body field from much large manufacturers, Thompson wisely decided to withdraw from the body-building business after 22 years of uninterrupted operation. In late1927 the firm’s property was sold to the Equitable Realty Estate Co., a firm closely associated with the building’s new tenants, the Equitable Auto Co., and Pittsburgh Motor Coach Co.
All three firms were controlled either directly or through subsidiaries by the Philadelphia Company, a multi-million-dollar Pittsburgh-based holding company that had monopolized the city’s public utilities and surface transportation agencies for almost half a century.
E.J. Thompson was notably absent from the 1930 Pittsburg City directory, both the business and the individual.
The 20,000 sq. ft. Lexington plant was recently refurbished and serves as the home of a number of small businesses which include: the Dargate Auction Galleries. www.dargate.com, Bike Pittsburgh www.freeridepgh.org , and Construction Junction www.constructionjunction.org
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com