The Union City Body Co. was formed in 1898 by three Union City, Indiana businessmen, Charles C. Adelsperger (1854-1936), S.R. Bell and J.W. Wogoman to manufacture carriages, buggies and wagons for communities bordering the Indiana and Ohio state line in and around Muncie, Indiana. The Randolph County city was the birthplace of Harry C. Stutz and was located in a 100-mile radius of many early automobile manufacturers, and soon began building wooden bodies for early horseless carriages.
One of their first auto body customers was Elwood Haynes of Kokomo, Indiana whose Haynes-Apperson automobile was one of the country’s earliest production automobiles. In the firm’s first two decades, they produced bodies for Haynes, Apperson, Clark, Davis, H.C.S., Lexington, National, Premier, and Chandler.
The 1916 Union City Six, a five-passenger touring car equipped with a 48/52-hp six-cylinder engine mounted on an assembled 120-inch wheelbase chassis, was a product of the Union City Carriage Manufacturing Co., another Union City, Indiana firm that was unrelated to the Union City Body Co. As many as 8 Union City Sixes were built, although the only evidence for the vehicle is a single 1916 sales brochure.
The Union City Carriage Co. was founded in 1875. William C. Elston (1839-1898) bought into the firm in 1890 and within four years became the carriage builder’s president and treasurer. of the company. The firm’s vice-president was John A.M. Adair (1864-1938) president of the International Finance Corp. Adair was very active in politics and served as Indiana’s 8th district’s US Congressman from 1907-1917 and also ran unsuccessfully for governor of Indiana in 1916. The Union City Carriage Co. withdrew from business at the end of 1913.
In the next decade Union City Body Co. built production automobile bodies for Auburn, Duesenberg, Essex, and Pierce Arrow as well as commuter and school bus bodies for the region’s numerous commercial chassis builders.
Charles C. Adelsperger (1854-1936), the firm’s president, was born in Seneca County, Ohio in 1854. He established his own carriage factory in Arcanum, Ohio in the 1880s where he patented a number of sliding seats and carriage bodies. His innovative seating designs led to the formation of the Star Slide Seat Company of Springfield, Ohio, one of region’s largest carriage seat manufacturers. He relocated to Union City in 1898 and formed the Union City Body Company with two local investors, S.R. Bell and J.W. Wogoman.
During his active business career Adelsperger served as president of both the Union City Body Company and the Sedan Body Company, another Union City automobile body builder that he formed with A.A. Charles, president of the Kokomo Steel & Wire Co. and a director of the Haynes Automobile Co. Sedan Body supplied production sedan bodies to Haynes and other regional automobile manufacturers. The Sedan Body Co was formed in 1920 with a capitalization of $125,000 and on Sept 16, 1921 capital in the firm was increased from $125,000 to $250,000. John Weber, Union City’s director of automotive body sales served in the same capacity at Sedan Body.
Adelsperger not only built automobile bodies, he sold and repaired them at the Central Garage Inc., Union City’s finest garage and body shop. They were also dealers for the Haynes automobile and a number of other popular brands in the teens, twenties and thirties.
Adelsperger’s nephew, Werner Edmond Adelsperger (1893-1979), an accountant at the TF & F Railroad Co. of Fostoria, Ohio, moved to Union City in 1930 to take charge of the Central Garage. When his uncle retired from Union City’s board of directors in 1932, he became its chairman, a position he held into the 1970s.
Werner’s son, Wenner Edmond Adelsperger Jr. (1917-1982) was a director of Union City Body and worked for the firm as its parts and service manager until he took over the operation of the Central Garage when his father retired in the 1960s.
Charles C. Adelsperger had a keen interest in supplying his customers with comfortable seats and realized that Union City’s commuter bus seating could be cross-marketed to the country’s burgeoning movie theatre owners. In 1927 Union City Body Co. established the International Seat Division to produce and market them. Adelsperger and George O. Stuck, Union City’s chief body engineer, designed the seating division’s early products. As late as 1974, Union City’s Economy International Seat Division was still producing movie theatre seating. Following the retirement of Adelsperger in 1930, H.D. Fitzgerald became Union City’s president. Fitzgerald was the son of Dr. W. T. Fitzgerald, a prominent Greenville, Ohio physician and former U. S. congressman from Ohio’s Fourth district. Charles C. Adelsperger passed away in Union City on July, 10th 1936 at the age of 82.
Even though Union City still exists as a commercial body builder, they are best remembered for the production bodies they built for Auburn and Duesenberg in the early thirties. Shortly after Errett Loban Cord became head of Auburn he purchased Limousine Body Co. and Central Manufacturing Company, Auburn’s primary production body builders.
Duesenberg president Harold Ames knew that sales of the Model J could be improved if the firm offered a series of catalog customs, however he realized that the firm’s clients wouldn’t bite unless a well-known coachbuilder was involved. Hence the mid-1930 emergence of LaGrande, Duesenberg’s exclusive in-house coachbuilder. In reality, LaGrande was a fictitious builder, formed to help sell the designs of Duesenberg’s body designer Gordon Buehrig.
An in-house coachbuilder enabled Duesenberg to keep close tabs on quality and give them a tidy profit as all LaGrande bodies were built by production body builders who could deliver a custom-appearing body for less than half the price of a true custom-built coach. At the time, Le Baron was the nation’s most prestigious builder, so it came as no surprise that Ames came up with a similar sounding name, LaGrande. He banked on the fact that many of their customers wouldn’t know the difference, and he was right as an estimated 29 LaGrande bodies were sold between 1931 and 1936.
The LaGrande Sweep-Panel Phaeton made its debut at the 1931 New York Auto Salon, and was clearly based on earlier Swept-Panel designs created by Le Baron. Le Baron delineator Hugo Pfau recalled “We were unhappy to have not only our designs pirated, but even our name adapted with only a minor change and not a word of thanks or apology.” From that point on, Le Baron refused to build on the Indianapolis automaker’s chassis.
Most of the bodies for the LeGrande program were supplied to Duesenberg in-the-white by the Union City Body Co. of Union City, Indiana. In-the-white refers to bodies delivered to a chassis manufacturer minus trim, paint, varnish and hardware. Union City was a major supplier to Auburn and the bodies for the legendary Auburn Speedsters were built there. Union City also built 8 LaGrande bodies for the Cord L-29's custom body program, 2 Town Cars, 2 Victorias, 1 Coupe, 1 Salon Sedan, 1 Boattail Speedster and 1 Sedan.
A pair of SWB roadster bodies and 2 unsold Cord L-29 bodies (one a sedan, the other unknown) were supplied to Duesenberg's LaGrande program by the Central Manufacturing Co. of Connersville, Indiana. The LaGrande Roadster coachwork was used on the much publicized 1935 SSJ roadsters while the leftover L-29 sedan body was mounted on a used Duesenberg chassis (J-189) in 1933. The other L-29 body, type unknown, was mounted on a new Duesenberg chassis (J-472) in 1933.
Central Manufacturing was a subsidiary of Errett Loban Cord’s business empire, which also included Duesenberg. The third LaGrande builder, A.H Walker Company, of Indianapolis supplied Duesenberg with bodies trimmed and painted. A.H. Walker was totally unrelated to the Walker Body Co. of Amesbury, Massachusetts which went out of business in 1931.
Harold T. Ames, Duesenberg’s president, wanted the firm’s coachwork to have a distinctive, yet congruous appearance. He greatly admired the work of Stutz’s in-house designer, Gordon Buehrig, and hired him as Duesenberg’s chief body designer a few days after the 1929 Indianapolis 500. Most early Duesenberg bodies were designed by Buehrig and built by outside coachbuilders such as Brunn, Derham, Holbrook, Judkins, Le Baron, Murphy, Rollston and Willoughby. Buehrig’s most popular design was the Beverly Sedan, built by both Murphy and Rollston. His personal favorites were the Derham Tourster and the Brunn Torpedo Phaeton (actually a convertible sedan).
Philip Derham was Duesenberg’s official coachbuilders’ representative and spent lots of time on the road visiting the automaker’s authorized coachbuilders ensuring that Buehrig’s designs were adhered to. When Buehrig resigned in 1932, the factory coachwork program was put on the back burner and J. Herbert Newport Jr. was promoted to chief designer. Newport had previously worked with Derham at the short-lived Floyd-Derham works and was hired by Duesenberg on his recommendation. Newport had previously worked for Studebaker, Dietrich and Brunn before joining Duesenberg in February of 1933. Alex Tremulis, another legendary designer, was hired by Ames in 1933 to assist Newport and eventually became Auburn’s chief stylist when Buehrig left to work for Budd in 1936.
A few Duesenberg bodies were designed by a handful of other coachbuilders, although Duesenberg claimed that all of their designs had to be approved in advance. The non-official builders included Barker, Fleetwood, Floyd-Derham (completed by Wolfington), Franay, Hibbard & Darrin, Kellner and F.R. Wood & Son. When Buehrig left Duesenberg in 1932, J. Herbert Newport Jr. took over as the firm’s chief designer. Newport is credited with the design of the two short wheelbase Duesenberg SSJ roasters as well as the Lilly Coupe now owned by Jay Leno. Buehrig returned to the automaker late in 1933 to design the Baby Duesenberg, but spent most of his time working on new designers for Auburn.
Walker’s highly skilled craftsmen and low-key operation were well suited to prototype development and it was in the Walker factory that the body for the prototype Cord 810 (Cord E-1) was built using an experimental chassis designed by August Duesenberg. The coachwork was designed by Gordon Buehrig, who had recently been re-hired by Harold Ames to help design a ‘baby Duesenberg’ using components sourced from the Auburn parts bin. The stunning 4-door sedan was completed in ten weeks during the spring of 1934, but was set aside for a number of months while Ames and Buehrig tended to more important matters such as face-lifting the 1935 Auburns.
When Duesenberg wanted another pair of Brunn Torpedo Phaetons they contacted Bert Walker who was looking for work following the closure of Weymann-American. Weymann-American had built two “Brunn” Torpedo Phaetons for Duesenberg before they shut their doors, and Walker was the logical choice to supply additional examples. Walker took out a short-term lease on the Indianapolis Weymann plant in 1934 and hired a handful of former Weymann craftsmen and got to work. In addition to the 2 Torpedo Phaetons, Walker also built 3 Convertible Coupes, the famous J. Herbert Newport Jr.-designed Lilly Coupe (owned by Jay Leno) and a Convertible Sedan that was finished by Bohman & Schwartz after Walker closed shop in early 1935 and returned to his native England.
The Depression had put a severe damper on Duesenberg sales and unsold chassis were piling up in Indiana. Things were just as bad at many of the firm’s authorized coach builders, Murphy closed down in 1932 and many of the others were close to bankruptcy. Designs and bodies in the white dating from the early thirties were mothballed until sales slowly began to pick up in 1934. A number of coach builders began to specialize in customizing existing Duesenberg bodies and re-bodying earlier Duesenberg chassis. The leader in the field was Bohman & Schwartz of Pasadena, California which was formed by Christian Bohman and Maurice Schwartz, two former Murphy employees. Duesenberg was no longer in any position to dictate how their chassis could be bodied and a number of unusual bodies were built by the Pasadena coachbuilder for their eccentric Hollywood clientele.
The GAF Auto Museum in Longview Texas houses the original automotive drawings of J. Herbert Newport Jr. Many of Gordon Buehrig’s originals can be seen at the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana.
In the mid-20s Union City began the production of school bus bodies for Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, International and White as well as truck cabs for Studebaker. Early in the decade Union City was chosen by Ford Motor Company to supply their Ford brand buses and during World War II, Ford chassised buses were the firm’s sole products.
Early models included the 1931 Ford Type 330A School Bus and the Type 330B Passenger Bus. 32 children could ride inside the Type 330A and both buses used Ford's Model AA-157 bus chassis. The Passenger bus featured an optional 7 1/2" raised roof to provide additional clearance for 21 adult passengers and their luggage. Both bodies featured safety glass and a driver operated side entrance.
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. Union City built bodies for both the 133 1/2" and 157" Ford chassis, and could provide longer buses on special order.
1932 and later Ford Buses were now designated models BB330 A&B. Although their Union City sourced bodies looked virtually identical from previous years, they were both longer and wider than comparable 1931 models.
For 1933 Ford dropped the factory bus models, but Union City continued to supply them through Ford Commercial Vehicle dealers around the country.
Union City produced special projects for Ford during the mid 30s including a modified Fruehauf trailer that was made into an aerodynamic sightseeing tractor-trailer bus for Ford's River Rouge assembly plant in 1936.
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. Union City produced the box-like 25-passenger forward control body with Ford marketing the vehicle in its 1937 factory catalogs. The new bodies were fabricated in sections using an all-steel framework covered by an aluminum skin topped by a wood-framed padded rubber roof. The interior panels were covered in Masonite with tube-framed seats covered in a durable leatherette.
Union City continued to build non-forward control buses on Ford's 157" Drive-Away chassis for school districts and operators that wanted a more classic bus look.
Starting in 1939, Ford offered a longer 191" wheelbase forward-control bus chassis in addition to the 171" version introduced in 1937. Union City built buses on both chassis as well as Ford's older 157" standard-control 1-ton commercial cowl and chassis.
In the late 30s Ford Motor Company because dissatisfied with the manner in which its buses were being distributed and decided to organize a national distributor named Transit Buses, Inc. H. D. Fitzgerald, Union City’s president, was elected as Transit Buses Inc,’s president and Frank Geisler, its vice-president.
Following the war, an increased supply of metal stock enabled Union City to drop its aging fabric-covered wooden roofs in favor of the all-metal aluminum-skinned steel framed composite body.
Wayne Works joined Union City in supplying bodies for Ford's school and transit buses in the late 1940s and introduced the very first wrap-around windshield seen in the automobile industry for use in its step vans.
During the early 50s, they marketed their own line of step vans under the Utility brand. The step vans were manufactured by Utility Truck Distributors Inc. of Union City, as division of Union City Body Co. The firm continued to offer forward-control aluminum step van bodies for Ford, Dodge, GMC, and Chevrolet chassis until 1957 when an exclusive agreement was signed with Chevrolet and GMC Truck & Coach division.
During the 1970s and 1980s Union City began providing vans directly to large fleet customers such as United Parcel Service. They also built revised bodywork that could be placed on International, Freightliner or Navistar chassis in addition to General Motors products.
In 1986 Ikarus, a Hungarian Bus manufacturer, made a deal with Union City Body Co. to market and assemble their Model 416 bus, a new model based on the Ikarus 400-series that was redesigned for the US market. Ikarus USA was created as a subsidiary of Union City for the sales and marketing fo the vehicles. Starting in 1989 the buses were sold as products of Ikarus USA. However Both Union City and Ikarus entered into bankruptcy in 1992 and the Ikarus line was abandoned.
From the mid 1980s until their bankruptcy in 1992, Union City owned the Quality Manufacturing Co. of Talladega, Alabama, a manufacturer of heavy-duty airport fire and rescue vehicles & crash tenders.
South African businessman Andrew Taitz saw an opportunity in 1993 and purchased the bankrupt firm retuning it to profitability within a few short months. Taitz wooed back the firm’s old customers and sought to re-establish the firm as a builder of thousands of walk-in vans rather than a small-time builder of hundreds.
In the next few years Union City’s sales increased 200% and Taitz went on a buying spree acquiring beverage body builder Centennial Body of Columbus, Georgia , refrigerated van and trailer builder Atlas Body of Amory, Mississippi and truck body retailer and repair giant Nationwide Fleet Services in 1996.
By 1997 Taitz realized it was inefficient to have one company make a truck body and another make the chassis and one year later he persuaded General Motors to sell him their Commercial and Motorhome Chassis Division.
He relocated GM’s chassis operations from Detroit to Indiana, renaming it Workhorse Custom Chassis, a division of Taitz’s Highland Park, Illinois holding company, Grand Vehicle Works LLC (now GVW Holdings), which also owns Union City.
UCBC builds four delivery truck models with 64 different sizes and a medium duty van in 14 different body sizes. Customers include United Parcel Service (UPS) Federal Express (FedEx), Aramark Services, Airborne Express, Frito-Lay and the U.S. Postal Service.
Since 1950, when Union City introduced the walk-in van, the company estimates it has built 500,000 of the vehicles and claims to be the world’s largest independent producer of aluminum walk-in van bodies.
Taitz’s GVW Holdings purchased the bankrupt Grumman Olson Company’s dry van and refrigerated bodies division in 2003 and integrated it into their Union City operations.
In 2005 GVW sold its Union City Body subsidiary to Utilimaster Corporation, and its Workhorse Custom Chassis division to International Truck and Engine Corporation, a division of Navistar International Corporation.
Established in Wakarusa, Indiana, in 1973, Utilimaster was one of Union City’s chief competitors. The firm manufactures custom commercial vehicles including dry freight truck bodies, high-cube vans and walk-in vans for use in package delivery, truck rental, bakery/snack delivery, linen/uniform rental and utilities fleets.
Navistar International produces International brand commercial trucks, mid-range diesel engines and IC brand school buses and is a private-label designer and manufacturer of diesel engines for the pickup truck, van and SUV markets.
Today Taitz’s GVW Group LLC (formerly GVW Holdings) operates a diverse mix of four subsidiaries in the truck manufacturing, software and systems development, and engineering services sectors.
GVW's Autocar unit makes Low Cab Forward trucks for use in the waste management, recycling, concrete mixer, and airport refueling markets. Aculocity offers a range of software and IT services and solutions including web design, database support, and data migration. Truck Engineering Services (TES) of South Africa offers a complete range of engineering and related services to the truck manufacturing industry. City Transportation Industries (CTI) manufactures and services fleet vehicles in Mexico.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com