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C.R. Wilson Body Co.
C.R. & J.C. Wilson Carriage Co., 1873-1880s; C.R. Wilson Carriage Co., 1880s-1897; C.R. Wilson Body Company, 1897-1924; Detroit, Michigan
 
Associated Builders
Murray Corp.
     

Charles R. Wilson was born to William and Esther (Coot) Wilson near Cobourg, Ontario, Canada in 1845. Both he and his younger brother, J.C. Wilson, attended public schools then served as apprentices in the Provinceís large carriage industry. By 1870, Charles was a fully qualified journeyman and decided to establish a shop in Detroit, Michigan, which at the time was a medium-sized city known for it unending supply of iron ore and lumber.

Charles established a blacksmiths and wagon repair shop and within a couple of years brought his brother into the concern forming the C. R. & J. C. Wilson Carriage Co. in 1873. The regions infinite resources soon produced quite a few large manufacturing firms and Detroit was home to the nationís three largest stove manufacturers. The Wilsonís were soon manufacturing hundreds of wagons, sleighs, drays and carriages for the cityís growing population at their central Detroit factory.

The firm had over 60 employees in 1890, and within a few short years was Detroitís largest producer of buggies, carriages and wagons. During the late 1800s, Wilson employed some of the finest draftsmen of the era including W. R. Johnston and Charles H. Vorhes.

During the 1890s the Wilson brothers decided to concentrate on different parts of the market and divided the firmís assets. Charles R. Wilson reorganized as the C.R. Wilson Carriage Co. to concentrate on horse-drawn buggies and carriages, and J.C. formed the J.C. Wilson Co. to manufacture horse-drawn trucks and wagons. With the rapid expansion of Detroit Ė between 1900 and 1920 Detroit went from the 18th largest US City to the 4th largest - both firms continued to prosper and J.C. went on to produce the Wilson Truck which was built between 1915-1925. However our story continues with his brotherís firm, the C.R. Wilson Carriage Co.

Although it may have been C.R. Wilsonís fine reputation that brought Henry Ford to the Wilson factory in 1896 to purchase a seat for his 1896 Quadricycle, it may also have been his close proximity to Wilsonís Milwaukee Junction factory, which was located at the center of the neighborhood that was to become the ďCradle of the Automotive IndustryĒ.

In 1897, the firm was incorporated as the C.R. Wilson Body Co. with Charles R. Wilson president and Percy D. Dwight, secretary and treasurer. Dwight was a Harvard-educated lawyer who decided to become involved in manufacturing, and worked for Wilson through the twenties.

Wilson was intrigued by the early horseless carriages and was one of the first firms in the country to manufacture bodies for them. Among their early customers were Cadillac, Elmore, Ford, Oldsmobile, Peerless and Thomas-Detroit.

Frederic J. and Charles Fisher were just two of the talented draftsmen who worked for Wilson just after the turn of the century. In 1902 Fred Fisher was put to work at a Wilson drafting table at a salary of $20 a week, and by the time his brother Charles jointed Wilson in 1904, he was in charge of the drafting department. Frederic is credited with the design of the Osceola, Cadillacís first closed production body, which was built by C.R. Wilson.

Henry Ford allegedly worked at Wilson for a short time while he was between jobs and appears in a circa 1900 photo of the C.R. Wilson staff. He also rented space from Wilson in order to work on some of his early vehicles and returned the favor starting in 1903, when C.R. Wilson became Ford Motor Co.ís first auto body supplier. A 1903 letter from an original Ford investor named John W. Anderson states that C.R. Wilson had agreed to supply both bodies and cushions for the 1903 Model A at $52 apiece and $16 apiece. C.R. Wilson continued to supply bodies for subsequent Fordís including the Ford Model A, C, F, B, K, N, R, S and T, and even the second Model A after it merged with Murray.

Detroitís Standard Wagon Works, which was owned by the Fisher brothersí uncle Albert Fisher also built a few early bodies for Ford. When Charles R. Wilson refused to grant Charles Fisher a $5 a week raise in 1908, the two brothers resigned and went to work for their uncle. They soon convinced him to finance their own auto body business, and on July 22, 1908, Albert, Frederic and Charles Fisher formed the Fisher Body Co., capitalized at $50,000, $30,000 of it from Uncle Albert. At about the same time, C. R. Wilson Body Co. had completed building the first batch of touring bodies for the Ford Motor Co.ís Model T.

According to Frank Hadas, a Ford test driver at the Piquette Ave. plant, C.R. Wilson quoted the Ford Motor Company a price of $152 per body, which Henry Ford refused to pay.

With guidance from Ford's production chief Charles Sorensen, C.R. Wilson:

"finally consented to try to manufacture at exactly one half his former price. Then, for the first time in his life, he began to learn how to do business. He had to raise wages, for he had to have first-class men. Under the pressure of necessity, he found he could make cost reductions here, there, and everywhere, and the upshot of it was that he made more money out of the low price than he had ever made out of the high price, and his workmen have received a higher wage."

Unbeknownst to many, the Ford Motor Company relied upon outside suppliers for most of its coachwork during its first quarter century. Itís hard to determine who made Fordís first automobile bodies but soon after the Model T was introduced the names of various Michigan-based sheet-metal, millwork and body-building firms begin to appear on Fordís supplier list.

Initially most of the Model Tís bodies were supplied by Ford's existing auto body suppliers C.R. Wilson (1903) and Everitt Brothers (1908). O.J. Beaudette (1910), Kelsey-Herbert Co. (1910), American Body Co. (1911), Hayes Mfg. Co.(1911) Milburn Wagon Co. (1911), Fisher Body Co.(1912), and the Kahler Co. (1915). Wm. Gray & Sons supplied Henry Fordís Windsor assembly plant with automobile bodies from 1906-1912. Regardless of their origin, all of the Model Tís bodies were interchangeable; however the individual parts in a body would not necessarily fit a similar-looking body if it was made by a different manufacturer.

Most of FordĎs body suppliers did not supply the Model Tís fenders, with the exception of the Hayes Mfg. Co., who had supplied the Ford Motor Co. with fenders from day one. As Fordís needs increased, additional Hayes-owned plants supplied additional fenders as required. The J.W. Murray Mfg. Co. of Detroit and Ecorse, Michigan also supplied Ford with Model T fenders and other stamped-metal products such as hoods and frames. O.J. Beaudette and the American Top Co. of Jackson, Michigan supplied Ford with most of the Model Tís convertible tops.

In 1915, Claude S. Briggs, formerly the sales manager of the Brush Runabout Co., and of the Briggs-Detroiter Co. joined C.R. Wilson as sales manager. He did a remarkable job, as Wilson was soon building bodies for many of the mid-westís luxury car manufacturers who included Lincoln, Marmon, Overland, Packard, Paige, Peerless, Reo and others. Even though they were not a custom body builder, they were considered Detroitís best production body builder.

Charles R. Wilson died suddenly in 1924, and faced with an uncertain future and no strong leadership within the firm, so the board of directors approached another Wilson for help. 

Although Detroit banker William Robert Wilson shared the same last name as the firmís recently departed founder and president, they were not related. However, Wilson, who also happened to be the president of Detroitís Guardian Trust Co., had once been president of the Maxell Motor Corp. and was keenly interested in getting back into the automobile business. 

He brokered a deal whereby the C.R. Wilson Body Co., J.W. Murray Mfg. Co., Towson Body Co., and the J.C. Widman Body Co. would merge, forming the Murray Body Corporation under the leadership of John W. Murray. The two larger firms, Wilson and Murray, had longstanding contracts with the Ford Motor Co. and were in good financial shape, and the other two employed craftsmen with specialized skills that would be beneficial to the new firm.  Unfortunately, the new firm was in receivership within the year. However they emerged a few months later as the Murray Corp. of America, but that story is continued on the Murray page.

© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com

 

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References

Michael Lamm - Body by Murray Ė Special Interest Autos #20 Jan-Feb 1974

Milwaukee Junction: Cradle of the Automobile Industry - Detroit Historical Society Guild

Albert Nelson Marquis - The Book of Detroiters: A Biographical Dictionary of Leading Living Men of the City of Detroit

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

George H. Dammann - 90 Years of Ford

   
 
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