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Alexander J. Wolfington, 1870-1888;  Alexander Wolfington & Son, 1888-1910; Alexander Wolfington, Son and Company, 1910-1933; Wolfington Body Company, 1933-1971; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; 1971-present, Exton, Pennsylvania
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Alexander J. Wolfington, the son of a sea captain, was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1850. Following a single trans-Atlantic journey with his seafaring father, he settled upon a land-based career as a blacksmith, and became apprenticed to a local master of the centuries-old art. Following the War Between the States, he traveled south to New York City, where he accepted a job at Brewster & Company.

He worked as a journeyman blacksmith for the New York City coachbuilder for three years, then followed his newly-betrothed sister to Philadelphia, just before the start of that city’s 1876 Centennial. He had saved enough money to purchase a small building at the corner of North Twentieth and Filbert Streets (now John F. Kennedy Blvd). Due to a bit of luck, his blacksmith shop was located right next to the new Pennsylvania railroad spur and he turned around and sold it for a $500 profit, a substantial amount for the time.

With the proceeds he purchased an old feed store just 1 block away, at the corner of 10 North Twentieth and Market St where he relocated his shop. Much of his early work centered around repairing wagons and carriages for livery stables, but his 3 years at Brewster had prepared him for a better class of customer, and he soon found his niche, first repairing and then manufacturing small buggies for the young medical men of that city who were looking for suitable transportation at a reasonable cost. As is still the case, no firm has a better customer than a doctor, and Wolfington’s reputation quickly spread among the inhabitants of Philadelphia’s Main Line.

Business was brisk enough that by 1885, Wolfington owned a new $4000 mansion in West Philadelphia. The reputation of the firm had grown on the basis of a single product, the Brougham. Named after a British Lord who popularized the style way back in 1837, the Brougham was a simple four-wheeled enclosed carriage drawn by a single horse and driven by a single coachman located at the front. The style took a while to gain a foothold in the States, but by the 1880s, it had become the vehicle of choice for America’s wealthy.  Single copies typically sold for around $1000, at a time when a skilled craftsman was lucky to make half that amount in a year. The Brougham still appears on Wolfington’s letterhead, and the phrase “The Name On Your Grandfather’s Brougham” was prominently featured in the firms advertising throughout the twentieth century.

With only a small staff of twenty, Wolfington had became downtown Philadelphia’s premier carriage builder by the 1890s. As was the custom at the time, Wolfington’s oldest son, Harry J. Wolfington, was apprenticed to a leading carriage builder to learn the trade. He spent a few years at the New Haven Carriage Co. - the same firm where Hermann Brunn was apprenticed - and returned in 1888, now an experienced blacksmith and carriage builder. The senior Wolfington showed Harry how to do the firms accounts and the name of the firm was changed to Alexander Wolfington & Son to reflect the new member of the firm. By the turn of the century, the Oliver H. Blair, Ellis Gimbel, J.D. Lit, J.B. van Sciver, James H.R. Cromwell and E.T. Stotesbury were among the many prominent Philadelphians who owned a Wolfington Brougham.

It is recorded that like Willy Brewster, Alexander J. Wolfington was less than enthusiastic about the horseless carriage when they it first appeared on the streets of Philadelphia in the late 1890s. However, his son Harry saw the possibilities in the new machines, and rather than see the work go to Derham or another metropolitan Philadelphia builder, he gladly accepted the handful of orders for horseless carriage bodies from their valued clientele.

The new venture met with the some success and when Alexander J. Wolfington retired in 1910, Harry now had a free hand to pursue the automobilist in earnest. He was one of the first to promote the sale two bodies for the same chassis, and is credited with the first use of the term "convertible" in relation to an automobile. Early automobile owners often had two bodies, a closed one for the winter, and an open one for the summer. Twice a year the car would be brought into Wolfing­ton to have the bodies swapped, or “converted”, hence the term “convertible” as Wolfington first introduced it. As it turned out, the early “convertible” automobile proved to be quite profitable for the coach builder, not only were two bodies built for a single customer, but they could count on seeing that customer twice a year, when the bodies needed to be exchanged. Those two visits provided additional revenue as the body not currently in use would be thoroughly cleaned and re-varnished for a small fee. Those fees could quickly add up and many wealthy customers were very happy to see the true convertible automobile body appear in the late teens, however, for obvious reasons, many coach builders were not.

Wolfington’s business began to be threatened by two regional firms starting in the late teens. Derham, in suburban Rosemont had developed quite a large automobile body business as had the Fleetwood Metal Body Co. which was located less than sixty miles away. Both firms were significantly larger than Wolfington and took away much of their business.

Luckily, an Atlantic City bus operator, the East Coast Coach Co., presented them with a new opportunity. Wolfington was commissioned to build them a luxury bus or parlor car, to be used to transport guests from the railroad station to the hotel. A couple of northeastern coach builders became specialists in bus bodies at about the same time, the first was Wolfington, the other Healey & Co.

By 1919 business had increased to the point where Wolfington’s small 16,000 sq. ft. factory was no longer adequate, and a 66,000 sq. ft. building was purchased nearby at the corner of Buttonwood and 19th St.

 Hearse and ambulance bodies were added around 1920, and the transition was an easy one as they were often built on the same chassis, and shared similar dimensions as their bus bodies. At the time Cadillac, Packard, White and others were producing heavy-duty commercial chassis specifically for the livery and professional car trade. Harry J. Wolfington’s son, Harry A., had joined the firm in 1916 helped push the professional car program as most of the manufacturers were located in the mid-west and aside from Cunningham and Healey, they had little competition in the northeast part of the country.

Wolfington built sightseeing buses for the Gray Line, municipal buses for the City of Washington, D.C. and school buses for local school districts such as the Upper Marion Township. The famous Philadelphia bus maker, the Six Wheel Company, bought hundreds of bodies from Wolfington, including the famous Nairn Transport buses that ferried soldiers and oil workers between Beirut and Baghdad. Six Wheel/Wolfington buses were also used by the New York City’s Fifth Ave Coach Co., Boston’s Boston Elevated and Cleveland’s Ohio Light & Power Co.

A staff of between 100 and 150 was kept busy producing Wolfington’s buses, hearses and ambulances and by 1925 their commercial vehicle sales were so brisk that custom body building was phased out completely. 1928 sales went over the $800,000 dollar mark and the firm continued to maintain a top notch collision and repainting department which according to LeBaron’s Hugo Pfau, enjoyed an excellent reputation within the trade.

A competing firm’s misfortune resulted in some unexpected business for Wolfington during 1928 and 1929. Joseph J. Derham, the founder of the Derham Body Co. died unexpectedly at the age of 63, causing a rift between his three sons, Philip, Joseph Jr. and Enos. Philip wanted the firm to modernize by greatly increasing its production, thereby reducing its per-unit costs by utilizing the proven economies of scale theories then prevalent in the auto industry. However, James and Enos, his two younger brothers were opposed to any drastic changes, and wished to keep the firm running as their father had intended. The majority views of James and Enos prevailed and Philip left the company to form his own firm.

Funded by a Bryn Mawr-based European car importer by the name of William Floyd, the Floyd-Derham Company was formed in 1928 with William Floyd Sr., president; Philip Derham, Vice-President; and Floyd’s son William Jr., Secretary. Philip Derham handled all the design and drafting work, but the bodies were built in downtown Philadelphia in Wolfington’s North 20th St shop.

The Floyds already had a high visibility imported chassis showroom and service depot in Bryn Mawr located less than a mile from Derham’s Lancaster Ave. showroom. When the Floyd-Derham name was added to the Floyd’s Brwyn Mawr showroom, it caused quite a stir as well as a bit of confusion in Rosemont as to who was who. Floyd-Derham’s first Salon entry was a Minerva that they exhibited at the Chicago Salon in the Fall of 1928. At December’s New York Salon, they exhibited an Isotta-Fraschini convertible sedan at the Isotta-Fraschini stand, but unfortunately it was the last time that the firm’s ­work would appear at any salon. It was early 1929 before the first few Floyd-Derham bodies appeared and by that time, the stock market crash was looming on the horizon.

Although Floyd-Derham had a backlog of orders, the Floyds imported car business began to flounder and they pulled the plug on the Floyd-Derham project. Luckily for Philip Derham, his work attracted the attention of Duesenberg, and he was soon hired on as their chief designer and body engineer. James and Enos Derham felt some responsibility for their brother’s misfortune and as their firm’s name was involved, they helped Wolfington complete what orders remained at their own shop.

Surprisingly, there was an announcement in early 1930 that Alexander Wolfington, Son and Company had "resumed the manufacture of custom bodies." And among their first products was a gorgeous Duesenberg convertible sedan that was designed by Philip Derham for John B. Stetson, a member of the Stetson Hat family who was also the ambassador to Poland from 1925-1930 (Duesenberg chassis #2147). Wolfington also built another Duesenberg for John Eberson, a movie theater designer later in the same year (Duesenberg chassis #2240). This is the more famous Wolfington "Royal Phaeton" dual cowl phaeton that currently resides in the automotive collection of the Reynold's Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Canada. The vehicle's unusual design is jointly credited to Floyd-Derham, John Eberson and J. Herbert Newport, who had recently joined Derham on the design staff at Duesenberg. It’s estimated that less than 24 custom bodies were built by Wolfington in all, with known chassis consisting of Duesenberg, Hispano-Suiza, Isotta-Fraschini, Lincoln and Minerva.

The March, 1930 Issue of Autobody contained the following article:

"Wolfington Re-Enters Field of Private Coachwork 

"This unusual 4-passenger phaeton on 153½-in. Duesenberg chassis signalizes the re-entry of Wolfington, of Philadelphia, into the field of high-grade custom bodywork for private cars after a lapse of about five years, during which this firm devoted the major part of its production to deluxe motor coaches, with only an occasional special body for private clients. Fifty-three years of experience in high-grade coachwork enabled this organization to change from one line to the other, and to revert in one step to private-car bodies of exclusive design and equipment.

"Accompanying illustrations present a phaeton of unique design, built by Wolfington to carry out the owner's ideas for a roomy and comfortable car for four passengers. The color scheme is in the fashionable brown field the body panels being in beige while two shades of brown are used for the moldings and for the belt panels, mudguards and chassis. The moldings are in the darker brown shade and-are striped with a brown­tinted white, all colors having been specially mixed by the Beckwith-Chandler Co. to conform to the ideas of the client. Even the instrument panel was brought through by Duesenberg in brown and a matching shade was used in dyeing the pigskin for the interior trim.

"The unique belt-and-molding treatment is supple­mented by embossing the chassis valances with corre­sponding sweeps. The moldings are unusual in. having a rectangular cross section instead of the half-round or half-oval section ordinarily employed. The double moldings on the cowl and bonnet panels sweep to the center of the bonnet and end in a chromium-plated cast­ing of arrowhead shape. The base molding follows the sweep of the front fender and then the wave effect of the upper molding treatment. The center body panel is capped by a casting with a diamond-shaped relief, on which is placed the owner's crest, and marks the be­ginning of a double molding and belt extending aft across the rear doors and around the back of the body.

"The upholstering of the interior is done in a brown pigskin, harmonizing with the general color scheme. The seat construction is interesting; a special slope was specified for the backs, and the cushions are built up on a Trenton lace-web spring of 2½-in. thickness upon which is an adjustable air cushion of 3 in., superposed by a 2 ½-in. layer of down. The air in the cushion is adjustable, enabling the passenger or driver to sit at the height desired. Cushions are of exceptional dimensions measuring 24 in. from the back. The front seat is adjustable longitudinally 4 in.; the removable center armrest and the low door line enable the driver to as­sume a restful position. The rear seat, with its side armrests, has an armchair effect and was built entirely outside the car and then bolted in place. The central armrests for both seats have a deep padding of sponge rubber. Hassocks of triangular section supplant the customary foot-rail, and fit partly under the tonneau cabinet. Carpets have a deep pile and are bound with pigskin.

"The door trim is another interesting feature of this car, being done with the brown pigskin in a series of peripheral plaits around a central pocket; on the rear doors a shirred leather pocket is used, while on the front doors the pockets are of the bottom-hinged flap type and are provided with locks to permit the storing of frequently used tools. Door friezes are 4 in. deep and are of light oak with an "inlay" of the brown pig­skin. At the bottom of the doors are 4-in. scuff strips of carpet. The tonneau cabinet, also of the light oak, conceals a radio-receiving set when it is not in use. In the center of the cabinet is mounted a crank handle for raising the secondary windshield.

"The "secondary cowl" is stationary, and is fitted with grab handles to assist the rear-seat occupants in rising. To conform to the brown color scheme, oak is used for the running boards, the battery box and trunk, all of which are trimmed with chromium-plated strips. The top, side curtains and top boot are of Burbank and are bound with the brown pigskin. The top boot is loose fitted so that it may be easily put on. Between the deck­ing and lining of the top, the radio aerial is interwoven in such a manner as to permit folding without damage. The oak trunk at the rear has two compartments which are accessible, by key, from the near side. The spare wheel carrier is of metal but is covered with brown pigskin and is fitted with two Yale locks.

The captions for the photo are as follows:

"An unusual phaeton recently built by Alexander Wolfington's Son, Inc., of Philadelphia, on 153½-in. Duesenberg chassis for a New York client. The "'wave" effect of the upper moldings and fare-door rail is carried out in bath the lower mold­ing and the chassis valance. The color scheme, selected by the client, was beige and two shades of brawn, the darker color being used for the moldings and the lighter brawn for belt panels, fenders and chassis. The wire wheels and other exposed metalwork are chromium plated. No black is used an this fob; even the instrument panel is finished in brawn to conserve the color scheme and to match the leather trim of the interior 

"Interior of the Wolfington-Duesenberg phaeton was trimmed in brown pigskin to conform to the general color scheme of this strictly 4-passenger car. The seat construction is interesting, comprising a Trenton lace-web spring of 2 ½-in. thickness above which is an adjustable air cushion of about three inches and a 2 ½-in. layer of dawn; the cushions meas­ure 24 in. from the back. A removable center armrest of sponge rubber is provided for each cross seat. The door trim is unusual, having a series of peripheral overstuffed plaits and large shirred packets on the rear doors and locked flap packets, for tools, on the front doors; the oak frieze at the top of the doors has a leather "inlay," and at the bottom is a 4-in. strip of carpet. A radio set is concealed in the tonneau cabinet at the center of which is a crank for raising the tonneau windshield. Hassocks of triangular section replace the customary foot-rail. 

"A closer view of the unusual belt-and-molding treatment of the Wolfington-Duesenberg 4-passenger phaeton. The wave effect of the moldings is accentuated by the brownish-white striping and by the embossing of the chassis valance. Mold­ings have a rectangular cross section instead of the usual half-round or half-oval section. The owner's crest instead of being placed on the door is framed by the striping in the belt of the central panel. The "secondary cowl" is stationary and two grab handles are fitted to assist the rear-seat occupants to arise. The chromium-trimmed oak box set in the running board contains the battery, tools being carried in front-door pockets and in the 2-compartment oak "trunk" at the rear. The metal spare-wheel carrier is covered with the brown pigskin. The Burbank top is piped with pigskin and conceals the antenna of the radio set.

Unfortunately the return to custom bodies was ill-timed, and by 1932, the Depression not only halted all custom body work, but due to increased costs involved with shipping chassis and completed vehicles to Detroit, Wolfington stopped building professional car and bus bodies altogether, electing to concentrate on their collision and repainting work. The large Buttonwood and 19th St. factory was sold, and the firm moved to much smaller quarters at 3427 Chestnut St. and South 34th St. In 1931, the Superior Body Co. of Lima, Ohio introduced what they claimed was "the first all-steel school bus with safety glass throughout". Harry A. Wolfington sensed an opportunity and had signed up for a Superior distributorship in 1932. However, the rest of his family - Agnes, Mildred, Eustace and Alexander II - did not wish to invest in such a risky venture, so in 1933, Harry A. Wolfington, parted company and formed a new firm, the Wolfington Body Company.

Early on, Harry’s new firm received a number of large orders, including a fleet of inter-city coaches for the Pennsylvania Railroad and a large fleet of school buses for the Philadelphia Public School System. Unlike most other truck dealers, who order single bus bodies for the coachbuilders whenever a chassis was purchased, Wolfington stocked completed Superior-bodied buses that were all ready to go. They also had much success with Superior’s Studebaker-chassised hearses and ambulances and by 1940, they had become one of the largest Superior distributors in the country.

Harry’s father and four younger brothers and sisters kept their small Chestnut St. firm going through the depths of the Depression and eventually took on a Plymouth DeSoto dealership in 1935, reorganizing the firm as Wolfington Motors Inc., and by 1940 had grown into a large metropolitan dealer group with 19 salesmen and 3 separate West Philadelphia locations. Although they no longer sell DeSotos, the Wolfington family still owns a large suburban Philadelphia Chrysler dealer group headed by J. Eustace Wolfington, who also started Half-A-Car, a Pennsylvania-based auto sales training firm.

1941 saw the beginning of the Second World War and a new challenge for Harry A.’s Wolfington Body Co. He doubted that he would be able to weather the war years as the government had halted all auto and truck production early in 1942 and he would have nothing to sell. At that time a number of small body builders, particularly Cantrell and Midstate-Campbell, sensed an opportunity, and began building small commuter buses using existing automobile chassis. Both sheet steel and aluminum were strictly rationed, so those two firms built the bodies out of wood, which was still readily available.

Wolfington had little experience in building wood bodies, but he did have a large stockpile of used hearse and ambulances, which were easily converted into commuter buses by the addition of a few bench seats. Government agencies and Civil Defense groups were still able to purchase new vehicles, and Superior produced quite a few commuter bus bodies during the war. Following the war, demand for buses and professional cars far exceeded supply and the few coaches that could be located were sold at an enormous profit, creating a favorable economic situation for the Wolfington Body Co. Over $1,000,000 worth of buses and professional vehicles were sold in 1948 alone.  

Harry A.’s four sons joined the firm in the 1950s, and under the direction of John and James Wolfington, a new 18-acre facility was built in Exton, Pennsylvania in 1971. Although it’s located 35 miles from Philadelphia, their new headquarters are located adjacent to a number of interstate highways and a number of branch facilities were established in New Buffalo, Pennsylvania, Mt. Holly, New Jersey and Clifton, New Jersey.

With over 100 employees, the Wolfington Body Company, remains one of the largest bus and ambulance dealers in the United States Alexander J. Wolfington’s great grandson, Richard Wolfington, is the firm’s president and it continues to use the Wolfington Brougham as its corporate symbol.

© 2004 Mark Theobald - 






Hugo Pfau - Wolfington  - Cars & Parts, November 1975

William Sheppard - Careers on Wheels (Alexander Wolfington & Sons)

Fred Roe - Duesenberg: The Pursuit of Perfection

Arthur W. Soutter - The American Rolls-Royce

John Webb De Campi - Rolls-Royce in America

Hugo Pfau - The Custom Body Era

Hugo Pfau - The Coachbult Packard

Griffith Borgeson - Cord: His Empire His Motor Cars

Don Butler - Auburn Cord Duesenberg

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