Gordon Buehrig 1904-1990
Gordon M. Buehrig (b. June 18, 1904 – d. January 22, 1990)
Although Gordon M. Buehrig (pronounced 'b-yur-ig') was by his own admission a mediocre artist, he managed to make an exceptional career for himself as an automobile designer. He had an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time, and during his 4½ decades in the business worked on some of America's most appreciated automobiles.
Fellow stylist Richard A. Teague summed it up best in the prologue to Buehrig's 1975 autobiography:
"The mark of the really exceptional car designer is the degree to which his creations are coveted and revered long after they were built. Many of Gordon Buehrig's cars are in this class-true collector items. They were considered classic cars when introduced, and the feeling about them, the sense of distinction and value, has increased with the passage of time."
Buehrig considered himself an automobile architect and sculptor rather than a technologist and engineer. Throughout his career, he chose opportunities to create individual new designs over those which offered financial security and career advancements and was awarded 15 US Patents during his lifetime.
He was a master of the clay model and was the first designer to incorporate the moveable styling bridge, an inverted U-shaped measuring tool that traveled transversely over the length of the car on tracks. With it, any point on the surface of the vehicle could be instantly located in space, and matched to the corresponding point on a body draft. Although styling bridges are now computer-controlled, they're still found in the world's leading design studios, a full 80 years after Buehrig introduced them.
Buehrig also worked on the design staffs of Raymond Loewy Inc., the Budd Mfg. Co., Consolidated Aircraft, Dietrich Inc., General Motors Art and Colour, Goodyear, Gotfredson Body Co. and the King Seeley Co. At one time or another Buehrig worked at or designed bodies for such varied manufacturers as Auburn, Buick, Cord, Duesenberg, Ford, Franklin, Jewett, Lincoln, Packard, Peerless, Pierce-Arrow, Studebaker, Stutz, White Truck and Wills Ste Claire.
Buehrig was personally responsible for the design of the Auburn 851 Speedster, the Cord 810/812 and over half the coachwork that graced Duesenberg's Model J: the Beverly Berline (built by Murphy, Rollston and Weymann); the Tourster (built by Derham); the Town Car (a single example built by Brunn); the Twenty Grand (a single example built by Rollston); the Convertible Torpedo Victoria (built by Rollston); and the Torpedo Phaeton (built by Brunn and Weymann-American).
He also designed the stillborn Tasco sportscar and patented its removable T-Top, which would turn up two decades later on the 1968 Corvette. He ended his corporate career at the Ford Motor Co. where he designed Ford's first convertible hardtop, spearheaded the design of the Continental Mark I and Continental Mark II and helped engineer its stillborn retractable hardtop which debuted on the 1957 Ford. After retiring from Ford Buehrig taught design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California and later in life introduced his own Corvette-based neo-classic coupe, the Buehrig Motor Car. One of his last projects was working as a consultant for The Franklin Mint which was in the process of putting out a series of highly detailed 1:24 and 1:16 scale classic car models, several of which Buehrig had designed originally.
According to C. Edson Armi, who conducted an extensive interview with Buehrig in preparation for his 1988 book, 'The Art of American Car Desiqn: The Profession and Personalities':
“Buehrig thinks of himself as a strict functionalist, and he describes his cars almost mechanically, concentrating on the technical process of designing. He seems only vaguely interested in the exterior, and even the relation of shape to function holds little fascination for him. With Buehrig, this refusal to discuss aesthetic problems is not a question of being coy about his designs... I believe Buehrig when he says that his designs just pick up where the requirements of packaging, function, and construction leave off. His great design sense flows somehow through his fingers, but not from his head or his heart.”
Gordon Miller Buehrig was born on June 18, 1904 in Mason City, Mason City Township, Mason County, Illinois to Fred William and Mary Louise (Miller) Buehrig. He had an older brother, Donald Fredrick Buehrig, (b. January 16, 1902 - d. February 20 1972) who was born on January 16, 1902. The 1910 US Census lists the family on Menard St., Mason City, their father's occupation, cashier at the Central Illinois State Bank (reorganized as the Mason City National Bank in 1944).
The father of our subject was born on September 5, 1869 in Fort Madison, Iowa to Fredrick and Caroline Buehrig, two German immigrants. The 1870 US Census lists Gordon's grandfather's occupation as 'retail dealer in books and shoes', his grandmother's birthplace as the Alsace-Lorraine.
Our subject's mother, Mary Louise (Miller) Buehrig, was born on December 9, 1873 in San Jose, Illinois to Frederick H. and Mary (Skinner) Miller. Her father was born in New Hampshire, her mother in Oswego, New York.
The 1920 US Census lists the family around the corner from Menard St. on Division St., Mason City – his father's position remains as cashier at the Central Illinois State Bank.
As a youngster he was fascinated by automobiles and was frustrated because his father didn't own one. His older cousin acquired a 1904 Orient Buckboard and started to build a special car on this primitive chassis. Gordon and his brother, then high school students, inherited the project when their cousin got another car. They attempted to construct a speedster body for the Buckboard, using screen wire over a wooden frame, covering this with a mixture of sawdust and glue. Finding this unsatisfactory, the boys covered the framework with canvas and motored about the small Illinois town in their miniature speedster.
As youngsters the two Buehrig boys were fascinated with automobiles and were disappointed that their father, who was cashier (aka manager) of the Central Illinois State Bank, wouldn't buy one. As teenagers they acquired a half-completed 1904 Orient Buckboard project car from a cousin and proceeded to turn it into a speedster, creating their own coachwork using a wooden frame covered with wire screening. The original surface of the 'Hoopus' (their name for the jalopy), a homegrown concoction of sawdust and glue, proved unsatisfactory and was subsequently replaced with doped canvas.
Luckily for the boys their family was relatively well-off when compared to their Mason City neighbors, allowing both of them to pursue higher education after secondary school. After graduating from High School in 1920, Donald attended Bradley Polytechnic Institute in Peoria, Illinois and after his 1925 graduation embarked on a sales career, moving to Los Angeles where he sold insurance and worked as a buyer at Lockheed.
Gordon followed in his older brother's footsteps, embarking on a course of liberal arts study with an emphasis on fine art after graduating from high school in 1922. Although he had hoped to graduate with Bradley Polytechnic's class of 1926, fate intervened in the form of an angry Chemistry professor.
“One day I was expelled from the chemistry class because, according to the instructor, my notebook was not well done and there were sketches of automobiles on all the pages. He was incensed at the thought I wasted my time drawing automobiles.”
Thinking his academic career was likely over, he moved to Chicago, Illinois that summer, taking a job as a Yellow Cab driver that July, a position which presented him with an opportunity to closely observe the elegant vehicles that filled the streets of the Windy City. As it remains today, the minimum age for a Chicago hack was 21 years-old, and his supervisor eventually discovered Buehrig was only 19, and he was fired just after Thanksgiving of 1923.
In response to an article on taxi cabs published in the October 1979 issue of Special Interest Autos, Buehrig sent in the following letter which appeared in the June 1980 issue of the same publication:
“Regarding your story on taxicabs in issue 53, the picture of the 1923 Yellow Cab brought back memories. I was a Yellow Cab driver in Chicago that year and drove one exactly like the one pictured. It had a Buda four-cylinder engine and had to be hand-cranked. Ignition was by magneto and the storage battery was only to light the cowl lights and tail light. Since there wasn't a generator, the batteries were charged at the garage and a fresh one was put in daily. There were no headlights and no bumpers. It was not equipped with a windshield wiper and we were required to drive with the windshield open if it was raining or snowing. If it started to rain, we had to stop and put on chains. Drivers wore uniforms and were not allowed to smoke in the cab. Ever car was washed every day. The cab had a pretty stiff clutch and I soon learned to make perfect gear shifts without using it except to get into first gear, when the car was not in motion. We were not allowed to carry a gun bu many of the drivers did. We all had a heavy jack handle beside us at all times. Those were the days of prohibition. It was interesting.”
His time as a cabbie had only heightened his interest in designing automobiles and that Fall he made inquiries at local firms engaged in the construction of custom coachwork. One of the firm's he visited – he also mentions Graff (Graff Mfg. / Graff Motor Coach Co.) in his autobiography – was C.P. Kimball & Co., an old Chicago firm that traced its ancestry to one of New England's finest carriage building families.
That November he walked in to the offices of C.P. Kimball & Co. and asked if he could speak to the firm's designer to see how he could get a foot in the door, so to speak. Detroit native Clarence E. Wexelberg, Kimball's primary designer, body engineer and draftsman, agreed to see him, and the pair discussed how to prepare for his chosen career, suggesting that he get some more education and look for a position with Fisher Body Co. or C.R. Wilson Body Co., two of Detroit's largest concerns at the time.
The first step involved returning to college, and that January (1924), he returned to the Bradley Polytechnic Institute in Peoria and signed up for a full semester of courses in art, drafting, metalwork and woodworking. When the first semester of 1924 ended that May, Buehrig wrote letters to each firm and upon receiving several favorable responses went to Detroit for interviews. Buehrig recalled:
“Following the plan Clarence Wexelberg had outlined for me. I had written and obtained interviews with two men in the automobile body business. The first, Eugene Botzenhardt was body engineer of the Fisher Body Company. The second was Walter Jones, chief engineer of the C.R. Wilson Body Company.”
At the time, Jones was in the process of leaving C.R. Wilson, having taken a position as chief engineer of the Gotfredson Body Co., a truck manufacturer who had recently expanded into the production of automobile bodies for third parties such as Jewett, Peerless and Wills Sainte Claire.
Jones liked Buehrig and offered him a 40 cents per hour position as an apprentice in Gotfredson's sample body shop starting on November 8, 1924. During the next year he became familiar with all aspects of composite body construction under the watchful eye of Bill Jones, Gotredson's chief draftsman and Walter's brother. Buehrig polished up his orthographic drawing skills as a detailer – the person who added measurements and final touches to the full-sized body drafts – and learned how to run the blueprint machine, which made copies of the full size body drafts for each department. At that time Gotfredson was building touring car bodies for Jewett, sedans for Peerless a roadster and sedan for Wills Sainte Claire.
As most of the early automobile pioneers were mechanics and engineers they naturally turned to carriage builders to supply them with the bodies for the early horseless carriages. Prior to the wide-scale adoption of all-steel bodies in the late 1930s, the design and tooling required for composite coachwork was a somewhat inexpensive and straightforward process and was pretty much the same whether the body be custom-built, or constructed in large numbers.
The designer was given the task of coming up with the overall shape of the body, proportioned to fit the dimensions of a given chassis and interior. This generally did not include the fenders, grill, or any other part of the front end of the vehicle as the coach-builder's designer was typically only responsible for the parts behind the cowl/firewall.
Once the design was finalized and agreed to by the client, the designer handed of the project to the body engineer, who would decide how to construct the wood framing that would support the doors, windows and exterior metalwork. Once the intricate structure was designed and approved, his assistants, the body draftsmen would produce the full size drafts required before the project was shipped off to the woodworking department. The draftsmen were responsible for accurately depicting every joint, plate, and screw that would hold the numerous small wooden components together that made up the body framework. Many of the screws lay directly underneath the metal skin and had to be countersunk, so they wouldn't poke through the thin sheet-metal.
The sample body shop – where Buehrig served his first apprenticeship – would build a prototype body framework directly from the full-sized body draft. Every screw and wooden component would be test fit, to make sure to make sure no problems would emerge once the body entered into production. Unlike the regular production line, these wooden components were not glued together, as the entire frame had to disassembled afterward so that the parts could be numbered, shellacked and sent off to the tooling department where skilled artisans created the various jigs and guides that held the components while they made their way through the banks of wood shaping and milling machines once full scale production commenced. Once the jigs were made up, and the components run through and measured for conformity with the model part, the project was taken over by the woodworking department where they would run off the exact number required to complete the production run.
Buehrig estimated that at Gotfredson, it cost between $30,000 and $40,000 to produce the models and tooling required to make one distinct body style. At Gotfredson 400 duplicate bodies would be produced during a typical production run. Multiple orders of the same style decreased the cost of tooling as the expense could be spread out over say 800 bodies, instead of the initial 400, creating larger profits for the coach-builder.
As Gotfredson had a limited number of woodworking machines, once 400 examples of one part were milled, the machines were reset to make the next run of 400. A typical wooden body frame might contain 60 different wooden components requiring 60 different milling operations. The shellacked master model and associated jig would be returned to the tool storage room, and the next set brought out so the milling machine could be set up for the next run of 400.
The manufacture of 400 bodies required stockpiling 24,000 wooden components and keeping them separate, as mixing up similar parts from different body types wood create a nightmare in the production framing department. This was where the approximately 60 different wooden parts required to complete the body were fitted together using a massive purpose-built body framing jig. Here the frame would be screwed & glued together permanently, after which the body was sent off to the metal shop where stamped steel or aluminum panels were drilled and nailed to the wooden framework.
Much larger firms like Fisher Body might dedicate a single machine and operator to shaping just one part, as the numbers they required were significantly larger – a typical Fisher Body order might consist of 4,000 duplicate bodies in those days – and they could easily afford to buy the extra machines required.
Composite bodies normally required various types of molding to hide the numerous seams that were left exposed after the metal panels were nailed to the wooden framework. Belt moldings covered the horizontal seams and vertical moldings and window surrounds covered the remaining ones. Just like today's automotive trim, the system used to attach the molding was hidden once the body was painted. Although some larger pieces were fastened from behind using attached studs, most molding was attached using a hammer. In a 1984 interview Buehrig described the process used by Gotfredson as follows:
“The exterior panels would be drilled and nailed right on to the wood framework, and then the molding, which was usually about 1/8 of an inch-thick aluminum - that would be drilled with a special kind of bit that brought up a burr around the hole, and so then that would be nailed down and that would cover the joints between the sheet-metal panels. The nail would be driven in pretty well, and then you would hammer the burr down over the top of it, and then file it off, and that gave you the smooth finish which would hide where the nail was. That was the process.”
In May of 1925 Buehrig was transferred from Gotfredson's sample body shop to the body engineering department to the body engineering department where he worked as an apprentice body draftsman under Bill Jones, Gotfredson's chief draftsman (and Walter Jones' brother). Buehrig was now just one step away from the design department – amazing considering he had only work in the business for six months. After working at Gotfredson for a little over a year Buehrig had learned the techniques of creating body drafts and creating full-sized sample bodies, and was now ready to make the next step. As Clarence E. Wexelberg had originally suggested back in the fall of 1923, Buehrig began looking for a higher-paying position in Detroit, taking a position as a draftsman in the body engineering department of Dietrich, Inc. on January 14, 1926.
At the time Dietrich was Detroit's most prestigious custom body firm, having been formed when Raymond H. Dietrich had split from LeBaron Carrossiers (and his partners Thomas L. Hibbard and Ralph Roberts) to go on his own. Financial backing for the move came from the Murray Corp., a large Detroit production body builder who was working closely with the Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln Division. At that time Dietrich was building semi-custom (aka series-built custom) bodies for Franklin, Lincoln, Packard and Pierce-Arrow. They also constructed an occasional full-custom (or one-off) body on a foreign or domestic chassis for a wealthy automotive executive or for display by a production body client at an automobile show or salon.
Although fully custom-built and series-production built bodies look identical to a layman, there are two key differences in the parts that lay underneath the two types of bodies. Production bodies were typically framed with hard maple and sheathed in stamped sheet steel panels. A full custom body used stronger white ash framework and was covered by hand-formed aluminum panels. The distinction between the materials used involved involved weight, strength and precision and most importantly cost. The heavier production body could be constructed for significantly less money than the custom body where cost was a minimal concern, especially when building one-off bespoke creations for wealthy clients. The difference could be enormous; a basic production Ford composite body in 1927 might cost as little as $45, a basic series-built custom body on a Packard might go for $1,200, while a completely custom-built body for a Rolls-Royce sometimes exceeded $15,000.
Dietrich Inc. bodies were distinguished by their clear-vision window pillars, an extremely narrow bronze casting that offered drivers increased forward vision – a safety feature championed by Ray Dietrich who claimed that because the width of his pillar was less than the distance between your eyes, it effectively eliminated the forward blind spots that had plagued motorists after the windshield was first introduced to the automobile at the turn of the century.
After a short six months working in Dietrich Inc.'s body drafting department Buehrig decided he wanted to work for Walter M. Murphy Co. - the most prestigious builder at that time - in Pasadena, California. Buehrig resigned in August and soon after made the trip out to the West Coast accompanied by his older brother Donald. Although the two brothers fell in love with the California climate, neither of them landed a job, and they returned to the Midwest soon after.
In December of 1926, Buehrig took a position with the Detroit office of the Edward G. Budd Co. as a body draftsman. He got laid off after Christmas and through a man he met at Budd, found a higher-paying $200-a-month job at Packard as a detailer and body draftsman which commenced on January 16, 1927. At this time he was not a very experienced body layout man and my work on the full-sized boards was largely confined to making drawings of the body panels. However Buehrig fondly recalled his short time at the automaker years later:
“Packard... was a great place to work in those days. They built fine automobiles. Their employee turnover was extremely low and the people who worked there were proud of their company.”
While working for Packard, Buehrig gained the friendship of a recent MIT engineering graduate named Frederick J. Hooven who presented him with a copy of a recently translated collection of Le Corbusier's essays advocating for and exploring the concept of modern architecture. Originally published in 1923, the French architect's book,'Toward New Architecture' helped Buehrig formulate much of the philosophy of design which he used later in designing automobiles.
Another friend, fellow delineator Joseph Pizzo, had recently been hired by Harley Earl who was assembling designers to staff the newly-created General Motors central design department, which was known as Art & Colour. While playing tennis together in early 1928 Pizzo suggested that Buehrig go have a talk with Earl. He arranged an interview the following week where Buehrig was offered a position as an apprentice designer/aka junior designer or 'design assistant'. He took the advice of his friend Fred J. Hooven, who advised him to “follow his conscience and he'd never regret it.”
Although it meant a $30 per month reduction in salary Buehrig took the job, joining the growing staff of Earl's Art & Colour department which was located on the 10th floor of the GM Building at 3044 West Grand Boulevard, Detroit.
Prior to the formation of Art and Colour, there was little if any interchangeability of body parts among General Motors' various division save for some interior and exterior hardware. At the time Fisher Body was slowly implementing a changeover from composite to all-steel body construction which meant a significant increase in tooling costs. By establishing a central design department within General Motors Earl was able to put together a plan whereby Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac were able to share three basic body shells allowing amortization of the cost of tooling to be split between them based on how many cars of each body shell type each division produced.
At Art & Colour Buehrig's first task was to submit designs for the instrument panel of the upcoming 1929 Buick, a special model that commemorated the marque's silver anniversary. Most of the rest of the car had been completed by the time of his arrival. In his autobiography Buehrig had little recollection of the instrument panel but enthusiastically discussed the Art & Colour clay modeling process, which he would soon adopt in a major way.
It was the first time Buehrig had seen a full-size clay model in the flesh and the technique was so new that General Motors was forced to import its modeling clay from Germany as it was a different formula than the type used by ceramic artists and sculptors. Automotive clay is very sensitive to heat, and at normal room temperatures is very hard, but at 105° is very soft and pliable. Although they use electric ovens to heat the clay today, back then the simply dropped the clay bars into buckets of boiling water to heat them up after which the modelers pushed the warmed clay directly onto the wooden armature. General Motors eventually found a domestic source for the clay in Jersey City, NJ, named the Chavant Manufacturing Co. which was able to duplicate the German formula and has supplied the same formula to the North American automobile industry ever since.
Buehrig recalled the first time John Lutz, an experienced German clay modeler working for Earl, let him sculpt a fender in clay:
“I was anxious learn how to do it, so he let me fool around with the shaping of one of the fenders, and I was pretty proud of it, and then he said, 'I could do better with an axe,' and he probably could.”
In his autobiography Buehrig also defends Harley Earl's claim that Fisher Body screwed up the look of the 1929 Buick, the first model designed by Earl's Art and Colour Department, which was described to the press as looking 'pregnant' by Walter P. Chrysler upon its introduction. The comment, by Buick's largest competitor, was widely repeated in the nation's press and is often given as the reason why Buick's 1929 sales were so poor in relation to their competitions. It may have been a contributing factor, but most Buick historians site the brand's poor performance, poor mileage and stodgy image as other contributing factors. Buick's sales had been in a steady decline since 1927 when it produced 255,160 cars. 1928 sales declined further to 221,758 and in 1929 only 196,104 Buicks were constructed. While the rest of the industry experienced a 20% increase in production in 1929 Buick's market share slipped from 5.8 to 4.3 percent during the same period.
As manufactured the new 1929 Buick appeared swollen because of its unusual bulging belt-line, which was highlighted by the piece of trim that circled the car below the windows to hide the body seams and to add some style. When viewed head-on the car appeared to bulge out at the sides, which was very noticeable in when you compared the Buick to its competitors, which still featured the same slab-side styling that had been popular for over a decade.
Earl claimed, and Buehrig, confirms below, that as originally designed, the 1929 Buick was in fact far more attractive than the production version, arguing that Fisher Body Co.'s Engineering and Manufacturing Department significantly altered the design of the greenhouse – the area above the belt-line that includes the roof and windows - to reduce the costs of tooling and manufacturing the required sheet-metal and underlying wooden framework.
“It was not one of the greatest designs ever, but there is a little-known aspect of its styling that should be put in the record. The original design model which Harley Earl showed the executive board was an outstanding example of automotive art. I will describe it.
“Buick, in their plans for 1929, included two basic series with two sizes of engines. The larger series also came in two wheelbases. The higher production models were the small engine series and the shorter wheelbase version of the larger engine series. However, the model which had the best proportions from an aesthetic standpoint was a four-door, blind quarter sedan on the long wheelbase chassis.
“The rear of the body was only slightly aft of the rear axle and a fabric covered trunk was mounted to the body. The detail design of the greenhouse was the outstanding feature. The door pillars, above the belt, were very thin in cross section and could not be built by Fisher's standard door construction. The roof was covered with fabric. It was the same material used on convertibles, but in this case it was put over the roof for an aesthetic effect similar to the vinyl over steel roofs now popular on some cars.
“A portion of the roof extended down to the belt between the front and rear doors. Had the car been produced exactly like the design model, it would have been a styling sensation. When the model was turned over to Fisher Body, they made numerous changes, including redesign by their engineers of the greenhouse.
“In the 1938 model year, Cadillac brought out a model called the '60 Special' with a greenhouse almost identical to the 1929 Buick, and today it is a collector's item. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the 1929 Buick design model as it was submitted and the foregoing description is strictly from memory.”
Buehrig bought his first new while working at General Motors - a 1929 Buick roadster which included the instrument panel which he had designed. However, he was ill-prepared to make the $80-a-month payment that went along with it, and soon discovered he had little money left to live on.
In an interview with Clement Edson Armi, Buehrig recalled how intimidating his boss, Harley Earl, was:
“He was about 6'6" and very domineering. All of us designers were afraid of him; at least I was. Years after I retired, I saw him, and he really was a nice guy. But it was different when I worked for him.”
Buehrig had only been working at Art & Colour for since the Spring of 1928 and ruled out asking his imposing boss for a raise. He elected to try and find a higher-paying position elsewhere, and set up a meeting with a representative of the Stutz Motor Car Co., who was in Detroit interviewing applicants for an open position in the auto manufacturer's design department back in Indianapolis. He was hired as Stutz' resident body designer, negotiating a salary sufficient to pay for his new Buick, and his room and board too. In his autobiography, Buehrig reflect on his hasty decision to leave Art & Colour:
“I was a very naive young man. I was not smart enough to realize the fortunate position I was in at General Motors… I left the largest and strongest automobile company to work for a small company which was in financial trouble and, as history proved, had only a short time to live.”
However, if he had stayed at GM it's unlikely he would have gone on to design the great cars he's known for today. Historically only a handful of the designers working under Earl received the credit they deserved, and it unlikely Buehrig would have been given the autonomy necessary to come up with the striking designs he created while working for Errett Lobban Cord.
Buehrig officially left the employ of General Motors on November 28, 1928 and later that week drove his new Buick to New York City to attend the 5-day New York Auto Salon accompanied by friend and former Dietrich Inc. co-worker Jack Keegan. The pair drove from Detroit to New York City non-stop, arriving at their destination in 26 hours, 20 minutes, about twice what the 849-mile trip would take today.
The hit of the Salon was the Duesenberg Model J, which was introduced to the world on December 1st via a prominent display in the lobby of the Hotel Commodore. Buehrig especially liked the Model J Phaeton that had been bodied by LeBaron and the stunning Convertible Roadster body by Pasadena's Walter J. Murphy.
Once the show closed, the pair returned to the Midwest and on December 10, 1928 Buehrig started work at Stutz' engineering department in Indianapolis. The firm had recently introduced a slightly smaller companion car to the 1928 Stutz called the Blackhawk in an attempt to grab a share of the expanding medium-priced market. The premium-priced $3,000 Stutz came with a straight-8 and the $2,000 Blackhawk, a straight-six.
Buehrig shared an apartment with Jack Beaty, a young Stutz accountant who explained to him the ins and outs of automobile production finances. He soon realized that Stutz' current income did not allow the firm to underwrite a new body design for the upcoming 1930 models – the job he thought he was hired to do. However Buehrig did embark on several interesting projects at Stutz; a redesign of the cowl and windshields on the firm's slow-selling open models; the design of a boat-tail speedster which would appear on three Stutz race cars entered in the 1929 24 Heures du Mans (24 hours of LeMans); and the design of a short-wheelbase sports convertible.
He designed the latter while on a short visit to the LeBaron plant in Detroit to discuss his planned design changes for the firm's open bodies during February of 1929. Upon returning to Indianapolis he excitedly showed his rendering to the firm's management, but was unable to get them to commit to producing it at the time. However, shortly after he left the firm Stutz announced the Super Bearcat, which looked nearly identical to the sports roadster design he submitted in early 1929. Built in very small numbers (10 known examples) from 1932-1933, the Super Bearcat was fitted with Stutz' legendary DV-32 (Dual Valve) straight-8 and remains one of the most sought-after Stutzes of all time.
The firm's new-for-1928 bodies had been designed by Ralph Roberts and his staff at Brigg's LeBaron design studios in Detroit and remained much the same for the 1929 model year. To reduce costs, the Stutz and the Blackhawk shared the same bodies which on the former were attractive as it had a longer wheelbase and longer hood than the latter. However, the bodies looked too big for the Blackhawk - an impression that was compounded when the cars were placed next to one another.
The Briggs Mfg.-built enclosed bodies were well-designed and on the Stutz chassis had very good proportions. However the firm's open cars - speedster, rumble-seat roadster and phaeton - were not very attractive and Buehrig was given the task of improving them with a minimum of expense.
The open coachwork featured cut-down front doors, which although popular on the Continent, looked awkward on the significantly larger Stutz / Blackhawk whose bloated cockpits forced their folding windshields to be located too far forward. Buehrig eliminated the cut-down door and made the cowl deeper, which allowed the windshield to be moved closer to the driver. He also designed a new instrument panel which combined with the body alterations had the effect of wrapping the car around the driver and front seat passenger, providing a more intimate relationship with the automobile.
He also addressed the tendency of the firm's windshields to pop up in the driver's face at speed. As was the normal practice across the industry Stutz' folding windshields were held in the up or down position by a pair of friction nuts (hand-operated knurled knobs) located bi-laterally in the centerline of the side posts. When folded down, the top portion had a nasty tendency to flop up in your face at speed if those two nuts weren't securely tightened.
Buehrig solved the problem by revising the knurled hold-down nut (the folding connection) to include a two-position (or 2-notch) locking pin. The tapered pin allowed the frame to lock in place - the first notch securely held it in the down position, the second notch held it securely in the up position. Changing the position of the windshield required significantly less strength than before as once the pin snapped into place, the notches in the assembly prevented the top part of the assembly from moving, either up or down.
His efforts on the open cars were rewarded by increased sales of the premium Stutz, however nothing could be done to save the poor-selling Blackhawk, whose very existence did nothing but tarnish the prestige of the firm which posted a $2.4 million loss in fiscal 1929.
Prior to Buehrig's arrival at Stutz, French coach-builder Charles Weymann had taken 2nd place in the 1928 24 Heures du Mans using a single Stutz DV16 Blackhawk speedster co-driven by Edouard Brisson and Robert Bloch. Weymann, who was financially interested in the Weymann American Co., one of Stutz' primary production body builders, planned on entering 3 Stutz race-cars in the June 1929 spectacle, and commissioned Stutz engineers to design three new cars capable of winning the event.
Included in Stutz’s 1928-29 catalog were half-a-dozen models by Weymann-American, mostly two or four door sedans on both the standard 134½ -inch and longer 145-inch wheelbase that was used for seven-passenger models and custom bodies. They were aggressively priced midway between Stutz’s regular production bodies and the series-built customs they were buying from Fleetwood and LeBaron. Included in the 12pp catalog were the following Weymann-built bodies: Aix-les-bains, Biarritz, Chamonix, Chantilly, Deauville, Monaco, and Versailles.
For the 1929 Le Mans speedsters Stutz' chassis engineers utilized a Blackhawk frame in which a DV-16 engine and 4-speed transmission was installed several inches to the rear of its normal location, allowing the radiator to be placed directly above the front axle. Mounted in front of it was a Roots-type supercharger which was driven off the front end of the crankshaft, Blower Bentley-style. The Stutz straight-8 was bored to 3 3/8 inches, giving the 322 cu. in. engine 115 hp at 3,600 rpm or 155 hp with the blower engaged.
As Stutz' sole designer, Buehrig was given the task of designing an aerodynamic fabric body for the new LeMans entries that would be compatible with Weymann's lightweight construction principles. The French coach-builder's system provided additional flexibility and reduced noise, but required an extra rigid frame to work effectively. Per M. Weymann's instructions and the governing body's regulations, Buehrig designed an open four-seat speedster that was very short on space for the rear seat passengers, recalling:
“The minimum dimensions for the front seat were spelled out, but the rear seat layout was vague. Since only the driver was going to be in the car, I cheated very much on rear seat dimensions. Probably two children would have been comfortable in the rear.”
The speedster bodies were constructed across town at the Weymann-American plant utilizing an ultra-light white ash framework approximately one-third the weight of typical American-built composite body of the same size.
Weymann stated that his frame was based on his 'principle of four parallelograms,' but in actuality the framing was constructed using a series of parallelograms and arches. Vertical posts at the cowl, windshield, and A, B and C-pillars were all joined to their corresponding posts on the opposite side of the body by a curved bow. These frames were in turn attached to the body sills in a semi-flexible manner with cross-members of wood joining the opposing body sills wherever possible.
The body used an ultra-light ash framework, held together by 4mm.-thick (1/8”) I, L and T-shaped steel plates instead of the mortise-and-tennon joints used by other coach-builders. To cut down on squeaks, the plates were separated from the wooden frame during assembly using greaseproof paper and 2- to 7-mm spacers that held the wood in place while each brace was screwed to the two (or three) adjoining pieces of wood. Most adjoining wood sections were kept two millimeters (1/16”) apart, while door openings had a clearance of four millimeters (1/8”) along the hinge side, and seven millimeters (7/32”) at the lock or opening side where more flexibility was natural. Once the frame was completely assembled, the spacers were removed and could be re-used on the next body.
When a rounded corner was desired, such as the corners of the cowl or the back of the roof, small metal panels were placed between the framework and the fabric in order to give the body the proper contour and support. Straining wires were used inside the doors so that they held their shape when opened. Custom locks were fabricated that allowed the doors to move silently within the framework when stressed due to bumping, rapid acceleration or braking.
Large open areas were covered with chicken wire and the assembled framework was then covered in muslin, followed by a thin layer of cotton batting and finally a pigmented synthetic leather - usually a pyroxylin-coated fabric such as DuPont’s Zapon in much in the same way as the roofs of conventional bodies were covered at the time. Other brands of synthetic leather at the time were: Fabrikoid (DuPont), Drednaut (Chase), Elascofab, Meritas (Standard Textile), Rexine, and Tole Souple - The final step was to affix decorative aluminum moldings to the beltline and to cover any exposed joints in the fabric. The completed body was then mounted to the chassis with rubber insulators.
The finished speedster bodies were extremely light but were somewhat limited in shape because of their construction, however Buehrig was pleased with his design work. However 1929 did not prove to be a great year for Weymann's LeMans entries, of the three cars entered, only the Stutz of Guy Bouriat / George Philippe (Baron Philippe de Rothschild) finished the race, taking fifth position with an average speed of 64.8 mph.
Just as Stutz was completing the finishing touches on their new Duesenberg-based DV32 engine, a twin overhead cam straight-8 with 4 valves per cylinder which provided them with a much-needed shot in the arm, Buehrig heard that Duesenberg was looking for a designer. During the first week of June, a few days after the 1929 Indianapolis 500, he scheduled an interview with Harold T. Ames, Duesenberg's vice-president of sales, at which time he presented his portfolio. Ames liked what he saw and offered Buehrig a job and on June 10, 1929, he began working for Duesenberg as the firm's in-house body designer., for which he earned $300 a month, $130 a month more than he was earning at GM's Art & Colour.
Buehrig would spend most of the next 8 years working with Ames so a short biography of the brilliant automotive executive is in order. Ames himself provided the following details of his automotive adventures with E.L. Cord in a speech before a gathering of the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club on September 1, 1963:
“In January, 1919, at the end of World War
I, and after my service in the Air Force, I returned to Michigan
Avenue, Chicago, to resume the job that I had before the War, which was
selling Chandler Automobiles. A month later, a young man by the name of
E.L. Cord joined our sales force and became my roommate in a Southside
hotel. He was a very excellent salesman, and after three or four years,
accumulated enough money to get interested in acquiring an interest in
an automobile company. There were several hundred of them in those
days, many of them in dire financial straits.
“The old Fort Dearborn Bank of Chicago,
through forfeiture of collateral on an unpaid loan of the Auburn
Automobile Company, acquired control of that Company. Although they had
no idea that an unknown young man, by the name of E. L. Cord, could
prove to be of any interest to them in helping to liquidate their loan,
through the intercession of one of their Directors, the Board of
Directors agreed to give him a hearing. Cord and Ames and a young
artist, whose name I cannot remember, drew some beautiful pictures of a
new Auburn which Cord displayed to them on a big easel in the
Directors' Room, together with specifications, and cost, and proposed
selling prices. These Auburns, painted in two and three rather loud
colors, and they really were loud when you consider that all
automobiles were black in those days, made quite an impression.
Sufficiently so, that he became the new Vice President of Auburn
Automobile Company, with authority to liquidate old inventories for
enough money to build this new unusual car.
“You will remember the car as the one having
the moulding that swept back from the radiator cap. It was wider and
lower, it had smaller wheels with big spokes, and it had a larger
radiator shell. It had a crown on the side of the roof rather than the
old flat top. It had fenders with a crown on them, painted in colors to
match the body rather than the old black enamel type, and many other
innovations. It was successful, as you all know.
“In October, 1926, the Auburn Automobile
Company purchased the Duesenberg Motor Company, and, at that time, I
became associated with the organization. It was our desire, through the
acquisition of this name, and the services of Fred Duesenberg, to build
the world's finest automobile. Fred Duesenberg's unique ability, and
interest in the unusual, helped consolidate Cord's interest in a
front-drive automobile. The front-drive L- 29 followed not so long
after. It took us three years to design and develop and get into
production, the Model J Duesenberg. It was again an automobile of many
new and unusual details. It was the first car manufactured with a
three-spoke steering wheel. It had four-wheel brakes, automatic chassis
lubrication, a motor built with racing design, double overhead cams
with four valves per cylinder, and by far, more horsepower than ever
built into a passenger car. We spent many hours, days and months, in
designing a good looking radiator with a big radiator cap, fenders,
hood, wheels, running boards, tail lights bigger than any that had ever
been seen, and many other things to make the Duesenberg chassis more
beautiful and finer than any car ever manufactured.”
Three days into his stint at Duesenberg
Buehrig and Ames made a brief tour of Duesenberg's northeast
coach-builders (Derham, Judkins, Holbrook and Willoughby) in order to
become familiar with their staff and facilities.
At that time Duesenberg's total payroll was less than 50 persons. Officers and management consisted of Errett Lobban Cord, president; Frederick Samuel Duesenberg, vice-president and chief engineer; Harold T. Ames, vice-president and sales manager; and Pearl Watson, vice-president and factory manager. The engineering department consisted of one engineer - Fred Duesenberg, a chief draftsman named Walter Trummel, 6 chassis draftsmen, Buehrig, and a blueprint boy named Oscar Hadley who ran the antiquated blueprint machine. Fred Duesenberg didn't even have a secretary and spent most of his time out in the plant. The firm's owner, E.L. Cord was rarely in Indianapolis and Buehrig claimed he never once saw him at the plant during the time he worked there.
When Cord purchased the struggling Duesenberg Motors Co. in 1926 and reorganized it as Duesenberg Inc., only Fred was included in the new organization. His younger brother Augie (Augustus Samuel Duesenberg) remained in charge of the brothers' race car-building business (Duesenberg Bros.) and had nothing to do with the design and development of the Model J which was solely the work of Frederick. However Fred retained an interest in Duesenberg Brothers' racing activities which was run by his younger borther Augie and located across the street in the block just west of the Duesenberg Inc. plant at the northeast corner of W. Washington and Koehne Sts. They leased space on the second floor of Thompson Bros. Pattern Works Inc., 1542 W. Washington St., a machine shop founded in 1921 by brothers Eli E., Leon C., Webb W. and Horace E. Thompson. Augie employed half-a-dozen men including his son Fred Duesenberg Jr. and race car driver Wilbur Shaw, who later became general manager of the Indianapolis Speedway.
Originally constructed by the Duesenberg Automobile & Motors Co., Inc. in 1921, the Duesenberg Inc. plant was located at 1511 W. Washington St. (actually 1501-1513 W. Washington), Indianapolis, Indiana, just west of a railroad overpass. Duesenberg's offices were in a two-story building* located at the southwest corner of W. Washington and Harding Sts. The entrance led into a small, dark lobby where a Model J engine was prominently displayed.
(*A full 3rd story was added to the former Duesenberg office building in 1940 by the factory's then-owner, Marmon-Herrington, who used the property from 1937 until 1964. The Indianapolis Public Transportation Corp. - aka IndyGo – purchased the former Duesenberg property in 1984 at which time all the former Duesenberg structures were razed saved for an outbuilding - aka building 3 - which remains standing on the west side of Harding Street.)
Buehrig described the layout of the building's interior - which can be seen in the floor plans to the right - as follows:
“Harold Ames's was the first office on the left. I recall its having been the most elegant one in the building, but he was the sales manager, after all. Across the hall, on the right side, as you walked from the lobby, was Pearl Watson's office, and beyond it the one used by George Campbell, the shop superintendent. On the other side of the hall, beyond Mr. Ames' office, was Vance Hall's. Hall was assistant sales manager, and he was promoted to sales manager when Mr. Ames became president in 1932.
“The engineering department occupied the front portion of the building's second floor, right over the lobby. Fred Duesenberg's desk was near the entrance to the room—whose focus was a large vertical drawing board on which a full-scale draft of the Model J chassis was displayed. It was completely detailed in three orthographic views and was kept up to date with whatever engineering changes were made. I had one of four drafting tables that were set up perpendicular to the windowed west wall.
“Behind the office building was a courtyard area and a small factory building where final assembly of the Duesenberg took place. This structure provided space where a car body could be fastened to its chassis, as well as a separate area where interior trim work could be done, and a paint shop. At the rear of this building was a service garage.
“West of the building and attached to it was the main factory. This is where the chassis were assembled, and the engines were set up and tested. Duesenberg's sizable machine shop, in the factory building, was equipped to make almost any part the chassis needed. Engines were built by the Lycoming Company of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and shipped to Indianapolis, minus accessories.”
The Duesenberg Model J's styling elements - fenders, headlamps, grill, radiator shell, hood and instrument panel - were finalized well before Buehrig became associated with the firm and are now believed to have been the work of Alan H. Leamy*. However, Harold T. Ames and Errett Lobban Cord certainly had a say in the resulting creation, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful front ends (radiator, front fenders, lights, hood, cowl and dashboard) of the Classic Era.
*Some Duesenberg Model J accounts solely credit Leamy with the design of the front end of the prototype Model J styling elements, one supporting account being included in George Philip & Stacey Pankiw Hanley’s ‘Marmon Heritage’ (pp.451 – pub.1985):
“Al Leamy, according to Joe Felts*, who worked with him at Marmon, presented art work with his application to Mr. Ames at Duesenberg which ultimately became the body, hood, and front end design of the Model J prototype.”
Author Dan Burger in his 1983 Automobile Quarterly article on Leamy also raises the question of Leamy’s involvement citing certain statements made after the fact by automobile designer / instructor Strother MacMinn as evidence.
In his book on E.L. Cord, historian Griffith Borgeson theorizes:
“Because the front wheel drive project was underway at the Duesenberg factory until August of 1928, when Leamy was present, it seems likely that Leamy's fresh ideas gained acceptance within the Model J program.”
The fact that both the Leamy-designed Cord L-29 and the Model J were introduced almost simultaneously is sometimes referenced as evidence of Leamy’s involvement; however that merely proves coincidence and not fact. In his book ‘The Duesenberg’ J. Herbert Newport, Jr., Duesenberg’s chief body designer from 1934-36, is noticeably silent about who designed the front end.
In his book ‘Rolling Sculpture’ Buehrig states that Harold Ames and E.L. Cord - not Leamy - were responsible for the design of the car:
“Actually, I admired the standard equipment so much I felt sure I could not improve on it. The items to which I am referring were included with the chassis: fenders, running boards, radiator shell, hood, headlights, taillights, bumpers, horns, instrument panel, etc. These items were all designed by Harold Ames and Errett Cord. Neither of these men could sketch or make orthographic drawings, but they could visualize that they wanted and were able to get it by working with draftsmen and pattern makers.”
Although during his lifetime Leamy was never directly credited with the front end of the Duesenberg Model J, it’s certainly possible he was consulted by E.L. Cord regarding the matter and a comparison between the front end of the Cord L-29 and Duesenberg Model J reveals some similarities.
A drawing uncovered by Duesenberg expert and restorer Randy Ema shows a side and front view of the Model J’s fenders, providing their exact dimensions and distances between the various anchoring points commonly used by body engineers to create the master drafts used to creating the body dies needed to create sheet metal stampings. It’s signed by Leamy and marked ‘OK’ by Fred Duesenberg who dated it Aug. 20, 1928.
In Automobile Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4, Lee Beck states that the drawing is the proof that Leamy designed the Model J stating:
“At last, Leamy can be credited for this most graceful design”.
The drawing bearing Leamy’s signature concerns itself with the fenders only, the front end of the car only being included for reference. However in his Automobile Quarterly article, 'Chariots of the Gods: The Grandeur of the Model J Duesenberg' (AQ, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Summer 1992), Randy Ema states conclusively that:
“Alan Leamy styled the Model J sheet metal, which was the basis for some of the finest American coachwork…”
(and later on…)
“Al Leamy turned out stunning designs for the radiator shell, fenders, hood, and dashboard for the new model (Model J),”
Gordon Buehrig readdressed the issue in a letter to the editor of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club Newsletter, during the summer of 1984 (Vol. 32 No. 6; pp9):
“CORRECTION TO ROLLING SCULPTURE
“By Gordon M. Buehrig
“June 21, 1984
“It has been a few years since I last reviewed ROLLING SCULPTURE and in doing so today, I have found an error which should be corrected. The item was written in good faith at the time, however recent evidence has proven it to be in error.
“Many of your readers are owners of a copy of ROLLING SCULPTURE and this seems to be the best way I can make the correction and endeavor to make automotive history accurate.
“Regarding the Duesenberg, the item on page 22 of ROLLING SCULPTURE says, ‘The items to which I am referring were included with the chassis: fenders, running boards, radiator shell, hood, headlights, taillights, bumpers, horns, instrument panel etc. These items were all designed by Harold Ames and Errett Cord. Neither of these men could sketch or make orthographic drawings, but they could visualize what they wanted and were able to get it by working with draftsmen and pattern makers.’
“I wrote that because, on several occasions, Mr. Ames had told me so. I wish in writing the story I had made that clear.
“A few years ago Joe Felts, an engineer who worked at Marmon, when the designer, Al Leamy was there and later, when both men were at Auburn, told me that he was sure the Duesenberg sheet metal was designed by Al Leamy.
“Then in 1982, at Auburn, Mrs. Al Leamy presented the Museum with many of Al's original drawings and among them were a sufficient number of sketches to establish that the Duesenberg sheet metal design was in his style, however there has been no positive proof that he did the work.
“Certainly some gifted, experienced automobile designer had to put those lines on paper. We do know that Al was there and that he was capable.
“Gordon M. Buehrig”
The drawings submitted to the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum by Mrs. Leamy provide additional evidence that Leamy produced more than one orthographic drawing of the Model J.
All the evidence proves Leamy was involved in creating various drawings of the Duesenberg Model J chassis, a fact acknowledged by all. However, crediting him with the entire design of the Model J front end is an entirely different matter and is still open to debate unless we take Joe Felt’s* word for it.
(*Like Buehrig, Joe Felts ended up at Ford and served as executive engineer at the Mercury Advanced Studio.)
Griffith Borgeson addressed the subject in his 1984 biography, Errett Lobban Cord; His Empire, His Motor Cars; Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg:
“Authorship often is extremely difficult to define. As we have seen, Harold Ames felt that he and E.L. ‘designed’ the Duesenberg Model J chassis. ‘Of course we had designers,’ he says, ‘and they drew what we told them to draw.’ Accepting that statement at face value, the fact remains that, when esthetic factors enter the equation, different designers or draftsmen will interpret their instruction in different ways. And some will be better than others. For example, the draftsmen whose job it was to copy the Miller fwd for Earl Cooper managed in the process to lose all of the Miller’s exquisite refinement of line. Another draftsman might have improved upon it, had that been possible.
“In his Automobile Quarterly article on Leamy, Dan Burger raises the question of that designer’s possible contribution to the Model J chassis, pointing out that experts such as designer/educator Strother MacMinn and one-time Duesenberg designer Herb Newport see the Leamy touch there. The striking resemblance between the J chassis sheet metal and that of the L-29 and Auburn 8-98 can have other explanations. The J chassis had been under development for almost two years, and perhaps more, when Leamy arrived at Duesenberg, Inc. in April 1928. The J sheet metal may have been given its final form already. Perhaps it was shown to Leamy and he was told to give the L-29 form and character which would harmonize with ACD’s prestige leader and style-setter, the J. or the J sheet metal was in near-final form and Leamy was assigned to apply the last-minute touches which would assure the required family resemblance. That his role in the in the J was minor at most is indicated in correspondence which has been donated to the ACD Museum by his widow. In listing his accomplishments he cites ‘the complete exterior design’ of the L-29 and of the ‘Auburn 8-98 and subsequent models.’ He claims nothing concerning Duesenberg. While he looms as one of the great talents of his chosen art form, in seeking to explain the family resemblance one should not overlook the guiding intellect of the whole operation: E.L. Cord. Everything had to meet with his approval and conform with his taste.”
As a researcher I would like to see some 'concrete evidence', albeit orthographic or photographic, backing up Randy Ema's statements as he provides none in his AQ article. Perhaps he has some documents that he acquired from Marshall Merkes, Ray Wolff or others that prove Leamy did it – if so please share them.
Regardless, Ema’s reputation is such that it's now “accepted as fact” that Leamy styled the Model J. I don't dispute Ema’s AQ article, but based on what I've discovered, I can't verify it either – and neither could Gordon Buehrig.
It’s hard to reconcile the fact that while E.L. Cord had Leamy apply for design patents on the L-29 Cord, and 1931 Auburns, no design patents were taken out on the Model J. Correspondence donated by his widow Agnes to the ACD (Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg) Museum include a letter to the S.A.E. Employment Service, dated September 28th, 1933, where Leamy lists his accomplishments:
“The complete exterior design of the Cord Front Drive was entirely mine. Following the Cord, I designed the 8-98 model, and subsequent models of the Auburn. . . . I have designed the building of quite a few custom and experimental models on Cord and Auburn chassis. Previous to my association with Auburn I was with the Marmon Motor Company, and designed their last series of large eights."
No mention was made of the Model J Duesenberg, nor of the Auburn Cabin Speedster, another A-C-D project he is often credited with.
Like Rolls-Royce, Duesenberg was strictly a chassis manufacturer who purchased all of their bodies from a third-party customer coach-builder. Although larger manufacturers such as Lincoln or Packard might order 50 to 200 identical bodies, a typical Duesenberg order might be for only 5 or 10 examples. Although constructing a body for Duesenberg – America's highest-priced car - was more prestigious, building 200 bodies for Packard was decidedly more profitable, and according to Buehrig the coach-builders that worked with Duesenberg “must have regarded us a nuisance account” especially when the engineering and set-up work (outlined above in the Gotfredson Body Co. section) stayed the same, regardless of the total produced.
Prior to the Model J's introduction Harold T. Ames placed small orders with LeBaron, Murphy, Derham, Judkins, Holbrook and Willoughby. As a large portion of prospective buyers at the time were looking for chauffeur-driven and enclosed automobiles Ames enlisted the services of Derham, Judkins and Willoughby, three firms which were at the top of their field. Although the cars were prominently displayed at the 1929 New York Auto Salon, most of the show's attendees ignored the sedans and limousines on display and thronged around the Murphy convertible coupe and LeBaron phaeton, as did Buehrig when he attended the event as a spectator.
At that time of its introduction the Model J's direct competitors included Bentley, Hispano-Suiza, Isotta-Fraschini, Mercedes Benz, Minerva and Rolls-Royce. One rung below stood Cadillac, Cord, Lincoln, Marmon, Packard, Pierce-Arrow and Stutz which all offered similarly sized cars for substantially less money.
Few closed-car orders were received at the show by Duesenberg, the main problem being that nearly identical closed-bodies (standard semi-custom offerings) could be purchased on a substantially less-expensive chassis from one of Duesenberg's second-tier competitors (in particular Lincoln and Packard), a problem that would be compounded with the onset of the Depression. Why would a potential limousine customer buy a $12,000 Willoughby-bodied Duesenberg when an identically-bodied Lincoln could be had for $5,000?
Although the stock market crash wiped out large numbers of wealthy individuals, many others managed to retain their wealth, however the most of them were reluctant to flaunt it considering there were hundreds of thousands of Americans standing in bread lines. Consequently, many individuals who could easily afford a new Duesenberg were looking at considerably less-expensive cars – some were even purchasing Ford's Model A Town Car.
Ames knew he had to do better, and hired Buehrig to create a line of elegant bodies that were exclusive to Duesenberg and unavailable on its second-tier competition. Closed bodies from Ames pre-crash orders that remained unsold were held in storage at the various body companies until Ames, or one of the factory distributors, managed to unload them.
During 1929 Buehrig made scores of proposals to Ames, although the vast majority never made it to production. However most of the handful that met Ames' approval became instant style icons, accounting for over 50% of the firm's sales during the coming years. Buehrig also came up with the Duesenberg's elegant radiator ornament (when introduced, the Model J had none), and helped re-design the original hood to accommodate the exposed exhausts required on the supercharged Model SSJ, which debuted in May of 1932.
When first introduced the Model J Duesenberg was not equipped with a mascot as Fred Duesenberg and Harold T. Ames felt the car was so distinctive that a radiator ornament and nameplate was unnecessary. However, a few early Model J owners complained, stating they were tired of having to explain to their friends that they were riding in a Duesenberg. Consequently one of Buehrig's first tasks was to come up with a radiator ornament consistent with the elegant character of the car and its owners. He recalled the special circumstances that influenced its design in his autobiography:
“Duesenberg's unique economic situation had a bearing on how I designed it. They had a labor vs. tooling aspect which was the exact opposite of the high production automobile companies. The general rule in the automobile business is the more money you invest in tooling, the less money you need for labor. We were building less than a hundred cars a year and our cars were expensive. We could afford labor but we couldn't afford high tooling costs.
“I was aware of this and designed the ornament so it could be made in the Duesenberg shop without special tools. It is made from two flat sheets of brass, cut to profile. A few lines are cut in one of them on a milling machine. A hole is drilled in the base piece and then the two pieces are brazed together and chrome plated. The highly stylized bird in flight complimented the beautiful lines of the car.”
A 2/3-scale sterling silver version of Buehrig's iconic, yet simple, mascot now graces the Harold T. Ames trophy which is presented annually to the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club's 'Best in Show' winner.
The first Buehrig-designed Duesenberg body constructed was a close-coupled coupe on a short-wheelbase chassis constructed by Judkins for Minneapolis' agricultural oilman Schreve M. Archer, the Archer of Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. Judkins also constructed Buehrig's second design, a 5-passenger coupe.
The Model J's chassis was produced in two wheelbases - 142.5” and 153.5” and shared the same sheet-metal save for the running boards and splash aprons, which were 11” longer on the 153.5” chassis. The only exceptions being a pair of 125” wheelbase SSJ Speedsters constructed while Buehrig was on hiatus at General Motors during 1933.
Buehrig followed a fairly routine procedure when designing a new body. The first step was to come up with a 1:16 scale design of the side, front and rear elevations (or the design lines in each plane) which would be presented to Ames, who would sometimes make suggestions on how to improve it, Buehrig recalling:
“He was a good critic with a sharp, intuitive sense of the sales appeal of a given design. He and I were pretty much in tune; generally what I did, he liked. That's one reason we got along so well.”
An orthographic* side elevation design drawing also does not give a true picture because it eliminates foreshortening due to perspective. In order to eliminate the foreshortening inherent in an orthographic view, Buehrig added a small amount of perspective to make the sketch more realistic.
(*Representation of a three-dimensional object in two dimensions.)
He started out by sketching a prospective body in India ink on a semi-transparent sheet of paper that was laid over a 1:16 scale photostat* of the chassis - one for the 142.5” chassis and a one for the 153.5” chassis. He recalled the exact procedure in his autobiography:
“I used a trick to lighten the work load. I carefully made a drawing of the short wheelbase chassis and the chassis sheet metal in side elevation in one sixteenth scale. I gave it a hint of perspective by moving the front and rear wheels in the foreground one inch forward (in scale) and the rear wheel one inch aft. The wheels in the background were moved closer together by the same amount. This still left the centerline of the car in true scale.
“Then photostats of the drawing were made and on one of them the drawing was cut and extended to the dimensions for the long wheelbase chassis. A number of these prints were ordered in both wheelbase lengths and by using them all I had to do was design the bodies. On the finished sketch, the chassis was just a phototstat and the body was India ink. This was not attractive but a second photostat of it looked quite professional.”
(*A Photostat machine consisted of a large camera that photographed documents or papers and exposed an image directly onto a 350 ft. roll of sensitized photographic paper. A prism placed in front of the lens reversed the image and after a 10-second exposure the paper was placed in a developing and fixing bath, then either air- or machine-dried. The resulting negative print was then re-photographed to make a positive print, or 'photostat' just as a copy created using a Xerox' electrostatic photocopier became known as a 'Xerox'.)
Up until that time most automobile designers cheated on their overall body proportions and roof lines, particularly on closed cars. The practice was necessitated by the location of the rear seat which was traditionally located above the differential which required several inches of vertical travel when the suspension hit a rut or bump in the road. Consequently the rear seat would often be located several inches higher than the front seat, which required a roof that gently sloped up rearwards in order to provide enough headroom for the rear seat passengers.
The long wheelbase (153.5”) Duesenberg chassis was originally designed for seven-passenger coachwork and the shorter wheelbase (142.5”) for 5-passenger bodies. By designing his 5-passenger bodies on Duesenberg's longer 153.5” chassis, Buehrig created what he termed as a 'perfect roof line' which had the additional benefit of moving the rear seat forward of the rear axle (on most designs it rode above it, creating a bumpy ride) which made the rear seats the same height as the fronts seats.
Once a particular 1:16 scale design was approved, Buehrig than produced a 1:8 scale orthographic body draft of the side, front and rear elevations (or the design lines in each plane) which would be followed by the car's interior, which would be sketched, shown to Ames, and then rendered in a similar fashion. These were the empirical design instructions that were required by the body-builders to create the wooden framework that provided the structure to which the windows, doors and sheet-metal panels were affixed.
The completed 1:8 scale drafts and sketches, along with color and trim specifications, were then sent to several body builders, who would look them over and submit their bids back to Ames. The winning bidder's draftsmen would then produce a full-sized body drafts from which a sample body would be created in the coach-builders model shop, and if their were not problems, the requested number of bodies (generally from 5-10, but occasionally 40 or more) would be constructed.
In some instances the coach-builder was allowed to tailor a design to their particular building style. In that case only the original 1:16 scale orthographic design sketches would be sent out for a quote and the resulting coachwork would have certain contour characteristics of the respective coachbuilder.
When designs for which Buehrig had created the 1:8 body drafts were constructed by multiple coach-builders – for example his Beverly Berline – the resulting bodies were identical. Without looking at the body-builders nameplate, it's almost impossible to tell a Murphy-built Beverly from a Rollston-built example - with the exception of a Rollston Beverly constructed for Mrs. William Wrigley, where the distinctive 'V' between the doors was eliminated at her request. The same held true for Buehrig's Torpedo Phaeton another body where he did the 1:8 scale body drafts. The initial example constructed by Brunn looks identical to the 4 bodies later constructed by Weymann-American / A.H. Walker – 2 bore a Weymann-American plate while 2 others, constructed after A.H. Walker took over the business, bear a Walker-LaGrande plate.
Body engineer Philip Derham was eventually hired by Duesenberg to serve as a liaison with their coach-builders. He was one of Joseph J. Derham's sons and had learned the trade in the family's suburban Philadelphia (Lancaster Ave. in Rosemont) coach-works. However the 1928 passing of the firm’s patriarch and founder caused a rift between his offspring. 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 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 while the actual bodies were built at Alexander Wolfington, Sons and Company, a well-known Philadelphia commercial body builder.
The Floyds already had a high visibility 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 Bryn 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. Soon after Philip Derham was hired by Ames to be its body engineer. Like Buehrig, Derham spent most of his later career working in the styling and body engineering department of the Ford Motor Co.
Many older books and articles on Duesenberg Model J's claim that Duesenberg had its own body engineering department, not true according to Buehrig who in his June 1984 interview with David R. Crippin states:
“I noticed that book (J.L. Elbert's) that mentioned about Phil Durham being there as the head of the body engineering department. There was no body engineering department. We had no reason for it. We didn't build bodies. Phil Derham came there about a year after I did, and he was our body engineer, but there was no department. He had no one working for him, and his job was to travel to the body companies and sort of follow up and check their engineering and make sure that the car was done right. But, there never was a body engineering department as such. Everything was really very small.”
The procedure Buehrig used in dealing with a coachbuilder, prior to Derham's arrival, follows:
“Late in 1929 Mr. Ames signed a contract with the Walter Murphy Body Company to build ten Beverly Berline bodies. Since this was one of my own designs, I selected (with Mr. Ames's concurrence) the exterior colors and the interior trim. As soon as Murphy received the order, along with my design layouts and specifications, construction could begin. Paint and trim were to be applied only to the first body completed. The remaining nine were to be held in the Murphy plant until Duesenberg, Inc., had received specific orders for the cars. As each order was taken, the customer selected the color and trim materials he preferred. When these specifications were sent to Murphy, an individual body would be completed.
“Normally Duesenberg chassis were shipped to a custom body shop and the cars completed there. But since the Murphy plant was in California, the bodies were mounted on the chassis in Indianapolis, unless one happened to be earmarked for California delivery. Only on rare occasions was a Duesenberg designed completely, top to bottom, for a specific customer. The only one for which I was ever responsible was the elegant Brunn Torpedo Phaeton built for Marc Lawrence.”
From 1928 through 1937 the regular sheet metal on the Model J was common to most of the cars, although several featured custom built fenders and other items of which Buehrig was responsible for the unique fenders seen on the firm's two boat-tailed speedsters. On occasion Buehrig modified pre-existing designs, recalling a convertible coupé that was heavily influenced by a Mercedes shown at the Paris Salon. He also designed a one-off speedster for San Francisco playboy George Whittell* that was based upon a LeBaron phaeton originally designed by Ralph Roberts. Buehrig later reworked the same LeBaron phaeton into the La Grande phaeton by altering its windshield.
(*Whittell was Duesenberg's best retail customer, purchasing six Model J's between 1928 and 1935.)
Duesenberg president Harold T. 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 name coined by Harold T. Ames that he hoped would have the same ring to it as Le Baron which at the time was the nation’s most prestigious builder. Ames banked on the fact that many of Duesenberg's customers wouldn’t know the difference, and he was right – during the next five years Duesenberg offered 29 different bodies under the LaGrande moniker. 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.
Designed by Buehrig, most LaGrande bodies were constructed by the Union City Body Co., of Union City, Indiana, a firm better known for their commercial and production body work for Auburn, Ford, Essex, Pierce-Arrow and others. At the time 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. Of the approximately 21-29* LaGrande bodies produced for Duesenberg's Model J program, Union City supplied from 19 to 21* of them – all of which were delivered to Indianapolis in-the-white then decked, trimmed and painted by Duesenberg's in-house staff of talented craftsmen, whom Buehrig considered to be the equal of those working for the prestigious coach-builders. At least one left-over Union City body (originally an L-29 coupe) was mounted on a new Duesenberg chassis (2491, J-472).
(*Sources vary on the actual numbers, which are currently unknown.)
The LaGrande name was later applied to all bodies received at the Duesenberg factory in-the-white*, which included unfinished bodies from Weymann, Walker, Brunn and others. While a LaGrande coach-builders plate was available, most LaGrande-bodied cars were delivered without a body plate as they were supposedly constructed at the Duesenberg factory.
(*In-the-white refers to bodies delivered to a chassis manufacturer minus trim, paint, varnish and hardware.)
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, LeBaron refused to build on the Indianapolis automaker’s chassis.
A pair of SWB (short wheelbase) 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 Co. was another branch of Errett Lobban Cord’s business empire, which also included Duesenberg. The third LaGrande builder, A.H. Walker Company, of Indianapolis, worked out of the old Weymann-American factory and 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.
When Buehrig left Duesenberg in early 1933, he didn't take any original design work with him although he did take a few photographs and reproductions of design sketches and body drafts. Luckily large numbers of Duesenbergs survive today and a little over half of them bear coachwork he designed, a description of each model follows.
According to Buehrig, the first Duesenberg Model J that was constructed from his design was a 2-passenger fixed-head rumble seat coupe.
The known survivor, whose chassis (chassis # 2162 – engine # j-137) was originally purchased by Joseph P. Wright, president of the Continental Diamond Fiber Co., on June 1, 1929. Apparently Wright was dissatisfied with the car as it was sold or traded back in to the dealer soon after. The Model J was subsequently purchased by Shreve M. Archer, a principal in the Minneapolis-based agrochemical giant Archer, Daniels, Midland Co. who requested that the Murphy convertible body be taken off and replaced with a less ostentatious fixed-head coupe.
Buehrig states he designed a body specifically for Archer, who requested it be black, equipped with a rumble-seat, and equipped with blackwall tires - the result being one rather stealthy-appearing motor whose elegant body was devoid of ornamentation save for a chrome drip molding above the doors which blended into a chrome bead that outlined the rear quarters. J.B. Judkins was the low-bidder, and they are thought to have constructed 2 examples, although whereabouts and history of the second car (thought to be chassis # 2145 – engine # J-125) remain unknown.
The next Duesenberg Model J body constructed using a Buehrig design was a 3-4 passenger Victoria coupe which was designed on February 13, 1930 according to a surviving rendering. 2 examples were constructed, again by J.B. Judkins, and Buehrig felt it was the most glamorous of all his Model J designs.
Like the coupe he created for Shreve Archer, the Judkins Victoria Coupe's exterior was also severely plain - the only accent being a bas-relief colored panel located below the sidelights. Built on the shorter 143.5” Model J chassis it achieved its glamorous proportions by virtue of its unique interior, which was designed as a close-coupled 3-4 passenger coupe - the only Duesenberg Model J coupe to have a rear seat, that shared the rear of the tonneau with a wooden vanity/liquor cabinet/occasional seat located directly behind the driver. Only two were built, probably because the interior had a limited appeal due to its cramped rear compartment.
Buehrig's first home-run, the Beverly (a close-coupled 4-door 5-passenger limousine priced at $14,000 including chassis), started life as an illustration that was included in Duesenberg's coachwork portfolio at the 1930 Chicago Salon (held during the second week of November, 1929). The handsome design generated considerable interest and was eventually built in small quantities by Walter M. Murphy on the west coast, Weymann-American/A.H. Walker in the mid-west and Rollston Co. in the east.
The Beverly Duesenberg was a Berline (pronounced Ber-len), the term referring to a small, close-coupled, limousine with broadcloth seating front and rear. It included a glass partition and was marketed both as an owner-driven and chauffeur-driven motor, which differed from a standard limousine in that the reduced size of the rear compartment did not allow for any jump-seats. Buehrig supplemented the smallish rear compartment with an oversize, yet elegant, rear-mounted trunk which helped solidify the unusual proportions that made the Duesenberg Beverly so distinctive.
The car was introduced in the flesh at the 1931 Chicago Salon (which was held in the Drake Hotel's exhibition hall from November 8-15, 1930) and was finished in three pastel shades of green with a light tan Haartz-cloth roof and fawn broadcloth interior.
The second example's exterior was painted in three shades of tan, its interior a rich maroon broadcloth piped in a light tan leather that corresponded with the shade of the exterior belt-line. The color of the broadcloth was so unusual that Laidlaw, the upholstery vendor, suggested that a mistake must have been made, Buehrig recalling:
“When our purchasing department sent the maroon color chip to the Laidlaw Company and ordered a few yards of broadcloth to match it, we received a very carefully worded letter in return respectfully suggesting we obviously had made a mistake. The letter stated the color chip must represent the exterior color of the car and we wished broadcloth which would be appropriate for the interior, but certainly we didn't mean to have the cloth in maroon. At our insistence, they produced what we had ordered and the resulting interior was sensational.”
The Beverly featured a rearward-canted windshield which brought the top of the 'A' post – and by association the windshield header – rearward giving the car much more dramatic proportions that also allowed a straight line door opening. Another unique design characteristic of some Beverlys (but not the pair built by Rollston) was a fabric-covered roof that extended down the 'B' pillar to the belt-line using a V-shaped treatment also found on the magnificent four-door convertibles designed by Hibbard & Darrin, Buehrig providing the details:
“One of the basic engineering problems of a four-door convertible is what to do with the space between the front door and the rear door windows. Since the doors cannot have structure above the belt and the glass run channels are inside the pillars, there is a void of three or four inches between the front and rear door glass when they are in the raised position. A common solution was to have a removable pillar fitted in or, in some cases, to have a pillar hinged at the bottom to fold inward. Tom Hibbard and Howard Darrin solved the problem by having the top material extend down to the belt between the two windows. This ear-flap effect was unique to Hibbard & Darrin bodies but was copied, probably with permission, by Derham on one or two of their custom bodies. On the Beverly Berline the effect in this area was crisp and geometric, an effect I could accomplish since it was not a convertible and because I used cast metal upper door frames.”
The rear divider of one Rollston-built Beverly constructed for Mrs. William Wrigley included a radio, bar and 3-gauge lighted instrument panel which allowed her to observe the speed of the car, which under certain conditions was capable of 100 mph. The rear seats of most examples were equipped with 'armchair'-style over-stuffed cushions seats with a removable center armrest that might accommodate a third person in a pinch.
Among the bodies Buehrig designed while working at Duesenberg, his favorite was the Derham Tourster, a 5-7 passenger dual-cowl phaeton which debuted in November, 1930 at the Chicago Auto Salon which was held in the ballroom of the Drake Hotel. Although the Tourster was severely plain in ornamentation it had the unusual virtue of being equally handsome with the convertible top raised or lowered and was the first dual-cowl phaeton to feature a crank-down rear windscreen.
One feature absolutely crucial in designing an attractive phaeton was to get the lowered convertible top to lay flat, and ideally no higher than the tops of the doors. This was typically achieved by building the top wide enough to allow the bows to fold outside the body and by using a very lightly-padded top, however the combination made for a rather skeletal top when in the raised position.
Buehrig was able to significantly lower the height of the rear portion of the raised top by creating his design exclusively for the long-wheelbase Model J chassis whose extra length allowed him to place the rear seat just ahead of the rear axle hump thereby reducing the height of the top and still allowing the rear-most passengers adequate headroom.
To get a more pleasing front and rear profile he slightly widened the front seat (when compared to the LeBaron version) and put a little more ogee (reverse curve) in the cowl which allowed a wider windshield that was now parallel with the sides of the car. By slightly narrowing the rear seat he was able to reduce the width of the convertible top (both raised and lowered), which now too was parallel with the body sides.
At that time a popular feature of a higher-priced phaeton* was a second cowl located in front of the rear seat, which more often than not included its own windshield, providing the rear seat passengers with a much more pleasing open-air experience.
(*For the uninformed a phaeton was an open four-door car equipped with a light collapsible top and flimsy detachable side curtains for windows. If permanent side windows and a more substantial convertible top were desired, one was forced to purchase - at considerable added expense - a convertible sedan.)
That second windshield, properly called a tonneau windshield, consisted of a folding piece of glass attached to the second cowl – either permanent or folding, the latter generally pivoting from the back of the front seat. The cowl was a two-piece affair that typically folded down when entering or exiting the rear seat of the car.
During inclement weather when the top was put up and the side curtains installed, it took a Herculean effort to get in and out of the rear seat of a dual-cowl phaeton. To get in, you had to detach the side curtain, fold the windshield forward by releasing the friction knobs, reach underneath the cowl and pull the handle that released the locking pins that held the cowl in place, then open the door and get in. Before the journey could start, the same procedure had to be followed – in reverse – and once again when you exited the car at journey's end.
For the Tourster Buehrig designed a system with a crank-down tonneau windshield (seen to the right in pictures and patents) that eliminated most of the nuisance factors associated with getting in and out of the rear seat, especially when the top was up.
By using the 153.5” long-wheelbase chassis Buehrig was able to install a full width 35° rearward sloping 8” deep box behind the front seat which contained channels in which the rear windshield (aka tonneau shield) was raised & lowered by a recessed window crank located in its center. As the cabinet ate up 8” of rear legroom, Buehrig installed footwells between the frame rails that allowed for adequate legroom for even the tallest rear seat passengers. The beauty of Buehrig's design was that the relative position of the tonneau windshield to the rear seat passengers was almost identical to that of the front seat passengers to their windshield.
In his autobiography Buehrig described an amusing event surrounding the color of the very first Tourster which was painted Primrose Yellow and Parkway Green:
“It was to be the show car and I selected a pale green for the fenders, belt. molding and interior. Even the steering wheel was in this color. For the body I selected a DuPont color called Goldenrod Yellow. It was a subdued color which matched up well with the green. When the body arrived from Derham I was shocked to see it in a strong vivid yellow and not like the color chip which had been selected. It seems the color chip was for an obsolete DuPont color and the same name had been used for the bright yellow.
“Both Ames and I were a little stunned but we decided to buck the body (put it on the chassis) and finish the car anyway, deciding if it looked too bad we would repaint it. It was a wild combination but not offensive and Ames decided it might make a 'Show Stopper.' From the show at the Drake Hotel in Chicago it was shipped to the Salon in Los Angeles. Movie actor Gary Cooper walked in, saw it and bought it.”
Derham created only eight examples: 2425 J-431 (Gary Cooper - original J-403 engine was defective and replaced with J-431); 2440, J-423 (Butler Hallahan); 2456, J-444 (Joe E. Brown); 2464, J-448 (W.S. Odom); 2468, J-451 (David Joyce); 2472, J-412 (G.B. Heister); 2499, J-489 (Mrs. Payne Whitney); 2524, J-504 (factory demonstrator), and 80 years after their debut they remain among the most desirable of the series-built 4-door Model J Duesenbergs.
A small number of Duesenbergs were equipped with Brunn bodies, the first, a formal town car designed by Duesenberg’s Gordon Buehrig for the 1930 auto show circuit. An unusual second cowl in front of the close-coupled passenger compartment gave rear passengers some much needed foot room.
Although Buehrig designed several town cars while at Duesenberg, only one – the All-Weather Town Brougham, which was prominently featured in the firm's ad in the 1930 New York Auto Salon catalog as well as the April 1931 issue of Vanity Fair - made it to production. Constructed by Buffalo, New York's Brunn & Co., it was the very last town car design built by Duesenberg as the market for the once-popular body style literally disappeared at the onset of the Depression and never returned.
The car introduced another clever Buehrig trick, a compact rear compartment with an accommodating seating arrangement, which was made possible by extending the interior below the beltline forward into the normally underused space just below and ahead of the glass partition, allowing seating for four-five passengers in a space normally designed for two-three. Buehrig explains:
“The purpose of the invention on the Brunn Town Car was one to achieve dramatic proportions. Probably the smartest looking town car at the time was Brewster's Rolls-Royce with the enclosed portion of the body containing only a bench-type seat for two people. Certainly it had beautiful proportions and snobbishness to the tenth power.
“Historically, however, the bulk of the town car market was for the larger enclosed body with jump seats and capacity for five people. I decided to try to approach the proportions of the Brewster Rolls-Royce, yet seat five in the rear compartment.
“We read the proportions of a town car as the ratio between the length of the enclosed portion of the body and the rest of the car. On the Brewster Rolls-Royce this ratio was quite large because of the small two-passenger enclosed rear portion of the body. On the Brunn Town Car a similar proportion was achieved by a trick interior layout which is shown on my original watercolor interior design layout.
“As can be seen from the accompanying illustration, the interior seating for five, yet the maintenance of the exterior proportion similar to the Brewster Rolls-Royce seating only two was accomplished by putting part of the rear interior space—below the belt—ahead of the glass partition. The interior sketch shows how this was done. A cowling back of the driver about ten inches deep covered the area inside the body where the jump seats were folded and concealed by a pull-down fabric curtain. When the jump seats were in use, those passengers' feet and part of their legs were under the cowling. It was all very roomy and comfortable and the exterior proportions were dramatic.”
Only one car was built, Brunn called it an All-Weather Brougham and it was built on chassis 2404, engine no. J-398*. It was sold to Victor Emanuel (b. 1898 – d. 1960), a Cord stockholder and financier (Cornell class of 1919) who later purchased E.L. Cord's interest in the Cord Corp. for $2.6 million and merged it with AVCO (Aviation Corp. - later Avco Mfg. Corp.) whose successful wartime military aviation contracts earned him the cover of the October 7, 1946 issue of Time magazine.
(*Although the car was eventually scrapped, its engine ended up with the Harrah Collection.)
Another Buehrig design created by Brunn was the Torpedo Phaeton, a car whose design was prompted by an 8-page letter Ames had received in the mail from a young sportsman named Marcus Jay Lawrence (b. July 19, 1907 - d. May 11, 1938):
“He (Ames) said, 'Gordon, here is a letter from a boy in Washington, D.C. who says he wants to buy a Duesenberg built to his own ideas. He has a Model A Ford with racing equipment on the engine that he wishes to trade in on the Duesenberg. It is obviously from an automobile-crazy kid and I would like to have you answer with a nice letter. Send him a sketch or two if you have some and a catalogue.'
“I took the letter upstairs and read it several times, then went back to see Ames. I told him I agreed we couldn't consider this young boy a serious prospect, but was impressed with his original ideas. I said, "With your permission, I would like to work out a design around Mark Lawrence's letter and it might be something we would want to build for an auto show." Ames agreed.”
Lawrence was born on July 19, 1907 in Cleveland, Ohio to Mortimer James and Carrie A. Lawrence – his father was president of the Lawrence Publishing Co. (79-85 Wood St, Cleveland - publisher of the Ohio Farmer) and the Lawrence-Williams Co. (85 Wood St., Cleveland – manufacturer of Gombault's Caustic Balsam, a popular French Veterinary remedy). When his father retired the family moved to Clearwater, Florida and following the patriarch's passing Marcus moved with his mother to Washington D.C. where they purchased a mansion at 2131 Wyoming Ave. N.W., an affluent neighborhood located 1 mile north of the White house just off of Connecticut Ave. N.W.
Lawrence requested a special body that had the physical enclosure of a convertible sedan but kept the outward appearance of a phaeton. Buehrig designed a very attractive hybrid convertible sedan/phaeton body incorporating all of the features outlined in Lawrence's letter.
When Lawrence received the sketch he called Ames and said I had designed exactly what he wanted and how much would it cost?
Our Duesenbergs were in the general price range of $12,000 to $14,000, but these prices reflected a production of five or ten cars of the same design, but with custom trim and color. A one-of-a-kind, which we thought this would be, cost more. Also, this body was quite complicated. Ames decided to have Brunn build it. After getting a quote on the body from them he set the price at $19,000 and informed Mark Lawrence. Mark wired back, "Proceed immediately."
Using a system he had come up with while working at Stutz, Buehrig addressed the tendency of a the firm's folding windshields to pop up at speed due to increased wind pressure. As was the normal practice across the industry Duesenberg's folding windshields were held in the up or down position by a pair of friction nuts (hand-operated knurled knobs) located bi-laterally in the side posts. When folded down, the top portion had a nasty tendency to flop up in your face at speed if those two nuts weren't securely tightened. Buehrig solved the problem by revising the knurled hold-down nut (the folding connection) to include a two-position (or 2-notch) locking pin.
The pivot point on the redesigned windshield was assembled with a bolt passing through the bushing located on the stanchion and shield member. Just below the pivot point he installed a tapered pin bolt which screwed into one of the members and matched two notches in the other member. The tapered pin allowed the frame to lock in place - the first notch securely held it in the down position, the second notch held it securely in the up position. Changing the position of the windshield required significantly less strength than before as once the pin snapped into place, the notches in the assembly prevented the top part of the assembly from moving, either up or down.
Buffalo, New York's Brunn & Co. were the successful bidder and the attractive car, which is often called 'the most beautiful double cowl phaeton ever created', was painted a high-gloss piano black, its interior outfitted with red pebble-grain pleated leather seating surfaces and door inserts contrasted by black patent leather seat backs and door cards replete with chrome moldings. The front and rear windshields, wind-wings (which retracted into the doors), side-mount covers, and wire wheels were also plated in chrome and a single pilot-ray spotlight was installed above the front bumper. Several months later the car, chassis 2511 - engine J496, was returned to the factory and retrofitted with a supercharger, one of the few that used the early 1-piece 8-port exposed exhaust manifolds.
When Duesenberg suggested that owners of the early supercharged 1-piece 8-port manifold cars retrofit them to the new flexible tube-covered manifolds, Lawrence kindly refused, stating:
“I would have nothing else. It gets hot – and at night glows red in the dark!”
Buehrig recalled Lawrence's enthusiasm when he picked up his car at the factory on March 15, 1932:
“When the body for Mark Lawrence's car had been decked and all details of construction nearly finished he arrived in his Model A Ford but he wasn't driving it. His chauffer was. He also changed his mind about trading in the Ford. Instead, he gave it to his chauffer.
“The day Mark took delivery he was probably the most excited customer who ever drove a new car from the plant. Mark had a tendency to stutter and his excitement added to his speech problem but it did not detract from the great grin on his face. He had a fist full of five dollar bills. He walked through the plant, shook hands with every workman, handed him a five dollar bill and thanked him for helping to build his Duesenberg.”
Four other Torpedo Phaetons were constructed two by Weymann-American in 1933 - 2542 J511, 2554 J526 (SJ) - and two more by that firm's successor, A.H. Walker in 1935 - 2583 J548 (SJ), 3608 J582 (SJ), the latter two bearing Walker-LaGrande body plates and being equipped with 17” wheels and factory-skirted front fenders.
Although the bulk* of Marcus Jay Lawrence's Brunn-built Duesenberg Torpedo Phaeton no longer survives, unlike some missing Dueseys, its fate is known. During the mid-1930s he established a second home in Arizona's Verde Valley, a rural mining community where young, wealthy Marcus – who listed his profession as 'rancher' - soon developed a reputation for being a bit of a gambler and playboy. It should come as no surprise that the owner of the 'V bar V Ranch' eventually totaled his Duesenberg when he smashed it through a guard rail and plummeted of a cliff in the Painted Desert sometime in 1937.
(*Only its engine survived the crash – which a subsequent owner eventually parted out.)
Although Marcus was not seriously injured in the crash, on May 11, 1938 he succumbed to injuries he had suffered at the hand of Ernesto Lira, a well-known sportsman and former manager of light heavyweight boxing champion John Henry Lewis. Lira had accused Lawrence of sleeping with his girlfriend, Mrs. Odessa Webb, at Lira's Soda Springs Ranch in Prescott, Arizona. Facing a possible death penalty, Lira admitted to beating Lawrence to death (with a camera with which he hoped to catch the two 'lovers' in a compromising situation) and on July 30, 1938 was sentenced to 30-40 years in prison.
Lawrence was still married at the time to Jane Stout Lawrence (daughter of Irma M. Stout) and on May 23,1938 she filed for executorship of his estate. Unfortunately for her, months earlier she had filed for divorce, and Lawrence had recently changed his will to leave her with the 'minimum allowed' under Arizona law. The bulk of Lawrence's estate, valued at $700,000, was distributed amongst his attorneys, his mother, Carrie, his half-brother, Paul J. Lawrence, two uncles and an aunt.
The various court cases caused quite a scandal in the tight-knit Arizona mining community so in order to provide her son with better local legacy, his mother made a donation to help establish the Marcus J. Lawrence (MJL) Memorial Clinic, an outpatient facility located in Cottonwood, Arizona, that officially opened on June 2, 1939. When a nearby hospital located in Jerome, Arizona closed during the Second World War, an even larger donation by his mother established the Marcus J. Lawrence (MJL) Memorial Hospital, a 24-bed hospital which opened in 1945 and survives today as the Verde Valley Medical Center.
Another memorable Buehrig design was the Arlington Torpedo Sedan, a close-coupled sedan very similar in appearance to the Beverly Berline with a pronounced Hibbard & Darrin side window treatment and a Torpedo Phaeton-like rear end. Designed and constructed especially for the Cord Corp. display at the 1933 Century of Progress, the car was dubbed the Twenty Grand by the press due to its $20,000 asking price.
When one takes a glance at the car – most often in the surviving black & white photos, or the beautiful 1:24 scale version created by the Franklin Mint – the first thing you notice is the unusual V-shaped windscreen, a design not used on any other Model J. A second interesting feature are the 14 exposed chrome-plated door hinges (7 per side), Buehrig explains:
“I had a thing about hinges in those days and several of my Duesenberg designs had either several heavy chrome plated exposed hinges or a large piano type. Concealed hinges were available and were used on some of my designs, but I favored the exposed type because structurally they were more honest. The "Soss" concealed hinges required a huge cut out in the hinge pillar which reduced its strength. On the Twenty Grand there were fourteen exposed chrome plated hinges.”
It used the same interior hardware Buehrig had designed for the Marcus J. Lawrence car and was fitted with the Beverly's rear division panel replete with gauges and a bar. Rollston constructed the sole example which was originally painted grey with a light tan Haartz cloth top and grey leather interior.
Duesenberg had a hard time selling the car, which was subsequently 'modernized' with smaller disc wheels, skirted fenders, and a black top and paint job in order to attract a buyer, which ended up being Minneapolis' Shreve M. Archer (Archer, Daniels, Midland Co.), who had previously purchased another Buehrig-designed Model J, the Judkins Coupe.
Thankfully the Arlington Torpedo Sedan (2539, J513) survives and can be seen in the Grand Salon of the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar, California. After spending several decades painted black, J.B. Nethercutt acquired it in the late 1970s and restored the car to its original colors. More recently a reasonably accurate tribute was constructed using a Ford 351 V-8-powered 1984 Duesenberg II dual-cowl phaeton as a donor car.
Another Buehrig design that included exposed chrome plated piano hinged doors was the Convertible Torpedo Victoria, a very attractive 4-passenger 2-door body originally designed for a yet unsold Model J chassis; 2262, J-231, that had originally been equipped with a Willoughby sedan body. Using a similar system to the one used on Walter M. Murphy's disappearing top 2-seaters, the Convertible Torpedo Victoria's was designed it so it folded into an enclosed well built behind the rear seats, giving it the car a very clean appearance when the top was stowed away. Another unique feature was its oversize doors, which provided unencumbered access to the rear seats, Buehrig explaining:
“The philosophy behind the design was that in order to give easy access to the rear seat, cut down on the blind quarter area usually associated with convertible Victorias and emphasize the longitudinal effect of the window area… Because the doors were extra long it would have been difficult to release the door locks from the rear seat, so we used two remote control handles on each door to release the door locks.”
J. Herbert Newport is credited with the interior and three examples were constructed, all by Rollston: #2262, engine J-231; #2263, engine J-235 – w/rear door hinges; and #2597 engine #J573. According to Fred Roe the Rollston Convertible Torpedo Victoria body on chassis no. 2263, engine no. J-235, the one with piano hinges at the rear of the door, replaced an armor-plated limousine body constructed by Willoughby. Although Rollston made approximately a dozen of their own similar-looking Convertible Victoria bodies for Model J chassis, they are easily distinguishable as they use standard width doors - Buehrig's were effectively a door-and-a-half wide - and their tops were stowed outside of the body on top of the rear deck as was the standard practice on Convertible Victorias.
San Francisco, California's George Whittell Jr. was Duesenberg's best customer in respect to the number of Model J's he owned – six, all purchased brand new. One of them was a boattail* speedster designed by Buehrig and constructed by Albert H. 'Bert' Walker at the former Weymann-American body plant in Indianapolis. The $17,500 car was one of two speedsters constructed from a Buehrig design – he designed two others, but they never made it to production. However one of his un-built boat-tail designs was used as the inspiration for a replacement body on chassis engine no. J364 - replaced a Rollston Convertible Victoria body.
(*Many Duesenberg histories list the 2 cars as 'fishtail' or 'tapertail' speedsters, Buehrig – the car's designer – called them boattail speedsters.)
Whittell's speedster (2537, J508) was built on the long 154.5” chassis, the second car, (2450 J437) built for San Francisco's Walter T. Varney, was constructed on the shorter wheelbase 142.5” chassis.
Although the body lines were similar, the completed cars looked very different. Whittell's car had a much taller boat-like tail while Varney's was ended much lower to the ground, closely following the sweep of the rear fenders – which were the same on both cars.
Varney's car had no side windows, step plates or running boards (the battery and toolbox was built into an enclosed streamlined box located just behind the rear of the driver's-side front fender) and its spare tire was accessed via a door built into the top of the tapered tail which also stowed the flimsy roadster-type top. His car was built with slightly smaller doors whose hinges were hidden inside the coachwork.
Whittel's car had proper crank-down side windows, a more substantial convertible top and wider doors that were equipped with Buehrig's characteristic exposed chrome door hinges. His spare tire was also stored in an enclosed rear compartment in the tail.
Duesenberg's LaGrande Phaeton, which Buehrig admits was based on Ralph-Roberts-designed Phaeton previously furnished to the firm by LeBaron, bears testimony to the great lengths Harold T. Ames made to keep Duesenberg in business during the Depression. By sourcing similar-looking bodies in the white from the Union City Body Company in Union City, Indiana, and finishing them in-house, Duesenberg added a significant amount to their bottom line. The savings were not limited to the automaker, the customer benefited as well as LaGrande Phaetons was priced significantly lower than similar-looking phaetons constructed by Brunn, Derham or LeBaron.
ACD Club historian Fred Roe briefly touched upon the subject in 1982:
“…while it looks like a copy of the LeBaron style which originated the 'sweep panel' side treatment, actually it is a very different body and if it did not have that design feature the two bodies would not have been considered any more comparable than any other pair of dual cowl phaetons. However, the simplest means of telling the LeBaron from the LaGrande is to observe the extent of the curved panel on the front doors. On the LaGrande body the curve goes considerably past the center of the door, while the LeBaron curve drops more sharply and only covers a third of the width of the door.”
At Ames' request Buehrig revised Robert's original design incorporating a number of features requested by the Los Angeles distributor for a celebrity customer, in this case, Twentieth-Century Fox screenwriter Eugene W. 'Gene' Markey. Although he lacked leading-man good looks, Markey's humor and gift for gab made him one of Tinseltown's most eligible bachelors, and he managed to wed THREE of Hollywood's most beautiful leading ladies; Joan Bennett (1932-1937); Hedy Lamarr (1939-1940); and Myrna Loy (1946 to 1950).
I couldn't locate any corroborating evidence that Markey owned a LaGrande Phaeton, however he was the original owner of another Model J, a Murphy-bodied Torpedo Berline Convertible Model J (2315, J-391) – unusual as it was built with an integral trunk and was always photographed topless with a tonneau cover stretched over the rear compartment.
The LaGrande Phaeton incorporated several design improvements over Robert's Phaeton (LeBaron) that Buehrig had originally introduced on the Derham Tourster. Both Buehrig-designed cars (Tourster & LaGrande Phaeton) used the same narrowed rear end and cowl and included the locking folding windshield Buehrig had designed when he worked for Stutz. As the LaGrande Phaeton was designed to help sell existing short-wheelbase chassis, the Tourster's crank-down tonneau windshield cabinet wouldn't fit, so a regular collapsible dual cowl with a folding shield was made available.
When a LaGrande Phaeton body was placed on the short-wheelbase Model J chassis, little space remained for the rear-mounted trunk. To create more storage Buehrig designed an extra-tall trunk with chrome plated trim with a folding false compartment at the top which provided just enough space to make the lowered top stack flat.
Most importantly for Ames, the LaGrande Phaeton project helped Duesenberg unload short-wheelbase chassis* on which most (14 of 19) were constructed and had the additional benefit of keeping the firm's painters and trimmers busy during lean times.
(*Frames for the long wheelbase chassis were in short supply.)
The final body style designed by Buehrig for Duesenberg was the Derham Four-Door Convertible (aka All-Weather Convertible, sometimes listed in error as a Derham Town Car). Designed for the short-wheelbase chassis, it incorporated a number of his signature embellishments such as exposed chrome-plated door hinges, a speedometer equipped instrument panel in the rear compartment and the leather-covered trunk he designed for the LaGrande Phaetons. Several were constructed – one was sold new on 2452, J-426 to Antonio Chopitea, of Lima, Peru and a second replaced a Willoughby Berline body on 2257, J-237, which was owned by Kenneth G. Smith, president of the Chicago's Pepsodent Co.
Although E.L. Cord had been active in the design and development phase of the Model J. Duesenberg, the sales, promotion and production of the chassis was left up to Harold T. Ames and Fred Duesenberg. Although they met several times Buehrig did not know the firm's owner very well, and stated Cord rarely visited the factory. However, Buehrig had a special relationship with vice-president Fred Duesenberg whom he greatly admired:
“...as far as I am concerned, he was one of the kindest and most lovable persons in the world—and most dedicated. He worked hard—his whole life was wrapped up in automobiles despite being crippled by arthritis. I learned recently from his son Denny that when Mr. Duesenberg was first stricken with the disease, his fingers curled helplessly into a fist he could not open. The bones in his fingers had to be broken so he could use his hands. In spite of the pain he had to live with, he never ceased working. A fifteen-hour day was not unusual for him when he was grappling with a difficult engineering problem.”
In January of 1931, after Buehrig had been with the firm about a year, Duesenberg invited him to live in a third floor apartment of his Indianapolis home, which had recently been vacated by a draftsman named Paul Miller. While living there* Buehrig recalled many evenings that Duesenberg spent at his home drafting table finishing up projects for the factory.
(*Buehrig lived at 3290 Fall Creek Boulevard [now 3290 E. Fall Creek Parkway] from January, 1931 until February of 1934 save for the nine months - Feb. 1933 to Oct. 1933 - he returned to Detroit to work for Harley Earl's Art & Colour during an especially rocky financial period at Duesenberg. Fred's widow, Isle (Oulteford) Duesenberg (b. Mar. 20, 1890 in Auburn, Nebraska), even let him stay there after her husband succumbed to injuries suffered in a July 2, 1932 automobile accident.)
When he moved into Duesenberg's home Buehrig had recently (Dec. 21, 1929) taken possession of his own custom-bodied automobile, a Buehrig-bodied 1930 Model A Ford cabriolet – 1 of 1.
On September 27, 1930, he traded in his 1929 Buick on a 'loaded' 1930 Ford Model A Cabriolet at the Ford Motor Co.'s Indianapolis factory branch which was located 3 miles east of the Duesenberg plant at 1315 E. Washington St. Equipped with 8-ply General white sidewalls (with dual side-mount spares), a rumble seat and auxiliary trunk rack, Buehrig's Briggs-bodied Model A (model 68B) would have cost $645, not including the optional Ford accessories ($70) and six 19” x 5” General tires ($30) - about ten times more than a bare Duesenberg Model J chassis.
The very next day Augie Duesenberg's men commenced its reconstruction across the street at the Duesenberg Bros. race car shop. Buehrig had a lot of changes in store for the car and had already prepared a full-sized body draft before taking delivery. He radically re-designed the car's coachwork – chopping the top by 3”, extending the hood by 4” and fitting it with a convertible Victoria top. Buehrig's blind-quarter top preceded the ones constructed by Dietrich, Waterhouse and Rollston by several years.
The workmen removed the body and convertible top and discarded the rear-half, which was cut off just behind the 'B' pillar. The front seat was removed as was the extra-cost rumble seat assembly. They also cut down the windshield and 'A' hinge pillar by 3” which took care of reducing the height of the cabin glass and top-hinged windscreen by the same amount. The cowl's integral dash/firewall and toeboard were carefully cut out, and re-attached 4.5” forward of their original position in front of the 'A' pillar and a 4.5” strip of sheet-metal welded into the void to form a 'dummy' extended cowl. This operation allowed the dash and toe-board to be returned to their original position in relation to the chassis when the body was remounted. A new extended (by 4.5”) engine hood was also constructed that fit over the 4.5” metal addition to the cowl assembly, which allowed the dash and toe-board to retain their original alignment with the engine and chassis components.
Next step was to build the framework for the rear of the body per the full-sized body drafts, put it together and install the carefully-sized hand-hammered aluminum panels. Buehrig retained the folding 'B' pillar which was shortened at the bottom by 3” - this allowed the original linkage and windshield header to be used. However, from the 'B' pillar back, an all-new bows and folding top linkage had to be constructed from the templates included on Buehrig's body drafts. The headroom lost by chopping the top was regained by dropping the floor and footwells several inches below their stock location, which provided a most comfortable driving and seating position. The rear seat was similarly lowered by notching the bottom of the seat so that it cleared the driveline.
Once the reconstruction of the coachwork was completed the Model A moved across the street to Duesenberg's paint shop where the body was primed, sanded and painted by Duesenberg's finest in 3 different shades of DuPont lacquer: the body (including dash and steering wheel) in Light Capucine; the fenders and belt molding in Dark Capucine; and the wheels and pinstripes, Flame Capucine.
Buehrig designed a special set of seat cushions for the car based on the same Marshall Knockland design typically used on the Model J. Because the bottom cushion had to be two inches shorter than standard, he revised the sprung frame's layout by having the row of coils around the perimeter extend all the way to the floor while placing those on the interior 1.5” below the floor level. As mentioned earlier the floor and footwell had already been repositioned several inches below their stock position in order to accommodate the new lower seats. Although they shared their bottom cushion, the passenger side of the split seatback folded forward to allow access to the rear compartment where a similarly-constructed sideways-facing auxiliary seat could hold a third occupant when necessary. Buehrig obtained four $5 hides from the Weymann-American Co. - a pigskin-grain cowhide to cover the exterior of the auxiliary trunk and three antique warm gray leather hides for the seats and interior trim.
All of the work at Duesenberg was done after hours with Harold T. Ames permission and Buehrig paid the workers out of his own pocket. Completed on December 21, 1930 the car, which he christened 'Baby' attracted attention wherever it went, Buehrig recalling:
“The first day I drove it down town to go to lunch I parked it in front of the L.S. Ayres Company. After lunch, when I returned, there was a crowd around the car extending into the street to the streetcar tracks. A policeman was trying to clear away the crowd. He was happy to see me arrive and solve his dilemma.”
In a later interview Buehrig recalled driving it to Ford's corporate offices in Dearborn in order to show it to Edsel, who he though would have appreciated it. However he didn't make it past Ford's chief body engineer, who declared “Mr. Ford would not be interested.”
The car was constructed per Buehrig's original design save for three small details: the accessory Ford trunk rack mounted behind the custom-built pigskin-covered trunk was changed in order to have a vertical orientation; the exterior landau irons were transferred to the interior; and a Boyce Moto-Meter was substituted for the Hispano-Suiza ornament on the radiator.
After driving the car a little over a year Buehrig updated it with a modified powerplant and experimental 15” Goodyear disc wheels mounted on 15” x 6.5” Goodyear balloon tires, whose matching spares required widening the front fender wells. He replaced the original radiator with a Motor-meter-equipped faux Hispano-Suiza unit, wrapping its lower end with a sheet-metal housing equipped with a Duesenberg gas cap over its crankhole.
Inside, the original Ford instrument panel was replaced with an engine-turned 1/4”thick aluminum sheet equipped with Pioneer-brand aircraft-style gauges lit by a pair of Pontiac instrument panel lights.
The original flathead four was disassembled and converted over to overhead valves using a Harry A. Miller single overhead cam head supplied by Dick McCarthy, a Chicago racer for whom Buehrig had once designed a racecar body. In addition to installing a Mallory ignition and Packard Electric cables, Buehrig put in some Ray Day aluminium pistons to increase compression. He finished off the engine by grinding Miller's name off the cast aluminum valve cover and installing a chrome plated fan and chromed oil and gas lines.
The car, which was subsequently featured in MoToR magazine, was topped off with an expensive Haartz cloth convertible top and repainted rich red maroon with bright red pinstriping. He drove it for 89,000 miles before reluctantly replacing it with a new Auburn in 1934. He lamented:
“There is nothing I have ever owned which gave me as much pleasure, as much satisfaction or that I owned-with greater pride than this beautiful little car. Its quality in every respect was equal to a Duesenberg and that was pretty good!”
Although Buehrig thought the original design drawing for his Model A had been destroyed when the Duesenberg plant was sold in 1937, it turns out Oscar Hadley, Duesenberg's former file clerk – and later engineer, had retrieved it from the dust bin and saved it. A mutual acquaintance presented it to a much-surprised Buehrig 30 years later at an Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg meet, and he included it, along with several photos of the car, in his 1975 autobiography, 'Rolling Sculpture.'
By late 1932 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 that year 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. Although Duesenberg sales nationwide were almost non-existent, Auburn-Fuller Inc., the Los Angeles Duesenberg distributor, had some luck selling new ones providing their coachwork was updated to match the competition's which at a bare minimum required adding skirts to the front fenders.
After Murphy closed its doors, several of its key employees - Christian Bohman and Maurice Schwartz - formed their own company, Bohman & Schwartz, which early on specialized in updating new Duesenberg chassis and re-bodying earlier ones. Duesenberg was no longer in any position to dictate how their chassis could be bodied and a number of unusual creations were built by the Pasadena coachbuilder for their eccentric Hollywood clientele during the mid-1930s.
Business was so bad at Duesenberg that several months might go by without a sale and in January of 1933 Buehrig made an inquiry with Howard O'Leary, GM Art & Colour's second-in-command, to see if they were looking for anyone. Buehrig was offered a designer position and returned to Detroit to go back to work for Harley Earl.
When Buehrig resigned Duesenberg's factory coachwork program was put on the back burner and Herbert T. Ames went looking for a replacement. He found one in J. Herbert Newport Jr. who had previously worked for Studebaker, Dietrich and Brunn and had previously also worked with Philip Derham at the short-lived Floyd-Derham works and was hired by Ames in February of 1933 on Derham's recommendation. Alex Tremulis, another legendary designer, was hired by Ames in 1933 to assist Newport and eventually replaced Buehrig as Auburn’s chief stylist. The pair are credited with designing the last of the factory-designed bodies, which like many of Buehrig's bodies, were built by LaGrande, the fictitious firm that fronted as Duesenberg's in-house body builder.
Although he didn't know it at the time, he would only be absent from Duesenberg for eight months, during which time Duesenberg got an order for two short-wheelbase 2-passenger bob-tailed speedsters from the Los Angeles distributor, Auburn-Fuller Inc. Design of the coachwork was handled by Newport and its construction by the E.L. Cord-owned Central Manufacturing Co. of Connersville, Indiana. The supercharger-equipped cars were built on a 125” wheelbase chassis which was built using a cut-down 142.5” donor. Although the term was never officially used by the factory, the two cars are known today as Model SSJ Speedsters (supercharged, short-wheelbase Model J) and were originally equipped with body-colored radiator shells and disc wheel covers.
Although Buehrig had designed a couple of bodies for short-wheelbase Model J's during his interim as Duesenberg's designer, they were never constructed and he had nothing to do with the 2 speedsters which were eventually sold/lent to movie stars Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. Cooper owned his speedster, J-563 #2594 (originally buff/light brown and re-painted two-tone gray before delivery), while Gable's speedster J567 #2595 (originally two-tone yellow/brown, later repainted coffee/brown and eventually silver/red) was lent to him by the E.L. Cord-owned Los Angeles distributor, Auburn-Fuller Inc. (3443 Wilshire Blvd.) for a two-month trial, which soon turned into six months after which Auburn-Fuller was forced to repossess it. The car was subsequently refurbished and sold to jazz violinist George E. (Georgie) Stoll.
Soon-after Gable was oft-photographed with another Duesenberg, a crème-colored Rollston-bodied 1935 Model JN convertible coupe (2585, J-560) that was re-styled by Bohman & Schwartz. A purported gift from his wife, Carole Lombard, the car was later featured in Hal Roach's 1938 comedy 'Merrily We Live' which starred Constance Bennett and Brian Aherne. For many years it was believed that Gable actually owned this car, however new information has recently come to light that claims that like the first car, it was only 'loaned' to him and upon its return to Auburn-Fuller in 1936 (2585, J-560) was sold to publisher L. Stanley Kahn, (married to Moses Annenberg's daughter Janet at the time and later to actress Rita Johnson) who also owned 2522, J-462 before it too was 'restyled'.
Many older books and articles on Duesenberg Model J's, particularly ones that highlight a specific vehicle, claim that the car in question was “custom-built” for the original owner. The claims were further perpetuated by Harold T. Ames, who in a speech delivered before the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club on September 1, 1963, stated:
“Most of the bodies of the cars, with the exception of those built for the show, were built to order. The design and details were worked out between Gordon Buehrig and his associates and a purchaser and the body builder. Usually the chassis was shipped to the body builder and the body installed there. I should have mentioned earlier, that upon completion of the chassis, a seat the size of a front seat in your automobile, was bolted to the chassis, an old hood was put over the engine, and the chassis was test driven 500 miles around the Indianapolis Speedway. Some adjustments were made at the Speedway, and others at the factory. The fenders, hood, radiator shell, running boards were not installed until the chassis had completed the road test.”
Although he didn’t discuss the subject in his 1975 autobiography, Buehrig set the record straight in his June 1984 interview with David R. Crippin:
“In a book put out by J.L. Elbert many years ago on Duesenberg, he said that about one out of every five Duesenbergs was actually custom built for a customer. That is not accurate at all. I think it was more like one out of a hundred at the most, because during the 3 years that I worked there as their chief body designer, there was only one occasion when we did a one-off body for a customer, and I think after I left there, that Herb Newport did one or two, maybe. To my knowledge, practically all of the Duesenberg cars were bought off the showroom floors or were duplicates of bodies that were already built, and they would just specify paint and trim, which was really the heart of the custom-body business, not only with Duesenberg but also with Packard, Pierce-Arrow, and Lincoln. The Torpedo Phaeton body that we did for Mark Lawrence was the only car during the 41 years that I was there that was actually done specifically for a customer, and then we built six more of them after that.”
In his autobiography Buehrig recalled that he first reported for work the very day* that recently-elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt implemented his famous Bank Holiday, which suspended all banking transactions from Monday, March 6, 1933 until the start of business on Monday March 13, 1933.
(*It is now generally accepted that Buehrig returned to GM the week before the 'Bank Holiday', Tuesday February 28, 1933, a date that meshes with several later interviews where he says he returned to GM at the end of February, 1933.)
Upon his arrival he discovered things were a little slow at Art & Colour (which was still a part of the Fisher Body division of General Motors), so slow that early in 1933 Earl summoned a group of designers up to his 10th floor office office and said:
"The most important part of the design of an automobile is the grille, the face of it. That is the whole design, right there! I want you to all start working on radiator grilles and that's 90 percent of the automobile—the grille."
To which Buehrig replied:
"Mr. Earl, I don't agree with you."
According to Buehrig, Earl's face and neck started getting red, and he thought he was about to thrown out the window. Earl replied:
"Well, if you know so much about this, what is the most important part of the design of the car?" to which Buehrig replied:
"Look, I've been designing bodies for Duesenberg for five years now, and they all had the same front end on them. And some of them were very beautiful automobiles and sold well, and some of them were very ordinary looking. But they all had the same front end."
Soon after Earl announced a new design contest pitting the studio's designers against each other. First prize was a week-long all-expense-paid trip to the upcoming Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, Illinois (1933-1934 World's Fair).
The studio's employees were split up into five 3- to 4-man teams*, each headed by one of the studio's senior designers. The first was headed by Jack Morgan (Juan Ricardo Morgan), the second by Thomas L. Hibbard, the third by Jules Agramonte, the fourth by Franklin Q. Hershey with Buehrig's being the fifth. Buehrig's team had one extra person, due to the fact he was saddled with 2 apprentices, which Earl apparently felt put him at a disadvantage.
(*His biography says 3- to 4-man teams, in a later interview he states 4- to 5-man teams.)
The teams were presented with a package drawing (a draft that provides dimensions for the interior, wheelbase and exterior of a car) for a four door sedan which had the same basic dimensions as a current-model Buick. When finalized each team would construct a ¼-scale clay model which would be judged by a team made up of the heads of several different G.M. divisions and two of the Fisher Brothers.
Buehrig's team held a number of after-hours meetings at his Alden Park Manor apartment (8100 E. Jefferson Ave.) where they got together to work on the design and drink some beer. Buehrig's team included Carl Otto and a talented model builder named John Lutz, Jr. whose famous father, John Lutz Sr., headed Fisher Body's prototype clay shop – giving them a distinct advantage when it came to constructing the quarter scale replica.
Buehrig's streamlined design incorporated a hermetically-sealed engine compartment, a feature inspired by his own Model A Convertible coupe, whose engine compartment was always getting dirty. By moving the radiators outboard between the hood and front fenders, direct air flow to the engine compartment was greatly reduced as were the dirt and debris which accompanied it. Buehrig recalled:
“It wasn't a very good idea but it set up a package problem that was bound to give a new look to the front end… it really didn't look like an automobile - it was something different.”
Art & Colour's designers held their own in-house contest just prior to the official one, and Buehrig's car was judged the best-looking of the bunch. However it came in dead last in the official contest, which was won by Juan Ricardo (Jack) Morgan's group. Buehrig recalled that the hood of Franklin Q. Hershey's entry incorporated an early version of the 'Silver Streak' moldings he later introduced as head of the Pontiac design studio. Historically Buehrig's entry was the most influential - after several iterations it became the 1936 Cord Model 810.
On September 20, 1933 Buehrig got a call from Harold T. Ames inviting him to come visit him in Indianapolis for the weekend as he had an idea he wanted to discuss. Ames was excited about his latest marketing scheme, a take on the badge engineering program that Alfred P. Sloan was instituting at General Motors at the time with the new Oldsmobile-based LaSalle. Ames reasoned that Duesenberg could sell a lower-priced companion to the Model J based upon a smaller displacement straight-8 engine and chassis sourced from Auburn.
Ames wanted Buehrig to come up with a 'trick body' for the car, which would be sold and marketed as a Duesenberg. Buehrig immediately thought of car his team had entered into the recent design competition and after seeing two pencil sketches of the car, Ames green-lit the project and offered Buehrig a job. The plan sounded good to Buehrig and upon his return to Detroit that Monday he submitted his resignation. It marked the second time he had left General Motors Art & Colour to work for another manufacturer – the first time for Stutz, and now for Duesenberg.
By the time Buehrig got back to Indianapolis Ames had already assembled a skeleton crew to work on the car which would be designed and built in a sealed-off area of the Duesenberg plant away from prying eyes. Augie Duesenberg, who had returned to the company following the untimely death of his older brother Fred, was in charge of the chassis work. Buehrig was provided with his own office in the design studio and his replacements, Herb Newport and Alex Tremulus - who were busy designing new coachwork for the Model J, were instructed to keep out. Only Philip Derham, Duesenberg's coach-builder liaison, was the only design staff member to be involved with the project.
Although Ames didn't think Buehrig's sealed engine compartment was marketable, he was intrigued by introducing a car that didn't have a radiator in the front end. Buehrig worked out a 1/8 scale drawing from the original pencil sketches and had chief draftsman Walter Trummel and his team work out the details of the twin radiator, and the finalized car was then sculpted by Buehrig on a 1/8 scale styling buck. Buehrig later recalled that:
“Working in clay proved the ideal way for me to design. I was never very good at artwork either sketching or in rendering, but had a natural talent for sculpturing in clay.”
Once Ames approved the clay model, Buehrig made an accurate orthographic drawing of the 1/8 scale clay miniature and turned the body drafts over to Philip Derham who had arranged for A.H. Walker to construct the prototype coachwork across town in the former Weymann-American plant. While Buehrig was finalizing the body Augie Duesenberg engineered the twin radiator arrangement by using 2 small belt-driven fans which worked at lower ambient temperatures but proved inadequate under higher temps.
E.L. Cord had little to do with the baby Duesenberg although Buehrig reports the prototype was driven to Chicago for his personal inspection as he had not been interested enough in the project to come to Indianapolis to see it.
At that time Cord had other things on his mind, the foremost being keeping his family safe. Although he officially dismissed the reports as “Hooey, Hooey, Hooey,” in its May 31, 1934 issue the Chicago Tribune reported that his two sons from a previous marriage, Charles and Bill, had been withdrawn from Delafield, Wisconsin's St. Johns Military Academy over the Easter holiday due to “threats from kidnappers”. That very same day the Associated Press reported that Cord and his family (wife Virginia and their 2 young daughters Sally and Betty, and older sons, Charles and Bill) had been living in their British retreat at Walton Heath, Heston, England since mid-April.
The trip was spawned by numerous threats against his children which dated back to March when a man threatened Cord at a Pasadena gas station. It was followed by phoned-in call to the Cord Haven estate on March 20, which threatened to kidnap the children and was reported the very next day by the Associated Press. Cord's friends revealed that his security team had also found a man lurking on the grounds of Cordhaven and that another had shoved a rifle into the ribs of one of the guards. The final straw was the spotting of a plane circling over the Beverly Hills estate. Cord had reason to worry as the threats closely followed the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, a recent threat made against Beverly Hills' resident Bing Crosby and the May 10, 1934 kidnapping of another neighbor, millionaire stockbroker and oilman William F. Gettle.
In February of 1934, about one month before Cord became involved in the kidnapping hullabaloo, he had ordered Ames and Buehrig to come to Auburn, Indiana, to try and salvage the poor-selling 1934 Auburn which had failed to win over both Auburn's distributors and the car-buying public in general. Buehrig recalled:
“Had this not occurred, development of the small Duesenberg would have undoubtedly gone forward, the car marketed and have been successful… The finished car was a real sensation but only a few of us ever saw it.”
Years later Buehrig fondly recalled his time at the Indianapolis manufacturer stating:
"The best fringe benefit of working for Duesenberg was being allowed to drive all the cars... I used to drive all night, with the top down, the moon up... just drive."
In 1933 Auburn, which was in rather shaky financial condition, had gambled a lot of money on the introduction of the 1934 Auburn, an all-new car deigned by Alan H. Leamy, that featured the firm's first all-steel body. Although it looks fine in hindsight, it bombed at its debut at the 1934 New York Auto Show, especially with the dealers, who were the guys who were actually placing the orders and purchasing the car. Duesenberg's Harold T. Ames happened to share a Pullman car with Lou Manning, Cord Corp.'s Chairman on the return trip to Chicago. The discussion turned to the failed debut and Ames told Manning that he knew what was wrong with the car, to which Manning replied:
“Well, if you know what's wrong with it, you're the one to fix it.”
And fix it he did. Manning made him executive vice president of Auburn and Ames was given a meager budget of $50,000 to cover the cost of face-lifting the car for the upcoming model year. Both Buehrig and Augie Duesenberg accompanied Ames on the move to Auburn, Indiana - Buehrig was put in charge of redesigning the front-end sheet-metal and Duesenberg was tasked with adapting the Switzer-Cummins centrifugal supercharger to the 1935 Auburn.
Ames only requests were that the car look powerful and have a big hood. Buehrig delivered, sculpting an entirely new front end which eliminated Leamy’s unpopular waterfall treatment and gave it a significantly more imposing radiator shell and grill. Upon Ames’ approval of the 1/8 scale clay model Burt Cotter and Ted Allen, two of Auburn’s body engineers, went to work on the orthographic drawings required to create the dies for the new sheet-metal and less than six months after the introduction of Leamy’s ill-fated 1934 Auburn, Buehrig’s new car was shown to the dealers. Buehrig recalled the details of the facelift:
“With a $50,000 budget, we couldn't do much. The decision was made to do nothing to the chassis or body and to concentrate on the front end sheet metal and fenders. Both front and rear fenders were changed, with a deeper skirt on both. We designed a larger, more impressive radiator shell and radiator grill and a new hood on which we eliminated the longtime Auburn trademark of the body side-belt running into the hood. There were also new louvered side panels to go with it. A new radiator ornament and some other minor detail changes rounded out the facelift.”
Augie Duesenberg went to work with the Lycoming Engine Division of Cord and Louis Schwitzer of Schwitzer-Cummins to come up with something that would give the ‘new’ Auburn more of a performance image. In order to keep under-hood temperatures at bay, Duesenberg equipped the 1935 Auburn 851 with the same type of exposed stainless-steel exhaust pipes found on the Duesenberg SJ, a brilliant move which helped establish the supercharged 1935-1936 Auburn 851-852 line as the ones to beat.
Although ‘Ames intruders ’had provided Lucious B. Manning and Auburn distributors with a car that would sell, Buehrig sensed some animosity between the outsiders and existing Auburn employees. Harold T. Ames’ office was directly across the hall from Roy H. Falkner’s, who had recently returned to Auburn as president after a brief sojourn as Pierce-Arrow sales manager. The two executives despised each other, and as most of the staff were solidly on Falkner’s side, Buehrig’s job was harder than it should have been. Alan Leamy, the man who had designed the failed 1934 Auburn, was still there, and listening to Buehrig, you can sense that Leamy was uncomfortable with Buehrig’s presence, and soon after his arrival, Leamy was gone.
Apparently Leamy was blamed for the poor sales of the 1934 Auburn line and his widow infers that he was asked to resign, telling ACD Museum director Skip Marketti that he was ‘relieved of his duties’. Apparently the dismissal came as no surprise to Leamy as a letter to the SAE Employment Service dated September 28th, 1933 reveals he was already looking for a new job. In fact he had been sending out sketches of interiors and exteriors to several manufacturers, including Graham and Packard during his final years at Auburn. Leamy wasn’t out of work long, accepting a position with the Fisher Body Co. that summer. Harley Earl was impressed by his work and on June 1, 1935 Leamy became a member of the LaSalle design studio at GM's Art & Colour division. 8 days later Leamy developed acute septicemia (bacteremia or blood poisoning) from a routine diphtheria vaccination he received as part of GM’s annual physical and four days later, June 12, 1935, he was dead at the age of 33.
Ames recalled the facelift of Leamy’s 1934 Auburn in his September 1, 1963 presentation before members of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club:
“Auburn Automobile Company spent half a million dollars in 1933 to design and engineer the 1934 Auburn. I had been critical of the design, but at that time, having no official standing with the Company, made no progress with my suggestions. The car was shown to the dealers in the winter, and again at the January Auto Show, and met with little enthusiasm. I was called to Chicago and told that if I could do something to improve its acceptance, that I had an extra job. I became Executive Vice President of Auburn. I took up residence at the Hotel in Auburn, and inaugurated a crash program to redesign the car. We brought along Gordon Buehrig and had a budget of $50,000 for tooling to do the job, in today's market, you couldn't design a new taillight for $50,000. However, we built the 850 Series and the 650 Series Auburn from the 1934 model, and had them in production and on the market, five months later in June, and called it the 1935 Model. We made no changes in the chassis or the body. We deepened the skirt of both front and rear fenders, designed a larger, more impressive radiator shell and radiator grill, built a new hood and louvers, designed a new radiator cap emblem, and probably a few other minor changes that I do not recall. I remember Herb Snow's comment when we showed hire a picture of the proposed 850 Auburn. He made a typical engineer's comment. He said, ‘You mean to tell me that you think that just because the car looks different from the 1934 Model that people will buy it in greater numbers?’ Anyway, that's how the 850 Auburn came into being.”
During the summer of 1934, Ames realized that he would need something to serve as the centerpiece of the firm’s upcoming auto shows, especially since much of Auburn’s 1935 lineup had already debuted, many months before the competition’s 1935 offerings. Lest the automotive press ignore the firm’s displays entirely, that showpiece had to be spectacular.
Ames asked Buehrig if he could cobble up a handful of supercharged Model 851 speedsters for the upcoming auto show season using some of the unsold speedster bodies Auburn had in storage at the Union City Body Co. at Union City, Indiana. Another one of Leamy’s brilliant designs, the Salon Speedster was offered on the 1932-1934 Auburn 8-105 and 12-160A/12-165 chassis, and although beautiful, the cars were introduced at the wrong time and only a reported 59 examples were produced (22 eight-cyl. & 37 twelve-cyl.), leaving an unsold surplus of approximately 41 of the initial 100-unit order originally placed with Union City.
Upon test-fitting one of the unsold speedster bodies on a new Model 851 chassis it was discovered that it would require extensive modifications to work. In addition, the cowl of the 851 was significantly wider than its predecessor, requiring several revisions to the hood so that the cowl of the existing speedster bodies would meet up with the Model 851’s all-new front end. The rear of the old speedster body looked out of place on the longer, sleeker, 851 chassis so Buehrig decided to scrap the rear end of t Leamy’s body from the rear axle centerline, back. While at Duesenberg, he had designed a number of boat-tail speedster bodies for the significantly longer Model J chassis, and he incorporated one of those designs details on the new rear end he created for the 851 Speedster.
Although Buehrig deserves credit for the bulk of the 851 speedster’s design, in particular the rear end, the central portion of its body - from the cowl to the just above the rear axle centerline - was Leamy’s. Both designers’ contributions resulted in what is considered to be the most beautiful Auburn ever produced, one which Buehrig admitted had “much better proportions than the Duesenberg.” Just as Ames had hoped, the 851 Speedster made quite a sensation on the 1935 auto show circuit.
Although 1935-36 Auburns are significantly more popular and valuable in today’s collector car market, sales figures reveal that back in the day the ‘34s sold better than Buehrig’s face-lifted ‘35s, although neither approached the overwhelming sales success of Leamy’s landmark 1931 Auburn 8-98. Kimes & Clark report the following Auburn sales figures, starting with the 1931 model year: 1931-34,228 cars; 1932-11,145 cars; 1933-5,038 cars; 1934-7,770 cars; 1935-6,316 cars; 1936-1,263 cars).
On September 1, 1963 Harold T. Ames covered the birth of the Cord 810/812 in a speech before members of the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club:
“Gordon Buehrig left Duesenberg in 1933 to go to work for General Motors. He believed that he had greater opportunity there and I agreed with him, and he left with everybody's good wishes. He called me one day later that year from Detroit, stating that he had something he'd like to show me. We met at my house in Indianapolis on a Sunday and he showed me the design of a new car that he'd shown to Harley Earl at General Motors. Gordon believed that an automobile built with a highly finished motor and designed in such a manner that the motor could be kept clean, would prove of interest to the automobile buyer. Mr. Earle didn't think that this would be of sufficient importance to make a new model successful.
“The design had a hood similar to the eventual Cord, and had two radiators, one mounted on each side of the hood, between the fender and the hood. I didn't think the clean motor idea of great value either, but the fact that here was a design whereby you didn't have to build around a radiator at the front end, intrigued me. I remember we commented that you could even put Roosevelt's face on the front end if you wanted to. By putting the radiator on the outside of the hood, Gordon eliminated all of the dirt and dust that used to be sucked through the radiator by the fan, and distributed all over the motor. We made a deal that day, and Gordon came back to work for Duesenberg. We immediately proceeded to build an experimental car according to his design. The experimental car was not successful because there was sufficient movement between the hood, fender and the frame to injure the radiator, and we were not successful in designing dependable cooling, so the next step was to put the radiator under the hood with louvers on the front of the hood. From there, we proceeded with all of the other features that became standard equipment.
“I recall the difficulties that we had in trying to design a headlight that would fit with the new front end. At that time, we owned the Stinson Airplane Company and had a Stinson plane that we used at the factory. The landing lights fitted into the bottom of the wing and could be turned down when you were approaching for a landing. That's where the idea of the disappearing headlights on the Cord came from. I can assure you we had lots of headaches building the disappearing headlights into the Cord fender.
“Of course, there were many other innovations, both mechanical and in appearance. Automobile manufacturers today would certainly never undertake to introduce a small fraction of the number of new ideas in any one new model. I'm sure you're familiar with all of these innovations, most of which are now found on all cars, regardless of price, and I'll not try to enumerate them. From E. L. Cord down we were never interested in the commonplace. Anyway, this is how the Model 810 Cord came into being.”
Auburn Automobile Company had spent half a million dollars in 1933 to design and engineer the 1934 Auburn line. Several executives within the Cord organization had been critical of the design, but they were ignored. The car was shown to the Auburn dealers in the winter and again at the January automobile show. It met with little enthusiasm and was a sales disaster.
Harold Ames had been one of those critical of the 1934 Auburn. He was called to Chicago early in 1934 and told if he could do something to improve the acceptance of the new Auburn, he had the job. Ames said yes, was given the title of Executive Vice President of Auburn and a budget of $50,000 for tooling to cover a crash project to redesign the car for better public acceptance.
Ames moved from Indianapolis to Auburn. Augie Duesenberg and I came with him. Augie went to work with the Lycoming Engine Division of Cord and Louis Schwitzer of Schwitzer-Cummins to come up with something that would give the "new" Auburn more of a performance image. The redesign job was mine.
With a $50,000 budget, we couldn't do much. The decision was made to do nothing to the chassis or body and to concentrate on the front end sheet metal and fenders. Both front and rear fenders were changed, with a deeper skirt on both. We designed a larger, more impressive radiator shell and radiator grill and a new hood on which we eliminated the longtime Auburn trademark of the body side-belt running into the hood. There were also new louvered side panels to go with it. A new radiator ornament and some other minor detail changes rounded out the facelift.
Ames was made executive vice-president of Auburn, and Buehrig was placed in charge of styling. Our move resulted in a face-lifting of the 1934 model for 1935—and in the 1935 boat-tailed Auburn Speedster.
By June, the production line changes had been made and the "new" Auburn, called the 1935 model, started to sell. The performance image was enhanced by the introduction of the supercharged straight-eight. Lycoming made the engine and Schweitzer provided the supercharger. Thus, the Model 850 Auburn arrived.
The fact the face lifted 1935 Auburns had been a mid-year introduction was great but it didn't give us a new "bomb" for show time when the other automobile companies were making their normal 1935 model line announcements. Ames wanted a sensational model to gain the free coverage of the media which you can get at Auto Show time if you have something worthy of this attention.
Auburn had built speedsters in the past. The last had been in 1933, an Al Leamy design. The bodies for these were built by the Union City Body Company of Union City, Indiana. Ames knew the body company had about a hundred of these bodies left over which had never been scrapped. His idea was to adapt a few of these to the 1935 Auburn chassis and display them at the Auto Shows. He asked me to see what I could do.
We had one of the bodies brought into our shop and determined since the body at the cowl was narrower on the 1933 model, we would need a special hood. The frame width was different and had a different shape at the rear axle kick up. This required compensating pieces to mount the 1933 body on-the 1935 frame.
Ames had been pleased with the boattail speedsters I had done on the Duesenberg chassis, so I decided to make the Auburn similar in design.
By using my group on a heavy overtime schedule, we did the entire design job in two weeks. We had the body cut in half just to the rear of the top well cover and threw away the rear portion. We built up a wooden armature to hold clay on the tail section and sculptured the new area in full size. We also sculptured the front and rear fenders on the mockup, setting it all up on a 1935 chassis. The new hood to match up the 1935 radiator shell and the 1933 cowl was added. The outside exhaust pipes completed the picture. Ames bought it.
Four were quickly built by hand and rushed to the four major Auto Shows. A price of $2,100 was high enough to show a good profit, even on the handmade models. This price sounds low today but at the time our lowest-priced sedan was only $595 and our supercharged four-door convertible phaeton was $1,500.
The reaction to the Speedster at its introduction was exactly what Ames had anticipated. It stole the show and much of the newsprint. They sold several at the show and additional orders started coming in. From then on, they were built in small lots, ten or twenty at a time. They were always largely handmade with only very cheap hardwood draw forms used on a hydraulic arch press to form the body tail end panels and the fenders. The popularity of the model was much greater than anticipated by some members of management and when the inventory of 1933 speedster bodies was used up, they had to order more. About 600 were built when they decided to stop manufacturing them, although there was still some demand.
In, the chapter on Duesenberg bodies, the difference in surface development of the rear end of the Duesenberg and the 1935 Auburn boattail speedsters is outlined. The design problem was substantially the same on both cars. In the case of the Duesenberg, the method used was the design of empirical lines on an orthographic drawing and the surface developed geometrically. In the case of the Auburn, the surface was sculptured in clay.
On the Auburn I got a better design because of the method used. Little design details like the chrome edge on the fender tips, the chrome stone shield on the front of the rear fenders, the split hood ornament on the body quarter panel and the chrome trim on the rocker panel on the Auburn were all copied from the Duesenberg. The windshield, doors, top and top mechanism were all from the 1933 speedster and the instrument panel was from the 1934 Auburn, all Of which were designed by Al Leamy.
The Auburn Model 852 Supercharged Speedster in the 1936 model year was essentially a continuation of the 1935 Model 851 unchanged, except for the number 852 on the radiator grill!
Meanwhile,, work on the small Duesenberg had continued apace. On June 24 1935, Denny Duesenberg and I drove the prototype car from Indianapolis to Auburn where its chassis was redesigned by Auburn engineers to accommodate front-wheel drive. I revised the original concept to fit the new chassis layout, and on November 2, 1935, it was introduced as the Model 810 Cord, but that is another story.
After the emergency of the 1935 Auburn face lift program was out of the design department a decision was made, presumably in the Cord Corporation's Chicago headquarters, to revive the small Duesenberg program but to do it in Auburn, to redesign it for a V-8 engine and front wheel drive configuration and to call it a Cord.
The opportunity to work out the design of the new Cord and to have it a front wheel drive vehicle gave me an assignment as ideal as an automotive designer could imagine.
The drive line configuration on the new front drive unit produced a near-perfect package layout from a body designer's standpoint, as well as overcoming the mechanical shortcomings of the L-29 Cord layout.
On a front wheel drive car the centerline of the differential is usually within a fraction of an inch of the centerline of the front axle. It is kept slightly off center to keep the bearings active at all times.
In the L-29 Cord layout, the driveline configuration saw the differential substantially in line with the centerline of the front axle and then an eight-cylinder in-line engine. In this case, this arrangement put the dash (the front of the body) approximately 55 inches back of the centerline of the front wheels. Putting the engine so far back moves the center of gravity of the vehicle back as well. The result on the L-29 was the driving wheels had a severe tendency to spin on acceleration on gravel or a slick road surface.
When a vehicle is driven up a hill the center of gravity, which is above ground level, tends to move even further back and this under conditions where maximum traction is desired for the driving wheels. L-29 Cord owners were aware of this but most of them loved their car so much for its sheer beauty they forgave its faults.
On the proposed new design the transmission was forward of the differential and the clutch. The flywheel and engine were behind. The engine was a V-8 which is about half as long as a straight eight. This configuration was accomplished by locating the centerline of the crankshaft above the centerline of the differential. The drive to the transmission was located at a higher level and returned from the transmission to the differential at the centerline of the front axle. This layout resulted in moving the center of gravity forward and reduced the space from the front axle to the dash by approximately 22 inches as compared with the earlier L-29 Cord. In short, it provided a near-perfect chassis layout as far as my work was concerned.
Roy Anderson, chief body designer, Ted Allen, chief body draftsman, and Bart Cotter, assistant chief body draftsman, all wanted to engineer the car as a unit body frame construction. This type of construction gave me an optimum body layout for my work. It enabled me to use a step-down floor design which was a feature "invented" with much fanfare by Hudson 12 years later.
When the new Cord assignment was given to engineering the excitement was contagious. My group simply forgot the clock. Overtime pay was unheard of, yet we worked several nights a week. We had a radio and enjoyed the Fred Allen shows, Amos and Andy and other favorites as we worked. There simply wasn't anything we could do that would have been as much fun as working on the Cord.
I got beautiful cooperation from the chassis department in the location of such items as the battery, the muffler and other components I wanted out of the way so we could maintain an uncluttered floor level.
Cooperation was also perfect with body engineering because I knew and understood their problems. An illustration of how this two-way-street worked involved the doors. One day, Harold Molliter, a body draftsman, asked if he could show me a scheme he had developed which would allow the stamping of the door outer panels without the use of cam dies around the window openings. In order to use it the sheet metal had to be formed in a very specific way which was different from any other car on the road. He wondered if I would like the effect. We tried it, liked it, and used it thereby saving a substantial amount of the cost of the door tooling program. We also later discovered this door design detail had an additional virtue of cutting down wind noise.
The body was all steel construction. Normally, in a body program about half of the total tooling cost is for the doors. On our program this was cut way down because of not using cam dies and because I laid out the body in such a way that the left rear door was made from the same tooling (plus one extra operation) as the right front door. The same was of course true of the right rear door sharing tooling with the left front.
The method we used in developing the design was unique. It involved invention and was probably the quickest and least expensive production car program ever accomplished in an all-steel body.
Dick Robinson laid out the complete package and chassis engineering requirements for me on a one-quarter scale drawing. On this orthographic drawing I drew in all the empirical design lines, just as I had done when doing body designs at Duesenberg. When this was completed a print of it was given to Vince Gardner who designed a wooden clay buck armature with a minimum of one inch left on all surfaces for clay.
The type of clay used in automobile design work is a temperature sensitive material which at about 110° Fahrenheit is soft and pliable, but at normal room temperature is very firm and can be worked with extreme accuracy with steel tools. In using it a quantity of material is kept at 110° Fahrenheit in an electric oven so it is always available to the sculptor.
On another working print from the one-quarter scale layout I spotted all the points on the car where minimum size requirements had to be held or exceeded. There were dozens of such points, including head room requirements above the front and rear seats, air cleaner clearance under the hood, radiator clearance, the extreme travel of the wheels in full jounce, etc. Each of these points were located on the drawing in each of the three planes of projection, i.e. side elevation, plan view and end elevation.
Our "invention" while working on the Cord design project was the styling "bridge." The bridge is now a common tool used every day in all automobile studios on both full size and scale model design work. I may be wrong, but in all the investigating over the years, it appears we did it first.
The bridge is an inverted U-shaped tool that travels transversely over the length of the car on guides or tracks. With it, any point on the surface of the vehicle can be instantly located in space. The bridge is marked with ordinance lines and so is the table on which it travels. To locate any point in space on a model, the bridge is moved so its face is square with the point. This gives the longitudinal dimension. The height of the point projected to the bridge gives that reading and the distance from the point to the vertical leg of the bridge gives the location of the point with relation to the longitudinal centerline of the car. If the bridge is (to scale) 80 inches wide or 40 inches from the centerline and the point is 10 inches inboard from the bridge vertical member, the point is 30 inches from the centerline. (40-10).
The use of the bridge is described in detail because it was a key to the speed with which we completed the design program. The equipment was made to our drawings in the pattern shop.
The clay buck was properly located on the design table and then we all pitched in claying it up. We had band-sawed a few rough contour templates for guides and we purposely over-clayed it so there would be excess material to remove.
The next step was to establish all of the critical minimal dimension points which I had established on the working drawing. We did this with 1/8 inch dowl sticks 1/2 inch long. Using the bridge for location and referring to the drawing, we drove these dowls into the clay so their top point exactly marked the critical dimension. Each minimum critical point was so marked. Now our engineering space problem was spelled out for us on the model. I could shape up the surface and know I was not shy on any dimension as long as I didn't go below any of the dowl points.
When I had one side of the model sculptured, we used the bridge and its accessories to duplicate the design on the other side.
The outside face of the bridge was used as a plane of reference and measurements from it to different points on the finished surface were located on the unfinished side by this method. Parallel 1/4 inch holes were located through the bridge uprights and one and one-quarter inch intervals and through these we would insert a probe on the finished side of the model so its tip end touched the surface. A locating collar with a quick-lock adjustment on the probe on the outside of the bridge was locked in place. Then the probe was removed and the tip, which was turned down to 1/8 inch diameter with a rough filed face, was marked with blue carpenter's chalk and then inserted through the corresponding hole on the unfinished side of the model and pushed into the clay until the collar came against the bridge. This process was repeated over the entire model every one and one-quarter inches. The result was the clay on the unfinished side was marked every one and one-quarter inches to the proper surface. The clay on the unfinished side was then scraped away until all the blue dots appeared on the surface. This process gave us a fidelity of surface to 1/32 inch accuracy.
The one and one-quarter inch dimension on a one-quarter scale model corresponds to five inches on the full-sized car. When the model was completed and approved, the bridge was again used in a similar way on one side of the model to give a reading in inches from each point on the surface and by using a one-quarter scale, the dimensions were taken in full size.
The ordinance points were recorded in chart form and, when completed, it described for the full-sized body draft the entire surface of the vehicle.
In order to save time and money, we went from the one-quarter scale design model direct, through the method just described, to the full-sized body draft and die models. Bart Cotter did most of the body surface drafting and Ted Allen and his draftsmen did the structure and detail drafting.
I designed the interior in one-quarter scale. This included the instrument panel, which gave me the opportunity to do one of my favorite parts of a car exactly as I had always wanted to.
I used gauges of different sizes and of different shapes but always limited to production units except for the faces. This arrangement made it possible to identify any specific gauge much easier than if they had all been round and of a common size.
Gordon Buehrig designed what he called a 'no nonsense" instrument panel for the Cord 810, set off in an engine turned panel.
It was a "no nonsense" panel, made strictly to give the driver the information he wanted at a glance and it was located high on the cowl for best visibility.
The Magnavox Company in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, had a new (at that time) method of illumination of gauges called edge lighting. A colored dye was applied to the edge of the glass over the gauge and the lighting so located and shielded that all light to the gauge would go through the dyed edge. I spent several hours in their darkroom laboratory selecting the exact color. I also equipped the instrument panel light switch with a rheostat so any degree of light intensity the driver wished was available. This also was an automotive first.
A fan-shaped gauge with an energizer button switch gave a direct reading of the oil level in the crankcase, which eliminated having to raise the hood to check the oil.
I used the old King Seeley hydrostatic tube gauge which looks like a thermometer to show water temperature as reading temperature on this type gauge is such a common and therefore natural reaction.
The tachometer added worthwhile interest to driving a Cord. The car had a four-speed transmission and the tachometer told the driver, for instance, that at 65 miles per hour, driving in fourth gear, the engine was only turning 2,000 revolutions per minute and there was a lot more power available if he cared to use it. Third gear was direct and was used for city driving, while fourth gear was an overdrive gear and used for highway cruising. All these things added to the excitement when driving a Cord. As soon as you started the engine all the gauges came to life and you knew you were in command of a fine piece of machinery that wanted to GO and to GO FAST if you cared to.
The light switches and the manual choke were control levers in a case in the center of the panel, inspired by the hand throttles of a multi-engine airplane.
The gearshift lever was not on the instrument panel but it was so close to it that it was part of the same picture. The lever itself was only about two inches long and was housed in a gate case on the end of the housing attached to the steering column. The placement of the lever allowed shifting gears with the third finger of the right hand without taking your hand from the steering wheel. It was called the Bendix Electric Hand. In operation, it actuated electric solenoids which in turn operated vacuum cylinders which shifted the gears in the transmission. It functioned when the regular clutch pedal was operated and this made possible pre-selection of gear changing if the driver desired.
The Lycoming 90-degree V-8 engine, designed by Forest S. (Bill) Baster, chief engineer at Lycoming. Its 3 1/2 inch bore and 3 3/4 inch stroke gave 288.64 cubic inches displacement. The Bendix transmission shifting servo is on top of the gear box. This invention by Bendix was a timely coincidence in the birth of the 810 Cord. It solved what would have otherwise been a knotty problem.
The engine and driveline configuration which put the transmission in front of the radiator made it so far from the driver and so inaccessible that any type of mechanical linkage control would have been difficult. The Bendix Electric Hand was an ideal solution because with it, only electric wires were routed around the radiator.
The mechanical parts of the Bendix unit which were mounted on top of the transmission and forward of the radiator created a styling problem because they projected above the normal sheet metal in this area. On the experimental Small Duesenberg this problem didn't exist because of the conventional rear drive layout and the result was just a plain and very uninteresting area of sheet metal between the front fenders.
On the Cord, I took a very direct approach and allowed the problem to solve itself. Engineering had specified a one inch clearance between the mechanical parts of the Bendix unit and the enclosing sheet metal. It was an asymmetrical layout and we built up a wooden mockup of the problem area showing the side of maximum interference. Over this we laid on extruded strips of hot clay one inch thick and then smoothed up the clay, transferred the same design to the other side making it symmetrical and the esthetic effect was excellent.
Steering wheel molds at that time cost about $10,000 and I knew we couldn't afford one. I went to the Sheller Manufacturing Company in Portland, Indiana, and looked at all of the obsolete steering wheels on which Sheller still had the tooling and selected a very simple design. Back in Auburn, I designed a horn ring layout for it and a special center hub cover which, when added to the old Sheller wheel, created a sensational new steering wheel and started a styling trend in the industry which lasted many years. Mercedes had been using a horn ring for several years before the Cord, but it was a new look for an American car.
A similar situation existed in the problem of the interior body hardware. Interior door lock handles and glass regulator handles are made in die cast molds and the tooling is expensive. This time I went to Toledo, Ohio, to the Doehler Jarvis Company and spent a day looking at all the obsolete hardware they had which we could buy without a tooling expenditure. I selected a design which was not too bad and back in Auburn I designed a large one and three-quarter inch diameter colored knob for the window regulator. The knob was color keyed to the interior trim scheme and was so much in evidence that the Cord appeared to have a new design of hardware. Poly acetate butyrate, one of the first modern thermoplastic materials, had just been introduced by Eastman with the trade name "Tenite." It was a great new material (and still is) with an excellent color range. It was also an easy material to machine and therefore-ideal for making sample parts.
John Slater, the Eastman salesman, provided us with a bar of Tenite two inches in diameter and we turned out the knobs for the window regulators on our small shop lathe. At some point in the production of the Cord these regulator knobs were die cast and painted. It was cheaper than Tenite and the effect was the same, at least until the paint wore off. Fred Duesenberg used to say one trouble with American cars was that too much engineering was done in the purchasing department!
For the general interior trim design I copied the interior I had created for the Duesenberg Beverly a few years before.
In designing the exterior of the car in rear elevation, I wanted to create a character which would be easily recognizable at night. I knew the new shape of the Cord solved this problem in daylight, but I had to do something with lights to solve this problem after dark.
The impact of some innovations on the Cord are lost to people today who do not remember (or were not even born at the time) what competitive cars were like. The standard practice at the time in taillights was a single bulb mounted on a bracket attached to the left rear fender. It had a red lens behind the bulb for a taillight and a clear lens below to illuminate the license plate. On the Cord I mounted the license plate in the center of the trunk lid and illuminated it with a bulb in a cantilevered housing above the plate. For rear lights I used two four and three-quarter inch diameter red lights, located on either side at the bottom of the trunk lid. When you came upon a Cord at night, you knew it. Within two years this type of rear end illumination became standard on most cars.
Probably the most talked about innovation on the Cord was the disappearing headlights. We had used them originally on the experimental Duesenberg prototype. Ames was particularly proud of this innovation because it was an idea taken from the landing lights on the Stinson airplane. Stinson Aircraft was then a part of the Cord Corporation.
On the experimental Duesenberg, on the original Cord design and the first prototype, the lights folded out from the inner face of the front fenders. Before the car was released for production they were relocated so they folded out from the center of the fender, which was a better location. We researched the idea of having them operate by electric motors but the design and development cost was too high and we settled for operation controls by the use of two small cranks at the extreme ends of the instrument panel.
On the Cord, we pioneered the use-of large hubcaps which covered the entire wheel. Prior to that some discs had been sold as accessories to cover wire wheels because of the trouble keeping wire wheels clean, but we were the first with full wheel covers for steel wheels and to have them as standard equipment. On the first design the shape of the wheel covers was the same as that which went into production except the twelve one and one-half inch diameter holes around The perimeter of the covers were not there. In testing the prototype vehicle, a problem of brake failure was attributed to a lack of ventilation of the brake drums. To prove this, in our experimental shop, they put in the holes and solved the problem. They explained this to me to see what could be done. I saw the altered wheelcovers, liked their appearance and they were released for production. Once again, as LaCorbusier says, form follows function!
Radios were becoming a popular accessory for automobiles and we decided to make them standard equipment on the Cord. I located the radio speaker in the roof at the top of the windshield on the sedan because in this position it projected sound to the rear compartment as well as to the front. For the bezel of the speaker, I worked out a design clearly inspired by the Marchal headlamps then so popular in Europe. The radio antenna was located beneath the car so the exterior design would not be cluttered up with a buggy whip aerial. You may wonder why this location for the antenna is not in use today. The answer is the buggy whip type aerial works better. The radio controls added one more functional bit of detail to an already impressive instrument panel.
On the Cord 810, another new feature was one of the first uses of large hub caps which covered the entire wheel. The round holes in the cap were dictated when testing showed caps without holes caused brakes to retain heat.
The front and rear bumpers on the car were somewhat different and were designed by the bumper manufacturer, Buckeye Bumpers of Springfield, Ohio. Augie Duesenberg was working at Auburn on the problems of producing a supercharged version of the Auburn. The vendor from Buckeye Bumper showed Augie a sample bumper which we could buy without tooling cost. We put it on a prototype car, liked it and approved it for production.
One other small item which was an automotive first was the sheet metal door covering the gasoline filler cap. It was equipped with a lock since stealing gasoline was not uncommon during the depression.
1934 marriage to Elizabeth C. (Betty) Whitten
'In my little diary book, the date December 22, 1934 carries a brief but bold statement. It says "Married Betty Whitten."
The year 1934 had been a good one for me. The 1935 Auburn facelift had been completed and had proven successful. The 851 Auburn Speedster project was also successfully completed. The design of the new Cord 810 was virtually completed by the end of the year and it was time for a breather.
I met Betty on a blind date the day after Labor Day 1934 and on our second date asked her to marry me.
After the ceremony on December 22nd, we left in our Auburn four door convertible sedan and drove to Florida. Everything was beautiful. The Cord project was completed as far as design was concerned. Basic engineering was finished and the die models for all the body stampings were completed.
When we left Auburn for Florida, it was with complete confidence that the Cord project was on schedule, running smoothly and, with this attitude, I forgot the automobile industry for the next two weeks.
Betty and I returned to Auburn from our honeymoon on January 6, 1935 and when I went back to work I learned the Cord program had been killed.
I can't remember all the details but do recall the question of whether the company had enough money to do the Cord program was a legitimate one and there was not complete agreement among company officials on what should be done. This resulted in a number of compromise programs we were asked to do and which we begrudgingly carried out. One such program was to use the Cord front end on the old Auburn body. We in Design knew what a monstrosity this would be, but we had to build a one-quarter scale model to prove it.
After months of frustration while we worked on such ridiculous programs, something significant happened. It was on July 7, 1935, a Sunday morning. I received a phone call from Roy Faulkner. He told me there was to be a meeting the next day at Cord Corporation headquarters in Chicago. At that time, the Board of Directors would decide Auburn's future plans. He wanted to know if I had any good pictures of our Cord design model. I told him we didn't because I had prohibited any photographs of the model being taken to keep the project entirely confidential. I also told him I would see what could be done.
I immediately called Dale Cosper who, among his varied talents, was an expert amateur photographer. I picked up Dale and his little German Steinheil camera, at his home and we drove out to the plant. From noon until two am. Monday morning we did a photographic job that made automotive history. The Board of Directors decided to go ahead with the project and Faulkner told me later that Dale Cosper's pictures did it.
The date for the New York Auto Show was November 2, 1935. This left three months and 26 days to pick up the Cord program where it had been stopped the first of January and to build and test a prototype, complete tooling and have production cars ready for the show. It was an impossible task and although it was accomplished (after a fashion) it was not done well and the results were so financially crippling that it eventually put the company out of business.
The Automobile Manufacturers Association which sponsors the New York and other major auto shows had a ruling then that no automobile could be exhibited unless a minimum of 100 cars had been produced before the show date. Production tooling could not be made quickly enough to be used on the 100 cars so they all had to be made by hand. The power hammer department at Auburn worked as many hours overtime as the men could stand. Our vendors were asked to work miracles.
A program, rushed as this one was, is much more expensive than one with normal timing. Also, the Cord Corporation's financial position was insecure, which was no secret in automotive circles. The only way the program could work was to have Auburn's major vendors extend credit on the new commitments. For this purpose a party was held at the administration building in the showroom. At this party the prototype of the Cord 810 was unveiled for the vendors and this established sufficient faith in the project for them to meet Auburn's credit request.
The transmission for the new Cord was an entirely new design requiring new tooling. The time was too short to produce the tools and build the transmissions for the 100 show cars and consequently, although the cars were built, they wouldn't run because they were without transmissions.
We saved a little time on the phaetons for the shows because they were designed with a disappearing top. This was convenient. It allowed us to exhibit the cars in the show with the tops down . . . and worry about building the tops later!
During these months of uncertainty and frustration, the 100 cars somehow were built and our exhibit was on the train for New York in time for the opening of the show.
To say the Cord stole the show would be an understatement. It would be more accurate to say the Cord was the show!
In an article by George A. Brewster titled "Body Design at the New York Show," dated December 1935, he said "The most unusual group of cars in the show—in fact, in a good many shows—was the half-dozen cars comprising the Cord exhibit. In one or two respects this entirely new car is of greater interest than all other exhibits put together.
"In the matter of color and finish, the Cord people have given it more thought and study than other manufacturers. The general idea is to have the exterior of the car finished in a single color, with the interior of a properly contrasting hue . . . The results, from an artistic standpoint, are breathtaking.
"The entire exhibit of Cord cars provided one of the most aesthetically satisfying of the show."
Another article, titled "The Body Beautiful," stated "Cord has taken full advantage of its front-wheel drive in developing a decidedly unconventional exterior. Without a shaft or differential to interfere, it has been possible to lower the body until, despite its 125 inch wheel base, it stands only five feet high, and can be stepped into without the benefit of running board. Retractable headlights, the most unusual feature, give increased speed by reducing windage."
Another said "The designer has been flooded with congratulatory letters and cables from design engineers all over the world. The compliment the designer liked best, 'It looks as if it had been born and raised on the highway.' And properly. For sheer taste, for functional correctness and for beauty the 810 Cord is the best design the American industry has ever produced."
At the New York Show the cars were on the floor rather than on raised platforms and because of the low height of the Cord it was easy to see where it was because of the crowd around it. But, it was almost impossible to get through to see the car. People were standing on cars in adjoining exhibits to get high enough to look over the crowd for a glimpse of the Cord. One sales person at the adjoining Chrysler exhibit was furious about people standing on the bumpers of the Chryslers to try to see the Cord.
At the National Auto Shows throughout the country, a number of Cord orders were taken for Christmas delivery. Why such promises were made is hard to understand but optimism was high . . . even beyond reason.
When the time came to inform customers their promised delivery dates could not be met, Harold Ames came up with a device that kept a number of orders on the books, although there were some cancellations. Ames had a firm in Buffalo which manufactured jewelry and was especially clever in the art of small bronze castings make a number of models of the Cord sedan in 1/32 scale. These beautiful models, which cost the company $20 each, were given to customers who had Cords on order before Christmas. Today these models are collector's items and trade at very high prices.
Production of the Cord got underway slowly and the first cars were plagued with trouble. The cars overheated in warm summer weather and the transmissions didn't work well.
During the early days of production, Cord's competitors took advantage of the problems with the car and spread rumors. It is surprising the car lasted two years. It did so simply because it was so well liked that people bought it even though they may have felt it was an unwise investment. Actually, the problems with the car were pretty well solved by 1937 and they were good cars by the time Cord went out of business. In recent years the restorers who have rebuilt the old Cords have solved all the problems which should have been corrected in the original development period. Some cars show up every year at the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club homecoming in Auburn which are better automobiles than when they were new.
Following conclusion of work on the 810/812 Cord project, there remained little to do at the Auburn Automobile Company. It was rapidly becoming apparent Auburn's ills constituted a terminal case and I started looking for a healthier company to work for.
Buehrig's resignation was announced in the October 3, 1936 issue of Automotive Industries:
“GORDON M. BUEHRIG, chief body designer of the Auburn-Cord factory, has resigned, it became known this week. Mr. Buehrig was formerly with General Motors. He is credited with designing the bodies of the present Cord car.”
The Budd Company
Finally, I made a good connection with the Budd Company in their Detroit office.
The Budd Company headquarters was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Edward G. Budd, Jr. was president of the company. There they built stainless steel trains and had other steel fabrication activities. The bulk of their automotive business was in Detroit and they had a factory there. This plant was divided into two activities; one building wheels and brake drums and the other producing automobile bodies. Some Studebaker body components and a good deal of the body tooling were still done in Philadelphia.
Their competitors in body work were the Briggs Manufacturing Company and the Murray Body Company, both located in Detroit.
My initial contact was with Ed Deisley, chief engineer for Budd, and he outlined Mr. Budd's plan. The company was only doing a fraction of the body work Briggs and Murray were doing. Budd had previously engineered and built the bodies for the "Airflow" Chrysler, DeSoto and Plymouth cars. The engineering was brilliant and the bodies were well built, but the public's refusal to buy the cars hurt the Chrysler Corporation and, in the trade, it also hurt the reputation of the Budd Company as well.
In 1936 the company was building the doors for Packard and the commercial bodies for Ford and Dodge. It bothered Mr. Budd that they were not building passenger car bodies. The LeBaron division of the Briggs Company had recently established an impressive design department and this styling service was available to Briggs' customers. Much of Ford's styling at that time was done by this studio. The Lincoln Zephyr is one example.
Budd's plan was to establish an automobile design or styling studio in the Detroit plant with the anticipation such an activity would assist the sales department in obtaining passenger car body business.
After my interview with Mr. Deisley, he sent me to Philadelphia for an interview with Mr. Budd. This worked out well and I was employed to be chief designer and to build a small group for my staff. Mr. Budd was a delightful person and wanted our studio to be first class.
At first we had only a partitioned off area in the engineering department and we worked there for several weeks. Then Mr. Budd came out for a visit and he was so pleased with our progress he asked me to design a studio to be built in an area adjacent to the executive garage.
He requested I fly to Philadelphia in about four days with my plans. Our group enthusiastically accepted the assignment and instead of going to Philadelphia with just some sketches I had a small architectural model built of the design. Mr. Budd gave immediate approval and soon the work was underway. The studio, when completed, was beautiful and Mr. Budd was generous in his praise. Mr. Deisley was also happy to have our department and we had fine cooperation with his engineering department.
One entered the studio through a curved hallway into a brilliantly lighted room with a full-sized car turntable at the front. Along the left hand wall was a display area with three turntables for one-quarter scale design models. On a raised platform along the right hand side were drafting tables for four designers with my desk at the front. This was a custom built arrangement with a control panel for spot lights, for activating the different turntables and with my own drawing board. All of what I have described occupied about half our floor space. The balance contained our woodshop, plaster casting facilities and a paint booth.
Although it was not apparent at first, I soon found out there was one powerful man in the company who did not like us. He was the vice-president in charge of sales and it was for his department we were supposed to provide design assistance.
My first discovery of his attitude was at the time of the completion of the studio. Mr. Budd sent a PR man out from Philadelphia to plan a press party and reception for our customers to show them our studio. The plans were made but the vice president in charge of sales vetoed the party and ordered no publicity be given to the new design activity.
I worked on a number of designs as start-up programs for Budd.
One idea was for an inexpensive car I called the "Wowser" which was truly an economy vehicle, right down to the interior; but the sales department never showed it to any potential customers as they were afraid it might offend the clients' engineering departments. If it had been shown we might have the Wowser today instead of the Volkswagen.
Month after month went by and we worked out many new designs, but no one ever saw them. This finally got to me and I wrote a letter to Mr. Budd complaining about the situation, saying I was wasting my time and his money. Mr. Budd's reply was short and to the point. He said that it was with deep regret he had to ask for my resignation. Thus, the termination was entirely my fault.
(Caption) After leaving Budd, Gordon Buehrig moved back to Auburn where he and John Rinehart made an attempt at consulting engineering. This instrument panel by Gordon Buehrig was an effort for the King Seeley corporation, one of their customers.
I moved back to Auburn and tried to make a living as an independent industrial designer. I did some work for White Truck and quite a bit of work for King Seeley; I tried hard, but failed to make a go of it.
The January 21, 1939 issue of Automotive industries mentions a stillborn project, called 'The Texas Ranger':
“Designer of Cord Seeks Capital for 'New Car'
“Proximity to both Mexico and South America make Corpus Christi, Texas, an 'ideal' location for an automobile assembly plant, Gordon M. Buehrig, automobile designer, told a group of business men in this city recently. Buehrig is attempting to obtain capital for building an experimental model of a new car he has designed, "the Texas Ranger." He proposes to have the body parts built by the Budd Mfg. Co. in Philadelphia, and the motor parts by the Lycoming Aircraft Corp. The parts would be shipped to Corpus Christi by water for assembly and distribution.
“In 1928 and 1929 Buehrig was chief designer for the Stutz Corp., from 1930 through 1932 he was chief designer for the Duesenberg Corp. and later he became chief designer for the Auburn Automobile Co. He was the designer of the Cord car and once designed a special $16,000 automobile for Gary Cooper, film actor. In 1937 and 1938 he was director of the design department at the Budd company.”
The 1940 US Census lists the Buehrig living in a rented home/apartment located at 705 N. Main St., Auburn, DeKalb County, Indiana, his occupation, industrial designer. Also listed is his wife Elizabeth C. (Whitten – b. 1910) and their 4-yo-old daughter, Barbara Buehrig (b. 1935).
In 1940 I did a number of instrument panel designs for the King Seeley Company of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and we moved there. I was working for King Seeley when World War II started. This ended all automobile design efforts and I immediately got a job with Consolidated Aircraft in San Diego, California, as a draftsman. I really enjoyed working in aircraft engineering.
I was surprised, both at Consolidated and at Goodyear, how well my experience in automobile engineering enabled me to do productive work in aircraft. While n San Diego I took a night school course in trigonometry because I never had it in school. In Akron I was actually working for a Detroit-based engineering company doing sub-contract work at Goodyear in tooling the F4U1 Corsair gullwing fighter for production.
The information we received from Vought-Sikorsky, which had designed the airplane, was in the form of orthographic drawings showing the parts projected in their "flying position" on the aircraft. These components had to be redrawn in more normal views for manufacture and had to be rotated in space to many different planes for machining operations. It was rather complicated and beyond the skills of some of our tool designers.
The geometric rotation of components in space is a common problem in automobile body engineering and my experience in this area was soon put in practice. With my then-recent schooling in trigonometry, combined with my body drafting experience, I was able to solve the problems for the tool designers. I became the mathematician for the group! It is strange how a person can adapt to a situation.
Thus employed, I spent most of the remainder of World War II.
Near the end of World War II I returned to automotive design when I was hired by Raymond Loewy to manage his South Bend, Indiana, studio, which was then already at work designing the postwar Studebaker line. Most people think of the Loewy influence as something which came along after the war, but he was already well established as Studebaker's chief design consultant as early as 1939. He and his team were credited with the design of the 1939 Studebaker Champion, which had been well received.
My friend Virgil M. Exner had preceded me as head of Loewy's Studebaker efforts and I took on the assignment knowing full well I was walking into the middle of not only a design fight, but a management war as well. However, I was delighted to get the job and be back in the automobile business.
Exner had begun work on the postwar Studebaker as early as 1942-43 during war design slack periods. Exner had designs for the 1947 Studebaker well underway in 1944 when friction between Loewy and Exner brought me into the project as manager and Exner's boss. The confrontation between the two strong-willed men had been a long time coming and was understandable. Exner was an excellent designer, feeling a strong honest design would stand on its own merits. Loewy, on the other hand, was a promoter as well as a designer, and often made his point as much on his sales ability as excellence of the work. He was also willing to accept credit for his team's efforts in his own name as well. The combination of these two traits led to the Exner/Loewy split at a later date, which saw the fired Exner immediately go on Studebaker's engineering payroll and myself elevated to sole manager's post.
While Exner was still with the Loewy firm, our relative positions caused little or no problem. It was embarrassing to me to be in a position above him because we had known each other for many years and were friends.
Part of the time when I worked for the Loewy firm I was manager of the South Bend studio and Exner was my assistant. At other times Exner was manager and I was his assistant, as Loewy changed our titles. This made no difference in the way we worked. We had a mutual respect for each other and managed the office as a team.
One of my own personal designs for Studebaker was a sports car with a disappearing top.
Roy Cole was vice president of engineering at Studebaker and he admired Virgil Exner as a designer and also had ambitions for creating a Studebaker design department with Exner in charge. This plan included eliminating the Loewy organization from their Studebaker relationship. A political scheme developed in which Cole out-maneuvered Loewy and this put me in a bad situation. In spite of the fact that I did not know what was going on behind the scenes until the very end and was completely innocent, I don't think Loewy believed it.
Here is what happened. For several weeks it had been Exner's habit to arrive in his office about 11 a.m. He would mention he had been with Roy Cole, whose office was about two blocks away. This was a logical reason for his absence and I believed it. I never suspected Exner and Frank Alhroth were designing a car at night in Exner's basement. This was a scheme of Cole's—with the approval of Studebaker board chairman Harold Vance—to out-maneuver the Loewy team.
(Caption)Designers at work in the Loewy Studio in South Bend. Reading from the left are Bob Koto, Vince Gardner, Bob Bourke, Frank Alhroth, Jack Aldrich, John Reinhart, Virgil Exner, Raymond Loewy and Gordon Buehrig. John Bird (behind Loewy) and Larry Brom at the rear of the room, the two ladies, Virginia Spence and Nancy Spence were clay modelers and wood craftsmen.
Some time later, Roy Cole called me to his office and Exner was there. Cole explained to me what Exner had been doing and that it was a special small car with a different package layout than the one he had given us to use. He said the one-quarter scale model Exner had designed had been sent to the Budd Manufacturing Company in Philadelphia to be produced as a wood model in full size. He also explained he was going to get rid of Loewy. He asked me to accompany Exner to Philadelphia to inspect the finished design model and to turn in my expense account to him. This was the first time I was aware of Roy Cole's dirty trick.
A few days later Studebaker's Board of Directors was called in for a showing of the Loewy design team's model, in full size clay, and the Exner/Budd full-sized wood model. Needless to relate, the Exner/Budd version of the 1947 Studebaker was the one chosen and all that remained was to finish details, design the interiors and solve some minor problems. It could have gone no other way, as the die models were already half finished at Budd for the Exner version.
Raymond Loewy was furious and he had a right to be. Paul Hoffman was president of Studebaker at the time and he, as well as Board Chairman Vance, must have been aware of the entire scheme. However, because of the great reputation of Raymond Loewy, the introduction advertisements gave Loewy full credit for the design.
A few days after the showing of the two models to management, Loewy fired Exner and Roy Cole immediately hired him and set up a design studio, with Exner in charge, out at the Studebaker proving grounds.
It was only a matter of a few weeks before A. Baker Barnhart, one of Loewy's associates, came out to South Bend and advised me to resign.
Very shortly thereafter I left the Loewy organization to begin work on the Tasco project.
Someone once said, "Show me a man who never made a mistake and I'll show you a man who never did anything." When I think of the Tasco I repeat this to myself. It helps a little.
The Tasco, you might say, was my personal Edsel. It was not a very significant automobile in the broad scope of history, and since only one prototype was built it would seem that after a quarter century the car would be forgotten. But it still exists to haunt me.
The story began one day in 1948, while I was heading up the Loewy design team at Studebaker. I received a letter from Russ Sceli of Hartford, Connecticut. Russ said he and a group of his friends were interested in building an American sports car and would I handle the design work? I managed to get up to Hartford very quickly.
Some of Russ' colleagues were among the founders of the Sports Car Club of America and were talking, dreamily I thought, about an annual European-type grand prix race at a place I had never heard of called Watkins Glen, New York. Among the problems they foresaw was the lack of a suitable domestic vehicle to race in this and lesser events. Thus the idea for the Tasco, the acronym standing for "The American Sports Car Company." The whole idea had my immediate interest and I joined with the group, which was soon incorporated.
Altogether there were ten of us, and each invested $5000 in the firm. One member, Tom McKean, added a second $5000 later to help finish the prototype. No investment was ever recovered.
With the war just recently ended, most American companies were building basically prewar cars. They had no ready products that were truly modern or suitable for the purposes the infant SCCA had in mind. The consensus of the group was the proposed vehicle should be an open sports car with a special chassis and a fully American. engine and drive-train. The prewar Jaguar SS-1 00 was admired by some and the early Morgan four-wheelers by others. A few said what they really wanted was a "king-size M.G." They were probably right and I was probably wrong, because I kept insisting on a closed car with a new type of top which I had in mind, employing twin removable panels on each side.
I argued the problem had a parallel in the private aircraft field. In the early days of flying, all private planes were open. The pilots wore leather jackets, helmets, scarves and goggles. They enjoyed the noise of the engine and the general excitement of that kind of travel. But in 1927 Lindbergh flew the Atlantic in an enclosed cabin, dressed in a business suit. From then on private aircraft gradually changed to the cabin type. I predicted the same thing would happen to sports cars.
Ultimately, as we can see now, I was right. But had I gone along with my associates' desires at the time, we might have been successful with an open car. After getting established we could have developed the more complicated closed variety.
I was able to convince them, or at least they agreed, that we should develop a cabin type sports car. I had only a few meetings with the group but many with Russ Sceli, who was president and principal organizer of the company.
Russ showed me a lot of pictures he had collected, including some design sketches by Claire Hodgman published in the English magazine Motor. One of these was a sports car with front fenders that turned with the wheels. Russ was intrigued with this feature and suggested it be an integral part of our design.
I was living in South Bend at the time and had a small shop in my basement where I could build scale models. It was there I made plans to develop the Tasco. I made two 1-8th scale models. The first was fairly well detailed, showing the windshield and window layout, the turning front fenders and the first concept of the top I planned to use. The second model was just a shape which I never finished jn detail. This one lacked the turning fenders and was the one I personally preferred.
As I went into the turning fender problem, I became skeptical of the merits of the idea. I took both models to Hartford to show Russ, but his reaction to the second model was that it resembled the Buick fastback and was not sufficiently different to command a market. It would have been quite attractive though, looking a bit like the 1971 Camaro, and in actual size it was about the dimensions of the Corvette. But, in 1/8th scale its size and proportions were difficult to evaluate and Russ felt we should go all out with the more detailed, radical design with the turnable front fenders.
At this point I made a crucial mistake. I should have refused to retain the turning front fenders because I was aware of the problems they would entail. But at that time I thought I could work them out and, as Russ suggested, the car Would surely be different. I returned to South Bend to-design and build a quarter-scale model as per my original detailed design.
The finished quarter-scale model was completed in late 1948 and I took it to Hartford to present to the entire group. Not everybody was happy with it, but we were running short of time and the decision was made to go ahead with a running prototype.
We decided to use a Mercury engine with speed equipment, a modified frame, Mercury axles and drive line. Dale Cosper designed and engineered the frame to provide a compact layout. The chassis was shortened, the engine moved aft several inches, the "X" member removed. Frame stiffness was provided via tubular cross members.
Here our timing was unfortunate in several respects. The 1948 Mercury still had an L-head V-8 engine, though-we boosted performance with an Edelbrock dual intake manifold and two carburetors and dressed it up with cast aluminum Edelbrock head covers, chrome plated parts and some striking paint. The transverse springs were really the same basic design as Henry Ford had used on the Model T, and a more modern chassis would have helped. Had we waited a year, for example, we could have used the 1949 Ford chassis with its independent front suspension and no cross member to remove to achieve the desired lowness.
As I had feared, the turning fenders produced many problems. Not helping the situation was my decision to have them molded of fiberglass, a radically new material in those days. Inboard, the fenders were attached to the brake backing plate. On the outside they were fixed to the axles. At the front there was no problem as the axle didn't revolve, but the rear axle is live and required a ball bearing support attachment. Fender width in plan view became a problem, even though they were as narrow as they could be and still clear the tires. They encroached on the hood and body, and everything became a little too tight. The better proportions I had shown on the first 1/8th scale model were not possible on the larger, more accurate layout.
We built the clay model for the fenders in my basement. The actual fiberglass versions were made up by my friend Howard Anthony of Benton Harbor, Michigan. Howard owned the Heath Aircraft Company, which years ago built the high wing, single-place Heath Parasol airplane, powered by a Henderson four-cylinder motorcycle engine. The Parasol sold for $1000, or $500 in kit form. After the war Howard began designing radios, hi-fi equipment and electrical testing units, and his resulting Heathkits are well known today.
The day Cosper and I visited the Heath plant to discuss the Tasco fender project, we found Howard working on molded fiberglass floats for converting light aircraft for use on water. To demonstrate the toughness of the new material he handed Dale a heavy mallet and invited him to hit a float as hard as he could. Dale did, and the mallet went smack through—a little embarrassing on both sides. Howard assured us the stuff would hold up better on the Tasco, so we told him to go ahead.
I knew the turning fenders, suspended as they were with the wheels, would add undesirable un-sprung weight with a negative effect on the ride and handling. To offset some of this I decided to build the wheels of magnesium. Made by the Dow Chemical Company, they were well machined, beautiful and strong, but very expensive. However, their light weight fully negated the added weight of the fenders.
I continued to make compromises for one reason or another in developing the final design. Unfortunately, finances required the elimination of the disappearing headlights to simplify construction and cut costs. Originally I had planned to have a bumper nose and tail section of pneumatic construction, with the units built like a tire with an inner tube. A wide steel plate would act as the "rim." It would have been novel and functional, but again, the cost of the molds made the idea prohibitive.
Later I planned to expose a segment of the spare tire to act as a bumper. The spare was mounted in a horizontal position and was strong enough to function in that way. I finally decided to enclose it behind a hinged, plated bumper.
One of my more serious mistakes, which largely contributed to the broken-up lines of the finished car, was the conflict of the daylight openings or glass areas with the overall design. At the rear, for instance, where a transparent acrylic bubble housed the license plate, tail and turning lights, the lines didn't "read" properly. In the quarter-scale clay, these problems were not as apparent, though they forcefully appeared in the prototype. By then-we were short on both time and money.
In the end all these difficulties were rather discreetly ignored. We bought a new Mercury in South Bend, discarded the body, modified the frame as per the plans previously laid down, and provided the chassis with lights, a seat and other necessities to make it drivable.
Together with Vic Simney, a young model builder who had helped me construct the vehicle, I drove the bare chassis from South Bend to the Derham Body Company in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, where Enos Derham had agreed to build the body. Driving the chassis was a great experience. Dale Cosper's taut frame returned excellent handling characteristics. Recalling this emphasizes my belief that had we fitted it with a simple open car body we would have had a fine sports car on our hands instead of a disaster.
The cost of building the body went far beyond our anticipated figure, even though Derham did the work at little or no profit. When the car was finished, it was obvious that extensive development work was still required, and I became convinced the problems inherent in the turning fenders could never be completely resolved. Steering at high speed was sensitive to cross winds because of the fenders, but precise steering and high speeds are prerequisites in any sports car.
But all wasn't discouraging. I was sure my top design with the removable panels was an important invention, and the body interior had a number of unique ideas of merit. The general feeling one had inside the car was good, much like sitting in a two-place airplane.
The instrument panel was located high on the cowl and the emergency brake was only a short distance from the steering wheel. There were two gasoline tanks and an aircraft-type switch to go from one to the other. The driveshaft was covered with polished stainless steel, topped inside the cockpit by a leather-covered box enclosing the wiring and fuel lines. This was probably the first instance of using the driveshaft tunnel as a design feature.
By the time the prototype was on the road, our hastily contrived Tasco Corporation was out of funds. I spent about six months with the car trying-to interest some company in producing it but always with the understanding we would build a second prototype using only the good features from the first one.
I showed the car to Ercoupe in Baltimore, Beech in Wichita, Consolidated in San Diego, Lockheed in Burbank and many other aircraft companies. Because of the aircraft-type design of the Tasco and the large production capacities these companies now had sitting idle at the war's end, I reasoned they would be good prospects. However, the answer was always discouraging.
When we realized we were licked we dissolved the Tasco company. I was in the red for $2,000 in travel expenses, in addition to my investment, and since the car had little resale value it went back, I believe, to Derham, who sold it. I made an agreement with the company to resolve my expense billing in return fora clear claim to the top idea. Later I went ahead at my own expense and obtained a patent on it.
In 1949 I joined Ford, taking charge of one of their styling studios. The top patent was granted to me on June 5, 1951. I discussed it with E.G. McRae, then head of the patent department at Ford. He said the patent was entirely my property since it had been invented and the patent applied for before I started working for Ford. Furthermore, I was free to try to sell it to the company.
Late in 1951, when I was working in the Lincoln Division as a member of the Product Planning Department, I made an artwork presentation of the idea to Richard Kraffe, president of the Lincoln Division. He saw no value in it, so I gave up my efforts to sell it for awhile. Dick Kraffe later became president of Ford's Edsel Division.
In 1955, Ford introduced their two passenger Thunderbird sports car. I bought one and engineered a Buehrig top for it. Using one of the removable fiberglass hardtops, we reworked it to display my patent. Stanley Brom and I made the tooling for the parts in my garage and Vince Gardner built the top.
By this time I was Station Wagon Planning Manager in the Ford Division. The head of Product Planning was Chase Moresy, under Division president Robert S. MacNamara.
One day as MacNamara was leaving for lunch I asked him to look at the top, and he seemed impressed. Through Tom Case, Thunderbird planning manager, Ford patent counsel Jack Faulkner and someone in the legal department, I had a contract drawn up for a sale of the patent to Ford. I signed the agreement and it was put on the agenda for a meeting of the Ford company board of directors.
I was beginning to feel pretty optimistic. It had been my hope, ever since the Tasco folded, to make enough money on the top to repay each of the original investors the money they had lost.
The day of the board meeting passed and I heard nothing The next day I inquired what happened and was told MacNamara had removed the item from the agenda before the meeting. I was also told that since he had decided against the top, I should just forget it!
Sometime later I inquired through proper channels if I might try to sell the idea to another automobile company without jeopardizing my position or my annual bonus. Ford said I was free to do this. I called an old friend, Bart Cotter, who at the time was director of engineering at Fisher Body and had been assistant chief body draftsman at Auburn in 1934 when we did the Cord 810. He set up an appointment for me to demonstrate the top to engineers from Fisher Body and also a number of designers from GM Styling at the GM Tech Center. The result, as Bart reported several days later, was GM was not interested.
My next attempt was to sell the top to Chrysler. Another friend, Virgil Exner, who was then a vice president of the company and director of styling, arranged a meeting for me at their styling center, but the result was the same as at GM. Through another friend, Bill Gobell, I demonstrated the top at American Motors with the same negative result.
I even tried it out on the Golde Company of Germany, which builds sliding roof units for Mercedes and others. The company had a small shop in Detroit where they did custom top conversions. I showed Mr. Golde the top when he was in town on a business visit, hoping he would build one on a Mercedes for the European auto shows. I calculated if American auto executives saw it in Europe, they might be impressed. This meeting was also unproductive.
I had just about forgotten the whole idea when, in October 1967 I received my copy of Road and Track in the mail with a picture of the new Corvette on the cover. There, before my incredulous eyes was the old Tasco/Thunderbird top I'd been trying to market for nearly 20 years! The description of the car which featured the top was, in my opinion, an infringement of my patent.
My first thought was the 17 year life of my patent had expired and GM had waited until its death to use my idea. However, I found a copy of my patent in my files and it was not due to expire until June, 1968.
I wrote to General Motors and finally hired a lawyer to help me make a settlement with them. I was not experienced in this type of negotiation and probably did not handle the alleged infringement as well as I should have. I asked for $100,000 and had I received it, the original stockholders of Tasco would have had their investment returned.
In Summer 1968, GM sent Herbert Furman from their Patent Section to Los Angeles to make a settlement if possible. He was quite friendly and explained their position in detail. He told me the amount he was authorized to offer me for the dead patent and said if I wanted more I would have to sue GM. He did not pressure me to take the settlement and said if I decided to sue and won the law suit, we would still be friends. He said it was purely a business gamble I would have to take, matching my resources against theirs in a litigation which could drag out for several years. Since I had been unable to retain a lawyer to handle the case on, a contingency basis, I decided to accept his offer.
Recently I bought a Corvette, and whenever I drive it I think of the Tasco and the sports car that might have been. The Corvette top is, of course, much better engineered than that of the Tasco or my 1955 Thunderbird. However, it had four or more years of research and development at GM and is really excellent. It is probably the convertible of the future because air conditioning makes the rag top literally passe.
There were three features, though, on my Thunderbird top which I think had an edge on the Corvette. First, I had two interchangeable sets of panels, one of painted fiberglass to match the roof color and the other formed of clear acrylic. During the two years I drove the Thunderbird I seldom used the painted panels because the transparent ones were so much fun. Second, the Corvette has a makeshift arrangement for panel storage, whereas my T-bird had a sort of "file case" located above the differential in the trunk area which nicely accommodated all four pieces. Third, my roof had a wider fixed center section which added strength and safety and rendered the removable panels smaller, lighter and easier to handle and store. It also gave the interior more of an aircraft feel and appearance. My original patent also included a roll bar structural member built in, which I believe was the first such description of this safety feature.
One other aspect of the Tasco program was eventually of benefit to Ford. The U.S. Rubber Company of Mishawaka, Indiana, had a then-new plastic material called ABS (for Acrylo-nitrile-butadien-styrene) which was vacuum formable when heated. I made the quarter-scale design model of the Tasco from this material, having the parts formed by U.S. Rubber.
In 1949, when I was in Styling at Ford, one of my weekly duties was to attend the Body Engineering meetings where the construction of a new series of bodies was being developed. The problems of construction were described in these meetings by using perspective drawings and regular orthographic layouts. My purpose in attending was to catch any construction details that might alter the already-accepted body contours or that might present unacceptable joint lines. Since this rarely happened I found the meetings exceedingly boring and I would concentrate on every word, trying to keep from falling asleep. The meetings were scheduled for every Monday at 1 p.m. and I would drink several cups of black coffee and take a No-Nod pill before each session.
Sheet metal fabrication of an automobile body is quite complicated and sometimes I found it difficult to have a clear picture of the construction details under discussion. One day, after a meeting, I suggested to Henry Grebe, one of the body engineers, that they use three dimensional models to illustrate their construction proposals. He informed me it couldn't be done, as they had tried it with a model of a Lincoln windshield pillar. It had taken three months to build the model and I noted it was made of steel parts which had been formed over Kirksite dies. I suggested vacuum forming the parts with ABS, as I had done with the Tasco model.
Grebe was skeptical, having never heard of the material, but he did let me borrow the wooden patterns to demonstrate the process. I shipped the forms to U.S. Rubber in Chicago. George Martin, supervisor of Ford's Styling shop, and I flew over to see the parts made. They had the patterns ready and all 13 pieces were made in half an hour. I brought them back from Chicago, trimmed and assembled them at home and took them in to show to Henry Grebe. At first he wasn't impressed, but later the idea was put into operation by Manufacturing Engineering in a special shop at the Rouge plant.
In 1952, when I was assigned to Special Product Operations as body engineer on the Lincoln Continental Mark II program, I had a fine opportunity to fully develop the use of vacuum formed parts in a complete body program. Today there is a large shop at Body Engineering to do this work. It is used constantly to study construction of all new bodies. This engineering tool which is so successful today really dates back to the quarter-scale Tasco design model which, to my knowledge, was the first automotive application of ABS vacuum molding.
In retrospect the Tasco holds mixed memories for me. In itself, it was a failure, but many better ideas have also failed. While I have always regretted the losses it sustained, the fun of working on it and some of the concepts it fostered which later saw volume production make up for much of my regret over the car itself.
In 1949, Buehrig went to work for Ford's John Oswald, then head of body engineering and styIing, as head of the body development studio.
Ford Motor Company
On August 15, 1949, I started work for the Ford Motor Company and retired from there 16 years later on August 15, 1965.
My assignment for the first two years with Ford was as manager of the Body Development Studio in Ford Styling. At that time there were six studios in Styling. They were Ford Interior Studio, Ford Exterior Studio, Lincoln-Mercury Interior Studio, Lincoln-Mercury Exterior Studio, Ford Truck and International Studio and mine, Body Development Studio.
The Body Development Studio had the responsibility of designing the convertibles, station wagons and any other special models for Ford, Lincoln and Mercury after the basic design for these cars had been completed on sedan full-sized clay models. In developing the other models we were supposed to incorporate in our designs a maximum amount of interchangeability with the approved sheet metal from the sedan models. The purpose was to hold down tooling costs, especially on the shorter run specialty models.
There were two accomplishments during my tenure in Ford Styling that deserve mention. The first is the story of how the 1951 Ford Victoria came into being.
In 1949, a model generally known as a "Hard Top Convertible" was a popular design in several General Motors line cars. The name was a misnomer in that it was not a convertible at all but the side windows and rear quarter windows were the same design as on the convertible. The basic design probably owed more to the old "California Top" conversions available for touring cars in the 1920's and 1930's to make them more all-weather vehicles than it did to the rag top. The result was the same. With the windows lowered there was no window frame and no "B" pillar above the belt line.
Ford sales were suffering because they didn't have this model in their line and the Styling Studios had only designed one for the 1952 series, which was to be the next major body program.
John Oswald was the body engineer for the Ford line, also the supervisor of Styling and the man who hired me. One day in 1950 he came into my studio and asked if I could design a "Hard Top Model" from the current convertible with no changes in tooling, which would allow Ford to have a "Hard Top Model" in 1951.
We had available a quarter-scale drawing of the convertible and a quarter-scale model to work with. I drew the design lines on the quarter- scale print and in three or four days we had completed it as a quarter- scale design model.
It was accepted and went into production as a 1951 model called the Ford Victoria. It was so successful the already-approved 1952 design was scrapped and a new one copied from the 1951 design was released for production.
Shortly after this car was on the market I had a call from Jack Keegan, an old friend and co-worker at Dietrich in 1926. The reason for his call was interesting. He had just seen one of the new 1951 Ford Victoria's in a dealer's show room. He said he had heard I was back in Detroit and working for Ford, then asked, "Gordon, did you design the Ford Victoria because it looks to me like it has a Buehrig Roof line?"
In a small way, this proves some automobile designers, like some architects, have an individual feeling for lines and surfaces which trademark their work.
My second accomplishment at Ford Styling was the design work my staff and I did on the 1952 Ford and Mercury station wagons.
In 1951, the combined sales of Ford and Mercury station wagons was only 28,500 units. On the other hand, the bodies for the 1952 series were in production for three years and their sales for the first year were only limited by their capacity to produce the cars.
Earl McPherson gave me the station wagon assignment and also his personal ideas for the solution to the problem. He gave me a description of what he expected the new Ford station wagon to be and it was a perfect description of the wagon in current production by Chevrolet. It was to be an all-steel four-door wagon with door panel and quarter-panel stampings simulating the structure of a wooden body. All of these parts required completely unique tooling. The body was to be decorated with imitation wood decals over the steel stampings.
I was much in favor of going to the all-steel wagons but I didn't want to go the Chevrolet route. To do so would be a violation of my design ethics. I wanted the steel wagons to look like steel bodies. I also wanted to include a two-door wagon and a light truck version along with the four-door model. The sales department wanted one model with wood trim. We added that too, but with the wood only as decoration and not as imitation structure.
The sheet metal from the sedan which we inherited was not ideal for our purpose but I was determined to use the doors if possible because the tooling cost of doors is very expensive. I had orthographic drawings of the sedan in quarter-scale and in full size. The problem area was in the top line of the door where it proceeded aft from the windshield in a rising curve until it reached the rear of the front door. On the rear door this line curved downward from this point. It was easy to see the four-door wagon could use the front doors from the sedan but it would require new rear doors.
On the two-door model we had a tempting situation to cheat so we could use the sedan doors. The door on the two-door sedan was about four inches wider than the front door on the four-door sedan. The top line of the door on those extra four inches had started down hill, but only a little bit. It was just about a quarter inch. If we used the sedan door the result would be the parallel space between the top of the door and the bottom of the drip molding would not be parallel at that point. We decided to do it.
The car went into production and this detail probably saved the company $200,000 in tooling and a small saving to the customer because it provided a lower base for establishing the selling price. I doubt if any customers and probably few in management ever noticed this detail. The body shell was used on the 1952, 1953 and 1954 Ford and Mercurys. This interesting detail can be checked on any of the two-door (Ranchwagon) vehicles produced during those years.
On the 1951 Ford nine passenger station wagon, the rear bench seat was removable. The center seat folded into the floor so a flat floor aft of the front seat was available if you wished, but the rear seat had to be left in the garage. This was the standard arrangement on nine passenger wagons at that time.
On the line of wagons in our proposal, the two-door (Ranchwagon) was a six passenger vehicle, the four-door wagon was available as a six-passenger and a nine-passenger and the wood-trimmed (Country Squire) version was only available as a nine-passenger wagon.
I wanted the nine-passenger models to have an interior arrangement whereby all passengers would face forward, as they had in the 1951 Ford wagons, but with a seat design layout that would eliminate the problem of taking out the rear bench seat and leaving it in the garage when the vehicle was used with a flat floor aft of the front seat.
This required invention and I assigned the problem to George Golubics. It took him about a week to arrive at a solution satisfactory to him. He showed it to me, I approved it, and had it approved by body engineering. Ford took out a patent on George's invention.
With this invention Ford introduced the first nine-passenger station wagon wherein the rear seats folded into a flat floor configuration. On the six-passenger models the engineering of the seats was very simple.
The two-door model (Ranchwagon) went on the market as one of the lowest priced models in the Ford line, yet with a good profit margin. In 1951 the station wagon, also a two-door model, was the highest-priced car in the line. The Ranch Wagon quickly established itself as the best car in the Ford line for low depreciation. The 1951 station wagon had the highest depreciation of any Ford.
With the introduction of the 1952 models, Ford immediately dominated the station wagon market of the American automobile industry. By 1954, Ford station wagon sales reached 140,000 units per year, up from 28,000 units in 1951.
Continental Mark II
Early in 1952, the Ford Motor Company top management expressed an interest in building a new Continental to be a prestige car. Their desire was to produce an automobile which would, without question, replace Cadillac in the minds of the American public as the finest American prestige car.
The formal proposal to the Executive Committee was written and delivered by Douglas Holmes. Doug later told me much of his proposal came from my earlier material. The general concept was that the Mark II should be the best car in the world. A profit to the company should not be a consideration, but it would be desirable to break even. The real benefit would come through the umbrella effect on the rest of the Ford automobile lines as a result of the Mark II's image as the world's best car.
The Continental Mark II brought two advances in car design that improved safety and one of them had a direct effect on appearance. This was the thin windshield post. This structure in auto body engineering is called the "A" pillar and its width in cross section is a governing factor in the driver's scope of vision.
In 1926, when I had worked for Ray Dietrich in his custom body shop in Detroit, he had invented a "Safety Windshield Pillar" made of cast bronze and narrower than the distance between a man's eyes. His patent claim was this eliminated the blind spot and anyone building a windshield pillar that narrow violated his patent.
In 1952 windshield pillars had become quite thick. This component at that time on our Lincoln car was just as big and had the same construction as the Fisher bodies, which reflected the fact our chief body engineer in the Ford Motor Company had recently come from Fisher. A large windshield post obstructs vision and consequently, from a safety standpoint, the narrower the pillar, the safer the vehicle.
The second safety feature was a bi-product of our package study. Reinhart's desire to have a low automobile required a layout with a low floor. Copp knew a quiet automobile with good handling characteristics required a strong rigid frame with a deep cross section. The answer was found in building the frame outboard of the floor and nesting the exhaust pipes along side the frame members. The resulting frame design could be called the prototype of all the frames used today, except it was much stronger. This added strength added weight to the frame and lowered the center of gravity. Bob Reganhart, Harley Copp and Bruce Clark were responsible for its design. The safety aspect came from the location of the heavy frame and its resistance to impact along the side of the car.
The contribution to automobile art of this frame design was the wide, low package and the new proportions it gave.
One part of the Continental program I especially enjoyed was building our "Cobbled Cars." We had them constructed by the Hess & Eisenhardt Company of Rossmoyne, Cincinnati, Ohio. In all, six cars were built there and one of them was a convertible. A separate group in the Continental program also built a convertible hardtop model, but the one we built was a conventional one, simply called X-1500 Mechanical Prototype Car #4. This is not to be confused with the single Continental Mark II convertible, which was conceived by John Reinhart and constructed under the direction of Enos Derham at the Derham Custom Body Company in Rosemont, Pennsylvania. That car was first shown at the Texas State Fair in Dallas in October 1956, and then presented to Mrs. William Clay Ford.
(Captions) The Continental Mark II prototype hardtop coupe version built by Hess & Eisenhardt is seen here beside a stock 1953 Lincoln hardtop coupe. The four inches taken out of the car by use of the new Continental Mark II chassis can easily be noted. The completed Continental Mark II prototype test car in hardtop coupe version. It shows its family lines, having been made up from sectioned body panels from the 1953 Lincoln. This 3/4 front view shows the "Cobbled Car" Continental Mark II prototype in the Hess & Eisenhardt factory upon completion. It was built using sheet metal from the standard 1953 Lincoln. Rear view of the convertible "Cobbled Car" Lincoln prototype following its completion by Hess & Eisenhardt.
Our six "Cobbled Cars" used the massive "cow belly" chassis-frame, floor pan and all other chassis components of the Continental Mark II. The bodies, however, were constructed from current Lincoln stampings which were cut up and pieced together in a plan which gave the car the proportions of the Mark II. The cars were lower, the hoods longer and the greenhouses shorter than the stock Lincoln. It was my only chance on the entire program to do a little styling. The exercise reminded me of my Model A Ford which I redesigned and built while working at Duesenberg in 1930.
The Cobbled cars were quite handsome, entirely because of their exciting proportions and their lowness. We built the cars around Harley Copp's steel rail chassis frame, which angled down quite low between the wheels. By placing the seat frames deep between the chassis frame rails, we were able to take three inches from the car's overall height and had no reduction of headroom inside the car.
The convertible cobbled car—we had planned a convertible in the Continental Mark II line—proved in the structural test laboratory to be the best convertible they had ever tested.
For our convertible program we purchased a number of different makes to study. The one that was outstanding was a Mercedes-Benz Model 300S. The car was absolutely quiet with the top up or down. We studied it carefully to learn the secret of its marked superiority and we found it. This car had been built with compliance (flexibility) in a number of areas where you would normally expect rigidity. A structure that is subject to torsional loads is far stronger if it has a carefully controlled compliance engineered into the design than if it is designed for complete rigidity. We applied the lesson learned from the Mercedes and the result was gratifying.
A significant bi-product of the Continental Mark II development program was the invention of what has come to be known as Three Dimension Engineering. On June 24, 1953, we displayed a full-sized clay model of the Mark II to the executive committee.
The work that had to be done from this point by Engineering, Purchasing, Manufacturing and Accounting was all carefully scheduled and integrated. As a result, departments other than Engineering required information from the engineering sections immediately. The only development work completed at that time was the construction of a mechanical prototype—the "Cobbled Car."
This car consisted of an experimental Mark II Continental chassis fitted with the body and sheet metal constructed from reworked Lincoln parts. Development of this car provided the Chassis Section with a fairly accurate and complete list of parts and prototype design information. However, the cobbled car was practically useless to the Body Section for prototype design information, except in the area of seats and underbody.
The Purchasing Department had to source all the body parts for the new car and, because of the planned limited production, this required mostly new vendors. To do this, they had to know the size, shape and form characteristics of each individual body stamping.
The Manufacturing Department had to process the unique vehicle and, again, the limited volume produced a new set of. problems. Manufacturing planning required a breakdown of parts included in each major assembly.
The Accounting Department had to develop a design cost analysis and a corresponding tooling cost budget for planning purposes. To do this they needed essentially the same information as the Purchasing Department.
The Body Engineering Section, which I headed, produced the required information by developing a completely engineered 3/8 scale model Continental Mark II in a period of three months. The results of this program were only possible because of the invention of Three Dimension Engineering.
Four copies of the model were constructed so Purchasing, Manufacturing, Accounting and Engineering could each have one. The parts for the model were vacuum formed of 1/8 inch thick sheets of ABS plastic, which has already been mentioned as having been used to make the design model of the Tasco.
To make the models, the Drafting Section first took templates from the full-sized clay model and made a full-sized body surface development. They had to do this anyway for their work. The various surface templates were then reduced photographically to 3/8 scale. From this information a 3/8 scale drawing was obtained and a 3/8 scale model built in clay.
A plaster "master model" was cast from the clay and the ten-inch section lines were scribed on the surface. The outline of each body surface panel, such as the doors, deck lid, hood, etc. were added.
Tooling for the body parts was developed by first casting a female mold from the master model. This mold served as the tool in which the plastic was vacuum formed. The plastic sheet was heated in an oven before being formed. This softens the material so the vacuum process will give it the correct shape.
After the outer panel was made the female mold was used as an armature for the inner panel design. This was made by clay modeling the configuration of the structural part (the inner panel) directly into the female mold. In some cases the engineer made a rough free hand sketch of the structure for the clay modeler to follow. Sometimes he made a rough orthographic drawing of the part. In any case, he designed, altered and refined the structure in the clay model stage. From this model a female plaster mold was cast and the plastic inner panel was vacuum formed to its configuration.
After the inner and outer panels were carefully trimmed, they were bonded with an adhesive and clamped into the female outer panel mold to hold them in the proper position during the curing cycle.
After each part or assembly was completed, it was photographed. The photographs were mounted on a piece of illustration board and in one corner there was a small scale orthographic drawing of the part showing the overall dimensions and the depth of draw of the stamping. The name and part number were also shown. From this, reproductions were made for the Picture Parts Book.
A typical part, such as a deck lid, is normally shown only on a full-sized drawing and it is probably fifty-six inches wide by eight to ten feet long. Such drawings are called "bed sheets" and they are a nuisance to refer to when the information you want is only the size, the shape and the draw requirements.
Our Picture Parts List consisted of a loose leaf binder with 8 x 10 inch pictures of every body part on the vehicle. It was a great time saver for everyone. An additional loose set of "stampings" were also supplied Purchasing for discussion of individual parts with vendors.
Charles DeVoss, manager of the Production Department for the Continental Mark II said, when I delivered his copy of the model, "Gordon, for my part of this program, this model is worth $50,000 to me today!" It proved a great money and time saver to all departments, a procedure common in the automobile industry today.
In the engineering of the Mark II Continental I remember the great pains we went to in assuring the car would be built as fine as possible.
Charles Russel, under Reinhart's supervision and suggestions, worked out a beautiful instrument panel. It was very mechanical looking but it had a"jewelry" look about it because of the fine execution of detail. The mock-up panel Stan Brom built was flawless. Our problem in engineering was it could not be built by standard automotive practices and be that good.
Another detail was the hood ornament. An ornament or emblem was something we had let ride without a final decision when one day upper echelon management said they wanted to see what we had in mind... tomorrow! Bob Thomas worked up a design sketch in a hurry for the board meeting and it was approved unanimously. Charlie Pfaneuf, also on Reinhart's staff, did some design refinement and then it became our problem. Manufacturing the ornament was again beyond the standard automotive art.
In this case the solution to the problem came from an article Copp had read of a unique manufacturing method used to produce sights for anti-aircraft guns. We investigated the source of the gun sights and their manufacturing method and the procurement problem for the hood ornament was solved, albeit at a cost per ornament which exceeded that of a complete Ford grill.
Elmer Rohn was our heating and air-conditioning engineer and his wind tunnel tests had shown the leading edge of the rear fenders provided the best pressure area for air intake for the air-conditioning system.
Reinhart struggled with this problem for some time and every solution he proposed was rejected by Mr. Ford because they all detracted from the simple beauty of the car. Finally the styling group came up with a simple "nostril" design which Mr. Ford liked. It was simple in appearance but complicated and expensive to build. This beautiful detail would never have been approved on an ordinary vehicle.
The technique used by Reinhart and developed by Stanley Brom in preparing the styling mockup for final approval is an item worthy of mention.
The full-sized mockup was a combination of fiberglass, acrylic sheet, plaster and plated metal parts, completely trimmed out with all details on the interior. There was not a single appearance item that was not accurately presented in the dummy vehicle. The headlights and other lights worked, the front wheels steered and the door locks operated.
Every visual item one would observe if he saw the real thing on a showroom floor was complete. The committee approved the design and it was two years before the car was on the market. During this time not a single styling change was made or even requested.
Over two years later an incident occurred that reminded me of the accuracy of detail on that model. I was in the executive garage and had occasion to move a vehicle parked there. I climbed in and turned the key and nothing happened. Only then did I realize it was the old styling mockup.
Another instance of attention to detail was Harley Copp's insistence that the temperature gauge on the instrument panel read in exact degrees on the Fahrenheit scale and the gasoline gauge read accurately in gallons.
The bumper chrome itself on the Mark II was the subject of some discussion at the specification stage. The specification for chrome plate is written in the number of hours the plated part will withstand a constant bath of salt water. We wanted it to last at least 25 years and the spec was about four times greater than for the then current Lincoln and Cadillac. When the buyer was purchasing chrome plated parts, he told me our specs were impossible, that no vendor could meet them. He said, "My gosh, Gordon, do you realize your specs are four times tougher than Cadillac?" I said, "We are not building a Cadillac. I think you can get the parts if you pay enough for them." Of course, they didn't.
On October 16, 1954, at a meeting of the Lincoln Continental Owners Club, Bill Ford announced there would be a new car as part of the 1955 Ford Motor Company offering. It was to be "a high quality, low volume, prestige automobile to be known as the Continental." Only later was it announced it would be called the Continental Mark II, based on the assumption the earlier cars were termed the Mark I.
At the same time, Mr. Ford also announced the name of Special Products Operations was being changed to the Continental Division. Back at the Trade School, our work was just about wrapped up on the Continental Mark II coupe, which was the only body style in the initial offering. However, our advanced plans called for the addition of at least 141 two models to the line. The latter of these two was a retractable hardtop coupe on which much work was done, but finally appeared not as a Continental, but as the 1957 Ford Skyliner,
Our first scheduled addition to the Continental Mark II line after the hardtop coupe was to have been a formal, chauffer-driven limousine "of quiet good taste." If memory serves me correct, it had a 145-inch wheelbase and an electrically controlled glass partition back of the driver.
One day Harold Ames, who had been my boss at Duesenberg, was in town and called to tell me he wanted his name on the list for a Continental when they were available. I received permission to show him the styling prototype, which at that time was on the blackboard as a full size rendering on black paper. He felt the limousine would be our most important market. His many years as president of Duesenberg gave his comment a high value.
Later, they built a full scale model of the limousine in clay and it was painted black. There was considerable enthusiasm for it and management asked their advertising agency in New York to suggest a name for it.
We would often have a short meeting in Bill Ford's conference room on Monday mornings. One day Mr. Ford showed us an expensive folder from the advertising agency with quite a number of names and a lot of prose describing the merits of each name. After we had discussed each name, Mr. Ford said he didn't like any of them. Then he asked each of us to think about it and if we had any suggestions to bring them to the meeting the following Monday. At this second meeting on the subject, I suggested the name Berline and everyone repeated it and said it sounded fine. Mr. Ford asked how I came to think of it and I told him it was because that is what it was. The classic name for a personal type limousine with a division behind the driver and with the front seat trimmed in broadcloth is Berline.
I had gone back to my days at Duesenberg and at Cord to make my last contribution to the Mark II project in naming the new version after my earlier Duesenberg Beverly Berline and 1937 Cord Custom Berline. It seemed to fit and had it been built, that is what it would have been called.
There are many more stories which could be told about our search for perfection in engineering the Continental Mark II, but to do so at this time is academic because the car was a commercial failure. Why did this happen? It was explained by the Ford Motor Company to be the lack of a market for a $10,000 automobile. However, it would seem the economics go deeper than that.
A car which had so much going for it had to have something going against it to fail. It is obvious if the Continental Mark II were to be the best car in the world it would have to be built better than any other. It would have to be put together with the same dedication to perfection that was so evident in the design and engineering. In the American labor market it is impossible to find such craftsmen.
Whatever the reason for the demise of the Continental Mark II, it is obvious to all knowledgeable automotive people the Continental Mark III and Mark IV have a strong aesthetic inheritance from the Continental Mark II.
(Caption) The only convertible Continental Mark I built by the factory was this one which was constructed on a John Reinhart design by Derham Body Company in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, and eventually given to Mrs. William Clay Ford.
In 1957 Buehrig became head of station wagon planning for Ford.
Final years with retirement... the first time
From 1959 until retiring from Ford in July 1965, Buehrig was a principal design engineer in the materials applications group. He worked on special projects with an emphasis on exploring plastic body and chassis components.
During my last five years with the Ford Motor Company, I had charge of a small group of engineers in the vehicle research Department. We worked on the application of new plastic materials to automotive components. The work involved a good deal of basic research in the environmental requirements imposed on materials when they were used in various areas of a motor car.
We had been on this assignment for several years and had created a good rapport with all the plastic suppliers.
I wanted to do some basic research on plastic bodies. This did not include polyester fiberglass because such bodies had been in production for a number of years by the Corvette Division of Chevrolet, and therefore would not be research.
It was budget time and I submitted a request for an adequate sum for our work for the following year. We were allowed much less than requested and the anticipated research was therefore impossible. I came up with a scheme to stretch our program dollars by working with some of our suppliers' research facilities.
The scheme was this: we would buy a (Ford) Falcon sedan for a test car and underwrite a program of road tests and wind tunnel tests providing the suppliers would agree to supply us with unique plastic body components to replace the stock ones.
Since the entire program was confidential, the names of the companies which participated in the project cannot be disclosed, but they were some of the best in the plastics business.
Our agreement was only verbal but we had complete faith in them and they in us, that the rules would be carried out 100%, and they were.
Each company was assigned one component and they were not required to divulge any more information than they wished about the experimental material or fabrication detail of their part.
We agreed to provide each company with our test data on their component, but only theirs. Since all parts were painted to match the car, the test vehicle looked like a standard production vehicle.
The left door was made of vacuum formed acrylic sheet bonded to fiberglass. The right door was molded of an elastomeric plastic. The engine hood was vacuum formed of expanded ABS (Acrylinitrite Butadine Styrene). The left front fender was fiberglass but in this instance we were testing an experimental painting material which would greatly improve the economics of glass reinforced plastics. The right front fender was stamped from pre-impregnated fiberglass sheet in the B stage of polymerization and then cured. The trunk lid was made by an aircraft firm using a unique type of plastic which had great strength along with extreme lightness.
The research cost of each of these parts was underwritten by the participating companies. This gave us a comprehensive program and I was still within my budget.
The test results remain confidential but I can describe some of my work. I drove the car to Scottsdale, Arizona and, using that as my base, I made a number of runs in the triangle from Scottsdale to El Centro, California, to Palm Springs, California, and back to Scottsdale. It was in August and the ambient temperature ranged from 1100 to 120°. The car was not air conditioned. Low temperature testing was accomplished in our Dearborn wind tunnel facility at -40°.
The deck lid, as mentioned, had great physical properties but the material and the process made it too expensive to have a future in high production cars. Ford had an active racing program at the time and this sparked my interest. The strength to weight ratio of the material gave it merit in special high speed vehicles. As most enthusiasts know, the "stock car" races are not run with stock cars. There are rules, of course, and one is they must look like stock cars. A body made of this material would only weight about one-sixth that of a stock car metal body, yet would look just like one.
The material was never used in a race car application by Ford, but I do recall on the test car the torsion bar compensator for the steel trunk lid was not changed and when the key lock was turned, the lid would fly up like the snap of a bear trap!
The data we collected was subsequently presented by a Ford engineer to the Society of Automotive Engineers and the paper has since been a standard reference in the industry. My retirement from Ford was a momentous event celebrated in fitting manner on two separate occasions. The first was a luncheon affair arranged by the group in Research.
I was so excited about retirement that I wanted to do a work of art to commemorate the occasion. We created it that day before lunch... well, almost.
This part of the event took place in our small shop area in the Scientific Laboratory. Here we had a very expensive piece of test equipment in the form of a hydraulic press capable of exerting a compressive force of 10,000 pounds and of measuring the force in fractions of a pound. It was an impressive machine, fifteen feet high with an electronic instrument panel and control center.
The theme of the party was to smash my alarm clock and this was to be the machine to do it. I brought some champagne and, to set the mood, we had a Swingle Singers recording of Bach.
My Baby Ben alarm clock's original purpose was to get me to work on time at Stutz, thirty-seven years earlier than this occasion. On this day it was running and was set to ring its alarm at 12 noon. It looked like a sacrificial lamb sitting between the two huge platens of the -monstrous machine. The champagne corks popped about a quarter to noon the alarm sounded. Herb Estes pressed a button on the machine and the upper platen started downward at an almost imperceptible speed.
The huge round scale measured the pressure in readings up to 1,000 pounds and then from 1,000 to 2,000 by changing the controls The Baby Ben stopped ringing but refused to die. When the infernal machine exerted the full 10,000 pounds pressure and the clock was still intact, we went to lunch.
The next day John Chaivre and I took the clock to another area where they had a press capable of 40,000 pounds pressure. When we asked the operator if he could crush my alarm clock, he said "how thick to you want it?" I said about a quarter of an inch. Again, the clock defied destruction. Finally, we propped it on edge and the machine was able to create my flattened masterpiece!
It was shortly after my retirement from Ford in 1965 that I was invited to teach a course in plastics to students at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. Thus, my retirement was short-lived and I was off to Los Angeles and a new career as a college professor.
Speakers at Gordon Buehrig's retirement party were, from left, Fred Hooven, Fred Woodward, Warren Fitzgerald (at mike), Van Patrick and John Reinhart.
The Art Center College of Design has trained something over fifty percent of the automobile designers in the world. I taught at the school for five years. My "Chair" was supported by five great companies: duPont, Monsanto, Uniroyal, Union Carbide and PPG Industries.
The Art Center College of Design is one of the finest art schools in the world. It owes its greatness, at least in part, to the fact no one can teach a course there who has not earned his living in the field in which he is teaching.
My course was a very minor part of a student's overall curriculum. It was only a one afternoon a week session for fifteen weeks. This work schedule was ideal for me as it gave me long weekends. Since the course was basically a lecture course, any assignment I gave the students had to be worked out by them on their own time. Considering this, I was gratified at some of the results. The course was considered very successful and a large part of the credit for this was due to the cooperation I had with the sponsoring companies, who sent their most capable people to Los Angeles to lecture to my classes.
I also had great cooperation from the Los Angeles chapters of the Society of Plastic Engineers and the Society of Plastic Industries. These groups helped arrange meaningful plant visitations and provided experts in materials, tooling and manufacturing processes, who visited the school and conferred with students on their projects.
Every new term presented a new group of students and a new challenge. They were productive years.
His beloved wife Betty passed away in 1970 after which he married Kathryn ("Kay") Lundell Benzin.
In 1979, he produced the design for the Buehrig Motor Car, a limited-production carriage roof coupe.
Gordon Buehrig's 55th year in the automotive design field was highlighted by Detroit entrepreneur Richard Kughn introducing the Buehrig Motor Car. It was designed by Buehrig and was meant to combine luxury with race car sleekness in the neo-classical style.
The Buehrig is a Carriage Roof Coupe hand-built of fiberglass. It is powered by a 350 cubic inch General Motors V8 engine with computerized fuel injection and a four-speed Turbo-Hydromatic 400 automatic transmission. The car sits on a lengthened Corvette chassis and weighs 3300 pounds.
To the first prototype, Buehrig added two very personal features: first, Sweden's national colors of blue and yellow were used throughout the interior in honor of his wife, Kay, who is of Swedish ancestry and second, he added a T-top, which he originally designed some thirty years earlier.
The Buehrig Motor Car was meant to be a limited production automobile, selling for approximately $130,000. However, the company fell victim to the astronomical costs of manufacturing and only four prototypes were produced.
Richard and Linda Kughn graciously donated the company's first prototype Buehrig to the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum. It sits proudly next to Buehrig's Cord 810 and the Tasco which is adjacent to the restored Auburn Automobile Company design studios which Buehrig headed in 1934-1936.
Buehrig kept busy at his studio and garage in Grosse Pointe. One 1988 visitor was treated to a showing of final production drawings of a spacious, aerodynamically-styled wagon, with two small engines and a special driveline configuration to provide plenty of room for the low-seat passenger compartment.
Sitting in Buehrig's garage were a Honda CRX coupe with automatic transmission along with a 1951 Ford Victoria hardtop coupe he designed, and a 1971 Corvette with T-roof, a special configuration which he created and patented after World War II.
In 1988 the Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology and the Eyes on the Classics committee (now called Eyes On Design) paid tribute to Buehrig, presenting him with the Steuben Lifetime Achievement Award at their inaugural automobile show at the Grosse Pointe Academy.
In November, 1988 Gordon Buehrig entered a competition for The Rolex Awards For Enterprise 1990. His project title: Large Cars of the Future. The following are excerpts from the application form Buehrig filled out.
''I have little formal education to record. I graduated from high school in 1922 in my home town of Mason City, Illinois. I attended the Fall and Spring term at Bradley College (1922-23) now Bradley University. in Peoria, Illinois. I also attended the Spring term of 1924.
As a child I was fascinated with automobiles and about age ten I decided that I wanted to be an automobile designer. When I was nineteen I met an automobile executive in Chicago who advised me on my career. He said that before I try to design automobile bodies I should learn how to build them and that I should start as an apprentice in the body factory."
A brief description of the project: "Large Cars of the Future: A completely new concept which incorporates the use of two small engines rather than one large one to propel the vehicle. Why? By this arrangement the following advantages are achieved:
1. Approximately a 50% improvement in fuel
A detailed project description
Although this is a completely new concept for large cars, it uses all present day technology and parts. In other words, no new inventions are required and present day state of the art methods of manufacture of both the chassis and the body are used. Consequently producing such a vehicle presents no unsolved problems to either the engineering department of a company or to its manufacturing division."
''The front engine is larger than the rear because it drives the accessories: the alternator to charge the battery, power steering, air conditioning etc. Synchronization of the two engines is not a problem. Friction between the tires and the road surface will keep the wheels turning at the same speed even if one engine is producing more power."
Buehrig died of heart failure on January 22, 1990 at his home in Grosse Pte. Woods, Wayne County, Michigan, at the age of 85. Buehrig's cremated remains are buried in the Whitten family plot at Roselawn Cemetery and Mausoleum, 1309 South Center Street, Auburn, De Kalb County, Indiana. The inscription on his memorial reads: "Master Designer."
Buehrig was one of only a handful of automobile designers whom the New York Times deemed influential enough to include on their obituary page:
“Gordon Buehrig, 85, A Leading Designer Of Specialty Autos, by Glenn Fowler, published: January 24, 1990
“Gordon M. Buehrig, an automobile designer who numbered among his creations the sporty low-slung Cord 810 that electrified visitors to the 1935 New York Auto Show, died of heart failure Monday at his home in Grosse Pointe, Mich. He was 85 years old.
“In his long career Mr. Buehrig was associated with many specialty-car manufacturers and with both the Ford Motor Company and the General Motors Corporation. Born in Mason City, Illinois, he attended Bradley University briefly before taking a job as an apprentice at a small auto-body company in Wayne, Mich. He then worked for Packard, General Motors and Stutz, where he became chief body designer at 24 years old.
“A year later, in 1929, he was lured away by Duesenberg, where he designed half the company's prestigious line, including the ''Twenty Grand,'' a one-of-a-kind car that is now worth more than $1 million. The car originally sold for $20,000 after being exhibited at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago, With the 1935 Auburn Speedster he helped salvage the Auburn company, which like Duesenberg was owned by E. L. Cord.
“Auto Captures Attention
“But it was the 1935 Cord, with its front-wheel drive, flip-top headlights, coffin-like nose and chassis into which riders stepped down, not up, that captured the most public attention when it was shown for the first time at the Auto Show in Grand Central Palace.
“In 1936 Mr. Buehrig switched to the Budd Company to head a new design studio. In World War II he joined Studebaker and worked on the radically different 1947 Studebaker with its bullet-shaped hood. By 1950 he was with Ford, where he designed the 1951 Vittoria, a hardtop coupe, and later the 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II.
“He retired in 1965 and became an instructor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. In the decade before his death he directed production of precision car models for the Franklin Mint.
“A fellow of the Society of Automotive Engineers, he was named in 1981 by the Society of Automotive Historians as one of the 30 most significant contributors to the development of motor cars. Last October he was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.the Automotive Hall of Fame.
“Mr. Buehrig is survived by his wife, the former Kathryn Lundell; a daughter, Barbara Orlando of Manhattan.”
Appendix 1 Patents:
Combined Automobile Radiator and Front - US Pat. No. D88,753 - Filed Dec. 21, 1931 issued Dec. 27, 1932 to G.M. Buehrig, assigned to Manning & Co.
Design for an automobile – US Pat. No. D93,451 - Filed May 17, 1934, issued on Oct. 2,1934 to G.M. Buehrig assigned to Cord Corporation
Design for a combined bezel, dial and hands for a clock - US Pat. No. D97,036 - Filed May 31, 1935, issued September 24, 1935 to Gordon Miller Buehrig assigned to Auburn Automobile Company
Design for an automobile – US Pat. No. USD97,697 – Filed Aug. 5, 1935 issued Dec. 3, 1935 to Gordon Miller Buehrig assigned to Auburn Automobile Company
Design for an automobile hood – US Pat. No. D99,973 - Filed May 11, 1936 issued June 9, 1936 to Gordon Miller Buehrig, assigned to Auburn Automobile Company
Clock – US Pat. No. 2,101,235 - Filed Sep 24, 1935 - Issued Dec 7, 1937 to Gordon Miller Buehrig, assigned to Auburn Automobile Company
Modeling Table – US Pat. No. 2,341,176 - Filed Feb. 10, 1940 issued Feb. 8, 1944 to Gordon M. Buehrig assigned to Edward G. Budd Mfg. Co.
Buehrig Automobile – US Pat. No. D152,320 - Filed November 16, 1946, issue on January 11, 1949 to Gordon M. Buehrig
Vehicle Top Construction – US Pat. No. 2,556,062 - Filed- July 13, 1948 issued June 5, 1951 to Gordon M. Buehrig
Seat Construction - US Pat. No. 3,171,691 - Filed July 17, 1963 issued March 2, 1965 to Gordon M. Buehrig assigned to Ford Motor Co.
Automobile - US Pat. No. 3,694,025 - filed Aug. 19, 1970 issued Sept. 26, 1972 to Gordon M. Buehrig assigned to Ford Motor Co.
Automobile front end construction incorporating an air-bag – US Pat No. 4,411,462 -Filed February 1, 1982 issued October 25, 1983 to Gordon M. Buehrig and Kathryn L. Buehrig assigned to Richard P. Kughn
Automobile rear end – US Pat. No. 4,441,752 Filed: January 25, 1982 issued April 10, 1984 to Gordon M. Buehrig assigned to Richard P. Kughn
Automotive vehicle - US Pat. No. D274,420 – Filed January 22, 1982 issued June 26, 1984 to Gordon M. Buehrig assigned to Buehrig Motor Car Co.
Automotive vehicle – US Pat. No. D275,189 - Filed October 30, 1981 issued August 21, 1984 to Gordon M. Buehrig assigned to Richard P. Kughn
Warren W. Fitzgerald - Gordon Miller Buehrig: Designer of American classics, Road & Track, February 1966 issue
Beverly Rae Kimes - Auburn, from Runabout to Speedster, Automobile Quarterly; Vol. 5, No. 4, Spring 1967 issue
J.L. Elbert - Duesenberg: The Mightiest American Motor Car, pub. 1975
Josh B. Malks – Cord Complete, pub. 2009
Josh B. Malks - Cord 810/812: The Timeless Classic, pub. 1995
Josh B. Malks & Lee Beck – Auburn & Cord, pub. 1996
Griffith Borgeson - Errett Lobban Cord: His empire, his motorcars: Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg, pub. 1984
Louis William Steinwedel & J. Herbert Newport Jr. - The Duesenberg, pub. 1982
Gordon M. Buehrig – 1935 - the dawning of a new Cord: Informal recollections of fifty years ago (8pp transcript of a presentation to the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club, at its 30th annual meet in 1985.)
Gordon M. Buehrig - The year 1936 is viewed fifty years later (8pp transcript of a presentation to the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club, at its 31st annual meeting in 1986.)
Gordon M. Buehrig - I remember the Duesenbergs, Automobile Quarterly; Vol. 4, No. 4, Spring 1966 issue
Gordon M. Buehrig - Tasco, My Personal Edsel, Automobile Quarterly; Vol. 12, No. 2, Fall 1973 issue
Gordon M. Buehrig – A Savior in the White House, pub. 1976
Gordon M. Buehrig - Rolling sculpture: A designer and his work, pub. 1975
Frederick E. Hoadley - Automobile Design Techniques and Design Modeling: the Men, the Methods, the Materials, pub. 1999
Jon M. Bill - Duesenberg Racecars & Passenger Cars Photo Archive, pub. 2005
Jon M. Bill - Cord Automobiles: L-29 & 810/812 Photo Archive, pub. 2004
Jon M. Bill - Auburn Automobiles: 1900-1936 Photo Archive, pub. 2002
Jon M. Bill - Auburn Cord Duesenberg Racers and Record-Setters Photo Archive, pub. 2010
Gregg Buttermore – The Magnificent Duesenberg SIA #186, November/December 2001 issue
Donald J. Bush - The Streamlined Decade, pub. 1975
Dan R. Post - Cord Without Tribute to Tradition: The L-29 Front-Drive Legend, pub. 1974
Randy Ema & Roy D. Query - The Auburn Bearcat, Bobcat, Gentleman's Speedster : a Story of Grace Under Pressure, Automobile Quarterly; Vol. 22, No. 2, Spring 1984 issue
Strother MacMinn - Gordon Buehrig Tribute - AFAS Quarterly (Automotive Fine Arts Society) Vol. 2, No. 3; Summer 1990 issue
Raymond A. Wolf – Duesenberg - It's A Grand Old Name, Vol. 4, No. 4 Automobile Quarterly, Spring 1966 issue
S. Heller & L. Fili – Streamline; American Art Deco, pub. 1995
Peter Grist - Virgil Exner: Visioneer, pub. 2014
Paul G. McLaughlin - Ford Station Wagons 1929-1991 Photo History, pub. 2003
Richard M. Langworth - Continental Mark II : the Story They Never Told You, Automobile Quarterly; Vol. 12, No. 1, Winter 1974 issue
Paul R. Woudenberg - Lincoln & Continental: The postwar years, pub. 1980
Paul R. Woudenberg - Lincoln & Continental 1946-1980: The Classic Postwar Years, pub. 1993
Tim Howley - The Lincoln Continental Story: From Zephyr to Mark II, pub. 2005
Mark Patrick - Lincoln Motor Cars 1946-1960 Photo Archive, pub. 1996
Gordon M. Buehrig - Buehrig's Model "A" a la Duesenberg – Model A News, Nov-Dec 1972 issue
Peter Winnewisser - Legendary Model A Ford: The Complete History of America's Favorite Car, pub. 2006
David R. Crippin - The Reminiscences of Gordon Buehrig – July 1984 interview for the Edison Institute's “The Automobile in American Life” series (interviews with Carl Breer; Gordon M. Buehrig; Harley Earl; Eugene T. Gregorie; Raymond Loewy; William L. Mitchell; John Tjaarda & Alex Tremulis) transcribed from a 60 min VHS tape copied from a videodisc master, pub. 1987
Auburn Cord Duesenberg Club - acdclub.org
At any point in history of the automobile industry you work with what knowledge is available at the time, and the knowledge that was not available in the early days of all-steel bodies was the manner of silencing the steel panels. So, working with the chemical companies, they finally came up with materials that would be sprayed on the inner panels of the steel bodies, and through this method we finally got all-steel bodies that sounded like quality cars and virtually all automobiles now are built that way. But, the catch is that to build a body of that type in today's market, we're talking instead of $40,000 or $50,000 to tool a body, we're about $200,000,000, and so the advent of the all-steel body combined with the Great Depression that started in 1929, wiped out most of the smaller automobile companies. So, when the investment got larger, then the gamble was so much greater that the companies could afford to spend a lot more money in the design and development of a prototype body because it was very important that they be right when they got their car on the market. This was when they started building full size, clay models to check out design. Prior to that, they were built to the geometric layout of the body draft, and the first time you saw it in full size was on a prototype body.
At that time E. L. Cord was president of the company, but I never saw him at that time.
This, of course, was before the stockmarket crash, and I think that Ames was conservative in his purchase of bodies in that he would only buy maybe ten of a kind, whereas the custom body business for Lincoln or Packard - they would usually buy a hundred. But, Ames bought, we'll say, ten bodies of a type, and in the case of the Murphy body roadster - that was a very popular model, and they built many of those. And, the LeBaron Phaeton also; but the other bodies, we had a little too many of them, and also we had two wheelbases - one was 142" and the other 153” -and in ordering frames from the A.O. Smith Company (that's the company I couldn't think of a little while ago), we got more of the short wheelbase 142" wheelbase - and, so the five-passenger bodies were supposed to be fitted onto the 142" wheelbase, and the longer wheelbase for the seven-passenger town cars and things of that sort.
Well, the problem that we had in selling the Duesenberg was it was, of course, a very high-priced car ($8500 for the chassis alone) and our bodies - the average Duesenberg at that time was selling from $12,000 to $14,000 complete. The problem was this, that a custom body company in those days had certain inherent characteristics. If you were knowledgeable about car bodies, you could usually look - seeing a car in an auto show you could tell whether the body was built by LeBaron or built by Willoughby or built by Judkins. They all had their individual hardware that they used for everything, and they also had sweeps - a certain roof sweep or a certain body turn under. The bodies cross section would be - and the body engineer, regardless of where somebody had put the design moldings or things of that sort, he still would get that body roof panel sweep down, and that was the roof line, and he'd get a turn under body side sweep, and that was the side sweep. So, of course, a body built by one body company for Lincoln would be of exactly the same quality as they would build that body for Duesenberg, and because of this built-in similarity that a company had in making their bodies, a body on a Duesenberg built by Brunn, we'll say and designed by Brunn was very, very similar to one done by Brunn for Lincoln. So, in the auto shows customers would look at the Duesenberg and see a Brunn body town car at $15,000, see the same body on a Lincoln for probably $6,000, and the Lincoln car was, as far as manufacturing precision was concerned, equal to the Duesenberg. And, they'd go and look at a Pierce-Arrow and see the Brunn town car on a Pierce-Arrow and the same body, and that one might be priced at $8,000. But, here is Duesenberg at $15,000. A lot of owners in the luxury car market had chauffeurs, and they were primarily interested in comfort and in design detail and so forth, but the one thing that Duesenberg had that the others didn't have, was a top speed of probably 20 miles an hour more than the rest of them. So, this appealed to the sporting individual who liked to drive his own car and might buy a LeBaron phaeton and plan to drive it himself because of the thrill of driving at a 100 miles an hour or better. But to the person buying a town car, that didn't mean anything. The chauffeur was going to be driving it, and they wanted quiet comfort. So, this caused a big problem in the sale of Duesenberg cars, and so that was the reason that, I think, Ames was interested in having individual designs.
Now, if I had been the illustrator type of designer and would merely make sketches - outside sketches - of the design of a car, and we would have sent it to a custom body company, we would not have solved the problem, because the body engineer would still use the same sweeps, and the contours would be the same, and it would still look like a body from Derham or LeBaron or what have you.
However, having had four years of training in engineering, I was able to make body drafts, and I'd make these in a small scale, and the body draft - I'd make a design and show it to Ames and get his approval, and then I would lay it out as a body draft, and on the body draft I showed the empirical lines. In the side elevation, the plan view and the end views, the cross sections and so forth. I seldom attempted to show construction because these body companies knew how to build things, but we wanted the exterior surface to be individual.
So, the bodies that I designed that were built by different body companies, when those were shown in the auto show, they were unique. You couldn't get those bodies on a Lincoln or a Pierce-Arrow, and so they sold real well. The problem was that Ames had a backlog of these old bodies still in the warehouse. See, the way the custom body business worked was that a company would buy - and in our case maybe ten bodies; in the case of Packard, a hundred bodies - and those bodies would be stored at the body builder. Then, the salesman, in Denver or Chicago or whatever, would get an order for that car and would get the customer to select colors and interior trim. The bodies were always completed and stored in a prime coat of paint and muslin-covered upholstery. So, when the order would come in, they would send a chassis to the body company. The body company then would take a body out of storage and paint it and trim it to the customers specifications and deck it on the chassis, and a custom body could be available by that manner in about a month's time, and that was the real backbone of the custom body business.
Model A Town Cars, and that was just a product of the time because here a wealthy person could keep his chauffeur on the payroll, and yet driving around town in a Model A Town Car was certainly not the same as driving around in a Duesenberg.
While I was at Duesenberg, I wasn't making much money, but one of the fringe benefits I had was that I did get to drive the automobiles, and I was single at the time, and we usually had some - quite often we'd have some occasion for a car to be driven to Chicago for a customer or maybe a car up there to be picked up and brought back to the factory for service.
I've been asked to reminisce about the association I had with Fred Duesenberg. My first meeting with him was when I started working for the Company as their body designer, and I had a drawing table in one end of the engineering department, and I knew who Fred Duesenberg was, but he came in and introduced himself. He says, "I'm Mr. Duesenberg," he said, "I'm Fred Duesenberg," as though I wouldn't know who he was. But, he didn't have an office, and he didn't have a secretary. He merely had a desk in one end of the engineering department, and everything at Duesenberg was small. There were probably - Walter Trummel was the chief draftsman, and had about six chassis draftsmen, and we had an old-fashioned blueprint machine in there and very antiquated filing system, and a blueprint boy by the name of Oscar Hadley. Anyway, Fred was not at his desk, he was out in the plant a good deal of the time, and we got along fine, and he never indicated that he was an expert on body design, and, of course, I never indicated that I was an expert on engines. But, he was a real genius, and his brother, August Duesenberg, was not connected with the company at all at that time. Later on, after Fred died, why, Augie worked with the company. But, during the development of the Model J Duesenberg, Augie was not involved in it at all. He had a shop across the street where he built race cars.
Harold Ames was sales manager and president of the Company, and he had a Duesenberg company car that he used all the time. Pearl Watson was the factory manager, and they supplied him with a company car, and the plant superintendent was a fellow by the name of Camel, and they supplied him with a car, but they never supplied Fred Duesenberg with an automobile. Fred had an old Model A Duesenberg that he used as his personal car; which is interesting in that not too long ago someone was talking about a certain car - Model J Duesenberg - and they said, "That was Fred Duesenberg's car," and I said, "Well, that's impossible. He never had a Model J Duesenberg." Its too bad that he was killed when he was--I mean, he died as a result of an accident when he was, I believe, 55 years old. He had been in the East and was bringing a car home from the New York office. He stopped in Philadelphia and spent the night with a friend of his by the name of - spent the night at the home of John Warren Watson who built the Watson stabilizers, and some years after Fred's death, I was at his home, and John told me that before Fred left that morning - the next morning - in this Murphy bodied Duesenberg car, he went out with him and he said that the tires had a lot of miles on them, and he told Fred, he said, "You shouldn't drive that car with those slick tires." But, Fred did anyway, and that may have been one of the reasons that later on Fred lost control of the car in the mountains and had an accident which put him in the hospital, and then he died a couple of weeks later from pneumonia. Fred was very active in the Society of Automotive Engineers, and he was well liked and well respected by everybody in the engineering society. I remember one remark he made one day about not getting credit for something that he had done, and he said, "Well, people that worry about getting credit, never get anything done." But, when the Stutz Company was doing a new engine, a four-valve, straight-eight I believe it was - it was right when the last engine that Stutz did. They wanted to - in many respects it was somewhat like a Duesenberg engine, and Fred just bundled up a bunch of drawings - everything covering the Duesenberg engine - and sent it over to Stutz for them to use. But, that was the type of person he was.
There were only - I think there were only three women that worked there. There was a girl by the name of - I think her first name was Fran. She was a red-headed girl that was on the switchboard and also the receptionist, and she was Harold Ames' secretary, and I think she also wrote letters for Pearl Watson if he ever had any letters to write. And, then there was a girl by the name of Katheran Finneran that worked in the accounting department. She was secretary to the chief accountant. That was it, and then there was a Mrs. Hadley who was a bookkeeper, and that's how big the thing was. Ames had a man by the name of Vance Hall who was sales manager. He had a little office, and then we had a man by the name of Shirley Mitchell who was the traveling mechanic. I can't recall the name of his boss. There was another man who was the service manager.
According to Ames, Mr. Cord used to come down on Sunday, but I never saw him there.
A: Well, in 1934 after the '35 Auburn and the '35 Auburn Speedster designs were finished, the company finally decided to do something with the small Duesenberg design that we had worked out, and Denny Duesenberg and I brought it up to Auburn one night, but they wanted to redesign and make it a front-wheel drive, and it was going to be called a Cord, so we got started on that, and we decided to do the work in quarter-scale, clay model work. It took us several weeks to finish this, but then Labor Day weekend I had a date with an Auburn girl and fell in love and decided to get married, and we got married in December. But, anyway, this period of say from the middle of the Summer up until December, we were very active on the new Cord project which eventually became the Model 810 and 812. The time I got married - December 22 and left for Florida on a honeymoon, I had some Packard stock that I sold, and I spent the money in Florida on a honeymoon. But, anyway, I left Auburn feeling that everything was in great shape because we had completed the Cord design, and full-size body drafts were made on it - finished - and the die models were pretty well finished. We had made a clay model of the Cord Phaeton, so I thought everything was going along fine, and the car was going to be introduced the following year which would have given us a pretty good period of time for developing the chassis and testing it and so forth. When I got back from Florida I found that while I was gone, the whole program had been scrapped.
Q: For what reason?
A: I don't know. They never explained that to me, except that they had ideas on how they could do it cheaper. One engineer thought that we could put the new Cord front end on the old Auburn body, which was a horrible thing. We had to build a model to prove it, and then they wanted another model made where they used the Cord body and put a conventional front end on it, and that looked even worse. Then, we did a sports car called an Auburn Gentleman Speedster which was an attempt to find a market to use up some left-over, 12-cylinder engines. So, all of these things just ate up time, and so we lost about at least six months when nothing went on on the Cord program, and then in the middle of Summer they decided to go ahead with the Cord program, and they had to have a hundred cars built by the time of the auto shows which they built by hand. And, they built one prototype car, and George Kublin drove it to California and back. Mr. Cord was living in Beverly Hills, California, so they drove this car out and showed it to him and drove it back, and Kublin turned in his report which said that they had a problem with cooling, and they also had a transmission problem - the car would pop out of gear under low torque. But, they had no chance to change anything and still make the deadline, so they built these cars and showed them in the auto show. They didn't have transmissions in them because the transmission hadn't been redesigned yet. We showed a convertible model. The top mechanism had not been worked out, but the car had a disappearing top, so we just told the press that the top was in there, but it was a disappearing top, and the car was a sensation at the auto show, and they got lots of orders, but we were far away from being able to produce the car and to produce a good car, and so when the first cars came out, they still had problems with the transmission, and they had problems with cooling. It was an expensive automobile, and the competition never helped us any. They would tell their customers that Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg was going to go out of business, and you didn't want to spend that money and buy an orphan automobile. You wouldn't be able to get service on it and so forth. So, it was rough going, but they did continue building cars in '36 and '37. They corrected some of their errors, and by the time they finished building the cars in '37, they were pretty good automobiles. They still had a few bugs in them, but they were pretty good cars. The thing that really, in my opinion, killed the company was that six-months time when nothing happened on the Cord program. Had they not done that, we would have had a good car, I think, and the whole outcome would have been different.
Q: When was that six-month period?
A: It was the first six months in 1935.
Q: When you had a hiatus?
A: When what?
Q: When you had a lag between production.
A: Yes. From - they stopped the thing while I was in Florida between Christmas and New Year's, and I think it was the following July before they picked up the program again. They had to have cars in the show in November, I think it was.
Q: How was the Auburn division doing at that time?
A: They were doing fairly well.
Q: Were they?
A: Yes. The '35 Auburn sold pretty well.
Q: Was this a point of your career where you decided to go elsewhere?
A: Well, when the company - the company had moved its facilities from Auburn to Connersville.
Q: Still in Indiana ?
A: Connersville, Indiana. It was an old factory that Cord picked up cheap, and according to some of the publicity, it was a very modern plant with modern equipment. That's not true. When I left there I went to the Budd Company and saw some really modern equipment, and so the equipment in Auburn was really not bad, but not compared to what you would have at the Budd Company or Briggs Manufacturing or Fisher Body. Anyway, there was no real designing to be done. Everything had been finished; I mean all the design work of anything that ever got in production, was all done, but I had to go to Connersville, and I would come home on weekends, and it was a pretty bleak situation. So, I started looking around, and I made a connection with the Budd Company and came up and started a design department in Detroit for Budd Company.
Q: Did your … that was in late 1935:
A: No, October, 1936.
Q: How did that come about?
A: You mean the Budd Company?
Q: Right. Your connection with it.
A: Well, there was a fellow by the name of Ed Diesly who was chief engineer, and I talked with him, and he said that Ed Budd, Jr. was interested in building a design department. I went to Philadelphia and got the job. Then we designed and built a department at Budd.
Q: They had not a formal....?
A: They hadn't had one prior to that, no. They had a chap by the name of Davenport who was a designer, but he was a wheel designer. He worked for the wheel division, Dave Davenport. So, he was not connected with our group at all. We started this new department in Detroit, and we were going pretty well there, and Budd was happy with what we were doing, but....
Q: You were supplying the automobile industry?
A: Oh, that was what it was for. See, the Briggs Company had a good design department, and Budd thought that was the way to get into the body business because all we were building at that time were truck bodies. We built truck bodies for Ford, and we were building truck bodies, I believe it was, for Dodge, and we were building doors for Packard. 'Now, why, I don't know, but we were building doors for Packard. So, we tried to get some business from Willys. We designed a car for them, and we designed some stuff for Ford, but the problem we had was that there was a sales manager there by the name of Alexander, and he didn't want us to be there. He was very much against our operation, and he referred to us as "Junior's Hobby Shop." Edward Budd, was Edward Budd, Jr., so he referred to us as - and he was in Philadelphia. Anyway, he referred to our shop as "Junior's Hobby Shop," and he refused to let us bring any customers in to show them what we were doing. His idea of salesmanship was to take purchasing agents on hunting trips up north and supply them with any kind of entertainment they wanted. That was the way to sell stuff. So, I finally got mad and wrote Budd, Jr. a letter and told him I thought they were wasting my time and his money, and so that was the end of it. I got fired just like that!
A: It was a foolish thing to do. I should have held out, and, eventually, I probably could have outlived Alexander, and maybe things would have worked out all right. Because, we had an ideal situation there - I had good people working with me, and we had a free rein on things to do, and Ed Budd, Jr. was happy with what we were doing, but I messed it up. Then I went into a period of depression where I tried a number of things that I don't particularly like to talk about. I went back to Auburn, and I tried to make it as an independent, industrial designer. Then, let's see, I was working for - one of my clients was the King Seeley Corporation in Ann Arbor, and I finally moved to Ann Arbor. I was still working as a consultant to them when the war happened. Then I went to San Diego and worked in the engineering department of Consolidated Aircraft. I was there for about six months, and they were much in need of engineers, so I got in touch with a friend of mine by the name of Dale Cosper who had been part of my team at Auburn and a brilliant engineer. I tried to get him to come out. Well, I found out he was working in Akron, Ohio, for the Goodyear Aircraft Company and was doing better than I was doing in California. He persuaded me to come to Akron, so I came to Akron and worked for Goodyear in descriptive drawings for aircraft assembly. Then that sort of ran out, and then I finally wound up as the mathematician for a group of tool engineers. That was rather interesting, and then I left there, finally, and I worked for Harold Ames at LaPorte, Indiana.
Q: Had he left the company by then?
Q: Into independent design?
A: They were making aircraft sub-assemblies. Then shortly after that the war with Germany was over, but the Japanese war was still on. I ran across a friend of mine by the name of Carl Otto who was an associate of Raymond Loewy Associates, and Loewy was building up a design department at Studebaker, and he hired me to head up this group and build up a larger department, and I hired some old friends like John Rhinehart, Jack Aldrich, Bob Koto, and Virgil Exner was there. Virg had been there before I was, and Virg was my assistant, and then Loewy came out from New York one day and got mad at me and made Exner manager and made me his assistant. Then in another period he came out and fired Exner and put me in charge. I mean, it was a funny political situation.
Q: Oh, a volatile personality to say the least.
A: Yes. So, anyway, then the fiasco of the post-war Studebaker which Exner had designed in his basement, and the full-size body was built was built by Budd in Philadelphia and brought out, and this was all a political scheme by the chief engineer who was trying to get rid of Loewy.
Q: Is this the Studebaker setup?
A: Yes. Then when Loewy came out and found out about it, he fired Exner. Roy Cole was the chief engineer, and then Roy hired him and started their own department out at the proving grounds, and then Loewy thought I was involved in this skulduggery, which I was not involved in it it at all, but he fired me. Then I got involved in a company called the Tasco Company in the East. It was supposed to be the sportscar company of America and built a prototype car. We built the body down in Derham Body Company.
Q: Derham was in....?
A: Rosemont, Pennsylvania. That was a failure, but the interesting thing about it was that that was the first car that had a T Top on it. That was where I invented the T Top.
Q: This was your invention?
A: Yes. When the company folded, they owed me some money, and I said, "Well I want rights to that top." So I went ahead at my own expense and got patents on the T Top. I don't know, then the years went by, and we managed to get three meals a day, but we didn't do very well, and then finally I got this job at Ford Motor, and that was in '49, I believe it was.
Q: How did that come about, Mr. Buehrig?
A: Well, John Oswald who used to be with Auburn was the body engineer, and at that time styling was under body engineering. There was a man by the name of George Snyder who was a designer, and I was interviewed by Oswald, and then a period went by, and John said, "Well, I can't bring you in yet," and I finally found out that Snyder didn't want me in there. Anyway, finally Snyder was fired or left or something, and I came in, and they put me in charge of a studio called the body development studio. It was in this studio that the models other than the sedan were to be developed. The first project we had was on the '52 Ford on which the sedan had been approved, and I think Joe Oros, no - I can't recall who was in charge of that studio. Anyway, they did the two-door and the four-door sedan models, and then it was our job to design the convertible and the station wagon using maximum inter changeability with the sheetmetal from the sedan. Earle MacPherson was the vice president in charge of engineering, and....
Q: All these people had been in G.M. then, hadn't they?
Q: Brought over by Ernie Breech?
A: Yes, that's right. The 1950 and '51 station wagons were financial catastrophe to the Ford Motor Company. They were built at Iron Mountain --the old wood-style station wagons. We only had one model which was a two-door, and, anyway, they wanted a new line of station wagons, and Chevrolet had come out with an imitation wooden body made out of steel. So, MacPherson told me that's what he wanted me to do, but they wanted a four-door and a two-door, but he wanted it to look like the Chevrolet model. Fortunately, he left right after that to go to Florida for a month's vacation, and while he was in Florida, we did what he asked us to do, but we also did anew line of cars in which we were more honest, and we brought out a car called the Ranch Wagon which had no wood or imitation wood on it. We had the Country Squire, I think it was. I don't remember the exact names of....
Q: That's correct.
A: That [?] people put on this, but, anyway, we came up with a series of station wagons, and those were built for the next three years, and in 1951, the Company produced 7,000 station wagons, and it went from there to 140,000 station wagons. The '51 station wagon had the reputation of being the worst car on the used car market of any car in the line. The exact opposite was true after we came out with our new line of cars.
Then the other thing that we did in that department at that time was General Motors were building a car called a hardtop convertible which was a misnomer because it was not a convertible, but it was a hardtop coupe with convertible-type windows. They were very popular. The sales department was very unhappy that Ford didn't have a model like that because General Motors were making lots of money on it. So, we designed one for the 1952 series, and then - no, that was designed by the sedan group. The Ford studio did it - a '52 hardtop coupe. But, the dealers - this was still late '50, and the dealers were really screaming. They wanted that sooner. They wanted to know if we could have one in '51. So, John Oswald came in one day and said, "Can you take a convertible - '51 convertible - and make it into a hardtop?" Well, of course, you already had the windows for the door and the quarter window, so it's just a matter of doing the new top for it. We did it with a band corrugated of metal up over the rear window which gave it a styling distinction. We had a quarter-scale, clay model that someone else had built of the convertible, and we brought it in to our studio and quickly transformed it into this model. It sat there for several days, and one day I came in, and it was gone. I inquired about it and found out that it had been sent out to a job shop, and there they were engineering and tooling it for production, and I later found out that George Walker, who was a consultant at that time, claimed credit for it, and he had nothing to do with it at all. So, it was shortly after that that Oswald's plan to get Walker out of the company failed, and Breech brought Walker in as a vice president in charge of styling and fired Oswald. At that time Emmett Judge, who was product planning at Lincoln-Mercury, offered me a raise to come over and work for him, so I did that. From then on I was never allowed back in styling for the next fourteen years.
Q: You were in product planning all that time more or less?
A: No. I got into engineering - Ford engineering - and then finally into research. The last four or five years I was head of a very, very, small group, and we were doing research into the use of plastics in Ford products, and that's where I was working when I retired.
Q: What sort of projects did you do at Ford under Emmett Judge at Lincoln-Mercury at that point?
A: One of the things that I did when I was working for Emmett Judge was an organization plan for the Mark II Continental which Doug McClure told me that when he made his pitch to the company, he used pretty much what I had written in the suggestion of the special group to do a new Continental. The company was interested in a new Continental, and they had had some very wild and very ugly suggestions on what a new Continental should look like, and then they organized the new special products division under Bill Ford. We had probably the greatest organization that Ford ever had, and it's too bad that the whole thing blew up.
Q: Can you describe that a bit in a few minutes - the special products setup?
A: Well, the special products division was in the old Trade School.
Q: On Michigan Avenue in Dearborn.
A: And, they hired John Reinhart to be the chief body designer, and Harley Copp was the chief engineer, and he offered me the job of chief body engineer, and I told him that, you know, that was - I had been out of body engineering for a good many years. In fact, the last time I really worked in body engineering is when they were building wooden bodies. But, it was either a case of taking that job or not being in on the program, so he said, "Well, you'd get plenty of help," and I thought, well, I knew the basics of body engineering, so I took the job as chief body engineer. We organized this thing and got started, and one of the first engineers I hired was a chap by the name of Jess Richards. I got him from Kaiser-Fraser, and that company was folding. One of the rules we had in building up our group was that we couldn't hire anybody from Ford. We had to go to the outside for all our new help.
Q: Why was that, I wonder?
A: It was just a rule that came down from on high that we couldn't hire anybody from any other part of Ford Motor. So, we got two or three people from Kaiser-Fraser which was folding up, and Jess Richards was such a brilliant engineer, that after he had been there about a week or ten days, I went into Harley Copp, and I said, "Harley, I need an assistant, and this is the man I want," and Harley said, "Well, why don't you wait a week or so and think about it." I said, "I don't have to think about it. This guy is good." Well, I was right because he later became chief body engineer at Ford Motor. So, Jess really carried the ball as far as detailed - engineering was concerned. My contributions were in the development of the car. We did it right. We did it the way it should be done. We had a new frame, and we wanted to have a good test period with the new chassis, and Bob Reganhart designed the frame, and we built some prototype bodies down at Hess and Eisenhart in Cincinnati, and the nearest thing I came to getting to do any kind of designing was that I got to design the cobbled cars, and this was a matter of taking the sheet metal from Lincoln and changing the proportions on it, and cobbling up these test cars, and they turned out to be real good-looking automobiles. We also built a convertible there.
Then, we developed a system of making sheet metal parts on a scale model out of plastic - vacuum-forming process which I'd introduced to Ford back when I was in Ford styling.
Q: Was this still a relatively new technique?
A: Well, they built a whole, big department to do it. This goes back to when I was in styling at Ford - this would be in 1950 - Charlie Waterhouse was my boss after Oswald, Charlie Waterhouse styling supervisor. Anyway, he was an engineer. His family owned the old Waterhouse custom and body firm. Every week they had a meeting in a conference room for the engineers - the body engineers. You had body engineers from Lincoln-Mercury and from Ford and from production engineering. The purpose of the meeting was to iron out differences in procedures for building the automobile. Lincoln-Mercury had one plan they wanted to use what they called balloon-type of assembly. Anyway, the Ford engi neers and the Lincoln-Mercury engineers had two ideas about how to put the body together, and they were building the same body.
Q: And this is for what model?
A: This would have been for the '52. So, Ford always won out because they were the company that made money, and Lincoln-Mercury was the division that lost money. So, the Ford engineers had more clout, but, anyway, I had to go to everyone of these meetings and sit through them, and my purpose in doing that was to bring to Charlie Waterhouse's attention any deviation in the manufacturing process which would cause a change in the styling. As long as it didn't affect styling, why, it didn't matter what they did, but if it affected styling, then I had to raise my voice or bring it to Charlie's attention so something could be done about it. Henry Grebe was the chief body engineer at that time of the Ford Division.
After I left Styling to work in Product Planning, and for the next fourteen years at Ford I lived a live of frustration because my talent and training was in body design, and I was not allowed into styling....
Q: May I ask you at this point why that was so?
A: Well, it was - George Walker the Vice President who didn't want me in there. So, anyway, I did what I could, and I, fortunately, had enough engineering talent to do things that were worthwhile. One of the most important things that I got into was the use of plastics in automobiles, and I thoroughly enjoyed that. I had a very small group - about five people. We went through the whole car; and we had one criteria that we would work to, and this is we'd study a component - this was both chassis and body work. But, it had to be - if it was made in plastic, it had to be a better part. It had to be lighter, and it had to be cheaper. If it didn't fill all three things, we didn't consider it. Most of the things that have gone into plastics in the last few years were things that we did evaluate at that time. We made several test trips out in the desert. We had a - one of the drawbacks in the use of plastics at that time was that there was very little data available on exactly what conditions the plastic part would have to withstand.
Q: Was this in the mid-Fifties you were doing this?
A: Yes, and so - we took a Ford station wagon and rigged it up with a bunch of thermocouples. We had about 30 different points in the car where we could measure temperatures, and this was under the hood as well as on top of the cowl and several locations in the body. Another fellow and I took the car out in the desert, and we worked and established a whole background of critical temperatures. Then, typical of things that went on, somebody else at a higher salary level gave the presentation to the Society of Automotive Engineers, and that data I think is still being used.
Q: But, you didn't get any credit for that?
A: No. But, we also were going to run a test up in Bemidji, Minnesota, to find out what the critical temperatures were at the other end of the scale, and that didn't work out very well. The driver had an accident on the way, and I didn't go on the trip. I remember that after one of our trips to Arizona - I made several - we were trying to find maximum temperatures, and believe it or not, it was hotter in Detroit than it was in Arizona. We would get the weather temperature, and we'd go to different places and try to find maximum temperatures. Mostly we worked out of Phoenix where they had facilities, but then we went down to - this was on the Mark II Continental program. Wait a minute, I'm thinking of something else now. But, I remember we went down to New Orleans, and we were testing air conditioning. We would get up in the morning and go out and start a test, and before we'd finish it, it would start raining and wash out the test, and we'd try again the next day. So, we came back, and I made a presentation to Mike Ference who was the head of research...
Q: The scientific lab?
A: and told him that no one enjoyed test trips more than I did, but that it seemed to me that everything that we did could be done in a laboratory and done more accurately, and you'd have the same conditions every day rather than trying to depend on the weather. I don't know whether that had any effect on him, but eventually they have done that. Everything that you can create, I mean every condition you can run into in Arizona, you can duplicate in a wind tunnel with proper equipment. You have it under complete control, and it's the same thing every time. But, you'd go out to Arizona or Colorado or other places, you are subject to the weather. Test trips are a lot of fun, but not as productive as they should be. I remember one thing that happened: Fred Hooven was a very good friend of mine and had a much bigger job at Ford than I did. He worked for Mike Ference. Henry Ford asked Ference - this was in 1960. He asked him to project twenty years ahead what was going to happen so that they could plan their facilities and so forth. Well, Mike was a scientist, but he had very little background in automobiles, so he asked Fred Hooven to do this thing for him. The study would go to Henry Ford under Mike's signature, but Fred would do it. Fred is an old friend of mine, and he wanted -he respected my opinion, so he - this may have been prior to 1960. Anyway, it was projecting twenty years in the future, and Fred brought it out to me and asked me to read it over the weekend and come in Monday morning and criticize it before he turned it in to Mike Ference. So, I did this, and when I turned it in on Monday morning, I said, you know, it was a very thorough study. I said, "I think there's one you've missed," and he said, "What's that?" I said, "You haven't said anything about the Japanese." He said, "Well, they're not building automobiles." I said, "No they're not building automobiles, but they're building motorcycles, they're building cameras, and there's no reason why they can't build automobiles." Well, he hadn't thought of that, and I don't know whether that went into the report or not, but it was a pretty good forecast. I remember another thing that happened. This was when I was working at the Ford Division on Plymouth Road, I think it was. Bob McNamara was head of the Ford Division at that time, and I was trying to get the company to get interested in a small car, and I finally got them to - they did buy a Volkswagon, and they boarded it. They took it apart and boarded it. So, Will Scott was the head of product planning, and Will asked me to make some sketches of future cars - layouts of various kinds. I made several with front-wheel drive - small cars, and Chalmers Goyert was my boss, and he told one day, he said, "What's all this business about front-wheel drive? Why are you doing that?" I said, "Well, it makes the best package for a small car."
He said, "Well, forget it, Ford Motor will never build a front-wheel drive automobile." Anyway, I was trying to get them interested in a small car. There was a man there that was - I don't recall his name, but he was pretty high in the company, and he was their crystal-ball expert. He was forecasting the future, and I went and talked to him, and I said, "Can't you give me some support on this small car program?" He said, "Well, Gordon, that's only one-half of one percent of the market. It will never go above two percent of the total market," so he said, "You might as well forget it. American's don't like small cars." So, the problem was they didn't pay me enough money to listen to me. Well, anyway, let's go back to--during the period when I was working in plastics--this was the last three or four years--I got to travel quite a bit to the different plastic companies. I got to know them well, and, of course, when you travel as a representative of Ford Motor Company, you always had the red-carpet treatment. You always met with the heads of the company and were treated royally. So, I got to know them all pretty well, and one year, I forget, it was about 1963 or '64, we had to turn in a budget for the following year, and I turned in a budget for $125,000 to run my little group for the next year. I figured we had to have that much money to do anything that was important. Well, that was a cut from $125,000 to $25,000, so I had $25,000 to run the department. So, we bought a Falcon, I think it was, Ford Falcon, and then I went to the different--these friends of mine in the different plastic companies, and I said, "Look, we're going to run a test trip, and if you have any new material that you don't want to talk about, but it's experimental, we'll let you have one component on the automobile, and we don't want you tell us what it is, and when the test results are in, we'll send you the test results, but there will be other companies making parts for the same car--different components--and we won't tell you what their parts are or what their tests are or how their tests turn out." So, this way it took all the expense away from us and put it on the plastic com panies. Uniroyal built the hood, DuPont's plastics division did one door, and their elastomerics division did another door. A company in California did the deck lid. Union Carbide did one of the front fen ders, and, I think, Monsanto did a front fender. So we had this car all rigged up with these plastic parts, and, as I say, I didn't know what the materials were, and I didn't want to know. I didn't want any information. All I wanted to do was run the test and then turn in the reports. So, I took the car out by myself out to Arizona and stayed in a hotel in Scottsdale , and I had some steel scales with me and things of that kind to test with. We were testing for thermal expansion in materials for one thing. So, I ran tests between Scottsdale over to Yuma, Arizona, and up to Palm Springs and then back to Scottsdale--in that triangle I made that route several times. It was in August--the hottest part of the Summer. The temperatures well over 100° every day, and I got all the data that I wanted, and then there was one test that we really wanted to run and that was the aging of the plastics in the sun. So, there was an old boss of my mine by the name of Chase Moresey who had been in the product planning group, and Chase had left the com pany, but he was in charge of a--or had taken over a dealership in Scottsdale--Ford dealership. So, I drove in and saw Chase, and I said, "What I'd like to do is to leave this car with you for a month and just leave it out in the sun," and I said, "You can use it or you can let people use it. It doesn't matter about that, but keep it in the sun. Don't keep it in the shade. We want to see how these plastic parts turn up, and then after a month why we'll ship it back to Detroit ." Well, about two weeks later I got a phone call from Chase Moresey, and he said that the car had been all smashed up, that a mechanic had taken it out and had a bad accident, and the car was smashed up, and I told him not to worry about it too much because that was going to be the final test anyway. We did learn a lot from that.
Q: Did you?
Q: Can you detail any of the findings that you....?
A: Well, DuPont had a process that they had a lot of faith in, and it had a basic fault, and I think that our tests there sort of proved it- they dropped the program after that, but they had spent a lot of money on it. It was process where they would form a skin of acrylic over a painted fiberglass surface, but we got delamination in the thing. So, it sort of helped there. One program that we had was the trunk lid which--there was a man in California who had invented a process of linear alignment of fiberglass, and his company--their main business was building equipment for airports, but he also was building liners for cargo ships--for cargo airplanes, and they were using this process for that. He had been an engineer on the original DC-3 airplane. A real nice, experienced engineer, and, so, his process was expensive, but what intrigued me about it was you could build a very strong component that was extremely light, and at that period in time, Ford was interested in racing. And, in racing, stock cars the rules are pretty sloppy. The main thing it has to look like an automobile, but it--I thought we could build a Ford car by this process that would look exactly like a Ford car and probably weigh a tenth as much as far as the body was concerned. So, we built this deck lid which was spring loaded with torsion bars, and if you turned the key, the thing would flop up like a mousetrap. That never got off the ground, that program, because Ford got out of racing at that time as far as public relations were concerned, got out of racing. The program was dropped. I don't remember what else we gained from that program.
Q: It certainly was one of the very early production experiments.
A: Yes. Well, another thing that happened was that about six months before I retired--I did take early retirement because I was--because as soon as I saw that I had enough money to live on, I wanted to retire. I was in California , and I visited Mr. Tink Adams, who ran the Art Centre College of Design, I went out to see him, and he said--I told him I was thinking about retiring, and he said, "Would you like to come out and teach a course in plastics?" And, I said, "Well, I don't know." He said, "Well, we want our product designers to have a basic knowledge of the use of plastics and the different materials that are on the market, and we don't want them to become plastic experts, we just want them to know--be knowledgeable about the materials and where to use them and where to get information when they are working on a plastic product." And, he said, "Do you think you could get your friends in the plastics industry to underwrite your program? Why don't you talk to them," and he said, "This would be the proposition,! he said, "[I would] like to have four companies that would contribute $5,000 a year to Art Centre, and half of that will be your salary." So, I would get $10,000, and I would work one day a week giving this course. But, he said, "You ought to impress on them that that's not the end of their obligation. They have to send lecturers out to lecture to our class and present their materials; so this would be a two-way street because then when these fellows graduate, they will be familiar with the products--the different plastic products--of these four companies." So, I did this. I went to different companies, and I didn't hear from anybody for a few weeks, and finally I got a call one day from a fellow by the name of Shaw who was sales manager at DuPont. I can't think of his first name right now. He lives out in Carefree, Arizona , now. Anyway, Shaw called me, and he said, "Gordon," he said, "we're going to go with you." He said, "On your first major presentation to us," he said, "I never heard of the school, but," he said, "we like you, and," he said, "we decided that just that--we owed it to you--we would check into it." So, he said, "We did, and when we found out that 67% of the personnel in Detroit in styling came from this school," he said, "we decided to do it." So, after that I got in touch with the other companies, and they all went along, and so I had a five-year contract out there to teach this course in plastics. That brought me up to 1970.
Q: Before we leave your Ford career, did you have any input into the Continental program while you were there at Lincoln-Mercury?
A: You mean the Mark II?
Q: Yes, the Mark II.
A: Oh yes, sure.
Q: I'm not sure we've talked too much about that program.
A: Well, 1 had eight project engineers. Each one was assigned to a different part of the car. A fellow by the name of Pulleyblank
who had the windshield/cowl area; Mitch Wayne was--I had Mitch Wayne in charge of the plastic prototype program; and Morrey Fordice was in charge of trim; and I just can't recall all of them. Anyway, building the Mark II Continental was a problem for purchasing because the regular suppliers of Ford Motor were not interested in building parts for the Mark II because it was very small production, so we had to get new sour ces. Under Mitch Wayne, I had this--I had him in charge of it--we built a 3/8 scale model of the car, and then we made a plaster east of that, and from this plaster we produced all of the exterior parts of the car in vacuum-formed plastic. So, here were parts that were easy to handle--I mean, like a front fender would be maybe two feet long, very light in weight. We photographed all these parts, and then we also had the inner panels, like the inner panels for the doors and the inner panels for the hood all this on the assemblies, and all of this in the small size. Then we photographed all these parts, and we had orthographic drawings made of each one which gave the overall dimension of the part and a picture of the part. This was used by purchasing in sourcing because they could--instead of sending out what we used to call a bed sheet, which would be a drawing as long as this room, and it would take a great deal of study to try to figure out what you wanted to know. The basic information for estimating the cost of that part, estimating the cost of tooling, and everything was shown in this picture book of these plastic parts. I remember the plant manager told me one day, he said, "That scale model of yours is worth $50,000 to me tomorrow." They also had to plan their factory, and here on a man's desk were all the parts in a size that you could recognize and use and yet for planning purposes, everything was done in that size. I remember that the first time we did that was back when I was in the styling group at Ford. This would be in 1950, and we had these engineering meetings that I referred to--that I had to go earlier--and they had a--they were working on a windshield for the Lincoln, and they brought in a section of the windshield pillar which was about a foot and a half high--and it was made up of about six or seven pieces of steel. It was heavy, and, of course, would scratch the mahogany table if you weren't very careful with it, and they passed this thing around and discussed it. But, the problem was that by the time they got that, they'd change their mind, and the thing was obsolete. So, the pattern was--the whole thing was obsolete before they got it. So, I went to Grebe, and I said, "Why don't you make those parts out of plastic?" He'd never thought of it, so I said, "Let me borrow this part." So, I took it home, and I took it apart, and I got in touch with a friend of mine who was a vice president of U.S. Royal, and we had the--we got the wooden patterns that they had used for hammer forms for making these steel parts. I got those wooden patterns and shipped them to Chicago, and then I went over to Chicago with a man from U.S. Rubber and with head of our shop, and we made all the parts in about a half an hour and brought them home, and I put them together in my garage and took them in the next day and showed them this part. Well, they were so impressed with this that they set up a plant in the Rouge plant to go to plastic parts for prototypes, and then, of course, we used it to a great extent on the Mark II Continental.
Q: Which, of course, was all new and needed that kind of approach.
Q: Can you put together for us briefly a verbal picture of the whole team on the Mark II? You were in body engineering, largely, and what the other end of it? Who was in charge of the so-called exterior design?
A: John Reinhart.
A: John Reinhart. Bob Thomas was assistant to John, and he had Charlie Phaneuf in there, and we brought some students back from Art Centre to work there through the Summer on clay modeling.
Q: What about Harley Copp, was he involved?
A: Copp was chief engineer and a brilliant guy. Doug McClure was sales manager, and his father was the head surgeon at Henry Ford Hospital .
Q: Dr. McClure, of course.
A: Yes. Anyway, Doug was a nice guy, and then there was a product planning guy--I can't think of his name.
Q: Tom Case wasn't involved in that, was he?
Q: No, he wasn't.
A: No. I can't remember who was the chief draftsman--body draftsman-you know, for production drafting. I can't remember the name of the purchasing agent either. I should remember that. We had a wonderful group, though. It was the most dedicated group of people you ever saw, and I remember the esprit de corps was just fantastic. I remember one secretary came in one day and she said, "Mr. Buehrig." I said, "What." She said, "I was coming in," and she said, "you know what? Mr. Ford opened the door for me!" That made her day.
Q: Of course. Well, this was, in large part, due to William Clay Ford's interest and enthusiasm.
A: Oh, he was wonderful. Yes, he was great. I remember one time we had a blackboard drawing of a four-door model, and Harold Ames was in town, and Harold had told me that he wanted to have the first Mark II in Chicago . So....
Q: He was your old associate from the Duesenberg days?
A: Yes. So, I got permission to bring him in and show him the cars. Here's a man who was head of Duesenberg and certainly knows that market, and I think it would be worthwhile to let him--and we can trust him and let him see this thing and get his opinion. And, he saw this four door sedan job, and he said, "Well, that's the one to build. Forget the other one." Then, they decided they were going to build a model like that, and it was going to have a partition in the back so it would be a chauffeur-driven car. So, they had an advertising company in New York working on a name. They wanted a special name for this model. So, we'd have a meeting every Monday morning in Bill Ford's conference room. So, this one day we went in there, and Bill had this big, elaborate brochure that had come out of New York with a whole bunch of names for this model if we built the four-door. Bill said, "Personally, I don't like any of the names." And, they were wild, and they'd have all this esoteric blabber about the reason why that was a good name. I said, "Why don't you call it the Berline." Well, actually, we were asked to come back the next Monday with a name, so I came in, and I said, "Call it a Berline." They said, "That's sounds good. Where did you get that name." I said, "That's what it happens to be." A Berline is a limousine--a small limousine--without the pop-up seats in the back, and it's also--the front end is trimmed the same as the back end in broadcloth rather than having the front end trimmed in leather and the back in broadcloth as regular limos were. I said, "That's called the Berline." Well, that's what they were going to call it. They'd never heard of the name.
Q: That harks back to the coach tradition, does it not?
A: Sure, sure. But, you know, the advertising people now they get completely away from the real historic names of cars. I mean, they'll call a four-door sedan a town car, you know, and they just have no conscience at all about using old custom-body terms on cars that it doesn't fit at all.
Q: This tremendous esprit de corps was, however, somewhat outside the mainstream of company politics and production, was it not?
A: Oh yes. They called us the "Country Club Group". I remember one time we were experimenting with a convertible, and so we had a Packard convertible, and we had a Mercedes convertible, and we'd go to the Dearborn Inn for lunch, and we'd ride over with the top down. Well, evidently some jealous people high up in the company were worried that we were having too much fun at our work, and so the ruling came through that we could never go over to the Dearborn Inn anymore with the top down because it looked like we were enjoying our work too much. And, you know; the Secretaries used to bring in--they'd make up sandwiches and stuff and bring in, and we'd have a picnic lunch outdoors. And, we were the only group in Ford Motor where we had girls on our bowling team, and we had girls on our golf team.
A: Yes. We included the girls in everything.
Q: Good. Was this the old Trade School or was it a newer division?
A: No, this was the Trade School.
Q: Trade School, yes.
A: And, we had a lot of fun.
Q: You shared quarters there for a time with the beginnings of the Edsel group, did you not?
A: No, I don't think so.
A: I don't know. I never was involved with the Edsel at all. That
was Emmett Judge.
Q: Right, yes. Dick Krafve.
A: Dick Krafve, yeah.
Q: You later had a headquarters down the street in--the divisional
headquarters was erected, was it not, the Continental Division?
Q: In Allen Park , I think just over the line in Allen Park , as I recall.
A: Yes. On the freeway, yeah.
Q: So, there was a degree of jealousy and animosity directed toward the division in a sense.
A: Well, here was the problem. You had MacPherson with hundreds of engineers, and styling with h undreds of people over there, and here was this little handful of people, and if we turned out an outstanding automobile, why it might make the other groups look bad.
Q: And, you did turn out an outstanding automobile--relatively so.
A: Well, as far as engineering and design, yes.
Q: Where did it flounder? What happened?
A: One of the things that Harley Copp wanted to do was to have each project engineer be responsible for that part of the car, when the cars were being built, these guys were supposed to be out there watching to see that that part of the car was built right. Morrey Fordice, for instance (in charge in trim), if he found something wasn't right, he could stop the line. Pulley Blank if he saw the welds were not correct on welding up this thing, he could stop the line. Of course, our thought was we wanted to build the best car in the world. This was our ambition, and I remember when we were writing specifications for plating, and I put through some specs, and I got a call from the purchasing department, and they said, "This is ridiculous." I said, "You can get plating this good." "Yeah, but it's going to be terribly expensive." I said, "Yes." They said, "Do you know that your specifi cations are above Cadillac?" I said, "We're not building a Cadillac," and this was the attitude, you know. Then, they brought in a production man from Mercury--Mercury quality was the worst in the industry at that time. They brought this production man in from Mercury to build our car! Once it got--once they got excited about it, they wanted to make money out of it. The original thought was that we were going to build the finest car in the world; and, if we made money, that would fine; if we broke even, that would be fine; even if we lost money, it would be fine. We still wanted to establish the finest car in the world, and we knew that with the small production that, even if you made money, it wasn't going to make enough money to mean anything to Ford Motor Company So, really, our goal was more or less to break even, but to really to build a fine automobile. Then, they put this man in from Mercury, and the idea was let's get the cars out; let's get the money coming in. They were just not--they didn't have that quality. That was what killed it.
Q: You wanted a limited production, prestige automobile?
A: Well, I wouldn't say limited production. You'd build as many as you could that people wanted to buy, but try to build the finest automobile you could build regardless of cost. I mean, like putting in a stainless steel exhaust system for instance. We wanted a car that you could drive for say 25,000 miles before anything would happen to it. It could have been done. We could have built a car that well. I remember one time I went over to the Dearborn Inn with some group, and there was a Continental sitting there--a Mark II Continental--and a Volkswagon, and I made the comment, I said, "If we had built this thing as well as they build a Volkswagon, we'd still be in business." I pointed out that the fits were better on the Volkswagon than they were on the Mark II Continental. So, it's a shame because--a lot of us got hurt by this whole program, but probably Bill Ford got hurt more than any of us because he was dedicated. He wanted to build the finest car in the world, and we all felt that way.
Q: Partly as a memorial to his father, do you think?
A: No, I think Bill Ford was a perfectionist, and he just wanted a prestige automobile. He wanted the finest car in the world, and we could have done it, if they'd left us alone.
Q: Without going in too much detail into personalities, what was--the first year it came out, and it was a critical success--the 1956--and the '57 was an improved model, as much as you could under the circumstances, then what happened?
A: I don't really know. I really don't remember this part.
Q: But there obviously were forces in the company that were working for your demise.
A: I got out of it and moved into another area. Jess Richards really was so much smarter than I was as far as body engineering was concerned that once a car was in production, he was really the chief body engineer. I'm glad that--I mean--I don't know, he may have been hurt by it too, but he finally, at least, came to the top as chief body engineer at Ford Motor. And, I see Jess quite often, and he's a wonderful guy, but I'm disappointed in him that he doesn't care anything about automobiles any more. He just seems to have lost interest in automobiles. He likes to travel and take it easy and enjoy retirement, but, I don't know, I'm so crazy about automobiles that retirement doesn't diminish my interest in cars at all.
Q: We left you in 1970 with your decision to retire from Ford.
A: I retired in 1965.
A: Yes, 1965 I retired, and then I taught school at Art Centre from °65 to '70, and then my wife died, and I remarried and moved back to Grosse Pointe.
Q: And have you been effectively retired since that? Was that your last professional affiliation?
A: Oh, I've done some consulting work, and we did this car called the Buehrig Automobile a couple years ago.
Q: Tell us about that could you?
A: Well, it was a well-meaning thing that didn't turn out well. Dick Kughn, who is a very brilliant man and very wealthy, was over at our house one night, and I had this model of a car that I'd made in my basement. It was made from a Corvette, and he said, "Well, let's build it." So, we started a company, and he wanted me to run the company, and I said, "No, I didn't want to do that." I recommended a fellow to do it, which Dick hired, and that didn't turn out very well. He got fired, and then things dragged on, and then finally they did build one. And, we built three of them.
Q: Did you?
Q: Can you describe it?
A: Well, they were shown in the auto show, but it was for that specialty market. Beautiful car, I'm proud of it, but it didn't sell, and the reason was that the price was $135,000 a copy, and we originally thought it was going to be about $60,000, and I think that it would have sold well at $80,000, but $135,000 was ridiculous, plus the fact that at that time....
Q: What year was that by the way?
A: A couple of years ago there'd been very little testing on the car. It wasn't a thoroughly - they built three prototypes really, and were not really....
Q: Three drivable prototypes?
A: Drivable prototypes, yes, and they still have them.
Q: Do they still exist?
A: Oh yes.
Q: Do you have one?
A: Oh no.
Q: Would you want to have one?
A: Well, they're worth too much money, really. He lost a lot of money on it. It's too bad, but it was - and I don't want to criticize Dick. He meant well, and it was - he had a restoration shop where he restored cars for himself, and he knew that end of the business, but he thought we could build production cars, and you can't do it that way. I was always strong to get some outside company to build the whole car for us, but I was never able to convince him that was the way to go, so we finally wound up with a product which we displayed with a price of $135,000 for a Corvette.
Q: Basically, a Corvette.
A: And, there was a man in Florida by the name of Phillips who built a car very similar to it starting with a Corvette and going through the same process that we did, and the only difference between his car and ours was that mine was an original design, and his was an imitation Mercedes. But, he was able to sell that at $60,000. Then he sold a lot of them at $60,000.
Q: Did he? What do you think of the custom-car market in recent year--say things like the McLaren--the personal custom cars? Have you watched those fairly closely?
A: Not too well.
Q: Or the Bricklin?
A: There was a company in Florida that I visited last year that was building a car, and they're quite successful. I can't remember it is the - Zimmer I think - and this Mr. Zimmer is a pretty smart automobile man. I mean, when we left there, I told my wife, I said, "I think there's another E. L. Cord." He's a brilliant man. I don't like his car particularly well. It's too garish. I don't like cars that are overdone with too much chrome and too much imitation, outside exhaust pipes and things of that sort which are rather sickening.
Q: Simply gingerbread.
A: Yes. That type of thing, but he's doing all right with it. He's selling them.
Q: What do you think of these rather extravagant things like the Excalibur and others of that type?
A: Well, that's Brooks Stevens. He's done real well with that.
Q: Has he?
A: Yes, Brooks has done--and it's a quality a product. He's done a good job. He has--I think his sons--a couple of sons--that run that business now. They've done very well.
Q: Have they? Then there are people locally like Bill Schmidt who takes, I think he takes...
A: Cadillac, yes.
Q: Cadillacs and extends them, and....
A: I've seen that. I don't know how well Bill's done with that. He's just down the street here. I know of one that he sold in Detroit . I don't know of others.
Q: Other than the Buehrig, have you been involved personally with any other design operations in the last ten years or so?
A: No. I've been a consultant to Franklin Mint for the last couple of years.
Q: Oh really. That must have been fun.
A: Yes, that's...
Q: Working on their series of antique car models.
A: Yes. It's been a nice association, but that's really the only consulting work that I'm doing at the present time.
Q: From a perspective of roughly about sixty years in the business, if I were to ask you what your design philosophy is over the long haul, could you characterize that without too much difficulty?
A: Well, I think that this old cliché of form follows function is my theory of design. I mean, I follow that, but you have to analyze function, and if you are beholden to a wind tunnel, then you have to figure that the function of the car is just to make something that goes through the air with the least amount of resistance, but that's not really the whole function of an automobile. I think that if you want to a design form to follow function, then the first function that--the most important function, is to design something that people are going to buy, and it's to have style, it's got to have some artistic characteristics about that is going to make somebody want to buy it over the competition. And, another function of the car, it's got to carry people in comfort from point A to point B. The function of things in the car--the instrument panel and the steering wheel--everything should be comfortable for the driver and no mysteries about it. So, there's a lot of functions other than just pushing that thing through the air. So, I think it's wrong to sacrifice anything just for aerodynamics. Aerodynamics are important, but they have to be given their proper balance of importance.
Q: Do you get the impression that the aerodynamics concept--obviously not a new one in automotive design--was sort of happenstance because of the fuel crunch of the mid-Seventies?
A: Partly, yes. See, the problem is that the--the government's a big problem. They came through with the cafe ruling where we had to produce a--all of our cars had to have average gas consumption, and this gas consumption was higher than the cars they were producing by quite a bit, so the companies were forced to build cars that would get more miles per gallon, and there's only certain things you can do to make a car run farther on a gallon of gasoline. You can make it smaller, you can make it lighter, and you can maybe improve the efficiency of the engine and the drive line, and you may be able to improve the tires, or you can give it an aerodynamic shape. What the companies did, they did all these things. They made them smaller, they made them lighter, they did all these things, but from a merchandising standpoint, the one thing they decided was something they could sell was aerodynamics. They couldn't come out and advertise, "Look, we made the car two feet shorter and six inches narrower and 500 pounds lighter." That wouldn't sell. But, they did all these things, but then they came out and made a lot of noise about aerodynamics which is legitimate in that respect. The aero dynamics help improve the gas mileage, but also making the car smaller and all these other things also help improve the gas mileage.
Q: So, the coefficient of drag becomes the magic--the word at that time?
A: It's the one thing they could merchandise. Advertising people could do something with it. But, the thing that's happened, I think, is that they've gone a little bit overboard and given the aerodynamics more importance than they should. I think you're going to have to get away from that, otherwise everything is going to look alike.
Q: You touched upon an important point in terms of driver comfort. They've finally codified that under a fancy term called ergonomics.
Q: But, it really goes back to the old sense of pleasing the driver and making it easy for him for drive and convenient for him to drive.
A: I remember back--you know who Oscar is? Oscar is the dummy.
A: Well, in the development of the dummy, this is interesting, many years ago--and this was a subject that we took up in the Society of Automotive Engineers--and there was a professor from--I think his name was Lay--from the University of Michigan who was head of the automotive engineering at the University of Michigan. He was on our committee.
Fred Matthei, and I don't remember who all, but, anyway, Rudy Schonitizer, and I were a member of the committee. So, we were developing this dummy--this Oscar--and the data that we had went back to the--I think it was the Franco-Prussian War--and this is the days of Napoleon, and armies travelled overland, and they not only travelled overland, they had to carry all their equipment with them, not only a gun, but they had a knapsack, and they had a whole bunch of stuff. In typical German fashion, they took a scientific approach to it. They took dead soldiers and froze them and cut them up and weighed all the parts, and by doing this, they were able to design the equipment that a man had to carry so that he could travel farther in a day and still be alive if he didn't get shot. So, anyway, this is where we got the data for Oscar.
Q: That's marvelous.
A: Another thing that's funny that goes way back. For many many years, in fact during the classic era, the standard wheel track was 56 inches, and that was the width of streetcar tracks too. You could ride on streetcar tracks in those [days]. It was interesting where that 56 inches came from. It goes !back to the Roman days, and in Rome the tra vel was by chariot, and the width of two horses that fasten up to a chariot--between their backbones, it was 56 inches between the backbone of one horse and the backbone of another. Then, the horses would tra vel, and the wheels would follow in the path made by the horses' hoofs, so the wheel track on the old chariots were what was carried over and still is being used today.
Q: Well, that's very good. Well, on the whole, you've had a happy and productive career I suspect.
A: I've had a lot of fun. I never made any money, but I've had a lot of fun.
Q: Isn't that the main thing? You've made some contribution, obviously.
Q: And, you're keeping your hand in with your interest in automobiles and occasional consulting.
A: I don't lose interest in cars, that's for sure.
Q: Well, thank you Mr. Buehrig. You've been very helpful.
Armi Interview 1988:
C. Edson Armi - The Art of American Car Desiqn: The Profession and Personalities pub.1988
Buehrig thinks of himself as a strict functionalist, and he describes his cars almost mechanically, concentrating on the technical process of designing. He seems only vaguely interested in the exterior, and even the relation of shape to function holds little fascination for him. With Buehrig, this refusal to discuss aesthetic problems is not a question of being coy about his designs, as it is with Hershey, who at the same advanced age is bubbling with mischief, intrigue, and power. I believe Buehrig when he says that his designs just pick up where the requirements of packaging, function, and construction leave off. His great design sense flows somehow through his fingers, but not from his head or his heart.
GB I worked for General Motors twice—in 1929 as a designer, and then in 1933, when things were going badly at Duesenberg, I went back to GM for six months. Harley Earl was in charge. He was about 6'6" and very domineering. All of us designers were afraid of him; at least I was. Years after I retired, I saw him, and he really was a nice guy. But it was different when I worked for him. He, more than anyone else, made design important in the automobile industry, and everyone is grateful to him for that.
CEA He intimidated people?
GB He did me.
CEA Can you remember why, for example, you peaked the outside of the hood on the "coffin nose" Cord [Fig. 20]? This is a unique design.
GB Yes, and it actually leans out a little bit, both on the front and on the side. Looking at the side elevation, the profile line, the center line, actually leans forward a little bit. It tilts out just a bit. In other words, the whole thing, louvers and all, goes down.
CEA Why did you do that?
GB Why? To make it look great. When doing a sculpture, you shape surfaces to make them look right. If you want to talk about things that are new on this automobile, it has a unit-body frame. Now, this was not the first car with a unit-body frame. That was, I think, a Dodge that was designed and engineered by the Budd company. But we had the unit-body frame up to where the whole front end was detachable. If you notice, the latest-model cars nowadays—the streamlined cars— they don't have a drip molding on them. This one didn't have a drip molding on it. All the other cars had buggy-whip aerials for their radios. Our radio aerial was concealed. It was underneath the car.
CEA I find the back line beautiful.
GB Well, it is.
CEA I don't think there was anything like it at the time or following it. Can you tell me a little bit about that? I notice that it is one of the elements you changed from the Baby Duesenberg [prototype for the Cord 810 designed by Buehrig as a Duesenberg]. Weren't the pontoon fenders much longer in the Duesenberg?
GB Well, actually, we didn't pay any attention to that [Duesenberg] when we did this one [Cord.
CEA Tell me about that.
GB Well, we had it-up there, but this was a whole new package. We started with a new package. The old Cord, the L-29, had a straight-eight engine, and forward of the engine was a clutch, transmission, and differential. The back end of the engine was way back, and this gave bad weight distribution because when you are going up a hill your center of gravity moves back and you don't have very good traction on your front wheels. So this layout was much better. We were influenced, I think, by a German Audi, a little four-cylinder car we had with front-wheel drive, which had a similar drive train.
CEA So you had the German Audi there, and you had this Duesenberg model standing around at the same time.
GB We didn't pay any attention to that [Duesenberg model]. It was down in the warehouse.
CEA So you didn't have a direct visual reference to the Duesenberg. You just had it in your head?
GB Yes. We didn't really pay any attention to the Duesenberg, because it [the Cord] was a whole new problem. On this car, the transmission is forward of the differential, and the differential comes in line with the front wheels. The V-eight engine was four cylinders shorter than the straight-eight, so we wound up with a package where the weight was far further forward than on the L-29. And that was a big improvement. It really had a perfect weight distribution.
CEA And that meant what about the design? What visuals could you now create?
GB Well, if you notice, the front end of the small Duesenberg prototype is rather dull. There is nothing going on. On this car [Cord 810], we had the transmission up front, and the radiator sat right over the front axle, right above the differential. It was difficult to figure out how to get a linkage past the radiator forward to the transmission. Well, at that time, Bendix had invented their Selectric hand-vacuum shift, and that was perfect, because then all we had to do was run some wires from the steering column up past the radiator to the transmission. The engineers wanted an inch clearance between the sheet metal and the transmission—and it was an asymmetrical arrangement. So all we did was provide this clearance and make it symmetrical. That is how we designed the front. It added some interest in this area, which was pretty blah.
CEA Did the transmission change any of the other proportions on the front? Did it alter any of the other shapes?
GB No. The headlights on the original model were hidden inside the fenders. We were trying to visualize how to make the fenders, and it made the fenders a rather easy stamping if you could stamp them from the ridge line inward, and then stamp them from the ridge line outward, and weld them together with a flange and put a chrome strip over the flange. That is the way we had envisioned the original model, and we still had the headlights on the inside. Then engineering decided they wanted to make the fenders a different way, and they found that there was room to put the headlights in the front—which improved the car. So that's how that happened.
CEA Is that why you have a much more humped crown line than on the Baby Duesenberg—because you had to include the lights in the fenders of the Cord, and that in turn changed the profile of the fender line?
GB No. I think it was full jounce and full turn of the front wheels that determined it. Originally, we had designed a different bumper. And then some vender came in with a bumper, and he showed it to us, and we just bought it. It was better than what we had done, and we got it with no expenditure for tooling. That is how that happened. Anyway, the frame side rails of this unit body were out on the side, and you stepped down. The floor was a step-down floor. About five years later, Hudson made a big deal out of it on their car.
Now, that little rear window. This was before curved safety glass, had been invented. Because you have avery rounded, compound surface on the roof, two flat plates of glass [on the rear] gave us the best answer. But there were a lot of things wrong with the car. In a sense, some of the things it needed hadn't been invented yet. It came along at the wrong period, as far as these things were concerned. The front drive, with weight on the front end, gave us very heavy steering. And power steering hadn't been invented yet.
CEA How would that have improved the shape?
GB Oh, it wouldn't have done anything. No, nothing has been invented to improve the shape, except, possibly, that rear window would have been bigger.
CEA You were talking about the complex compound curves in the back, and obviously those are really important to you. Can you remember what you were thinking of? One of the marvelous things about the car is that, not only do you see this beautiful shape from the side, but as you move around to the back it becomes increasingly subtle.
GB Well, let me explain how this was done. We created our own package in our styling group. There were five of us in there. I had two model-builders, a body draftsman, and an airbrush artist. He did a lot of things. He did the catalogue, pictures for the parts book, and things of that sort. And he helped on the interior design, with some color sketches. Anyway, that was the group. So we were working very closely with engineering on this new chassis, because it was all brand new. And if we wanted to change something, we could. There were a couple of things where we asked for changes. One was the battery location, which was an area we wanted to work in. Another was the muffler location. We needed to get these things out of the way so they would not encroach on interior space.
Well, after we did that, we sketched up on a quarter-scale drawing what it was going to look like. And then we located all of the important points on our body. draft.. . . We established the wheel-base. You want it long enough so it comes in just behind the seat in the particular package. You establish points for legroom and points for headroom. And in the plan view [seen from above], you establish shoulder widths, so that, if you take a point at your shoulder, you know how far out that is from center line. And you put in your gas tank. So you get all these points that the envelope has to cover.
CEA Still at quarter-scale for the Cord?
GB Yes. Then we built an armature out of wood, which projected more or less the shape of the car, but with square lines, you know. It allowed, say, in this case, maybe two inches for clay. So you got a wooden armature. Then you take a template, an outside template. And you know roughly about what this [final shape] is going to be. So you build up the shape in clay real rough. Then you measure up (we used a bridge). You already have these points located on a drawing. You know how far each point is back of the front axle, and you know how high it is above the ground level, and you know how far out it is from the center line of the car. Now you add clay to the armature. You know your shape and you put on clay a bit more than you believe you will need for the finished shape. It is all very rough. Then we took a bunch of little dowels, eighth-of-an-inch dowels, and made them up into pieces about an inch long. With a surface gauge and with measurements from the bridge equipment, we would drive these into the clay at each critical point, so that each point was located in clay by a little dowel. When we got through with that, then we could start sculpturing our shape. And as long as we didn't intrude on any of these points, we knew that we had the amount of shape inside that we needed.
CEA You mean that you basically free-sculpted the Cord?
GB Yes, but we did it after we had these points marked. Then we covered them up. As long as we didn't move the points and didn't cheat, we knew we had the required interior shape. Then, when we got through with the clay model, we didn't do a full-size. We went directly from that to die models.
CEA Was it unusual as a working procedure?
GB The only time it was ever done, as far as I know. That is the way we did it. CEA So, within the limits of the dowels, it was free-sculpture?
CEA Do you think, because you were working that way, that it affected the shape of the Cord?
GB I don't think so, no. I knew what I wanted it to look like, but I didn't want to cheat on it. I didn't want to have to change it later if I found out I didn't have enough interior room.
CEA Did you have preliminary sketches or drawings?
GB Not much. No, I just worked regularly, with orthographic drawings. I mean, I didn't do freehand sketching.
CEA So, basically, all you had was the Duesenberg model, which was in the warehouse, and your orthographic drawings, but no freehand drawings?
GB That is right.
CEA Do you remember how accurate the orthographic drawings were?
GB Well, when the design model was finished, we made our orthographic drawing like the model. But that was afterwards. Our orthographics were rough first. We just wanted to get an idea of what it was going to look like. But once we got it clayed up, we could shape it. As long as we didn't move any of those pins, we were accurate. It is a very disciplined kind of sculpturing.
CEA At what stage did other people work along with you?
GB After we finished it, we just turned it over to engineering. A fellow by the name of Bart Cotter was our assistant body engineer. He was the fastest body draftsman I ever saw. We gave him the lines by a series of measurements which we took from the quarter-scale, and he put them on a full-size body draft. From that we went directly to die models. It was never proven in full-size. It was just done directly. The process saved time and money.
CEA How about on the creative side—how many assistants were helping you work on this clay model?
GB I had two model-builders who helped me. One had just graduated from high school and the other from college. I was the only one with experience.
CEA How did they work with you? Did you say, "Take some more off here, add some more there"?
GB I did a lot of it. Well, they would help. We had a system where, when we got one side done, we could transfer it to the other side very quickly. And they invented some of the equipment which we used—the equipment was all new.
CEA Were you skilled? You almost describe yourself as a sculptor. Did,, you really sculpt the model in clay?
GB I'm pretty good in clay. I'm not very good in sketching.
Gordon Miller Buehrig: Designer of American classics
By Warren W. Fitzgerald
With his retirement from the Ford Motor Co. in July 1965, Gordon Buehrig became the last of the great individual classic era designers to leave active participation with an automobile company. Road & Track has published articles which cite specific phases of his productive career and we now feel it time to chronicle his many contributions to the richness of our automotive heritage. He will best be remembered for his stunning 810/812 series front-wheel-drive Cords, but he was also responsible for the appearance of more examples of cars loved and collected by classic enthusiasts than any other designer.
Gordon Buehrig was born in Mason City, Ill. on June 18, 1904. As a youngster he was fascinated by automobiles and was frustrated because his father didn't own one. His older cousin acquired a 1904 Orient Buckboard and started to build a special car on this primitive chassis. Gordon and his brother, then high school students, inherited the project when their cousin got another car. They attempted to construct a speedster body for the Buckboard, using screen wire over a wooden frame, covering this with a mixture of sawdust and glue. Finding this unsatisfactory, the boys covered the framework with canvas and motored about the small Illinois town in their miniature speedster.
Following high school, Buehrig spent a year at Bradley College in Peoria. His love for automobiles then took him to Chicago, where he obtained a job as a taxi driver. He drove from July 1923 until just after Thanksgiving, when his tender age of 19 was discovered and he was fired. During his time with the taxi company he became acquainted with the auto body building firms in Chicago. Attired in his cab driver uniform he went one day in search of employment to the C. P. Kimball Body Co. There Mr. Wexelberg, Kimball's chief engineer, advised the young Buehrig to go to Detroit and join a production body firm, suggesting Fisher or the C. R. Wilson Body Co. Buehrig wrote letters to each firm and upon receiving favorable responses went to Detroit for interviews. Mr. Walter Jones, chief engineer at C. R. Wilson, was in the process of changing jobs and was going to the Gotfredson Body Co., of Wayne, Mich. as chief engineer. He offered Gordon a job and the would-be, automobile designer started his career in November 1924. His apprentice's pay was 400 an hour. During the ensuing year the young Buehrig became familiar with the ins and outs of composite bodies being built for Wills Ste. Clair, Jewett and Peerless. Bill Jones, brother of Walter, was chief draftsman and Gordon worked for him as a detailer and also ran the blueprint machine.
In January 1926 an opportunity with increased pay opened at the Dietrich Body Co., so Buehrig signed on as a detail draftsman. He stayed until August, when wanderlust got the best of him. Quitting, he drove to California with his brother in hopes of working for Walter Murphy. This did not come about, so he returned to Detroit in December and went to work for the Budd Co. This short employment was terminated by a layoff and through a man he met at Budd, Buehrig found a job at more money with Packard. There he worked part of his time as a detailer, part as a full-size body draftsman. His salary had grown to $200 per month, but the urge to create, rather than execute the designs of others, needed fulfillment.
Farther west on Detroit's Grand Boulevard, General Motors had initiated their Art and Colour Section under Harley Earl, and they were hiring designers—at lower than Buehrig's salary. He discussed the opportunity with his good friend Fred Hooven, now a Ford Motor Co. executive. Fred told him to follow his conscience and he'd never regret it. Taking a cut of $30 a month, Gordon became one of the first to join Harley Earl's staff.
The so-called "pregnant Buick" of 1929 was being designed and Buehrig did the instrument panel. He recalls that their model of the car was built on the long-wheelbase chassis and was rather nice. It suffered and gained its ill-repute in the translation into the production versions. Flushed with the excitement of his first design assignment, Buehrig bought a 1929 Buick roadster in the fall of 1928. It didn't take him long to realize that the $80 per month payments left him little of his salary for living expenses, but he was afraid to approach Mr. Earl for more money. A man from Stutz was in Detroit looking for a designer and Gordon interviewed for the job, asking for what he felt was sufficient money to pay for the Buick and eat as well. He was accepted.
On Nov. 28, 1928, Gordon Buehrig left GM. Taking a week off, he drove his beloved Buick to New York to see the auto salon. In the lobby of the Hotel Commodore he saw the first Model J Duesenberg, but never dreamed that shortly he'd become chief designer for that firm. He returned to Detroit, packed his belongings and left for Indianapolis. He started with Stutz on Dec., 10, 1928.
At Stutz he made his first trip on expense account, in connection with the design of an instrument panel. He recalls that he spent the magnificent sum of $79.94. His only design for Stutz which reached production was his rework of the cowl and windshield on roadster and phaeton models LeBaron had created. He did design the, boat-tailed bodies for the three Stutz 1929 Le Mans entries, following the specifications laid down for that event. He remembers them as being rather stubby because they were used on the small Black Hawk chassis in which were installed the big Stutz engines. These were the first Buehrig-designed bodies built by Weymann American Body Co. of Indianapolis. Later Weymann would execute a number of his Duesenberg designs.
Stutz was in financial difficulty and Buehrig felt his future with this firm was not too bright. He met Harold T. Ames, then sales manager of Duesenberg, and found that they needed a designer. On June 10, 1929, he started the association with them which was to enable him to design some of the most exciting American automobiles ever built. He was 25 years old and chief designer for this country's most expensive, most prestigious motor car.
The Duesenberg Model J chassis had been designed before Buehrig joined the firm, and the artist who translated the wishes of E. L. Cord and Harold Ames into reality is unknown to him. He credits this unnamed artist with doing a superb job on the development of the radiator, fender and cowl ensemble. Initial orders were placed by Duesenberg for a number of bodies by LeBaron, Murphy, Derham, Judkins, Holbrook and Willoughby. These coachbuilders were supported by volume business with larger firms such as Packard, Pierce Arrow, Lincoln, and others. Though the Murphy convertible coupes and LeBaron phaetons were popular, customers viewing Duesenbergs at the salons with Willoughby and Judkins limousines, or Derham sedan bodies, could see the same designs on lesser chassis and Duesenberg could not justify a premium price for them. Had the demand for luxury cars not diminished even before the stock market crash, sales of these bodies would have been a lesser problem. But now Harold Ames saw the need to design more exclusive creations for Duesenberg patrons.
This was the task assigned to Gordon Buehrig in the summer of 1929. Three days after joining Duesenberg he made a tour through the east with Harold Ames to review the coach-builders, thus becoming familiar with their facilities: The large and potent chassis provided an excellent basis for some elegant bodies and Buehrig responded at once to the challenge. Working closely with the sales department, he prepared side-view drawings of proposed designs for presentation to customers. Upon receipt of an order his next job was to draw an eighth-scale body draft, which was turned over to the selected coachbuilder for execution. The first Buehrig-designed Duesenberg was a close-coupled coupe on the short wheelbase chassis for Schreve Archer, of Minneapolis. It was built by Judkins, as was his second design, a 5-passenger coupe. His first popular model, the Beverly sedan, started as a catalog rendering which was shown at the 1929 Drake Hotel Salon in Chicago. It generated considerable interest and the bodies were built in some quantity by Murphy and Rollston. During 1929 Buehrig made scores of proposals, most of which never came into being. Had the economy remained sound, there is no doubt that he'd be credited with many more designs.
The Derham Tourster is Buehrig's favorite Duesenberg. Built as a show car and finished in goldenrod yellow with pale green fenders, it was displayed at the Drake Hotel Salon and later at Los Angeles, where it was purchased by Gary Cooper. Joe E. Brown had a similar car and several others were built. The Duesenberg which ranks next in Buehrig's affection, and the only car he designed to a customer's specific wishes, was the Brunn Torpedo Phaeton built for Marc Lawrence. It became one of the first Model SJs, being converted to the supercharged version in the summer of 1932.
This car was reproduced in four more bodies by Weymann and A. H. Walker. Rich in detail, with a completely disappearing top, the Torpedo Phaeton is, in the minds of many, the most elegant open Duesenberg. Another equally handsome Buehrig-designed Duesenberg was the Rollston "Twenty Grand," originally called the Arlington but popularly renamed for its $20,000 price tag. This one-of-a-kind example was Duesenberg's show car for the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. The Rollston Torpedo Victoria, designed as a rebodied chassis, was another striking Buehrig creation and shows his characteristic touch in the long piano hinges used on the doors.
During his tenure with Duesenberg, Buehrig designed a car for himself on the Model A Ford chassis. Though he managed to drive Duesenbergs on occasion, his designer's salary would not permit the purchase of one. He lowered the top of the Ford, transformed it into a convertible victoria and regained the headroom by dropping the seats through the floorboards. It was a handsome little Ford with a distinctly custom look. He drove it to Detroit in an attempt to show it to Edsel Ford, who he felt would recognize its esthetic worth. He was prevented from doing so by the chief body engineer, who declared that Mr. Ford would not be interested.
Business at Duesenberg was lagging in the fall of 1932 and Howard O'Leary, Harley Earl's assistant at GM, contacted Buehrig to ask if he'd like to rejoin the Art and Colour Section. Gordon replied in the affirmative and returned to Detroit in February 1933. While at GM he led a team of artists' in a design contest. The theme of his group's entry became the germ of the idea from which the 810 Cord evolved. Buehrig always had liked clean engine compartments and the notion of sealing the hood and using external radiators to keep out road dirt appealed to him. Their car did not win the contest but the idea stayed in Buehrig's mind. He did not remain at GM very for his former boss, Harold Ames, now president of Duesenberg, Inc., had other plans for him. Ames was intrigued by the marketing philosophy behind the revised La Salle, introduced in the fall of 1933. It was an inexpensive version which used off-the-shelf parts from a higher production car, the Oldsmobile, while keeping the prestige of the La Salle name. Ames intended to do the same with a Duesenberg made from Auburn parts and wanted Buehrig to design the car.
The challenge meant more than security to Buehrig and he returned to Indiana.
On Nov. 7, 1933, he drew two small pencil sketches of a rakish, streamlined sedan to show Ames his idea of what the baby Duesenberg should be. The design incorporated the sealed hood and external radiators from his GM contest entry. Harold Ames liked the proposal and a prototype was started on an experimental chassis designed by August Duesenberg. The car reflected Buehrig's sketches to an exceptional degree when it was completed in the late spring of 1934. Ames, however, had more pressing problems and took Gordon off the project.
The 1934 Auburn had been poorly received by cars buyers and a crash program was needed to facelift the 1935 line. Ames invited Buehrig to join him at a cottage on Lake Wawasee, Ind., over the 4th of July holiday. Together they determined the design of the 1935 Auburn. The facelift included straightening the belt line, reworking front fender dies, new hood louvers, smaller and better placed headlights and a handsome new radiator. Buehrig's touch imparted a coherence and solidity lacking in the previous, model. He also was given the task of designing a boat-tail speedster, using as much of the 1933 Auburn speedster body as possible. Auburn had more than one hundred of these bodies left over at the Union City Body Co. and-wanted to convert them. The details of the 851/852 Auburn Speedster were related in R&T, March 1961. These cars are cherished by collectors today.
In the interim the baby Duesenberg had been changed in concept to become a re-introduced front-wheel-drive Cord. Buehrig led a small group including Dale Cosper, Dick Robertson, Vince Gardner and Paul Lorenzen in the development of a quarter-scale model. Contours taken from this model were given to the late Bart Cotter (until his death in 1964 head of Fisher Body Engineering), at that time assistant chief body draftsman. Cotter "eyeballed" the full-size body drawings from a series of 10-in. sections, and die tooling was made. Most of the body dies were completed by late 1934. At this time Gordon Buehrig married Betty Whitten and left on a honeymoon.
Upon his return he found the project halted. Alternate programs requiring less expensive tooling were being considered. One was an adaption of the Cord front end styling on the Auburn, retaining the conventional Auburn chassis and body. Buehrig admits that in building a scale design model of this hybrid (at management's request) a sly bit of cheating was used to make it look as bad as possible.
The Cord was salvaged through the efforts of Roy Faulkner, president of Auburn. He sold the project to the board of directors with a set of photographs of the clay model. These pictures were taken and processed by Buehrig and Cosper during a frantic all-night session and rushed to Chicago just in time for the meeting. It was now just four and one half months before the New York Auto Show, and to meet AMA requirements 100 production models would have to be built. With concerted effort on the part of Auburn employees, 100 hand-assembled cars were ready at show time. But their transmissions were not and none could be demonstrated. The beautiful Cord was the hit of the show and orders poured in. However, six months elapsed before they could be, filled and the marketing of the car suffered severely.
In addition to the basic Cord 4-door, Buehrig and his small staff translated the design into a 3-passenger convertible coupe and a 5-passenger "convertible phaeton sedan." Actually, this was neither a phaeton nor a sedan, but rather a convertible victoria with rear quarter windows, pioneering the style common to convertibles today. The quarter window on the Cord Phaeton was solidly, attached to the main bow of the folding top and consequently could not be opened when the top was up. It rotated to the down position as the top was folded. The 812 Cords of 1937 included supercharged versions and these required new hood inset panels to accommodate their chromed external exhaust headers. Also, a stretched-out sedan on a 132-in, wheelbase was designed. It had a small bustle trunk faired into its rear which unfortunately spoiled the purity of Buehrig's original design. This longer model was offered in two trim series, the Custom Berline and Custom Beverly.
The sagacity which made E. L. Cord a wealthy man also caused him to lose affection for the automobile business. It did not require even his brand of acumen to see that the mass producers of automobiles would prevail as the quality gap between their products and custom or low-production cars narrowed. He transferred his interests to other areas of his corporate empire and closed out his automobile business. With it went much of the character of individuality which stamps motor cars classic.
Gordon Buehrig left the Auburn Automobile Co. on Sept. 1, 1936. He had been the director of the design department just short of three years. A month later he joined the Detroit office of the Edward G. Budd Mfg. Co. in the same capacity. Things were different at Budd and much of the effort was concerned with speculative prototype design. One small car Gordon worked upon had many ingenious details, including a very early workout of a padded instrument panel. Buehrig remained with Budd for almost two years, then struck out on his own as a free-lance designer. .
The ensuing decade was very frustrating for the man who had already carved a niche in automotive history with his designs for Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg cars. The industry was in a period of transition, with the market for luxury cars nearly gone. Influence was concentrated in Ford, Chrysler and General Motors and the 34-year-old Buehrig had no seniority established where it counted. Immediately after Pearl Harbor he entered the war effort and his knowledge of surface development enabled him to make worthwhile contributions to aircraft component design. At the war's end he had a brief stint with Studebaker styling under Raymond Loewy, but this gave him little satisfaction. He tried to go it alone again and even took a brief fling at sales work as a manufacturer's representative. He found, as have many creative minds, that this was not for him. By 1948 he had every reason to wonder if he'd ever get back to his first love, automobile design. Then his luck changed. A job opened for him with the Ford Motor Co. in 1949.
Buehrig went to work for John Oswald, then head of body engineering and styling, as head of the body development studio. This group, one of five studios at Ford Styling, was responsible for developing station wagons and convertibles from basic sedan bodies designed in the other 'rooms. His first assignment was the car which became the 1951 Ford hardtop. The design was well integrated into existing body lines. Ford management wanted the body development studio to work up an all-metal station wagon patterned after the wood-paneled models in production. Buehrig's group dutifully executed the wagon as requested and at the same time proposed a wagon which didn't attempt to imitate the "Woodie." It used sedan doors and other production panels and cost $200 less to produce. Introduced as the 1952 "Ranch-wagon," it boosted Ford's yearly station wagon sales from 7000 to 140,000 units!
Late in 1952 Gordon Buehrig was appointed chief body engineer for the Continental Mark II project and worked in this capacity until 1957. In that year he moved to the product planning group as head of station wagon planning. He became interested in light cars and was involved in the early work which culminated in the Falcon. From 1959 until his retirement last year Buehrig was a principal design engineer in the materials applications group. In this assignment he worked with special projects, with special emphasis on plastic body and chassis component investigations. Buehrig became a very vocal proponent of the use of plastics in automobiles. In his retirement he continues to spread this gospel, teaching classes in plastic technology to young designers at the Art Center School in Los Angeles.
Gordon Buehrig's 810 Cord is the only example of the mid-Thirties "modern design" idiom revered and collected in numbers today. We asked him why he left the comparative security of General Motors to take on what was certainly a questionable project. He replied, "It was the opportunity to come in and do a complete new automobile—you can't turn that sort of thing down." Had he stayed at General Motors through all these years he might be a wealthy man today. But then our world of automobiles would not be quite so rich.
©1966 Warren W. Fitzgerald - Road & Trackxxxxx
Gordon Miller Buehrig was born in 1904 in Mason City, Illinois. At 20, he got his first job in the automobile industry as chief engineer of the Gotfredson Body Company. In the next five years, he gained experience at Dietrich Incorporated. Packard, General Motors and Stutz. When he was only 25, Gordon Buehrig became the chief body designer for the most prestigious automobile in the United States, Duesenberg.
Buehrig became very close to the Duesenberg brothers and in fact was invited to live in the home of Fred's family and did so for over three years. His fabulous Duesenberg designs include the Shreve Archer Judkins Coupe, the Judkins Victoria Coupe, the Beverly Berline, the Derham Tourster, the Torpedo Phaeton, the Brunn Town Car, the Roliston Convertible Torpedo Victoria, the Whittell Speedster, the Derham Four-Door Convertible, the La Grande Phaeton and the Arlington, better known as The Twenty Grand. He also designed the famous "Duesenbird" radiator ornament.
In 1930, Buehrig took delivery on a new Ford and proceeded to give it something a little different, a body by Buehrig. Augie Duesenberg's racecar shop went to work and the car was cut in half and the back half discarded. Changes included the windshield and door hinge pillar being cut down three inches and a special engine hood four and one-half inches longer than the original. The back half was rebuilt. Then it was taken to the plant and given the same quality paint and trim used on the Duesenberg. Experimental balloon tires were added later as well as a redesigned radiator and other changes. MoToR Magazine wrote about the car and Buehrig drove it 89,000 miles before selling it in 1934.
In 1934, Auburn Automobile Company's line wasn't being received well by the public. Harold Ames, the company's vice president, brought Buehrig to the project to redesign the 1934 line. The result was the classic 1935 line introduced in mid-year. Later in 1935, Buehrig also produced the Auburn Speedster, which was so popular that it remained unchanged in 1936 except for the number on the grill.
In 1933, Buehrig had designed a "Baby Duesenberg" for the company that was to be a fast car and sell at a lesser cost. It had two outrigger radiators on either side of the car between the front fenders and the body. But, the twin radiator system proved inadequate under high ambient temperatures and he was taken off this project to design the 1935 Auburn. When asked to design a new Cord, he brought back to life some of his concepts for the Baby Duesenberg. According to Buehrig, "the opportunity to work out the design of the new Cord and to have it a front wheel drive vehicle gave me an assignment as ideal as an automotive designer could imagine." He also remembered the engineering department excitement was so great, many worked extra several nights a week while listening to Fred Allen, Amos and Andy and other popular radio programs. Everyone considered working on the Cord fun.
Though it was fun, the Cord project had many problems within the company and was killed while Buehrig was on his honeymoon in December of 1934. After his return, it was resurrected, but by this time the company had less than four months to complete 100 cars for the 1935 New York Auto Show. They made the deadline because the cars did not have transmissions, which were still being fully developed, and the phaetons were all shown with the tops down because these particular cars didn't have any tops.
None of this mattered. The Cord stopped the show. People were having to stand on surrounding cars just to get a glimpse of the beautiful Cord with its exciting new design.
Buehrig left Auburn Automobile and went to the Budd Company where he designed an economy car called the Wowser. It was never produced. His next position was at White Truck and the King Seeley Company. He eventually went to Studebaker, and while there, a private opportunity presented itself.
A group of men wanted Buehrig to design a car to be used for European-style grand prix racing in New York State. The result was the Tasco, an acronym for The American Sports Car Company. Buehrig was never satisfied with the design, which was done by a committee of investors rather than one designer. He considered the Tasco his personal Edsel. But, from this car came the design for a top, which became the removable T-top for Thunderbird and eventually Corvette. The only Tasco made is now on display at the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum.
Buehrig finally worked for the Ford Motor Company from 1949 until his retirement in 1965. While there, his projects included the 1951 Ford Victoria Coupe, a 1952 Ford all-metal station wagon and the Continental Mark 11.
Upon his retirement from Ford, Buehrig was asked to teach a course in plastics at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. He taught there five years.
Not only has Buehrig received accolades from nearly every automotive publication in the country, but also he has the distinction of having his 810 Cord recognized by the Museum of Modem Art. In 1951, the museum printed in its catalogue "the originality of the conception and the skill with which its several parts have been realized makes it one of the most powerful designs in the exhibition...."
His designs will remain some of the most powerful in automotive history.
7his article is a brief synopsis of the book, Rolling Sculpture, written by Gordon Buehrig in conjunction with William S. Jackson.
This snapshot of the quarter-scale clay model was taken by Gordon Buehrig and Dale Cosper in July 1935. So perfect was the model that the production version of the Cord 810 differed only in details. Windshield and rear window became 2-piece designs, because curved glass wasn't available. Bumpers were replaced with a stock design that could be purchased from a supplier. Fender seams were not needed, and sheetmetal covering the transmission was reshaped.
The clay model was painted with red lacquer.
Gordon Miller Buehrig was born in 1904 in Mason City, Illinois. At 20, he got his first job in the automobile industry as chief engineer of the Gotfredson Body Company. In the next five years, he gained experience at Dietrich Incorporated, Packard, General Motors and Stutz. When he was only 25, Gordon Buehrig became the chief body designer for the most prestigious automobile in the United States, Duesenberg.
Buehrig became very close to the Duesenberg brothers and in
fact was invited to live in the home of Fred's family and did so for
over three years. His fabulous Duesenberg designs include the Shreve
Archer Judkins Coupe, the Judkins Victoria Coupe, the Beverly Berline,
the Derham Tourster, the Torpedo Phaeton, the Brunn Town Car, the
Rollston Convertible Torpedo Victoria, the Whittell Speedster, the
Derham Four-Door Convertible,
In 1930, Buehrig took delivery on a new Ford and proceeded to
give it something a little different, a body by Buehrig. Augie
Duesenberg's race car shop went to work and the car was cut in half and
the back half discarded. Changes included the windshield and door hinge
pillar being cut down three inches and a special engine hood four and
one-half inches longer than the original. The back half was rebuilt.
Then it was taken to the plant and given the same quality paint and
trim used on the Duesenberg. Experimental balloon tires were added
later as well as a redesigned radiator and other changes. Motor
Magazine wrote about the car and Buehrig drove it 89,000 miles before
selling it in 1934.
In 1934, Auburn Automobile Company's line wasn't being
received well by the public. Harold Ames, the company's vice president,
brought Buehrig to the project to redesign the 1934 line. The result
was the classic 1935 line introduced in mid-year. Later in 1935,
Buehrig also produced the Auburn Speedster which was so popular that it
remained unchanged in 1936 except for the number on the grill.
In 1933, Buehrig had designed a "Baby Duesenberg" for the
company which was to be a fast car and sell at a lesser cost. It had
two outrigger radiators on either side of the car between the front
fenders and the body. But, the twin radiator system proved inadequate
under high ambient temperatures and he was taken off this project to
design the 1935 Auburn. When asked to design a new Cord, he brought
back to life some of his concepts for the Baby Duesenberg. According to
Buehrig, "the opportunity to work out the design of the new Cord and to
have it a front wheel drive vehicle gave me an assignment as ideal as
an automotive designer could imagine." He also remembered the
engineering department excitement was so great, many worked extra
several nights a week while listening to Fred Allen. Amos and Andy and
other popular radio programs. Everyone considered working on the Cord
Though it was fun, the Cord project had many problems within
the company and was killed while Buehrig was on his honeymoon in
December of 1934. After his return, it was resurrected, but by this
time the company had less than four months to complete 100 cars
None of this mattered. The Cord stopped the show. People were
having to stand on surrounding cars just to get a glimpse of the
beautiful Cord with its exciting new design.
Buehrig left Auburn Automobile and went to the Budd Company
where he designed an economy car called the Wowser. It was never
produced. His next position was at White Truck and the King Seeley
Company. He eventually went to Studebaker and while there,
A group of men wanted Buehrig to design a car to be used for
European-style grand prix racing in New York State. The result was the
"Tasco", an acronym tar 'The American Sports Car Company. Buehrig was
never satisfied with the design which was done by a committee of
investors rather than one deigned He considered the Tasco his personal
Edsel. But, from this car came the design for a top which became the
removable T-top for Thunderbird and eventually Corvette. The only Tasco
made is now on display at the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum.
Buehrig finally worked for the Ford Motor Company from 1949
until his retirement in 1965. While there, his projects included the
1951 Ford Victoria Coupe, a 1952 Ford all-metal station wagon and the
Continental Mark II.
Upon his retirement from Ford, Buehrig was asked to teach a
course in plastics at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles.
He taught there five years.
Not only has Buehrig received accolades from nearly every
automotive publication in the country, but also he has the distinction
of having his 810 Cord recognized by the Museum of Modern Art. In 1951,
the museum printed in its catalogue "the originality of the conception
and the skill with which its several parts have been realized makes it
one of the most powerful designs in the exhibition ....''
His designs will remain some of the most powerful in
Gordon Buehrig's 55th year in the automotive design field was
highlighted by Detroit entrepreneur Richard Kughn introducing the
Buehrig Motor Car. It was designed by Buehrig and was meant to combine
luxury with race car sleekness in the neo-classical style.
The Buehrig is a Carriage Roof Coupe hand-built of fiberglass.
It is powered by a 350 cubic inch General Motors V8 engine with
computerized fuel injection and a four-speed Turbo-Hydromatic 400
automatic transmission. The car sits on a lengthened Corvette chassis
and weighs 3300 pounds.
To the first prototype, Buehrig added two very personal
features: first, Sweden's national colors of blue and yellow were used
throughout the interior in honor of his wife, Kay, who is of Swedish
ancestry and second, he added a T-top, which he originally designed
some thirty years earlier.
The Buehrig Motor Car was meant to be a limited production
automobile, selling for approximately $130,000. However, the company
fell victim to the astronomical costs of manufacturing and only four
prototypes were produced.
Richard and Linda Kughn graciously donated the company's first prototype Buehrig to the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum. It sits proudly next to Buehrig's Cord 810 and the Tasco which is adjacent to the restored Auburn Automobile Company design studios which Buehrig headed in 1934-1936.
LARGE BEAUTIFUL AUTOMOBILE
''I have little formal education to record. I graduated from
high school in 1922 in my home town of Mason City, Illinois. I attended
the Fall and Spring term at Bradley College (1922-23) now Bradley
University. in Peoria, Illinois. I also attended the Spring term of
As a child I was fascinated with automobiles and about age ten
I decided that I wanted to be an automobile designer. When I was
nineteen I met an automobile executive in Chicago who advised me on my
career. He said that before I try to design automobile bodies I should
learn how to build them and that I should start as an apprentice in the
A brief description of the project: "Large Cars of the Future:
A completely new concept which incorporates the use of two small
engines rather than one large one to propel the vehicle. Why? By this
arrangement the following advantages are achieved:
1. Approximately a 50% improvement in fuel efficiency.
A detailed project description included:
Although this is a completely new concept for large cars, it
uses all present day technology and parts. In other words, no new
inventions are required and present day state of the art methods of
manufacture of both the chassis and the body are used. Consequently
producing such a vehicle presents no unsolved problems to either the
engineering department of a company or to its manufacturing division."
''The front engine is larger than the rear because it drives the accessories: the alternator to charge the battery, power steering, air conditioning etc. Synchronization of the two engines is not a problem. Friction between the tires and the road surface will keep the wheels turning at the same speed even if one engine is producing more power."
This first Eyes on Design show (formerly Eyes on the Classics) paid tribute to automobile design of the past, present and future. It is therefore fitting that the first designer to receive our Lifetime Achievement Award is the man responsible for the styling of more automobiles that are revered and collected by classic car enthusiasts than any other designer.
The Detroit Institute of Ophthalmology and the Eyes on the Classics committee is proud to honor Gordon Miller Buehrig's vision and contributions to the art form of automobile design by presenting him with the Steuben Lifetime Achievement Award.
Buehrig, among the last of the great individual American car stylists, designed automobiles that make classic car lovers' eyes light up--such names as Duesenberg, Cord, Stutz, Auburn.
At the age of 24 he began developing sketches and then production drawings of what eventually became Detroit's rolling sculpture. Today, more than 60 years later, he continues to create clay models and drawings with the clean lines and pure beauty that epitomize classic automobiles.
Buehrig considers himself an automobile architect and sculptor rather than a technologist and engineer. Throughout his career, he chose opportunities to create individual new designs over those which offered financial security and career advancements.
Born in Mason City, Illinois on July 18, 1904, Buehrig has had a lifelong passion for cars. While in high school, he tried to create a speedster body for a 1904 Orient Buckboard by covering the car's wooden framework with canvas.
Buehrig's first design job was in November 1924 as a 40 cents per hour apprentice with the Gotfredson Body Company in Wayne, Michigan. There he learned about composite bodies, working as detailer and running the blueprint machine. In January 1926, he began earning more money at a new job as a draftsman with Dietrich Body Company. He quit that August, driving to California with his brother, in hopes of working for Walter Murphy. This was not to be. Buehrig returned to Detroit, in December 1926, worked for the Edward G. Budd Company and was laid off.
He soon found a job at Packard. There he split his time working as a detailer and as a full-size body draftsman, earning $200 a month.
In 1927, he took a $30-a-month cut in pay to become one of the first designers at General Motors' Art and Color Section, under the direction of Harley Earl. He immediately went to work designing the instrument panel of the 1929 "pregnant Buick."
Buehrig bought his first car in 1928 while at General Motors--a 1929 Buick roadster and soon found that making $80-a-month payments on the car left him very little to live on. Afraid to approach Mr. Earl for a pay raise, he interviewed with Stutz, and at age 24, was hired as the auto company's chief body designer.
He left General Motors on November 28, 1928. That week, Buehrig drove his Buick to New York for the Auto Salon, where, in the lobby of the Hotel Commodore, he spied the Model J Duesenberg. Buehrig says he never dreamed that he would soon be chief designer.
He joined Stutz in Indianapolis on December 10, 1928. While there, he designed the boat-tailed bodies for the three Stutz 1929 Le Mans entries. These were the first Buehrig-designed bodies built by Weymann American Body Company of Indianapolis. They later produced a number of Buehrig's Duesenberg designs. Buehrig's only design which reached production at Stutz was the rework of the cowl and windshield on roadster and phaeton models LeBaron created.
In 1925, young American men would have done most anything to get close to the American dream machines--the Duesenbergs. A meeting with Duesenberg sales manager Harold T. Ames led Buehrig to the ultimate dream for a designer becoming chief designer for the fastest, most prestigious and luxurious motor car in the country.
"The best fringe benefit of working for Duesenberg was being allowed to drive all the cars . . . I used to drive all night, with the top down, the moon up . . . just drive," Buehrig says today.
Buehrig's first challenge was to design more exclusive bodies for Duesenberg patrons. Three days after joining Duesenberg, Buehrig made a tour of the coach-builders facilities. Working with the sales department at Duesenberg, he prepared side view drawings of proposed designs which were presented to customers. When an order came in, Buehrig drew an eighth-scale body draft which was turned over to the selected coachbuilder to produce.
The first Buehrig-designed Duesenberg was a close-coupled coupe on a short wheelbase chassis. It was built by Judkins, as was his second design, a five-passenger coupe. The first popular Duesenberg, the Beverly Sedan, was built by Murphy and Rollston.
Buehrig's favorite "Doozie" was the Derham Tourster, a show car finished in goldenrod yellow with pale green fenders. Displayed at the Drake Hotel Salon and later at Los Angeles, it was purchased by actor Gary Cooper. Buehrig's next-favorite model and the only car he designed to a customer's specific wishes, was the Brunn Torpedo Phaeton built for Marc Lawrence. Considered by many to be the most elegant open Duesenberg, it became one of the first Model SJ's. The model was converted into the super-charged version in the summer of 1932, and reproduced in four more bodies by Weymann and A. H. Walter.
Working at Duesenberg did not mean Buehrig could afford to own one, so he designed a car for himself on a Model A Ford chassis--he lowered the top, transformed it into a convertible victoria and regained headroom by dropping the seats through the floorboards.
Buehrig left Duesenberg in 1932 as luxury car sales, which had been slowing even before the Depression, continued to lag. In the fall of 1932, Howard O'Leary, Harvey Earl's assistant at General Motors, invited Buehrig to rejoin the Art and Color Section at GM, which he did in February 1933.
At GM, the germ of the idea which became Buehrig's masterpiece--the 810 Cord--evolved. Buehrig, who liked clean engine compartments, wanted to seal the hood and use external radiators. That was the theme for his team's entry in an in-house GM design contest. While the idea did not win, it stayed with Buehrig.
Buehrig rejoined Duesenberg in the fall of 1933 to work again for Ames, who by this time was company president. Ames liked the marketing strategy for the revised La Salle, introduced in the fall of 1933. It was an inexpensive version using off-the-shelf parts from a higher priced production car, the Oldsmobile, while retaining the prestige of the La Salle name. Ames wanted to make and market a Duesenberg made from Auburn parts, and he wanted Buehrig to design the car.
On November 7, 1933, Buehrig drew two small pencil sketches of a stream-lined sedan, his idea for the baby Duesenberg, with sealed hood and external radiators. A prototype was started on an experimental chassis designed by August Duesenberg. The car, completed in the spring of 1934, was a clear reflection of Buehrig's sketches. But by this time Ames had more pressing problems. He took Buehrig off the project to provide a fast facelift to the 1935 Auburn line. During a fourth of July weekend, Buehrig and Ames reworked the Auburn design--straightening the belt line, changing fender dies, creating new hood louvers, smaller and better headlights and a new radiator.
Buehrig also designed the boat-tail 851/852 Auburn speedster, revered by car collectors today, using some of the 100 1933 Auburn speedster bodies which were unused at the Union City Body Company.
In the meantime, the baby Duesenberg had been transformed and was reintroduced as a front-wheel-drive Cord. Buehrig led a small group of designers, including Dale Cosper, Dick Robertson, Vince Gardener and Paul Lorenzen, to develop a quarter-scale model. The late Bart Cotter, then assistant chief body draftsman and later head of Fisher Body Engineering, "eye- balled" the full-size body drawings from a series of 10-inch sections. Tooling was started and most of the body dies were completed by late 1934. The result would be the Cord 810 whose bold and innovative styling would capture and hold the interest of classic car enthusiasts.
At about that time, Buehrig married Betty Whitten. When he returned from his honeymoon, he found the project halted, with talk about alternate programs with less expensive tooling. The Cord was saved through the efforts of Roy Falkner, president of Auburn, who sold the project to the company's board of directors with a set of photographs of the clay model. Buehrig and Cosper had taken and processed the photos during a frantic all-night session and rushed them to Chicago in time for the meeting.
The next challenge was to complete the required 100 production models in less than five months to show the car at the New York Auto Show. Auburn employees finished 100 hand-assembled cars by show time, but the transmissions were not completed and the cars could not be demonstrated. The Cord was the hit of the show and orders poured in. But it was six months before they could be filled and marketing of the car suffered, Buehrig reminisces.
Buehrig's small staff translated the basic four-door Cord design into a three-passenger convertible coupe and a five-passenger car billed as a "convertible phaeton sedan." The latter was actually a convertible victoria with rear quarter windows, a pioneer to the modern convertible style, The quarter window of the Cord Phaeton was solidly attached to the main bow and could not be opened when the top was up; it rotated to the down position as the top was folded.
The 812 Cords of 1937 included supercharged models which required new hood inset panels to accommodate the chromed external exhaust headers. Buehrig's design team also created a stretched-out sedan on a 132-inch wheelbase which was offered in two trim series--the Custom Berline and the Custom Beverly.
After serving as director of the design department at Auburn Automobile Company for slightly less than three years, Buehrig left the company in September 1936. A month later, he joined the Budd Company in the same capacity, where he concentrated on speculative prototype design. He stayed at Budd for almost two years, leaving to free-lance as a designer.
The next decade was a frustrating time for the designer who had carved a niche in auto design history with his creations of Auburns, Cords and Duesenbergs. The market for luxury cars was very small and auto design influence was concentrated at Ford, Chrysler and General Motors.
Immediately after the Bombing of Pearl Harbor, Buehrig became involved in aircraft component design, to which he brought his knowledge and expertise in surface development. At the end of the war, he worked briefly in the design department at Studebaker under Raymond Loewy, but was soon a free-lancer again, and even took a sales job as a manufacturer's representative.
By 1948, Buehrig wondered if he would ever get back to what he loved best, auto design. He did, with Ford Motor Company. In 1949, Buehrig went to work for Ford's John Oswald, then head of body engineering and styIing, as head of the body development studio. One of five studios at Ford Styling, this group was responsible for creating station wagons and convertibles from standard sedan bodies designed in the other studios. Buehrig's first assignment was the car which became the 1951 Ford hardtop.
Ford management asked the body development studio to create an all-metal station wagon patterned after the wood-paneled models in production. Buehrig's group did so, simultaneously proposing a wagon which did not copy-cat the "woodie." With sedan doors and other production panels, it cost $200 less to produce. Introduced in 1952, the Ranchwagon boosted Ford's annual station wagon sales from 7,000 to 140,000 units.
In 1952, Buehrig was named chief body designer for the Continental Mark II project and served in that position until 1957, when he became head of station wagon planning. Buehrig became interested in light cars and participated in the initial effort from which the Falcon became a reality.
From 1959 until retiring from Ford in July 1965, Buehrig was a principal design engineer in the materials applications group. He worked on special projects with an emphasis on exploring plastic body and chassis components. A vocal proponent of the use of plastics in automobiles, Buehrig continues to spread this gospel today to young designers around the U.S. and the world.
Buehrig's indelible mark on the automobile design world assures his place in automobile history. But fame, money and security have never meant as much to him as the challenge to design automobiles that are beautiful and functional.
The wealth of ideas, knowledge and expertise he has accumulated in his 60 years as a design genius keeps Buehrig busy today at his studio and garage in Grosse Pointe, where he lives with his second wife, Kay.
On a recent visit he showed final production drawings of one of his favorite design themes, a spacious, aerodynamically-styled wagon, with two small engines and a special driveline configuration to provide plenty of room for the low-seat passenger compartment. In Buehrig's garage are a Honda CRX coupe with automatic transmission along with a 1951 Ford Victoria hardtop coupe he designed, and a 1971 Corvette with T-roof, a special configuration which he created and patented after World War II.
"The mark of the really exceptional car designer is the degree to which his creations are coveted and revered long after they were built. Many of Gordon Buehrig's cars are in this class-true collector items. They were considered classic cars when introduced, and the feeling about them, the sense of distinction and value, has increased with the passage of time," wrote former American Motors Vice President for Styling, Richard A. Teaque in a prologue to a volume of Buehrig's work, "Rolling Sculpture".
Eyes on the Classics is proud to have many of Buehrig's classics, including the 810 Cord and the 1951 Ford hard top, displayed today.
The growing popularity of classic cars has led to the reproduction of many of Buehrig's greatest designs. The 810 Cord Roadster and 866 Auburn speedster are replicas of his originals. In 1979, business leader and classic car collector Richard Kughn launched the Buehrig, a replica sports car. One of the three prototype Buehrig's is displayed today.
Eyes on the Classics salutes Gordon Buehrig for his insight, sensitivity and creativity. He has given us examples which have created automobile legends. Gordon Buehrig is the finest example of a living legend.
|For more information
Warren W. Fitzgerald - Gordon Miller Buehrig: Designer of American classics, February 1966 Road & Track
Frederick E. Hoadley - Automobile Design Techniques and Design Modeling: the Men, the Methods, the Materials
Donald J. Bush - The Streamlined Decade
Gordon Buehrig - Tasco, My Personal Edsel, Automobile Quarterly Vol 12 No 2
S. Heller & L. Fili - Streamline
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