Gordon Buehrig 1904-1990
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 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
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 automotive history.
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 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 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."
7his article is a brief synopsis of the book, Rolling Sculpture, written by Gordon Buehrig in conjunction with William S. Jackson.
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.
Designer Gordon M. Buehrig is issued a US patent for his "vehicle top with removable panels," an invention that
would eventually appear as a "T-top" on the 1968 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray.
Buehrig was born in 1904 in Mason City, Illinois, and began his automotive career in 1924 at Gotfredson Body Co. in Wayne, Michigan, which made bodies for the Wills St. Clair, Peerless and Jewett cars.
In 1927, he was hired by General Motors, the fourth designer hired for Harley Earl’s new Art and Color Department, the industry’s first styling operation. A year later, at age 24, he became chief body designer for Stutz, in Indianapolis, then the year after that became chief designer for the most legendary American nameplate of all, Duesenberg, also built in Indianapolis.
He designed such Duesenberg classics as the Beverly Berline, the Torpedo Phaeton, the Derham Tourster and the Weymann Boattail Speedster as well as the Duesenberg eagle hood ornament.
In 1934, he was transferred to Auburn, where he designed Auburns and Cords and produced his most celebrated designs, the Auburn Boat-tail Speedster and the 1936 “coffin-nose” 810 and 812 Cords. It is said that a poll of visitors to the New York Auto Show in 1936 where the Cord 810 was released was that twice as many people rated the Cord tops as the second place-getter, the Lincoln Zephyr.
After World War II, Buehrig moved to Ford, where he designed the ’51 Ford Victoria hardtop coupe and worked on the Mark II Continental. He retired from Ford in 1965 and taught five years at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
He died in January, 1990.
Gordon M. Buehrig bolted Studebaker and joined the Dearborn boys in 1949 to design the Crestliner and the Victoria. His classic touches had graced early Packards, Duesenbergs and Stutz cars. For a while he worked for GM. His former mentor, Richard Loewy, had been a “see though top” enthusiast for years. Buehrig developed hinged clear panels for the experimental TASCO car long before the “T-top” idea became in vogue. [TASCO was an acronym for the American Sports Car Company and the only one built is displayed at the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Museum.]
Prototype car, acronym name stands for 'The American Sportscar Company. Based on
a design by Gordon Buehrig, built of post-World War II aluminum. It was shown in Wichita in 1948 in the hope of
contracting with Beech Aircraft Company for production of the aviation-inspired automobile. This model is the only
one ever built, it is now owned by the Cord Auburn Dusenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana. Shown here at the Cardwell
Manufacturing Company in Wichita; owner H.W. Cardwell and employees are identified (on file).
|For more information please read:
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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