John Dobben 1889-1974


Judkins by Hugo Pfau - Cars & Parts, September 1971 pp76-82

Back in 1857, a couple of men named John B. Judkins and Isaac Little set up a partnership in West Amesbury, Massachu­setts, to build carriages, a trade they had learned from boyhood. Amesbury was already the coach-building center of New Eng­land, with one part of town known as "Carriage Hill" because so many of the shops were located there.

Over the years, West Amesbury changed its name to Merri­mac, for the river flowing through the town which supplied water power to the carriage shops as well as to the textile mills further up the valley. The carriage shop, too, changed its name, becoming Judkins & Goodwin, then Judkins & Haskell, and in 1883 Frederick B. Judkins, son of one founder, joined the part­nership, the name was changed to John B. Judkins & Son. In 1891, another son, Charles H. Judkins, was admitted to the firm, which then was incorporated for the first time as J. B. Judkins & Sons Company. In 1909, a year after the death of the first John B. Judkins, the firm changed its name again to The J. B. Judkins Company, but did not change the fine quality of its product.

They did, however, change the name of the product from carriages to automobile bodies. In the 1890s, Flandrau & Company, New York distributors for the cars built by Colonel Pope's Electric Vehicle Company in Hartford, Connecticut, ordered twenty bodies for these new vehicles. This was Judkins' first attempt at automobile bodies, but using the same high standards of craftsmanship as in their horse-drawn carriages ­and even similar lines - they turned out excellent bodies.

For the next fifteen or twenty years, they built carriages and automobile bodies simultaneously, but in 1910 the last Judkins carriage left the shop. It is interesting to note that this is just about the same time Brewster made their last horse-drawn carri­age, as noted in the previous article.

From then until the firm shut down in 1938, the product was entirely custom-built automobile bodies, except for a few custom built trailers for sales displays which they turned out in the mid-­thirties. Some bodies were built individually, and others in a series of perhaps one hundred or so, on the finest chassis. Jud­kins built probably more Lincolns than any others, but before this fine car came on the market, Packard had been their best customer. Many Pierce-Arrows, Marmons, Wintons, Locomo­biles and Duesenbergs were also fitted with Judkins bodies.

In 1917, Stanley Judkins, grandson of the founder of the company, was in charge. Business was so good that he set up another firm, the Merimmac Body Company, nearby to handle the overflow. When Stanley died in 1920, another grandson, also named John B. Judkins, took over and ran the company until it ceased operations. John died only a few years ago after a long and useful retirement during which he sometimes served as a consultant to various automobile manufacturers.

During the early years of the century, two brothers ran parts of the factory for Judkins, one in charge of body-framing and the other of upholstery. They were Charles and M. Sargent Waterhouse, who in 1928 struck out on their own and turned out some fine custom bodies for the next few years.

Designing and engineering at this time were in the capable hands of John F. Dobben, who later joined the Ford Motor Com­pany until he retired in 1958. He is still alive, and we have ex­changed many reminiscences, some of which are incorporated in this article.

When the New York office of LeBaron was closed in 1930, R. L. Stickney, who had shared the designing there with me, de­clined an offer to move to Detroit and instead took a similar post with Judkins, remaining there for the balance of the firm's exis­tence. One of John Dobben's letters mentions that the last Jud­kins body, a Lincoln Coupe de Voyage, or five-passenger sport coupe, for Mr. Judkins' personal use, was "designed by R. L. Stickney, with the working draft done by Herman A. Kapp and me."

Judkins' styling tended to be on the conservative side, as in­deed was the work of many leading custom body builders, but every now and then they came up with an innovation. As early as 1917, they built some "Touring Limousines" on Packard chassis with removable pillars above the belt so the entire side of the car could be open in warm weather. When it rained, the pillars could be taken from their storage space under the rear seat, put back in place, and with the windows raised you had a closed car. This was possibly the world's first "hard-top", a question which has recently come up in “The Tool Bag”.

Another unusual vehicle was the Coaching Brougham which Judkins exhibited at the 1926-27 Salons on a Lincoln chassis, and which is now in Harrah's Automobile Collection, restored to its original pristine glory. In fact, I saw it there just after its restora­tion, and complimented Harrah's staff on the excellent reproduc­tion of the original color scheme. I was amazed to learn that they had accomplished this with nothing more than a verbal description of the paint job in coaching yellow and black, with coaching vermillion striping.

Rumors existed at the time Harrah bought the car that it had been built for Tom Mix, and were primed in one of the motor magazines. Both Mr. Judkins and I immediately wrote to correct this. It was based on a Concord Coach in Henry Ford's Wayside Inn. John Dobben told me he had drawn several design sugges­tions from which Henry and Edsel Ford selected the one used. The car was first shown at the New York Salon November, 1926, then in Chicago and finally in Los Angeles the following February. It was admired by Mrs. W. C. Fields at the New York Salon but was first sold to another Hollywood star of the rime, Ethel Jackson. Fields did get to ride in it later, when it was used in one of his movies.

Tom Mix did, however, own a Judkins body. It was a Pierce-Arrow Club Coupe built specially for him earlier in 1926.

The most popular of Judkins' bodies were probably the Coupes and Berlines which they built for Lincoln from the time Edsel Ford began running that company in 1923 well up into the 1930s. The styling changed a little over the years, and at least one hundred of each model were being built every year during the late twenties.

Occasionally Judkins built one of the coupes with the rear portion of the top folding, as on a landaulet. These they called "couplets", and while other body builders did the same thing from time to time, I think Judkins used this construction more than anyone else.

Naturally they also built bodies of the same types on other chassis, and I especially recall several series of coupes for Pierce-­Arrow with lines very similar to the Lincolns, in the mid-twen­ties. Most of these were on Series 80 or 81 chassis, but there were also some on the larger Series 36, including the special one for Tom Mix.

In the years either side of World War I, Alvan T. Fuller was the Packard distributor in Boston. He ordered a number of bodies from Judkins, including a Club Brougham in 1918 for his own use. This was displayed at the Boston Auto Show, and at­tracted so much attention that the Winton Motor Car Company in Cleveland ordered some similar bodies. Judkins eventually delivered over 1,000 such bodies to Winton. As is well known, Mr. Fuller later was elected to several terms as Governor of Massachusetts.

Even George Studebaker, the member of that family who set up the automobile business as an adjunct to their flourishing wagon factory, had a. Judkins Limousine built for him in 1928. Although some custom bodies had been built on earlier Stude­bakers, this one was on a Lincoln.

One thing Judkins was noted for was the solid, durable construction of their bodies, something to which the present owners of some that are forty or fifty years old can well attest. Like most custom body builders of the time, they generally mounted their front doors hinged at the back and opening at the front. One reason for this was that with the long chassis of those days, and with the engines mounted further back than is now usually the case, the front edge of the front door came close to the center of the wheelbase, at a point where the chassis was most flexible. Hinging the door at this area could produce considerable distortion and develop unwanted rattles and squeaks.

A couple of years ago, there was an extended controversy over this in the letters pages of The Classic 'Car. The author of an article on Holbrook had referred to such front doors hinged at the rear as "suicide doors," a designation to which I objected. Not only Holbrook, but Brewster, LeBaron and Judkins used this system on the majority of their automobile bodies. John Dobben followed the comments with interest, and wrote me a letter which I passed on to the editors of The Classic Car and which was printed in the Fall, 1970, issue, ending the controversy. Fol­lowing are the key quotations from this letter:

"About this controversy, 'suicide doors', my memory easily goes back to 1895 when I was six years of age and had been m the habit of roaming around my father's two small carriage shops in Delft, Holland, and in his blacksmith shop some two blocks away, and never saw a coach, brougham, landau or coupe carriage with doors hinged at the front. At Judkins, I doubt if any doors were ever hinged at the front. It is safe to say that the majority of doors, both front and rear, were hinged at the rear.

"If one draws up to the right curb of a sidewalk it is safe to step out on the right side of the vehicle no matter how the doors are hinged. If passengers and driver insist on getting out at the left side of the car, that is suicidal, no matter how the doors on the left side of the car are hinged. This is just my personal opinion and may not be shared by others. "

The final paragraph of the letter read:

"I never heard of 'suicide doors', and never heard of anyone of Judkins' customers being injured due to hinging of doors. You can be sure this would have been brought to our attention."

In looking through the pictures to be used with this article, as well as those illustrating Brewster and LeBaron bodies with the previous stories in this series, I note that the vast majority have their doors hinged at the rear. The exceptions are some of the earlier LeBaron bodies, built before we had learned by experience that front doors hinged at the rear were more stable. Those of our competitors who had started in the carriage building trade earlier had already found this out by the time they started build­ing automobile bodies.

Although Judkins were, as mentioned, especially famous for their coupes and berlines, they built many exquisite town cars on various chassis. Often these were one of a kind, built for specific customers or perhaps for display at the Salons.

At the 1924 New York Salon, they showed a Lincoln Panel Brougham which appealed to me so much that I promptly drew a copy of the design on another chassis. It was a car which was nostalgic even for that time, drawing many of its features from earlier horse-drawn carriages.

Even the color scheme was nostalgic, in maroon and black with brass radiator shell, lamps and other exterior brightwork. Lincoln chassis could be ordered with brass trim at this time, and many body parts were made of brass so they could be left in their natural state instead of getting the usual nickel plating.

There were no front doors, the chauffeur's seat being built much like those on carriages, except that there was one conces­sion to modernity in the form of a windshield. Fenders were of patent leather, as on some of the early Brewster bodies pictured with the articles on that fine company.

The following year, Judkins' "piece de resistance" was the Lincoln Coaching Brougham mentioned earlier, which is now in Harrah's Automobile Collection. This time even the interior followed the pattern of earlier coaches, with seats and doors cov­ered in tufted dark green morocco leather, and headlining of red plush. The ceiling had an additional "Coverlet of lace, which could be detached and washed. Small hammocks of hand-knotted string, like fishnets, were provided to hold the passengers' odds and ends, as on Concord Coaches. Possibly the same workmen who had earlier done such work on the horse-drawn carriages, performed similar tasks for this car.

Generally the Judkins exhibit at the Salons included one of their Lincoln berlines, one of their bread-and-butter items. One year their booth was visited by gangster "Dutch" Schultz, with his retinue of bodyguards all dressed alike in long black over­coats and homburg hats. He examined the Lincoln berline care­fully, and immediately ordered one for his own use.

Although Judkins built many landaulets, with rear quarters folding, both as town cars and limousines or in the "couplets" mentioned earlier, I do not recall ever seeing a full convertible from their shop. Not that they could not have done it, since the Waterhouse brothers showed some skill in this area after they left Judkins to set up their own shop. Perhaps this was due to the fact that their earlier trade was mostly from New England with rigorous winters and less demand for tops that would fold down completely.

On the other hand, they did build some rather sporty closed cars, both the two-three passenger coupes of the twenties, and some dashing five passenger two door models in the thirties. The last of these, Mr. Judkins' personal Lincoln built in 1938, was quite streamlined with an unusual window treatment, the lower edge of the windows following a sweep parallel to that of the roof.

In my book, The Custom Body Era, I have commented that most body draftsmen - and many of our best designers of the twenties - had taken the same course, given by Andrew F. Johnson. It had been my recollection that he gave this at the West Side Y.M.C.A. in New York, but John Dobben has just informed me that when he took it, the classrooms were at the Mechanics Institute at 20 West 44th Street. The course was sponsored by the Carriage Builders National Association of the United States, which had been the trade association of the coach builders and continued for some years as the trade body of the custom body industry.

Dobben first took a correspondence course for a year, while working in the body shop of Pope-Hartford, then attended regular day classes for a year, following which he joined J. M. Quimby & Company before moving to Judkins in 1917. He has pre­served the diploma, signed not only by Mr. Johnson but also by the trustees, who were the current officers of the Carriage Builders Association.

The trustees signing included C. R. Richter, Chairman, whose identity otherwise has been forgotten; Franklin Murphy, presi­dent of the Murphy Varnish Company, a leading supplier of paint to the body industry; W. W. Ogden, president of J. M. Quimby & Company, who was sufficiently impressed with Dobben's work to hire him; and Daniel Wilson, sales manager of Flandrau & Company. The latter firm maintained a body shop as well as being agents for various cars and possibly building one of their own at an early date. They are also the same firm who gave Judkins their first order for automobile bodies, as mentioned in an early paragraph.

The Ogden family at this point controlled Quimby, with William, as noted, the president, and his brother, Henry, vice-president. The reminiscing reminded John Dobben that in 1916, while he was still employed there, they were considering building a complete Quimby car. No doubt it would have been in the high price bracket to appeal to the same customers who were already buying custom bodies from them.

Apparently there was another brother who had made a for­tune in Wall Street, and who died about this time. He left a trust fund for his two brothers, the principal of which they could not touch, "So they could not squander it on that vision­ary project," as Dobben puts it. It did change their plans, because soon afterward the surviving Ogden's closed up their business, presumably to live on the income of that trust fund.

Judkins, on the other hand, prospered during the next dozen years, building literally thousands of custom bodies. I am not sure whether they or Brunn turned out more during the twenties, but one or the other was undoubtedly the largest custom body builder of the period.

Unfortunately, good things do not last, and the depression brought a steadily declining demand for luxury automobiles. Some custom body builders succumbed early in the thirties, but Judkins held fast until 1938, when there was just not enough business to keep the plant going except at a substantial loss. Per­haps our greatest loss is that this fine firm and others like it did not survive. 

Judkins designed and built this Coaching Brougham in 1926 for the Hotel Commodore Salon. In 1964 the classic beauty 'was relocated and restored in the shops of Harrah's Automobile Collection, Reno, Nevada. 

For the Gentry's Pleasure-The smell of leather; the satin feel. Judkins craftsmen gave the Coaching Brougham a cou1ltenance of sumpt1lous comfort and elegance. 

The Two-Window Berline by Judkins, designed and built for the 1924 Salon. Illustration is from The Lincoln magazine, October-November, 1924. 

Three- Window Berline by Judkins, displayed at the 1924 New York and Chicago Automobile Salons. Chassis is by Lincoln. Illustration is from The Lincoln, October-November, 1924. 

The "One Hoss Shay" was Judkins' first model. 

Luxury attained new heights in the Brougham of 1800. September, 1971 

Pride of Craftsmanship-Body construction methods from the carriage craft proved successful in custom body build­ing. The above photo shows the basic construction of a Judkins six passenger Berline designed and built in the 30's. Constructed of native white ash, carefully kiln dried, the body frame was reinforced with manganese bronze castings which were set in a mixture of white lead, linseed oil and Japan dryer; then screwed or bolted into place. All wood exposed was then brushed with a 1nixture of linseed oil and white lead to fill the grain. At this point the body was ready for the metal shop. There, the body would take on its form and lines when the body frame was covered with one­-sixteenth inch aluminum, applied over a sub-layer of graphite-­impregnated asbestos paper which eliminated squeaks. The skin applied, fastened to and bugging the shape of the basic frame, it was filed and sandpapered to satin smoothness, making it ready for painting. In the paint shop all applica­tion, prior to the Duco process, or spray-painting was by soft camel hair brush. In from the metal shop, the raw metal was first washed with ammonia and water to remove finger prints. After drying, it was coated with a dark brown primer and many applications of filler. Yellow ochre was then ap­plied and the entire surface given a rubbing with pumice stone. This was followed by two coats of flat color, two or three coats of colored varnish, and finally, the finishing coat. 

Judkins six-passenger Berline mounted on a Lincoln chassis. Judkins Town Car ort a Lincoln chassis. 

1917 Packard chassis was fitted with a four passenger Touring Sedan body by Judkins. 

A Judkins-Packard family sedan - the year, 1918. 

Something different in 1918 - Judkins Club Brougham was designed for Alan T. Fuller, then New England Packard distributor and later Governor of Massachusetts. Judkins built over 1,000 similar bodies for Winton chassis.

1918 Judkins designed and built this open front Limousine on a Locomobile chassis.

Body styles remained unchanged for the first horseless carriages.

Judkins seven-passenger Limousine designed and built in 1928 for George Studebaker, president of Studebaker Motor Car Co. Chassis is by Lincoln.

Judkins four-passenger Touring Sedan on a 1918 Packard chassis. Pillars are removed in this photograph.

Bucket seats and stick shift, body by Judkins on a 1918 Packard chassis.

Granddaddy of the Hard Tops - The "Transformable," designed and built in 1917 by Judkins, had removable "pillars" which were stored under rear seat, thus converting the seven passenger, chauffeur-driven sedan into a touring car.

Judkins body craftsmanship on a 1917 Packard chassis. This shows the "Transformable" as a closed sedan.

Interior of "Transformable" showing one auxiliary seat up.

1918 Judkins-Packard combination in a two passenger Coupe.

Between 1918 and the mid-thirties there was a natural evolu­tion in interior decor of the custom body. Popular taste changed, trends came and went, but present always was the "cord of dignity and refinement" woven into the product by the craft.

Designed and built by Judkins about 1926, this custom Brougham was finished in a color resembling rich port wine with black trim. Its hardware, including that of chassis, car­riage lights, radiator, door handles, windshield frame and headlights were solid brass.

Over 1,400 of this Judkins Sports Coupe were sold in the early 1920's. Note flowing rear fenders.

This creation by Judkins in 1930, mounted on a Duesenberg chassis, has all the sleekness of a modern sports car.

The Landaulette, a product of the "teens" a Judkins body on a Packard chassis.

John F. Dobben, born in The Hague, Holland, in 1889 was a designer and engineer for Judkins during the classic era. Photos for this article, unless otherwise stated, are from Mr. Dobben's collection.

Demonstration Coaches were a product of the Judkins firm during the 1930's.

Gang lord "Dutch" Schultz purchased this Judkins six passenger Berline on a Lincoln chassis in 1926.

Judkins Town Car mounted on a 1927 Pierce-Arrow chassis.

A Judkins Club Coupe built in 1926 for Tom Mix, cowboy king of the silent screen. Chassis is by Pierce-Arrow.

The last custom-body designed and built by the J.B. Judkins Company of Merrimac, Mass., before liquidation of the firm, was a touring coupe in 1938. Ironically named the Coupe De Voyage, it was mounted on a 1938, 145 inch Lincoln chassis, V-12 - only one was ever built. Sold in 1946 by its owner, J. B. Judkins, bead of the firm that built it  ,the Coupe De Voyage was again acquired by him in 1965. The car had traveled 140,000 miles between 1938 and 1965.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The last of the pictures reproduced in this article were used to illustrate a series of Photo Stories by Gregg Dobben, late son of John Dobben, in the September 1, September 8 and September I8, 1966, issues of the Rochester (New Hamp­shire) Courier.

"A Moment of Elegance - A Time of Pride, Custom Crafts­manship Gave the Auto Industry Its One Supreme Moment of Refinement and Classic Grace" is the title of the series. The superbly written articles relate the birth of the "Yankee Doodle Dandies" the sophistication of which set the pace and pattern of things to come.



For more information please read:

Greg Dobben - A Moment of Elegance - A Time of Pride, Custom Craftsmanship Gave the Auto Industry Its One Supreme Moment of Refinement and Classic Grace - A 1966 3-part article in the Rochester Courier (NH) - (September 1, 1966 September 8, 1966, September 16 1966 issues) 

Hugo Pfau - Judkins - Cars & Parts, September 1971

For more information please read:

Biographies of Prominent Carriage Draftsmen - Carriage Monthly, April 1904

Marian Suman-Hreblay - Dictionary of World Coachbuilders and Car Stylists

Daniel D. Hutchins - Wheels Across America: Carriage Art & Craftsmanship

Marian Suman-Hreblay - Dictionary of World Coachbuilders and Car Stylists

Michael Lamm and Dave Holls - A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design

Nick Georgano - The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile: Coachbuilding

George Arthur Oliver - A History of Coachbuilding

George Arthur Oliver - Cars and Coachbuilding: One Hundred Years of Road Vehicle Development

Hugo Pfau - The Custom Body Era

Beverly Rae Kimes - The Classic Car

Beverly Rae Kimes - The Classic Era

Richard Burns Carson - The Olympian Cars

Brooks T. Brierley - Auburn, Reo, Franklin and Pierce-Arrow Versus Cadillac, Chrysler, Lincoln and Packard

Brooks T. Brierley - Magic Motors 1930

James J. Schild - Fleetwood: the Company and the Coachcraft

John R. Velliky - Dodge Brothers/Budd Co. Historical Photo Album

Stephen Newbury -  Car Design Yearbook 1

Stephen Newbury -  Car Design Yearbook 2

Stephen Newbury -  Car Design Yearbook 3

Dennis Adler - The Art of the Sports Car: The Greatest Designs of the 20th Century

C. Edson Armi - The Art of American Car Design: The Profession and Personalities

C. Edson Armi - American Car Design Now

Penny Sparke - A Century of Car Design

John Tipler - The World's Great Automobile Stylists

Ivan Margolius - Automobiles by Architects

Jonathan Bell - Concept Car Design

Erminie Shaeffer Hafer - A century of vehicle craftsmanship

Ronald Barker & Anthony Harding - Automobile Design: Twelve Great Designers and Their Work

John McLelland - Bodies beautiful: A history of car styling and craftsmanship

Frederic A. Sharf - Future Retro: Drawings From The Great Age Of American Automobiles

Paul Carroll Wilson - Chrome Dreams: Automobile Styling Since 1893

David Gartman - Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design

Nick Georgano - Art of the American Automobile: The Greatest Stylists and Their Work

Matt Delorenzo - Modern Chrysler Concept Cars: The Designs That Saved the Company

Thom Taylor - How to Draw Cars Like a Pro

Tony Lewin & Ryan Borroff - How To Design Cars Like a Pro

Doug DuBosque - Draw Cars

Jonathan Wood - Concept Cars

D. Nesbitt - 50 Years Of American Auto Design

David Gartman - Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design

Lennart W. Haajanen & Karl Ludvigsen - Illustrated Dictionary of Automobile Body Styles

L. J. K Setright - The designers: Great automobiles and the men who made them

Goro Tamai - The Leading Edge: Aerodynamic Design of Ultra-Streamlined Land Vehicles

Brian Peacock & Waldemar Karwowski - Automotive Ergonomics

Bob Thomas - Confessions of an Automotive Stylist

Brooke Hodge & C. Edson Armi - Retrofuturism: The Car Design of J Mays

Gordon M. Buehrig - Rolling sculpture: A designer and his work

Henry L. Dominguez - Edsel Ford and E.T. Gregorie: The Remarkable Design Team...

Stephen Bayley - Harley Earl (Design Heroes Series)

Stephen Bayley - Harley Earl and the Dream Machine

Serge Bellu - 500 Fantastic Cars: A Century of the World Concept Cars

Raymond Loewy - Industrial Design

Raymond Loewy - Never Leave Well Enough Alone

Philippe Tretiack - Raymond Loewy and Streamlined Design

Angela Schoenberger - Raymond Loewy: Pioneer of American Industrial Design

Laura Cordin - Raymond Loewy


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