Thomas L. Hibbard (1898-1982) was born in Columbia Heights, Brooklyn, New York in October of 1898. Even before he had graduated from High School, he had set his sights on a career as an automobile designer and secured employment as an apprentice designer with Cleveland’s Leon Rubay Co.
In 1915 Walter White had hired Rubay to design the new gasoline-powered White automobile and provided Rubay with the capital - $300,000 - to build his own body plant. The Leon Rubay Co.’s new factory was located at 1318 West 78th St. on Cleveland's West Side, and had a contract to build all of White’s automobile bodies. As Rubay was more of a salesman than a draftsman, Hibbard was soon producing most of the firm’s body drafts, and eventually many of its designs. In his short stay with Rubay, Hibbard designed bodies for White as well as the H.A.L. 12-cylinder, built by Cleveland’s H.A. Lozier.
One day at work, Leon Rubay introduced Hibbard to Ralph Roberts, a young friend of Rubay's who was keenly interested in the construction of automobile bodies. Hibbard was assigned the task of giving the teenager a thorough tour of the Rubay plant.
Roberts grew up near Cleveland’s Peerless assembly plant and filled his schoolbooks with drawings of automobiles. Rubay was a friend of the family, and had invited Ralph to visit him at work. Hibbard and Roberts were fairly close in age and hit it off right away and they continued to correspond with each other for the next several years.
Hibbard’s work attracted the attention of the long-established Chicago coachbuilder C.P. Kimball & Co., who lured him to Chicago with the promise of a substantially larger salary and the title of chief designer. Hibbard worked for Kimball (39th and Michigan Ave.) for about a year, designing all of their bodies as well as representing the firm as their regional salesman.
While Hibbard was working for Rubay, they were producing wing assemblies for the Army Signal Corps. When pressure to join the escalating War in Europe became too great for Hibbard, he enlisted with the Signal Corps. and was sent to France. Luckily, the Armistice was signed soon after his arrival, so he applied for a job with the famous Parisian coachbuilder Kellner et Cie. Jacques Kellner offered him a position, but he was unable to secure his release from the Signal Corps., and was forced to return to the United States. Near the end of 1918, he was discharged in New York City, and conveniently found a job open at Brewster & Co., who at that time was short-handed in the drafting and design department. Although he was hired as a designer, he was relegated to producing body drafts where he was assigned a table adjacent to Ray Dietrich’s.
The two talented, yet frustrated, designers were about the same age and soon became friends. During lunch they discussed the possibility of organizing a company that designed and engineered automobile bodies. They decided to resign from Brewster in 1921, which gave them enough time to save the money that would be needed to support a new organization.
Their plan was to become both automotive architects and contractors. They would create the renderings and full size body drafts for a customer, then arrange to have a local or regional coachbuilder build a prototype body. They would charge each customer, either a large flat fee or a small design fee combined with a royalty if the body would enter volume production. Alternatively, their customer could order just the design and body drafts, then arrange to have the body built themselves.
Although Dietrich claims they were the first to introduce that particular business model, other free-lance designers were already active in the field. George P. Harvey and George J. Mercer were already established free-lance designers who offered much the same service in New York City - Mercer’s office door even included the phrase “Automobile Body Architecture”.
Somehow word of their proposed venture reached the desk of Willie Brewster - most likely through their immediate superior, Henry Crecelius Sr. or Brewster’s nephew, Harry, who also worked in the drafting room. An angry Brewster confronted his two talented employees, who admitted the rumors were true.
Dietrich remembered the confrontation in vivid detail:
As the names of Dietrich and Hibbard were unknown to anyone outside of Brewster, a clever new name - LeBaron, Carrossiers - was arrived at by the two partners using a list of French words that had the ring of prestige and could be easily pronounced through a telephone.
In February of 1920, space was leased on the 5th floor of No. 2 Columbus Circle, a prestigious office building located at the point where Broadway intersects Central Park South in the heart of New York City’s automobile row - Broadway between 40th and 70th Streets. The original building no longer exists as it was razed in the 1960s to make way for Huntington Hartford's Gallery of Modern Art.
They sent out announcements to all of the area’s imported automobile dealers and waited for the crowds to materialize. For a couple of months, the only thing that appeared was stacks of bills and a pair of growling stomachs. But Grover C. Parvis, of New York’s factory Packard distributor eventually called for an appointment. Parvis was in charge of their custom body department and had heard of the pair and their new enterprise on a routine visit to Brewster & Co. He wanted the pair to produce the designs and body drafts for a 7-passenger limousine body that he was planning on having built by Fleetwood. The design was approved and when delivered, Parvis cut a check made out to LeBaron, Carrossiers for $450 - $50 for the design and $400 for the body drafts. LeBaron was finally in business. Now that they had successfully sold a design, it was possible to approach the European agencies with greater confidence. They even offered a budget-priced $25 side-elevation pencil sketch that the dealers could use to show prospective clients.
Thomas Hibbard’s friend, Ralph Roberts, had just gotten his Bachelors of Science degree from Dartmouth, and was invited to visit LeBaron’s brand-new New York office. It so happened that business had increased to the point where more help was needed and Hibbard offered Roberts a job saying: “See what you can do to help us so we can have more time to work on the drawing boards."
Roberts was appointed the office manager and was handed a notebook and assigned a desk in inner part of the office. The drafting tables were located by the outside window, Hibbard’s covered with the firm’s designs and Dietrich’s loaded with body drafts. Roberts recalled: "Ray was a draftsman, a rapid one."
The rent for the office was $100 per month, a considerable amount for the time, but not surprising as No. 2 Columbus Circle was owned by William Randolph Hearst. The early LeBaron operated on a shoestring and sometimes the rent went unpaid. Roberts recalled: "If they got on us, we would have to go out and get advances from some of our clients." Luckily not many office supplies were needed, as the pair of designers had hoarded most of what they would need while working at Brewster.
Roberts was in charge of the ledgers that indicated who owed money to LeBaron and to whom LeBaron owed money to. However, Roberts recalled that during LeBaron’s early days, his bookkeeping was unnecessary: "I would get stuck. Ray would say, 'What's biting you, Ralph?' I would say, 'I can't figure out what Packard owes us.' Ray would say, 'They owe us $25 for this, $20 for that, and we haven't completed the $10 item. They owe us $45.' He had it all in his head; he didn't need me."
Soon after Roberts arrived in New York, the decision was made to incorporate, as they hadn’t had the money to do it until then. Roberts was offered a partnership for a mere $700, the fee that was required by the firm’s attorney to file the papers. He borrowed it from his mother, and became a full partner, although he wasn’t allowed near the drafting boards - his job was to run the office and to handle the clients.
As the fledgling firm could ill afford to pay for advertising, Roberts and Hibbard wrote general automotive pieces for popular magazines such as Vanity Fair, Country Life, Cunarder, Town & Country, Spur and Arts & Decoration in return for advertising. For the most part, Roberts wrote the articles and Hibbard did the illustrations, although Hibbard wrote a series of technical coachbuilding articles on his own for inclusion in Motor Life and Autobody.
As business improved, an unmistakable sporting style began to develop: "We made them look like they were going places" said Roberts.
One of LeBaron’s early clients was William Cooper Procter, the president of Proctor & Gamble. He purchased a Rolls-Royce chassis and had Dietrich install rhinoceros horn handles in the interior of his opera brougham. LeBaron also outfitted a fleet of Rolls-Royces for the Maharaja of Baroda, the ruler of one of India’s largest and wealthiest states.
Another one of LeBaron’s early customers was York Motors, New York’s Lincoln distributor. When Henry Leland's sophisticated, yet homely Lincoln finally arrived in September 1920, its antiquated coachwork – designed by Angus Woodbridge, Leland’s milliner son-in-law - was widely ridiculed by both dealers and customers alike. Like Henry Ford, Leland failed to appreciate the importance that styling played in the evolving 1920s marketplace.
However, York’s president, Milton Budlong was not discouraged. He was confident that an attractive, modern body mated to Leland’s chassis would fly out of the showroom, and commissioned LeBaron to build him a real attention-getter, a sporty 4-passenger phaeton. The caveat was that it had to be completed in time for display in his showroom during the upcoming 1921 New York Auto Salon, which opened in just 21 days.
The only available builder on such short notice was Smith Springfield in Springfield, Massachusetts. The body drafts for the dual cowl phaeton were completed within three short days and driven in person to Springfield. The completed car was delivered to the York Motors showroom on time, as promised. Budlong told Dietrich that for the very first time, Leland’s fine chassis was mounted with a body which did it justice. As predicted, the car was a great success, and resulted in a series of orders for LeBaron through the next couple of years.
In 1922 they produced a very attractive close-coupled sports sedan for one of Budlong’s clients. A picture of it was included in an early issue of The Lincoln magazine and resulted in hundreds of inquiries to the manager of Lincoln. Apparently LeBaron’s work for York Motors did not go unnoticed by Edsel Ford, and a number of months later, LeBaron received a lucrative contract to design production bodies for the now Ford-owned Lincoln.
Captain Ugo d' Annunzio, the flamboyant owner of Isotta Motors Corp., was another early customer. D’Annunzio, New York’s IsottaFraschini distributor, was the son of the Italian Nietzschean poet, black magician, anarchist and aviator, Gabriele D'Annunzio.
A chauffeur-driven cabriolet was commissioned by d’Annunzio for exhibit at the 1922 New York Auto Salon and LeBaron arranged to have the body built by Derham. Unbeknownst to d’Annunzio, the body had a serious design flaw that prohibited the rear doors from opening when the top was lowered.
The tops half of the doors were hinged along the lower interior edge of the window frame, so that they could be folded inside the body when the convertible top was lowered, providing the appearance and practicality of a touring car. LeBaron’s design dictated that the door’s upper window frames be straight and at right angles with the sides, while the bottoms of the door were arced, as was the custom at the time. Unfortunately, when the upper portion of the doors were folded inward and down - flush against the insides of the doors - they extended beyond the rounded corners of the door frames, producing a door that could not be opened or closed, while its window frames were folded.
LeBaron knew how to correct their mistake, but there was insufficient time to do so before the Salon, so they took a gamble and exhibited the car with the roof and window frames raised, the only way that the doors could open and close freely.
Luckily for them, the flawed car was purchased at the salon by an elderly woman who had no intention of ever lowering the top, so the flawed engineering remained undetected until Dietrich wrote about the incident at length in a 1958 article. The 1922 Salon marked LeBaron’s first appearance at the annual event which was held at New York’s Hotel Commodore. The firm exhibited four cars in all, two on imported chassis - Isotta-Fraschini and Minerva - and two on American - Peerless and Lafayette.
The “Importer’s Auto Salon” was organized in 1904 for the purpose of providing automobile importers a place to exhibit their wares, which at that time were prohibited form the New York Auto Show. Eventually coachbuilders from both side of the Atlantic were invited to contribute, opening the door for American chassis providing they sat beneath a body built by one of the custom coachbuilders. To insure that such mistakes would never be repeated, Dietrich and Hibbard made it a point to visit all of their subcontractors on a regular basis.
Dietrich ran into his old employer during the November, 1922 event:
Although most of LeBaron’s business came from car dealers, walk-in traffic could provide a lucrative diversion. A handful of very particular clients would occasionally want to see how a particular body would look on various chassis, and LeBaron was more than happy to provide the service. First the particular style of body would be decided upon, then a series of sketches could be produced showing their client how the body would look on the popular chassis of the time.
LeBaron had “arrangements” with many of the establishments that lined New York’s automobile row and received a commission or “kickback” whenever a LeBaron client purchased one of their chassis’. In much the same way, chauffeur’s would also get “commissions” by steering their employers to one particular marque or coachbuilder. As the chauffeur was responsible for the car's mechanical upkeep, the choice was not purely arbitrary, however, his commission would typically amount to 10% of the total purchase price of the vehicle, an amount that was split between the chassis vendor and the body builder.
Soon after the end of the 1922-23 Salons, a representative of the reorganized Locomobile contacted LeBaron to see if they were interested in becoming consultants to the Bridgeport, Connecticut, automaker. Locomobile had been recently purchased by Willy Durant and Ted Jackson, their vice-president, felt they needed help refining the designs of their upcoming models. They also planned on having a custom body program for Locomobile’s Senior models. Dietrich accepted the proposal and attended a number of meetings in Bridgeport during the year.
However, LeBaron was not the only game in town. Locomobile’s former designer, J. Frank deCausse had created a competing firm in New York much along the lines of LeBaron after Locomobile went bankrupt in 1921. Durant had awarded deCausse the contract to design production bodies for his upcoming Flint automobile which was being manufactured in Michigan. LeBaron had also submitted designs for the Flint, but Durant decided to limit their expertise to his premiere line.
LeBaron also designed a series of production body styles for the Crane-Simplex luxury car, which was built in small numbers during 1923 on Long Island. They also found themselves with numerous orders precipitated by their successful Salon premiere. By the end of 1923, LeBaron had built on Packard, Lincoln, Locomobile, Pierce-Arrow, Cadillac, Simplex-Crane, LaFayette, Mercedes-Benz, Rolls-Royce, Minerva, Delage, Fiat, Hispano-Suiza, Isotta-Fraschini and Renault chassis.
Dietrich later revealed:
Early in 1923, Paul Ostruk (1886-1967) , New York ‘s Minerva distributor, ordered two bodies through LeBaron that he wanted to have built by Van den Plas in Brussels, as the bodies could be built for far less in Europe due to the current strength of the dollar. LeBaron was thinking along the same lines and wished to procure a Hispano-Suiza distributorship in New York and also wanted to look into the possibility of opening a branch office in Europe. As Hibbard spoke French, it was decided that he would travel to Europe that March to oversee the construction of the bodies as well as to arrange for the distributorship and to scout for a suitable address for LeBaron. As money was always tight at LeBaron, Roberts remembered apologizing to Hibbard about the third class steamship ticket he was given for the journey. Hibbard invited a new friend of his named Howard R. “Dutch” Darrin along for the trip.
Ideally, LeBaron wanted to get the chassis on consignment, however that notion failed to fly with Hispano-Suiza executives, however they were offered a New York distributorship for $10,000. Hibbard wired the LeBaron office with the good news, but Dietrich and Roberts were unable to secure the needed financing in time and the deal fell through. Hibbard remained in Europe ostensibly to stay until the bodies were finished, however he had other plans.
Enter Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin (1897-1982). Darrin was a multi-talented athlete, inventor and entrepreneur from Cranford, New Jersey, who joined the staff of Automobile Topics at the tender age of 10. The magazine was run by a friend of his father’s named Frank Roach, and Howard was allowed to help out by cutting out newspaper clippings for its editors. Darrin also developed an appetite for football and even attended the Carlisle, Pennsylvania football camp run by the legendary Glenn “Pop” Warner. Although he never played professionally, he played lots of Army football while serving in France during WWI.
Prior to his Army service, Howard had designed an electric gear-shift for John North Willys, using two small motors supplied by his father, a Westinghouse engineer.*
*(Darrin’s family was financially involved in the Automatic Switch Company of Florham Park, New Jersey. Founded in 1888, ASCO engineers are credited with inventing the solenoid valve, and the firm manufactured automatic switches for elevators, compressors, and generators and is still in business today as a division of Emerson Electric. It’s more than likely that Darrin’s father worked for ASCO rather than Westinghouse.)
While in the service, he developed a fondness for airplanes and after his discharge in 1919, used the money he had saved to help found Aero Limited, one of the nation’s first scheduled airline carriers. Using surplus Curtis HS-2L sea planes, Darrin and his partners offered air mail and passenger service between Atlantic City, New Jersey, Nassau (Bahamas) and three Florida cities, Palm Beach, Miami and Key West. The airline was successful until four of their pilots perished when the plane ferrying them between Palm Beach and Miami crashed at sea. Darrin and his partners sold the entire operation to another operator and Dutch returned to New York in 1921 and tried his hand at selling stocks, bonds and pre-enjoyed luxury cars.
Darrin had purchased two Delage chassis from Walter P. Chrysler - who at that time was experimenting with imported chassis in the Elizabeth, New Jersey Willys plant - and made the rounds of New York’s body builders looking for suitable bodies to complete the vehicles. It was in this capacity that he was introduced to Thomas L. Hibbard by his friend “Tiny”, another car broker/dealer who frequented the LeBaron office. Hibbard was impressed by the entrepreneur’s impeccable taste and intuition for all things esthetic and the pair soon became friends. It’s not known whether Darrin commissioned those bodies from LeBaron, but both were sold, one to Al Jolson who was starring in Bombo at the time. Although Darrin was supposedly married in 1919, he rarely mentioned it, and in fact, enjoyed quite a reputation as a ladies man through most of his life. The shy and reserved Thomas L. Hibbard fully expected to have a very good time in Europe with his more outgoing companion.
The pair sailed for Paris in the spring of 1923, and after surveying the wealth of business opportunities available they decided to stay in Europe to form a partnership to sell luxury motorcars in Paris. Hibbard & Darrin, not LeBaron, would open up a design office in Paris and design bodies to be built in Brussels, and then offer them to wealthy Europeans in their Minerva showroom.
Darrin recalled the pair’s good fortune:
The early LeBaron business model was closely adhered to and Carrosserie Hibbard et Darrin leased a storefront just off of the Champs Elysees at 12 rue de Berri, just across the street from the showroom of Société Kellner Frères, one of Paris’ best-known coachbuilders. The pair designed a few striking bodies for a couple of used Minerva chassis they had acquired, and commissioned a couple of Belgian coachbuilders, including Van den Plas in Brussels, to construct the coachwork.
Coincidentally, Hibbard happened to be in Van den Plas’ Brussels office in late 1923 when a young Russian artist named Alexis de Sakhnoffsky came by looking for work. Surprisingly, his portfolio did not contain any renderings of automobiles rather it consisted of detailed drawings of women's clothing and accessories as his only work up until that time had been for department stores. However his talents were obvious and he was eventually hired by Van den Plas make customer sales sketches.
Sales picked up and a Minerva distributorship was awarded them, as Paris had been without a Minerva dealer since the start of the First World War. Word soon got around with visiting Americans that Hibbard & Darrin could furnish them with a new coachbuilt Minerva for a fraction of what the car sold for in the States. Shortly after Hibbard was introduced to de Sahknoffsky, Hibbard & Darrin moved the firm’s coachwork from Van den Plas to the d'Ieteren Freres works in Brussels, Belgium.
Although Hibbard and Darrin started out using Minerva chassis, they also built on other chassis including Excelsior, Rolls-Royce and Isotta Fraschini. By 1926 bodywork took up most of the firm’s business and the partners relocated to a more prestigious showroom located at 135 Avenue des Champs Elysees.
With funding from W.G. Brokaw, Hibbard & Darrin built a factory in the interior courtyard of a solid block of apartments located on Rue de la Republique in the industrial commune of Puteaux, Seine, a Western suburb of Paris.
William Gould Brokaw was a well-known playboy, yachtsman and racecar owner/driver who split his time between Paris and Nirvana, his Great Neck, Long Island estate. He participated in early land speed record attempts at Ormond Beach, Florida and also owned a number of Hibbard & Darrin-bodied automobiles. Brokaw’s fortune was made by his father, William Vail Brokaw, and uncle, Isaac Vail Brokaw, who founded Brokaw Bros., a well-known Manhattan clothier that was founded in 1856.
Hibbard recalled working conditions at the Puteaux factory in a 1966 article in The Classic Car:
Hibbard & Darrin’s Puteaux factory soon employed 100 hands and was producing bodies for many of the world’s finest chassis including, Maybach, Renault, Mercedes-Benz, Hispano-Suiza, Packard, Stutz and Rolls-Royce.
Unlike most other coachbuilders, Hibbard & Darrin built all their own wood cabinets and interior trim at their Puteaux factory. A number of the firm’s town cars and limousines employed very elaborate inlaid burl walnut panels and vanity/liquor cases. Even the folding occasional seats were sometimes concealed behind wooden roller curtains, just like those found on a roll top desk.
They became agents for Rolls-Royce and became known as the firm’s official Parisian coach builder. The 20/25 hp chassis was never well-accepted in Europe and Hibbard & Darrin bodied mostly Derby-built 40/50 hp Phantom I’s. They also built a total of 35 bodies for Rolls-Royce’s Springfield, Massachusetts subsidiary that were shipped to Brewster in-the-white for use in Rolls-Royce’s Custom Coach Work (RRCCW) program. The Manhattan Hispano-Suiza dealer, Clarke Pease, was another good customer and by the start of 1929 the Puteaux factory employed 200.
As was the custom in Europe, Hibbard & Darrin rarely advertised, relying instead on their Salon and Concours d’Elegance appearances for new business. Hibbard & Darrin were represented at the 1928 Paris Auto Salon and every Hibbard & Darrin-bodied chassis was sold by the end of the show. Bill Black and Geo Ham (1929 only) were employed to create color illustrations for the firm’s corporate clients or hard to please customers whenever Hibbard or Darrin were too busy. Things were going so well that they even leased a large residence just off the Avenue des Champs-Elysees at 43 Avenue de Friedland to house their administrative offices and design studio.
The firm’s greatest sales asset was one of it founding partners, Howard A. Darrin. Darrin was a knowledgeable antiques collector, polo player, World War I fighting ace and an accomplished ladies man. In a few short years he became well acquainted with Parisian high society which brought a steady stream of American ex-patriots, tourists and wealthy Europeans to the firm’s showroom.
One of Hibbard & Darrin’s lasting legacies is their barrel-sided dual cowl phaeton, easily distinguishable by its snug fitting all-weather top and unusual trapezoidal door glass. The main and tonneau windshields sloped rearwards so that they fit flush against the leading edge of the trapezoidal door glass.
When the top was up, an inverted triangular flap dropped down from the convertible top to cover the gap between the rear of the driver’s window and the leading edge of the rear windscreen. The flap was fastened to the body with snaps and could be affixed out of sight to a top bow if the trapezoidal windows were lowered.
Howard A. Darrin developed the body while Hibbard was on vacation in the south of France and deserves full credit for it. Most of the firm’s business was building chauffeur-driven town cars and limousine, and very few examples of the trapezoidal phaetons were built. However the design furnished the firm with much-needed publicity and they successfully licensed it to la carrosserie Castagna, in Milan, the Derham Body Co. in Philadelphia (Rosemont, Pa.) and T.H. Gill & Co. of Paddington, London. Many of the trapezoid tops included a novel laminated silk canvas that was not only impervious to water marks but had a satin sheen as well.
Another unusual Hibbard & Darrin innovation was the rumble-seat equipped Convertible Victoria. At least three examples were built, the first on a Packard chassis, the second on a Bugatti, the third on a Renault. The passenger compartment was fitted with the requisite sliding front buckets and rear bench seats, followed by the rumble seat for two which was located as the very rear of the body to allow for as much legroom as possible. If all seats were occupied during a weather emergency, the removable side glass could be used to enclose the exposed occupants of the rear seat. Hibbard recalled that the complex and expensive body was not really worth the effort as they had trouble selling the three they built.
The firm also built a number of traditional Convertible Victorias, one of which appeared at the 1929 New York Auto Salon. Built on a Stutz chassis, the striking close-coupled convertible was painted oyster white with matching pontoon fenders and a hood that extended all the way back to the windshield, giving the car a more aerodynamic stance. Two spare tires were mounted at an angle behind the removable trunk which was mounted behind the tonneau, creating a long profile for the standard wheelbase chassis. The interior was trimmed in natural tan hides with front bucket seats that automatically slid forward for easy access to the rear whenever the seatbacks were tilted. The rear seat passengers had plenty of head room as the footwells were sunk deep into the chassis. During fair weather, they also enjoyed a good view even with the top up as a V-shaped flap positioned adjacent to the trailing edge of the side windows could be opened when the windows were dropped.
Hibbard & Darrin were also early proponents of lighter colors for formal body styles. Up until that time, Town Cars and limousines were typically painted in dark colors, usually black, maroon, blue, gray or green. Hibbard & Darrin promoted their own shades of green-gray (almond), tile red, sandy beige and yellow with limited success. However, five years into the future, those very same colors became popular on production automobiles on both side of the Atlantic.
Hibbard’s favorite bodystyle was a close-coupled, 4-pass touring with a sloping back and disappearing top that they built for a Phantom II Rolls chassis. The body was painted light blue-grey and the fenders, moldings and leather hides were finished in a medium dark blue.
Hibbard & Darrin would even paint a vehicle to match a customer’s article of clothing, so when movie actress/chanteuse Hope Hampton wished her new Rolls-Royce to match a pair of her favorite stockings they complied. They even painted it a second time when the demanding actress complained that the shade didn’t quite match.
In a 1966 article for the Classic Car, Hibbard discussed the Puteaux factory’s paint department in great detail:
Hibbard and Darrin weren’t afraid to “borrow” good ideas from other builders and a few years after Barker of London introduced the first all-weather town car or Sedanca in 1924, they introduced an improved version which introduced a hinged compartment residing above the partition window for storage of the chauffeur’s canopy when not in use. Brunn & Co of Buffalo, N.Y. developed a similar system at much the same time.
A useful automotive accessory popularized by Hibbard & Darrin was the polished spun aluminum wire wheel cover. Although the concept originated with Cornercroft Ltd. who introduced their Ace patent Super Discs in the mid twenties, Hibbard & Darrin began producing them for their own use then started supplying them to coachbuilders and luxury car dealers across the continent, and even sold a few to Hibbard’s old friend LeBaron.
Hibbard & Darrin’s wheel discs differed from the "Ace" discs in that they were secured to the wheel by means of a cast aluminum locking nut that was covered by a plated, detachable cover shaped like a flattened hour glass. Aside from their obvious aesthetic qualities, the easily cleaned discs helped chauffeurs reduce the time needed for wheel maintenance. Although very early discs were fabricated from aluminum, manufacturers soon discovered that brass discs could be more easily plated and painted to match the bodywork. Consequently most original disc wheels were made from brass although aluminum and even steel could be specified for certain applications.
Some early Hibbard & Darrin bodies featured a molding that Hibbard had used earlier at LeBaron which started out with a 1” wide molding that grew wider as it ran along the side of the hood. When it reached the cowl it split into two branches, the first crossing the cowl just in front of the windshield, the second continuing along the side of the body until it wrapped around the rear of the body.
Typically made from 3/16” aluminum sheet stock, it was typically painted using a contrasting or sympathetic color however it was especially striking when it was highly polished and left in its natural state. Some versions of the molding included a leading edge that featured an up- or down-turned barb or arrowhead, a design that was used to great effect on their Duesenberg bodies. It was used on other bodies and was later seen on some Packard production bodies. It was widely imitated by others, including Cadillac, even though Darrin held a patent on it in France. The firm’s Sylentlyte bodies also included a modified version of it, which was cast directly into the panels.
During the late twenties, some of the firm’s convertible coupes and Victorias started using a distinctive 3” wide belt molding that ran in a straight line from the radiator to the rear of the door, then dipped to follow the seam between the top and body before it swept back up and across the rear tonneau. It was frequently made from polished sheet aluminum although when Darrin started working with M. Fernandez, he began to make it from polished brass which resulted in a very distinctive belt molding, not seen on other builder’s automobiles.
Hibbard & Darrin also fabricated frequently-used hardware such as interior and exterior door handles, window regulators and spare tire brackets and mirrors. Their disc wheel covers became so popular that they had to farm out the work to a larger supplier who could handle the business.
Hibbard & Darrin began producing their own interior hardware, window regulator and doors handles following a visit to the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. They were cast in textured metal and employed an antique silver finish which looked right at home in the firm’s town cars and limousines.
On chassis that were supplied without running boards, Hibbard & Darrin fabricated their own using a sandwich of hardwood and/or rubber separated by vertically oriented corrugated metal strips that allowed dirt and moisture to fall through the gaps onto the ground. The hand-made running boards often included tool boxes made from matching materials or painted to match the body.
They also fabricated fenders and spare tire brackets for chassis that didn’t include them. They devised a theft-proof system similar to that used on their disc wheel covers whereby the wheels were fastened to dummy hubs using a shrouded 5-sided nut that required a corresponding wrench to remove them.
Minerva’s New York City distributor Paul Ostruk was very much aware that many of his customers were buying Minervas from Hibbard & Darrin while vacationed in Paris. The pair could offer the chassis for a fraction of the price a Minerva sold for in Manhattan, and the beautiful Hibbard & Darrin bodywork usually sealed the deal. Ostruk was not happy about it and according to Hugo Pfau, Ostuk made several complaints to the Minerva executives, who suggested that he offer to buy out the coachbuilder’s Parisian Minerva’s agency.
By 1928, sales of the Minerva chassis had been on the decline so they gladly sold Ostruk their franchise and even allowed him to take over the lease on their exclusive Champs Elysees showroom. Over the coming months he returned the favor by ordering a large number of Hibbard & Darrin bodies for his Minerva customers in Paris and New York.
Hibbard & Darrin’s first showroom at 12 rue de Berri was later occupied by the Parisian Duesenberg agent, Edmond Z. Sadovitch, who was an enthusiastic Hibbard & Darrin salesman. At least 12 Model J’s were bodied by Hibbard & Darrin including J-254, a convertible town car built for Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst’s tour of Europe and Africa.
Hibbard addressed the Duesenbergs bodied by the firm in the Nov-Dec 1962 issue of the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club Newsletter:
Other celebrity Hibbard & Darrin customers included actresses Kay Aldridge, Hope Hampton, Gloria Swanson and Pearl White, the great Broadway producer George White and King Alphonse XIII of Spain. Wealthy customers included the Beistegui Brothers of Spain (silver & gunsmiths), “Tin King” Simón Iturri Patiño, Sherman Mills Fairchild of Fairchild Aviation and Michel and André Lazard of Lazard Frères & Cie, the French investment bankers.
A fair number of Cadillac’s were bodied by the firm including a 1928 all-weather Phaeton for Spencer Penrose (Broadmoor Hotel, Colorado Springs, CO.) and a 1928 Town Car for Fred J. Fisher (Fisher Body). Hibbard & Darrin also designed production bodies for the 1930 Renault Nervastella, and created an entire line of bodies for Moon Motors’ 1929 Windsor White Prince.
According to Gene Brodinat, Mrs. Alfred P. Sloan happened to walk by the Hibbard & Darrin showroom in Paris and was quite impressed by the work of the two Americans. During the next Paris Auto Salon, Alfred P. Sloan, William S Knudsen and Harley J. Earl paid a visit to their offices and commissioned them to design and build five sample bodies for placement on a couple of General Motors 1928 chassis. According to Hibbard, Earl took him aside during the visit and cautioned him not to waste too much time on the project. Although GM didn’t use any of their designs, Sloan did not forget the visit and saw to it that Cadillac hired Hibbard as its chief designer after Hibbard & Darrin went out of business.
Hibbard estimated that close to 50% of the firm’s coachwork was purchased by American citizens, although many of those vehicles were kept in Europe for continental touring. The Parisian Packard distributor, Monsieur Barbezat, sold a number of Hibbard & Darrin bodied Parkards to Argentinean nationals.
In 1928 Hibbard & Darrin introduced a new body structure consisting of aluminum castings that they called Sylentlyte – concocted from the words "silent" and "light”. Sylentlyte was a thin-walled aluminum casting system developed by William G. Brokaw and Thomas Hibbard of Hibbard & Darrin for use in building automobile bodies. For a four-door convertible, 10 main Alpax castings were used to form the body structure which was topped off with a convertible top that featured hollow metal bows instead of the heavier wooden ones. Four-door sedan bodies used the open car’s 10 castings mated to a separately cast roof assembly that bolted to it. Alpax was an aluminum alloy used by the Montupet Foundry that was widely used in France for pistons and other highly stressed cast aluminum parts.
Since most large European and American cars of the late 1920s were similar in size, a single set of castings, with minor alterations, could be fitted to all of them by using a sandwich of long wooden shims. Aluminum sheet stock was used to cover the exposed shims prior to mounting the bodies.
At the same time, the firm’s two designers were also busy furnishing designs, body drafts and prototype bodies for many of the world’s top auto manufacturers. Clients included Armstrong-Siddeley, Auburn, Dodge, General Motors, Moon, Renault and Stutz.
In the March, 1930 S.A.E. Journal Hibbard related (note: this piece was written prior to Black Friday – Oct 29, 1929):
There was considerable interest in the trade, and Hibbard & Darrin leased a showroom on 57th Street in New York to promote the idea to American coachbuilders and manufacturers. Unfortunately the showroom opened a few weeks before the 1929 market crash and hopes of licensing the system in the US vanished almost overnight. Additionally the benefits of the system - lightweight, rust-proof and rattle-free – couldn’t outweigh its many problems. Each cowl and front door assembly had to be hand-made in order to match the many different lengths and brands of chassis and the molds needed to form the panels were very difficult to make and the resulting castings were often seriously flawed. The biggest problem was that the bodies were very expensive to make and after a handful were built, Hibbard & Darrin closed down the Sylentlyte production line in 1929.
The Sylentlyte system was not the first time cast-aluminum was used for auto bodies. From 1910-1919 Pierce-Arrow built all of their bodies using cast aluminum body panels affixed to a wooden frame. The patented system was eventually licensed to la carrosserie Castagna, in Milan, Derham Body Co. in Philadelphia (Rosemont, Pa.), Barker & Co. in London (Covent Garden, Middlesex) and carosserie Henri Chapron (Levallois-Perret) and carosserie Gallé (Boulogne) in Paris although few were built outside of the Hibbard & Darrin factory.
The May 1930 issue of Autobody included a small piece on the Sylentlyte "all-metal" system:
Two large Geo Ham watercolors - one a Rolls and the other a Duesenberg - were displayed in the window of Hibbard & Darrin’s 57th St. Sylentlyte showroom which was established midway through 1929 to help popularize the Sylentlyte body system in the United States and to help sell Hibbard & Darrin coachwork in Manhattan.
It was financed by William May Wright, a wealthy stock broker whose main claim to fame was his marriage to the famous New York chanteuse, gossip columnist and party-giver Cobina Wright. Their daughter, Cobina Wright Jr. was a member of the Bob Hope radio show and was signed to 20th Century Fox where she portrayed scores of debutantes in the early forties.
Unfortunately the Manhattan showroom opened the week prior to Black Tuesday (October 29, 1929). Although Thomas L. Hibbard had temporarily relocated to New York to oversee the new venture, business failed to materialize, and he returned to Paris. Wright’s brokerage house was hit hard by the crash and he soon lost interest in the project and the office was abandoned before the end of the year.
The market crash couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the firm as the Puteaux factory was in the midst of changing over from composite wood and aluminum coachwork to all Sytlentlyte production. During late 1929 and early 1930, a fair number of orders were cancelled, and the few who could still afford the firm’s coachwork became hesitant to order new automobiles, and Hibbard & Darrin’s sales suffered.
Although the June 1929 issue of Autobody magazine reported that the firm sold $1,000,000 worth of coachwork during 1928, in reality the enterprise was never well capitalized, and as they entered the new decade they found themselves short on cash. W.G. Brokaw, the American who held the mortgage on the firm’s Puteaux workshops, not only refused to lend them any money, but made it quite clear that he expected the partner’s obligations to paid regardless, thereby placing the proverbial nail in Hibbard & Darrin’s coffin.
"Autobody Magazine" of August 1930 carried the following notice:
Many years later Hibbard recollected that if Brokaw had been more reasonable, the firm might have survived, at least for a couple more years. Unfortunately, Brokaw was not a reasonable man, and during the first few weeks of 1931 the firm closed its doors and auctioned off what few assets remained. Unfinished bodies were completed by Felber Freres, who also hired some of Hibbard & Darrin’s best men. Felber Freres (later Felber et Fils) were an old established Parisian coachbuilder who had a showroom nearby Hibbard & Darrins on the Champs-Élysées.
Hibbard & Darrin hit upon the novel idea of exhibiting American movies - sans translation – to the throngs of American tourists and ex-patriots that inhabited Paris. They converted an unused dance hall on the rue de Magellan into the Washington Palace movie theatre and enjoyed a brisk business exhibiting first and second run Hollywood features and shorts. A second theatre called le Studio Diamant was also leased from the French film maker Henri Diamant-Berger and the two movie houses kept Hibbard & Darrin and a few of their old employees afloat for well over a year.
During his sojourn into movie exhibition, Hibbard was introduced to Henry Ainsworth, the managing director of Hotchkiss et Cie, and old French automobile and munitions manufacturer that was located in the Saint-Denis section of Paris. Ainsworth offered Hibbard a part-time job designing automobiles for the firm.
Darrin had much better luck, in early 1932 he became partners with a wealthy Argentinian-born Parisian banker named J. Fernandez, who had his own body works in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne-sur-Seine. The partners went under the name carrosserie Fernandez et Darrin and from 1932-1937 built custom coachwork on the following chassis: Bentley, Bugatti, Buick, Delage, Delahaye, Duesenberg, Hispano-Suiza, Isotta-Fraschini, Maybach, Mercedes-Benz, Packard, Panhard, Renault, Rolls-Royce and Voisin.
Although Hibbard & Darrin produced as many as 500 bodies during their seven-year life span, very few survive. Like Holbrook and Willoughby in the United States, the majority of Hibbard & Darrin’s clients commissioned chauffeur-driven town cars and limousines, bodies that were frequently discarded in favor of open body styles when surviving chassis were restored in the second half of the twentieth century.
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com - Special thanks to Thomas L. Hibbard Jr.