(This article originally appeared in Hemmings Classic Car #96, September 2012.)
This past June, the AACA Library was thrilled to be a benefitting charity at The Elegance at Hershey – an incredible weekend that included vintage race cars participating in a hillclimb for two days followed up with the concours itself on Sunday. As I walked the show field I saw more than sixty incredible pieces of rolling artwork. Marques represented on the field included Delahaye, Delage, Peerless, Marmon, duPont, Pierce-Arrow and dozens more. The vast majority of these vehicles featured custom bodies built by coachbuilders LeBaron, Brunn, Hibbard & Darrin, Judkins, and Figoni & Falaschi. That show field got me thinking about the library’s collection of nearly three hundred coachwork files and the contents within.
Our coachwork files cover more than one hundred years of craftsmanship and dozens of nationalities. We have portfolios that were presented to potential customers, press photos, general sales brochures, internal company documents and, in the case of Judkins, multiple drawers of blueprints and detailed drawings.
Before being consumed by Chrysler, coachbuilder LeBaron independently created custom bodies for a wide range of luxury cars from 1920-1941. Their clients included names like Lincoln, Stutz, Duesenberg and Cord. Two of the presentation catalogs we own contain images of the cars LeBaron worked on and also pictures of the company design, display, and customer rooms. Anyone researching this company would surely enjoy peeking into the inner workings of the company. One of the hardcover catalogs, which has a metal LeBaron badge embossed on the cover states that the purpose of the catalog was to highlight current fashion trends and includes “notes on the policies and practice which brought LeBaron style leadership to full maturity.”
With an automotive body business spanning seven decades it is not hard to imagine that we have quite a bit of information on the Derham Custom Body Co. (1907-1969). In addition to company correspondence and period magazine and news articles, we have an extensive collection of company photographs and illustrations. One of the photographs shows the 1941 Lincoln commissioned by industrial designer Raymond Loewy that now resides at the Richard H. Driehaus Collection in Chicago, IL. The car was originally a coupe but Derham transformed it into a unique town car.
My favorite coachbuilder file is that of Brooks-Ostruk. The company was started in 1910 and our file contains nearly 100 original company photographs of their work. Within that collection are photos of one of the most imposing vehicles I’ve seen, a 1921 Packard Twin Six Limousine built for the Manchurian Warlord Zhang Zuolin. That rolling palace offered bullet-proof protection, belts over the running boards to keep body guards attached and a machine gun for the guard riding “shotgun”. Our photos with descriptions indicate that the completed car cost $35,000; the most expensive custom body ever produced in America to that date. Brooks-Ostruk went out of business in 1924 and Zhang Zuolin exited this world in 1928 although it wasn’t in his custom bodied Packard.
Owners of custom bodied cars weren’t happy with just a marque badge or fancy hood ornament. They were looking for flash, elegance and comfort. Custom coach builders which do not exist today left some outstanding resources and evidence on just how lavish, rich, and exciting their work was. Fortunately, that material has found its way to libraries like the AACA Library and is easily accessible by any member of the general public. If you are interested in custom-bodied cars you must visit or contact us soon – we will be waiting!