DETAILED HISTORY OF FLEETWOOD
From Fleetwood, PA to Detroit, MI
Located between Reading and Kutztown in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch country, the present town of Fleetwood had several names early in its history, among them Greentown and Coxville. As was most of Pennsylvania, the region was originally settled by German and Austrian immigrants, many of whom were skilled in the old European trades of cabinet making and coach building.
After the Reading & Lehigh Railroad put a line between Reading and Allentown in 1859, the Coxville stop began to be known as Fleetwood. There are two theories on how the name was arrived at. The first; it was named for two railroad surveyors named Mr. Fleet and Mr. Wood, the second; the area reminded a man working for the railroad of a Lancashire (UK) seaside resort named Fleetwood. As tiny Willow Creek is the only body of water anywhere near Fleetwood, PA, the second theory is doubtful. It’s just possible that they were envious of the nearby cities of Lancaster and Reading, and hoped a British-based name would help the economy. No matter its origin, the town’s inhabitants voted to change Coxville to Fleetwood in 1869.
General Motors elected to go with the second, more glamorous version in a 1929 Cadillac brochure: .........
"… today the great traditions are notably reanimated in the custom-body work designed and executed in the shops of Fleetwood, in America - a community of craftsmen whose forebears emigrated from the Lancashire town of the same name, which was founded by the celebrated Fleetwood family which flourished in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries."
Harry C. Urich (1867-1941) (sometime spelled Uhrich) was born in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 1867. Although his father, John, was a cabinet maker, Harry decided to become a blacksmith’s apprenticeship. At the age of 14, he was apprenticed to a blacksmith in Stouchsburg, PA, just east of Lebanon.
His apprenticeship complete, he was hired as a journeyman at the Acme Bicycle Co. in Reading, PA. Acme was owned by James Reber, a Reading businessman who was later responsible for the Acme and Reber automobiles. Urich married Emma N. Mattes in 1890 and was eventually made Acme’s plant manager.
When the bicycle bubble burst in 1902, Urich took a job with the Fleetwood Foundry & Machine Company in nearby Fleetwood, PA, in 1902. A 1904 fire destroyed all but one of the company’s buildings and it was in that remaining structure that Hartman and Johnson, the foundry’s owners, founded the Reading Metal Body Company in 1905 to manufacture automobile bodies for the areas burgeoning automobile industry. Urich was appointed treasurer of the new firm.
Reading built bodies for Chadwick, Duryea, Garford and other early automobile manufacturers and employed 125 hands. Apparently Garford was so pleased with their work that they purchased the company in 1909 and relocated it to their hometown of Elyria, Ohio.
Now out of a job, Urich got together with some friends and former Reading employees and founded the Fleetwood Metal Body Co. Located in the E.M. Hill’s former Fleetwood Planing Mill, Fleetwood’s officers and stockholders were as follows: Harry C. Urich, President & General Manager; Nicholas J. Kutz, Secretary; and Alfred Schlegel, Treasurer. George J. Schlegel and Jacob Kern filled the two remaining seats on the five-member board of directors and Stephen Golubics and Ellsworth P. Urich were listed as shareholders.
Although the young firm started out with 5,000 sq ft. of the planing mill, another 5,000 was acquired during 1909. In 1910 another 10,000 sq. ft. were added for a total of 20,000 sq. ft. In 1912 they moved into the former Reading Body Plant, purchasing it 2 years later. A devastating fire leveled the building on June 5, 1917, but was replaced with purpose-built 4-story 60,000 sq ft brick structure that would eventually employ 375 hands. For many years, Fleetwood residents recalled the sight of automobile bodies crashing to the ground level from the third floor final assembly area.
By the end of 1919, the new plant could no longer meet their needs and the factory had enough orders on the books to keep it busy well into 1921.
The numerous factory photographs of early Fleetwood-bodied cars were taken by Jacob S. Kern (1870-1948), Fleetwood’s draftsman and chief designer who previously owned a local photography studio.
Fleetwood’s woodworking shop was run by Stephen Golubics, an Austrian immigrant and veteran coach builder who had previously worked for a number of well-known Pennsylvania builders who included Hoffman Shimer (Bethlehem), Keystone Wagon Works, Biehls Carriage Works (both of Bethelehem) and Reading Metal Body Co. (Fleetwood). George Golubics, his son, would go on to become one of Ford Motor Co.’s designers in the 1950s.
Ernest Schebera was another Austrian immigrant who worked for Fleetwood. He studied business at the Allgemeine Electricitate Gesellschaft in Berlin and went on to study drafting at Louis duPont’s Parisian drafting school. He apprenticed under Kellner et Freres in Paris and F. Oels in Breslau, later emigrating to the US where he found employment as a designer with A.T. Demarest. The designer was hired by Fleetwood in 1913 and by the time they opened up their New York City satellite sales office, was vice-president of sales.
In 1918, space was leased on the 7th 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 was owned by William Randolph Hearst, but was razed in the 1960s to make way for Huntington Hartford's Gallery of Modern Art. A permanent Salon (aka showroom) was also leased at 10 East 57th Street in New York City. Located at the intersection of 5th Ave, the swank showroom gave Fleetwood year-round exposure to their largest customer base, and was kept open into the early thirties, long after the Fisher Body takeover. General Motors must have like the area as years later (1964-68) they built their 50-story New York headquarters just 1 block away at 767 Fifth Avenue.
Ernest Schebera moved to New York along with drafting supervisor H. Roberts Wittkowsky. Schebera hired 20-year old Werner Gubitz (Werner Hans August Gubitz) (1899-1971) as a delineator in 1919. Gubitz was an excellent designer and illustrator who had previously worked for Cleveland’s Ohio Body & Blower Co. He left Fleetwood to work for Roland Stickney at Locomobile, then went to work for J. Frank de Causse in 1922. Gubitz was recruited by LeBaron in 1923, and followed Ray Dietrich to Detroit where he worked for Dietrich Inc. between 1925 and 1927. He then went to Packard and eventually became their chief designer in the 1930s.
In 1920, LeBaron Carrossiers moved into a 5th floor office in the very same building that housed Fleetwood. Some of LeBaron’s early designs were executed by Fleetwood, and some of Fleetwood’s bodies were ghosted (designed without credit for a fee) by LeBaron. LeBaron’s Hugo Pfau regularly traveled back and forth between the two offices delivering sketches and paperwork. According to former Fleetwood employees, the Pennsylvania firm ghost-built a few bodies for the Nance Body Co., but additional information pertaining to this otherwise unknown firm has not been located. It’s much more likely that those bodies were actually destined for the Nance and Touraine automobiles that were manufactured by Harold B. Larzelere in nearby Philadelphia between 1911 and 1916.
By 1920, Fleetwood was regularly exhibiting at the New York Salon. A local paper reported: "At the recent New York Automobile Show the Company had an exhibit of three cars - a cabriolet and two touring cars. The first had been painted in the loudest color and fitted with every novelty and improvement which the ingenuity of the finest workmen of the plant could devise. This car had not been on exhibit more than a few hours before it was sold to an Italian nobleman for $11,500!"
The February 1, 1920 issue of the Reading Eagle contained the following article:
"The Fleetwood Metal Body Company, makers of strictly high grade custom automobile bodies, is justly the pride of the Borough of Fleetwood. It furnishes employment to 375 people. The present force is inadequate to the demand of the output of the plant. In the past five months orders to a total of more than $2 million have been refused by the company owing to the fact the output of the plant is already contracted for well into '21. Almost daily letters are received from firms, corporations and individuals offering a creditable bonus for the acceptance of an order of high grade automobile bodies.
"The chassis of a Packard, Pierce Arrow, Cadillac or some other superb make is sent to them accompanied by complete instructions as to the kind of body wanted. In many cases, no details are omitted. The selection of color and the material to be used in the luxurious upholstery of the interior being chosen with the greatest of care. The great. proportion of the cars are built for those whose abundant means justify the gratifying of any whim and the special touch of exclusiveness has always been the aim of the Fleetwood Company as time and again it has won unstinted praise and approval. Andrew Carnegie, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers have all been users of Fleetwood cars while Mary Pickford, Theda Bara, Harold Lockwood, Andrew Pierson and other shining lights of motion picturedom have been loud in their praise of the lines and the finish of the cars built especially for them. Their product has been sent to every part of the world including California, South America and Europe.
"The manufacturers of the cars finished by Fleetwood are about 80 percent Packards, 10 percent Pierce Arrows, 5 percent Cadillacs and the remaining 5 percent divided among a few others of highest reputation. At the recent New York Automobile Show the company had an exhibit of three cars-a Cabriolet and two touring cars. The first had been painted a yellow color and fitted with every novelty and improvement which the ingenuity of the finest workman of the plant could devise. This car had not been on exhibition more than a few hours before it was sold to an Italian nobleman for $11,500.
"The plant of the company now has 160,000 square feet of floor space and is a model in every respect. Much of the machinery used is the special product of the mechanics employed by the company. The finest of plating plants and aluminum and brass foundries are prized accessories. The" special and exclusive hardware and metal trimmings used in the cars are all the products of the factory.
"The finishing touches on all cars in the matter of painting and varnishing are all done in canvassed tents so that no speck of dust can mar the brilliancy of the finish. The stockroom containing the varied materials used in the upholstery of the cars is a revelation in the character and quality of its contents, some of the cloth used possessing a value of $22 per yard. The Fleetwood Metal Body Company is the result of a comparatively few years of steady, phenomenal growth having been started in 1909."
Fleetwood’s plant capacity at this time ranged from 50 to 80 bodies per month, depending on the style being produced. Limousines and town cars took longer to build and cost more ($3000-$3500 each) than touring cars or roadsters ($1800 - $2500).
Early on (1909-1913), Fleetwood was the body builder of choice for the ALCO chassis, a luxury car produced by the American Locomotive Company in Providence, Rhode Island. ALCO’s were easily recognized by the distinctive wide white stripe that encircled the body at the belt-line.
A number of large metropolitan Packard dealers including Earl C. Anthony in Los Angeles and Alvin C. Fuller in Boston ordered many of their custom-bodied closed cars from Fleetwood, but most of their business came from Grover C. Parvis, Packard’s New York City custom body manager. For small duplicate orders, it became feasible for Fleetwood to build small assembly lines with individual hammer forms for the cowls, doors, and other body panels. Even on such a small number of bodies the benefits of mass production enabled them to produce a high quality body at an attractive price. Now commonly referred to as semi-custom bodies, they could be sold as custom bodies, but cost the dealer substantially less as the cost of the tooling could be spread out over a production run. The more bodies built, the cheaper they could be built. Pierce-Arrow’s New York City factory branch was another large customer, and Uppercu Cadillac’s custom body manager, J.R. MacLachlan, eventually became another good New York City-based customer.
Alvin C. Fuller, the Boston Packard distributor even contemplated purchasing Fleetwood in 1922, and apparently Fleetwood was marginally interested as they allowed Fuller’s accountants to examine their books.
Nine Fleetwood-bodied cars appeared at the 1921-22 New York Salon, two - a square-cornered brougham and a seven passenger sedan-limousine - at the Isotta-Fraschini stand, one - a landaulet - at Fiat’s, and the remaining at the Fleetwood booth which included Duesenberg, Lafayette, Lincoln, Packard, Pierce-Arrow, and Richelieu chassis. The Richelieu was a limited-production Duesenberg-engined luxury chassis built by former Duesenberg executives in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The 1922-23 catalog showed a stylish roadster, sedan and touring whose bodies were all built by Fleetwood. Unfortunately, only a handful were built, and the firm didn’t survive 1923. Fleetwood and Derham built the bodies for the 500-800 air-cooled Fox cars that were made in Philadelphia between 1921 & 1923. The prototype for the stillborn Frankford automobile that was also built in Philadelphia during 1922 also featured a Fleetwood body.
By the time of the Fisher takeover, Fleetwood had built bodies for the following chassis; ALCO, American Fiat, Benz, Biddle, Chadwick, Crane-Simplex, Daniels, DaVinci, Doble, Duesenberg, Ford, Fox, FRP, Hispano-Suiza, Isotta-Fraschini, Julian, Lafayette, Lancia, Lincoln, Locomobile, Minerva, Mercedes-Benz, Meteor, Owen Magnetic, Packard, Pierce-Arrow, Porter, Renault, Richelieu, Rolls-Royce, SGV, Simplex and the following celebrity owners; Theda Bara, Andrew Carnegie, Enrico Caruso, Hope Hampton, Harold Lockwood, Mary Pickford, Andrew Pierson, Rudolph Valentino, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Colonel Edward Howland Robinson Green (millionaire son of Hetty Green, the “witch of Wall Street”). Cars were also built for foreign monarchs and dignitaries such as the Emperor of Japan, the President of Poland and an Indian Maharaja. Three bodies were supplied to President Herbert Hoover, whose cars were always painted dark green and black.
In 1922, Fleetwood started producing series-built bodies for Henry Leland’s new Lincoln luxury car. By the time Edsel Ford bought out the Lelands, Fleetwood was owed close to $20,000. Ford paid the outstanding invoices and soon became one of Fleetwood’s best customers. Between 1922 and 1925 Fleetwood built a total of 763 bodies for the Detroit automaker. The majority were limousines (424) and town cars (23), while the rest were an assortment of coupes, sedans and a handful of roadsters and cabriolets. A distinguishing feature of many early Fleetwood limousines and town cars were their roof ventilators, essentially adjustable hatches in the roof that allowed the exchange of fresh air into a closed compartment.
At the 1924 New York Salon, a Fleetwood-bodied Lincoln limousine was exhibited with a sign noting that it had been awarded the grand prize at a French Concours d'Elegance only a month or two before. Fleetwood built the stylish aluminum coupe body for Julian S. Brown’s 1925 Julian automobile, of which only a single prototype was ever produced.
Fleetwood’s distinctive multi-hued single color paint schemes were developed by a French color consultant who told them: "take a cup of coffee, observe its deep brown color. Now, add a little cream and observe the pleasing lighter shade! And now, add even more cream to create and even lighter shading of the original color!”
Fleetwood was always highly regarded for the quality of their finish and their lavish interior woodwork. Although Fleetwood and other custom body builders would never admit it, most of the inlaid marquetry and wood cabinets found in the rear compartments of their limousines and town cars were made by the Linden Manufacturing Co., a New York City woodworker and supplier. Linden made intricate interior panels, divisions and vanity cases of exotic woods and inlaid metals. They were usually sold in a set, with the vanities, smoking sets, division panels and door freizes all made to match. European coachbuilders at the time often featured matching wood lower door panels as well, but they were never popular stateside. However, matching woodwork was often used to conceal auxiliary seats when folded into the division. Sometimes the work was so well done that there was no way of knowing that the division paneling was not one solid piece.
Although Linden offered many standard dimension items, they specialized in custom built interiors designed to fit individually designed bodies. While Fleetwood’s craftsmen were constructing the wooden framework, Linden’s cabinetmakers were busy assembling the woodwork and cabinetry using the same body drafts.
As were their New York City-based competitors, Brewster and Locke, Fleetwood were also experts in the application of faux-cane paneling. Although real French woven cane panels were available, they didn’t hold up well during inclement weather and painted faux-cane panels duplicated the look using successive layers of incredibly thick paint. The pattern was first chalked onto the panel which was typically painted the same color as the rest of the body. The thick yellow and cream colored paint was then carefully applied layer over layer using pastry tubes. Once all the layers had dried, the painter would add highlights and shadows as need so that the finished product was virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.
Most of Fleetwood’s upholstery was very conservative, with either simple pleated, or plain paneled cushions and seatbacks so as not to clash with the extravagant Linden woodwork. William Weise & Co. of New York and Connecticut, were their main upholstery supplier, although some materials were obtained from Laidlaw, Weise's chief competitor. Both firms supplied most of the country's coachbuilders and in fact, Weise was bought up by Fisher Body in the early Thirties. Leather came from Raydel in New York City and Lackawanna in Hackettstown, N. J.
A Fleetwood town car body was chosen by the manufacturer of the Belgian-built Excelsior for its fall, 1924 debut at London’s Olympia Show.
As did LeBaron, Fleetwood would typically have more than one booth at the New York Salon allowing them to display from 8 to 12 vehicles. A second Fleetwood stand was usually obtained in the name of Ernest Schebera and a number of Fleetwood limousine and town car bodies were also featured on Rolls-Royce, Isotta-Fraschini and Mercedes-Benz chassis, all of which had their own displays. A new rule introduced at the 1925 Salon limited the total number of vehicles exhibited by any single manufacturers to 12, however many firms got around that number by exhibiting vehicles inside some of the many hotels that surrounded the Waldorf-Astoria and Commodore hotels.
At the 1925 New York Salon Fleetwood showed a Cadillac Town Car, an inside-drive Lincoln limousine, as well as similar bodies on Duesenberg Model A and Packard chassis. Fleetwood also supplied bodies for the Maybach and Isotta-Fraschini stands. Also seen at the salon were a Mercedes-Benz inside drive limousine and a Rolls-Royce town car finished in Fleetwood Gray with exposed aluminum bodywork at the top of the doors. Just as Brewster became associated with a certain color – Brewster Green - Fleetwood developed a dull bluish-green shade of gray that became known as Fleetwood Gray.
A Fleetwood-bodied Lincoln inside-drive limousine was featured in the January 1925 Salon edition of Country Life magazine. The April issue of Vanity Fair showed another Fleetwood-bodied town car, this one a Tipo 8A Isotta-Fraschini with lots of exposed aluminum bodywork, similar to another Fleetwood-bodied Isotta-Fraschini owned by Rudolph Valentino.
During 1925-26 a number of rumors circulated around the salons that a major automaker was contemplating purchase of one of the eastern custom body builders. In fact three takeovers were contemplated in less than a year. The first was Murray’s attempted 1925 purchase of LeBaron for Edsel Ford, which ultimately failed, although Murray did get the services of Raymond H. Dietrich, LeBaron’s talented designer. The second takeover was Briggs’ successful bid for LeBaron, which took place near the end of 1926. However, the takeover that concerns us, took place a year earlier, on July 18, 1925.
General Motors realized that the future success of the Cadillac brand probably depended on the availability of low cost, yet high quality custom coachwork. The problems experienced by Leland’s Lincoln and their subsequent resolution following Edsel Ford’s implementation of a successful custom coachwork program did not go unnoticed by the Fisher Brothers, General Motors captive coachbuilder.
So at the urging of Lawrence P. Fisher, Fisher Body Corp. made an offer for the outright purchase of Fleetwood for $650,000. The deal was accepted by Fleetwood’s board of directors and the deal took place on July 18, 1925.
Fisher body had been taken over by General Motors in 1919 when the automaker purchased 60% of the firm’s 500,000 shares of stock for $92 per share or a total of $27.6 million. In a 1926 transaction, GM took full control of Fisher by trading 664,720 shares of its own stock, with a market value of $208 million, for the remaining 40% of Fisher Body stock.
Although the $650,000 paid for Fleetwood paled in comparison, it proved to be a very good move not only for General Motors, but more importantly for its Cadillac luxury car division. Just at that time Packard was overtaking Cadillac in overall luxury car sales, due in no small part to their top quality coachwork, a feature that up until Fleetwood’s acquisition was lacking in most standard-bodied Cadillacs.
There were also a number of distinct advantages for Fleetwood too. They would now have the money to expand and modernize many of the antiquated departments in the Pennsylvania plant, thereby increasing production and employment at least for the short term. Part of the increase in productivity would be due to the adoption of the new duPont DUCO lacquer finishing system, which drastically cut the amount of time and labor involved in finishing a body. Prior to the takeover, Fleetwood built from 12-15 bodies per week producing yearly sales of from $3 to $5 million. Improvements at the plant made possible by the Fisher takeover soon tripled the plants production, revenue and profits.
After the takeover, Fleetwood’s founder and chairman, Harry C. Urich, retired, but the Fishers allowed its president, Ernest Schebera to continue in that role. It was emphasized in the press releases that except for minor changes, the policies of Fleetwood would be followed. Fisher stated at the time that his company had one object in view and that was to preserve one of the finest traditions of handcraftsmanship to be found in the United States. The release went on to say that jobs calling for individuality to suit the taste as outlined by the purchaser will be completed here. At a Fleetwood stockholder’s meeting at the time it was pointed out by a General Motors official that the Fleetwood nameplate on a car meant $1000 more could be added to its price.
Soon after the purchase, Fleetwood’s sales office and design personnel were moved from New York City to Detroit. Fisher Body’s former #18 plant in southwest Detroit was reassigned to Fleetwood. Located at 261 West End Ave. at the corner of West Fort St. in Delray, Michigan, it was designed by the famous Detroit architect Albert Kahn. The building was built in 1917 to manufacture WWI aircraft, and later turned to the manufacture of Ford, Dodge, and Chrysler-Maxwell bodies until Fleetwood was given the plant in 1926. LaSalle bodies were built there through 1940 after which the plant turned to war work. In 1946 it returned to manufacturing bodies for Cadillac, producing about 200,000 per year during its years of peak activity. It was closed down when Cadillac’s modern Hamtramck assembly plant opened up in 1985, and was eventually torn down in 1993.
In December of 1925, Fisher Body announced the planned construction of several new buildings at their Fleetwood, PA facility that would increase the plant’s capacity from 4 to 10 bodies per day. Both Fisher Body and Fleetwood personnel were anxious for the Pennsylvania plant to start using duPont’s new quick-drying lacquer, and a supervisor from Fleetwood’s paint department was sent to Fisher’s #38 Cadillac body plant in Detroit to learn everything he could about the new painting process. By the time the changeover from enamel to lacquer was complete, the Pennsylvania paint department had 112 employees. For a number of years lacquer was applied only to the composite wood and aluminum bodies; the fenders and chassis continued to be coated with enamel as it proved much more durable when exposed to grime and road debris.
For the next few years Fleetwood continued to produce individual customs for individual customers and regional dealers as well as a few series of semi-production bodies for Chrysler, Lincoln, Packard and Stutz. As business with Cadillac increased, the contracts with Lincoln (1926), then Packard (1927) and finally Chrysler (1928) ended, although Stutz bodies were made at least through 1929, a year before the Pennsylvania plant closed for good.
Although Fleetwood was now part of a major production body builder, they still built a handful of one-off customs, one of which was a stunning 1927 Lincoln Imperial Victoria, an open touring car with a Victoria top over the rear compartment. Built on a commercial 150” Lincoln chassis, the touring body harkened back to designs the Pennsylvania builder had built 10 years previously. It bears some resemblance to Judkins’ Lincoln Coaching Brougham, another old-fashioned design that also debuted in 1927. Finished in dark green, the Imperial Victoria has a folding windshield for the rear compartment, and an archaic two-piece windshield for the chauffeur. The car still exists and is currently owned by Ohio collector, Jack Dunning. It won the Meguiar’s trophy for best finish at the 2002 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.
Fleetwood’s exhibits at the 1926-27 Salon included a bodies on Chrysler Stutz and Cadillac chassis as well as an attractive Isotta-Fraschini Tipo 8AS roadster that had reportedly been built for Rudolph Valentino. The car had been ordered through LeBaron following the 1923-24 New York Salon through Captain Ugo d’Annunzio, the head of Isotta-Fraschini’s New York Branch. Raymond H. Dietrich is credited with the design of the vehicle whose massive damascened aluminum hood and cowl made up a good portion of its length. At the time of the order, LeBaron had no body plant of its own, so the job was placed with Fleetwood. Apparently no deposit was forthcoming so the construction was put on hold.
However, on a subsequent visit to the 1924-25 New York Salon, Valentino fell in love with a Fleetwood-bodied Isotta-Fraschini Tipo 8A Town Brougham and purchased it off the floor. Count d’Annunzio reminded Valentino of his previous order, and a few months later a deposit was received and construction commenced on the Fleetwood Tipo 8A roadster in late 1925. According to former Fleetwood employees, the screen idol made a number of visits to the Pennsylvania plant while the roadster was under construction. Valentino’s personal cobra mascot resided on top of the Isotta’s massive radiator and the interior was covered in Moroccan leather with gold-plated hardware. Unfortunately, Valentino never rode in it, as he died just days before the car was to have been delivered. While in New York for the premiere of his latest picture, Son of the Sheik, Valentino collapsed and died of peritonitis on August 23, 1926.
After his death, the car was put on display in Captain d’Annunzio’s Isotta showroom, and attracted multitudes of mourning fans. Unfortunately the $25,000 car had yet to find a buyer so it appeared at that winter’s Salons, where it attracted much attention, but remained unsold. The car was eventually purchased by Joseph Gaeta, one of the owners of the New York Isotta agency. The car still exists and its last known owner was the Behring Auto Museum in Danville, California.
Cadillac introduced 15 Fleetwood bodies for the 1927 Cadillac 317 Series. All of Fleetwood’s designs were closed sedans, limousines or town cars as Fisher was already proficient in producing open body styles. Fleetwood bodies used a four digit identification system, with suffixes indicating variations with a specific style. The first two digits indicate the basic body and chassis configuration, specifically the general type of vehicle, its year of manufacture and its engine. The next two numbers indicated the specific body type. The numbering system was so specific that you could tell whether a car had a sunroof or a leather-covered top just by looking at the number. Suffixes were used to indicate more specific properties of the vehicle, such as a formal type or a high headroom limousine, etc. Both LaSalle and Cadillac bodies used the 4-digit system.
For example: style/body number 5175FL, the 51 denotes a 1932 Series 452A Cadillac V16 chassis, the 75 an Imperial Limousine, and the suffix FL, indicates a formal leather–covered roof. The four-digit body designations continued to be used into the 1960s, although the first two numbers now indicated the year of manufacture. (Cadillac historian Yann Saunders has an excellent breakdown of body numbers on his Cadillac Database website, so I won’t duplicate them here.)
Harley Earl’s LaSalle was announced in March of 1927. It was initially available only with Fisher coachwork, but by July of that year, Fleetwood had 3 bodies ready; a 2-passenger coupe, a 5-passenger sedan and a chauffeur-driven town cabriolet with an unusual curved-glass partition.
The first Earl-designed Cadillac, the model 341, was introduced the following September with 12 different Fleetwood bodies and the 1928 LaSalle now offered Fleetwood coachwork in 5 styles. Cadillac promised delivery of their Fisher-Fleetwood catalog customs within 7 weeks, full-customs were also available but took significantly longer to be delivered.
For the first time, the Fleetwood custom line was featured in Cadillac’s 1928 “The New Cadillac: Details of Construction” 52pp brochure:
"Fleetwood Custom Bodies.
“The Fleetwood line of Custom bodies has been created by the Cadillac Motor Car Company to satisfy the steadily increasing demand for the utmost in individuality and exclusiveness. So wide and varied is the choice of bodies offered, that anyone requiring a custom built body expressing his individuality and exclusive preference can find in the line a car satisfying his own personal requirements. Moreover, he can obtain quick delivery instead of having to wait a long period of time before his order receives attention as is usually the case when a custom built car is ordered.
"In the Fleetwood line is included the Town Car type of body which is the ultimate in aristocratic elegance and distinction.
"The frame is of specially selected ash, and door hinges are hand finished cast bronze.
"Doors are equipped with specially constructed window channels of a type totally preventing window rattle.
"Wiese broadcloth in subdued colors is used throughout the whole line for the upholstery, a material expressing restraint and good taste. This material is of the highest quality.
"In the Imperial and Town Car types, genuine hand buffed leather is used in the driving compartment harmonizing with the color tones of the car.
"Cushions are stuffed with the best quality hair. Hardware is of special exclusive Fleetwood design with nickel finish.
"Interior mouldings are of mahogany or walnut to match vanity cases. The vanity cases are of Fleetwood design and include hand mirror, clock, memorandum pad and two perfume bottles. Smoking sets contain a cigar lighter and an ash receptacle.
"All Fleetwood models are equipped with a pillow to match trimming for the rear seat.
"Transformable Body Types
"The Transformable type of body included in the Fleetwood line has this exclusive feature - the front driving compartment can be treated as open or closed at will.
"Windows concealed in the front door panels may be raised, a movable top erected and the driving compartment becomes completely enclosed.
"Extension stanchions of steel are erected from the front pillars to the body and the shape and line of the roof are preserved.
"The extension roof cover is of genuine English hand buffed double faced landau leather. The roof and stanchions when removed are stored under the driver’s seat, so that they are always available and can be attached within a few moments.”
Although it’s not well known, individual manufacturers and dealers often held salons corresponding with the start of the summer and winter social calendars in resorts such as Palm Beach and Saratoga Springs. Cadillac leased a Worth Ave. ballroom in December of 1927-28 to show off their brand-new 1928 Cadillacs prior to their appearance at the New York Salon.
Packard’s close connection with Fleetwood continued, to a lesser degree through 1928. Fleetwood produced a series of town cars for Packard’s Series 443 chassis during the 1927/28 model year. Chrysler also continued to use a few Fleetwood bodies through 1927 in the Imperial E-80 catalog custom body program. At the 1927-28 New York Salon, an E-80 Imperial stationary cabriolet and Packard Series 443 Town Car both appeared in one of the Fleetwood displays. Stutz bodies were made at least through 1929, a year before the Pennsylvania plant closed for good. The main Fleetwood stand contained only Cadillac products, three of which were town cars - two Cadillac and one LaSalle.
The 1929 Cadillac “Details of Construction” brochure was much the same as the previous years, but included a new section detailing their new all-weather body styles.
“All-Weather Phaeton Body Types
“These new Fleetwood creations are the latest development in modern coachcraft and have enjoyed a particular vogue in European countries. The bodies have a great appeal to the motorist who is a lover of the open air and who desires a car that can be used as an open touring car, a semi-open car or a completely closed car.
“Their unusual adaptability will attract the person who wishes to enjoy motoring in its widest embrace no matter what the season or climate.
“The entire top is of Burbank material and is entirely collapsible, all side windows may be raised or lowered, and in the Imperial type, Style 3880, the glass partition may be raised and used as a tonneau windshield when the top is down.
“Whether used as an open car or completely closed car, these body styles posses a rare appeal in their extremely distinctive lines.”
"L'art Moderne" was the theme of Fleetwood’s 1929 Salon display. Each car’s color scheme corresponded with those found in one of the following masterpieces: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa; Ruben’s Le Chapeau de Poil; Gainsborough’s Blue Boy; Velaquez’ Philip IV; Sorolla’s Swimmers; Titian’s Flora; Rembrandt’s The Noble Slav; and Frans Hal’s Laughing Cavalier.
A typical color scheme was seen on a Fleetwood Sport Roadster fitted to a LaSalle chassis whose inspiration was Hal’s “Laughing Cavalier”. It featured maroon fenders, chassis and lower body; a brown upper body and rear deck and a green hood and cowl. The interior was fitted with Bedford cord and Burbank silk mohair upholstery matched to the exterior colors.
For 1929, Cadillac marketed Fleetwood-equipped chassis as if they were a separate marque independent of their regular Cadillac and LaSalle offerings. 18 distinct Fleetwood styles were offered: Seven 5-passenger sedans/limousines, seven 7-passenger sedans/limousines and four transformable sedans/limousines or landaulets. For the first time, Security-Plate safety glass was made standard throughout the entire 1929 Cadillac line, including all Fleetwood bodies.
DuPont chose Fleetwood to help introduce their new synthetic fabric, Rayon at the 1928-29 Salons. The interior of a Fleetwood-bodied Cadillac was featured on DuPont’s advertising and half of the cars shown by Fleetwood included Rayon upholstery.
The December, 1928, issue of Autobody described its New York Salon exhibit:
“Fleetwood will exhibit principally on Cadillac chassis, but will also have a Stutz ‘transformable cabriolet’ (cabriolet type town car, with all-weather front) and two bodies on LaSalle chassis, one a ‘transformable cabriolet’ and the other an all-weather phaeton. A special feature of the Fleetwood exhibit will be a body on Cadillac chassis done in the style of ‘art moderne’. This will be a town car of about the lines illustrated elsewhere in this issue, but the exterior will be finished in a showy combination of sable and polished metal. The recessed bonnet and cowl panel will be of polished aluminum in Damascened finish; moldings around the windows and top and around the back, and the base molding will all be in polished aluminum; the lamps, windshield frame, wheel spokes and trunk rack will be chromium plated. A silver-leaf stripe on the black finish carries out this polished-metal effect. The modernistic motif is particularly carried out in the interior where a new rayon figured fabric is used on the seats and armrests, and piped with silver leather; a plain rayon lining is used for the sides and ceiling. The cabinet in the division has two recessed opera seats and is elaborately inlaid with 22 kinds of polished hardwood done in a modernistic design; the hardware is ‘color plated’ in a 2-tone effect.
Other Fleetwood exhibits on Cadillac are in color schemes based on the masterpieces of painting and include the following body types: The convertible coupe (illustrated elsewhere); all-weather phaeton, with division; 5-passenger sedan, with small quarter window; ‘transformable brougham,’ with rear-quarter windows and metal back; 5-passenger ‘club cabriolet’; ‘transformable cabriolet’; 7 -passenger ‘transformable cabriolet’; and a 7-pasimousine.’ Hibbard & Darrin, of Paris, sent over an enclosed cabriolet on Cadillac chassis.”
The following Fleetwood town car was pictured in the same issue:
“A Fleetwood town car of this general type will be finished in the modernistic manner.
The exterior is a showy combination of sable and polished metal. Side panels of bonnet and cowl are of polished aluminum in ‘Damascened’ finish; moldings around windows, top and back are polished aluminum and other exposed metalwork is chromium plated. The interior will exemplify 'art moderne’ in a full marquetry cabinet on the division, in the ‘color plated’ fitments and in the rayon upholstery.”
Between 1929 and 1937, Cadillac salesmen were issued a 70pp handbook called “The Book of Fleetwood”, which included picture and details of current model-year styles, options, prices and color combinations as well as details of Fleetwood body construction. The publication remains one of the most sought-after and valuable pieces of Cadillac/Fleetwood ephemera.
The following is an excerpt from an article from the August, 1929 Autobody which was titled “Recent Bodies by American Custom Builders”
“Fleetwood’s Interesting Berline-Landaulet
“The design at the top of this page is for a 5-passenger Berline landaulet of sporting lines recently completed by Fleetwood for an important motor-car executive. Prominent features of the exterior are the mailcoach sill and the use of a light Burbank-grained leather for the top.
“This leather was introduced at the last Paris Salon by Kellner to overcome the difficulty experienced in cleaning the light canvas tops so much in vogue in Europe. These leather tops can be satisfactorily cleaned and avoid the annoyance heretofore experienced with the light-colored canvas. The trunk at the rear is also covered with the Coupienne fabric-grained leather, and its silhouette harmonizes with the upper rear of the body. The sloping windshield eliminates light reflections and narrow corner pillars provide exceptional vision for the driver who is protected from sun dazzle by the Neutralite glass visor which also permits him to observe traffic signals in their true colors. A special construction eliminates the usual finish molding across the top at the rear standing pillars and assists in maintaining a pleasing roof line. Harnagell rack-and-pinion window regulators are used on the front-door windows and there is an automatic ventilator in the roof.”
“The sporting effect of the body, which is mounted on Cadillac chassis, is enhanced by the long wheelbase, 152 in. The car is finished in maroon and Paris gray, the latter color being used for the splashers, fenders, moldings, window framing and top leather. The exposed metalwork, including the wire wheels, is chromium-plated. The maroon-and-gray color scheme is carried out in the interior with an Aero maroon leather on the seats and doors. The cloth lining of the wall and ceiling is a Wiese taupe doeskin. The division glass drops completely, giving a sedan effect when desired; there is no exposed channel or beading at the top where the division glass fits into the roof, the headlining of the two compartments practically meeting, concealing the channel, but permitting the glass to pass through the slit into the channel. The interior wood trim is of snakewood which has a dark maroon cast. This is used as a. frieze on the doors and on the division in which there is a swept case containing a clock, notebook, mirror and pin cushion. A Cuno wireless electric lighter is also provided, and concealed ash trays are located in the door panels.”
“A special body by Fleetwood for a prominent motor-car official. This 5-passenger "inside-drive cabriolet, with collapsible rear quarters" is mounted on a Cadillac chassis having a 152-in. wheelbase. The sporting effect of the body is enhanced by the mailcoach sill and the light leather top which has a Burbank grain. The car is finished in maroon and Paris gray, the latter being used for the splashers, fenders, moldings, top leather and trunk which is covered with the same Burbank-grained leather as the top, and harmonizes pleasingly with the contour of the top. The wire wheels are chromium plated. Other features of the exterior are the Neutralite glass visor giving true traffic-light colors, the narrow front-corner pillars, the automatic ventilator in the roof and the elimination of the necessity of any finish molding over the roof joint. The interior is also interesting by reason of the use of maroon Aero leather on the seats and doors and a dark maroon snakewood on the door and division friezes.”
A news item in the August 31, 1929 issue of Automobile Topics dealt with the Fleetwood Style Portfolio:
Fleetwood Offers Style Portfolio
“Contributions of rare merit to the world of art or literature receive commendatory notice in the journals of the day. Equally conspicuous talent devoted to sales literature and printed art, however, unfortunately wins less acclaim by reason of its commercial aspect.
"Yet art it still remains in its truest form, elevating modern sales methods to levels undreamed of.
"The latest creation of Herbert J.C. Henderson, manager of promotion and sales of the Fisher Body Corp. entitled “Fleetwood Coachwork” rightly falls under the heading of true art in printed salesmanship.
"Coupled with a world of imagination in presenting the story of Fleetwood coachwork on Cadillac and LaSalle chassis to a selected clientele, this portfolio of ultra-smart body styles represents vast expenditures in securing color effects which while thoroughly distinctive, never overstep the bounds of good taste, and which while thoroughly modern, yet are executed against a background of old-world tradition wholly in keeping with Fleetwood coachcraft.
"The reader is first introduced to Henry Fleetwood of Penwortham from the painting of that worthy by Sir Godfrey Kneller, an amazing reproduction, by the way with its rich colors well set forth against a silver background. Within this individual folder the traditions of Fleetwood are clearly defined.
"Ten other similar folders are included in the presentation, each one creating its own distinctive atmosphere about a particular body style with the color keynote first discernible in the impressionistic cover sketches. Inside is portrayed the model itself in colors, accompanied by an exceedingly artistic word characterization, and on the adjoining page a more detailed description of its special features.
"With a proper appreciation of what interior decoration means to discriminating buyers, a sample of the upholstery material is included in each instance.
"Reflective of the atmosphere of elegance surrounding this unusual presentation is the very choice of words used in describing the various models.
"For example, the Cadillac Fleetway, all-weather phaeton: One’s motor car, being as it were a visible statement of one’s social status, it is no more than mete that the consummate elegance and artistic savoir faire should be commandeered for the purpose of properly reflecting individual prestige. Superior smartness of design, well modulated contours, urbane originality of color embellishment, superb opulence of upholstery, ultra-refinement of fittings; these impressive glamours bespeak in no uncertain terms the pre-eminence of the owner....
"Again in considering the Cadillac Fleetcrest, a transformable cabriolet, the reader learns: Exclusiveness is the keynote of this pre-eminently patrician cabriolet, with its full-leather rear quarter disdaining a window - an exclusiveness which seems to say, ‘Must I be on view as I fare through the town?’
"Let my car speak for me...
"Advertising art it may be, but by reason of its artistic color effects, its choice English, its compelling layout, Mr. Henderson’s work deserves notice from connoisseurs in all branches of art. It deserves notice from the business world as evidence of the heights to which the printed sales message may go.
"There is no doubt, too, of its appreciation by those prospective car owners of refinement and wealth for whom it is intended. Along with other works of art it deserves a prominent position on their library tables.
"In conjunction with its expansion plans Fleetwood Body Corporation has established in Detroit an additional manufacturing unit to protect the increasing demand for Fleetwood bodies on the Cadillac and LaSalle chassis. The new unit will employ approximately 2000 men when in full operation.
"It occupies two four-story buildings, containing more than 635,000 square feet of floor space, both in the vicinity of the Cadillac plants in Detroit.
"The Company’s manufacturing facilities heretofore have been confined exclusively to Fleetwood, Pennsylvania. Establishment of the Detroit unit in no way alters the situation of the Pennsylvania plant. O.L. Currier will be resident manager.
"Since Fleetwood’s acquisition by the Fisher Corporation and the formation of the Fleetwood unit in 1925, the patronage accorded Fleetwood by Cadillac and LaSalle owners has heavily taxed the Pennsylvania facilities. As a result, it was decided to bring the building of custom bodies for these two cars into more intimate contact with the center of Cadillac-LaSalle manufacture.
"Demand for cars equipped with Fleetwood bodies has registered a strong growth in the last four years. The retail value of Fleetwood custom built cars produced by Cadillac alone is expected to exceed $10,000,000 for 1929. Started in 1925 to meet what was then believed would be only a limited market for its most exclusive clientele, Cadillac today is finding that its Fleetwood sales are assuming a larger and larger importance. They are currently running 12 times greater than four years ago.
"One of the unusual features in this exceptional growth is that Fleetwood's are being purchased not only in the larger centers of population by those persons who can afford the finest in motor car luxury and distinction, but are also being bought by the same type of leading families in smaller cities, towns and villages throughout the United States. Fleetwood sales have progressed with such rapidity that they now exceed the combined sales of all other manufacturers of custom-built bodies.”
To accommodate the projected demand for Fleetwood bodies, Fisher Body started construction of a new Detroit plant in 1929 for the exclusive use of Fleetwood. It joined the former #19 Fisher Body plant in Delray that was already putting out bodies for the LaSalle and was much larger and better equipped than the plant being vacated in Pennsylvania. However there was an overlap of a little more than a year and Cadillac enthusiasts carefully distinguish between the Pennsylvania-made and Detroit-made Fleetwoods made between 1929 and 1930. Although the Pennsylvania-built bodies were continuations of earlier designs, they are thought to be of a higher quality than the Detroit-built bodies and command a much higher price among collectors.
A number of methods are used to determine whether a Fleetwood body built between 1929 and 1930 came from Pennsylvania or Detroit. Most Pennsylvania-built body tags had the legend: Fleetwood Body Corp., Fleetwood PA, while Detroit-built bodies had no location on the tag. Further identification may be made on the basis of the materials used in the body’s manufacture. Aluminum-paneled bodies were built solely in the Pennsylvania plant until it closed down, while Detroit-built bodies were all steel. Plated bronze door handles were used only in PA, while the Detroit plant used plated handles made from white metal.
However, there are numerous exceptions. During the last few months of production a few Cadillac chassis were shipped to Pennsylvania with steel hoods and cowls attached, and some Pennsylvania body tags were affixed to Detroit-built cars in late 1930 and early 1931. It is also known that some steel bodies were built in Pennsylvania, specifically series 4376, 4380, 4381, 4175 (V-windshield), 4335, and 4376. Some 4300 series bodies had hoods that used aluminum tops and steel sides. It’s also thought that model 4312, 4320, 4325 and 4391 Town cars were built in Pennsylvania and in fact most historians agree that any car equipped with a V-window was built there.
Author and historian Richard Burns Carson believes that the body style segregation between the plants was by individual body style number rather than whole body series. Mr. Carson stated: “It is my belief, or theory, that Cadillac’s 452A body style series were grouped together to reflect certain conditions of interchange rather than a tool of public information about the cars. For example, the 4312 shared the body from B-pillar back with the 4355, a Detroit-built sedan variant. Likewise, the 4375 with the 4391.”
Another author, James J. Schild, believes that the interchangeability of doors was another determining factor as to place of manufacture. He states that “the front doors on the 4380, 4335 and 4376 bodies was basically the same door with variations according to window requirements. The 4376 door shells were altered from the basic pattern of the 4335 by the insertion of a third bronze hinge between the two hinges of the 4380. The upper framing was also changed with the addition of a cast bronze fixed window surround.”
The initial 2 prototype Cadillac V-8 Madame X’s were built in the Pennsylvania plant and was designated as a Fleetwood Imperial-Landaulet. They were named after a character popularized by stage actress Ruth Chatterton, in a play of the same name. Harley Earl had just seen it and used the name for a prototype landaulet body he designed for the 1929-30 Salons and Auto Shows. Although a few historians consider the initial 2 Madame X Show cars as the only true Madam X’s, there were a number of duplicates produced. Four V-16 Imperial Landaulets were built in Pennsylvania (V-windshields + split instrument panel), and a further ten in Detroit (flat, angled windshield + center-grouped instrument panel).
Since that time, any enclosed 4-door sedans, limousines and landaulets on 1930-31 V-16 chassis have become known as Madame X’s, whether they had the vertical V-windshield found on Pennsylvania-made bodies or the flat, slanting windshield found on Detroit-built cars. That explains the abundance of “true” Madame X cars that can be seen from time to time at various auctions and concours. V-16s built in Pennsylvania PA feature a body tag indicating its Job No. 41xx on the passenger side of the firewall while Michigan-built V-16s have a tag denoting it Style No. 41xx mounted on the driver’s side of the firewall. An additional 24 Madame X models were also built in Detroit from 1932-33, with the prefix of either 51 or 55.
The October, 1929 Issue of Autobody included a small piece on Fleetwood’s Coach Sill:
“Fleetwood Features Coach Sill”
“Fleetwood prepared three bodies for Cadillac's Paris exhibit. One of these is illustrated on page 129. This is designated as an ‘inside-drive imperial cabriolet’, although it is not convertible. The main body panels are finished in deep maroon and. tan and the top is of a fabric-grained tan leather.”
“It has the fashionable coach sill which, combined with the long bonnet and. cowl and the slanting front pillar, give an effect of fleetness and power that is characteristic of these cars. A Neutralite visor is used and all windows are of non-shatterable glass. The division window lowers completely; the channels therefore are concealed in the pillars and roof so as to give a sedan effect if the car be driven by the owner. To make it adaptable for owner driving at any time, both compartments are trimmed with a Wiese tan doeskin, piped with matching leather, the entire interior being in character extremely simple. The other Fleetwood bodies, mounted on 140-in. Cadillac chassis, will be an all-weather phaeton and a 7 -passenger Berline, this body differing from the one illustrated by being slightly longer, having quarter windows and a metal back and full auxiliary seat equipment. The job illustrated is equipped only with opera-type seating for emergency passengers.”
“Among the Fleetwood bodies in the Cadillac stand will be this ‘inside-drive imperial cabriolet,’ finished in deep maroon and tan. The top leather is also in tan and has the modish fabric grain. The long bonnet and cowl, the slanting line of the windshield and front-corner pillar and the coach sill give this car a suggestion of both fleetness and power. The interior is extremely simple and both compartments are trimmed with a Wiese tan doeskin piped with matching leather. This body is in reality a 7-passenger Berline, with opera-type seating for the emergency passengers”
The October 19, 1929 issue of Automobile Topics contained this news item:
“Fleetwood Output Shows 1100% Increase
“Output of the Fleetwood Body Corporation of special bodies for Cadillac and LaSalle chassis has increased over 1100 per cent in the last three years. This increased demand is due largely to a growing recognition on the part of fine car buyers that the added value, increased individuality and greater luxury offered in custom bodies justify completely any extra cost, says the company this week.
“Style is demanded in a fine motor car perhaps more than any other single factor. All those characteristics which constitute appeal, such as beauty, charm of contour and color, balance of line and proportion, luxurious appointment and finish are becoming increasingly desirable to buyers of higher priced cars and consequently are increasingly in demand. Nor must this distinguished style be apparent only in the car exterior. The interiors too, must be equally outstanding. The restrained treatment of upholstery, the lavish appointment, the rich trim and exclusive hardware must be of a design which appeals immediately to people of mature and discriminating judgment.
“When the Fleetwood Corporation became a part of the General Motors Corporation early in 1926 it was producing bodies for such notable cars as Hispano-Suiza, Isotta-Fraschini, Mercedes, Rolls-Royce, Duesenberg and Cadillac. It still produces bodies for these and other distinguished chassis, but so great is the demand for these bodies on the Cadillac and LaSalle chassis that during the first year as a General Motors division Fleetwood’s output increased more than 100 per cent. The increase was more than 800 per cent during the second year and over 1100 per cent for the third year.
“Because of the growing appreciation for the detailed craftsmanship of custom bodies Fleetwood has established four permanent salons where connoisseurs of fine motor cars may examine the Fleetwood-Cadillac-LaSalle creations. These permanent salons are in New York, Detroit and during the season at Miami and West Palm Beach, Florida.”
The November, 1929 issue of Autobody included the following preview of Fleetwood’s exhibits at that year’s Salons:
“Fleetwood will have 11 exhibits, principally on Cadillac and La Salle chassis, but will also exhibit a town car on Stutz chassis. On Cadillac chassis there will be a roadster, an all-weather phaeton, two cabriolet-type town cars with transformable fronts, a glass-quarter brougham with transformable front and 5-passenger and 7-passenger Berline-landaulets; on La Salle chassis, the Fleetwind, a sedan model with sport top; Fleetshire, a phaeton and Fleetway, an all-weather phaeton. No details have been received concerning these exhibits, nor of the Fisher exhibits which will probably be on Cadillac and La Salle chassis as heretofore.”
The February, 1930 issue of Autobody included the following description of one of the first Cadillac V-16s:
“In a class by itself, of course, was the Cadillac V-16 mounted with an enclosed-limousine body by Fleetwood. This was dignified and conservative in character but incorporated a number of interesting features such as a V-front, an extra-wide belt, about 30 in. swept to 20 in. as it passed around the back of the body, chromium-plated window sills which, with the chromiumplated frames of the glasses, and a polished-metal drip molding, gave a bright framing for the windows and enlivened the black finish of the body. The interior was particularly spacious and was trimmed in plain stretched style with a Wiese sand-finish gray broadcloth, with small check design, and piped to mark the seat divisions. A narrow broadlace was used for paneling the doors and on the partition. The rear seat was adjustable - a feature that was embodied in several other high-grade bodies.”
The May 10, 1930 issue of Automobile Topics announced to the world the forthcoming closure of the Pennsylvania plant:
“Removal of the Fleetwood Body Corp. from its home among the green hills of Pennsylvania to the great 1,500,000 square foot plant it is to occupy in Detroit as the country’s foremost custom body builder, has been completed. In this newest and most modern of the body plants of the industry, with an estimated valuation of $5,000,000, all of its work as a stylist and designer will be continued but on a larger scale to meet the increased demand of automotive buyers for exclusive products. The New York permanent salon is continued.
“The chief contributing factor to the growth which has necessitated plant expansion of the Fleetwood Company was the demand for custom bodies on Cadillac and LaSalle chassis. This demand increased so rapidly during more recent years that the General Motors Corporation found an affiliation with Fleetwood not only desirable but necessary to assure Cadillac a constant source from which to obtain custom body creations.
“The Fleetwood Company is under the direction of its president, Ernest Schebera, under whose management it grew from an obscure builder to the foremost producer of custom bodies in the industry. The manager of all plant operations is O.L. Currier who estimates that Fleetwood will employ 3,000 men in Detroit. While Schebera brings to Detroit the Fleetwood staff designers and craftsmen who have had years of experience in custom body creation and building, there are no more skilled craftsmen than may be found in Detroit and immediate environs and it is from this group that Fleetwood will fill out its personnel for the new plant.
“According to Schebera, the sale of Fleetwood equipped chassis has been forging ahead at a rate which created two problems - one of plant expansion and of sufficient competent craftsmen. Both of these problems are solved by making the future home of the company in Detroit.
“The building of custom bodies must always remain a thing apart from manufacture as it is known in production body plants” said Schebera, “because quantity production of motor cars requires a high degree of standardization in design as well as in manufacturing operations. Custom body building calls for almost the complete reverse of standard production practice.
“Cadillac patronage during 1929 exceeded $10,000,000 worth of Fleetwood bodies to be mounted on Cadillac and LaSalle chassis. With the advent of the new 16-cylinder Cadillac chassis there has come to Fleetwood an increased following.”
Cadillac launched their famous European V-16 Caravan during the summer of 1930. Six Fleetwood-bodied V-16s traveled to the 20 largest cities of the continent in a brash display of American style and engineering and produced 70 orders. Even W.O. Bentley praised the new car stating: “The V-16 was not only world class, it had outclassed the world.” That July, the Baroness Von Rosenberg received first prize with her Fleetwood-bodied V-16 phaeton at a Concours d'Elegance held in Vienna, Austria.
The following article appeared in the August, 1930 issue of Autobody:
“Special Bodies by Fleetwood”
“A special 7-passenger ‘Imperial Cabriolet’ (4-window Berline) on the Cadillac V-16 chassis. There is no striping on the body, the finish being of such character as to bring out the features. The main body panels are in a deep maroon; saddle and belt panels of polished aluminum; the moldings and superstructure in light tan; and the rear quarters and top in leather of the same color, fabric-grained to imitate Burbank. The visor is of amber Celluloid.”
“Interior of the passenger compartment of the special Fleetwood body, on Cadillac V-16 chassis, shown at the top of the opposite page. The seats, side squabs and door panels are trimmed with a special henna-maroon, tan-figured broadcloth, supplied by William Wiese & Co. The door panel is Plain trimmed, but seats and side squabs are in a tufted style, in the armrests there are pockets with flaps, covered with the seat fabric. The lining fabric is a plain henna-maroon broadcloth. This is also used in the front compartment above the belt, the driving seat and lower panels are trimmed with Radel Aeroleather of a deep maroon color. The swept division frieze has a center of amboyna, with rosewood beading and edges of French walnut to match the garnish moldings; there is a swept smoking case in the center. In the panel, above the division window, a "vanity clock" in an inlaid case is installed. The swept door friezes are of amboyna and rosewood to correspond with the other wood trim.”
“A 7-passenger ‘Imperial’ (6-window Berline) built for a private client on a Pierce-Arrow chassis. It has a wheelbase of 143 1/2 in. and about 1 1/2 in. more of headroom than is customary. The interior is trimmed in the plain-stretched style with a Wiese greenish broadcloth of lizard-skin pattern. The wood trim is of French walnut, without inlay.”
The October 20, 1930 Reading Eagle featured the following news item:
"Operations of the Fleetwood Metal Body Co. of this borough will be moved to Detroit starting the first of next year, it was announced today by owners of the firm, the Fisher Body Division of General Motors. Purchased by Fisher Body in 1925, the Fleetwood operation has been part of the town of Fleetwood since 1909 when Harry C. Urich, a country blacksmith, conceived the idea of forming a company to build the finest quality automobile bodies that he and his artisan neighbors could produce. The move of all operations to Detroit is the result of the country's economic depression and the need for the Fisher Body Division to consolidate its operations, according to word received here from Detroit. Since Fleetwood was purchased by Fisher, all the local production has been going to Cadillac body work. The Fleetwood shops here have been famous the world over, producing bodies for such notable makes as Packard and Pierce Arrow and for famous people like Andrew Carnegie, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, Mary Pickford and Theda Bara.
"Officers Glad To Sell
"The firm was sold in 1925 to Fisher because its officers felt that it had little chance of surviving against major car manufacturers whose standard, mass-produced bodies were getting better and better. Further, officials believed that the aluminum bodies made by Fleetwood were on the way out, being replaced by stronger steel. Fleetwood pioneered the use of hand-hammered aluminum for car bodies. They used aluminum for the outer skin, stretched over a hardwood frame. This is actually a much easier and economical process than producing dies for stamping out the steel parts. After the purchase of the plant by Fisher, the workforce grew from around 400 to 700 and body production jumped from 80 per month to 430. The economy now, however, has reduced the numbers considerably. In Detroit, Fisher produces Cadillac bodies at its Plant #18 and employees of the plant there and here in Fleetwood have freely exchanged information and visited each other's facilities. The "Fleetwood" nameplate now appears on many Cadillac car bodies and there is the possibility that Plant #18 may be renamed the Fisher Body Fleetwood Plant. Some of the Fleetwood employees are expected to be moved to Detroit while work will begin here to find new tenants for the plant when it is vacated.
The January, 1931 issue of Autobody pictured the interior of a current-model Cadillac V-16:
“A Fleetwood town car trimmed in plain style with a Wiese tan doeskin; each rear seat is adjustable both as to cushion and back. The door and division friezes have a center of amboyna and a French-walnut border, with an outline inlay of rosewood; a companion case is swept into the division frieze. The same door and division treatment was used in Fleetwood's French brougham on Cadillac chassis but the seat was trimmed in the tufted style with diamond points, and the entire rear cushion was adjustable”
The following news release was issued by the Fisher Body Company on the first of January, 1931:
"Ernest Schebera, President, completed removal to Detroit, continuing to maintain its permanent salon at 10 East 57th Street, New York City. Phenomenal as has been the growth of the automobile industry and high as have been the manufacturing records which have been set up only to be broken again and again by motor car manufacturers, the custom body business remained for many years the special province of a number of small builders located where opportunity may have found them at the turn of the century, building horse-drawn carriages or passing from the fashionable carriage business and rapidly giving way to the motor car.
"Exceptional among these custom builders was Fleetwood serving such celebrated makes as Hispano-Suiza, Isotta-Fraschini, Mercedes, Minerva, Rolls-Royce, Duesenberg, Cadillac, Packard, Lincoln and others with individual creations built to order for the world's most exclusive patrons.
"Many great names still live in custom bodies but no built-to-order builder in this country or abroad has had the spectacular growth of Fleetwood. Nested among the green hills of Pennsylvania, the Fleetwood Motor Body Company might have gone serenely on building the unusual body now and then as have so many custom builders were it not that the infinite quality which makes for greatness came forcibly to the attention of the great chassis builders of the world who one by one came to appreciate Fleetwood craftsmanship.
"This harkens back many years but the seed then sown comes to full fruition in the bringing of the rapidly expanding Fleetwood Body Corp. to Detroit. From its humble home in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, to the mighty, new, modern body building institution in Detroit is a step which in any other country or any other industry would be nothing short of miraculous. The chief contributing factor to the marvelous growth which has necessitated plant expansion of the Fleetwood Body Company was the demand for custom Fleetwood bodies on Cadillac and LaSalle chassis. So rapidly has this demand increased during more recent years that General Motors Corp. found affiliation with Fleetwood not only highly desirable but positively necessary to assure the Cadillac Motor Car Co. a constant source from which to obtain exclusive custom bodies combining the dignity and character for which Fleetwood is world famed.
"The Fleetwood Body Corp. is under the direction of its president, Ernest Schebera, under whose management Fleetwood has grown from an obscure builder to the foremost producer of custom bodies in the automobile industry. Fleetwood has already taken over in Detroit one of the largest and most modern plants in the industry. This new Fleetwood plant has a total floor space of more than 1,500,000 square feet. The value of the property is estimated at more than $5 million. The manager of all plant operations is O. L. Currier, who estimates that Fleetwood will employ 3,000 men in Detroit.
"While Schebera brings to Detroit the Fleetwood staff of designers and craftsmen who have had years of experience in custom body creation and building, it is well known that there arc no more skilled craftsmen than can be found in Detroit and immediate environs and it is from this group that Fleetwood will man its new plant. According to Mr. Schebera; the sale of Fleetwood-equipped chassis has been forging ahead at a rate which at once creates two problems - one of plant expansion and one of sufficient competent craftsmen. Now both of these problems are solved by making the future home of the company in Detroit.
"Building custom bodies must always remain a thing apart from manufacture as it is known in production body plants," continues Mr. Schebera, "because quantity production of motor cars requires a large degree of standardization in design as well as manufacturing operations. Custom-body building calls for almost the complete reverse of standard production practice. The natural human desire to self-expression made manifest in an exclusive jewel creation, in the charm and individuality of the arrangement and furnishing of the home and in the graceful streamlines of a yacht, finds escape from the commonplace in the design, decoration and embellishment of the custom-built car.
"The Cadillac Motor Car Company has long been famous for precision and quality manufacture and it follows, therefore, that building custom bodies for an exacting clientele, already accustomed to an extremely high and uniform standard of excellence, calls for a superior craftsmanship which approaches a fine art. This Cadillac patronage during '29 exceeded $10 million for Fleetwood bodies to be mounted on Cadillac and LaSalle chassis. With the advent of the new 16-cylinder Cadillac chassis there comes to Fleetwood a new following which in the past has looked to the foreign builders but who may now look the world over and find no chassis to compare with the Cadillac-16 nor bodies to excel Fleetwood.
"It is logical," further comments Mr. Schebera, "that we should have chosen Detroit as our new home now that we have so clearly outgrown our original plant. Detroit is the home of the motor-car industry, the home of skilled and excellent craftsmen, a splendid shipping center, a great depot of supplies and material and, above all, Detroit is known throughout the world as the abiding place of the creative genius which has held aloft the light of automotive progress."
By January 1, 1931, most all of Fleetwood’s operations had been shifted to Detroit, and their New York City sales closed down as well. Although Fleetwood offered to relocate any Pennsylvania employees who wished to move to Detroit, very few took advantage of the offer. The only notable exceptions were Fleetwood's president Ernest Schebera and designers Jules Agramonte and Stephen Golubics.
Records exist that confirm the existence of a handful of Fleetwood-bodied Packards that date from after the firm left Pennsylvania. Apparently Lawrence P. Fisher arranged to have Fleetwood build some custom bodies for some of his close personal friends who continued to drive Packard chassis. Although this must have enraged Cadillac executives, Fisher was a director of General Motors, and carried a lot of weight, especially within GM’s Fisher/Fleetwood Body Division.
In 1932 Fisher Body sponsored the Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild, a competition in which some 245,000 American boys between the ages of 12 and 19 participated, each building a 1:18 scale replica of the Fisher coach, using plans drawn up by Hank Riess, a Detroit-based woodworking instructor. Based on the Napoleonic Coach that Fisher Body had used as its insignia since 1923, two examples were built at the Fleetwood, Pennsylvania plant just before it closed down in late 1930. The two 1:18 scale coaches were constructed by Walter Leuschner, a highly skilled Fleetwood craftsman who had worked as a coachbuilder in his native Germany before he immigrated to the United States to work for Fleetwood. A $5000 university scholarship was award to the four entrants with the best-built coaches. One of the original Leuschner-built models is rumored to be on displayed at Fisher Body's General Offices in Warren, Michigan.
Between 1931 and 1934, GM’s Art & Colour was slowly integrated into Fisher Body, thereby simplifying the design hierarchy, and giving Earl and his staff access to Fleetwood’s skilled artisans and fabricators who had been part of Fisher since day one. Fleetwood hand-fabricated Cadillac’s V16 Aerodynamic Coupe that appeared at the 1933-34 Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition and assisted on a number of Earl’s projects during the early-to-mid thirties.
Unfortunately, the workers left behind in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania did not fare so well. Fisher’s closing of the town’s largest employer at the start of the Depression left permanent scars on the small community. Fleetwood’s Chevrolet dealer was boycotted and forced to close, and a majority of the town’s residents refused to purchase any General Motors products for many years thereafter.
The new 1932 Cadillacs were a milestone for both Cadillac and Fleetwood. Many consider the 1932 Cadillac to be the pinnacle of the marques Classic Era designs. Unfortunately, it marked the end of Fleetwood as a distinct custom body coachbuilder as Fisher and Fleetwood now shared the same basic body shells. Although an occasional full-custom body would be turned out by the Fleetwood craftsmen, for the most part, the once-proud Fleetwood name was now used to designate a higher-priced molding, trim and upholstery package on the mass-produced Fisher-built body. The 1932 Cadillac sales manual explained away the now-apparent similarity between the Fleetwood and Fisher bodies by stating that “all models were purposely made to carry out a continuity of design characteristic of Cadillac, although each series is individualized to appeal to a different type of buyer”.
Fleetwood’s former designers were integrated into Earl’s Art & Colour division, which was responsible for all of General Motor’s designs and body engineering. The Fleetwood name was reserved for Cadillac and LaSalle’s top of the line semi-custom production bodies, although a handful of full customs continued to be hand-built for well-heeled clients and VIPs. Most of Cadillac’s V-12 and V-16 chassis carried Fleetwood bodies although a few used Fisher-badged coachwork found on Cadillac’s less expensive V-8 line.
Although Fleetwood and Fisher now shared the same body stampings, there were a few exceptions. 1948-49 Fleetwood bodies continued to use pre-war stampings and chassis while Fisher-badged cars form the same period used all-new sheet-metal. 1955-56 Fleetwoods used slightly different bodies and a longer wheelbase than their Fisher-bodied cousins as did the 1972 Fleetwood.
At the end of the 1950s, Cadillac once again offered a series-built custom-bodied Cadillac, but unfortunately, it didn't come from Fleetwood. Called the Eldorado Brougham, there were two versions of the car. The first was built between 1957-58 and featured a distinctive stainless-steel roof and quarter panels and cost $13,500, about three times the cost of a regular Cadillac. 704 were produced between 1957-58, and approximately 60% of them are known to exist. To save money, the bodies for the second version - 1959-1960 - were built in Turin, Italy by the Italian coachbuilder Pininfarina. Only 198 of the latter were built (99 in 1959 and 99 in 1960) and about 50% are known to exist. Unfortunately Cadillac lost money on every Brougham it sold and the car was discontinued in 1961.
In the 1960s and 70s, the doors on many Fleetwood-badged Cadillacs opened into the roof, allowing for easy identification. For a number of years Cadillac's Eldorado had Fleetwood badging, and between 1965 and 1992 it was used to designate Cadillac’s top-of-the-line products. Cadillac's 1993-1996 rear-wheel Brougham chassis was also known as a Fleetwood, or Fleetwood Brougham.
From its introduction in 1941, until the line was discontinued at the end of the 1984 model year, Cadillac’s Series 75 limousines had Fleetwood badging and were designated as Fleetwood 75 Limousines in Cadillac advertising. Built on the same commercial chassis that Cadillac sold for use by professional car builders, the Series 75 featured a division window plus extra wide rear doors and a pair of folding jump seats in the rear compartment. The line was discontinued in 1985, when Cadillac introduced their new front-wheel drive chassis. However, Cadillac subcontracted with Hess & Eisenhardt, an Ohio coachbuilder, to produce a new front-wheel-drive limousine based on the FWD chassis. A new plant in Madison Heights, Michigan was outfitted to produce it, and the car could be ordered through Cadillac dealers until 1992.
At the start of WWII Fleetwood turned over a large number of photographs dating from the twenties and thirties to the American Automobile Manufacturers Association. They're available for use by historians at the Detroit Public Library's National Automotive History Collection which currently resides at the Skillman Branch Library at 121 Gratiot Ave in Detroit, Michigan.
2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com with special thanks to James J. Schild