The so-called annual model change (also known as “planned obsolesce”) dates back to the 1920s, when General Motors transformed automobile styling from an afterthought into high fashion. Dazzling new body styles, vibrant colors, and powerful engines enticed the aspiring American middle class, who began going into debt to buy a lifestyle accessory rather than a mere vehicle.
Yet between 1895 and 1930, car buyers were often more attached to their car’s body than the actual machine , a holdover from the days of the horse-and-carriage, when highly-skilled artisans produced a variety of open and closed bodied coaches: landaus, victorias, phaetons, brakes, and cabriolets, to name a few.
Philadelphia was never much of a car-manufacturing city, with the minor exception of the short-lived Biddle Motor Car Company. Yet Philadelphia’s custom car coachwork was famous throughout the world. John Joseph Derham, an Irish immigrant, set up shop in 1887 in the new Main Line community of Rosemont, building fine carriages for the horse-loving residents. By the early 1900s, J.J. Derham’s well-heeled customers were buying their first automobiles. Rather than buying a factory-built car body, a Derham client like department store heir Rodman Wanamaker II would opt to purchase only the chassis. Wanamaker would then have the car (consistenting of only a wheels, frame, engine, and radiator) delivered to Derham, where he would then work with master craftsmen to come up with the car of his dreams.
This could be a daunting undertaking. The cars that Derham’s customers chose sold for around $5,000 for the chassis alone ($100,000 in today’s money): Locomobile, Cadillac, Rolls-Royce, Lincoln, Peerless, Pierce-Arrow, Mercedes, Minverva, and Packard. Building a custom-built body for hat chassis could set the owner back another $10,000 to $20,000. The body styles boasted the same names as the horse-drawn carriages they replaced. A sporty two seater body, for example, was known as a cabriolet. An enclosed formal body for opera night at the Academy of Music was a brougham. An four door car open body, good for summer driving on winding suburban roads, was a phaeton. Although some very rich customers owned several cars, others preferred to use two or more bodies on the same car. According to a history of J. Gibson McIlvain & Company, Derham’s principal wood supplier in the 1910s and 20s:
“Largely because most early automobiles were manufactured with open, touring car bodies, the business prospered. Wealthy citizens of Philadelphia who wished to drive their cars in winter would come to the Derham company to a have a closed body custom-built. Every Spring the closed body would be removed and stored with Derham. In the Fall, the body would be installed in time for the cold weather.”
In an era before government-mandated safety standards, coachbuilders were free to indulge their client’s wildest fantasies. Body panels were aluminum, and the frames constructed of seasoned ash. Interiors were lined with velvet and leather, and accented with strips of rosewood, walnut, and mother of pearl. To keep up with demand, every spring Derham would send a representative to the McIlvain yard to “make his selection of the finest oak, northern ash, and hickory.”
There was at least one Philadelphia lady who took the attachment to a specific body style to an extreme. Louise Audenried’s first car was a 1907 Zeidel, with a custom-built Derham body. When Audenried bought a new car several years later, she demanded that the old body be transferred to the new chassis. Derham gave her the bad news that the old body wouldn’t fit onto the new chassis. Louise Audenried refused to budge — she wanted exactly the same type of body. So, Derham built a replica body that fit onto the new chassis. In the 1920s, Audenried purchased a new Pierce-Arrow, and once again, Derham obliged. Finally, in 1938, Audenried purchased a magnificent Packard Super Eight. Yet rather than fashion a modern, streamlined body for this chassis, Derham did exactly as the client wished: constructing a boxy, Edwardian body on top of a powerful Art Deco drivetrain.
For coachbuilders like Derham, the good times ended with the stock market crash of 1929, which wiped out the fortunes of many of their loyal clients. Even those who still had money opted to simply buy a Cadillac or Lincoln with standard, factory-built bodies. Most of the old line, East Coast coachbuilders went out of business.
During the lean years of the 1930s, Derham miraculously held on, designing formal cars for the King and Queen of England, Pope Pius XII, Gary Cooper, and even Josef Stalin.
After surviving on custom jobs and classic car restorations, including a presidential limousine for Dwight Eisenhower, Derham’s Rosemont shop finally closed its doors in 1971.
“Derham Body Company,” Coachbuilt, http://www.coachbuilt.com/bui/d/derham/derham.htm, accessed September 28, 2017.
William Barton Marsh, Philadelphia Hardwood: The Story of the McIlvains of Philadelphia, 1798-1948 (Philadelphia: William E. Rudge’s Sons, 1948), p.63.