The Reminiscences of Gordon Buehrig

Excerpt from an Interview with Gordon Buehrig. Automotive Design Oral History, Accession 1673. Benson Ford Research Center. The Henry Ford.

The oral reminiscence is the result of a series of interviews with Gordon Buehrig by David R. Crippen during the month of July, 1984, in Grosse Pointe Woods , Michigan. These interviews were held under the auspices of the Edsel B. Ford Design History Center , Archives & Library Collections, The Edison Institute.

The questioning was primarily in the form of topics suggested to Mr. Buehrig concerning his career.

This transcript and the recorded tapes are deposited in the Archives at The Edison Institute with the understanding that they may be used by qualified researchers for scholarly purposes.

This excerpt deals with Gotfredson Truck history only.  The full text of this interview can be found at Automotive Design Oral History Project


This is Dave Crippen in Grosse Pointe Woods ( Michigan ). We are continuing our series of interviews with seminal designers--automotive and industrial designers--those that have influenced the course of the industry, and today we are talking with Gorden Buehrig who is well known to all as a great influence on the course of automotive design. We are going to ask Mr. Buehrig to tell of his career and his experiences in his own way starting with his earliest influences.


My career started sixty years ago in Wayne, Michigan, at the Gotfredson Body Plant which was building bodies at that time for Wills­ Saint Claire, Peerless and Jewett, and at that time all automobile bodies were wood frame with either steel or aluminum paneling. The automobile industry--the body business--which, of course, is the only part I know about is the body end of it. The tooling was a very inex­ pensive process--very straightforward, and it was a process inherited from the carriage business, and we're indebted to the foreigners from Europe, mainly from Germany and England and Russia and so on where they were building--where the carriage industry had flourished, and then the carriage industry got pretty well going in America, and Cincinnati was at one time sort of the carriage industry headquarters of America. But when the automobile started, ,the automobile pioneers were primarily engineers--chassis men, and so they turned to the custom body or to the carriage builders to come up with bodies for them. So, the process at Gotfredson, which I'll describe very briefly.

There are still Gotfredsons living in Grosse Pointe. They were in the truck business, and then they opened up this body shop in Wayne , Michigan , and I went in as an apprentice. I was twenty years old at the time, and I won't go into the details of body drafting, but body surface development is a old art which is somewhat similar to the lofting of boat hulls or aircraft work, but it was a direct descendent from the carriage business. So, they would design--the designer would come up with certain empirical lines, and from that the surfaces would be developed. Well, from the body surface, after that has been described, then the body engineer would lay in the woodwork, and the body draftsmen included every joint and every screw and everything was all shown there. So, these pieces of wood had to be milled so that they would fit exactly under the skin. That was what we would do in the body shop--in the sample body shop--we would actually build a sample body framework directly off the body draft. And when that was finished, it would be put together just the way a finished a body would be put together except that we: would not use any glue. We'd put the screws in and screw the whole thing together, and then that was a final checkout for the body framework. After that was done, the body framework parts were all given names and part num-bers. The body then was disassembled, and each part was marked with its part number and was shellacked and put in the tool room. That was our tooling, so they would build at Gotfredson, maybe a run of three or four hundred bodies at a time. The problem would be one of space, of putting the parts, because they would set up a machine to mill a certain one of the body components, and they would run off, say 400 parts, and those would be stacked on dollies and set aside, and then that same machine would be set up to run another part, so you had to run all. the parts on the body--say for a run of 400 units--and then as soon as the part was set up, then the master part was put back in the tool room. Though, when you got enough--400 parts of every part of the body---then they would move those over and put them into the assembly jig and frame up that many bodies. Well, obviously, this was pretty inexpensive, and I think that maybe $30,000 or $40,000 was enough money to tool up the framework, and body panels were reasonably simple in those days, and the body was usually designed with belt mouldings to cover the joints bet­ween the panels, and these mouldings were--here was where a designer had a little bit of leeway. He could put the moulding where he thought it looked the best, and the exterior panels would be so designed, and then they would be drilled and nailed right on to the wood framework, and then the moulding, which was usually about 1/8 of an inch thick-­aluminum--that would be drilled with a special kind of bit that brought up a burr around the hole, and so then that would be nailed down and that would cover the joints between the sheet metal panels. The nail would be driven in pretty well, and then you would hammer the burr down over the top of it, and then file it off, and that gave you the smooth finish which would hide where the nail was. That was the process, and so, in those days we had a lot of automobile companies. I think there were--if my memory serves me right--95 automobile companies that showed in the auto show in 1924. The reason there were so many of them was it required very little money to get into the automobile business. There were a number of companies building engines Lycoming in Williamsport , Pennsylvania , and there was Continental Engines in Detroit , and I think there were one or two other engine companies, and then there was Warner Gear that made transmissions for a lot of different cars. Columbia Axle built axles, and the--I can't think of the name of them [A.O. Smith]--a company up in Milwaukee that made the frames for most all of the cars. They're still in business. So, if an entrepreneur had a few thousand dollars, then an engineer and an idea for a new car, he could pick components off the shelf, so to speak, from the industry and put together a fairly reasonable automobile, and these were called assembled cars, and there were many, many of them. One that comes to mind was the Jordan car in Cleveland which had a--I believe it had a Continental engine. But, then there were some body companies. We had Briggs Body Company in Detroit , and we had the C. R. Wilson Body Company and the Murray Body Company. And, as I mentioned, Gotfredson Body Company. So, someone, an entrepreneur with a new automobile idea, could have a small factory and ship in all these components including the bodies, and he was in the automobile business! Then, around 19, oh, in the early Thirties, the trend was toward all-steel bodies which was a step forward in one respect in that if you could afford the tooling costs, you could produce a body at less cost. The problem was in the early all-steel bodies that they were very tinny sounding, and so the first ones were for trucks where it didn't matter how much noise was in the car, and I think at that time Ford was building their open cars which rattled, of course, in all-steel bodies and their commercial cars. But their closed cars were all still wood framework with steel panels because you had the sound of quality when you would slam the door. At that time, Henry Ford had extensive holdings in the upper peninsula around Iron Mountain of thousands of acres of timber because he wanted to be sure that he never ran out of wood for the wood frames of bodies. Fisher Body had a similar commitment of forestry. I believe it was in North Carolina or somewhere where they had--see the wood that we used primarily was hard maple. The custom bodies were made usually of ash which was a stronger material than maple but really not as nice to work with as the maple for production cars. At that time, Henry Ford, who was very cost conscious, designed the crates for components that he would buy on the outside if he were buying axles or something of that sort, he would design the crates and specify the material that those crates would be made out of. When they came in, the crates were taken apart and used for floor boards, and so, anyway, at any point in history of the automobile industry you work with what knowledge is available at the time, and the knowledge that was not available in the early days of all-steel bodies was the manner of silencing the steel panels. So, working with the chemical companies, they finally came up with materials that would be sprayed on the inner panels of the steel bodies, and through this method we finally got all-steel bodies that sounded like quality cars and virtually all automobiles now are built that way. But, the catch is that to build a body of that type in today's market, we're talking instead of $40,000 or $50,000 to tool a body, we're about $200,000,000, and so the advent of the all-steel body combined with the Great Depression that started in 1929, wiped out most of the smaller automobile companies. So, when the investment got larger, then the gamble was so much greater that the companies could afford to spend a lot more money in the design and development of a pro­ totype body because it was very important that they be right when they got their car on the market. This was when they started building full­ size, clay models to check out design. Prior to that, they were built to the geometric layout of the body draft, and the first time you saw it in full size was on a prototype body. My first four years in the automobile industry was in apprenticeship and in engineering, and I had gone from Gotfredson Body over to the Dietrich Body Company in Detroit . Ray Dietrich had a fine, custom-body shop here, and from there to Packard. I was working at Packard in body engineering. This would go around about 1927 and, perhaps, early '28. Harley Earl had been brought to Detroit from California to do some design work for Cadillac, and over there, with the help of Ralph Pew, did the original LaSalle car which was a styling--very exciting car when it came out. As a result of that, Harley Earl was moved over to the General Motors Building . He had a little office on the tenth floor, and he started a design department for all of General Motors, and he called it Art and Colour. I was playing tennis one day with a friend of mine who was a draftsman working for Harley, and he suggested I talk to him, and I went over, and by taking a reduction in salary, I went from Packard to get my first experience in a design department. And, at that time, we were building models in full-size clay. We were importing the clay from Germany , and the clay that is used by--in the automobile industry is entirely different from clay used by sculptors. It's a material that is sensitive to heat, and at normal room temperatures is very hard, and at about 105 ° is quite soft and pliable. At that time, we would take these blocks of clay and put them in buckets of boiling water and heat them up and then pull out this hot clay and push it on to the armature. This didn't last very long until they built some electric ovens, and the whole process became very sophisticated, General Motors, through some connection --I don't know how they worked it out--but they found a hevant Manufacturing Company. They were able to duplicate the clay from Germany , and that company is still in business and supplies all the clay for the industry and has ever since. So, John Lutz was an old German fellow who--in fact, most of the people--the trades people--in Fisher Body and at General Motors at that time were Germans. They used to say that they spoke German in Fisher Body as much as they spoke English. Anyway, John Lutz was a clay modeler, and I was anxious learn how to do it, so he let me fool around with the shaping of one of the fenders, and I was pretty proud of it, and then he said, "I could do better with an axe," and he probably could. Anyway, we were building the... designing the pregnant Buick at that time, and the only part of it that actually was where I had an influence was that I did design the instrument panel for the '29 Buick, and from there I went with Stutz in Indianapolis, mainly to make more money and to be the head of the design department at Stutz. But Stutz was sort of on its way out. They had a man by the name of Colonel E.S. Gorrell, who was president of the company, and a man by the name of Fredric E. Muskovics, who was chairman of the board. When I got there, Stutz had just come out with a new model which was designed--bodies were designed and built by LeBaron in Detroit , which was a division of the Briggs Company. It was an ordinary bit of design work. It was not bad, but their roadster and their touring car or phaeton were not very well designed. They had a slooped-down door that was rather poorly worked out, so about all I got done at Stutz was to redesign that door and the cowling. Oh yes, another thing was that the windshield on that car was a folding-type windshield which was quite popular in those days, and it was held in the up or down position by a friction nut on the--hand-operated or hand-knurled knob on the end which would hold the windshield in the up position or the down position. Well, while I was still at General Motors I bought a '29 Buick--a Buick Roadster--and it had the same arrangement. The car was not fast by today's standard, but it would do 70 miles an hour, and at 70 miles an hour with the windshield down, it would suddenly flop up in your face. So, at Stutz, I redesigned the windshield by having two centers--one for the axis of the windshield, and then I put a tapered pin that would fasten in with two notches--one notch would hold it in the down position and one notch in the up position. So, by--and this didn't take an awful lot of strength either because once it was in there, it was locked in because of these notches, so the new Stutz windshield did not flop up at high speed.

The full text of this interview can be found at Automotive Design Oral History Project