The coachbuilt-body craze that took off in the mid 19-teens no doubt helped craftsmen who formerly created horse-drawn carriages transition to a new type of body for a new type of car, the sport-bodied speedster. It seemed like just about every city had at least one small company making a car.
These companies employed skilled wood and metal workers who practiced this trade, whether as line workers in small automobile firms turning out a thousand or fewer units per year, or custom coach builders who started with a rolling chassis and built up from that. The design trend was clear: automobiles, including speedsters, were taking on more and more cladding to add comfort and protection to their passengers.
Concurrent with this, the street speedster movement was growing as the interest in track racing grew. Many a cutdown owner who emulated on-track shenanigans on their favorite county road would find out first-hand that a little bit of extra bodywork would go a long way toward safe fun. Murray Fahnestock, Technical Editor for the Fordowner periodical, was eloquent in singing the praises of the Speedster Life in the pages of these periodicals:
If the Ford racing cars can win races, it is equally
true that Ford speedsters can be used to win hearts,
for what damsel can resist a baby-blue Ford speedster,
with nickel trimmings, a box of candy, and a harvest moon?
But Fahnestock was also looking out for the little guy who’d had a tumble or two in those early generation open-platform buggies. As Fahnestock wrote,
The bucket seats on a mere platform may look racy –
but you never see such bodies on the cars driven at
Indianapolis and other important races. Such bodies
are out of date because, while easy to build, they do not
hold the passengers in the car safely…
By the mid-teens, many regular manufacturers of open cars offered at least a torpedo-styled (smooth sided) body, sometimes with doors. Several of these companies also produced a speedster with more of a sporty-styled body in response to market pressures, and these started to show up as early as 1915.
From the early days of its company’s existence, Mercer established its dominance on racetracks with its Raceabout. Concurrent with this, Mercer had also offered a Runabout body for those Mercer fans who wanted a little more coverage and protection. The Runabout had an enclosed cockpit with doors, a windshield and top, whereas the Raceabout was an open platform with no sides. By 1915, the Mercer 22-70 Raceabout sported a more-enclosed cockpit, as well as chassis splashboards and longer running boards, and in this regard approached the body protection formerly offered only by the Runabout. However, one clear distinction between the two remained: the Runabout had doors, the Raceabout, no way!
In January of 1918, the Kissel Motor Car Company of Hartford, Wisconsin, rolled out a prototype speedster at the New York Auto Show that became the darling of the auto salons for 1918. Developed through a partnership between dealer/designer Conover Silver and the Kissel company, the KisselKar Silver Special Speedster included this enterprising New York car dealer’s name, as well as exhaust pipes that jutted prominently from the engine cowl. Silver’s name and the external exhaust pipes would disappear from the car shortly after it reached production. In addition, the “Kar” disappeared from the name as well, as it was too “German” at a time when there were a lot of sensitive feelings concerning Germans as a result of the Great War, which was to end on November 11, 1918.
Marmon had been no stranger to speedsters on street as well as track, and its bodies too had been evolving a safer passenger enclosure during the early- and mid-teens. Its Marmon Model 34 of 1918 had become the next step up for Marmon in its technological and design process, and in late 1920 they rolled out a new sport-bodied Marmon 34 Speedster. With its enclosed two-passenger compartment and weather-proof top, Marmon typified the mass-produced sport-bodied speedster that would dominate the Roaring Twenties.
The coachbuilding companies who produced after-market bodies for the street speedster hobby were also following suit. By 1917 several companies were producing sport bodies for the Fast Ford crowd, which also included a Chevy or most anything that a sport body could be strapped upon. More than several had flourished but were then washed out by the post-war depression of 1921. According to Model T speedster historian and expert Larry Sigworth, almost 75 companies, at one time or another during the teens and twenties, made sporty speedster and other bodies as an aftermarket accessory.
The Ford Model Ts were perhaps the easiest donor to use because of their sheer numbers lying around. Used but not used up, they were just waiting for some young gun to come along, pop the eight bolts holding down the body to the chassis and cowl, and then replace it with some jazzy-looking speedster body.
Several companies such as PACO of Peoria, Illinois, Ames of Owensboro, Kentucky, and Morton & Brett of Indianapolis, Indiana offered a variety of sport bodies to suit almost any need. They advertized their wares in popular automotive magazines and journals, selling directly from the factory door or through a variety of dealers, and even retailed their bodies and parts in some of the catalogs of the times, such as Western Auto, Montgomery Ward, and Sears Roebuck.
Some companies would franchise their body designs to other firms, who would re-badge and sell the bodies in that company’s catalog. Some companies would patent their creation to protect its design from being blatantly copied. Morton & Brett presents a good example of these small but vibrant firms that operated in this cauldron of early hotrod innovation.
Elvin Morton and Jack Brett were making race bodies for others before they set up their own company around 1920.
M&B patented their design in 1920 and sold their manufactured bodies at the factory or through a series of dealers. Due to the success of their design, M&B bodies in various models were used throughout the 1920s and carried their own name. Franchisees would also re-badge them and re-sell under different brand names, sometimes with minor differences in details and accessories.
Upon looking at the race bodies made for the Chevrolet Brothers Manufacturing Company, who operated the Frontenac racing car and sold parts and bodies through their catalogs, one can see the resemblance to M&B bodies. In addition, it is probable that the racing firm Craig-Hunt had also used Morton & Brett to build their “Speedway” bodies for racing.
At one point M&B was selling four types of speedster bodies: the Raceway, the Speedway, the Roadway, and the Turtleback, in addition to a four-passenger Speedway roadster. M&B would continue to sell their wares into the 1930s, well past most other aftermarket coachbuilders who supplied the Fast Ford crowd.
The sport-bodied speedster design matured and flourished during the 1920s, both through established manufacturing firms as well as aftermarket coachbuilders who supplied the hobbyist and early generation of hotrodders. While this was going on, another design trend in speedsters was emerging that would dominate well into the 1930s as coachbuilding in the United States entered its Golden Decade.
We will cover that in a future post. Until that date, let’s cover another story or two about the sport-bodied movement. See you then!