Raymond H. Dietrich was born in 1894 to a Bronx upholsterer. From an early age he became interested in drawing, so when he reached the age of twelve, his father sponsored his apprenticeship as an engraver with Manhattan’s American Bank Note Co., the world’s foremost engraver and printer of bank notes, stocks and bonds. In the twenty first century child labor is frowned upon, but Dietrich was grateful for the experience and later wrote:
“It was during these four years that I learned how to make the best use of my talent in vignette engraving. This still did not satisfy the drive for creation which possessed me, but it did develop my ability to visualize. An engraver creates his design upside down and backwards, which forces discipline of the eye, hand, and mind.”
Raymond Dietrich studied at the Andrew F. Johnson Technical School in Manhattan to learn body design and advanced drafting, graduating in 1917. Upon graduation he signed up for a job at Chevrolet as assistant body engineer. One year later in 1918 Dietrich joined Brewster Coachbuilders as a designer, called a “master craftsman,” Dietrich had his own staff of assistants and apprentices who performed the actual coachwork,
In 1920 Dietrich and Thomas L. Hibbard left Brewster to open their own firm, Le Baron Carrossiers, in Manhattan, and initiated the process of designing an entire car in detail on paper so as to achieve a harmonious and unified appearance (previously, coachbuilders designed piecemeal as they received separate components from the manufacturer).
Le Baron provided clients with 1/12-scale pen and ink side views and color renderings for paint schemes. These pioneering techniques would later become standard tools for industrial designers. In 1924 LeBaron Carrossiers merged with the Bridgeport Body Company to form LeBaron Inc., in order to design and produce bodies designed by Dietrich. In 1925 Dietrich sold his stake in LeBaron, Inc. and joined Murray Corporation of America, the Detroit company that built most of Lincoln’s and many of Ford’s production bodies.
Murray and Dietrich shared ownership of a subsidiary manufacturing plant called Dietrich, Inc. The move by Lincoln to engage custom body builders on its standard production designs initiated a trend for all car companies to do the same. Dietrich assisted Amos Northup in the design of the 1931 Reo Royale Eight, which became a sensation because its front fenders joined in a “Vee” like the wings of a bird in flight.
Dietrich had a chance meeting with Walter P. Chrysler while he was having a sandwich and beer at the New York Athletic Club. Chrysler asked if he would be interested in coming to work for the Chrysler Corporation and Ray accepted. Dietrich moved back to his native New York.
While at Chrysler, Dietrich set up a four year course in body design and engineering at the Chrysler Institute of Engineering. His night courses instructed students on the basics of drafting, art, geometry and problem solving. A number of his students went on to very successful careers in the industry.
While Ray was involved with Dietrich Inc. the terms of his contract with Murray allowed him to do free-lance work for various manufacturers, hoping that the designs might bring about some manufacturing contracts for Murray. However, his contract with Chrysler expressly forbade him from doing any outside work.
As Chrysler had no styling department at the time, Dietrich had to work under Fred M. Zeder, the chief of Chrysler Engineering. Unfortunately, Zeder never got along with Dietrich, and often made Ray’s life miserable. However, Dietrich greatly admired Walter P. Chrysler and would give Chrysler his best effort.
1932 Chrysler established an Art and Color Department of five, led by industrial designer Herbert V. Henderson. Dietrich was placed as a consultant, and served as unofficial head of the department.
For many years Chrysler had relied on the Briggs Manufacturing Company, it’s major body supplier, for styling. In 1934, after the Chrysler Airflow, designed by its engineers, failed in the market, Dietrich designed a more conventional grille for a companion model, the Airstream, which was more successful and won Dietrich great acclaim at Chrysler. Dietrich soon became official head of the department and assumed responsibility for exterior design.
Dietrich and Zeder, his immediate boss, had never gotten along, Dietrich was asked to leave after his mentor, Walter P. Chrysler, suffered a major stroke on May 26, 1938. He would leave in the midst of working on the designs of the 1940 Chrysler product line, as noted in the blog header photo.
After Chrysler, Dietrich freelanced setting up Ray Dietrich Inc. Apparently Morris Markin had heard of Dietrich’s availability and asked if he was interested in working for Checker.
Markin hired Dietrich as an engineering consultant to the Checker Cab Mfg. Co. at $100 per day. Dietrich’s first commission involved the redesign of Checker’s welding jigs, later ones included redesigning the Kalamazoo plant’s assembly lines and overhead conveyors.
When the War commenced, Dietrich helped design Checker’s famous tank retriever, a huge 16-wheel heavy-duty trailer designed to remove disabled tanks from the battlefield.
Dietrich also worked with Herb Snow and Jim Stout on the design and engineering of the Model D Checker prototype. A ground breaking design, had it been made, the Model D would have used advanced technique of incorporating both front wheel drive and the use of a transverse engine for the first time in automotive production.
Snow had pioneered the development of front wheel drive at Cord several years earlier, the introduction of a transverse engine/front wheel drive combination was unique and predated the 1959 Morris Mini use of the configuration by some twelve years.
Two prototypes were built and tested, but the tooling required to produce it in quantity proved to be too costly. The Checker Model A2, a vehicle that combined the advanced styling of the Model D, but the less-costly pre-war Checker rear wheel-drive chassis, entered production in 1947. The Model A2 would also share many styling cues with the 1940-48 Chrysler line.
The exterior design work for the Model D was performed by Raymond Dietrich. Jim Stout was highly critical of Dietrich’s work. In an interview with retired Oklahoma University professor and noted Checker collector G. Richard Thomas, Stout recounted “he would draw little bitty people so his low roof lines would clear their heads”. According to Stout “passenger ergonomics were important to Checker”. This author can attest to the head room challenges of the Dietrich designed 1948 Checker Model A2. The A2 would be redesigned as the Model A4 in 1950 and again in 1952 with increased headroom.
1950 was a big year at CCM, a report on January 23, 1950 in the Kalamazoo Gazette announce the sale of Transit Bus Inc. to CCM. In the item it was reported that the Kalamazoo firm would move the body manufacturing operations to Kalamazoo.
Design changes would be performed by the Checker automotive dynamic duo: Herbert Snow teamed with Raymond Dietrich. Dietrich would smooth down the exterior design and Snow would introduced new power options.
By 1954, Checker would hand another project to Dietrich, the redesign of the Checker Taxicab. The Dietrich design would ultimately become the world famous Checker Cab produced from 1956 till the end of production in 1982. A dated design for 1956, it was truly a purpose built taxi allowing for up to eight passengers riding in a cab that sat on a chassis that only spanned 200 inches, about a foot shorter than typical large American cars.
Dietrich’s last project for Checker was perhaps the most fulfilling spiritually. The venerable Bishop Fulton John Sheen of the Catholic Church known for his preaching and especially his work on television and radio ordered a custom built limo from Checker. As Checker had done in the past, Checker contracted Kalamazoo based Ray Dietrich to design the car for Sheen.
Subsequently in May of 1964, Bishop Scheen sent a thankyou letter to Dietrich regarding Dietrich’s work on the Checker Custom Limo. Quoting Scheen:
“In addition to the labor involved in preparing such a car there are two other gifts which render the labor more precious: one is the talent, and in this realm you are without superior. He who gives talent gives something more intimate than that which comes from the pocket.
The other is tradition, for you are tied up to the early automobile designing of this country and, therefore have brought to this car the enrichment which comes for the continuity of artistry ”.
Talk about wrapping up an automotive design career in style. Dietrich’s office at Checker remained untouched years after his death in 1980.
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Sources: Coachbuilt.com & Industrial Design History.com