When one looks at the luxury car market today in 2015, the majority of luxury cars are produced by the big manufacturers Bentley, Roll Royce, MB, BMW, GM and Audi on an assembly line. It’s very different when comparing to the early days of the automotive industry when high end customers would a have their cars custom built by coach builders.
In the early days of automotive history for a wealthy buyer to have their luxury car produced by private coach builders, they typically would seek a dealer or distributor of ultra-luxury cars that would order a stock chassis and mate to a custom built body. Manufactures like Auburn, Cadillac, Lincoln, Chrysler and Duesenbeg would sell cowl and chassis units that would be forwarded to a custom builder. Delivered to coachbuilders like: LeBaron, Brewster and Derham, the cars would be built to the buyers specification.
At one time hundreds of automotive coach builders operated in the United States. One such company was the Markin Auto Body Company of Jolliet, Illinois, little is known about all the offerings of Morris Markin’s company, but one can assume that work did occur beyond the taxicab bodies produced for Commonwealth Motors. Markin would ultimately expand beyond body manufacturing and actually produce turnkey (or hand crank) running automobiles,
Many of the coach builders did not survive the depression as the market crash significantly impacted luxury car sales. World War II was equally challenging, during this period US consumer car production ceased from 1942 till 1945. In order to survive the coachbuilders would seek other means of generating revenue. Those that did survive ultimately were purchased by larger manufacturers or diversified out of the automotive business.
An interesting and long lasting coach builder was Derham, based out of Philadelphia, Derham’s corporate roots stretched back to the turn of the century. Derham was a classic coachbuilder for the rich, but beyond the standard luxury car offerings, Derham would also produce custom built Buick, Mercury and Hudsons. Like all the other coachbuilders, Derham would try to expand into other automotive areas in the post war period.
One interesting project developed by Derham in the post war era was the design of a custom bodied taxicab mounted to a 1950 DeSoto chassis. According to the Classic Car Club of America ” in the CCCA Museum Derham files, there are 72 photos of Derham custom work on Chryslers. There are records of 118 completed cars, and 30 renderings of other design proposals including the famous Thunderbolt which was actually built by LeBaron” Derham actually operated a Chrysler dealership, but its not clear who led this project Chrysler or Derham? That said It would appear that if Derham could secure a good number of taxi operators to purchase the Derham taxi, they could increase their business by going down market away from luxury coach built automobiles.
The Derham DeSoto rode on a standard DeSoto 125.5 inch chassis. It utilized the DeSoto front clip/cowl, four doors, floor and rear inner and out fenders. Derham craftsmen fabricated a roof, rear trunk area and deck lid. The greenhouse had the appearance of a squished station wagon configuration, there were also hints of Derham’s of the past.
If one looks at the few surviving pictures of the Derham taxi prototype, it would appear that Derham borrowed styling from earlier Derham models, its 1941 Chrysler Town Car with divider and the 1946 Imperial luxury sedan. Many design critics and automotive historians believed the 1949-1952 Chrysler cars were too boxy and conservative in style. K.T. Keller, Chrysler President, believed gentlemen should be able to enter and sit in a car, this design worked well for a taxi design. The design was upright and the rear passenger seats were placed just above the rear axle. That said, the wheelbase was not extended which seems to have put the Derham DeSoto at a disadvantage.
Both the 1950 Checker A4 and the Water’s produced long wheelbase DeSoto taxicab possessed a wide full rear door. The Derham Desoto was equipped with a rear door that was integrated into the rear wheel well thus forcing a dog leg design for the door opening.
Generally speaking taxi operators and passengers preferred wide opening big rear doors. Additionally the passenger compartment was extended into the DeSoto’s trunk, reducing trunk room but increasing passenger legroom.
In 1950 New York City required taxicabs to hold five passengers, it appears that the Derham could have held five passengers as well as meet the NYC wheelbase requirement of 124 inches. It’s not clear what compelling sale points would exist in order for a taxi operator to switch from a Checker or Water’s Skyview DeSoto to buy a smaller and more expensive Derham DeSoto based taxicab? In any event it would appear that the Derham taxicab project never got farther than one prototype, Derham probably did the math and determined that the taxi would be a non starter with operators.
For close to a century the small metropolitan Philadelphia coachbuilder produced work of the highest quality and survived through two World Wars and the Depression, three events that ultimately ruined all of its contemporaries. Derham ultimately closed shop in 1974.
It’s ironic to note that Checker having its roots in coach building ultimately was able to transform and become a full line auto manufacturer. In the post war period, Checker was actually able to come full circle and produce a chassis and cowl model to be sold to coach builders. Dumb luck or advanced thinking by Morris Markin, it was probably more a natural instinct of survival, Checker produced cars till 1982 and operated as a third party automotive supplier until 2009.
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