by Jim Raymond
Originally published in the March/April 2002 issue of Continental Comments (Issue # 245).
Lincoln’s Custom bodies were build in lots of 25-100. All Lincoln custom bodies were of higher quality than many of its competitors, such as Packard. Lincoln utilized the work of America’s finest custom body builders of the day.
Individual. Unique. Distinctive. These terms are ones which many auto owners wish to have applied to their cars. Even in our modem age, aftermarket wheels, gold trim packages, “carriage” or “coach” roofs (supplied by individual trim shops) are not unusual to be found on late model vehicles. But this is not a recent phenomenon. It has existed almost since the beginning of horseless personal transportation.
Prior to WWI, many purchasers of luxury cars were not content with merely having a “standard” model offered by a luxury car maker. Yet it was not an easy, convenient matter to obtain a car that was “individual”, “unique”, or “distinctive”. The first step in the process was to obtain a chassis from the manufacturer (Cadillac, Packard, Pierce, etc.) of one’s choice. This chassis would include the frame, suspension, drivetrain, wheels and tires, and probably the fenders, hood, and running boards. If the modifications desired were not great, the customer might go ahead and purchase an entire car, as one does today. Next, the customer would have this chassis delivered to the custom body manufacturer. A visit to the custom shop ensued, to discuss the details of the final product. This would include decisions about color (and color schemes), type and pattern of upholstery, amount and type of wood trim in the interior, type of carpet, and shape of the body. Often, the shop would make most of the suggestions about these choices, as they were ordinarily more adept at artistic expression than the average car owner. More than likely, additional visits to the shop were necessary as construction progressed (much like having a house built). While there were numerous custom body manufacturers, there was not one on every corner (certainly not a good one) and each visit could entail an out-of-town trip.
1935 Lincoln K LeBaron Convertible Sedan
As noted previously, other combinations may have been the case. Some customers may have had the custom shop produce the fenders and hood also. Or, they might deliver to the shop a completed “factory” car, and have only minor modifications made. Regardless of which combination was involved, the car would properly be referred to as a “one-off’ custom. No other car would look like this one. But the process of acquiring a custom car would be radically simplified shortly after WWI by our beloved Edsel Ford.
Henry Leland produced his first Lincoln for the 1921 model year. In 1922, Ford purchased Lincoln from Leland and Edsel was made the president. Leland had recognized that his initial cars looked rather stodgy, and before selling to Ford, had begun soliciting the assistance of stylists from some of the custom body firms for suggestions on how to improve the appearance of his cars. Edsel continued this practice.
Edsel however, realized that the acquisition of a custom body car should be easier/less expensive for the customer. Edsel didn’t create the idea of catalog customs, as they had existed previously on a small scale with some other manufacturers. Rather, he chose to be an innovator of them. Edsel approached many of the well known custom body manufacturers and requested proposals for designs that would be made in lots of 25, 50, 100, or similar amounts. Designs approved by Edsel would then be displayed in the Lincoln brochure or “catalog”. (Thus the name “catalog custom”. “Series custom” is also used, as these lots of 25-100 constituted a “series” of cars. Either term distinguishes it from a “one-off’ custom.) All a customer had to do was go to the Lincoln showroom, point to which of the series custom cars in the catalog he wanted, select a color and upholstery, and place an order. While this car would not be quite as exclusive as a one-off custom it would greatly simplify the process of obtaining a car that was not like the standard factory edition. And as there were never very many made in any one year of a particular series, the odds of pulling up next to someone with a car just like yours were still extremely low. As well, since one-off customs were literally “one of a kind”, as they were quite expensive to produce. One might well have to pay $12,000 to $15,000 for such an article. In contrast, series customs could be had for as little as $5,000. By 1925 the Lincoln catalog custom program was in full swing.
Understand, there were not simply 25 of the 100 series custom Lincolns available in any given year. Rather, there would be approximately that number of customs for each of several different body styles. Some body styles might be produced by a couple of different manufacturers in a given year. For example, in 1932 both Judkins and Dietrich made coupes for Lincoln. But this duplication was rare. And as it were, each would look different from another, such that a buyer of a Judkins coupe did not have to worry about his car looking like his neighbor’s Dietrich.
A particular custom company would likely make more than one style car for Lincoln in a given year. Brunn made cabriolets, convertible victorias, and broughams in each year in the late ‘30s.
Most custom shops specialized in certain body styles. Locke normally made open cars. Willoughby focused on formal, closed types.
So what then, was a “factory” body car? It was one which was manufactured either by a volume producer of auto bodies, or in the Lincoln factory itself. From the mid 20s through 1934 the vast majority of Lincoln’s “factory” body cars were produced by Murray, a company that normally made bodies in large volume (i.e.- thousands a year for “normal” cars). From 1935-on Lincoln made the “factory” cars “in-house” . These factory cars were typically designed by Lincoln itself. And though not manufactured by a custom company they were nonetheless built to Lincoln’s (Edsel’s) high standards. As high, as it were, as those of a custom body manufacturer.
Some series custom cars were, in fact, only designed by the custom firm; the body actually being produced by the “factory” source. This was true for the 1931 LeBaron roadster, for example.
Was there a difference in quality between a factory body Lincoln and a custom? Richard Hopeman, the president of the Lincoln Owners Club, and Thomas Bonsall, the noted Lincoln historian, have both observed it is very doubtftul Edsel Ford would have allowed anything out of the factory that was not of the highest quality. In reading done by the author about Edsel, this is very easy to believe.) As will be noted in the quote below, in some cases, Edsel required of the custom shop a quality that was higher than they would otherwise have produced. A standard which was certainly equal to what he would have applied to the “factory” cars.
In a letter to the author dated July 12, 2001, Richard Burns Carson, author of Olympian Cars, made the following statements about the difference in factory and custom Lincolns:
“I think you are on to an important insight about the quality level of all classic era Lincoln bodies, production and catalogued custom alike. Lincoln’s construction solidity standards were routinely the highest and most exacting within its field, and Edsel Ford had no qualms about applying such standards to custom coachbuilders’ catalogue submittals. Thus, a 1932 Lincoln Style #KB-241 Dietrich Convertible Sedan actually wears a more solidly constructed body than a Dietrich Packard of the same era and body type; Ray Dietrich admitted as much to me on several occasions.”
“Can we agree that constructive quality and ‘finish’ achieved their highest sustained levels on classic 1920-39 Lincolns, regardless of body origins? And if so, then where might we find a quality differential between ‘production’ cars and catalogued customs? I submit ‘distinction’ to be the key word here; Lincoln’s many series custom buyers received more ‘distinctive’, personally tailored automobiles, and this observation is not limited to their configurative and overall contour aspects.”
“For example, you are right in supposing the ‘production’ cars embraced the finest available grade of cloth upholstering fabrics as did the customs, however in terms of varieties and combination effects the results couldn’t have been more divergent. Single or duotone Bedford Cords; shorn weave stripped broadcloths; ‘distressed’ leather; leather and cloth combination schemes; radical two-toned rear compartments-none of these appeared on the ‘production’ cars.”
1937 Two-window Berline by Judkins
“Woodwork trim follows the same general lines. Lincoln’s standard wood trim was perennially well executed from quality stock (unlike Packard, they never stooped to ‘wood decal applique’ on pressed metal!), and yet the effect remains quite tame alongside some of the custom jobs. And just as Judkins was the most adventurously fluent concerning special upholstering schemes, Willoughby & Co. were the pre-eminent craftsmen of trim wood within America’s custom coachbuilding industry. They did it entirely inhouse in Utica, rather than buying from Linden and Hayden as others did.”
So how much more did this extra distinction cost? In the first box below are comparisons of the prices for selected Lincolns:
In almost all cases, it required more money to purchase a custom than a factory body. Some of the above body styles were, by nature, more costly to produce, and thus would be more expensive regardless of who made them. But simply, if one wanted a custom, it came at a higher price. And how well did the customs hold their value? From the November, 1935 Red Book Used Car Market Report, these card had the wholesale values shown in the second box [above].
The percentages make it appear the 1929 customs held their value. A ’29 Willoughby limo was worth 1.0% of its original cost and a ‘29 factory limo, 1.2%. But think of it this way: the buyer had to spend $900 more for a Willoughby but it was worth no more at trade-in time. And at almost three years of age the customs clearly did not hold their value. (Perhaps the cost striking aspect of these prices is how poorly luxury cars held their value back then. Even if one considers a 20% dealer markup, a ‘29 Willoughby limo would only have been $78 retail. To put this in perspective, imagine today (2002) being able to buy a 1995 Town Car, that cost $40,000 new, for a mere $500. Another feature of note: of the various body styles listed here, the one that had the best (or least unfavorable) depreciation was the factory 5-passenger sedan. Limousines and open cars were, for the vast majority of people, not practical for daily transportation. Thus they lost a greater percent of their original cost.)
And how has their value faired today? In the third box below and to the left are the values for the above cars from the 2001 Cars & Parts Price Guide, in #1 condition:
There appears to be a bit of an edge to the customs. But perhaps more revealing than anything else about the prices today, is the high value placed on open cars.
Edsel Ford had been a great sponsor of catalog custom cars and he retained a great passion for them all the way to the end of production of Lincoln’s super-luxury cars in 1939. As such, Lincoln offered far more custom models in a given year than all other luxury car makes, save Duesenberg. (That make did not produce any of its own bodies; all were done by custom firms.) In almost any year, fully two-thirds of the models Lincoln displayed in its catalogue were customs. And during the final three years of K production (1937-39), 17 of the 21 models offered each year were customs.
The effects of the Depression on custom builders were devastating. The demand for such cars was small by the mid-’30’s and virtually non-existent by the end of that decade.
This then, was a custom body by Lincoln. Built to the highest quality standard, it embodied distinction and individuality, and offered the luxury car purchaser the opportunity for personal expression with a minimum of effort.
Alongside are the primary custom body manufacturers utilized by Lincoln from 1921-39. Listed are the location of the company, the years in which they made bodies for Lincoln, the number of series custom cars they produced for Lincoln, and the last year in which they were in business.