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Historical marker honors Fleetwood’s original factory

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Photo by JGBMLG.

In the years after Fisher Body removed all Fleetwood body production from that company’s original home in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, to Detroit, residents of the small town reportedly boycotted any and all GM products, ultimately forcing a local Chevrolet dealer out of business. More than 80 years later, the town’s residents appear to have let bygones be bygones with a new historical marker honoring the factory that still stands in the town.

A boycott was understandable. Not only did the Fleetwood Metal Body Company employ as many as 700 people (and bring $10 million in revenue) in a town of 2,100, it had also resided in its namesake town since its founding more than 20 years earlier.

Ironically, it was the departure of another Fleetwood-based coachbuilding firm to another automaker’s hometown–in this case the Reading Metal Body Company to Elyria, Ohio, after Garford bought it in 1909–that spurred Harry C. Urich, Reading’s former treasurer, to start the Fleetwood Metal Body Company in a former planing mill. Right off the bat, Urich found himself swimming in orders for coachbuilt bodies largely for American luxury automakers, leading him to hire hundreds of craftsmen versed in everything from wood body framing to metalshaping to upholstery.

Despite our current-day association of the Fleetwood name with Cadillac, the Fleetwood Metal Body Company supplied more bodies to Packard and Pierce-Arrow during its early years than to Cadillac. Fleetwood bodies also made their way onto chassis built by Alco, Duesenberg, Lincoln, Isotta-Fraschini, Mercedes-Benz, Locomobile, and more than a dozen other marques. Well-known dealers including Earl C. Anthony, Grover Parvis, and Inglis M. Uppercu, along with a number of Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Carnegies, specifically requested custom bodies from Fleetwood.

The rapid growth of the company led it to expand from 5,000 to 10,000 square feet within the year, to 20,000 square feet by 1910, and to the Reading Metal Body Company’s former facility in 1912. A fire at that factory in 1917 led Urich to build a 60,000-square-foot brick factory at Locust and Franklin.

The sale to Fisher Body in July 1925 for $650,000 came about from one or more of several reasons, depending on which source you believe. Lawrence Fisher said at the time that he merely intended “to preserve one of the finest traditions of handcraftsmanship to be found in the United States.” Indeed, Fleetwood continued to operate more or less independently of Fisher Body and GM over the next few years, producing bodies for Lincoln through 1926, Packard through 1927, Chrysler through 1928, and Stutz through 1929. And the investment from General Motors helped the company expand, hiring more workers than it had ever employed previously.

Altruism didn’t entirely explain the purchase, however. As pointed out, the future of Cadillac at that time depended on low-cost, high-quality coachwork, and Edsel Ford’s turnaround effort at Lincoln–not to mention Packard’s overtaking of Cadillac–was starting to put pressure on GM’s luxury division.

While the Fleetwood factory expanded under GM ownership, it ultimately couldn’t keep up with demand. After building a new plant in Detroit in 1929 exclusively for Fleetwood body production, Fisher Body moved all Fleetwood operations to that plant and another in Delray, Michigan, in December 1930. Urich retired from the company and Ernest Schebera remained to take on the title of president. The designers that moved with Fleetwood to Detroit eventually integrated into GM’s Art and Colour department.

Reportedly, the last bodies to come out of the Fleetwood plant weren’t intended for new GM vehicles. Instead, they were scale replicas of the Fisher Body coach, built by Walter Leuschner, as prototypes for the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild contests, announced in September 1930.

While a portion of the original Fleetwood factory works–long abandoned and scheduled for demolition–burned to the ground in 2006, the building used for final assembly has been refurbished and remains standing.

The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission historical marker at the factory site was dedicated earlier this month in a ceremony that included a Fleetwood-bodied 1912 SGV Runabout.