Judkins – Where Fine Coachwork is a Heritage

by Rich Ray

Originally published in the May-June 2012 issue of the CCCA Michigan Region Torque magazine.

Katie Robbins recently loaned me a very interesting vin­tage promotional booklet printed by the J.B. Judkins Company. It is an interesting piece of advertising probably handed out to potential customers to convince them that a custom Judkins body was the best choice for their new car.

Article continues below photo gallery.

While there is no publication date in the booklet, there are a couple of clues to its age. First, a statement in the concluding paragraph of this 34-page document points out that the Judkins plant “is busier than ever before in its seventy-two years of active life.” Since the company was founded in 1857, a little math puts the year of publication as 1929. Second is a sketch of a Judkins-bodied car described as “modern, 1932 Lincoln KB Coupe by Judkins thoroughly automotive in spirit, Judkins’ designers look ahead” that bears a strong resemblance to a 1930 Cadillac. So this document was published at the height of the custom body era, when customers for luxury cars often purchased just the chassis from the auto manufacturer and then had a body custom made to their tastes by an independent coachbuilder.

Judkins was one of the two largest coachbuilders in the Classic era, along with Brunn & Company, and was among the group of well-known coach builders who started out in the horse-drawn era following only Brewster and Quinby in age. Like most of the coach builders of the era, Judkins is most closely associated with one auto manufacturer, Lincoln, in their case. Like the others, Judkins was often approached by a customer to custom design a body to their tastes, but they also offered a catalog or “pattern” book of designs to help guide the customer. They produced thousands of series-built and full custom bodies with production averaging around 500 bodies per year at the peak.

The CCCA website lists 60 Judkins-bodied cars belonging to members: three Duesenbergs, one Packard, one Pierce-Arrow and the rest Lincolns. This article will not go into great detail on the history of Judkins, since it was thoroughly covered in a six-part series in the Classic Car in 1964, based on Judkins company archives subsequently donated to the CCCA Museum by Constance Jud­kins Bowman, daughter of John B. Judkins.

While a well-established company prior to the Classic era, much of Judkins success during the period was due to its chief designer, John F. Dobben. His father had been a coachbuilder for Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and began his career in the Pope-Hartford body shop. He was chief draftsman for J. M. Quinby & Sons until they closed in 1917, and then he went to work for Judkins. He was responsible for the design of all Judkins bodies from 1921, when Luxury attained new heights in the brougham of 1890 Body styles remained unchanged for the first horseless carriages Models for 1907 were still clearly carriage bodies Fully enclosed—a significant forward step in 1910 design Modern, thoroughly automotive in spirit, Judkins designers look ahead they were building six bodies a week, through their peak of 24 per six-day week in 1928.

Judkins’ association with Lincoln began in 1921 when a Boston Lincoln dealer ordered a custom four-passenger sedan body from Judkins for a new Lincoln chassis. It was a major aesthetic improvement over Lincoln’s rather staid standard bodies. Henry M. Leland, Lincoln’s founder, was well recognized for his mechanical, but not design, abilities. The favorable reception of this body led to an immediate order for 50 more followed by another 374 over the next year. Over the period through 1939, Judkins produced a total of 5,904 custom and series-custom bodies for Lincoln, more than any other coachbuilder.

Judkins also built over a thousand bodies for Winton, 200 for Packard, 27 for Duesenberg (some designed by Duesenberg’s Gordon Buehrig), as well as Cadillac, Locomobile, Marmon, Mercer, Pierce-Arrow and Stearns-Knight. Most were series-built customs, but many were full-custom designs.

The booklet details the founding of the company by John B. Judkins in the lower valley of the Merrimac River in Massachu­setts, which was the home of poet John Greenleaf Whittier, buggy makers and the mills of Lowell and Lawrence. After six years as an apprentice and master trimmer, Judkins started his own firm with $300, building a two-wheeled, one horse “shay” buggy as his first product. Entries in their accounting records shown in the booklet tell how a chaise buggy was sold for a carload of potatoes or a large supply of tea, which was then used to pay the workmen in lieu of cash. The firm thrived through the shakeout in the buggy business—from 72 shops in the 1870’s to two in 1929. Thus, Judkins was able to proclaim itself as “the builders of fine coachcraft for three generations.” Judkins first automobile body job was an order for twenty bodies for a vehicle for the Electric Vehicle company of Hartford. Judkins experience with closed bodies served them well since the bodies they produced were almost exact duplicates of the horse-drawn brougham bodies they had been producing.

The booklet includes a series of product sketches that do a great job of illustrating the transition of body design from the horse-drawn to the automobile era. It took twenty years for Judkins to complete the transition from manufacturing horse-drawn to auto­mobile bodies in 1910. Looking at the series of five sketches, one can see the common design flavor carried through the transition, particularly the gently curving vertical line starting from windshield pillar to the bottom of the body.

The booklet concludes by presenting the parallels between the construction of the modern car body and the fine closed car­riage body of the late-nineties, including the structural framework, joinery, reinforcing castings, hand fitting. This description is “why the Judkins plant, cradled here in the New England hills, is busier today than ever before.”

However, this “busyness” was not to last and by 1934, the economic depression brought the custom coachbuilding business to a trickle. In 1936, to keep the plant operating, Judkins started producing traditional barrel-roofed diners marketed as Sterling diners. While the popularity of these diners appeared to possibly save the company, an economic slowdown caused a large number of customers to default causing the company to finally close in 1942, 85 years after its founding and 12 years after publication of this booklet.