Briggs Body Plants and Chrysler
Walter O. Briggs started out as a laborer on the Michigan Central Railroad, worked his way up to foreman of the upholstery department at the car shop, was hired away by C.H. Little, and ended up at B.F. Everitt’s upholstery shop. Everitt was also one of creators of the E-M-F car (which became Studebaker).
Walter Briggs worked his way up the ladder until, finally, he was president of the firm — and he was able to buy it when Everitt put it on the market to raise capital for creating new cars. The outfit was quickly renamed to Briggs Manufacturing Company.
Briggs, already a major player in auto bodies and upholstery, soon acquired Sterling Auto Top Company and the Murphy Chair Company; in 1922, Briggs launched their Essex closed coach body, at roughly the same price as the less desirable open coaches, which quickly lost their popularity.
In 1923, with sales booming, Briggs bought the Michigan Stamping Company, whose seven year old plant on Mack Avenue was to serve Briggs and Chrysler through 1979.
In 1925, Briggs made over 500,000 car bodies, with an $11 million profit, bought its chief competitor’s plant, and began to make bodies for the Willys-Overland Whippet.
In 1927, Walter Briggs acquired New York body maker LeBaron, inheriting talented stylists and designers. LeBaron still made bodies in Bridgeport, but moved to a bigger plant there. Briggs built many Ford bodies, and, leveraging their success, bought Phillips Custom Car.
The New York and Connecticut LeBaron operations were shut down in 1930, their production consolidated into a LeBaron plant in Detroit. Briggs customers included Stutz, Chrysler, Packard, Hudson, Pierce-Arrow, Lincoln, and Ford, in some cases, short runs of specialty or custom bodies. Briggs designed the 1946 Chrysler Town & Country, which had a steel body with wood panels bonded to it for aesthetic reasons.
While Briggs rewarded its investors well, its employees were poorly paid even by the standards of the day, and in 1933 went on an impromptu strike, started by an attempt to cut the pay of a single worker by 15%. From 450 men, the strike spread to all 10,000 or more employees, shutting down Ford and Hudson as well. The pay cut, rescinded within 3 days of the strike being called, though lLocal newspapers conspired with Briggs to keep the strike secret.
After the success of the strike, Motor Products went on strike against a similar cut, and also won. Then workers at Briggs’ Highland Park plant went on strike both against their low wages and against the practice of not paying people for time at work between busy periods or when they were going from one part of the plant to another. All of Briggs again joined in, with various demands; workers at their chief competitor, Murray, also then went on strike, and were locked out. Hayes workers went on strike next.
Briggs’ next steps were to offer concessions if people would give up collective bargaining, then to declare the strike the work of communists, and finally to publicly lie about how much people were paid, saying the minimum wage was 25¢ per hour (in fact, it was around 3¢). Finally, Briggs tried using “replacement workers,” but under pressure from Ford (an anti-union company, but one that wanted to restart production), the company finally recognized the UAW.
In 1935 Walter Briggs acquired full ownership of the Detroit Tigers; he refused to allow blacks to sit in the boxes at the stadium, and would not allow black players to join the team. The Tigers were the second to last team in the major leagues to sign a black player, finally doing so after Briggs died.
With car sales low during the Depression, Briggs started stamping out sheet metal for bathtubs; these were far lighter than cast iron tubs, and could be stacked. Strong sales of these “Brigsteel Beautyware” pieces led to diversification into plumbing fixtures and colored porcelain; in 1946 they bought Abingdon Sanitary Manufacturing. Briggs kept this division until 1997, when it was purchased by CISA of South America; it is now called Briggs Plumbing Products.
Briggs helped to engineer the Chrysler Airflow cars, and to style the Ford Zephyr, Packard LeBaron, 1935 Ford, and Chrysler Airstream, as well as the Chrysler Thunderbolt and Newport concept cars’ tops. Chrysler stylist Ray Dietrich worked with Briggs and LeBaron through 1940. As time went on, Briggs was increasingly pressed into Chrysler’s service, and did less and less work for penny-pinching Ford; they went from supplying 66% of Ford’s outsourced bodies in 1936 to 27% in 1939, as Budd built commercial bodies and Murray built short-run bodies.
As car companies started their own styling departments, Briggs’ services in that area were less important, and the LeBaron division in particular suffered. Packard remained steadfast, buying all their bodies from Briggs until 1953.
The war stopped automotive work, but like every other auto-related concern, Briggs turned to military supply, making aircraft and vehicle parts.
Walter Briggs died in 1952, and Chrysler offered to buy the entire company.
Briggs under Chrysler Corporation
When Chrysler acquired Briggs's American car body operation in 1953 for $35 million (plus $27 million for Briggs’ inventory), they acquired 12 plants with some 6.5 million square feet of floor space and 30,000 employees. Briggs had built Plymouth bodies; Dodge, DeSoto and Chrysler bodies were built by Chrysler, for the most part. Over the years the majority of the plants were closed and sold off.
Briggs’ biggest customer, at that point, was Plymouth, which produced half of Chrysler’s cars.
A Briggs stamping operation in Detroit, on Mack Avenue, became a Chrysler stamping plant until 1979, when the long-obsolete facility was closed. Thieves tracked PCB-contaminated oil from transformers through the site, while water made its way into the stamping pits and underground passages. The City of Detroit bought the site in 1982, but was unable to resell it. In 1990, the EPA demanded that Chrysler clean up the plant’s asbestos and PCBs; starting in 1992, Chrysler, the city, and the EPA worked together to remove and clean 11 million gallons of water from the stamping pits, wash 18 acres of walls and floors, remove 10 million pounds of contaminated materials, and 16 million tons of nonhazardous dirt and debris. As much as possible was recycled; brick and concrete was crushed and used to fill the drained pits.
Briggs’ Conner Avenue body plant had been dedicated to building bodies for Packard, and it was sold to that company; Packard moved all body/chassis operations there. Packard’s 4.5 million square foot Grand Boulevard plant, used for 50 years, was replaced by the 1 million square foot Conner plant — which also made Packard bodies.
The big move for Briggs came with Chrysler’s change to unibody construction, which moved all body building into the assembly plants. The Evansville body plant was closed in 1959. The Youngstown (OH) stamping plant was replaced by a bigger, modern operation in Twinsburg, Ohio, in 1956. The body plant was closed with the expansion of the Newark and Lynch Road plants.
The LeBaron name re-appeared in 1958 as a model of Imperial; it would remain on Chrysler’s top cars until 1975, when Imperial itself finally ended. It then moved to become a Chrysler car name starting in 1977, on a much lower-end car, essentially a cosmetically altered Plymouth. The name LeBaron finally ended with Chrysler changed their front wheel drive from the K architecture, having outlasted Briggs by decades.
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