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Briggs Body Plants and Chrysler

Walter O. Briggs’ started working as a laborer on the Michigan Central Railroad, where his father was an engineer. He worked his way up to becoming foreman of the upholstery department at the car shop, was hired away by C.H. Little, and then moved to B.F. Everitt’s upholstery shop. Everitt, in addition to being an upholstery supplier, was one of three creators of the E-M-F car (which became Studebaker) and the Everitt car. Over the years, Briggs worked his way up to becoming president of the firm; so when Everitt sold the company to raise capital for car work, Briggs bought it and renamed it Briggs Manufacturing Company.

Briggs plant in 1954

Briggs Manufacturing was already a major player in auto bodies and upholstery, and under Walter Briggs, it acquired Sterling Auto Top Company and the Murphy Chair Company as well. In 1922, Briggs launched their Essex closed coach body, at roughly the same price as the less desirable open coaches; that was the beginning of the end for open cars.

In 1923, with sales booming, Briggs bought the Michigan Stamping Company, another major supplier to Ford, with a plant on Mack Avenue (built in 1916) that was to serve Briggs and Chrysler through 1979. In 1925, Briggs made over 500,000 car bodies, with an $11 million profit, and bought its chief competitor’s plant. Late in the year, Briggs started making bodies for the Willys-Overland Whippet.

whippet

In 1927, Walter Briggs acquired body maker LeBaron, which was based in New York City. That provided Briggs with a considerable amount of talent in stylists and designers, as well as an established name; one of LeBaron’s designers and leaders, Ralph Roberts, reportedly created the Model A Fordor sedan bodies, which were built by Briggs. (LeBaron still made bodies in Bridgeport, but moved to a bigger plant there.) Briggs also built Ford’s open cab pickup bodies and many closed-cab bodies from 1925 to 1932; and bought Phillips Custom Car.

The New York and Connecticut LeBaron operations were finally shut down in 1930, with a LeBaron plant in Detroit picking up the slack. Briggs could now count as customers Stutz, Chrysler, Packard, Hudson, Pierce-Arrow, and Lincoln, as well as Ford and others — in some cases, short runs of specialty or custom bodies. Briggs was the designer of the 1946 Chrysler Town & Country, which had a steel body with wood panels bonded to it for aesthetic reasons.

1998 mack avenue engine complexWhile Briggs rewarded its investors well, it did not reward its employees particularly well; they were very poorly paid even by the standards of the day, and in 1933 went on an impromptu strike, started when a single man was to get a pay cut but instead went to his union committee head and then to all the other workers in his plant. From 450 men the strike spread to all 10,000 or more employees, shutting down Ford and Hudson as well. At issue was a 15% pay cut, rescinded within 3 days of the strike being called. (Local newspapers conspired with Briggs to keep the strike secret.)

The strike ended on the end of the pay cut, but Motor Products then 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 make concessions provided the workers would not bargain collectively, and when that failed, to declare the strike the work of communists; and to publicly lie about how much people were paid, saying the minimum wage was 25¢ per hour (in fact it was around 3¢). After Briggs unsuccessfully attempted to restart production with scabs, in the absence of skilled workers and 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 — doing so after Briggs died). Unlike his own employees, the team was well paid, and won American League pennants in 1940 and 1945, though they declined afterwards

With car sales low during the Depression, Briggs started stamping out sheet metal for bathtubs, which were covered in procelain; these were far lighter than cast iron tubs, and cold 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 never sold this division to Chrysler, but it was purchased by CISA of South America in 1997. The division is now called Briggs Plumbing Products.

Over the next decade, Briggs would assist in engineering the Chrysler Airflow cars, and in styling 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. Indeed, 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.

briggs wartime

The war stopped automotive work, but like every other auto-related concern, Briggs turned to military supply, making aircraft and vehicle parts.

Walter O. Briggs died in 1952, and Chrysler offered to buy the entire company.

Briggs under Chrysler Corporation

briggs stamping to chryslerWhen Chrysler acquired Briggs's American car body operation in 1953 for $35 million (as well as paying $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 in-house 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 alone 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. Eight years later, in 1990, the EPA demanded that Chrysler clean up the plant’s asbestos and PCBs; Chrysler (helped by the city and EPA) did so, removing and cleaning 11 million gallons of water from the stamping pits. 18 acres of walls and floors were washed and more than 10 million pounds of contaminated materials were removed, as well as 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. The Dodge Viper started production in a new Mack Avenue factory (“New Mack”) in 1992, the same year Chrysler started tackling the interior of the old plant.

A number of other Briggs facilties were used. The Conner Avenue body plant had been dedicated to building bodies for Packard, and it was sold to that company; for the 1955 model year, 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. To say Packard had problems would be an understatement.

The big move for Briggs came with Chrysler’s change to unibody construction. With unibody, all body operations moved into the assembly plants. The Evansville body plant was closed in 1959, replaced by the St. Louis plant. The Briggs Youngstown (OH) stamping plant was replaced by a bigger and much more modern operation in Twinsburg, Ohio, in 1956. The body plant was closed with the expansion of the Newark and Lynch Road plants.

Other plants remained, though some were repurposed: these included the Mound Road Engine Plant, Mt. Elliott Tool and Die, and Mack Avenue Engine Plant.

The LeBaron and Briggs names were dropped in 1953, but LeBaron would re-appear 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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Also see... Factory photos: 2009 Dodge Ram - 1995 Neon - Chrysler LeBaron Convertible - Newark Assembly Plant

Working at the plant: Dave Tyjeski (2009), Bill Wetherholt (2009), Matt Wetherholt (2009), Views (2002), Teamwork (1998)

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