1915 Dodge Brothers
1915 Dodge Brothers – early all-steel body
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Although materials like glass fibre, plastic and aluminum are used in car bodies, the major component of the vast majority of auto bodies is steel.

The evolution of the all-steel body came after the car had become well established, and the man credited with it is Edward Gowen Budd. Ironically, his name is often associated more with railway rolling stock than with cars, at one time being second only to Pullman in this field.

When cars began to turn into useful conveyances around the turn of the century they were still strongly influenced by carriages. Rudimentary wooden bodies were fitted to metal running gear, usually supported by a flexible-steel or wooden frame. Little thought was given to weather protection.

As cars grew more popular and reliable, there was a need for more comfort, and stronger bodies and chassis. The young science of metallurgy gradually began to play a greater role in automotive engineering, such as Henry Ford’s use of vanadium alloy steel in the Model T.

Edward Budd was born in Smyrna, Delaware, on Dec. 28, 1870, around the time that the pressing of steel into thin sheets was evolving. He would become inextricably associated with this new product.

After apprenticing as a machinist, Budd worked as a Draughtsman and studied at the University of Pennsylvania. Interested in the potential of pressed, or stamped, steel as a replacement for heavy, brittle cast iron, he joined the American Pulley Company, which was launching a new steel pulley that was stronger and lighter than the traditional iron units. They also supplied stamped steel seat pedestals for railway cars to a company called Hale & Kilburn.

In 1902 Budd joined Hale & Kilburn at twice his American Pulley salary. Within a few years he was general manager.

During this period sheet steel was challenging cast iron. It was even utilized in the ceilings and walls of buildings. And the steelmakers were improving the stamping quality through more consistent thickness control and better tempering.

Budd saw the potential for sheet steel in the burgeoning automobile industry, and soon had Hale & Kilburn supplying such items as doors and cowls.

Budd was convinced that steel would ultimately replace wood, and to his delight, Hale & Kilburn was approached by Hupmobile in about 1910 with the idea of building an all-steel car.

Budd and Hupmobile’s engineers worked together to build a body entirely of steel. But extensive welding and bracing was required because the steel stampers had not yet learned how to press large compound curved sections.

Hale & Kilburn came under new owners who didn’t agree with Budd so he left the company in 1931. With savings and some borrowed capital he opened a metal pressing business, the Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Co. in Philadelphia in 1932. Due to his good reputation Budd was able to attract an even more important resource: skilled staff, including a brilliant Viennese engineer named Joseph Ledwinka. He and Budd would become inseparable confidants over their years together.

The young company struggled. Lacking sufficient building space, it kept its key asset, a large stamping press, in a circus tent next to the plant.

Then General Motors placed an order for an all-steel Buick body, and another for 2,000 Oakland bodies. Under Ledwinka the workers learned to control distortions and twisting in the bodies. By June, 1914, the company had made sufficient progress that Ledwinka obtained a patent for the world’s first all-steel, all-welded automobile body.

At about this time, John and Horace Dodge in Detroit, who had been supplying engines and other components to Henry Ford, broke with Ford and established their own car company.

The enterprising Dodges decided to make their new car out of steel, and who better to build the bodies for them than the Budd Co. The 1914 Dodge Brothers, therefore, became the first all-steel car to be produced in large quantities.

This was only the beginning for Budd. His enterprise went on to provide steel bodies, components, or body engineering to what reads like a Who’s Who of the industry: GM, Chrysler (including the Airflow models), Delage, Citroen, Mercedes, Morris, and Nash (for their pioneering unit construction bodies).

He established a company in Germany, Ambi-Budd, which became Germany’s largest steel stamper. It designed the Volkswagen “Jeep” model; unfortunately for Budd, the plant was lost during the Second World War.

Edward Budd died on Nov. 30, 1946. He worked right up to the end. His lasting legacy was his contribution to automotive history in the form of the all-steel car body. The Budd Company, based in Troy, Michigan, continues as a leading automotive engineering enterprise.

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