1915 Dodge Brothers car
1915 Dodge Brothers car. Click image to enlarge

Article and photo by Bill Vance

Although fibreglass, plastic, aluminum, and other materials are used in car bodies, steel still predominates. The all-steel body evolved after the car had become well established, and is most strongly associated with Edward Gowen Budd, an unsung hero of automotive history. Despite his major contribution to automobiles, his name is more often associated with trains than cars, a field in which Budd was at one time second only to Pullman.

When cars started becoming useful conveyances after the turn of the twentieth century, they still carried strong carriage influences. Their rudimentary wooden bodies were supported by flexible-steel or wooden frames.

As cars grew more popular and reliable, motorists sought more comfort and weather protection and the young science of metallurgy began playing a greater role in automotive engineering. An example is Henry Ford’s use of strong vanadium alloy steel in his cars.

Edward Budd, the man who led the all-steel car body evolution was born in Smyrna, Delaware, on Dec. 28, 1870. His birth coincided with the development of pressing steel into thin sheets, and Budd would become inextricably associated with sheet steel.

Budd worked as a machinist and draughtsman and studied at the University of Pennsylvania. He was interested in the potential of pressed, or stamped, steel as a replacement for heavy, brittle cast iron. He joined the American Pulley Company, whose new steel pulley was stronger and lighter than traditional iron. They also supplied stamped steel seat pedestals to railway car company Hale & Kilburn, and 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, being utilized in a variety of applications, including ceilings and walls of buildings. Steelmakers were improving stamping quality with more consistent thickness control and better tempering, and Budd saw sheet steel’s potential for the burgeoning automobile industry. He soon had Hale & Kilburn supplying such items as doors and cowls to the industry.

Budd was convinced that steel bodies would ultimately replace wood, and was therefore delighted when Hale & Kilburn was approached by Hupmobile in about 1910, expressing interest in building an all-steel car. Budd and Hupmobile’s engineers collaborated in fabricating a totally steel body. Extensive welding and bracing were required because steel fabricators had not yet learned how to press large compound curved sections.

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