by David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life
When you drive out Lancaster Avenue, you’re driving a path of history.
Today, no matter where you start, the drive is free. But toward the end of the last century the avenue was a toll road, owned and operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The tolls were levied to ensure everybody continued to depend on the rails for transportation.
Thanks to thinking like that, there were many railroad millionaires with substantial, showy mansions set, almost jewel-like, on acres of land dotted with beautiful landscaping. Even they took the train to work, although usually in a private railway car.
But with all those acres of perfect gardens, the distance to the railway stations grew, and even the barons of the rail had to get to the station somehow. They weren’t going to ride a horse, like a working man would. So one of their home staff got up an hour or two before the master was ready to leave for the station and fed and harnessed the pair of expensive horses which led an equally expensive carriage.
Then, when the master of the house was ready to leave, his carriage was standing in front of the house ready to take him the 15-or-20-minute drive to the station, rain or shine.
Now this wasn’t unique to the Main Line; in Center City those private carriages and hired liveries took important, powerful and rich men where they wanted to go, too. That meant a lot of carriages, even more horses and the men to make the carriages, care for and handle the horses, and even sweep the streets.
Today city government may send a street sweeper past your house once each month, and you’re delighted to get rid of the leaves and debris. But at the turn of the last century this was an essential daily service, necessary both to health and safety. The byproduct of horses was certainly a disease carrier, and it was often also the cause of accidents on wet slippery roads.
It’s important to note that the average person alive today would find the places people lived then rather smelly, in large part because the horse was an essential transportation tool. Our ancestors probably didn’t mind it too much for several reasons. Thankfully, our sense of smell is one of the quickest to adjust, and after just a few days people stop noticing even a horrible smell. Also, they were, to put it indelicately, part of the problem.
Working people then bathed seasonally, on average. Over a period of decades, it became both practical and desirable for people of means to bathe weekly. Until that happened, though, there was a very clear difference between the laboring class and those who became know as the “Carriage Trade.” It wasn’t just a matter of speech or education; it was a matter of hygiene. The “Carriage Trade” were cleaner, smelled better and wore clothes that didn’t have to be sturdy enough to work in.
So if you’re in the carriage business, what better place to make them than where the “Carriage Trade” lived? The thought must have gone through the mind of an immigrant from Ireland named Joseph J. Derham when he opened his Carriage works in Rosemont in 1887 at the intersection of Lancaster Avenue and Haverford Road.
He’d arrived in Boston seven years earlier from Ireland’s County Galway as a 17-year-old orphan, along with thousand of others from Ireland who wished to seek their fortune. Many struggled just to survive. Unlike many of his compatriots, he had two advantages to offset the lack of relatives to lean on as a new immigrant: he had skills as a carriage worker and a lot of ambition. Moving to Philadelphia, he spent those seven years apprenticed in the carriage industry and saved his money. He was good at it and the quality of Derham’s work became known to the bankers, lawyers and industrialists who made up the wealth of the Main Line.
He certainly wasn’t part of the “Carriage Trade” himself; he was an artisan, a group who filled a spot in society somewhere between laborers and merchants. They often had a social mobility based on their skills and talents. If they were successful, they could became manufacturers and eventually affluent enough to join those who had originally been their customers.
At that time it was clear that the Main Line was the place to be, but then, as now, it wasn’t the only place to be. Luckily for him, Philadelphia wasn’t so far that customers who respected Derham’s quality wouldn’t make the journey. Soon, his carriages became sought after. Always considered a craftsman, his carriages reflected a high quality of workmanship. It wasn’t long before Derham began to turn out handsome Landaus, Victorias, Phaetons and Broughams, and for 20 years he dominated the field.
In 1902, he married Philadelphian Christina Hart, and six sons – four of whom later joined the company – were born during the following decade.
Derham didn’t move quickly into the automotive business, but when his customers began to request bodies for their horseless carriages, it was clear to Derham that this mode of transportation was here to stay, and he needed to convert to the new technology.
Today we think ourselves unique in having to deal with rapidly advancing new technology. In fact, the only real change since the beginning of the Industrial Age has been the speed of change. Then, like today, the businesses that failed to keep up with technology failed. But Derham had seen the future.
Better than that, he had a built-in advantage: he was already supplying “horsed” carriages to the rich at a time when, for economic reasons, they were the brunt of technology innovators.
Until Henry Ford began mass producing cars, one chose a coachbuilder independently of the manufacturer of the chassis. For the wealthy, these mass-produced cars were of no more interest than mass-produced clothing. In fact, for many of the Main Line wealthy, one automobile body wasn’t enough; they wanted both an open and closed car, usually to match the seasons. Derham and his three sons not only designed the bodies and built them in their factory, but offered storage of the “off-season” body in the upper stories of the Rosemont factory.
But that wasn’t the only motivation. The rich, since price is rarely a primary consideration, want only the highest quality. They can also afford to seek other qualities. With cars, it wasn’t unusual for people to want unique cars. So Joseph J. Derham Carriage Maker became the Derham Body Company.
In addition to building bodies for existing chassis, they began creating special cars. A Cadillac would be extended so that it was clearly longer than other Cadillacs. A Packard chassis would become a masterpiece resting on a Packard frame.
They made custom bodies for cars, a business that thrived in the years before World War Two. Derham and his three sons divided the work according to their talents. James assisted his father with sales, as did Philip, and the third brother, an engineer, became the designer.
Derham made cars for the famous, including a Pope. Later they designed and built a car for Joseph Stalin. But probably the most famous cars they created were long stunningly beautiful bodies for Duesenberg, including cars for actors Gary Cooper and Johnny Weissmuller (of Tarzan fame).
But their primary business was building cars for the Main Line’s rich. The Dorrance family (of Campbell Soup fame) owned them, but they were known far and wide. Even the King of England owned a Derham-bodied car.
There was also a consistent market for such great European classics as Hispano-Suiza, Bentley, Mercedes, Rolls-Royce, Isotta Fraschini, Delahaye and others. Noted automotive historian Beverly Rae Kimes suggests that Derham’s independence was a key to their character.
“Unlike may other coachbuilders, the Derham brothers refused to marry themselves off to any single automobile manufacturer. Granted, they flirted with some- the Tourster for Duesenberg, for example – but the brothers kept their alliances untangled and remained essentially beholden only to themselves and an admiring clientele,” she says.
One contributing phenomenon of the period before WWII was America’s strong “isolationist” movement. Due to that, many customers didn’t want to “buy European.” So they asked Derham to build a replica of a foreign body on their American chassis. For example, the famous Philadelphia financier E. T. Stotesbury ordered a fully collapsible-roofed town car body mounted on a Locomobile chassis. To anyone but a connoisseur, it was a Rolls Royce. Another Pennsylvanian had a Hispano-Suiza look-alike body placed on a Lincoln roadster. Often these would cost more than buying the original European car.
By chance, one of the top executives of Duesenberg, the most glamorous automobile in America, happened to be visiting the Derham showroom on the day the two-seater town car was delivered. He immediately realized that such a diminutive body placed on the enormous Duesenberg chassis would make the car look much larger and faster. The executive ordered several copies, which not only were successful in themselves but eventually led to Derham’s design of the J Convertible, one of the most famous of Derham bodies and one of the most beautiful motorcars ever built.
With the outbreak of WWII, the customer car business went into hiding, but the company found other ways to prosper. A Derham design for a military vehicle was so good that 10,000 of them were eventually built for the Department of War. The company worked furiously throughout the war.
But the era of custom coachbuilding was coming to an end. Thanks to a longtime customer and friend, Derham Body didn’t. Although the meaning of the phrase “Carriage Trade” has changed, the factory in Rosemont is still surrounded by today’s carriage trade.
In the mid-1960s, Al Garthwaite, Jr., former president of Conshohocken’s Lee Tire and Rubber Company, bought the building and the business. Mike Tillson is a local collector who this summer purchased a Derham-bodied Packard which was the “poster car” of the Radnor Hunt Concours d’ Elegance. He also started his automotive career working in the Derham Motors Building for Garthwaite right out of high school. “I got to talk with the youngest and last of the founders’ four sons, Enos, who’d been Derham’s designer for decades” he says.
“Al Garthwaite had already bought the company and part of the agreement was to keep The name alive and in it’s original building. At that time, and it was probably 1964. the only work the company was doing was bullet proofing limos,” he says. “The guys working on these were all in their 80s. As they died or couldn’t work any longer, so did the business,” he says. The company finally closed their doors in the late 1960s.
Another fan of Derhams is Christian Huber, who, upon buying a Main Line Jaguar dealership discovered he was the proud owner of a massive number of photos and drawings of Derham-bodies cars.
“Derham bodies for the most part weren’t fancy or particularly beautiful. They were, however of a very high degree of craftsmanship,” he says. “On the Main Line, and among Philadelphia’s wealthy, that was probably a virtue, since among Quakers, substance is much more important that style,” he says.
But the cars that came to be parked where Derham once built his bodies were as rare and special as the Derhams, but you’d never call them conservative. The rather distinctive building came to house the prancing ponies of Ferrari in a dealership called “Algar” after Al Garthwaite. To most people driving past the building on Lancaster Avenue these cars were as exotic as the cars Derham had turned out for the likes of Josef Stalin.
Few Americans were enthralled with Italian cars. Sure, they loved to hear about them winning European road races, and seeing their rakish lines, but drive them to work in the morning? That wasn’t an easy sell. Italian cars were temperamental. They broke easily. They leaked.
These were cars that sports car lovers bought and drove. Although expensive, they weren’t overwhelming. But they were, for the most part, the culmination of an interest in sporting cars. Enzo Ferrari wasn’t interested in selling cars, he was interested in financing his racing team by selling very expensive street versions of his cars that he wanted amateurs to take racing.
Luigi Chinetti was the father of Ferrari in the U.S. A racer, he ran Ferrari’s North American Racing Team, as well as driving for it. In 1972 he an Al Garthwaite kept the excitement alive, becoming the importer for Ferrari for the Eastern U.S. through a company called Chinetti Garthwaite Importers. That meant he needed more space, so the Ferrari concern moved to Paoli. During that period, the building still kept its association with beautiful cars, becoming a Porsche and Audi dealership.
By the 1980s Ferrari, now owned by auto giant Fiat, wanted to restructure their American sales, and bought back the right to import. Algar returned to being a dealer and in 1988 moved back into the Derham Building.
Although the building has been modernized and renovated, it’s impossible not to know its history. Surrounding the super-modern exotic cars, crouching on the showroom floor, there are old photographs of the building and the cars Derham made there.
One thing that hasn’t changed in the century since there have been Derham cars created in Rosemont, though, is the class and panache of the cars that drive off the lot.