Bender Body Company
Bender Body Company – 1919-1939 – Cleveland, Ohio – 1937-1941 – Elyria, Ohio – Bender, Robinson & Co. 1900s-1919, New York, New York
During the first part of the twentieth century, the three Bender brothers, Herman (1883-1964), John (1887-1967) and Joseph (1890-1967), began working for their father at Bender, Robinson & Co., their father’s New York City Carriage shop.
By the early teens, Bender, Robinson & Co. were producing coachwork for automobiles, and exhibited a striking Singer limousine at the 1916 New York Auto Salon. The New York Times’ coverage of the event included a description of the vehicle:
“In the Singer space a striking car is appointed white sedan with sloping front windows and adjustable seats. The arrangement is for a plate glass roof with curtains to protect from the sun. The seats are upholstered in a rich nut brown velvety material. The woodwork is inlaid with mother of pearl. The body is by Bender, Robinson & Co.”
A number of northern Ohio- and Indiana-based automobile manufacturers had approached the Bender brothers to see if they were interested in establishing a body plant in their part of the country. As their business prospects in the metropolitan New York area were severely limited, they decided to take a chance and relocated to Cleveland Ohio in 1919.
With financial assistance from a Cleveland financier the brothers purchased a parcel of land at the southwest corner of Barberton Ave and 62nd St. and erected a 150,000 sq.ft. factory. Before they had even completed the building, the Bender Body Company had received firm orders for over 2,000 automobile bodies.
At the 1921 Body Builders’ Show, held in conjunction with the New York Automobile Show, Bender exhibited a Franklin Coupe and a Kurtz Automatic Sedan. Bender supplied production bodies to Duesenberg, Franklin, White and others early as 1919.
The $2,250 Kurtz Automatic, the “car without levers” was built in Cleveland by Cyrus B. Kurtz and utilized his patented transmission that was shifted electrically using a small electric switch attached to the steering column.
“It eliminates the old cumbersome gear shifting rod and emergency brake in the floor. The gear shifting system is the invention of C.B. Kurtz, one of the foremost automotive engineers of America, and after two years of experimenting, the system has been pronounced positive, quick, simple and a boon to those who drive motor cars.”
Although the Kurtz was “favored by women drivers” it was not favored by many others and didn’t survive the year.
When the Leon Rubay Co., White Motor Co.’s captive coachbuilder, went out of business in 1923, Bender started getting work that would have normally been built at Rubay’s 1318 West 78th St. factory.
The move coincided with White’s introduction of their first line of purpose-built bus chassis in 1923. From that point on, Bender’s success was closely tied to their relationship with White.
A 1922 order for 9-12 passenger bus bodies from the White Motor Company caused the brothers to switch gears, and by the fall of 1923, half of the plant had been converted over to the manufacture of bus bodies for their Cleveland neighbor.
During the mid-to-late twenties, White became the nation’s most popular bus chassis, and Bender, it’s most popular bus body. The increased business resulted in the construction of new outbuildings and the firm’s accounting and design offices were relocated one block north to a new office building at the corner of 62nd St and Dennison Ave. A second floor was added to the Barberton Ave plant and by 1929 the firm’s operations occupied 350,000 sq. ft.
Bender also produced screen-side and van bodies for White’s Model 60 light truck during the late 20s. Although Bender was White’s primary supplier of bus bodies, the Brown Body Corporation, another body builder located in Cleveland, provided White with some bodies during the late twenties and early thirties.
While an occasionally Bender body found its way onto a customer-supplied chassis, such as a fleet of Brockways built for the City of Syracuse, the bulk of the firm’s output rode on purpose-built White Motor Co bus chassis.
In October of 1933 Bender supplied an oversized 35-passenger coach to the Nairn Transportation Company of Damascus, Syria for use on its Baghdad to Damascus run. The vehicles were similar to today’s toter homes although the bodies were very streamlined, looking like a Curtiss Aerocar on steroids.
Early Nairn Transportation coaches were built by the Safeway Six-Wheel Coach Company of Philadelphia who had gone out of business in the late twenties. A press release gave details of the bodies which were to be mounted on what was essentially a super heavy duty White cab/chassis with an attached fifth-wheel trailer:
“The bus will be 69 feet long and mounted on 18 wheels. It will be powered with a 385 horsepower Diesel motor. The body will accommodate 35 passengers, and will be insulated against desert heat. First and second class compartments will be provided.
“The bus will carry provisions for five days in event of forced halts, and will have to ford the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Tires would be changed every 24 hours. And a 10 inch clearance will be provided between tire and fender to take care of the wet sand which packs on the wheels.“
A 1936 press release introduced Bender’s line of re-designed bus bodies:
“The new Bender Deluxe Line of coach bodies includes types for city bus service and for intercity bus service.
“The new line includes a number of new exclusive features, providing light weight without sacrificing strength, and providing longer life and even greater economy than precious lines of coach bodies.
“The new models include a body for city bus service, with front entrance and exit, seating 26 passengers; another city bus body with front entrance and center exit seating 24 passengers, and an intercity bus body with generous seat spacing, luggage racks, exceptional rider vision, and seating for 23 passengers.
“Safety glass is used in the windows to carry out further the safety provided by the all-metal body construction.
“The attractive interiors have floor finish of brown linoleum cemented into place, ceilings of aluminum panels and tubular frame city service seats, lacquer finished to harmonize with the interior body color and having comfortable seat cushions.
“A pull-over non-glare night curtain back of the driver’s seat protects passenger’s eyes from light of oncoming automobiles at night. A hot water heater under the first or second front seat assures passengers of comfortable riding temperatures in the cold winter months.
“The Bender Body Company has been building motor coach bodies since 1919. It pioneered in building the deluxe Palace Highway Coach and the type-T all-metal body and has a widespread reputation for excellence in design and craftsmanship in coach building.
“Many Bender-built coaches are in service on the nation’s highways today, some of them after hundreds of thousands of miles of continuous operation for periods of 10 years or more.
Bender’s lasting claim to fame is the open-topped tour buses they built for the National Park Service. During 1935, the Service conducted product evaluations at Yosemite National Park to determine the best vehicle for touring in western national parks.
Four chassis manufacturer’s participated in the competition and the White Model 706, with its strong 318 cu. in. 6- cylinder engine outperformed the other entries and was awarded the lucrative contract to supply the Park Service’s tour operators with sightseeing buses. The 706’s innovative radiator cowling and grill was designed by Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, while Herman Bender and White’s F.W. Black were credited with the design and engineering of the innovative open-topped touring bodies built specifically for the competition. The bodies used 5 doors on the right side (passenger or curb side) and a single door on the left for the exclusive use of the driver. The current crop of 1:48 scale Model 706 die-cast replicas erroneously include 5 doors on both sides of the body.
White had been supplying vehicles to Park Service tour operators since 1917 when Yellowstone took delivery of 117 White touring cars. In 1920 the cars were replaced by White Model 15/45 10-passenger bus chassis, and by 1924 over 300 Model 15/45 were in use at Yellowstone, most of which had been bodied by Bender. Those aging Model 15/45 buses were replaced by the vastly superior Bender-bodied White Model 706 starting in 1936.
Between 1936 and 1940, the Park Service’s concessionaires purchased 98 Model 706s for use at Yellowstone National Park and 35 for use at Glacier National Park in Montana. Many more were purchased by municipalities and private concerns, including the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs and the Skagway Streetcar Company in Skagway, Alaska.
Some of the original vehicles remained in service through the late 1990s, when the National Park Service’s tour operators had a few of the original coaches rebuilt using modern medium-duty truck chassis. Fortunately the sturdy Bender bodies were still usable, and simply needed repainting and reupholstering to be placed back in service.
Alexis de Sakhnoffsky and Eric Langlands (1885-1969) were freelance designers that worked on-and-off for White, with Langlands producing some freelance designs for Bender. Another Bender contributing designer was Betty Orr, the national sales manager of the Royal-Wilhelm Coach Company of Sturgis, Michigan. Orr was called in to help design the interiors for Bender’s Travel Mansion travel trailers. During the mid thirties, Bender hired H.O. DeBoer, the former sales manager of Superior Body Co. to head its transit and school bus body sales department.
In 1937 Ford introduced a new forward control bus chassis, the Model 70, which featured a 171” wheelbase powered by an 85 hp flathead V8. For the Model 70 chassis, Bender introduced a very box-like 25-passenger forward control body that was fabricated in sections using an all-steel framework covered by an aluminum skin. Unfortunately, most Model 70’s were sold with standard Union City-built coachwork and the pricier Bender bodied-version didn’t catch on.
By the late thirties, General Motor’s Yellow Coach Division had made significant inroads into the lucrative city bus manufacturing business and the sales of White coaches experienced a steady decline. Bender looked to other products to keep their factory busy, and it was decided that the emerging travel trailer business might be more lucrative.
Although Bender was primarily a bus body builder, they had been building travel trailers since 1922-23 when the built a full custom job called ‘The Ark’ for Will Keith Kellogg, the millionaire breakfast cereal manufacturer. The luxurious trailer was towed by a specially built White tractor and featured imported mahogany paneling and Spanish leather upholstery throughout.
The trailer boom of the mid thirties can be traced to improvements in the nation’s highways and to their appearance in a few popular Hollywood features. By 1936 an estimated 250,000 Americans were involved in the hobby which was featured in a humorous 1937 Terrytoons short, the ‘Tin Can Tourist’.
Manufacturers couldn’t keep up with the demand and even luxury builders like Teller-Bowlus, Covered Wagon, Curtiss and Airstream had their production sold out months in advance.
In 1936 Bender announced that they were purchasing the former Willys-Overland plant in Elyria, a small Central Ohio community located 25 miles southwest of the firm’s Cleveland factory. The 550,000 sq.ft. 4-story plant, located at 400 Clark St., was originally built in 1905 by the Garford Truck Co. The firm also manufactured the chassis for the Studebaker-Garford automobile at the Elyria facility through 1911.
When Garford moved to Lima Ohio in 1915, the plant was acquired by Willys-Overland who used it to assemble automobile engines. From 1927-1928 the Falcon-Knight was manufactured there by the Willys-controlled Falcon Motor Company. Willys absorbed the firm in 1929, and from 1929 through 1931 the plant manufactured truck components for Willys-Overland. Willys had no luck selling the plant so from 1932-1936 it remained idle.
At that time of the Elyria plant purchase, the firms officers were as follows; Herman Bender, president and general manager; John Bender, secretary and manager of the Cleveland plant and Joseph Bender Sr., treasurer and manager of the Elyria plant.
The third generation of body-building Benders joined the firm in the mid thirties. They included Joseph Bender Jr., assistant manager of the Elyria plant, Joseph H. Bender a designer at the Cleveland plant, John Bender Jr., a staff engineer and Rudolph Bender, assistant works manager of the Cleveland plant.
The Bender Travel Mansion debuted in 1937 and Bender hired White Motor Co.’s purchasing director Bert Graves to handle the same duties for the new plant in Elyria. Within a few short months, trailer production at the Elyria plant numbered 350 trailers per month.
Bender’s sales force traveled the country in a fleet of company-issued Bender Travel Mansions. At a 1937 sales meeting, E. J Speh, manager of Bender’s trailer division, explained to his salesmen:
“You’ll know your product better by living in it … You can show your prospects what a cozy home a trailer is and talk about it with greater assurance and conviction.”
A July 8, 1938 John A Bender announced that the bus plant in Cleveland was recalling 150 laid-off workers to assist their current staff of 300 help complete an order for 1,500 school buses to be delivered by September 15th. At that time the firm’s Elyria, Ohio plant employed 140 workers.
On October 17, 1939, a headline in the Elyria paper declared:
“Head of Bender Co. declares ‘No Comment’;
“Herman Bender, president of the Bender Body Company, reported today that he has ‘no comment whatsoever’ to make concerning rumors that the company is planning to remove operations of its Cleveland plant at West Sixty-second street and Barberton avenue, to its Elyria plant.
“It was indicated unofficially that a definite formal statement on the company’s policy may be issued soon, but Bender, reached at his office today, also declined to comment on this report.”
It turned out that the rumors were true and during early 1940, all the firm’s operations were transferred from Cleveland to the Elyria plant.
By the time Bender entered the trailer manufacturing business in earnest, there were already a large number of trailer manufacturers, and their timing couldn’t have been worse. An economic recession in 1939 thinned out the ranks of the nation’s trailer manufacturers, and those that survived soon found that the raw materials used in their manufacture were increasingly being set aside for war-related manufacturing.
At the start of the 1938 model year, Bender started producing hearse and ambulance bodies on Studebaker chassis. The two firms entered into a reciprocal agreement similar to the arrangement that Superior had previously enjoyed with the South Bend automaker. Bender’s coaches resembled the products of Superior however the rear side doors were noticeably narrower than Superiors.
Starting in 1939 some Bender ambulances featured streamlined emergency light pods and backlit name-plates. A gothic hearse was also built that same year that was mounted on a 1939 Cadillac chassis, however the vast majority of the other firm’s professional cars utilized Studebaker chassis right up until the firm’s bankruptcy.
When it became apparent that the production of travel trailers would not keep the firm afloat, Bender began promoting a steel wall construction system for new home construction. The Bender Steel Home Wall debuted in 1938 but was not readily accepted by the nation’s builders.
The firm filed for bankruptcy under Chapter X of the Federal Bankruptcy Act on February 19, 1941. No reorganization plan was forthcoming so the company was adjudicated as bankrupt. Production continued and up to four hundred workers remained employed at the Elyria plant producing bus bodies and aircraft sub assemblies for the military.
At the time of filing Benders largest creditor was the Federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation to which it owed $578,280. Accounts receivable totaled $326,331 which included $110,000 due from the US Army and Navy.
The firm’s power was disconnected on June 25, 1941 and the doors were closed for the final time. At the August, 4, 1941 meeting of the firms creditors, it was decided that all of the firm’s assets and real estate would be auctioned off.
Even though Bender’s Elyria plant was heavily involved in the manufacture of aircraft parts for the military, the attack on Pearl Harbor had not yet taken place so the firm was allowed to go bankrupt.
As it turns out only one major manufacturer of travel trailers, Wally Bynum’s Airstream Corp., made the successful transition from the Depression into the post-World War II era. Three major bus body manufacturers, Flxible, Superior, and Wayne made the same transition.
The Bender auction took place over a three-day period, October 7, 8 & 9 1941. The firm’s real estate, tools and equipment were appraised at $1.4 million, and brought in enough money to pay back the $578,280 Reconstruction Finance Corp. loan. Other creditors weren’t so lucky and could only hope that the $326,331 in accounts receivable would be collected and distributed by Bender’s receivers.
Bender Travel Mansion
1937 Bender Mansion. Owner Pete Nicolds