We recall a legendary name in American coachbuilding.
Today’s Escalade SUV is routinely paraded as the new-millennial personification of the classic full-size Cadillac sedan, but with the sort of ground clearance and utility the Cadillacs of yesteryear could only dream about. During the roseate era of fins, dagmars and chrome plating, Cadillacs were not created with practicality foremost in mind – these were profound statements, potent symbols of attainment.
Throughout the 1950s, Cadillac sales were seemingly impervious to market vagaries or the state of the economy. While its brash appearance may not have been to everyone’s taste – even in more-is-more boomtime fifties America – the Cadillac was the domestic car the vast majority of the American public aspired to. Cadillac customers were also said to be the most brand-loyal; even in more difficult times, a new Cadillac on the suburban driveway clearly illustrated to peers and associates that everything was ‘just swell’.
But for some particularly well-heeled customers, even a sparkling new Caddy, in sedan, coupé or convertible form was not quite going to cut it – after all, they probably already had at least one of those. To put it another way, their desires stretched to more than a common or garden Sedan de Ville, Eldorado or Fleetwood. For these customers the requirement for an exclusive utility vehicle (quite literally an estate car) could only be fulfilled – off the shelf at least – by something mortifyingly declassé.
Fortunately, just as in Italy, France or Britain, there existed a thriving cottage industry of coachbuilders producing custom builds for a select group of clients with highly specific needs, wants and fervent desires. Foremost amongst these was the Rossmoyne, Cincinnati-based Hess & Eisenhardt, famous for its conversions on Cadillacs, Lincolns and other fine car makes, serving the livery, ambulance, funeral and limousine markets primarily, although not exclusively.
Formed as the Sayers and Scovill Company in 1876, Emil Hess and Charles A. Eisenhardt Snr joined the nascent carmaker as office juniors, later playing a decisive role in the company’s expansion and prosperity – Hess, the design wizard and Eisenhardt the marketeer. From 1909, the business moved into the lucrative ambulance, hearse and limousine trade, and in 1917, produced a motor car of their own design – the Sayers Six. Sayers cars (later named S & S) were highly regarded with a reputation for superb quality but foundered on price and the economic headwinds of the Great Depression. Production ceased in 1930.
The S & S name was retired in 1942, becoming The Hess & Eisenhardt Company that year; continuing in the professional and one-off business, while gaining an enviable reputation for craftsmanship. H & E also gained commissions for a series of armoured presidential vehicles, serving successive US presidents from Harry Truman through to Lyndon Johnson, including a unique (and now infamous) Lincoln Continental stretch limousine for John Fitzgerald Kennedy – fatefully the car in which he was assassinated in 1963.
Throughout the 1950s, Hess & Eisenhardt built small numbers of Cadillac Fleetwood station wagons, known as Viewmasters, (or Custom View Masters – depending on source) largely to order for a select number of clients, amongst whom are believed to have included Hollywood stars, Debbie Reynolds, Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin – the kind of people who could not only afford, but demand quality and exclusivity.
According to Coachbuilt, Viewmasters “were built on a standard 129″ wheelbase Series 62 chassis with a Series 86 commercial cowl and floor pan. All the glass behind the B-pillars is unique to these cars except for the tailgates. 1955 models featured Chevy Nomad rear liftgate glass, while 1956 model used standard Chevrolet-sourced 210 station wagon rear hatches“. The last recorded Hess & Eisenhardt Cadillac station wagon is believed to have made an appearance on the Cadillac stand at the New York Automobile show in 1966, although the majority are believed to have been 1956 and ’59 models.
With the business of lifesaving, end of life and living large seemingly impervious to time, geopolitics or indeed much of anything else, H & E continued to prosper; amongst its innumerable sidelines being to assist in the development of Cadillac’s first electric sunroof, and padded vinyl roofs for both GM and Ford.
By the early 1970s, Hess and Eisenhardt was under new management (the founding families having sold their interest). In the wake of the failed Ohio test case which proposed the outlawing of convertibles, and with carmakers in its aftermath struggling to either build them or indeed make them pay, H & E branched into OEM conversions for such carmakers as Buick, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac and notably from 1986, for Jaguar Inc.
Around this period, both Sayers & Scovill professional arm and the armoured vehicle division of the H & S business were separately hived off, leaving the OEM arm as their sole dollar earner. By the mid ’80s, Hess & Eisenhardt were building stretch limousine versions of the downsized C-bodied Cadillac De Ville sedans, which were sold to order through Cadillac main dealers. By 1990, the Jaguar gig had dried up, and with Cadillac production being shifted to GM’s Hamtramck plant, belts were worn tighter at Rossmoyne.
In the final years work was subcontracted out to what would previously have been rival firms, and by 1992, Hess & Eisenhardt had ceased trading entirely. Meanwhile, the previously separated O’Gara Hess and Eisenhardt armoured division was purchased in 2001 by the appropriately named Armor Holdings Inc before itself being sold to defence giant BAe Systems. The following year, BAe spun off the armoured vehicle division now luxuriating in the name of Centigon, selling it on to the Carat Security Group. In 2014, Dongfeng Motor group obtained Centigon in its entirety.
Returning to the modern day Escalade, with its vast scale, ostentatious appearance and its large and profligate power units, it is probably logical to concur with those who view them as the modern embodiment of the full-sized Cadillacs of yore. But in fact, they seem to have even more in common with these limited-run mid-Century station wagons. It might have taken another fifty years or so for the General to realise, but it could be said that Hess & Eisenhardt had the right idea all along.
 H & E claimed to be the world’s oldest ambulance and hearse maker.
 Owing to Hess and Eisenhardt’s fine craftmanship, skills and experience, General Motors commissioned them to build a great deal of their Motorama Dream Car concepts.
 Accounts differ as to how many US presidents H & E provided official vehicle for. But these were not confined to American heads of state either, H & E building armoured limousines for a wide variety of dignitaries, worldwide.
 JFK’s X100 stretch Lincoln was designed for the American Secret Service as a closed limousine, town car, convertible, or landulet. Fatefully, it was specified with bullet-proof glass for the windshield only. Hess was invited to consult with the Warren Commission in the investigation into JFK’s killing.
 Speaking to journalist, Richard Sutton in Classic & Sportscar magazine (Jan 1988), Willard Hess (Emil’s son) pointed out that Viewmaster production was sporadic; “We dropped out for a couple of years and then we’d get back into them again and build 8 or 10 – no big quantities.“
 Ironically, it was believed to have been in a Cincinnati courtroom that the pivotal judgement was made which stopped the proposed ban on open-topped cars in its tracks in 1973.
 The Hess and Eisenhardt XJ-S Convertible will receive a more detailed profile in a forthcoming DTW article.
 Centigon’s business includes a contract to produce fully armoured ‘Sentinel‘ versions of Jaguar and Land Rover products for the UK-based carmaker.
Contrary to expectation, the world’s most famous ’59 Cadillac wagon was not a Hess & Eisenhardt creation. The 1959 Cadillac Futura Duplex end-loader ambulance/ hearse combination featured throughout the 1984 Ghostbusters movie was built by Miller-Meteor, one of a number of Hess & Eisenhardt’s commercial rivals in the ‘professional‘ car business.
Sources: Classic & Sportscar/ Coachbuilt.com