A View With a Room

We recall a legendary name in American coachbuilding.

Unattributed image via Pinterest

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.

Coachbuilt

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[1], although not exclusively.

1920 Sayers & Scovill hearse. RM Sotheby’s

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.

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The S & S name was retired in 1942, becoming The Hess & Eisenhardt Company that year; continuing in the professional and one-off business[2], 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[3], including a unique (and now infamous) Lincoln Continental stretch limousine for John Fitzgerald Kennedy – fatefully the car in which he was assassinated in 1963.[4]

Lincoln Continental presidential limousine 1964. Favcars

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.[5]

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[6], 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.[7]

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.

1985 Cadillac Deville limousine. Dyler

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[8], 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.

[1] H & E claimed to be the world’s oldest ambulance and hearse maker.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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. 

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] The Hess and Eisenhardt XJ-S Convertible will receive a more detailed profile in a forthcoming DTW article.

[8] 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

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

13 thoughts on “A View With a Room”

  1. Good morning, Eóin. I’m pretty sure we all know the Cadillac hearse, either from the silver screen or from encounters in real life. And JFK’s Lincoln of course. But I have to admit, I didn’t know about Hess & Eisenhardt. I was vaguely aware the XJ-S convertible wasn’t made in Coventry, but again I had no idea who actually made it.

    Thanks for another day at the DTW School of automotive disclosures. Much appreciated.

    1. Freerk: Just to clarify, the H & E XJ-S conversion was carried out with Coventry’s blessing, in the US market only. It sold alongside Jaguar’s own Cabriolet offering for a time but was supplanted by the full convertible jointly developed by Jaguar (and Karmann), which was introduced in 1988. There were quite a number of XJ-S convertibles made in retrospect – I will document them in more detail in a forthcoming article.

  2. And thank you from me too Eoin. Though with regard to the JFK Lincoln, why on Earth bother with making the windscreen bulletproof as it was a convertible? Without a sci-fi invisible force field nothing would have saved Mr President.

    1. Interesting stuff, thank you Eóin. For anybody who wondered what happened to the Lincoln after JFK’s assassination, here’s an account from the Houston Press:

      “The limousine, built by Ford, was customized for the president and leased to the country for presidential use. (A bargain considering that the customization, including reinforcing the sides of the car and making it 3½ feet longer, cost just under $200,000.)

      After Kennedy’s fateful trip through downtown Dallas, the bloodstained car was shipped back to Washington D.C., where it was inspected by investigators for weeks before being released to the White House, where employees were given instructions to do “whatever was necessary” to remove all traces of blood and gore from the car.

      You might not recognize the car now. The first thing they did after cleaning it was to install a permanent roof with bulletproof glass all through it, and they also added armor plates to the doors and put on flat-proof tires. (All of which makes you wonder why the hell no one thought to do this, let’s say, before November 22, 1963, but that’s where the conspiracy theories take over.)

      However, Lyndon B. Johnson must have had at least some qualms about the [previously dark blue] vehicle because he had it painted black, not wanting anyone to recognize his presidential limo as being “that” presidential limo.

      The vehicle was returned to service and used by Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter before finally being retired in 1977. You’d think at that point it would have joined the Lincoln hat at the Smithsonian, but the car was taken to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.”

      One can’t imagine, in the same circumstances today, the car being put back into service. It would almost certainly be scrapped.

    2. This reminds me of the car cleaning scene in ‘Pulp Fiction’…

    3. Allegedly, JFK himself specified that the Lincoln be made available in fully open form for the Dallas visit. Hess later speculated that had the hard roof been in place, (it was being stored in Rossmayne) he may not have been killed.

  3. Daniel, on my only visit to the sprawling Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, back in 1987, the Presidential Lincoln was displayed directly adjacent to the theatre seat in which Abraham Lincoln had been sitting when he was shot. It was a truly eerie spectacle.

  4. Thank you very much for this profile on H&E, Eòin. An acquaintance of my brochure collecting friend in the USA (the one I was to buy his 1972 Buick Riviera of before he unexpectedly passed away) had added this 1959 Lincoln Continental Formal Sedan by Hess & Eisenhardt to his stable and had invityed us to take a quick look at it. Pictures can not convey how big this thing was, and whatever what one might have thought of its styling it was a mighty impressive vehicle. Just 74 were ever made which makes it one of the rarest Lincolns. Here is a collage of the quickie-pictures I took at the time:

    1. I am put in mind of a 900 g hamburger. It´s just too much. Mercedes’ Pullman, which is already a touch gross, is dainty by comparison. They say size matters and that´s true because at least in the car business some things can be too large.

    2. Richard- I would absolutely agree. Standing in front of it I couldn’t help saying to myself: “What where they thinking?”…. it gets your attention and makes quite an entrance but so does a sumo-wrestler entering a diving competition.
      In this case even the intended buying public at the time mostly shied away from the Lincoln showrooms; luckily the brand came to its senses and followed it up with the brilliant, compact by comparison 1961 model.

    3. I would politely question exactly how more excessive the Lincoln was in comparison to a ’59 Cadillac – or its Chrysler counterpart? Each were huge (the Lincoln was admittedly more huge) and while the Cadillac is largely cherished for its excessive appearance, the Lincoln is derided for similar. (Nobody seems to mention the Chrysler). I recall seeing a ’58 or ’59 Lincoln (with the reverse slope Breezeway window) during the early 1980s somewhere near Kilkenny. It was owned by a chap who had a large car collection and a yard full of derelict cars – a fascinating place for a car-obsessed teenager. The Lincoln was pristine, as was the ’59 Jaguar MK IX sitting alongside – but I only had eyes for that huge, fantastical American import. How he managed it on Irish back roads, I have no idea.

      However, Bruno is correct insofar as the US carbuying public turned their noses at the ’58-60 Lincolns. So much so, that it was only as a last ditch reprieve that the ’61 car was sanctioned.

    4. Fair point – those cars are also on the gross side. For comparison though,the Daimler DS420 achieved scale without being nasty. And today´s Rolls Royce Phantom 8 is also huge without being visually excessive (we´re being relative here, I suppose). Compared to Ford Fiesta it´s like an aircraft carrier.

    5. Eòin: Fair point indeed, but I think the visual problem of the Lincoln compared to the Cadillac (which was just as excessive in most ways) was that its designers had followed a “fill in the corners” styling direction which made the car look especially bulky and simply inelegant. The Cadillac, and also its counterpart from Chrysler the Imperial, had more flowing lines that at least gave them a modicum of (heavy) grace.

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