Lehmann-Peterson veteran Bill Leahy looks back at more than two decades of coachbuilding
Lehmann-Peterson limousines have attained legendary status in the limousine industry. Perhaps no other builder of stretch limousines contributed as much to the development of the limousine as Pete Peterson, who gathered a small group of craftsmen in a converted garage in Chicago in the ‘Sixties and stretched Lincoln Continentals for all manner of wealthy and demanding customers. No matter what kind of stretch Lincoln limousine a customer wanted, George Lehmann would sell it to them and Peterson would build it.
When Lehmann-Peterson began building limousines, Bill Leahy, an acquaintance of Peterson’s from automobile race tracks around the country, owned a small shop down the street where he did specialty automotive work. Leahy remembers that there was usually something interesting going on at Lehmann-Peterson. The company employed craftsmen who continually pioneered new automotive ideas. After he closed his own shop, Leahy would occasionally stop by to see a few friends and see what was going on.
By 1965, business was booming at Lehmann-Peterson and custom limousines were being built for buyers ranging from Jackie Gleason to the Supremes. When Pete Peterson needed help with prototypes and special projects, he asked Leahy to pack up his tools and join the company. Leahy soon found himself involved in the development and construction of some truly remarkable limousines. Many features found in today’s stretch limousines first appeared in the vehicles built during this period.
By the time Lehmann-Peterson closed in 1970, Leahy was back in his own shop where he and his son did specialty aluminum work. Before long, however, Leahy was back in the limousine business with Concept Coach Builders in Milwaukee where he oversees the manufacturing of their extended bodied Rolls-Royce Limousines and their new Concept 3.8SL (Oldsmobile) and 3.8SLB (Buick) Limousines. Today, Bill Leahy is one of a handful of Lehmann-Peterson veterans who are still involved with limousines.
After his many years building limousines, Leahy ranks as one of the founding fathers of the modern coach-building business. He recently looked back at his career in an interview with Limousine & Chauffeur.
L&C: What is your background in limousines?
Leahy: I owned a shop down the street from Peterson. The first car was built on Harlem Ave. in a two-car garage. When Ed Cozzi and Pete Peterson built their first car, they just opened up the garage and added a section that overhung the sidewalk. I had a shop down the street and I would stop there at night and see what they were doing. Pete and I were friends for a long time. We all were in racing at one time.
I didn’t go into business with the right off the bat, but about the e of ‘64 or beginning of ‘65 Pete call me and said “Close your shop, through your tools in the tool box, come over here and we’ll get wailing.” So that what I did.
L&C: What kind of shop did you have?
Leahy: I built aluminum bodies. I’d done a lot of stuff. I re-bodied a 19 Mercedes. Anything with aluminum including dragsters and a lot of custom cars. I had my own shop be in the beginning of the ‘Fifties. We did a lot of so-called “lead sled” wood. We chopped and channeled a were the first ones with candy paint. This went on until 1959 which when Bondo came in. Then I went into doing aluminum on race cars.
I went to work for Meisterbrau brewery with their race team a stayed there about five years. I went up to Wisconsin for about a year and worked for Brooks Stevens doing some restoration work at the museum. Then I had a little shop and did anything I could get my hands on. I did aircraft work and moved around quite a bit. Wherever the work was. I just had to roll in with my toolbox. I was lucky enough to work with Trautman and Barnes out there on the West Coast. Trautman and Barnes were the ones who originally built the Scarab. I really was lucky. I got around and saw a lot of people and learned a lot of things early on.
L&C: What was Lehmann-Peterson doing when you started?
Leahy: They had built about 60 cars, I think. Over a two-year period we had 17 people. Lincoln was pushing do more so we moved into a new building and I took over the old building on Sawyer Ave. and did all their prototype work. We built some Mercury ambulances and I did most of the prototypes. They had a roof that they didn’t want to pad. Almost everybody at Lehmann Peterson was unique for the fact that they were all individuals. You could put them all together... but they were all individuals. They’d do their work well.
L&C: Who were those people?
Leahy: One of them was George Towata who works for Limo Works and heads up their service department. George and I see each other all the time. A guy that’s retired is Al Plaza. He was with George. They were both in the same department. The electronic end . . . putting the bars in, etc. Everybody was kind of lumped together over there and did all kinds of different jobs.
L&C: Were you working on limos or other things?
Leahy: All kinds of things. We would work on anything that came along. Like we had a guy with a limousine who wanted two outside spare tires so we did that. Things along those lines. Then he bought a convertible to duplicate so we did that and he toured the most godawful places so it was really a functional car with the spare tires. At that time, it was the longest limousine in the world. The guy owned the main drag of Waikiki Beach or something, but he wanted to tour Europe and there was no place to get tires fixed so that’s what he did.
L&C: Were most of the cars custom-built?
Leahy: Oh yes, we built cars for Jackie Gleason and we built a car for the Supremes. The Supremes sent out audio technicians from the West Coast. We took out the inside of the car and they put in their sound boxes and remanufactured the inside of the car around the sound system. We built a special show car for Sophia Loren which was beige pearlescent with pink brocade inside. It was in the Chicago automobile show before she took delivery of it. We built cars for Onassis, and a long list of people. A lot of specialty stuff. Some people wanted just no padded roof so we would lead up the roof and put in a smaller rear window. Anything that was special was what we did.
We made four funeral cars for Florida and they were painted pink. We built a car for the Exchequer of Canada and it was at the border but we got it back because they never paid for it and the guy got indicted for something. It was a beautiful two- tone green car. Canadian colors you know.
L&C: What kind of supervisor was Pete Peterson?
Leahy: Pete was the type of guy who could get things done and George Lehmann was a salesman first class. He was a super gentleman. The front of our place on Sawyer Ave. caved in 1967 when that big snowstorm came. We had the stainless steel convertible from Lincoln in there and that went down. I had just finished up an ambulance and that was level with the tires. The only thing sticking out of the place was my tool box and George’s BMW.
But that building had a bar in the office, and George had a chauffeur, Percy, who would pick up people like Barbra Streisand who came to Chicago. If she didn’t want to go back to her hotel right away, they would go back to the office. It was very plush and he entertained people there. It was his forte. Pete’s office was in back of that. Pete would get these orders in, or dream up something, and come back to the shop and talk it over with us. Essentially, he could draw it up and we would do the work and make modifications to what he had done. It was all teamwork. But there were guys like Richie Klich, Willie Weiss and Ed Cozzi...they were the cream of the crop. The top talent in Chicago. If Pete wanted someone, he got him because he was a good guy to work for. They were very fair people. We all made good money in those days.
L&C: So it was a successful company?
Leahy: It was a very successful company. Because we were needed. I think we sold a straight conversion with a center console and no TV or anything for $3995 delivered. By standards of today, that was unheard of. I think we did between 127 and 135 cars in the best years.
L&C: I understand that many Lehmann-Peterson conversions were more expensive than the $6000 price of the base unit.
Leahy: Yes. I think Jackie Gleason’s car went out of there at somewhere around $18,000 or $19,000. That was his second one. His first one was a little more demure. We sold two cars to him. We sold a car to Jerry Lewis who promptly got locked in it down in front of the Playboy Club and couldn’t get out. It had automatic door locks on it and he was fooling around. I think Pete went down there and threw a brick through the window. It was real clever, this guy’s making fun of the car at the Playboy Club as a press stunt and we got more press out of it. Pete was that way.
L&C: How would you describe the Lehmann-Peterson versus the competition?
Leahy: There was no competition. There was only Hess & Eisenhardt who did Cadillac on a commercial chassis. And there was Cadillac themselves, and that was it.
Lincoln engineers were around all the time. We built the car under their auspices. The first car was built on spec. George and Pete had to get approval from Lincoln so they took it to Lincoln and said, “Look what we did.” And they said, “That’s nice. What do you want to do with it?” And they said, “We want to build it and we want you to warrant it.” The first thing was. . . they had to test drive it 40,000 miles at $1 a mile our cost. So that was $40,000 but George said, “Go ahead.” And then they said, “If you put $1 million in escrow, we’ll let you build the car.” George said, “Well, okay.” He was heir to Marshall Fields. He went to his lawyer who said, “That’s all your assets. We’d have to liquidate everything.” But they decided to do it so they called and said, “What bank do you want it in?” and they said. “Well, as long as you can do it, that’s all we wanted to know.” And they said go ahead and build the cars. It was a lot of fun. It was really just a bunch of guys with an idea.
L&C: Were the brakes and motors strong enough to handle the added weight in those days?
Leahy: Oh yes. More than today. Because they had the big drum brakes on them. Even on the race cars, the Scarabs and stuff like that, they had almost the identical brakes. And the engines were super healthy. You could light the tires on the car with no problem at all. We built our own air conditioning unit for it which was super-efficient. You could frost the glasses if you wanted to. Probably more efficient than anything that’s built today. It was a bigger unit too. It took up quite a bit of room.
L&C: Did Lehmann-Peterson introduce the rear-facing bench seat and center console?
Leahy: I think so. The only other thing might have been some sort of Hess & Eisenhardt car.
L&C: What other innovations do you remember?
Leahy: That would really be hard to say. Everything was an option. It was a base car and everything else was extra. People wanted their initials put in the rear seat. It was more sedate than it is today. The cars had mohair and mouton carpeting. We had two cars that had windows that were dark in the daytime and lightened up at night. The glass was made by PPG I think. I think Gleason’s car got one but it was a horrendous cost. They were flat windows. It was kind of neat. They were kind of a smoked gray and not quite as dark as we see today.
L&C: You also had a transmitter for clients to call their chauffeur?
Leahy: Yes. George found that somewhere. It would work quite a distance too. Mostly it worked downtown. George could be on the 15th floor and press that sucker and Percy would come around. I think we looped the TV antenna through the roof.
L&C: How old are you?
Leahy: I’m a year away from being 60 and most of those guys are in the same range. I think George Towata was just a youngster. Al Plaza is retired now. I don’t think Willie Weiss is with us anymore. I know for a fact that Ed Cozzi’s not. He went down to Springfield, MO, and set them up in business down there. A lot of the people from Lehmann-Peterson are the instigators of the other things. Moloney was straight from Lehmann-Peterson. That was where all the talent went. George and Al Plaza and all the guys went straight over there. When George Lehmann died that was it. I left before that.
It got to be boring because we didn’t do so many prototypes after the building collapsed. We built the president’s car and stuff like that but I didn’t have the freedom to do what I wanted and I got bored with it. I like to do specialty work and I was doing run of the mill work. I’d fill in and any time there were problems on the line.
L&C: Were you out of the limousine business for a while?
Leahy: Yes. I built a lot of Ferraris. My son and I re-bodied 20 or 25 Cobras. We did all the competition cars for Shelby. They brought in pictures of cars and said, “We want this shape of car.”
L&C: How did you get involved with Concept Coach?
Leahy: When they started out, I did a lot of aluminum work for them. I re-bodied a 1919 Mercedes for them. And then I did a Frigoni and Fallaci car. Then they came along with this idea of stretching a Rolls. I said, “I can start you off on the right track and show you how to build it, and then you can go on your own.” I’ve been with them ever since. I don’t know how many Rolls-Royces we’ve built. But they needed a training program up here so I came and showed them how to make door panels and put the cars together. I’ve been here three years now, two years full-time. At first I still had my shop and I’d come up three days a week.
L&C: You’re working on Oldsmobiles and Buicks now?
Leahy: It’s one of those things. . . I got antsy again. We got the Rolls down pat and everybody was looking for rear seat room. The old Cadillac conversions were great, even the two-doors, so I said “Let’s take a two door.” So we took a Delta which has got big trunk room and it’s got the same shoulder room as the Lincoln. And away we went. We prototyped the first one and it seemed very feasible.
L&C: Where do you get the second door?
Leahy: It’s a front door off of the GM four door counterpart. I’ve got a standing order throughout the country. We can get a set of doors a week.
L&C: Do you see traces of Lehmann- Peterson in today’s limousines?
Leahy: Oh yes. We were the only thing going. They got in just at the right time and it was George’s innovative thinking. I had done some work for George Lehmann before I worked there. I put a sunroof in a 3500 Maserati for him. There was a lot of stuff he wanted. He was a very innovative guy.
L&C: So he and Pete were a good pair?
Leahy: Oh yes. It was like. . . “You don’t come in my office and tell me how to sell and I won’t tell you how to build a car.” You would never see George in the back unless you were doing something to one of his cars. But he’d come in and say, “How you doin’?” He was super friendly. He delegated everything to Pete, and Pete delegated it to us. I could communicate real well with him. I still communicate with him. I see him every chance I get. He just gave me a call because he was bending some bulletproof glass. He had a stroke about a year and a half ago. He’s recovering, though. He’s a fighter... a gutsy guy.
L&C: What do you see in your future?
Leahy: Well, again, we’re doing something like the 30th Oldsmobile and production is smooth. The car is strong and we have had good reports on it. So I’m pretty well done with it. I’ve done a couple aero packages and now I’m working on an Oldsmobile Supreme for a Fifties style renovation. A package that goes on. The Supreme’s been a hard seller. The body lines. . .there’s just something wrong with them. It’s got little tiny wheels and great big wheel- wells. It looks like a 4-wheel drive unit but we’ve tamed it down quite a bit. The package will probably go on the dealer floor at something like $400 so it’s almost a giveaway with the car. That’s the kind of thing I like to do. It keeps me busy.
At one time I was in the business of putting vinyl tops on for the guy who owns AMG of America. I made opera windows for a while for Chevys and Fords. I made the first pop-up sunroof. I’ve made lots of things and I’ve been very lucky in the people I’ve had to deal with. They were the kind of people who said, “Go ahead and we’ll see if it works.” So my track record has been good. It’s been interesting and I’ve never been bored.