Historic Hess & Eisenhardt...Coachbuilder perseveres into its second century

Posted on July 1, 1986 by LCT Staff

One of 1200 Sayers Six Durbee Roadsters built between 1919 and 1923.
One of 1200 Sayers Six Durbee Roadsters built between 1919 and 1923.

The year was 1876. Cars were carriages and gasoline was hay. Hess & Eisenhardt was Sayers & Scovill, making custom hearses, ambulance coaches and horse-drawn carriages for Cincinnati society. The company was one of the best. Why? Primarily because the only thing they wouldn’t build-was bad.

Business prospered, so management hired two office boys to help out. These boys, both first-generation Americans, were go-getters-go get the mail and coffee. In retrospect, hiring the two was one of those momentous decisions made lightly. For sometime between 9:10 and 9:15 am on a busy Thursday morning, the company hired the men who, in the years to come, would move the car­riage builder into the 20th century.

Of course, noone knew that at the time. Not even Emil Hess and Charles Eisenhardt.

From the start, Hess and Eisenhardt had a love affair with the future. Like others living at the turn of the century, the two had an unshakeable faith that a great, gold tomorrow lay right around the corner.

They rounded that corner in a car. By 1906, Hess and Eisenhardt had made it to management level-and Sayers & Scovill had made their first motorized vehicle, a 4-cylinder air-cooled continental engine truck.

Late 1930s Rolls Royce limousine with custom top by Sayers & Scovill.
Late 1930s Rolls Royce limousine with custom top by Sayers & Scovill.

The two men drove their dream hard, roaring into the Twenties with a Sayers sedan and roadster of their own design and manufacture. Head- to-head, they competed with the soon-to-be giants of the industry. And head-to-head, Hess and Eisenhardt slowly lost ground.

Lesser men might have surren­dered to the inevitable, but not Hess & Eisenhardt. They simply changed gears, buying the business and bringing in their sons-new blood that was to have a noticeable impact. In 1937, the company began a bodybuilding relationship with Cadillac Motor Division that exists to this day. It was a move that recognized the reality of superior resources and the need to use them to the best advantage if a company was to survive, it had to change. Consequently, Hess & Eisenhardt set their sights on the yet untapped specialty market.

What followed was a series of cars that brought meaning to the word unique. And what company these cars kept-a Darrin-designed Packard for Carol Lombard with three in­terchangeable tops of different colors; a Rolls-Royce for Countess DiFrasso, and an armored Lincoln limousine for President Truman.

Breaking ground for Hess & Eisenhardt’s facility in Cincinnati are (from left) Willard C. Hess, Charles Eisenhardt Jr., Charles Eisenhardt Sr., and Emil Hess.
Breaking ground for Hess & Eisenhardt’s facility in Cincinnati are (from left) Willard C. Hess, Charles Eisenhardt Jr., Charles Eisenhardt Sr., and Emil Hess.
Only war years checked the company's ascent and even that was temporary. After producing their particular war effort, a pedal-powered bicycle for airborne troops, it was back to business as usual at the Hess & Eisenhardt secret garage. By 1950, custom cars had taken on code names to protect the anonymity of the purchaser “Iceberg,” “Greenland,” and “Air Scoop” came and went, along with numerous armored passenger cars, many of which were headed overseas.

But all was not flash and dazzle at Hess & Eisenhardt. The company led the industry with the development of the vinyl top and, later, perfected the first installation of the electric sunroof in a Cadillac limousine.

The custom cars continued, each more fabulous than the last. A hunt car with front-fender seats, fold-down front windshield, refrigerator, and white leather interior was followed by a fleet of 20 Cadillac limousines to carry the harem of King Ibn Saud over the sands of Saudi Arabia. A Lincoln for Queen Elizabeth II had a combined stationary and convertible roof. A liftable right rear seat was designed for the Queen who, by protocol, had to sit higher than the Prince Consort. But most impressive was the $500,000 limousine for President Kennedy, a vehicle that was later revised after his death to carry a 2,000 pound hand-bent bulletproof glass bubble roof.

Wrapped in the incredible, the company sped through the ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies, unobtrusively pursu­ing excellence in the corner of the market they claimed.

(top) The $500,000 Kennedy limousine (bottom) Sayers Six Avondale Touring Car built in the early 1920s by Sayers & Scovill.
(top) The $500,000 Kennedy limousine (bottom) Sayers Six Avondale Touring Car built in the early 1920s by Sayers & Scovill.

But subtle shifts in the economy, society and industry began to redefine the future of the custom car. Detroit’s more economical versions of assembly-line luxury spread and, once again, Hess & Eisenhardt had to change or face extinction.

Where could they go? What new direction would drive the company to a secure tomorrow? As in the past, they looked to the past and found their future. Once again, the company set their sights on a new breed specialized vehicle conversions and, once again, they shaped their destiny by serving customers whose calling cards could not have been more impressive.

The success of specialty conversions prompted the company to adopt a two-pronged platform enabling Hess & Eisenhardt to serve the automotive aftermarket with independently designed, manufactured, and marketed vehicles, as well as to participate in OEM-sponsored programs. As one example of the latter, Hess & Eisenhardt conceived, designed, tooled, and manufactured 13,000 Oldsmobile Toronado Calientes from November 1983 through August 1985. In a more recent example, Hess & Eisenhardt was selected by Jaguar Cars, Inc., as the exclusive North American installer of the electric sunroof option for the Jaguar XJ-S.

At the same time, Hess & Eisenhardt has never forgotten the one vehicle that remains the heart of their production – the limousine. The company now not only completes the Cadillac Fleetwood 75 limousine for General Motors, Hess & Eisenhardt also manufactures and markets three limousines of its own.

Hunt car for King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia.
Hunt car for King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia.

Based on front- and rear-wheel-drive Cadillac chassis, Hess & Eisenhardt markets the four-door Formal and the six-door Park Hill, both of which are the standards for the commercial and funeral limousine industries, and the Park Row 24 Hour, unique among all limousines for the flexibility of its seating design.

Hess & Eisenhardt has grown from its early carriage days. Still headquartered in Cincinnati, the company now has manufacturing facilities in Wapokanetta, Ohio, and Madison Heights, Michigan. Although Hess & Eisenhardt has grown and changed, its philosophy has remained the same – a total commitment to excellence in quality for every vehicle it makes, along with timely delivery. For over 100 years, Hess & Eisenhardt has built on that tradition.

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