Fisher Body Works: GM’s All-World Body Makers

You’ve seen the emblem on door-sill plates of Chevrolet cars going back well into the 1930s. That ornate image of a horse-drawn coach that symbolized General Motors’ Fisher Body Division.

This legendary “Body by Fisher” emblem and its Napoleonic coach stood for the best in mass-produced steel (and fiberglass) passenger-car bodies when it appeared on the door sill step plate of every Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac built before 1985. (Photo courtesy GM Media /Chevrolet Historic Services)

This legendary “Body by Fisher” emblem and its Napoleonic coach stood for the best in mass-produced steel (and fiberglass) passenger-car bodies when it appeared on the doorsill step plate of every Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac built before 1985. (Photos courtesy GM Media /Chevrolet Historic Services)

That “Napoleonic” coach symbolized precision and quality — attributes that made the mass-produced passenger-car bodies that they engineered, tooled up, stamped, welded, and painted for GM’s five car divisions between 1919 and 1984 the best in the world. Founded by the Fisher brothers Fred, Charlie, Bill, Larry, Ed, and Al, they were descendants of a German family that immigrated to Northern Ohio, in the 19th century. Together, they would eventually turn the family’s fledgling coach-building business into the maker of high-quality carriages and automobile bodies, whose customers included almost every car maker back in 1908, when the Fisher Body Company was formed.

Over the next decade, the Fisher brothers turned their body-making business into an empire, capable of turning out nearly a half-million car bodies a year. They specialized in closed (fixed-roof) bodies, which made early 20th century motoring much more weatherproof. In 1910, General Motors ordered 150 closed-roof Cadillac bodies, which began the long relationship between the brothers’ company, and what would become the world’s largest automaker.

 The Fisher brothers started their own business for building horse-drawn coaches and carriages in Norwalk Ohio in the late 19th Century, before moving to Detroit and becoming the Fisher Body Corporation. In 1910, they sold their first closed-car bodies to Cadillac, and by decade's end GM bought a majority stake in the Fisher’s body business. (Photo courtesy GM Media /Chevrolet Historic Services)

The Fisher brothers started their own business, building horse-drawn coaches and carriages in Norwalk, Ohio, in the late 19th century, before moving to Detroit, and becoming the Fisher Body Corporation. In 1910, they sold their first closed-car bodies to Cadillac, and by decade’s end, GM bought a majority stake in the Fisher’s body business.

In 1919, GM bought 60 percent of the Fisher Body Company for $27.6 million, The deal would allow the brothers to keep managerial control of Fisher Body Company, and they would also become vice-presidents’ within General Motors.

Fred headed up Fisher Body until he retired in 1923, at which time he was succeeded by Bill, who was then succeeded by Ed in 1934. Larry was named Cadillac’s general manager in 1925, the time when Cadillac became the preeminent luxury-car brand in the world — and the same year GM bought Pennsylvania’s Fleetwood Metal Body Company, which was also famous for its high-end coachwork. It was Larry that actually brought Harley Earl to GM in 1927 to create its Art and Colour Section — the predecessor to GM Styling, and today’s GM Design.

General Motors acquired the remaining 40 percent of Fisher Body Company in 1926 (for $208 million), renaming it Fisher Body Division. By then, its engineers had determined that a basic car-body structure (underneath its outer body panels) could be shared between the five divisions. This would create a huge savings in materials and costs. It dovetailed perfectly with GM CEO Alfred P. Sloan’s philosophy of “a car for every purse and purpose,” and helped GM price its products so that American motorists could afford them.

Eventually, the Fisher brothers turned their attention toward Detroit-area civic and charitable activities, which included the construction of the massive and ornate Fisher Building in downtown Detroit, directly across the street from the General Motors Building. The location has always been a desirable downtown office location, and now houses the Fisher Theatre (a showplace for touring Broadway productions and other live events) and the radio station WJR.

Turning Fisher Body, and the rest of General Motors, into a massive “arsenal of democracy” was a massive job, headed up by past-GM President William Knudsen (and father of future Chevy boss Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen). By the time these Cadillac bodies began their trip toward the final line at Cadillac’s assembly plant on Clark Street in Detroit, Fisher Body Division had loaded out all its defense-related tooling and machinery in their nearby body plant, brought the 1942-model year tooling out of storage, freshened it up, and began making the finest passenger car bodies in the world, right where they had left off. (Photo courtesy GM Media /Chevrolet Historic Services)

Turning Fisher Body and the rest of General Motors into a massive “arsenal of democracy” was an enormous job, headed up by past-GM President William Knudsen (and father of future Chevrolet boss Semon E. “Bunkie” Knudsen). By the time these Cadillac bodies began their trip toward the final line at Cadillac’s assembly plant on Clark Street in Detroit, Fisher Body Division had removed all of its defense-related tooling and machinery in its nearby body plant, brought the 1942-model year tooling out of storage, freshened it up, and began making the finest passenger car bodies in the world, right where they had left off.

Fred passed away in 1941, with Howard following in 1942. As for Bill, Larry, Ed, and Al, they resigned from their day-to-day posts on August 12, 1944 (Charlie had retired before then). Ed and Larry stayed on GM’s board of directors for a number of years afterward. Ed, the last surviving brother, retired from the board in 1969, and passed away in 1972.

By then Fisher Body Division not only supplied production bodies for each of GM’s five brands, it also performed the initial engineering of the design concepts that each division’s styling team would create.

You can’t think of Fisher Body and the job that its engines, draftsmen and armies of skilled tradesmen did for GM over the years without the 1959 Chevrolet’s all-new body coming to mind. Styled during a “crash” (i.e. REALLY urgent!) 1959 re-styling program, Fisher Body engineers suggested that the rear quarter panels be made of two stampings welded together, in order to put into steel what Chevrolet Styling created on paper and in clay. (Photo courtesy GM Media /Chevrolet Historic Services)

Designed during a rushed 1959 restyling program, Fisher Body engineers suggested that the rear quarter panels of the Impala be made of two stampings that would be welded together.

Fisher Body’s engineering abilities were challenged by the bold styling of the 1959 full-size car line-up. Created to answer Chrysler’s low-slung, high-finned “Forward Look” cars that appeared for 1957, GM’s 1959 models shared a common cowl/firewall that was created by Buick, while incorporating each division’s unique styling cues.

No one’s perfect—but Chevrolet, Fisher Body and Pontiac engineers stayed with it when the rear quarter panel tooling of the all-new second-generation F-Body Camaro and Firebird produced wrinkled or otherwise out-of-spec parts early in 1969. Solution: Scrap the existing dies, cut new ones, and put the new Camaro and Firebird on sale in February of 1970, six months late. (Photo courtesy GM Media /Chevrolet Historic Services)

No one’s perfect, but Chevrolet, Fisher Body, and Pontiac engineers stayed with it when the rear quarter-panel tooling of the all-new second-generation F-body Camaro and Firebird produced wrinkled or otherwise out-of-spec parts early in 1969.

That meant engineering the wide fins of the ’59 Chevrolet Impala into compound-curve stampings that could turn out enough panels to feed an assembly process that produced one car every minute at each of the division’s 10 assembly plants.

Not everything went smoothly, even in the golden days of the musclecar. The second-generation Camaro and Firebird were delayed in 1969, when problems with their rear quarter-panel tooling cropped up during the preliminary tooling tests before the start of 1970-model-year production. Try as they did, Fisher Body, Chevrolet, and Pontiac engineers couldn’t get the tooling to produce parts that weren’t wrinkled, wavy, or otherwise out-of-specification. The decision to scrap those body dies and make new ones pushed back the second-generation F-Body car’s on sale dates to late February of 1970. That decision worked out for the best, judging by the appearance of the second-gen Camaro’s and Firebird’s flanks.

Around that time, the rushed pace of development of the soon-to-be-released subcompact Chevrolet Vega may have led to an unforeseen integrity problem. In 1968, then-GM President James Roche promised that a totally-new GM-built small car would be on the market in two years, cost less than $2,000, and beat Volkswagen, Toyota, Datsun, and other imported small cars at their own game, thanks to General Motors’ advanced engineering.

1971 Chevrolet Vega-06-07

Production Vega bodies were to be treated to the latest processes in pre-paint rust protection, starting in 1970, when production began at Chevrolet’s Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant. Unfortunately, due to the rushed pace of Vega’s development, engineers didn’t catch the problems that cropped up later. It was later learned that dunking the Vega bodies in a vat of electrostatically-charged primer created air pockets at a number of locations inside the body. These air pockets led to those areas getting little to no primer coating. That, in turn, led to them rusting prematurely — in many cases, before the original owner had paid off the GMAC loan they used to buy their Vega!

Fisher stampings

Despite those problems, Fisher Body was the undisputed best when it came to stamping, welding, coating, painting, and trimming steel passenger car bodies year after year. That was reinforced by Chevy’s advertising, which touted the quality, strength, and comfort of its bodies in countless TV, radio, and print ads. Plus, Fisher Body ads touting those same qualities regularly graced the nation’s leading magazines and newspapers.

At it’s peak, the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild was second only to the Boy Scouts of America in terms of members from coast to coast. Every year through 1968, the Guild held model-crafting contests that awarded scholarships and other prizes to regional and national winners—while discovering styling talent like future GM Design head Chuck Jordan, among others. These are some of the entries in the 1956 Guild competition. (Photo courtesy GM Media /Chevrolet Historic Services)

At it’s peak, the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild was second only to the Boy Scouts of America in terms of members from coast to coast. Every year through 1968, the Guild held model-crafting contests that awarded scholarships and other prizes to regional and national winners. These are some of the entries in the 1956 Guild competition.

Fisher Body also nurtured would-be stylists and designers via the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild. This annual competition was at first, aimed at building replica’s of the trademark Napoleonic coach, then later, scale-model prototypes of a person’s own vehicle design. The Guild was second only to the Boy Scouts of America in participation by America’s youth. The last year for the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild competition was 1968.

When General Motors’ North American passenger-car operations were reorganized in 1984, Fisher Body Division’s functions were divided between GM’s Engineering branch, and the GM Assembly Division (GMAD), which took over the stamping, assembly, painting, and trimming of production bodies at each assembly plant.

The Fisher Body Division was thus dissolved, its trademarks not to be used on a production car ever again. But the Fisher brothers created a legacy for GM, and goals for there car makers to meet — even to this day —  with their standards for high quality that were met not just in hand-made, limited production bodies, but in production bodies that were produced in massive quantities. Many of which still exist to this day.

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