When you delve through the history of the American automobile, it is amazing how distinctive individuals weave their way through the fertile landscape of the budding automobile industry. Colorful individuals with names such as Durant, Ford, Sloan, and others laid a patchwork foundation that would eventually grow into the massive industrial powerhouse we know as the American automobile industry.
While many nameplates have fallen to the wayside, one name that held on over several decades and became one of the most widely-known is in fact, not a single man’s name, but a family’s. If you’ve ever tossed a leg over sill plate of any GM vehicle built from the 30s to the 80s, you’ve likely noted the “Body By Fisher” tag typically nestled on the door sill trim. While quite prevalent to anyone as they enter and exit the vehicle, the prominent display hardly states the importance of neither the Fisher nameplate nor the significance of the Napoleonic carriage that is depicted.
Growing Families And Factories
The Fisher family started out hand-crafting horse-drawn carriages in their shop in Sandusky, Ohio. They soon moved to Norwalk in 1890 and continued building carriages to those who could afford them. In 1902, two brothers, Fred and Charles Fisher moved to Detroit, Michigan, and began building carriages for the C. R. Wilson Company, a carriage builder which had just begun to manufacture automobile bodies for the emerging auto industry around the Detroit area.
One of their co-workers, Henry Ford, was already delving into building his own version of the horseless carriage. Henry first formed the Detroit Automobile Company with help from investors, but quality vs. profit issues drove a wedge between them and once Henry left the company, it was eventually re-named the Cadillac Motor Car Company. During his time at the C.R. Wilson Company, Fred Fisher oversaw the building of the body for the Cadillac Osceola, the first fully-enclosed car built by Cadillac in 1905, for Henry M. Leland, General Manager of Cadillac Motor Car Company.
With their connections in the carriage and fledgling auto industry, on July 22, 1908, Fred and Charles founded the Fisher Body Company and by 1910, Fisher Body was building all of the enclosed bodies for Cadillac. Fred and Charles brought their five younger brothers to Detroit and the Fisher family was in business!
More Than Just Motors
The move to horseless carriages entailed more than simply installing an engine. Beyond the distrust that many had for these noisy, cantankerous machines, the bodies also needed to be built stronger than a typical carriage to withstand the vibration and added stresses due to the engine.
The Fisher brothers soon figured out how to build a quality body and soon, Body By Fisher would come to mean quality. It wasn’t long before the growth of the company took an exponential turn. In just five short years, the Fisher Body Company had the capacity to turn out 100,000 bodies a year, and just one year later, it became the largest body manufacturer of automobile bodies in the world.
The company changed its name to Fisher Body Corporation in 1916 and production grew to 370,000 bodies a year to customers such as Abbot, Buick, Cadillac, Chalmers, Chandler, Chevrolet, Church-Field, Elmore, EMF, Ford, Herreshoff, Hudson, Krit, Oldsmobile, Packard, Regal, and Studebaker. The broad acceptance of Fisher bodies by numerous manufacturers helped build the Fisher Body Corporation into the giant body-building powerhouse of the automotive world. But, it was the joint venture soon to come and the company’s transition from wood to steel construction that afforded the Fisher name such longevity.
The General Calls
General Motors co-founder, William C. Durant, put together a 10-year deal with Fisher Body Corporation where GM purchased 60-percent of the company in 1919. Durant had recently returned to GM after being pushed out of control of the corporation in 1910. While away, he formed Chevrolet with famed racer Louis Chevrolet, which then became part of GM upon his return. After the deal, the Fisher family purchased Fleetwood Metal Body in 1925, and by 1926, was the in-house, coach-building entity within GM. As such, the Fleetwood name would live on within GM under the Cadillac banner.
Building for such a high-end customer and the fact enclosed autos were the focus, the Fisher brothers brought innovative ideas such as self-starting cars, roll-up windows, and wipers, which served to set both Cadillac, and the Fisher-built autos apart from the rest. Their different color options on their bodies stood out among a field of competitors who reportedly, “offered any color, so long as it was black.”
Fisher Body and GM had never worked so closely before, both figuratively and literally. It was at this time when Fisher Body plants began to co-exist with many GM plants nearby to maximize supply routes to the GM assembly lines and simplify communication between engineers and those assembling the cars. Both GM and Fisher Body benefitted from the close ties of the company and one of the longest-reaching benefits was when Lawrence Fisher introduced GM to an aspiring coach-builder named Harley Earl, who began work on designing the 1927 Cadillac and LaSalle.
Fisher joined in the war effort like many auto manufacturers, building both tanks and aircraft needed for the war effort. By the end of the Second World-War, the Fisher brothers had all retired from the board at GM and Harley Earl was now head of GM’s Art & Colour Section, which later would become GM’s Design Center in Warren, Michigan. The automotive body-building business had long-since moved to complete metal structures and in 1959, Fisher Body created GM’s first unibody car, the 1960 Chevrolet Corvair. Other innovations brought to GM by Fisher were the ignition interlock (invented in 1974), the first airbag (also in 1974), and GM’s first all-metric automobile – the Chevrolet Chevette.
Throughout all of the various changes and evolutions, the Fisher logo continued to adorn GM cars right up until the division of GM was dissolved in 1984. The “Body By Fisher” emblem continued on upon various GM cars until the mid-90s when the brand’s long history with GM faded into the night.
Throughout the years, so many enthusiasts have been influenced by the Fisher brothers’ work without even a second thought as to the significance of the little logo stamped onto the door sill. Looking back, you can see how the fledgling company helped to formulate the American automotive industry into what it is today. It also helps to understand how interwoven each of the people who created those industrial powerhouses was in such a small industry during those early years. Even for such a tightly-bound niche of far-thinkers who dreamed beyond staring at the backside of a horse, those personalities were just as colorful as anything offered by Fisher Body, and as you can see, they all worked together, and some were even related!