October 2012 Baselines: Budd Wheel

Full Metal Jacket

Bill Senefsky
Oct 1, 2012
Budd Wheel: A Steel-Stamping Innovator who Helped Form An Industry
In 1978, in the midst of a severe downturn in the automotive industry, another long-term innovator, builder, and supplier in the field, The Budd Company, disappeared from the American scene. Family owned and operated for more than half a century, this widely known firm was quietly merged into another global concern. Its many design and manufacturing innovations in the automotive, truck, diesel, and railroad fields deserve more than a passing glance in the North American industrial and automotive historical landscape.
Photo 2/5   |   Budd’s stamped-steel wheels were found on most medium- and heavy-duty trucks and were identifiable by their one-piece centers and distinctive 10-hole pattern. The Budd wheel was considered very high-tech at the time and replaced steel wheels that used cast-iron hubs as the centers.
Stamped In Steel
Henry George Budd, the Justice of the Peace in Smyrna, Delaware, was called home on a cold night in December 1870 for the birth of his son Edward Gowan Budd. Being reared during the Industrial Revolution, young Edward began an immediate interest in all things mechanical.
When he graduated from high school, Edward began an apprenticeship with the G. W. and S. Taylor Iron Works as a line machinist. He broadened his training by moving to Sellers Machine and Foundry in Philadelphia in 1890. The Bennett-Pond Toll Company was his next employer, because it offered him another skill to learn, that of machine tool and hydraulic press design. Like many tech-savvy Pennsylvanians in his day, Edward attended Franklin Institute, and then the University of Pennsylvania to study drafting and engineering.
During this period, Edward became friends with Thomas Corscaden of the American Pulley Company. This venture produced stamped-steel products, which were replacing earlier cast-iron versions, saving both production time and product weight. Edward was hired as the American Pulley Company’s chief draftsman in 1898.
Hale & Kilburn was a furniture-manufacturing firm that built a novel walkover coach seat for trains utilized in railways, subways, and trolley cars. This device incorporated a movable pedestal, which allowed the seats to be turned in the direction the train was traveling, so passengers could always face forward. During this period, most of the metal components in these walkover seats were manufactured from traditional cast-iron.
Edward’s stamped-steel engineering experience led Hale & Kilburn to join forces with American Pulley Company to produce steel parts. Edward’s combination of stamped-steel parts expertise and knowledge of the latest in oxy-acetylene welding advanced him to works manager and doubled his salary.
Automotive Interests
Edward began experimenting with a new process dubbed shallow-draw sheetmetal stamping. This concept was developed in conjunction with another supplier, the King and Paige Company. King and Paige’s claim to fame was the design and fabrication of composite metal bodies. Remember, during this period, bodies were produced with more wood and fabric components than metal pieces, and Edward only processed stamped-steel panels in very small production runs initially.
Hupp Motor Car Company, an industry leader, approached Edward to work together on a true all-steel body in 1909. Though experiments had improved the production and uniformity of the larger panels, the total number of panels needed for a completely welded structural unit remained time consuming and cost prohibitive. In short, none of the current manufacturers were interested in true metal body construction.
Edward utilized his specialized background, and with the help of Hupp engineers, produced a cost-effective all-steel vehicle body. The first phase in moving the concept along was to design a system in which the body components were welded together by hand along with a unique system of supports, which allowed the product to be transported to Detroit where they were assembled, welded, painted, and trimmed on the assembly line. The 1912 Huppmobile Model 32 was thus considered to be the first automobile produced in the Motor City featuring all-steel body construction. It should be noted that Marmon and Pierce-Arrow had utilized riveted-aluminum construction for their vehicle bodies before this, but they were, after all, the high-end players and did not utilize welding techniques.
As the company’s profitable automotive contracts continued, the firm J.P. Morgan Company purchased the Hale & Kilburn concern in its entirety for $9 million. The purchaser decided, as was its option, to utilize outside leadership, which had no clue as to the company’s unique position. Edward Budd managed to hang on for a very brief period but left in early 1912.
Budd Manufacturing Company Was Born
On July 22, 1912, Edward formed his own concern utilizing $75,000 from personal savings, along with an additional $25,000 from family friends. The larger amount came from his earlier profit sharing. The first product emerging from the new concern was an all-steel truck cab produced for a coal mine in Philadelphia. Initial profits paid for a metal stamping press, so the small concern began the long process of designing, engineering, and producing the various sized dies and jigs needed for new products along with the welding improvements needed. Arc welding was the favored method of manufacturing at Budd, and the company developed proprietary processes after years of experimentation.
Photo 3/5
Charles Nash, president of General Motors, approached the company with an order for a metal body for Buick. GM’s Oakland division followed suit with an order for 2,000 metal touring bodies. By 1913, Budd was making truck bodies for Peerless, fenders for Cadillac, and steel body parts for Packard, Franklin, Jeffery, and Willys-Overland.
Other trim panels and parts went to the Pullman and Cincinnati Car Company for railroad coaches. A year later, Budd received its first order from the Dodge Brothers for 5,000 touring bodies. The Dodge brothers were so pleased with Budd workmanship and cost savings that it placed another order for 50,000 units the following year. Other orders then followed from Ford, REO, and Buick. To protect this immense success, Budd filed for a number of patents in 1914 to cover its assets on all-steel-body construction.
High-Tech Steel Wheels
In 1916, Edward Budd and John North Willys formed the Budd Wheel Corporation to produce wire wheels. The new company supplied its output to Willys-Overland, Ford, and Studebaker. During these wartime years, the company also secured a license from Michelin for the production of its unique all-steel disc wheel. These wheels immediately became popular in the commercial truck and military markets. The Dodge Brothers took notice and supplied these wheels to General Pershing for his Dodge staff vehicles.
Photo 4/5
In need of money, Willys sold his million-dollar share of Budd Wheel in 1921, yet the company continued to innovate new products and began producing stronger wheel products without the use of soft brass parts—as had been the practice.
Going To War Takes Metal
During this period, Budd Wheel supplied the Allies with Liberty heavy-duty truck bodies, steel helmets, and bomb casings. Work also continued with Dodge designing and building Budd’s first all-steel bodied coupe, which was delayed until 1922. The company began production of commercial truck bodies for Dodge in 1917. A year later, Budd’s combined body shipments to Dodge reached 200,000 units.
It was at this time that steelmakers in the United States began to increase both the width and quality of product being produced. This allowed Budd to increase the size of its steel stampings. New sheetmetal arc welders allowed for sheets of metal approaching 12 feet long.
New two-piece, welded and reinforced doors were introduced. Budd purchased three-story-tall steel press machines for even larger panels. Sprayed insulation was added inside the doors to quiet the interior.
Budd’s Monopiece vehicle body was introduced in 1928, and it incorporated five subassemblies. This system allowed Budd to ship the completed panels in railcars for future assembly at the customers’ factories. This system of vehicle body manufacture continues to this very day.
During this period, Budd developed European connections by selling metal stamping expertise and machine methods to European automakers. In 1930, Budd International was created for managing all these overseas activities. Citroen, Morris, and a majority of the German brands were on board prior to 1939 when WWII broke out.
Ford utilized Budd back in the States during this period for its commercial vehicles, notably for its Model T and TT truck bodies, which were longer and taller than what Ford normally sold. Model B and BB series bodies followed, and Budd become Ford’s largest supplier until World War II.
The Depression, Prototypes, And Stainless Steel
Chrysler became Budd Wheel’s best customer in the ’30s. Many new processes were developed, and some led to new prototype vehicles. The two most notable were the Chrysler and DeSoto’s Airflow series, and later the Airstream production bodies.
Budd showed interest in a new metal technology from Europe in 1930. This new material was called stainless steel, which was created by adding nickel to the steel making process. The company decided that stainless was a natural for railway cars, specifically their outer skin. Overcoming some welding hurdles, the Budd Wheel company again partnered with Michelin to produce a stainless-steel, single-bodied, self-contained coach mounted on a series of unique rubber tires. Dubbed the Budd-Michelin Lafayette, four of these running platforms were completed for testing. Budd’s next venture took the concept further.
Train Cars To Disc Brakes
The diesel-electric three-car Zephyr was the first all stainless-steel train in America. It also weighed less than one traditional Pullman car. It featured a custom decorated interior, and its unique design began the railroad streamliner craze that lasted several decades. Budd rode the craze, producing hundreds of rail coaches and streamlined locomotives. This attempt of redesigning the American passenger train didn’t come without a cost however, and the company suffered huge financial losses. Budd remained a leading supplier of railway, subway, and commuter cars. Large operators in North America depended on the company for Budd’s innovation. Many of these railcars are still in operation today.
Photo 5/5
Yet there was an engineering silver lining of sorts to the company’s train car investments, as Budd’s connection to high-speed trains put the company in the high-speed disc-brake business. Budd’s automotive disc brakes appeared first on the 1967 Chrysler and Imperial.
Unibody Construction
Automotive pioneer George Mason, president of Nash, approached Budd in the late ’30s to engineer a true unitized (one-piece) car body. The result was the ’41 Nash 600, which featured a unit of formed steel sections with welded inner and outer body stampings. This new concept was stronger and weighed 500 pounds less than the prior models.
Development of the unibody car was stunted in the United States when war clouds again forced the company to switch over to manufacturing military hardware. Budd produced cargo and recon bodies for Dodge WC series light trucks. The Budd safety two-piece truck wheel was developed during this period. RB-1 Conestoga cargo aircraft were also produced, along with artillery shells and bombs. Budd even produced bazooka shells and rifle grenades. At WWII’s end, with $19 million in the bank, the company switched back to automotive and rail production.
Independent automakers Nash and Hudson continued to develop their unibody vehicles, and Budd worked right along with them. Hudson developed its new step-down car concepts, and the result was a successful series of streamlined automobiles. Streamline styling became the rage, and the independent auto companies had it first. The combination of a wider and lower stance along with 15-inch wheels made these vehicles handle better and provide a quieter ride. The Big Three followed suit.
Edward G. Budd passed away in 1946. His son took over the business and continued stamping parts for the automotive industry. Prototype engineering and special projects were still part of his successful mix. Projects like the two-passenger Thunderbird, and later the Ford Taurus station wagon (with its complex body) rolled out of Budd facilities.
Budd trailers for the trucking industry appeared in the ’60s, obviously based on the company’s stainless-steel railcar success. Sadly this operation was discontinued in the ’80s.
Thyssen AG Buyout
Budd’s assets were sold in 1978, and the company immediately began to phase out its non-automotive operations. The company then merged with Krupp AG in 1999. So the world’s largest independent designer, engineer, and producer of automotive and railroad bodies, along with their components has passed from the American scene.

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