Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

On a balmy spring day in 1880, a seventeen-year-old youth from Ire­land’s County Galway arrived at Boston. An orphan with scant formal education, he had spent his meager savings for the transatlantic ship passage. He had neither friends nor close relatives in the United States. He did not even have the promise of a job. But Joseph J. Derham knew he would succeed. America was the golden land of opportunity and prosperity, and he pos­sessed sound skills and a strong body to put to work. He also had that wit and indomi­table spirit so typical of the nineteenth century Irish.

Albeit great wealth was never his, he earned something far more lasting: the respect of all who knew him. The work of the company he founded was the ne plus ultra in its field to kings and queens, presidents and pre­miers, Hollywood stars and Arab sheiks, princes of the church and princesses of the crown, and high society and high rollers.

Joseph J. Derham moved from Boston to Philadelphia and worked as an apprentice carriage maker, still polishing the skills he had learned in his homeland. He was as thrifty as he was able. By the time he reached his majority, he had saved enough money to think about opening his own shop. In 1887, the Joseph J. Derham Rosemont Carriage Works, conveniently located next door to “Thomas Ryan Horseshoer,” opened at the corner of Lan­caster Avenue and Haverford Road in Rosemont.

Derham did not need one of today’s highly touted Madi­son Avenue sophisticated advertising agencies to advise him that this was a prime location. The transformation from the bucolic farmlands of Philadelphia’s Main Line to exurbia was already well under way, yet Rosemont was near enough to Philadelphia to draw business from there as well. He was literally sur­rounded by the carriage trade whose scions were prominent members of the city’s banking, insurance, railroading, mer­chandising and industrial giants. Furthermore, from his experience in the city, Derham knew many of the wealthy who had moved from there to Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Rose­mont and similar pockets of the landed gentry. This was a big help, especially as prosper­ous Philadelphians, much like writer F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “rich,” were purportedly “dif­ferent”; the astute young car­riage maker recognized their quirks and quickly learned their tastes.

It was not long before Der­ham’s company began to dom­inate the field. His carriage works turned out handsome Landaus, Victorias, Meadow­brooks, Phaetons and Broughams. With no false modesty, he maintained that only Brewster, a venerable name in the business, built finer carriages in America. He soon outgrew the original building and added a three story building to double the space. Joseph J. Derham Rose­mont Carriage Works became Joseph J. Derham Carriage Maker.

In 1902, he married Phila­delphian Christina Hart, and six sons – four of which later joined the company – were born during the following decade. Two years later, Der­ham’s progress was duly noted in the 1904 edition of Biographi­cal Annals of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

Beginning with very little capital, by indefatigable energy and wonderful perseverance he succeeded in building up one of the lending enterprises of Rosemont, where his name has became recognized as synonymous with honorable and straight-forward business methods. In addition to his extensive plant and warerooms at Rosemont, Mr. Derham has established branch works and warerooms at Nos. 2047-49 Vince St., Philadelphia. Both these establishments furnish employment for upwards of seventy-five skilled mechanics and laborers, and thus it will be seen that Mr. Derham not only benefitted him­self, but also materially added to the progress and advancement of the communities in which his establishments are located. Politically Mr. Derham is a staunch supporter of the principles of the Republican Party.

For more than twenty years, Joseph J. Derham sold car­riages in “ever increasing num­bers, and with constantly improving quality.” In addi­tion, his factory was busy with such work as annual revarn­ishings and repairs to leather, wheels and rims. Horse-drawn carriages, like their horseless successors, required careful maintenance.

Contemporary with the building of Derham’s carriage shop in Rosemont, an engi­neer named Gottlieb Daimler and a draftsman named Carl Benz were working indepen­dently in Germany on what turned out to be the first work­able internal combustion en­gines and, hence, the automobile as it is known today.

After years of effort and experimentation, the horseless carriage became a reality in 1887. It was not long until automobiles, looking quite like carriages, were being built and marketed not only in Ger­many, but in France, England and elsewhere. Thanks to much better roads, Europe was far ahead of the United States in developing an automobile industry. It was not until 1895 that Morris and Salom of Phil­adelphia and the Duryea brothers in Reading made the first American cars.

Many have forgotten or, perhaps, never realized that Pennsylvania was among the early leaders in automobile production in this country. More than one hundred differ­ent makes – not models – of cars were manufactured be­tween 1895 and 1915, including the Bergdoll, “a quality car – outstanding make”; the Bid­dle, “a luxury car”; and the Chadwick, “the first high­-performance car of U.S. manu­facture to achieve volume production and recognition.” And there was the Fox, which because of its “speed and reliability, became a favorite vehicle of bootleggers during Prohibition years.” (For a sur­vey of the the manufacture of automobiles in the Keystone State, see “A Brief Brilliance: Pennsylvania’s Early Auto­makers” by Louis S. Schafer in the fall 1986 edition of Pennsyl­vania Heritage.)

By 1895, there were three hundred automobiles in the United States; a decade later, the number had burgeoned to nearly seventy-eight thousand. Oddly enough, the Derham company made no effort to enter this field until 1907, when a Philadelphia woman, who had purchased a touring car overseas, asked Derham to build a closed body to be mounted on the chassis for winter driving. This was by no means an unusual request – except to Joseph J. Derham – because many Americans would purchase European touring cars and have closed bodies built for use in inclem­ent weather and, by doing so, enjoyed the choice of two cars on one chassis.

Joseph J. Derham Carriage Maker eventually became the Derham Body Company. The transformation did not deni­grate the continuing carriage work, but it opened the door to what soon became the prin­cipal business of the company: the designing and building of custom automobile bodies. Derham found it relatively easy to change from the manu­facture of carriages to automo­biles because most of the early automobile bodies were liter­ally “horseless carriages.” In 1904, the New York Tribune asked: “How many genera­tions must come and go before we get automobiles of artistic and graceful lines? Most of the self-motors on our streets are monsters of ugliness. Why cannot these chariots be put together so that they will at least make some approach to symmetry?”

Derham cannot be credited with making major contribu­tions to refining design during that era, but his company was widely recognized for quality in workmanship and of materi­als. The firm’s creativity was to evolve later, when his sons joined the enterprise and es­tablished a design center. World War I had little impact on the prospering firm, al­though three of Derham’s sons were in the Armed Forces, because the import of foreign cars was negligible. The econ­omy boomed, and domestic car production kept pace. Individuals enjoyed more income and traveled more extensively. The automobile was quickly becoming the heartbeat of America.

With the import of exotic European marques curtailed, wealthy American car lovers were in the market for some­thing that was a cut or two above the standard models found in domestic showrooms. Packard and Hudson, among the early manufacturers to recognize this growing market, asked Derham to develop designs for custom bodies which could be sold “on or­der.” The quantity of these special orders – up to as many as forty for one design – made it economically feasible for Derham to extend his normal production and enter what might be called “semi-demi­-mass production.” A building owned by Derham at Twelfth and Locust streets, Philadel­phia, was ideal for this pur­pose, while Rosemont continued to operate as show­room, repair shop, storage space and offices, as well as the center for design and pro­duction of individual custom body orders. The youngest Derham, Enos, was placed in charge of the Rosemont opera­tion, while his father managed the Philadelphia plant. Older brothers James and Philip divided their time between the two facilities.

With the end of World War I, the Derham Body Company was in good position to ride out the brief post-war depres­sion and boldly enter the Roar­ing Twenties. Joseph J. Derham, Sr., handled sales and administration, ably as­sisted by James. Enos, a Cor­nell University engineering graduate, took over most of the design work after the death of his brother Joseph. Philip dealt primarily with sales.

Despite the high quality of the automobiles being mass produced by Detroit, there remained a stable market for such great European classics as Hispano-Suiza, Bentley, Mer­cedes, Rolls-Royce, Isotta Fra­schini, Delahaye and others. Most purchasers were true automobile enthusiasts who appreciated the power and workmanship these marques embodied. There were others, however, who were attracted to these exotic vehicles because of the affluence and status they conveyed. The desire to own a European marque was sometimes offset by the isolationism beginning to be felt strongly in the United States, particularly among the wealthy who believed that “Buy American” was a moral­ – as well as patriotic – obliga­tion.

The isolationists could find satisfaction by buying an American chassis and request­ing Derham to construct a replica of a foreign car thereon. For example, the famous Phila­delphia financier E. T. Stotes­bury ordered a fully collapsible-roofed town car body mounted on a Locomo­bile chassis. To anyone but a connoisseur, it was a Rolls­-Royce. Another Pennsylvanian had a Hispano-Suiza look­alike body placed on a Lincoln roadster. In time, there were many such copies built, often costing more than the Euro­pean original, but assuaging the American conscience. Custom automobile bodies designed by firms such as Der­ham, Brewster, Locke and Fleetwood in this country, and Saoutchik, Erdmann and Rossi, Mulliner, Hibbard and Darrin and Vanden Plas in Europe, became important manufacturers of fine automo­biles.

At times, custom manufac­turers were Jess concerned with automobiling than with the curious habits of their purchasers. A Pittsburgh buyer asked Derham to place special windows in the rear of his otherwise standard limou­sine. The reason? “I chew tobacco,” he explained. “When I want to spit, l want to spit. I don’t want to crank windows. I’ve done my damnedest to find a car with a window that I could slide open and close without a lot of fuss, but it seems the only way I can get one is to have you build it for me.”

Another customer had a large storage trunk built in hidden space under the body of his Locomobile town car. It must be of sturdy construc­tion, he advised, because he traveled frequently between Canada and the United States. Since Prohibition was in effect, one can only wonder about the nature of the secret cache.

Then there was the Mer­cedes of Ellis Treat. Heir to a great oil fortune, he was in his later years shy and retiring – except for an insatiable pench­ant for large, showy cars. Der­ham built him special bodies for a Packard, Rolls-Royce and Mercedes. They were hand­some automobiles but just not long enough to suit Treat. He called James Derham in 1926 and asked for a Mercedes that would be the longest car in America. The job took six months, actually a brief period because of the extensive chas­sis and engine modifications required. But Ellis Treat was able to drive the streets of Buffalo, New York, comfort­able knowing that his very special twenty-one-foot, four passenger coupe was the long­est car seen there – or anywhere!

Twenty-one years later, James Derham must have been reminded of Treat’s epic car when the Gulf Oil Company commissioned a deluxe seven passenger convertible sedan, in copper red, to be mounted on a Packard chassis at least twenty-one feet, six inches, from bumper to bumper. The vehicle was to be a gift to the Sheik of Kuwait, who had indicated that he would accept the car with pleasure only if it measured longer than that of a neighboring sheik, who boasted that his car, twenty feet in length, was the longest in the Mideast.

The Derham Body Com­pany prospered during these frenetic boom years. Its staff at plants in Philadelphia and Rosemont worked overtime to keep up with the demand for custom bodies. The firm was honored internationally for the originality and caliber of its design center, as well as for its workshop, thanks Largely to Enos. Over time, Enos had developed an innate sense of style and color to the point of true artistry, but his fame was a burden to the shy, retiring individual, whose happiest moments were spent in his corner office in Rosemont, sitting at a mammoth wooden drafting table, designing beau­tiful bodies and running the shop. Fortunately, older brother James served as a perfect counterpoint to Enos. A successful salesman with sound business accumen, James was a large, handsome man with a resonant voice and a resolute manner; he liked meeting and mingling with customers at automobile expo­sitions and in the showroom.

Protection from pesty friends who constantly asked for rides forced a woman to seek Derham’s help with an unusual request. Would it be possible, she queried, to re­place the seven passenger limousine body of her Pierce Arrow with a town car body which could not possibly seat more than two people in the passenger compartment? The Rosemont body-builders ac­complished the task with rela­tive ease, and the woman enjoyed the perfect excuse for no longer ferrying acquaint­ances to and fro.

This anecdote does not end with the satisfied customer, however. By chance, one of the top executives of Duesenberg, the most glamorous automobile in America, happened to be visiting the Derham show­room on the day the two seater town car was delivered. He immediately realized that such a diminutive body placed on the enormous Duesenberg chassis would make the car look much larger and faster. The executive ordered several copies, which not only were successful in themselves but eventually led to Derham’s design of the J Convertible, one of the most famous of Der­ham bodies and one of the most beautiful motorcars ever built.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Roaring Twenties were truly sunny days for automobile manufac­turers and coach builders alike. Steel mills, railroads, chemical and textile compan­ies, utilities, construction firms, oil companies and coal operators were at full throttle. There seemed to be no end to America’s overflowing cornu­copia. Only a few foresaw the coming of Black Friday on October 29, 1929. The trumpet inevitably sounded and, remi­niscent of Jericho, Wall Street began tumbling. Despite newspaper reports, many refused to admit that the situa­tion was serious. An aberra­tion, some claimed, and for a time it seemed this might be true. Stocks managed a mod­est recovery and the promise of two chickens in every pot and a car in every garage sounded reassuringly through­out the land.

In spite of the stock market crash, advance planning con­tinued for the 1930-1931 Inter­national Automobile Salon in New York, where premier coach builders exhibited their latest designs. John Grotz, automobile historian and au­thor, later recalled the exhibit: ” … this last show outdid all of its twenty-five predecessors in its fabulous collection of auto­mobiles. Derham prepared their full quota of four cars, and the quartet that they brought to the Commodore surpassed all of their previous efforts. Probably, in the history of the Salon, there were single cars that created more of a stir than any one of those exhib­ited by Derham in December 1930. However, displaying a Duesenberg, Franklin, Lin­coln, and Packard, Derham reached a combined peak of excellence that truly benefitted what turned out to be the grand finale of the Salon.”

It was not long until the era of the custom built automobile began to wane. There were occasional orders: a town car for Campbell Soup Company’s C. T. Dorrance; Duesenbergs for actors Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller and Gary Cooper; and a chaste berline-landaulet on a Lincoln chassis and a convertible sedan on a V-12 Pierce Arrow for Robert W. Johnson of Johnson and John­son. The biggest ma1:ket was the entertainment field, and among the cars of note con­structed by Derham during the lean years was a Packard town car for opera diva Lily Pons.

That the Derham Body Company outlasted those grim days of the Great Depression while most of its competitors failed is a tribute to the re­sourcefulness – and resolute­ness – of the Derham brothers. They managed to keep going but not without hardship. Long-time employ­ees, highly skilled artisans, had to be released and the Philadelphia plant closed. No job was too small, be it a minor repair to a dented fender or a repainting. Work that other builders turned down, the Derhams welcomed. In this way, key employees were retained on the pared down payroll, and the company maintained the ability to han­dle the rare large orders.

The production of custom bodies may have been scant in volume, but it included work for such disparate rulers as King George VI of England and Josef Stalin of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The automobile for Stalin was hardly remarkable in itself – a quite plain touring body on a Packard “Super Eight” body. What was noteworthy was the succession of Zis motorcars produced in the Soviet Union over several decades with an amazing resemblance to that body originally created by Derham.

The bombing of Pearl Har­bor on December 7, 1941, ren­dered custom coachwork unimportant, as manpower and materials were needed for the war effort. All else was secondary.

Much like most of Ameri­can business and industry, the Derham Body Company re­sponded to the wartime chal­lenge and devoted its inventiveness, skills and equipment to defense needs. One of its first efforts was the development of a truck which could also serve as an ambu­lance or a utility vehicle. The U.S. Army was so satisfied with Derham’s design that ten thousand vehicles were or­dered, far too great a number for the little plant in Rosemont to manufacture. Although the contract was Jet to another vendor, the Derhams kept busy building mobile canteens for the U.S. Navy and, later, bulkheads and pontoons for PBYs and training planes. So high was the quality of Der­ham’s production that the Navy rarely bothered to carry out its normal inspection pro­cedures; if the work passed the company’s internal inspec­tion, it would meet – or ex­ceed – Navy standards.

After World War II, the company resumed custom body work. Despite the fact that Derham was one of the last coachbuilders in this coun­try, the business was changing – and dwindling. Detroit had gone to unit body and frame construction, doing away with the separate chassis. It became impractical, as well as prohibi­tively expensive, to design and make whole custom bodies anymore. Except for the few cases where money did not matter, all the company could do was to make extensive modifications on already built bodies. In 1948, the shop made alterations to approximately one hundred cars, but fabri­cated only ten complete bodies.

In an effort to survive, the Derham Body Company be­came dealers for De Soto and Plymouth automobiles. The dealership not only brought in some badly needed revenue but also resulted in a close, continuing relationship with Chrysler’s chief, K. T. Keller. Eventually, important con­tracts resulted in the design for phaetons and two different types of convertibles by Derham.

By the mid-1960s, the Der­ham Body Company – despite the glorious successes and prudent management of the past – needed a transfusion. The volume of work steadily decreased, as did the compa­ny’s operating capital. Philip had left the company and James had died, leaving Enos to carry on the business alone. Fortuitously, a long-time ad­mirer of Derham originals appeared on the scene with an attractive proposition: He would buy the company “lock, stock and barrel” with the condition that Enos stay on as chief designer and production manager.

The suitor was Albert A. Garthwaite, Jr., former presi­dent of Lee Tire and Rubber Company (see “Lee of Con­shohocken” by Kershaw Bur­bank in the spring 1990 issue of Pennsylvania Heritage), a resident of nearby Bryn Mawr and a Derham customer of many years. Garthwaite and Enos shared the hope that a strengthened marketing effort would make possible the con­tinuation of fine custom coach­work. They printed and distributed a handsome bro­chure illustrating four possible custom bodies for Lincolns and Cadillacs. The brochure explained, “The Derham staff will execute a motorcar design incorporating the features that you would like …. The only limit being your own imagina­tion and desires …. The crafts­men who will build your Derham body are the foremost experts in the field.” And so they were. Sadly, however, by the time a few orders trickled in, a number of artisans had retired. In short, they were a disappearing breed.

When asked what made the Derhams such important fig­ures in automotive history, Beverly Rae Kimes, editor of The Classic Car and world­-recognized automotive history authority, merely recounted the company’s success story.

Carriage builders at the turn of the century in America – and there were hundreds of them – had two choices. Embrace the horseless age, or rail mightily against it. No need to mention the survival rate of those who opted to regard the automobile as an infer­nal machine.

Of the carriage makers who successfully made the transition to the automobile, none was more illustrious than Derham. The Rosemont company would make any cognoscenti’s list of the top five custom coach builders in America. Why was Derham so special? Lots of reasons. The longevity of the firm in the field obviously was not happenstance. Derham quality was renowned – and more than skin deep. It was what you didn’t see in a Derham that made the difference, the big timbers and the solid framing hidden under the upholstery. Other bodies might be as beautiful but they were not necessarily as well constructed, especially among those coachbuilders whose busi­nesses began after the automotive age. Derham’s carriage-making ancestry meant that the company built solid.

A rakishly low windshield and sporty padded roof were among the many distinctive touches that characterized Derham bodies through the years. Equally note­worthy was the company’s fierce independence. Again, unlike may other coachbuilders, the Derham brothers refused to marry themsel­ves off to any single automobile manufacturer. Indeed, Enos and Joe would not even consent to an affair. Granted, they flirted with some – the Tourster for Duesen­berg, for example – but the broth­ers kept their alliances untangled and remained essentially beholden only to themselves and an admir­ing clientele. That speaks vol­umes. In the wake of the Great Depression, coachbuilding houses fell like dominos. After World War II, Derham stood virtually alone until the brothers chose to quit for a fine reason – a well-deserved retirement.

The Derham building still stands at 1234 Lancaster Avenue. The showrooms, once filled with carriages and, later, with custom-bodied cars of every make, now shelter such exotic marques as Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo. The old shops and storerooms are modernized and where once production orders were care­fully written out by hand, computers flash their mes­sages and electronic equip­ment delivers orders. Yet one still feels the presence of the Derhams, father and sons. Vintage portraits remain, as do many examples of Enos Der­ham’s fine designs. There also remains the desk of patriarch Joseph J. Derham, the time clock on which his faithful employees punched in, and the gong with which Enos sounded lunch hour and quit­ting time. The history of the Derham family of automakers is respected and preserved by the present owner.

The Derhams may be gone, but they are certainly not for­gotten. In fact, memories of them and their wonderful machines surface at every showing of the great, the clas­sic, and the beautiful cars of yesteryear. At these meets and exhibitions, Derham coach­work is admired today as it was a half century ago.

Perhaps the words of mas­ter English poet John Keats best characterize the master­pieces created by the Derham family. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” he wrote.


For Further Reading

Cohn, David L. Combustion on Wheels: An Informal History of the Automobile Age. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1944.

Flink, James J. America Adapts the Automobile, 1895-1910. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1970.

Glassock, C.B. The Gasoline Age. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1937.

Georgano, G. N. The Complete Encyclopedia of Motor Cars. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968.

Kimes, Beverly Rae. The Classic Car. 31, 4 (December 1983).

Maxim, Hiram Percy. Horseless Carriage Days. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1936.

McManus, Theodore F. Men, Money, and Motors: The Drama of the Automobile. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1929.

Schafer, Louis S. “A Brief Bril­liance: Pennsylvania’s Early Automakers.” Pennsylvania Heritage, 12, 4 (Fall 1986), 26-31.

Stevens, William and Jay J. Du­gan. The Saturday Evening Post. July 23, 1949.


Kershaw Burbank of Delray Beach, Florida, lived for a number of years in Devon, Pennsylvania. Following graduation from Yale University, he was associated with MGM Studios, Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation and the Walt Disney Studios. In addition to serving as vice presi­dent of the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, he also acted as vice president and corporate secretary of the Educational Broadcasting Corporation (WNET) of New York; advisor on public affairs to the Rockefeller family and associ­ates; consultant to Sleepy Hollow Restorations, Inc., and Palisades Interstate Park Commission; and director of public information for Colonial Williamsburg. He is also a trustee of the Elsie Lee Garth­waite Memorial Foundation, Rose­mont. The author is currently a freelance writer whose interests include the history of southeastern Pennsylvania. His first contribu­tion to this magazine, “Lee of Conshohocken,” appeared in the spring 1990 edition.