In what is now known as the "Classic Era," circumstances brought together a father and son who knew something about making automobile bodies, a bankrupt body-building concern in Providence, R.I., and two young men anxious to go into business for themselves. They were a "team" ready for anything and inspired by the challenge of producing tangible evidence of fine, craftsmanship work.
They created Waterhouse Co., probably the last company to enter the business of building custom passenger -car bodies in the U.S., organized in January 1928 by these four men: Charles L. Waterhouse; his son -- L. Osborne Waterhouse; Roger S. Clapp; and myself -- S. Roberts Dunham.
None of these men had ever been in business for himself before and, of course, none of us knew anything about the impending Wall St. crash -- fortunately.
During a period of six years, the firm turned out something less than 300 car bodies. But, I like to think that these Waterhouse bodies, because of their relatively small number, have a certain "scarcity" value in the eyes of those individuals who are collectors of cars from the Classic Era.
Accordingly we have searched throughout old files for appropriate photographs, and have done some traveling to meet and reminisce with old associates of 30 years ago, in order to give you as full and accurate a story as possible on the Waterhouse Co.
The Depression of the 1930s -- along with advances in the art of assembling the modern production automobile -- brought an end to the custom-car-body business at Waterhouse. The company then turned to other lines of manufacture and is still in existence, although none of the four founders is now active. Two have died and two retired. The company no longer operates under the name Waterhouse, but is now known as the Dudley Mfg. Co.
To start at the beginning: In 1927 young Osborne Waterhouse was out of a job. As a boy he had learned that branch of woodworking trade known as body-building. He had been superintendent of a body-building concern in Providence, R. I., which had recently gone into bankruptcy for the second time. But he had reason to believe that a new group of owners might be able to buy the machinery and equipment of the defunct company cheaply and revive the business.
His father, Charles Waterhouse, was working at that time for the Cadillac Co. in Boston. As a young man he had learned the trimmer's trade in several carriage shops of northeastern Massachusetts, and had also served as foreman in some of the well known shops in that region.
A trimmer was a man who upholstered the seats and backs of carriages and automobiles and was skilled in making the fabric or leather tops of the vehicles along with the side linings and the carpets.
Charles Waterhouse and his son now talked about starting in business for themselves with the assets of the defunct Providence company, if the purchase price was reasonable. Each had savings but they needed additional capital.
In 1927 Roger Clapp was working in the brokerage house of Stone and Webster in the management division of the Boston branch. He was a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Business School. One of his friends and former college roommate, S. Roberts Dunham, had just returned with his wife from California to his native Boston. He had been a cost accountant but was now out of a job. The two friends agreed that it seemed to be a good time to buy a small "going" manufacturing business, as they had often discussed before, in which they could be active partners. Letters seeking such a business were sent to Chambers of Commerce of New England cities and towns.
Charles Waterhouse, then living in Framingham, Mass., told his neighbor, who was active in the local C. of C., about his plans for starting a custom-body business and the need for more capital. His neighbor recalled a recent letter from Clapp and Dunham received by his C. of C.
Within a short time a company was organized with these four men as the owners. Control of the firm always remained in the hands of Clapp and Dunham (up until the time of a merger in recent years).
However, at the first corporate meeting it was voted to name the organization the Waterhouse Co., in tribute to the long association with vehicle body-building craftsmanship in the Waterhouse family, dating back several generations.
Charles Waterhouse was elected first president, but, in time, each of the four founders served in that capacity.
Late in 1927, the machinery, material and equipment of the defunct body-building firm in Providence was bought (by successful bidding) from the receivers, and a search for a suitable factory site was begun. It was found in the town of Webster, Mass., near the south-central border of the state.
Now the new venture was ready to go. In January 1928 the company was incorporated. Charles Waterhouse and Roger Clapp, who were employed, stayed at their jobs for a while until there was business enough to support all four founders. But they kept in close touch with the younger Waterhouse and Bob Dunham, who had moved to Webster immediately.
One of the skilled craftsmen that were brought to Webster within a short time was Sargent Waterhouse, oldest sons of Charles Waterhouse, who has played an important part in the progress of the company right up to the present day. Prior to 1928 he had worked for Judkins body builders.
Osborne Waterhouse, who, as superintendent of the former Providence body-building firm, had built some bodies for the officers of du Pont Motors in Wilmington, Del., hoped that they might give the new company in Webster a trial order. And we did eventually build a number of bodies for that short-lived car-manufacturing division of E.I. du Pont de Nemours, before it was forced to go out of the car-building business by the U.S. government.
There seemed to be a chance of getting a quick order for small boats to give the infant concern some needed financial nourishment. For the same reason Waterhouse also started to do auto-body repair work. There was an encouraging display of help and co-operation from the community of Webster.
Within a short time after opening our plant, an order did come in for 200 small boats, a type of manufacturing closely related in many ways to automobile body building.
All Waterhouse bodies, with the exception of those built for Lincoln to their own design, were designed by one man -- George Briggs Weaver. Known generally as Briggs, he was born in Newport, R.I., in 1884. His rather unusual background before coming with Waterhouse included working in his father's automobile (Weaver) manufacturing plant and the Weaver family hardware store in Newport. There he got to know the history of every car in Newport, most of which came from abroad.
He studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and after graduation became a jewelry designer for Gorham Bros. in New York, but on his father's death, he returned to Newport and built Weaver automobiles until a fire wiped out the business. After working as a tool designer, his basic love for automobiles brought him in 1926 to the Providence firm whose machinery and equipment Waterhouse bought two years later.
Briggs left us before our body-building days were over to become Chief Engineer for du Pont Motors in Wilmington, for whom we were building bodies. However, du Pont agreed to let Briggs continue designing for us as long as we needed him, and this agreement was kept.
Fortunately we had on the staff a skilled body draftsman who could work from Briggs Weaver's design sketches. Briggs also helped out as much as he could on his visits to the plant.
In the years following the closing of du Pont Motors in the mid-30s, Briggs held several engineering positions, including Chief Engineer for Indian Motorcycle Co. He came out of retirement in the 1950s to serve as Supervisor of Engineering for Briggs Cunningham for four years while Cunningham was building his own racing and sports cars and competing at Le Mans in France.
During his busy life, this man played such an important part in the familiar Waterhouse body designs, owned and rebuilt many interesting cars, including foreign makes, for himself. With the ability to make either a beautiful oil painting or a piece of sculpture, he has had the most satisfying life, devoted to creating in many fields, that I know. Now (1963) in his late 70s, he spends time working at his lifelong hobby of designing sailboats, complete with full working drawings.
During the first months of Waterhouse's existence, in 1928, Briggs made sheafs of design sketches, black and white wash drawings and designs in full color for us to use with prospects. We had many problems during these early months. One was establishing credit with our supply houses.
The banker who had helped us purchase the factory on terms was a man of few words and letters. So he gave us a batch of bank stationery and we wrote and typed, for his signature, letters extolling the financial responsibility and sterling merit of the new concern.
Then with some income from the body-repair and boat-building jobs, a good designer and established credit, we could now train our guns on du Pont Motors.
They came up to inspect our operation and before long we had out first order for five roadsters and five convertible coupes.
In the photograph of the Holbrook convertible victoria on the du Pon chassis with the special radiator grille, you will notice that the background is a rising grassy slope. It took us a long time to learn that his type of background would set off the lines of an automobile better than any other. this picture was taken at a particular spot in New York's Central Park, which had long been used by Mr. Grover C. Parvis of the New York Packard Co., the man who tipped us off to the idea.
Editors note: After preparing most of this story material for "The Classic Car", Mr. S. Roberts Dunham died, Feb. 19, 1966. Mr. Roger Clapp of Cambridge, Mass., is the sole survivor of the Waterhouse founding quartette. He has helped considerably in reviewing Mr. Dunham's material and in supplying additional information for the article after Mr. Dunham's death.
Copyright© OldeWebster 2001
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