While burning another tank of fuel, blissfully cruising up and down Shaikh Zayed Road on the weekend once again, I noticed a little rattle and tiny squeak coming from my Trans Am. There’s still loads of fire in its belly, but its body, though immaculate, seems to have a few areas in need of something stronger than a squirt of WD40.
This, and almost everything else General Motors built over the years, left the production line with a small badge usually on the door sills which read, ‘Body by Fisher’. These guys have built some of the finest Chevys, Buicks, Oldsmobiles and more, ever since merging with GM back in 1919 (ask your great, great grandfather about it).
Fred and Charles Fisher left Norwalk, Ohio in 1905 and moved to Detroit where their uncle Albert had established his Standard Wagon Works Co. They found work at the C. R. Wilson Co, a manufacturer of horse-drawn carriage bodies, who was just starting to make bodies for car manufacturers. Three years later, they created the Fisher Body Company.
By 1910, Fisher was supplying bodies for Cadillac and Buick. Now, the old ‘horseless carriage’ bodies could not withstand the sheer vibrations coming from the new motorcars. Driving a car via its rear wheels put different stresses on the body than pulling a carriage by its front axle. Fisher had to develop new designs to counter this, which it did with aplomb, and by 1913, it was producing 100,000 cars a year for customers including Ford and Studebaker. Business was booming and expansion was needed so the brothers opened up a plant in Ontario, Canada. By the following year, Fisher Body Co. was the largest auto body manufacturer in the world.
They were using interchangeable wooden body parts and this was one of the reasons for their success — they did not need hand fitting, unlike the construction of carriages. This meant they could be churned out much faster and it also pioneered a sheet-metal stamping technique. Now called the Fisher Body Corp, it was building over 300,000 bodies a year and had a stock authorisation of $6 million.
Ford, Studebaker and GM wanted the company as a fully owned subsidiary but the latter’s offer was accepted. The buyout was completed in two stages, the first in 1919 where a clause was inserted stating GM would buy all its car bodies from Fisher for the next 10 years but Fisher would also be allowed to build bodies for Chrysler. Fisher was becoming well known for its innovations such as being the first to use insulation to help reduce wind and tyre noise from entering the cabin and keeping the heat and cold out. It was also the first to use narrowed A-pillars and slanted windscreens to improve visibility and adjustable sun visors. The next step of the takeover by GM was finalised in 1926 and from this point on, Fisher could only work for them.
The Thirties saw the V12 and V16 Cadillac, which GM wanted to be the US’s most prestigious car. Rolls-Royce engineer, Maurice Olley, was brought in to improve the Caddy’s ride and it was such a hit that they became the cars of choice for members of the White House. Fred and Charles left GM in 1934 and during the Second World War, Fisher began designing planes, tanks, guns and artillery shells to help with the war effort.
The Fifties saw many safety firsts by Fisher including the panoramic windshield while it produced GM’s first air bag system for high-end cars of the Seventies. In the mid Nineties, Fisher Body was dissolved as a unique entity by being merged with other GM operations but in 2008, Fisher Coachworks LLC was officially launched and it’s been developing the plug-in hybrid GTB-40 transit bus — capable of doubling the mileage of a standard hybrid bus.
If they can do that, maybe they can also help me with my rattling Pontiac...