History of the Henney Motor Company

by H. Reid Horner, Dir. Of Personnel
H. Reid Horner id badge
Henney Motor Company


Transcribed and Donated to Genealogy Trails by Alice Horner©

Transcriber’s Note: H. Reid Horner gave a speech to the Professional Car Society’s Annual Awards Banquet, held September 16, 1978, and kept his original handwritten copy of it. Parts of this speech formed an article titled “Recollections Of A ‘Henney Man,’” printed in the PCS Fall 1978 publication “The Professional Car.” This transcription incorporates both documents.


by H. Reid Horner.........

"I joined Henney’s in June 1928 and left on November 2, 1954. I was in charge of the factory payroll at the start, which gradually included personnel work, group insurance supervision, employee social activities, etc., and employee relations. There is no better way to establish good friends and personal acquaintances in an organization than to appear at regular intervals with a paycheck.

Henney’s was like being part of a large loyal family, each one working for the well being of the management as well as his fellow worker. Without question much of the success of the Company was due to the high and varied skills possessed by the Henney employees. These skilled hands were the tools of the Hearse and Ambulance production. Some of these hands had even worked on buggies.

We must keep in mind that hearse and ambulance production was a very low unit rate in comparison to the automobile back in the late twenties and that rate became even lower in comparison as automobile production increased by leaps and bounds. Automobile production demanded the best in sophisticated tooling which could not be warranted in production of 50 to 100 hearse or ambulances per month. This lack of tooling could only be overcome by skilled workmen and Henney’s had that skill available in all departments.


Construction of Bodies In Late 1920s & Early 1930s......

After the First World War, we made hearse bodies which were mounted on Dodge Bros. Chassis. These were carved-panel bodies, but we later began to build limousine-type funeral cars and ambulances. The body frame was for the most part made of wood. Units of hard seasoned ash were produced in a well equipped mill room and these units were assembled by skilled hands into a strong complete body frame. Body irons were applied to make strong joints. Doors were constructed basically in the same manner, and then hung in the body framework. A generous application of lead and oil paint was applied by hand to prevent rotting from years of use. Bodies were strong and heavy.

Some time prior to 1928 a number of hearse bodies were covered with Meritas, which was similar to our present vinyl tops. Blondy Ditzler, our paint shop foreman, referred to those as “baloney-skinned jobs.“ This type of covering resulted in reduction of noise when the doors were closed. There were other less desirable features and metal was soon used exclusively.

Body panels in the early days were formed to shape by big trip hammers. Panels were permanently applied to the wood frame by skilled hands. There were many welds joining these panels together, all of which required application of solder and then expert finishing. It was a highly skilled operation. We employed some fine metalworkers who turned out the body panels. These men were mainly Finns, who hired their own helpers.

Painting was next and there was never a paint job on a car that exceeded the quality of a Henney. Blondy (Ditzler) was a perfectionist. The body was cleaned to remove all grease and dirt. Then a putty glazing operation was done that covered all scratches and fill marks. Then a wet sanding was done that made the surface as smooth as glass. Two coats of primer were followed by another sanding. After that 3 to 4 coats of color were applied, which were followed by a final polishing to bring out the luster of the lacquer.

A hand striping operation put on the finishing touches. All trim material of the best quality was installed on the interior, entirely by hand by skilled trimmers. All seat cushions were hand made of the best materials. Quality, comfort and appearance was the finest.

Interior window frames were trimmed in genuine walnut. All equipment was installed in the body prior to placing it on the chassis. Bodies were moved through the factory on hand operated factory trucks.

In 1927 Henney began to build side-loading hearses. Mr. Henney was repelled at the way hearses had to be backed up to the curb for loading, which he thought was very undignified. The 3-way idea was developed by a man named Heise out on the west coast, but Ed Richter perfected it. The 3-way feature added about $100.00 to the price of the car but Henney did very well with it. Henney was soon selling more than half the 3-ways in the industry, and we sold side-servicing equipment, including the mound, track and carrier to some of our competitors. Later Henney developed a leveling device to keep the coach even on crowned or uneven roads. We sold our 3-ways as Nu-Side-Service hearses.

In the late twenties and past the mid-thirties several different types of chassis were used for hearses. Chassis frames in different makes of cars had very little variation in general conformation. They were attached to the axels, both front and rear by standard arching leaf springs. Differences in length was altered by cutting the frame and welding in a short length of channel on each side. Chassis used in varying amounts during this period included Stephens (one assembled in our factory using a Continental motor), Velie/Buick/Auburn (using Lycoming motors), Pierce Arrow/Reo (a special car marketed by National Casket), Pontiac economy model, Oldsmobile - Progress Model (good). In addition we occasionally built a hearse or an ambulance on a chassis specified by the customer. This might be a Cadillac, LaSalle, Rolls Royce, Lincoln, Cord and others.

By 1936 cars were becoming lower in height and independent front end suspension changed the style of the frame. We had already used many Packard chassis and these cars were well accepted by our customers. In 1937 we went to Packard exclusively. We needed to standardize and discourage building on a variety of chassis.



Steel Frame Bodies In Mid-1930s......

Steel frame bodies were in demand and a gradual transition was made to eliminate the wood framework. Instead of hammering panels, simple dies were made to produce body panels, and one for the top decks. (Transcriber’s Note: A 700 ton press was used in this operation, but he doesn’t describe how it was used.) Meritas tops were out. It cost $100,000 for the metal die. (Transcriber’s Note: The article in The Professional Car quotes this figure as $2,000, a huge difference. Although the original handwriting is clearly $100,000, it seems unlikely for the 1930s.) A framing jig was used for assembling the bodies. (Transcriber’s note: I’m unsure about the word “jig” in this last sentence.)


Ambulances For US Government......

We used to get some large contracts from the U. S. Government, especially for ambulances. I remember one time we got an order for 100 of these. At the time, the Government representatives would not take delivery until all of the cars were build. So we found ourselves with these ambulances stored all over the place. When they came to inspect them, one of the Government specifications people noticed that the medical emblem on the sides of the car and on the rear door -- a snake wrapped around a staff -- had no eyes painted in. So one of our paint department people had to go around and paint snake eyes on all 100 cars, three times each. From then on he was stuck with the nickname of “Snake Eyes.”



Special Cars......

Flower Cars, built in batches of about 10 at a time. They were special order cars.

100 taxis made in 1929, using a stretched Model A Ford.

3-piece ash roof rails, made for the Ford Motor Company’s Model A 4-door in 1929.

1 Child’s Hearse built in 1930 on an Austin Chassis and complete with the 3-way table. It was built as a conversation piece for an undertaker’s convention but they were afraid people would order them. It was sold to a funeral director in Iowa. (Transcriber’s Note: The Professional Car article makes this sound like it was a large pedal car, to be driven by a child on the sidewalk.)

Stainless Steel Ambulance - 2nd owner (Transcriber’s note: It’s unclear what “2nd owner” refers to but he underlined it.)

Hearse on a Rolls Royce - Alter of a Catholic Church in miniature

Special Lincolns for Ford Motor Co., leased to US Government for the White House

5 sporty Packard Pan-Americans, styled by Richard Arbib.

The Purple Ambulance, a special order for a funeral director.

Ambulance facilities in a 7-passenger limo.

Civil Defense Ambulance (practical but too heavy)

Expanded bodies.

More than 3000 limousine bodies for the Packard chassis, built after World War II.



War Production Work......

World War I - gun stocks

Word War II - bomb caps and aircraft engine parts



Henney’s Ceased Production......

Early in 1946 Henney’s was sold to a New York syndicate. John W. Henney suffered a massive stroke late in 1946 and died before the year’s end. Production ceased at Freeport not long after the 1954 Henney-Packards went into production. The company was liquidated in 1955. The old Henney factory is still standing and is owned today by the Micro Switch Division of Honeywell.

[Transcriber’s Note: It is now [2005] and for perhaps the last 10 years been called just Honeywell.]

As I think back over my 26 years at Henney’s I have many fond memories of my experiences there. And most of all I cherish the friendships that were established among those fine craftsmen who gave so much to the value of Henney products.

We have numerous items in our home today that were made by those skilled hands. We cherish them more as the years pass and one by one those good friends leave us and the skills they possessed can not be replaced."

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