Commuting With A Legend

from Old Cars Weekly, by Joel Prescott


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Certain names have particular power over the mindset of the true collector. These are the giant, shadowy names that live in automotive histories and populate the auction catalogs, pushing up the prices of the cars that they adorn.

In some cases, these names do nothing less than define the genius of the age. Of course, the age I refer to is the Classic era.

My personal nomination for the patriarch of them all is Raymond H. Dietrich. Those two simple words "By Dietrich" can easily add $100,000 or more to the value of a Classic Packard or Lincoln.

The recognition afforded to the Dietrich name is rightfully directed, because Raymond Dietrich had just about the most perfectly formed, innate sense of balance and design in the entire history of the automobile, let alone the short Classic era, during which he flourished.

By coincidence, insight into the career of Raymond Dietrich came to me in a very unexpected way. After moving to New Mexico in 1992, 1 joined the local region of the Classic Car Club of America and it was through this small group of enthusiasts that I met Marion Dietrich, Ray's widow.

Once the manager of the Albuquerque Symphony Orchestra, Marion Dietrich has dedicated much of her time in retirement to the stewardship of her late husband's epochal accomplishments.

Ray and Marion met at Chrysler Corporation during the early 1930s and theirs was a second marriage for both.

After Ray's retirement, the Dietrichs lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but on the advice of Ray's doctor, their final move to the high and dry climate of Albuquerque was made in 1969. Ray died there in 1982.

During the course of our friendship, Marion Dietrich asked me to help her organize and sort what remained of her late husband's papers, drawings and other career touchstones.

In 1995, the bulk of these memoirs, letters and speeches, plus some drawings and drawing instruments, was donated by Marion to the Gilmore-Classic Car Club of America Museum at Hickory Corners, Michigan.

What Marion retains and what has so influenced my perceptions of the man, is a set of cassette recordings that Ray made shortly before his death.

Perhaps sensing his own mortality, Ray verbally documented his entire career. Listening to those tapes is an astonishingly real and personal experience.

What was Ray Dietrich like? He and Marion lived very simply. Both loved animals and the walls of Marion's home are adorned with Ray's original pen-and-ink drawings of animals of all kinds.

From what I know, I am certain that Ray Dietrich would have been a close friend. His voice, gentle yet sure, has an extraordinarily friendly and engaging quality, so that those few times when he says unfavorable things about other people stand out in high relief.

Ray seems almost not to have comprehended the enormity of his accomplishments. While generously honored in his later years, it was always with an expression of genuine surprise that Ray greeted the news of his latest commendation. This was no . act; the humility was ingrained and absolutely real. What's the big deal about designing cars that look nice? Ray documented his first successes after he and his early partner Tom Hibbard established LeBaron Carrossiers (coach builders) in New York City. LeBaron operated like a house haute couture, bringing new [designs to market once a year. The fabulous annual splash was the New York Salon, usually held at the Waldorf-Astoria, where manufacturers and coach builders unwrapped their newest designs and anxiously awaited the public's adoring acceptance.

LeBaron was first invited to display four cars at the New York Salon in 1922. So successful was the small company that, by the very next year, LeBaron dominated the salon with more than two-dozen designs bearing its nameplate. By this time, other manufacturers such as Locomobile had come under LeBaron contract. . The watershed coach-built Classic age was about to begin.

Those fabulous salon days were not without their moments of unease, mixed generously with self-deprecating humor. For one early salon, the partners created a one-off convertible sedan, but it was not until the eve of the show's opening that the men discovered that the top could not be operated as designed. Having no time to make the necessary modifications, Hibbard and Dietrich danced and punted when asked about the top. They ultimately did make it through the show without major embarrassment and the car was quickly taken back to the LeBaron shops for the necessary modifications.

Ray's audio memoirs are filled with such diversions and light-hearted escapades. Listening to them is an oddly intimate experience, considering the enormity of the man's reputation. I accord special thanks to Marion Dietrich for allowing me to listen to Ray's tapes.


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