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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.
cases, these names do nothing less than define the genius of the age. Of
course, the age I refer to is the Classic era.
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.
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.
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
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
Marion met at Chrysler Corporation during the early 1930s and theirs was a
second marriage for both.
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.
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
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.
retains and what has so influenced my perceptions of the man, is a set of
cassette recordings that Ray made shortly before his death.
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.
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.
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
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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