Planes, Trains and Automobiles

The magnificent history of the Budd Manufacturing Company 

From 1912 and 2002, the Budd Company employed tens of thousands of Philadelphians through two World Wars and the evolution of the transportation industry. Its founder, Edward Gowan Budd, was a young machinist from Delaware who came to the city for a day job and also night classes at the Franklin Institute and U of P. ⚠️ Privilege Alert: it’s likely his father, an alderman & Justice of the Peace back home, helped arrange the scholarship money required to advance his studies. 🤷

In any event, Edward was a sponge for knowledge with an eye toward innovation. While working for the American Pulley Company, he came up with a lightweight, all-steel design that quickly became a new standard in such equipment. Corporate giants around the country were impressed, and Edward was soon lured away to work on an exciting new project: the world’s first all-steel rail car. His bosses had been skeptical but all doubts vanished when, in 1907, the finished product knocked the Pullman Company’s socks off, and orders started pouring in.

As the decade continued, Edward found himself filling orders for steel automobile panels, which gave him the idea for an all-steel auto body. After his success with the Pullman car you’d think his bosses would’ve had more faith, but they shot him down. So in June 1912 Edward took his savings – and 13 of his favorite coworkers – and opened the Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company at Tioga Street and Aramingo Avenue in Port Richmond. (Historians believe this may be the city’s first documented “neener neener.” 🤣 )

At first, they only had one contract, pressing out bodies for General Motors’s Oakland Touring Car. But as new clients came aboard – Packard, Ford, Studebaker, Dodge – additional space was needed to keep up the pace. By 1916, the Budd Company’s plant at Hunting Park Avenue and Stokely Street employed 2,000 employees.

As company president, Edward proved a generous and caring boss who prioritized his workers’ safety and well-being. Budd Company wages were among the top in the industry, with a host of perks and benefits unheard of at the time, including athletic teams, a symphony orchestra — and a company magazine! The first edition of the “Buddgette” featured a letter from Edward to his employees, explaining that they didn’t work for him but rather with him, and he welcomed their ideas and suggestions.

Edward was the first industrialist to employ a full-time physician, with an on-site company health clinic providing free care. Food and clothing, too, were offered below-cost from company stores and a “canteen” served up cheap, hot meals. There was even a company holiday! On “Edward G. Budd Day,” he’d close the plant and take workers and their families on an all-expense paid picnic.

Through the 1920’s, the Budd Company grew so big that they opened a factory in Detroit, but then the stock market crashed, and suddenly luxury items like automobiles were no longer selling like hotcakes. As Edward searched for something else to manufacture, his factories began experimenting with stainless steel, producing an airplane prototype. His old friends in Railroad Industry were intrigued, and in 1933 he was contracted to create the world’s first stainless-steel train. Completed in April 1934, the Burlington Zephyr immediately crushed speed records of the time, traveling as fast as 70 – 100 mph.

The following decades would bring enormous growth and social change, as the Budd Company adapted through wars, union efforts, women’s rights, and eventually Edward G Budd’s death in 1946 at age 75. His son, Edward Jr, had been working at the company all his life, starting with an apprenticeship in the machine shop. When his father passed, he easily stepped into his old man’s shoes, to become a respected and capable president.

This would not be the case for the Budd Company’s next CEO, who moved the company headquarters to Michigan in 1972 (a year after Edward Jr’s death). A German manufacturer, Thyssen AG, purchased the Budd Company in 1978 and laid off many workers. The Philadelphia plant limped along for a few more decades, closing its doors for good in 2002. Twelve years later, the Budd Company was finally dissolved (written off as a bankruptcy by a corporate conglomerate).

Get the Whole Story! 

Our summary here is just the tip of the iceberg: Bob McNulty’s original article includes more details about Edward G. Budd’s fascinating life, from his comfortable home in Germantown to his complicated struggles with labor organizers throughout his career. Click over to Bob’s full article here, originally published September 1, 2014 and featured in July 2023’s Local paper.

WHAT’S NEXT? BUDD CAMPUS 2023

The Budd Company’s 25-acre industrial park in North Philly was purchased in 2019 by Plymouth Group, who has been working on plans to develop it into a “Life Sciences hub.” The site, they believe, is ideally positioned near many research, academic and medical institutions, and also there’s good transit, housing, recreation, and other amenities to attract new talents and innovators.

True story: the existing facilities where car parts were made are quite easily updated into laboratories and bioengineering space. They’ve already got extended doors/ceilings, industrial ventilation, reinforced floors, redundant power, etc. – it’s practically turn-key.

Phase one of the project, called “Budd Bioworks,” has developed about 500,000 sq ft for “white box” facilities with about 30% of that dedicated to offices, classrooms, laboratories, etc. According to the brochure, it looks like they’ve got plans to offer shared tenant amenities like animal labs and cryo-storage. 🙀🥶⚠️ Currently however, it looks like they’ve got two buildings available to lease for cGMP manufacturing (pharmaceuticals). 👀👀👀

Budd Bioworks
Leasing by Colliers Life Sciences
2450 W. Hunting Park Avenue
buddbio.com

Thoughts? Questions? Please leave your comments below, or email editor@nwlocalpaper.com.

Read Bob’s last Local column HERE.  Don’t miss the next great tale from local history, follow @PhiladelphiaStoriesbyBobMcNulty on Facebook. 

About Philadelphia Stories By Bob McNulty 19 Articles
Philadelphia Stories by Bob McNulty. Lifelong Philadelphian Bob McNulty tells fascinating tales about ordinary citizens and extraordinary events from the city’s long history. Ranging from whimsical to tragic (sometimes in the same story!), Bob’s tales are meticulously researched and bring to life figures and events largely forgotten today. Philadelphia Stories is a dramatic archive that spotlights everyday Philadelphians of all kinds -- men and women, Black and white, immigrant and native-born, many of whom, in Bob’s words, “didn’t have anyone to tell their story.”

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