The Ur-Father of Automotive Design: Andrew F. Johnson's Correspondence School For Automobile Body Makers, Designers and Draftsman – Now Online!

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
the ur father of automotive design andrew f johnson s correspondence school for

Just who invented automotive styling is open to debate, that is if you can even really narrow it down to one person. A number of people certainly deserve credit. In the United States, Harley Earl, Edsel Ford, and Alan Leamy, among others, come to mind. However, there is one person in the early days of the automobile age who probably had more to do with the way cars have been designed than any other single individual. I like to call him the “Ur-Father” of car design. His name was Andrew F. Johnson and if you’ve ever enjoyed the way a car was designed, you should know about him.

Johnson taught the first generation of car body builders in America how to draw and design automobiles. Actually his influence on the auto industry predates the auto industry, since he taught people like Billy Durant (who founded General Motors), Charles Nash (who co-founded Buick and later started his own car company) and Herman Brunn (of Brunn & Co., one of the leading classic car era coachbuilders) how to draw vehicles when they were young men working in the carriage industry.

Once the automobile started to make the carriage industry as irrelevant as, well, buggy whip manufacturers, Johnson moved his focus to motor cars. George Mercer, who co-founded the first independent automotive design firm in America in 1909, was a student of Johnson’s. Three of the Fisher brothers, as in Fisher Body, were pupils of his and for a while he taught drafting at Detroit’s prestigious Cass Technical High School, a job that the Fishers arranged because the growing industry had a need for trained draftsmen and artists. Brunn wasn’t the only great automotive coachbuilder who learned his trade from Johnson, Ray Dietrich, who founded LeBaron and whose custom bodies now fetch millions was a Johnson student. Less well known, but also influential was Otto F. Graebner, who designed and engineered bodies for the Murray Corp, a major body supplier. Just about every significant coachbuilder as well as mass producer of automobile bodies in the first half of the twentieth century had designers who learned how to design car bodies from Johnson or apprenticed under his students.

So how did the man come to be so influential? Andrew F. Johnson was born in Nova Scotia in 1854 and he left home at the age of 16, getting a job at a carriage maker in Gray, Maine. By the time he was 30 years old, he was working for Brewster & Co. of New York City, America’s most prestigious carriage maker, later to be known for their custom automobile bodies with unusual heart shaped radiator grilles. The move to New York was a great opportunity for Johnson. Today, if you want to learn how to design cars, you have your choice of design schools, like Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, the Art Center school in California, Pratt in New York and schools in Italy, Japan and elsewhere, but it’s not a curriculum that’s offered at every college. You still have to move to New York or Detroit or Milan or Pasadena or one of the other cities with a design school. In 1883, the only place in North America where you could learn how to design carriages was in New York City, at the Technical School for Carriage Draftsmen and Mechanics. Classes were originally taught at the Metropolitan Museum, three nights a week. Tuition was free, subsidized by the carriage trade.

Before it was decided that every American student had to be on a college track or be considered a failure, few people availed themselves of higher education. They got jobs. If they wanted to improve themselves and their lots in life, they would enroll in night school. If there was no school teaching that skill nearby, correspondence courses of varying degrees of academic rigor were also popular.

Johnson showed great promise at the Technical School, graduating at the top of his class, winning an industry sponsored scholarship, the Paris Prize, that allowed him to study for five months in 1885 at the DuPont school in Paris, with Albert DuPont. DuPont is credited with bringing techniques from ship building and design to the carriage industry. In particular, DuPont taught his students how to design in three dimensions. One vehicle design term that dates to DuPont, lofting, describing how shipbuilders would drop plumb lines from building lofts in order to transfer locations from paper plans to physical space, is still used by designers and draftsmen today for the process of transferring a lines plan to a full size plan.

Upon his return to the United States, Andrew Johnson was probably the most technically proficient carriage designer in the country, too valuable to the industry to work for just one company. He was encouraged to join the Technical School’s faculty, where he started introducing DuPont’s techniques to America. Seven years later, in 1892, when the director of the Technical School died, Johnson was named principal. Under his direction the Technical School started offering its curriculum via a correspondence course. As the automobile industry got established and grew, Johnson changed the school’s curriculum to meet the needs of the young industry but when the Carriage Builders National Association stopped subsidizing the school in 1918, it was closed. For a while, Johnson moved to Detroit, where he had a job teaching automotive drafting at the city’s premier public school, Cass Technical High School. His former students, Alfred, Edward and Frederick Fisher arranged the position, having by then with their other brothers sold 60% of Fisher Body to General Motors, after already becoming wealthy selling car bodies to a variety of companies. Johnson eventually returned to Maine, from where he operated the correspondence course, now called the Correspondence School For Automobile Body Makers, Designers and Draftsman, until his death in 1943. He was well loved by his students – there was even a “Johnson Club of Detroit”, an alumni association, to which he endowed his personal archive.

How the course worked was as follows. After tuition was paid a student number was assigned that the student would use to identify his homework. Johnson would mail a copy of that week’s lesson to the student. To create the lessons, Johnson would draw and hand letter each lesson, first in pencil, then in ink. Those masters would be used to create the cyanotype copies of the lessons mailed to students. Just why he used cyanotypes isn’t clear since by then the Gestetner and mimeograph processes were in use. Perhaps his training as a draftsman made him favor the blue printing process. Later, Johnson would have his lessons typeset and printed.

Whichever way he duplicated the students’ lesson papers, they went out with the following instructions:

Instructions to Pupil. – Copy in black crayon the design on this sheet, increasing the size by about one-quarter, and observing all suggestions contained in Lesson Paper No. 1. Return to the instructor, by parcel post, prepaid, within one week after receipt, when the following lesson will be forwarded to you. Put no writing on either the copy or original drawing and do not seal the envelope. All questions must be sent by letter mail. Be sure, however, before returning your copy, to place upon it the number assigned you on the Teachers’ List of Corresponding Pupils, that he may identify it.

The reason why Johnson wanted the pupils to increase the size of the drawings was to prevent them from cheating, either tracing or using tools to transfer the design. The reason why he didn’t want any writing on the originals is pretty obvious, he wanted to use the same cyanotypes for as many students as possible. Cyanotypes were affordable but still not inexpensive. Johnson must have been very careful with his originals. He cared enough about them to endow them to his alumni club in Detroit. One of those former students, George Mercer, later arranged for the correspondence course to be donated to the Detroit Public Library where it is now part of the National Automotive History Collection ( more on the collection here).

The NAHC is one of my favorite places, the world’s largest public archive of things automotive. The NAHC has everything from the latest enthusiast oriented automotive books to the board meeting minutes of long dead car companies, to technical specs and repair manuals for just about everything that has a motor and four wheels. Unfortunately, with the City of Detroit’s financial problems, much of the NAHC’s collection will not be digitized for the foreseeable future. A historical artifact like Johnson’s course should be available to students of design and automotive historians.

When I found out that the NAHC had a copy of his correspondence course, I visited the DPL’s Skillman branch and took digital photos of all of the originals and cyanotype copies in the Andrew F. Johnson portfolio. Some were loose, some were bound with a cover. It was exciting to see that on some of the originals, Johnson’s own handwriting, calculating out projections, could be seen in the margins. There were sample drawings of cars and car chassis, used as homework assignments, drawn by Johnson’s own hand. He was a talented artist as well as a gifted teacher.

As far as I have been able to determine, the only other collection of lesson papers from Johnson’s correspondence courses besides the NAHC’s is in the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C. and it’s hard to tell from the online catalog records ( here and here), just how complete the Library of Congress’ Andrew F. Johnson collection is.

I have been able to determine from a syllabus listed in a 95 year old trade publication that what the DPL NAHC has in their collection is not quite a complete copy of the course. The materials in the course are arranged into series of lessons. Series 1 is missing one lesson, Series 2 is mission one lesson, Series 4 is missing 8 lessons, Series 5 is missing 5 lessons, Series 6, which has three lessons, is missing entirely, Series 7 appears to be complete, the 8th Series is missing 8 lessons, the Extra Series is missing 2 lessons, and the Miscellaneous series appears to be missing three lessons. Still, even with those lessons missing, the bulk of the correspondence course is intact, with examples of at least 87 out of 118 lessons.

It occurred to me that Johnson’s course on automotive body design and drafting deserves to be seen by a wider audience of designers, students of design, automotive historians and car enthusiasts so I decided to make a digital copy of the documents in the Andrew F. Johnson portfolio at the NAHC. Many of the techniques Johnson pioneered or popularized and taught are still used by automotive designers today, albeit in digital form on computers.

The circumstances for photographing the documents were not ideal, I simply laid them out on a chair underneath my camera’s tripod. Since I could not get my camera exactly perpendicular to the documents, there was some keystoning, the images were skewed. With a photo editor I then did some minimal deskewing and cropping – they’re far from perfectly square and aligned, but for the most part they’re legible. Some of the documents were only available as cyanotype reproductions, and in a few cases, the blue printing had faded and legibility has suffered. Still, as a whole, it’s an amazing artifact of the early days of automotive styling and body building.

After I had all the images in more or less usable form, I thought it would be a neat idea to put Andrew Johnson’s Correspondence School For Automobile Body Makers, Designers and Draftsman online, in the same order as he taught it, so that if someone wanted to go through the course and learn how to draw cars in the real old school method, they could. After a false start with some HTML templates that took forever to fill in, I came to a better solution, posting the lessons in order on a blog.

Blogging software is perfect for providing the materials in an organized manner, so if someone really wants to, they can start at the beginning of the course and do all the lessons in order. Each lesson series is posted under a different category and a Table of Contents page has links, in order, to all the lesson and examination papers. My hope is that the site will function as an archive of his work and a memorial to the enduring influence on automotive design by Andrew F. Johnson. You can access Andrew F. Johnson’s Correspondence School For Automobile Body Makers, Designers and Draftsman here.

I finished getting everything online a few weeks ago but I haven’t done much to publicize it, just asked my colleague here at TTAC, Sajeev Mehta, who knows more about the process of learning how to design cars than I’ll ever know, and automotive writer Michael Lamm, who literally wrote the book on American automotive styling, if they thought the project was worthwhile. They thought it was, and since my regular weekend slot here at TTAC usually touches on some aspect of automotive history, I’m using this post to let you know about it. Under the new regime here, our Editor in Chief pro tem said there’d be no vanity publishing, so just to be sure, I ran it by him and Mr. Kreindler and they’re cool with it. They agree with me, if you’re a car guy, you should know about Andrew F. Johnson.

For more on the seminal role that Andrew F. Johnson played in the history of automotive design and styling, please check out Chapter One in Lamm and the late David Holl’s encyclodpedia of American automotive styling, A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design, now available on DVD (the hardcover version is now out of print) from either Amazon, or directly from Lamm-Morada Publishing. You can also probably find it at your local public library.

Speaking of which, since this post and the project of putting Johnson’s course online would not be possible were it not for the Detroit Public Library’s National Automotive History Collection, if you’d like to contribute to the Detroit Public Library Friends Foundation, an independent 501C3 non-profit, you can, or if you have something of a historical nature that you’d like to leave to posterity, the library does accept donations to their special collections, including the NAHC.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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2 of 10 comments
  • HiFlite999 HiFlite999 on Aug 05, 2013

    Excellent article and project!

  • Statusdog Statusdog on Aug 07, 2013

    Hello, Great article , first of all... I just happen to come across this beautiful drawing of a carriage by H.A. Brunn 1907. It is drawn on trace paper and on the left top corner states " this drawing is submitted for customers inspection only. Andrew J. Joyce carriage co". Signed on the bottom H.A.Brunn 1907. I did my research and Was wondering of its historic and market value Any help is greatly appreciated Thanks

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