By Chris Wantuck
The reason that we call the rear storage compartment on our cars "trunks" is because, early on, they were actually trunks. Like the kind used to ship belongings on ships or railroads. The earliest automobiles used baskets or boxes mounted on the back or on running boards for carrying tools or parts. This soon gave way to formal racks fastened to the rear of the chassis allowing for even bigger baskets. During the twenty year period from the teens to the end of the thirties, accessory trunks were a valuable feature for carrying lubricants, water, spare parts, and luggage. And, of course, it was the name "trunk" that stuck.
Photo 1 — Original advertisements such as this one from KARI-KEEN provide a wealth of information to consider when designing a trunk. Note the configuration of a trunk together with a rear spare tire, an unusual combination.
Many car companies manufactured their models with trunk racks, leaving the trunk itself as a dealer-provided optional accessory. Lincoln, as a good example, delivered over sixty thousand vehicles over a nine year period (1921-1930) and all came with trunk racks, yet only an estimated ten percent were delivered with actual trunks. There were more than four hundred manufacturers of general purpose wardrobe and steamer trunks with only a fraction of them catering to the automotive trade. Some noted ones were Autorobe, Abel & Bach Co. (aka ABC Auto Luggage), Beals & Selkirk, Berg, Hartmann, Kamlee, KariKeen, Malm, Pickard, Pitts, Seward, and Taylor. Just as quickly as the industry of automotive trunk manufacturing was born, it vanished when automotive body styles and new fabrication skills allowed the trunk to be an integral part of the automobile body.
Photo 2 — Another original advertisement showing an accessory trunk with both a lid and front panel that are hinged.
Today's drivers of these period autos find accessory trunks still provide a valuable contribution to modern touring. Today trunks (that have been separated from their host car) can be found in flea markets or antique stores, in many different designs, sizes and shapes showing various states of wear and tear. If by chance you find one of acceptable size and at a reasonable cost, the first thing to consider is its condition. If it's in pristine shape, maybe you can use it as is. If not you need to determine if it can be refurbished? Be sure to assess its aged wood, hinges and hardware (that may be attached with weakened nails), and scuffed coverings. These are all common faults with trunks typically found at flea markets or antique shops.
Photo 3 — This trunk was offered at a flea market. It came with three suitcases, the lid was curved and fixed, and the edges between the body and front panel has a thin tongue and groove joining profile. The seam on top is almost certain to leak.
Another option to restoring an existing trunk is to recreate the trunk using new materials and hardware. The benefits of fabricating a new accessory trunk include 1) exact size, shape, and features you need, 2) a trunk in perfect condition when finished, and 3) strength and durability beyond what originals offer. In this article we focus exclusively on making your own accessory trunk in a manner that will compliment your restoration. The trunk is as important as all the other facets of the restoration process, such as paint, upholstery and bright work and deserves the same high standard that you apply to the rest of the car. This article highlights some design and fabrication tips to help you through the process of making your own trunk. As always, the design is at the province of the Restorer.