Classic Car Accessory Trunks: Designing and Fabricating your Own Trunk - Part 1
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.
A simple theme to apply when it comes to trunks is that size and shape matter. Proportion is important. Too small a trunk on a large car can appear as ridiculous as an oversized trunk being used on a small car. Length, width, height, and shape are all important when it comes to designing your trunk. In most cases, the rack and mounting hardware can dictate the basic dimensions and there are instances where even the body contour or placement of the fuel filler cap can determine the trunk's final shape.
Here are some things to consider:
Should the trunk open from the top, the front, or both?
Should it be made of wood and covered with material or all metal and painted?
Are corner protectors called for, and should they be made of metal or thick leather?
Look at your design and decide if it should include lid support brackets, strain reliefs, integral vents, and side carrying handles (mainly for appearance).
Should the trunk have a domed lid or should it be flat? The domed shape presents some construction challenges, but is still doable using a special product called wiggle board, a special plywood that bends to a contour or shape.
These are design features to consider when researching the right trunk design for your specific Marque. Be sure to research your car to see which of these features are right for your car. To help, we've added Photos 4-18 which show many different trunk configurations for you to consider. Photo 18 documents an authentic trunk for our car and was used as a guide during this fabrication.
If you are fortunate enough to have found an example of the trunk originally offered for your car, be sure to take exact measurements of every facet of the trunk, including such things as the exact position of handles or decorative features. Clarify your findings with sketches and/or photos.
Once you have determed the size, shape and design of your trunk it is good practice to create some basic working drawings. This is invaluable when working through the project and requires you to give some thought about how the trunk is to be constructed before you start cutting the wood.
Here are some important things to consider when determining the actual construction of the trunk:
How will it attach to the luggage rack? Will it use external rods (Photo 9) or flat/angle steel or will it bolt into the base using strategically placed hidden threaded inserts?
How will trunk lid and other mating surfaces meet? Will they butt together or overlap each other?
Where will hardware such as hasps, handles, alignment pins, and hinges be mounted?
What is the best outer covering material? Don't forget to leave allowances between surfaces for material thickness when moving and opening pieces.
Does the design include or need extra trim around the edges to enhance or duplicate its original appearance? Some original trunks used the piano hinge with extra long strips to wrap around the cover (Photos 4 & 7).
Is there a possibility that it will be exposed to the elements when touring? If so, overlapping joints in the lid may be necessary to prevent water from getting inside. An alternative may be to include a well-fitted cover.
Be sure that your design includes a sturdy base.
Research available hardware from various suppliers. We've found Restoration Supply and Ohio Travel Bag are good sources. Consider purchasing the hardware and having it on hand before finalizing the design and beginning construction. [Editor's note: we will be including a list of resources at the end of Part 3 of this series]
Photo 4 — This example has a piano style hinge on top which could leak. The remnants of a leather corner are on the left and the piano hinge was configured extra wide to form around the curve and nailed at the very end.
Photo 5 — Another example of a piano style hinge nailed in place. Note the nail spacing on the piano hinge at the end is about 1 inch then approximately 2 inch spacing thereafter. Also this used separate metal strips around the curve and the nails likely were lead coated steel.
Photo 6 — This trunk employs three strap style hinges on the front panel. Note the horizontal metal edges on both the front panel and the base which were likely added after the fabric was applied. The vertical chrome strips on the edges are used as decoration and sometimes they are used to cover seams.
Photo 7 — Close up view of the trunk from Photo 6. It uses a polished trim around the curved edge and the leather corner at the base. Molded leather corners were typically found at the top corners while this example used them in both upper and lower. Note the nail's head style and that low profile truss is almost identical to the threaded rivet used on this project.
Photo 8 — This example also employed the use of a separate metal strip over the piano hinge curved around the side of the panel and nailed on the end. The mating seams are flat butt style seams. Likely under the seam is another wood edge that overlaps the hinged panel for providing protection from the weather. This is the preferred method for a practical joint between surfaces.
Photo 9 — This is a trunk photographed on a model L Lincoln, likely manufactured by Taylor. Even though it has damage on the corner, it provides a wealth of information. It uses brackets on the side and rear where metal rods could be passed through them to fasten the trunk to the rack. Two other details are the piano hinge was painted and the button snap hardware on the side and rear where a full size cover may have been used sometime in the trunk's life and may not be original.
Photo 10 — This trunk uses two leather straps to secure it to the rack which can be annoying if you plan to regularly open and close the trunk.
Photo 11 — Side view of the trunk in Photo 10 shows the generous use of decorative nails holding the leather corner protective strip.
Photo 12 — The shape of this trunk makes it almost certain it was manufactured by Beals & Selkirk. They were known for the recessed area on the side. This design has the entire lid as a clam shell (good for preventing water intrusion) and used custom latches and alignment pin hardware. This trunk likely is secured to the rack from underneath.
Photo 13 — High end classics such as this Stutz used a custom trunk to fit into the body opening. It features separate compartments for suitcases, nicely aligned metal strips on the body and lid, and it was covered in material that matches the convertible top.
Photo 14 — This is another example of a custom trunk, this time on a REO. It fits snuggly into the body's opening and even has custom curved angle between the trunk and body. This REO model also has a separate folding rack to add on another trunk is so desired.
Photo 15 — This trunk was photographed at a show. It appears to be either refurbished or newly fabricated. Some of the positive details is the use of a small size chain to limit travel of the front panel opening, upper lid profile that is angled down and to the front (good for drainage), and thin panels inside covered in cloth that complimented the car. Thin panels applied over the inside walls of the trunk can hide the not-so-pretty elements required in the covering process. This leaves the trunk pleasing and complimentary to the vehicle and is technique we used on the project trunk described in this article.
Photo 16 — Close up view of the lid opening hardware used in the trunk in Photo 15. It is a good use of hardware that is currently available, to limit the lid from opening too far and is nicely installed. However, the use of Phillips head screws would not be period correct. Some hardware of this type may include a method for holding the lid open at a given height.
Photo 17 — An unusual detail about this trunk are the large metal corners on the lid. Corners like this offer protection, a degree of elegance, and can hide seams when covered with a material such as thin leather or fabric. These corners would be a real challenge to duplicate.
Photo 18 — This original "boxy" looking trunk is on a Lincoln and is the basis for the design used in this article. The significant design aspects are the depth (19-1/2 inches), width (34 inches), and height (21 inches). We derived those dimensions from the photo using the rack's dimensions and the height was extrapolated using the other dimensions and relationship to the body's molding. The depth is unique to Lincoln which adds to the challenge of finding one at a flea market that fits properly. This is why a new fabrication was warranted. While the top flip-up lid feature is original, it doesn't offer much in terms of function and is susceptible to leaking, so we decided to eliminate it from our design.
In our Part 2 we will be looking at the construction process. Stay tuned!