LeBaron Bonney Company closes its doors

BRYAN EATON/Staff photoThe Biddle and Smart Building on Chestnut Street in Amesbury which housed LeBaron Bonney.

AMESBURY — The last vestige of the city’s automotive manufacturing history is no more after the LeBaron Bonney Company abruptly closed its doors and filed bankruptcy last week.

According to Kitaeff and Associates attorney Josh Burnett, the antique car upholstery company has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. He said the company may no longer operate and a court-appointed trustee will liquidate and sell off its assets, either through private sales or at auction.

Founded by furniture makers Lee and Jack Atherton in 1938, LeBaron Bonney originally made bicycles but moved into the business of restoring the upholstery in old cars in 1959.

That business took off by the mid-1960s when the company moved from Haverhill to the old Biddle and Smart auto body factory on 6 Chestnut St.

The company operated into the 21st century but Trades Mill Co-op co-owner Barbara Lorenc bought its 49,937-square-foot headquarters for $1.3 million last year.

Lorenc rented about 10,000 square feet to LeBaron Bonney after purchasing the building, but she said that all changed last Friday when the company’s handful of remaining employees were suddenly let go.

Round Fender LLC owner and antique car appraiser Duncan LaBay said he was shocked to read about the bankruptcy in Hemmings Daily online Friday morning.

“It’s a sad day for the antique auto world,” LaBay said. “It is also a sad day for the town of Amesbury because LeBaron Bonney is sort of the last of 100 years of coach building and related automotive activities.”

Although most of the country’s automotive manufacturing work moved to Detroit by the 1950s, but a good deal of antique automotive work ended up being done in the Northeast, according to LaBay.

“You have Hampton Coach in downtown Hampton which was purchased by LeBaron Bonney,” LaBay said. “If you look at the hobby, nationally, the Hampton Coach and LeBaron Bonney names are the gold standard, in terms of the correct interiors with the original patterns. I think all of the patterns and materials that they had were one of the firm’s biggest assets. I have no doubt that somebody will acquire those and it will continue on in some fashion. Just not in Massachusetts.”

According to LaBay, the antique automotive business has mostly become “an online venture” in the 21st century.

“A lot of companies are struggling to figure out how to do online commerce,” he said. “They are still sort of in the mail order catalog business. That is a struggle that a lot of firms and organizations generally look at when they transition from the purchase and order world to online sales.”

LaBay, who is also an assistant professor with the Economics and Business Department at Saint Anselm College, said a Chapter 7 bankruptcy is the final word for a company.

“This is a Chapter 7, not a Chapter 11,” LaBay said. “A Chapter 11 bankruptcy is a reorganization, ‘let’s give us some relief from debt band right the ship.’ A Chapter 7 is a white flag and ‘we’re done.’ So what I am hearing about last Friday would fit very much within that.”

Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at jsullivan@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.

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