EATON Detroit Spring is celebrating 80 years of excellence in custom leaf spring and coil manufacturing, and RacingJunk wanted to know more about the secrets to the company’s longevity and success. We reached out to Mike Eaton, who runs the company and is the grandson of founders Frank and Grace Eaton.
Q. EATON Detroit spring has been in business for a long time. How did it get started?
A. My grandfather, Frank, started his career in the spring manufacturing industry shortly after he was discharged from the army at the end of WW1 in his hometown of Richmond, Indiana. After a few years, he was presented an opportunity at Toledo Spring in, of course, Toledo Ohio. While at Toledo Spring, he worked his way into management by starting as a clerk, and slowly but surely, he moved into engineering. Detroit Steel Products (DSP) in Detroit, Michigan got word of a very talented spring designer working down in Toledo, and they charmed him to move his wife and family up to Detroit.
DSP was founded as a window sash maker in the early 1900’s. After supplying the up-and-coming Ford Motor Company with window sashes for their new manufacturing plants, Ford said, if DSP can make windows, why couldn’t they make leaf springs? Shortly thereafter, DSP was the supplier of springs to Ford and a few other car manufacturers and the newly created aftermarket industry. My grandfather was chosen to manage the Aftermarket Division of Detroit Steel Products. His duties included both production and overseeing the nationwide sales force.
In 1937, Ford Motor came to the owners of DSP and told them, “You can either supply us or compete with us, your choice.” In other words, Ford was realizing the profit made in the aftermarket and did not like their source of springs also being the source of springs to the aftermarket. DSP decided they would rather supply Ford and offered to sell the aftermarket division to my grandfather. Hey, why not? It is 1937; the country is in the middle of the Great Depression; unemployment is at 25%; banks have failed; people are standing in bread lines; you have a wife and three kids – let’s stick our necks out for $11,000.00 and buy the business.
For the next two years, EATON Detroit Spring was run out of the DSP location. In 1939, the company moved to its present location on Michigan Ave, right across the street from Tiger Stadium, home of the Detroit Tigers until 2000. Even though my grandparents wished to buy the building and adjoining property from its owner Walt Briggs, owner of Briggs Manufacturing and the Detroit Tigers, they could only lease it for 2 years. During the 1941 baseball season, a chauffeur-driven car pulls into the building and, as the driver exits the car, my grandfather asks him what he was doing. The driver tells my grandfather they are parking here to go to the ballgame. Now my grandfather was a man of few words, and he did not waste any when he informed the driver that this was not a parking lot; get your #&!!#$ car out of his building. According to my grandfather, the driver said to him that he, my grandfather, did not know who was in the back seat. Again, not wasting any words, my Grandfather told the driver he did not give a #&^%! who was in the car, get out. The driver told my grandfather he would be sure to let Mr. Briggs know why they will be parking elsewhere. My grandfather then went into the office and told my grandmother they better start looking for a new building, for he just threw the landlord out.
Well, a few days later a nicely dressed man came to visit my grandfather. The gentleman informed my grandfather, as he was taking some papers out of his briefcase, he was one of Mr. Briggs’ lawyers. My grandfather asked him, how much time did he have to move out? To his surprise, the lawyer said quite the contrary; Mr. Briggs thinks that if someone believes so strongly about his business that he does not hesitate to throw out someone, even the landlord, so he can run his business, then that man should own the building – and he handed my grandfather sales papers.
Years later, my wife and I were at a dinner and somehow this story came up. We did not know everyone at the table, and when I finished the story one of the ladies who we did not know said she is Walter Briggs’ daughter, and she was in the car that day. She laughed as she said she never saw her father so mad as he was when they pulled out of the building.
Q. To what can you attribute the longevity of EATON Detroit Spring?
A. That is a darn good question and there are several factors, but the biggest one is the willingness and the ability to change. So many businesses and so-called business people get set in their ways and are unable to make the changes needed to survive. I am of the age group that remembers when computers were entering the business world. The then-management of this company, my father and aunt, were not fond of them, but they knew we would have to enter the computer age sooner or later. I can recall businesses that refused to embrace computers; none of them are in business today.
Then the internet. We got on board in 1995. The ability to spot the changes taking place in the marketplace, products and customer base is critical. Change happens; there is nothing one can do to stop it, so embrace it.
Q. What changes have you seen in the market and industry over the last few decades? A move towards more drivable vehicles? More collector cars? Or have the enthusiast interests remained the same?
A. There have been a lot of changes in the market. We see more resto-modding taking place. Nothing beats the looks of an older vehicle, but certain things can be improved to make them more enjoyable to drive.
Starting with the tires. What is scarier that trying to cruise down the road on good old nylon tires? So, first thing most collectors do is change the tires. Many times, changing to different type/size tires will affect the look/stance of a vehicle. So, to get that look just right again something must be done with the suspension. After all, it is the springs that hold her up. Nothing makes or breaks the look of any vehicle more than the stance.
When getting new springs to make the stance right is a perfect time to change the ride quality. Do we want her to ride smoother, or perhaps stiffer? We have the specs for what the factory tire size was for just about every vehicle built from 1926 to 2017, and we can calculate how the new tires will affect the ride height. Then we can take the change and apply it to the over 24,000 OEM spring blueprints we have, and make the springs that should get her sitting where you would like her to be. About 80% of the springs we provide are altered in some way, whether it be to change the ride height or the ride quality.
Q. What’s the difference between leaf and coil springs (for a novice who wants to start a build)? And how do your springs stand apart?
A. The differences between the 2 springs are easy to spot. A leaf spring is made from flat steel, while a coil spring is made from round steel. A leaf spring is long, and in most cases has several strips, or leaves, bolted together. A coil spring is much shorter, and the steel goes round and round just like a spring in a pen. The leaf spring attaches the axle to the vehicle, while when using coil springs other components must be used to attach the axle to the vehicle.
When it comes to where to purchase springs, one has many factors to take into consideration. Are you getting the correct spring for your vehicle? Is it a US made product? What quality steel is being used? Price?
GM used over 200 springs for the F and X body cars. Many suppliers of springs offer 2, 3 or maybe 4. We can make all of them.
Many springs that come from overseas are made with inferior steel. We use North American made SAE 5160 steel only.
If price, i.e. cheap, is your sole criteria, we are not your source. We make THE spring for THE vehicle, not a “one size fits all” type spring.
Q. Favorite vehicle that your springs have been on or that you have manufactured?
A. We have a few vehicles that stick in our mind. The very first one has the springs we made for the reproduction Ford Sweepstake race car. Ford Motor made the car to celebrate both the 100th anniversary of the famous race Henry Ford won against the racing superstar Alexander Winton in 1901, and the 100th anniversary of the Ford Motor Company in 2003.
Ford kept the car under lock and key in one of their plants in Redford, Michigan. No part of the car, except for the leaf springs, left that room. The springs were brought to us so we could take the needed specs off them to make the reproductions. The only stipulation was we could not take them apart. The original springs had to be returned in the same condition as they were brought to us.
It was a thrill to not only see, but to handle and take the same measurements that Henry Ford did 100 years earlier. Those who restore cars will understand the feeling. One of the cars is on display at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
Another fun vehicle, or I should say vehicles, we have made springs for is the Wienermobile. Every one you see traveling the country, and there are 6, is running on our springs.
But the most important vehicle we make springs for is yours. We take pride in providing every one of our customers with the best product available. And we thank you for allowing us to be part of your project.
Q. What are the plans for the next 80 years of EATON Detroit Spring?
A. Our company is in the excellent hands of the fourth generations of Eaton’s: my daughter Kim. She will continue to improve our methods and knowledge base while training the next generation of spring makers. We will keep in touch with the changes in the hobby and be positioned to provide what is needed.