Herb Andler founded Justin Carriage Works in Nashville, Michigan in 1974. Andler raised Morgan horses, the kind that pulled carriages back in the real horse-and-buggy days.
One by one, he bought about a half-dozen vintage buggies and carriages for his horses, but he couldn’t hang on to them. People kept saying, “I’ll buy that horse if you sell me that buggy.”
Andler the entrepreneur got to thinking, quit his job at an auto plant, and hitched his future to horse carriages. His father thought he was crazy. “He just about came unglued,” Andler says. “[He said,] ‘What the hell is wrong with your head, boy? They don’t use horse buggies anymore.’ But fortunately, he lived long enough to see it grow into what it was, and he was pretty proud of me.”
Andler now has 13 employees, and he struggles to keep up with orders for about 30 carriages per year. He’s filled orders from Disney, parent company of ABCNEWS.com, and built models that ride through New York’s Central Park. Currently, he’s working on three chariots he will ship to New Orleans for singer Harry Connick Jr. “I’ve never been caught up,” he says. “In fact, we’re just getting ready to build some for Donald Trump out there at that casino” in Atlantic City.
“Probably the most rewarding thing about this business has been the people I’ve gotten to meet,” he says.
Andler doesn’t duplicate old-fashioned methods of production. Rather than making each carriage from scratch out of wood and lacquer, he builds rough wooden prototypes of custom orders, such as the Connick model, and then casts molds from which he can fabricate fiberglass parts. Afterward, the carriage can be mass-produced and becomes part of Andler’s ever-expanding line.
His most popular models are his “Limited Edition” carriage and hearses. “Hearses are hot,” he says. “Here’s my logic for that: The people who are of dying age now are the people who were alive during the horse-and-buggy era.”
Though the business may seem old fashioned, it has propelled Andler from a country upbringing into the digital age. He runs an elaborate Web site – BUGGY.COM – does a brisk, modern business, and travels the country delivering carriages.
“I spend more time on the damn computer and telephone selling the stuff,” he says. “I’d rather be out there working with my hands, but it’s just grown into such a monster that I can’t do it.” In the production shop, he adds, somewhat jealously, “They’re still wearing their bib overalls, chewing on a piece of straw hangin’ out a corner of their mouths and listening to Willie Nelson.” He says he’s used to rustic ways and so doesn’t spend a whole lot of time pondering the nostalgic aspects of the job. “I’ve been at this for 30 years and it still doesn’t stop fascinating me that people are fascinated by this,” he says. “I’ll keep doing it till I can’t. It keeps me young.”
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