Workers at the Budd steel facility in Hunting Park. (Temple University Urban Archives)

Pittsburgh may be the Steel City.

But it was a Philadelphia firm — the Budd Company — that used steel to transform the world of transit.

Budd’s exports and ideas weren’t restricted to one mode of transportation. Trains, planes, automobiles — Budd had its hands in all of them.

1916, the Budd Company was just beginning to blossom. The company’s namesake was Edward Gowen Budd, a native of Smyrna, Delaware, who’d worked his way up the ladder during that city’s industrial heyday.

Described in his Inquirer obituary as a “smalltown boy,” Budd started his career as a machine shop apprentice. Unlike some other industrial titans, Budd was himself a draftsman and engineer.

Before founding his own company, he helped develop new steel pulley systems.

In fact, steel was the key to Budd’s rise. He realized, correctly, that steel-bodied vessels were the future of transit. In 1912, he founded the Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company. Soon after, Budd developed the first all-steel automobile body — a genuine breakthrough.

Early automobile bodies “were composites of wood, steel, and leather,” as described in this Hidden City piece. It was difficult to stamp steel into shapes that could conform to the unusual curves of a car.

Until Budd came along.

The Dodge brothers were early adopters of Budd’s all-steel car bodies. From there, the idea spread. And the Budd Company, armed with crucial patents, became an industrial behemoth. Headlined by a massive facility in Hunting Park, Budd eventually employed over 20,000 people.

Budd’s bet on steel continued to pay off through the early 20th century.

In 1932, Budd introduced the first stainless steel airplane. And although the plane business didn’t take off for Budd, its all-steel prototype still sits outside the Franklin Institute. (Yes, it’s THAT plane.)

Budd was more successful in the train business.

Its streamlined, stainless steel “Zephyr” trains were a financial and cultural coup. Crowds gathered in towns across America just to see the “Burlington Zephyr.” It even spawned a Hollywood film in 1934, the very year it debuted.

After World War II, Budd introduced a passenger train called the Rail Diesel Car (also known as the Buddliner). The RDCs were another hit for the company. They popped up on intercity and commuter rail lines all over the Northeast. The RDC’s reach went far — versions of these trains have reportedly rolled across tracks in Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Brazil, and Canada .

In Budd’s hometown of Philadelphia, its most recognizable product was probably the train cars it produced for the Market-Frankford El.

Known affectionately as “Almond Joys” — because of their pop-up ventilation fans — these stainless steel cars ran on the MFL from the 1960s through the 1990s.

Like almost every Philly company of its kind, Budd’s fortunes declined in the back half of the 20th century. In 1978, a German company acquired Budd. Its flagship factory in Hunting Park held on until 2003, before finally closing its doors.

Once abandoned, the site went through waves of redevelopment plans.

At one point, Donald Trump actually tried to open a casino on the property with former 76ers owner Pat Croce. Parts of the Budd site were later repurposed by the Salvation Army and Temple Health.

Still, a huge chunk of the old Budd plant — some 1.9 million square feet — sat vacant for years.

In 2021, a real estate investment firm announced it would turn the site into a life sciences hub called “Budd Bioworks.”

A schematic showing development plans for the former Budd steel plant into a life sciences campus. (Budd Bioworks)

Over a century after Edward G. Budd made his fateful (and profitable) bet on steel, the site’s new developers are making a wager of their own.

They’re betting that Philly’s footprint in emerging fields like gene and cell therapy will continue to grow.

Originally posted by Avi Wolfman-Arent (@Avi_WA) on Oct. 5, 2023 

Avi Wolfman-Arent is co-host of Studio 2 and a broadcast anchor on 90.9 FM. He was previously an education reporter with WHYY, where he's worked since 2014. Prior to that he covered nonprofits for the...