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Bohn Aluminum and Brass Corporation, Bohnalite Pistons, Cylinder Heads and other Post War Designs

The Bohn Aluminum and Brass Corporation was a very forward thinking organization that appears to have been started in the mid 1920s. It was formed by the merger of the General Aluminum and Brass Company and the C. B. Bohn Foundry Company.

The C. B. Bohn Foundry Company was active at least back to the pre and post WWI era. The Electrical World magazine of May 17, 1919, announced that plans were being prepared for an eighty by one hundred foot building and power plant for the company. Reference was also found to the firm building two modern electric furnaces in 1918 for melting and refining brass. The Bohn building was located on 2512 E. Grand Blvd, which was near the Packard Plant.

Being in the Detroit area and right near Packard, Bohn supplied both high quality aluminum and brass specialty castings to the car and truck maker along with the many other automobile companies in the area.

The next reference to be found involving the company is, with Adolph Lincoln Nelson who is reported to have first worked for the Premier Motor Co. Next he was involved with work on the synchronized airplane based machine gun. Nelson then went on to invent the Nelson-Bonalite aluminum piston. This piston in the late 1920s was also referred to as the invar strut piston. An arrow in the advertisement (below) points to the strut that was cast into this type of precision die-cast pistons.

Bohn was next found (above), in an ad from the Motor Age, dated Nov. 18, 1926. When enlarged, details of the pistons with the invar alloy struts will be clear. Invar is a low expansion steel alloy of 36% nickel and 64% iron, which assists in keeping the piston from expanding.

Just (below) an interesting accounting by Walter L. Carver in the March 4, 1926 Automotive Industries, details how the company also manufactured precision bronze-backed babbitt-lined main and rod bearings for engines.

Carver also tells the story of how this type of piston is manufactured, along with how the invar strut is locked into the aluminum die cast piston. He then goes on to explain how this type of modern piston can be fit much closer than the cast iron pistons of the day.


In 1934 the Bohn concern sponsored the Bohnalite Special that was entered in the 1934 Indianapolis 500. The car was driven by Chet Miller and his mechanic was Eddie Tynan. According to information from The Hot Rods of Dearborn: Don ‘Sully’ Sullivan, laid out the Bohnalite Special. The Indy racer was built on ’32 rails along with the stock suspension components and featuring split front wishbones (much in same manor that thousands of hot rodders would do for decades and decades afterwards). It marked the second year for the presence of the Ford flathead V-8 at Indy. In 1933 the Warnock Special was entered and rumored to have the involvement of Sully as well.

The Bohn racer featured Bohn’s own Bohnalite aluminum racing cylinder heads and .030” over pistons giving an 8-1/2 to 1 compression ratio. The intake manifold was designed by Sully which had two Stromberg 97’s mounted sideways, lining up the fuel bowls with the centrifugal force on the turns.  

The car qualified with a speed of 109.252 mph. Unfortunately on the 11th lap Chet Miller and the riding mechanic, Eddie Tynan left the track flying over the wall due to an encounter with an oil slick. Photos courtesy of Racemaker Press.

The next references found to Bohn were in Time Magazine, who reported on Oct. 15, 1934 : Last week President Charles Benjamin Bohn of Detroit’s Bohn Aluminum & Brass Corp. announced that his company, after five years of research, had discovered a method, technically ingenious and commercially feasible, for producing virgin aluminum from alunite. Alunite is a whitish ore containing potassium aluminum sulphate.

Let alone reveal the method, President Bohn would not even name the researchers who developed it. But he was eager to tell how he had started to build a $50,000 “pilot plant” in Detroit to iron out minor production kinks.

Other than the above, little information can be found on the corporation from that point on, other than a series of advertisements in magazines during WWII and just after, we found via Dan Strohl, some of which can be seen (below).

It appears that during the World War II years, Bohn probably became involved with the government and auto makers in manufacturing for the war effort. During this time period they also started advertising that they handled magnesium, another light alloy, in addition to aluminum and brass.

Offices for the corporation at the time are listed as being in the Lafayette Building in Detroit. The ad refers to the firm as: Designers and Fabricators – Aluminum – Magnesium – Brass – Aircraft – Type Bearings. Advertisements in the press at the time are seen here and they promoted some very futurist designs.

The milk tanker ad (above) is dated Dec. 1947, and wears a 1960 license plate. Left to right (below); A semi-truck and trailer from, Dec. 1943, a motorcycle from Sept. 1947 and a “Station Wagon” dated, Jan. 1944.

Little information can be found out about the firm post war online. We are hoping some of our readers from the Detroit area will know a bit more. Photos of Bohns buildings, along with more labor information were found at Historic Structures, who list them as having been demolished during 1981.


24 responses to “Bohn Aluminum and Brass Corporation, Bohnalite Pistons, Cylinder Heads and other Post War Designs

  1. Not sure if I’m reading this correctly:

    Reo Motor Car Company Plant

    In the years after Olds left Reo, the firm continued to experience serious financial problems. Although World War II truck orders enabled it to make something of a comeback, the company remained unstable in the postwar era. In 1954 the company was sold to the Bohn Aluminum and Brass Company of Detroit, and three years later it became a subsidiary of the White Motor Company. White merged Reo with Diamond T Trucks in 1967 to form Diamond Reo Trucks, Inc. In 1975, this firm filed for bankruptcy and most of its assets were liquidated.

    Bohn bought Reo? White bought Bohn?

  2. Many of the BOHN illustrations were created by futurist Arthur Radebaugh. I once owned an original Radebaugh airbrush illustration, which he painted for Hearst Publications and was used on the cover of MOTOR magazine in 1936. To see more examples, copy and paste this phrase into a Google image search: “Bohn Radebaugh”.

  3. I’ve had two contacts with automotive Bohnalite cast aluminum parts for my cars.
    The first was the two-piece sandwich steel and aluminum high compression cylinder head for my ’34 Terraplane. Steel upper, gasket, aluminum lower and head gasket to block. The aluminum section had the Bohnalite name cast into it. This was a production option as I recall for ’34 and ’35 Terraplane sixes and Hudson eights as well.
    Secondly I owned a ’53 Chrysler New Yorker Special coupe. The Specials were an equipment package available in ’53-54 intended for racers in NASCAR, AAA, and the Carera Panamericana. Most were equipped with a cast iron single 4bbl intake. But this very late ’53 production car and a few others that followed in ’54 employed a dual quad aluminum intake cast by Bohnalite. In essence this was the equivalent of the ’55 C300 engine.

  4. Bohn became a part of the Gulf+Western Manufacturing Company, one of the major components of the old Gulf+Western conglomerate. I don’t know when G+W acquired it, nor whatever became of the Bohn Metals Division after the conglomerate began to be broken up in 1983. When I worked for G+W Manufacturing from 1981-83, Bohn made aluminum and brass tubing and both rough-cast and finished permanent mold aluminum pistons for a number of engine manufacturers. General Motors was its largest customer at that time.

    • I was employed by Bohn Aluminum from 1950 until 1982, working the Adrian, Michigan plant until 1966 when I transferred to Sales. After G+W was dissolved, Bohn was acquired by Wickes Lumber Co. Since I left their employment in 1982, I do not know when the division was finally closed.
      I have enjoyed reading these posts and will save this site for future comments.

  5. I love reading about the history of Bohn. I have one of their old trucks, an old REO F-22. I scraped some paint off the door and found the name of the company, then while I was researching Bohn, found your site. Looks like the truck was probably a stock delivery truck. At some point it became a logging truck, had the frame extended two feet, was sold to a farmer and had the stake bed installed, and now I own the old girl.

    The artwork for this company is absolutely fantastic. I wish it were still around today, I love the character!

  6. My father has a very original 1922 V8 Oldsmobile Super Sport in for service (original paint, interior, etc etc… after lifting out the original carpets he found the original paper sheets over the linoleum floor covering had never been peeled off, it only has 12,000 miles) I was taking pictures of it and noticed it is loaded with Aluminum pieces, the 4 step plates (no runningboards), Carb, waterpump and what caught my eye was the -cylinder block cast – 7-30-1921 BOHN

  7. Bohn also produced the aluminum inner mechanism boxes for fire alarm boxes in NYC, two of mine have the BOHNALITE trademark in the metal. It would appear as though this was in the 1920s since that is about when these were made.
    It also appears that since the doors of these boxes also have the same exact numbering system as the inner box and it’s door have, the Bohn probably also cast the exterior aluminum shells’ doors as well.

  8. My father was a metallurgical engineer for Bohn Aluminum in Detroit for many years. Two projects I remember him working on: Running boards for President Truman’s car (when running boards stopped being standard), and a skyscraper in Denver that had aluminum siding. I also remember his telling me that one reason Coventry (England) was so badly strafed early in WWII was because there were magnesium plants on either side of the city which provided the magnesium used for airplanes at that time. The objective was to destroy them to hinder the British air force; the Cathedral was collateral damage. After the bombing, England switched to using aluminum from the U.S. to replace the magnesium. That was before the U.S. was officially part of the war effort.
    As someone else pointed out, Bohn was taken over by Gulf and Western. In the process, the Bohn employee pension plan got slipped under the rug, resulting in a class action suit which apparently was dragged out until most of the retired employees involved had passed away and the surviving widows settled for whatever small amount they could get.

  9. I’m curious if anyone has any idea who founded Bohn Aluminum. I can’t find it on the internet easily. I am a Bohn though I know of no Detroit connections in my family; but my grandfather on my Dad’s side was chief machinist for West Bend Aluminum in West Bend, Wisconsin and the connection is a curious one. I’m just wondering if there is a familiar connection somewhere or an industrial family heritage.

  10. Well Charles Bohn was originally from Cleveland and was born in 1870 died 1953. I live in his home at 1169 West Boston Blvd, Detroit, MI. A lovely 5000 sq ft mansion which for his era was very modest. It’s a most original 1917 home with all original electrical outlets and lighting fixtures. The bathroom has the origin spiral tubing for a raindrop shower head invented in 1915 by his company. I really love this home and the lot is very attractive.

    • Between 1912 and 1918 Charles Bohn built a home for summer weekends on the shore of Lake St. Clair. He lived in it until the mid 1930’s. Designed by Richard Marr, the house is modest in comparison to other homes being built at the time and in this neighbourhood, but the quality of construction is incomparable. I have researched for a few years, the best biography found is (unfortunately) in his obituary (Detroit Free Press, April 3, 1953). I’m sorry that i cannot paste an attachment here, but you should be able to google it.

  11. There was a Bohn Aluminum plant in South Haven, MI where my aunt, uncle, and mother worked at various times during the late 1930’s and 1940’s. It probably was closed sometime in the 1950’s. It was located about 2 or 3 blocks south of center downtown South Haven and approximately 5-6 blocks east of Lake Michigan. If my memory serves (having heard conversations from my relatives) the factory machined and finished pistons from castings which were cast elsewhere. We had several pistons which had been cut in half and were used as ash trays in our house. I remember being fascinated as a young child that such an item could power a vehicle or airplane engine. The facility was about 1 city block in length oriented east-west, one story high with large windows for ventilation.

    • My father Dale A. Brown was plant manager of the Bohn Aluminum plants in South Haven. He also wasa First World War Veteran and mayor of South Haven for several terms. My name is Dale M Brown his son and I live in Schenectady N.Y. The castings were made in the foundry at the south end of town and were machined in a factory in town on the west side. My father was manager of both plants. The foundry also made magnesium castings for B 24 bombers during the Second World War. I also remember those ash trays made by cutting a piston in half. I believe my father had a patent on the Bohnalite aluminum/silicon alloy used to cast the pistons in the foundry in South Haven.

      Dale M. Brown

      Dale M. Brown

      • My grandfather and your father worked together. His name was Lester L. Pond and I believe his position was described as “plant engineer.” If you look up US Patent 2711568A, you will see that they were two of the four co-inventors listed. He and my grandmother lived in a house right on Lake Michigan on North Shore Drive. I will need to dig back through some records to get dates, etc., but I believe he worked there for a long time as I think he stayed on past 65. I can remember visiting for weeks in the summer and getting sunburned at the beach. The ash trays, too, but having never smoked, the beach memories are more vivid.

    • The South Haven Plants were acquired by Karl Scmidt-Unisia in the ()s and then closed after a few years Transfering the work to Wisconsin

  12. My father moved from Detroit to Adrian Michigan after the war to set up a Bohn aluminum extrusion plant. It Is my understanding that this is one of the largest exstrusion presses in the world which had liberated from Germany after World War II. His company was Krieghoff -Lenawee Company. We stayed in Adrian and he built a huge number of manufacturing plants throughout the area back in the day when we built things in America

  13. With all of the changes in ownership, mergers, and bankruptcies (G+W no longer exists, Wickes Lumber went bankrupt, etc.) , can anyone be said to have any proprietary rights to the grand old name of “Bohn Aluminum and Brass Corporation”? Could someone (hopefully in the Great Lakes State) start a new company to carry forward that heritage and name in the 21st century in a new world of advanced manufacturing?

  14. I had a problem with my 75 Harley flh.after I pulled the pistons I found something uniqe. Bohna lite pistons were I. My bike this is not factory to my knowledge. Only I could was this page.figured some might find interesting.i know my Harley was ordered from the factory as a Richardson police department bike. Seeing this has brought some light to some things. If only my uncle was still alive.

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