All the World's a Stage for Craftsman Jay Lambert, Who Makes the Finest Coaches on Wheels

updated 06/04/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/04/1984 01:00AM

In a state long fascinated by the latest set of fancy wheels, Californian Jay Lambert is a walking, talking—not to mention sawing, painting and drilling—anachronism. The Audi of his eye is a stagecoach called the Concord (for the New Hampshire town where it was originally manufactured in the mid-1800s), which most wagon experts say has never been surpassed in practicality or looks. Lambert, 68, still remembers the first time he saw a Concord 40 years ago. "It was made like a fine piece of furniture, with its dark maroon body and yellow running gear," he recalls. "I couldn't get over that beauty."

He hasn't had to. Since 1968 the former carpenter has worked full time building replicas of the Concord coach in a shed next to his home in the rural Northern California town of Red Bluff. He has completed six stagecoaches, four of which are owned by the Wells Fargo Bank and used in parades and festivals around California. His other customers are a museum near San Diego and a Montana oilman. "Jay builds the best coaches I have ever seen," says Harold Anderson, the Wells Fargo vice president who oversees its historical programs. True, there isn't much competition. "There was a coachmaker in Oklahoma who passed away a few years back," says Anderson. "His coaches were nice, but not as nice as Jay's." The difference, according to Anderson, is that "Jay captures the true oval shape of the Concord. Others make them with flat sides. But Jay's bodies curve out from the top, then back in at the bottom." Lambert accomplishes that by steam-bending the wood into shape, then kiln-drying it until it's hard. "He is amazing," says Anderson, "in his ability to step back in time and perform the functions as the craftsmen did originally."

Except for using foam rubber for the seat cushions and Naugahyde for the roll-down window shades, Lambert employs authentic materials. And since he uses 19th-century tools and works with painstaking craftsmanship, it takes him nearly three years to build each stagecoach.

Lambert works five days a week on his coaches and, according to Helen, his wife of 48 years, "talks about them the other two." He is a little bothered that they bring only about $35,000 apiece—"It should be $60,000," says Lambert—but has no plans to hang up his calipers. "They were great craftsmen back in New England," he says. "I wanted to show I could do just as good a job. Not better, but as good. I like it when people look at my coach and say, 'Boy, that really looks like the old days.' "

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