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Kirchoff Body Works
J. Gerard Kirchhoff Body Works - 1926-1932 - Pasadena, California
Associated Builders
Walter M. Murphy, Coachcraft

Joseph Gerard Kirchhoff (1885-1964) was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1885. He married in 1907, and he and his young wife Eleonora headed west to California. Draft records indicate Kirchhoff, then a resident of Los Angeles, served in the US Army from 1917-1918. 

Following the war, Kirchhoff worked for a number of local body shops and developed an expertise in metal fabrication. When Walter M Murphy started hiring craftsmen for his new Pasadena coachbuilding enterprise, Kirchhoff was hired by the shop manager, George R. Fredericks.

After Fredericks was accidentally killed at a shop-sponsored beach outing in 1925, Kirchhoff became Murphy’s shop supervisor. At about the same time, Murphy ran into Frank S. Spring, a pilot and professional efficiency expert. Spring was a graduate of Paris’ famed Ecole des Ponts et Chausses Polytechnic Institute, and offered to take a look at Murphy’s Pasadena operations and make some suggestions. 

Murphy hired Spring to take over Frederick’s position as shop manager, and Spring and Kirchhoff soon discovered they were neighbors and stayed friends for a number of years thereafter. For reasons that remain unclear, Kirchhoff left Murphy during 1926 and opened a small shop of his own. 

Kirchhoff also built a few bodies for the legendary racecar builder Harry Miller, the most memorable being the ‘Terraplane’ roadster built in the late twenties for wealthy Santa Barbara sportsman Philip Chancellor. The four-wheel-drive Miller speedster was featured in the June, 1930 issue of Autobody magazine: 

“A Disappearing-Top Roadster for Front-Drive Chassis 

“This interesting 2-passenger roadster was built to-order for a wealthy Santa Barbara sportsman by the J. Gerard Kirchhoff Body Works, of Pasadena, Calif. It is mounted on a front-drive chassis personally engineered by Harry A. Miller, the well-known-builder of racing cars. The car is powered with an 8-cylinder, V -type engine equipped with supercharger and capable of developing 325 hp, sufficient to drive the car at a speed of 135 mi. per hr. Because of the high speed of which this car is capable, the body, bonnet and fenders were of special design and construction. 

“Throughout the whole construction, weight was cut without sacrific­ing strength: The fenders are of aluminum; one front fender weighs only a little more than 11 lb. All body braces are of duralumin, instead of the customary steel. The car is finished in Ditzler's Ivory Jet Black, set off by polished metal. There is a chromium-plated molding running from radiator to rear, and the entire chassis is, plated. Fender braces are of polished duralumin. 

“Wind resistance has been cut to a minimum, stream­lining having been applied to the radiator shell, bonnet louvers and general outline of the car body. There are no outside door handles and even the bonnet is unlocked and raised by special removable handles. The disappear­ing top is of novel construction; there is no overhang at the windshield, the top ending in a metal nose that holds it securely to the windshield and eliminates eddy resis­tance at this point. With the top erected, the height of the car is only 4 ft. 10 in. overall. When it is not desired to use the top, it is stowed in the tail, the entire rear deck being raised as shown in the view below. When the deck is down, there is no trace of a top nor of a break in the deck. The latter is locked securely at three points by one handle. - To operate this handle, how­ever, it is necessary to pull the seatback forward. The seatback cannot be restored to its position without lock­ing the rear deck. Hence the car cannot be driven when the deck is not in proper position. This and sev­eral other features of the body are being covered by patents. The seat is trimmed in a special plaited- style, with Eagle Ottawa black seal-grain leather. The extra cap shown on the radiator is for water to cool the super­charger which operates at a speed of 36,000 revolutions per minute.”

After Kirchhoff’s friend and neighbor Frank S. Spring went to work for Hudson, he recalled the innovative ’Terraplane’ body built by Kirchhoff and suggest it as a replacement for the resurrected low-priced Essex line that reappeared in 1932. 

Burton K. Chalmers, a well-known Pasadena luxury automobile salesman who worked for Pasadena’s Cadillac, Citroen and Renault distributor would occasionally place custom work with Kirchhoff. That’s where Chalmers met his future Coachcraft partner, Rudy Stoessel who was hired by Kirchhoff when he left Pierce-Arrow in 1929. 

When Murphy closed down in 1932, Kirchhoff inherited some of their Duesenberg business. When William Randolph Hearst’s Hibbard & Darrin Town body was rebuilt following a tour of Europe, Kirchhoff was hired to complete the work. He installed a custom-built oversized trunk as well as a new top which included removable rear quarters that featured a small oval opera window. 

Kirchhoff also built a Duesenberg town car (engine #J-497L chassis # 2514) for Ingraham Watch Co. heiress Anne Ingraham. The clever body was designed as a sedan and town car body-in-one and was commissioned to accompany her on an extended European tour. 

The car was fitted with a British-style crank-back sunroof over the driver’s seat and also included removable quarter panels similar to those Kirchhoff installed on the Hearst Town Car. The passenger compartment was trimmed in imported floral-pattern silk brocade and included gold-plated hardware and bird's-eye maple cabinets and a concealed jewelry box. The vehicle’s most unique feature was a built-in commode which required an 85-gallon combination water supply and holding tank that was mounted at the rear of the chassis.

Apparently Mrs. Ingraham was very compelling individual, as she convinced Kirchhoff to close down his Pasadena coachbuilding operations during 1932 and become her personal chauffeur. Kirchhoff accompanied her on a number of trips to the Continent, North Africa and the Middle East during the mid-thirties.

When he returned from his world travels, Kirchhoff kept his hand in the body fabrication business and produced an occasional racecar body for Harry Miller into the late 30s. Kirchhoff worked on the bodies of the Gulf-Miller Sixes that competed at Indianapolis in 1938 and 1939. 

Kirchhoff remained in Pasadena for the rest of his life, passing away soon after celebrating his 56th wedding anniversary in 1964.

© 2004 Mark Theobald -






Griffith Borgeson - The Last Great Miller: the Four-Wheel-Drive Indy Car

Two For the Road By Ken Gross – Special Interest Autos #28 May-Jun 1975

Letter about Kirchhoff car from Strother MacMinn - Special Interest Autos #29

A Disappearing-Top Roadster for Front-Drive Chassis – Autobody Magazine, June, 1930 issue

Frank Spring and Maurice Schwartz - The Walter M. Murphy and Bohman and Schwartz Story – The Classic Car, Winter 1959 issue

Beverly Rae Kimes - The Classic Car

Beverly Rae Kimes - The Classic Era

Beverly Rae Kimes & Henry Austin Clark Jr. - Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942

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