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Larkins & Co.
Larkins & Company, 1865-1930s; Kenneth Larkins Co., 1930s-1950s; San Francisco, California
Associated Builders
Larkins Top & Novelty Co., Burt Larkins Specialty

William Larkins (Larkin*) was born on May 20, 1833 in Ballinasloe, County Galway, Ireland to Thomas and Mary Larkin (Larkins?). Ballinasloe was a market town situated on the main road leading between Galway and Dublin and as such had a considerable carriage building history dating back to the mid-eighteenth century.

*(Based on surviving documents (marriage certificate etc.), Larkins family genealogist John H. Larkins believes that William’s surname may have been Larkin in Ireland – a surname originally derived from the Celtic clan of O’Lorcain. He likely changed it sometime prior to his arrival in California, perhaps upon his arrival in the United States.)

Already an experienced craftsman, William emigrated to Massachusetts sometime near the end of the Great Potato Famine (1845-1952) and found employment as a carriage painter in one of Boston’s numerous carriage shops. On November 8, 1858, he married another immigrant from Ballinasloe named Sarah Nicholson in the Boston Suburb of Roxbury.

Sometime prior to 1861 the young couple relocated to San Francisco where Larkins was listed in that city’s 1861 city directory as a carriage painter. By 1865 he had become the proprietor of Larkins & Co, makers of high grade carriages. The Larkins works was originally located on Sumner Street near Montgomery. He later moved the firm to 634-638 Howard Street between Second and Third Streets, where he remained in business up until the fire of 1906.

San Francisco city directories also list William’s other business interests, which included an interest in a hostelry and drayage company. His carriage company also had silent partners, the first being George McCloud who is listed as a co-owner in Crocker-Langley’s 1889 San Francisco directory. The same source lists George McCloud’s home at 659 Howard St, just one city block away from the firm’s manufactory. The Larkins maintained a residence at 27 Dorland St.

During the late 1800s, the Mechanics Institute of San Francisco awarded yearly competitive medals for excellence in craftsmanship and between 1865 and 1900 Larkins were awarded four gold and nine silver medals. The firm’s advertisements included a wide variety of vehicles; Doctor's Phaetons, Ladies' Phaetons, Top Rockaways, Hacks, Coupes, Sulkies, Express Wagons, and Fire Wagons.

On January 21, 1869 (1867?) the Larkins were blessed with the birth of a son, William Bernard Larkins (d.1942). William B. attended the Mission grammar school and also a business college. Even while in school he assisted his father in the latter’s carriage shop, obtained a most comprehensive knowledge of the work, and as a consequence gradually relieved his father from many responsibilities.

William B’s younger brother, Thomas Henry Larkins (1877-1967), did not enter the family’s carriage business, deciding instead to go to a business college after which he enjoyed a long career in ranching and mining.

On June 26, 1894, William B. Larkins was married to Elizabeth McIntosh, a native of San Francisco, California, and to their blessed union were born four children; Allan Thomas (b. April 28, 1895), William Burton (b. August 22, 1896), Kenneth John (b. July 22, 1902), and Marian.

Some confusion surrounds W.B. Larkins, as the very same initials were shared by three consecutive generations of the firm’s management:

William Larkins (Larkin) (1833-1913)

William Bernard Larkins (1867-1942)

William Burton Larkins (1896-1958) - Sometimes known as Burt, or simply W.B., William Burton Larkins is sometimes referred to as Bertram with a different (1890) date of birth, yet an identical (Sep 8, 1958) death date.

At the time of the elder Larkins’ death on July 6, 1913, his eldest son, William Bernard, had been in charge of the firm’s operations for some time. As his sons matured, they in turn became associated with the family business.

After the 1906 earthquake, Larkins and Co. relocated to temporary quarters in the city’s Mission District at 276-278 Guerrero St.  A further move brought the firm to 1610-1614 Van Ness Ave (corner of California and Van Ness) and in 1919 they relocated to the all-brick former Geary St. Car barns which were located at the N.W. corner 19th Ave. and Geary St. (originally Point Lobos Ave.)

Originally constructed in 1898 to house the streetcars of the Geary Street Park & Ocean Railway (GSPO), the sturdy brick structure was taken over by the San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) in 1912 when they purchased the assets of the GSPO. MUNI leased the property to Sperry Flour in 1916 and in 1919 sold it to Larkins who remodeled it with a new stucco facade, renaming it the Larkins Building. 

In the new facility Larkins manufactured a small number of custom bodies for local high-end automobile dealers although refinishing and painting motor vehicles made up the bulk of their business. Other products included bus bodies, commercial bodies and wooden air-frame sub-assemblies.

A promotional postcard dated 1913, pictured the firm’s various departments. Clockwise from the upper left, the small captions read :

"Upholstery & Trimming Dept", "One of the Varnish Rooms", "Blacksmithing Dept", "Part of the Paintshop", "Office and Drying Room", and "Body Building Dept".

The 1915 San Francisco Directory lists E.V. Williams as an owner of the firm. His exact involvement with the firm is unknown, however prior to that time Williams, who was a master blacksmith, had been associated with the vast naval shipyards located north of San Francisco at Mare Island.

The magnificent 1917 Fageol cars shown at the Chicago and New York Auto Salons featured coachwork by San Francisco’s Larkin Co and Chicago’s C.P. Kimball. One unusual feature of the Oakland, California-built luxury cars were their solid-ivory door handles, but only 3 of the $15,000 motorcars are thought to have been built.

During the late teens W.B. Larkins served as president of the Automobile Body Builders' Painters and Trimmers' Association. At about the same time the firm debuted the Larkins Top, a handsome, sporty, cut-down convertible top that was especially popular with owners of Packard roadsters during the early Twenties.

Larkins designer, August H. Pape of Kentsfield, California held a number of patents for automobile tops which were assigned to Larkins. The first, a “means for converting collapsible tops of automobiles into closed tops” was originally filed on October 27, 1919 and granted on December 28, 1920 as patent #1,363,908. It was reissued on April 29, 1924.

On November 11, 1919, Pape filed a patent for a ‘window fastener’, patent # 1,530,909 which as eventually granted on March 24, 1925.

Pape’s next patent, #1,488,827 (filed June 8, 1920, approved April 1, 1924) was for a ‘sliding side window’, the principal design feature of what would be soon popularly known as the Larkins Top.

Motor West announced Larkins first sliding window top in their April 1, 1920 issue:

“LARKINS SLIDING WINDOW TOP. A sliding window top, declared to be absolutely rattle-proof, has been patented by Larkins & Co., of San Francisco, the oldest firm of its kind in the city by the Golden Gate. The system, of which August Pape is the inventor, is to raise and lower the entire track upon which the windows slide. When the track is raised by a small lever the window slide easily to any position desired. Releasing the lever lowers the track and the windows are automatically clamped against the body of the car. The windows can be stopped and held in any position - partly open or open all the way. The equipment has an added feature. While it is to be used extensively in stationary tops it can also be installed in the regular touring car "one-man" top at less than one-half the cost of the stationary top - a feature which will put sliding windows within the reach of thousands of car owners unable to afford the more expensive top. Larkins & Co. have been in business in San Francisco 55 years, first as high grade carriage builders, more recently as automobile custom body builders. Enormous business expansion has made larger working space necessary and Larkins & Co. will open a branch daylight factory about April 1, adding more than 43,000 square feet to their present large quarters and giving them the largest automobile establishment of the kind in California.”

The daylight factory was the aforementioned former Geary St. Car barns, which were located at 3700 Geary St. at the corner of First Ave. Geary St was originally called Point Lobos Ave, and First Ave was eventually renamed as well and is now called Arguello Boulevard.

Pape’s most famous creation, which was to become the ‘Larkins Top’ (automobile top, patent #1,563,287), was originally filed on Feb 16, 1921 and granted on Nov 24, 1925. Pape also submitted a design for an “automobile side curtain” (patent # 1,563,288) which was submitted at the same time. A Canadian patent (CA 218978) for the device was issued on May 23, 1922.

The following announcement appeared in the November 13, 1921, Oakland Tribune:


“Now that winter weather, is approaching, the open car cannot be used with the comfort that is the case during the summer months. Rain and wind are in the making and there is very little pleasure in motoring, according to Allan Larkins, of Larkins & Company, in a drive that includes chill and the discomfort of driving moisture.

“‘By the Installation of the Larkins Top’, says Larkins, ‘a touring car can be equipped with, the comfort and eloquence of a sedan. Symmetry of line and beauty of finish are qualities that go with the Larkins top, and it represents the perfection of craftsmanship over a long period of years.’

“When washing a car, extreme care should be taken that no water reaches any part of the electrical system.”

An April 1921 issue of Motor West included a picture of the top along with the following news item:

“Larkins & Co. 3700 Geary St, San Francisco… The picture shows their sedan model built under their patent. The most valuable feature is the noiseless sliding windows, which are moved on a rattle-proof track. This track, from which the windows are hung, is raised and lowered by means of a small lever. Cantilever springs, concealed above the track, bead downwards on it constantly. When the track is lowered these springs press the window down against the top of the car body. On the bottom of the window is a soft rubber cushion. The downward pressure of the window combined with the rubber cushion, eliminates rattling. This is so, no matter where the window is stopped. The springs above the top are flexible and when the car body is subjected to sever strain, as on rough roads, they act as a cushion for the windows. The Larkins top, custom built, is built solidly, yet lightly, of selected ash, the roof slats being covered in DuPont Fabrikoid laid on cotton wadding to aid the rounded effect. The lining usually is of some fine cloth, of a color to blend with that of the body. Note the flat, square effect of the Larkin top, compared with the first stationary tops, which were high and rounded. With the Larkin Top, at a savings of several hundred dollars, one has a closed sedan which with the sliding windows, acts as an open car.”

The December 4, 1921 issue of the Oakland Tribune included the following:

“S.F. Top Factory Has Big Exhibit

“Among the exhibits which have been attracting the most attention at the California Industries Exposition, being held at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, is a display made by Larkins & Co. of the top, which is manufactured by this concern at its local factory.

“The exhibit consists of the showing of two tops, both of actual size. One of the tops consists simply of the framework showing the kind of high class material that is used in construction and the manner in which the top is put together. The second top is one that is fully completed, showing the leather covering, the plate glass windows and the patented spring pressure track which renders the top absolutely rattle-proof.

“This track is controlled by a small lever. In raising the track the windows are raised from the body and are free to slide with ease. When the track is lowered the cantilever springs above press it downward, and the track in turn bears the windows down against the body of the car. All parts are absolutely kept intact with the body positively eliminating any rattle.”

On July 15, 1919, John A Rymer, the manager of Oakland California’s Liberty Auto Co., filed a patent application for an improved process of enameling metal and wood surfaces. The approved process, patent # 1,406,498, was an early-sprayed-on celluloid-base enamel (applied over a lacquer and white-lead base) that was marketed as Ry-namel, in honor of its inventor. In late 1921 Allan Larkins took over the management of Liberty Auto, located at 1750 E. 12th St., Oakland, acquiring the rights to the Ry-namel process in the transaction.

Soon afterwards, Larkins’ San Francisco operation was heavily advertising the new spray-on enamel Ry-namel process.

“Larkins Rynamel – more durable than paint”... We KNOW Rynamel is durable, beautiful and easily cleaned. Don't take a chance. Insist on a Larkins Rynamel job.”

By 1924 Larkins was advertising Larkins Rynamel using DuPont Duco Enamels:

“LARKINS RYNAMEL USING DuPONT DUCO Enamels Endures beyond all expectations. It can be cleaned with gasoline, turpentine or kerosene. Before having your car painted be sure and investigate Larkins Rynamel. LARKINS & CO. Geary and First Ave. San Francisco”

However all mention of Rynamel had vanished in Larkins’ 1925 advertisements which stated that:

“THE LARKINS DUCO FINISH is as beautiful as varnish and as durable as baked enamel.”

By that time the success of the sedan had effectively halted the sales of Larkins once-popular Larkins Top so the firm devoted their energies to their profitable repainting and reupholstering business. In a brief new item found in the November 1930 issue of Automobile Painter and Trimmer their reporter stated:

“During the last automobile show held in San Francisco a number of cars displayed in the Civic Auditorium had been finished by Larkins.”

This fact the firm capitalized on in their regular newspaper advertisements in the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle. They advertised their “Larkins Duco Finish” in the San Francisco Auto Salon catalogs, but it’s unlikely that they exhibited any coachwork at the annual event as by that time their main business was body refinishing, not building.

All three Larkins Brothers were busy at the firm - Allan in charge of sales, Burt in charge of the body shop and Kenneth who headed the firm’s expanding auto service and repair department.

During the late Twenties Larkins is known to have built a number of custom bodies for San Francisco millionaire George Whittell. Whittell’s mechanic, Francis Kuboski, recalled his employer’s unusual relationship with Larkins in an interview with historian Julie M. Fenster which appeared in Automobile Quarterly Vol. 26, No. 1 in her article, “The Private Universe of George Whittell”

“In August 1927, Whittell accepted delivery of a Rolls-­Royce Phantom I chassis from Springfield. The Phan­tom I was then a brand-new replacement for the American Rolls-Royce Company's Ghost. To finish the car, Whittell hired a coach builder from England to de­sign and implement a custom body, working at Burt Larkins Specialty, a small shop on Geary Street in San Francisco. The coach builder created an odd coupe with two comfortable seats in the front and a cramped one in the back; its abbreviated cabin left 3 ˝  feet between the rear wall and the bumper, a space that was filled by a portable trunk. Whittell stopped in the Larkins work­room to inspect the work as it progressed, but when the final result was delivered to him, he had it parked with­out driving it, without sitting in it, without even looking at it. He then bought another Phantom I chassis and hired a body builder from Germany to work at Larkins on another custom body. This one took 3 ˝ years to com­plete. The coach builder changed his direction regarding the car three times, something which the single-minded Whittell did not appreciate at all. "We knew they were coming to deliver it the next day and we went downtown to buy sledgehammers and axes," Kuboski recalls. "Burt Larkins and the body builder drove in with it and the Chief looked at it-never even looked inside-and said, 'Okay, boys. Tear her up. It's nothing but a God-damned piece of junk.' The body builder was standing right there. He passed out."

The November 1930 issue of Automobile Painter and Trimmer detailed the firm’s process of selling a customer on a new paint job:

“Considerable time and money is spent on the preparation of the sketches, but as the percentage of sales is usually high, Larkins feels that it pays to go that expense.”

Another 1931 trade publication noted that Larkins paint shop was “one of the largest in the country”. 

During their short time in the custom body field Larkins is known to have built on Chevrolet, Fageol, Marmon, Packard and Rolls-Royce chassis. At least two vehicles are known to exist that bear Larkins name plates. One is a 1929 Packard 640 convertible sedan (Chassis No. 171988) that was sold at Christies’ Pebble Beach auction in 2001.

The late Packard coachbuilding historian Hugo Pfau was familiar with the car and believed that in reality it bears a re-badged Murphy body as it featured the Pasadena coachbuilder’s distinctive cast aluminum door posts and clear vision styling.  

Although it’s possible that Murphy supplied Larkins with the cast-aluminum hardware or in fact supplied them with a body-in-the-white, Pfau stated that it was much more likely that Larkins later refinished the body, applying their nameplate at that time. Christies did not go into any detail in their auction catalog simply stating that the clear vision design was originally pioneered by the Swiss coachbuilder George Gangloff:

“This Classic has the 140-inch wheelbase fitted with its original custom body by Larkins & Co. of San Francisco, whose reputation began in the late 1860s when they started building wagons and coaches. Built for European Continental touring, this short-coupled classic features roll down windows with a removable center post and narrow windshield posts. This innovative new (clear vision) pillar design had been developed by George Gangloff in Switzerland. It was claimed that since the distance between the pillars was no greater in width than the inter-pupilary distance between the occupant's eyes, the pillars would virtually become invisible. The resulting style was extremely clean and crisp, and the individual front and rear seats provided luxurious comfort.”

Another survivor is a 1934 Chevrolet Station Wagon that the firm built for the San Francisco office of Wells Fargo. The woody was exhibited at Hershey in 2000 and was subsequently sold at Kruse’s Monteagle, Tennessee auction in 2005. The Kruse Auction catalog description of the vehicle follows:

“This 9-passenger wagon features an ash body, roll-up front windows, tan cloth and plastic windows that snap in place. Power is supplied by a 206.8 cubic inch six producing 60 horsepower, driving through a 4-speed manual gearbox. This remarkable wagon comes with a plethora of documentation including photos of the car prior to restoration, comprehensive ownership history, 1940's wartime license and fuel permits, repair manual and was featured in the book, "Woody" by David Fetherston. A magnificent ground up restoration that is fully documented, this handsome estate wagon is finished in light tan with black fenders and orange wire wheels. The interior is appropriately done in brown leatherette. The top is the correct black fabric. "

During the depths of the Depression MUNI re-occupied the top floor of the Larkin building for use as a bus storage depot. As the economy rebounded, the first floor paint shop was slowly converted into an automobile repair and service center which did business as the Kenneth Larkins Company.

The following item appeared in the June 9, 1940 Oakland Tribune:

“The entirely new exhibit in the Ford Building on Treasure Island this year is proving a magnet that is daily attracting larger crowds as most of the many new and interesting features is being spread by word of mouth by the thousands who have visited the exhibit.

Historic old vehicles from the horse and buggy period intrigue the youngsters at the Fair and arouse the keenest interest from the old timers.

“Typical among many instances of its kind was the visit to Exhibit Manager Clem Powell of W.B. Larkins, owner of the Kenneth Larkins Company, Auto Repairs and Service Company. Larkins called the attention of Powell to the fact that one of the early buggies which are featured in the Ford display of historic horse drawn carriages was built by Larkins father!”

After World War II, the Larkins Building was converted into an automobile dealership, the very first on Geary St’s Auto Row, which ran from Arguello to Eleventh Ave.

In 1950 the next generation of Larkins established Larkins Brothers Tire Shops at 370 S Van Ness Ave. That firm was recently reorganized as Hanlon & Larkins Brothers Tires Company which maintains another branch (Hanlon's Tire Service) in San Bruno, California. 

Today the original Larkins building located at 3700 Geary St. is an Office Max, the only one in the country with the convenience of parking on its upper floor.

© 2004 Mark Theobald -






Larkins & Co.: Established 1865; Designers and Builders of High Grade Automobile Bodies and the Larkins Top - Published by Larkins & Co. (circa 1921) 27 pages

Hugo Pfau - The Custom Body Era

Julie M. Fenster - The Private Universe of George Whittell, Automobile Quarterly Vol. 26, No. 1, pp88-105

Lewis Francis Byington - History of San Francisco, S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., Chicago, 1931. Vol. 3 Pages 114-116.

Martin Samuel Vilas - Municipal Railway of San Francisco – pub 1915

Crocker-Langley San Francisco City Directory (various dates), published by H.S. Crocker Co. San Francisco, CA

John H. Larkins – Erb-Larkins Geneology Site

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

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