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Walter M. Murphy Co.
Walter M. Murphy Company, 1920-1932; Pasadena, California
Associated Builders
J. Gerard Kirchoff, Don Lee

Pasadena, California’s Walter M. Murphy Company is primarily remembered today for their magnificent creations on the Duesenberg chassis. Records indicate that Murphy built 125 Duesenberg bodies - about 25% of all the Model J's, JN's, SJ's and SSJ's produced - and as a very high proportion of the automaker’s cars still exist, so do a large proportion of Murphy’s coachwork. Murphy is known to have built on Bentley, Bugatti, Buick, Cadillac, Cord, Crane-Simplex, Doble, Dorris, Duesenberg, Essex, Ford, Hispano-Suiza, Hudson, Isotta- Fraschini, Lincoln, Locomobile, Marmon, Mercedes-Benz, Mercer, Minerva, Packard, Peerless, Pierce-Arrow, Rolls-Royce, and Simplex chassis. Although it was formed in 1920, the firm’s roots go back another 20 years to two of Detroit’s early automotive pioneers, Henry M. Leland and Henry Ford.

Walter Montgomery Murphy (1881-1961) was born to an old Detroit, Michigan family who had made their fortunes in the second half of the 19th century in Michigan’s lumber industry. His uncle, William H. Murphy, was the son of Simon J. Murphy (1905), one of Detroit’s first millionaires and the founder of the Simon J. Murphy Co., one of the country’s largest lumber producers. Murphy made his first fortune harvesting lumber along the coast of Maine and moved his operation to Michigan in the second half of the 19th Century. In addition to his extensive lumber holdings he also financed a number of Western US railroads before purchasing his jewel-in-the-crown, the Pacific Lumber Co. in 1904. Although it’s no longer controlled by the Murphy family, Pacific Lumber Co. is best known today for their extensive sequoia and old-growth redwood holdings in Northern California.

William inherited full control of the family’s holdings upon his father’s death in 1905. In addition to the Simon J. Murphy Co., the Murphy family’s associated firms and subsidiaries at the time included; Pacific Lumber Co., Murphy Power Co., Murphy Heating Co., Murphy Storage & Ice Co., Murphy Lumber Co., Murphy Oil Co., Cadillac Fire and Marine Insurance Co., and Standard Life and Accident Co.

As well as being a financier and philanthropist, William H. Murphy was keenly interested in the early horseless carriage and helped to finance a number of Detroit’s early auto manufacturers. Through his friend, Detroit mayor William C. Maybury, Murphy met Henry Ford in the late 1890s and provided financing for Ford’s Detroit Automobile Company which was organized on August 5, 1899.

Ford's first attempt to build a car with interchangeable gears and bodies was hampered by the relatively crude production methods then available and after producing only 20 machines, the Detroit Automobile Company was out of business in a little over a year. Murphy also financed Ford’s first racecar that beat Alexander Winton’s famous forty horsepower "Bullet" in a ten mile race at Grosse Pointe, Michigan in 1901.

Ford's well-publicized victory convinced some former stockholders of the Detroit Automobile Company to reorganize that firm, and on Nov. 30, 1901, the Henry Ford Company was founded with Ford awarded a 1/6th ownership. Ford was intent on building a faster and better racecar while his partners felt that a saleable automobile should take priority. In the spring of 1902 Henry Ford withdrew from this, his second failed automobile venture, and Murphy called in Henry M. Leland, a partner in the engineering firm of Leland & Faulconer, to see if the venture was salvageable. Leland - an early Olds engine supplier – attended the same church as Murphy and convinced him that the former Henry Ford Company was still a viable proposition. Murphy renamed the firm the Cadillac Automobile Co., and contracted with Leland & Faulconer to supply it with engines and drivetrains. Two years later, Cadillac merged with their engine supplier, becoming the Cadillac Motor Car Company, with Henry Leland as its president and Wilfred Leland, Vice President.

Within the year, Walter M. Murphy, William H. Murphy’s Detroit University-educated nephew, was on his way to the West Coast to establish a branch of the family’s lumber business. By 1904 Walter had established a Pasadena factory to mass produce millwork for Los Angeles’ burgeoning housing market. At that time, the majority of new homes being constructed in the area were bungalows that relied heavily on Murphy’s wood products.

After serving for close to 15 years in the family’s lumber business, Murphy grew restless, and sold his share in the family business, using the proceeds to open a Locomobile and Simplex dealership at 932 South Hope St. in downtown Los Angeles. A 1916 newspaper ad described the new Walter M. Murphy Motors Company facility as "the most completely equipped and attractive salesrooms and offices in the State of California". As Murphy had no coachbuilding experience at the time, custom bodies were ordered from established East Coast builders such as Brewster, Locke and Healy & Co.

In the meantime, Walter’s uncle William had kept up his interest in the Detroit automobile industry and more specifically in Henry M. Leland. By 1909, Cadillac had become part of William Crapo Durant’s fledgling General Motors, but after a 1917 dispute with Cadillac’s new owners both Lelands left to form the Lincoln Motor Company in order to fulfill a contract to build Cadillac-based Liberty aircraft engines for the US Army. Financing for the venture was supplied by Murphy who installed another nephew of his, Fred T. Murphy on their board of directors. When the war ended in 1918, Leland started work on his “Masterpiece” that would also be named after the 16th president of the United States.

When distributorships were finally awarded in 1920, not surprisingly, William F.’s nephew Walter was given the distributorship for all of California. Although there were already a handful of custom body shops operating in the Los Angeles area who supplied the “nouveau rich” film stars and movie executives with personalized bodies for their luxury chassis, Murphy realized that if the new Lincoln were to make an impact in Hollywood, it would need custom crafted coachwork as well. So he approached Healey & Co.’s Assistant General Manager, George R. Fredericks, to see if he was interested in moving to the West Coast. Murphy had previously dealt with Fredericks on numerous occasions in his capacity as a Simplex/Crane-Simplex dealer and admired the fine work produced by the Keyport, New Jersey coachbuilder. Murphy also offered to pay the moving expenses for any of Healey’s key per­sonnel that wished to accompany Fredericks to California. Fredericks also recruited a highly skilled NYC automotive engineer named Charles Augustus Gerry, to serve as the new firm’s chief body engineer.

A new plant was built at 55 North Vernon Ave., one block north of Pasadena's Automobile Row on the western end of Colorado Street in Pasadena and in August, of 1920 Walter M. Murphy, Coachbuilders, opened for business under the direction of George R Fredericks. Fredericks, who had previously worked for Locke & Co. prior to working for Colonel Healey, was a perfectionist and insisted on the highest standards of quality, not only in the building of bodies, but in the preparation of sketches and working drawings. Healey was also well known for their elaborate interior paneling and woodwork, and a number of the craftsmen responsible for their exquisite interiors were the same ones who outfitted Murphy's town cars and limousines.

Fredericks’ first assignment was to build three custom bodies using dimensions supplied by Lincoln’s body engineers, as the chassis weren’t yet available. The bodies were finished just as the chassis were shipped to Los Angeles, just in time to be mounted for display at the Los Angeles Automobile Show that was held in mid-December at the Harold L. Arnold Building at 7th and Figueroa Streets.

On December 12, 1920, the Los Angeles Times reported:

"Three custom-built creations on Lincoln chassis from the Walter M. Murphy coachworks at Pasadena are attracting unusual attention. The superlative quality of the work marks these machines as the finest examples of custom jobs and speaks well for the future of this coach and body plant. Needless to say, the new Lincoln, itself, is one of the centers of interest."

However, when the production Lincoln’s finally arrived at Murphy’s dealership a few months later, a glaring problem was immediately evident. Their conservative styling, combined with their extra-tall rooflines and lackluster paint schemes gave their new California distributor very little to work with.  Fredericks came up with a makeshift solution. New Lincoln coupes, sedans and limousines were sent over to the to 55 North Vernon Ave body shop for modification. The roofs were “chopped” (several inches were sectioned out of all the roof pillars), a leatherette panel was inserted into the center of the previously all metal top, and the bodies were re-var­nished in more vibrant color schemes. The plan worked and Murphy’s 932 South Hope St showroom soon became one of Lincoln’s most profitable dealerships.

In addition to their customized standard Lincolns, the Murphy body shop installed a large number of permanent roofs onto touring cars that were known as "California Tops." They also built a 2-door “fantail phaeton” for Walter M. Murphy’s personal use on a Lincoln chassis that featured a sharply vee'd windshield, a folding rear tonneau windscreen and flat leather covered fenders with step plates in place of running boards. The rear end featured a tapered tail reminiscent of the fantail sterns that were fitted to speedboats at that time.

A similar, second phaeton advertised as a “Murphy Four-some” was ordered by Doug­las Fairbanks that featured 4 doors, a mildly angled windshield and both side-mounted and dual rear-mounted spare tires.

Another early full custom was an extravagant boat-tail roadster built for Major Max Fleischmann, the Santa Barbara-based heir to the Fleischmann’s Yeast fortune. Fleischmann became a good customer of the Murphy shops, and purchased one of the first Murphy-bodied Duesenberg Model J Speedsters.

In April of 1921, a 16-year-old high school student named Wellington Everett Miller was hired as a part-time draftsman and assistant to George R. Fredericks and Charles Gerry. Surprisingly it was Miller’s second job in the custom body business. His first was at a small Los Angeles coachbuilder who built a few custom bodies called Reim-Thompson Co. Back when he was only 15, Miller had seen Murphy’s Lincoln display at the 1920 Los Angeles Automobile Show and had set his sights on working for the coachbuilder.

After graduation, Miller became Murphy’s full-time designer and stayed with the firm through April of 1926 when he and his friend John Tjaarda left to work for Locke & Co. at their new Rochester, New York plant. Miller temporarily returned to Murphy during 1927 before moving to Packard in 1928. His extensive automotive reference library, now known as the Wellington Everett Miller Transportation Research Library, resides at the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar, California.

During the 1920s, Murphy-bodied automobiles could be found in the garages of Movie Stars: Elliot Dexter, Corrine Griffith, Buster Keaton, Douglas MacLean, Pauline Fredericks, Mary Pickford, Tom Mix, Gary Cooper, John Barrymore, Lola Montez, Delores Del Rio, Lupe Velez, Sally O'Neil, Douglas Fairbanks, Toby Wing, Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, Fred Thomson, and Bronco Billy; Film Directors: Hal Roach, Howard Hughes; Auto Executives: Edsel Ford, Frederick M. Alger and Alvin Macauley (Packard), W.A. Clark III, (Pilot Ray), Charles S. Howard (Buick distributor & owner of Seabiscuit); Millionaires: Henry R. Dabney, R. Brodhead Honeyman , Albert K. Isham, J.F. Howard, D.H., M.G. and H.W. Hofstetter, Harvey Seeley Mudd, Mrs. Rudolph Spreckles and Major Max Fleischmann; Publishers: William Randolph Hearst; Writers: Zane Gray; Gangsters: Jake "The Barber" Factor; Composers: Buddy De Silva; Politicians: Sen Hiram Johnson; and the Royal families of Europe: King Alfonso of Spain and King Carol II, of Romania.

Concurrent with the successful evolution of the coachworks, its marketing companion and outlet Walter M. Murphy Motors Company had expanded and by 1923 had branches in Pasadena, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and Fresno to handle the main franchise of Lincoln and Ford cars and Fordson tractors.

In the following October, 1923 inter-office memo, Murphy directs his employees to put together a newsletter to be distributed directly to their existing customers:

"Arrangements have been made whereby this organization is to edit a news folder, to be known as 'Murphy Service', for distribution through the branches by mail to owners and potential buyers.

"This was decided upon only after carefully considering the opportunities we have to secure interesting data and publicity through our organization, and the fact that the managers were so favorably impressed with the idea at our recent managers' meeting. It is to be issued every three months.

"I would like your assistance in making 'Murphy Service' snappy, interesting and novel, without being cheap in appearance or subject matter. You should supply notes about the activities in your respective territories, mentioning sales to famous persons, or important commercial sales, exceptional tours by owners, etc. Be sure to supply all names correctly spelled, including the first name or initials. Remember that this folder is for the general public, and must interest them; therefore, material that contains human or popular interest and may be connected with the names of "Murphy," "Ford," "Lincoln," or "Fordson" is desirable.

"Photographs should be generously furnished, and should be taken so as to show life and action. Care should be had as to the background.

"I am ambitious of having the first issue published as soon as possible; however, it will depend entirely upon the spirit with which the managers take part."

Walter M. Murphy

Murphy introduced their first disappearing-top roadster in 1923. Designed by George R. Fredericks and Charles Gerry, Murphy’s chief engineer, it featured a hinged rear decklid that extended right up to the back of the front seats concealing a folding canvas top stored beneath it. Early versions were built without side glass, but a fair number were built with roll-up side glass and offered by Murphy as a “disappearing-top-coupe." These featured a more substantial top mechanism than the roadster, as it had to fit snugly around the windows in order to keep wind and rain from entering the interior.

Murphy was also instrumental in the American development of the close-coupled sport sedan or Berline, a design that became very popular in the latter part of the 1920s. A Murphy Berline on a Lincoln chassis was exhibited at the 1924 New York Auto Salon and was described by Autobody magazine:

"A Murphy sedan on a Lincoln chassis. The car has a color scheme quite out of the ordinary, being painted a magenta colour outside and being trimmed and upholstered inside with Boyriven-striped broadcloth in two shades of henna."

A phaeton built for silent movie star Douglas MacLean was also described:

"The 5-passenger Lincoln touring car above was built for Douglas MacLean by the Walter M. Murphy Company. It has a low English Burbank top, lowered seats and fine white striping on a dark blue finish."

Murphy built the bodies for Abner Doble's series-E steam-powered cars that were built in Emeryville, California starting in 1923. Only a dozen E-series chassis were built, 11 of which wore Murphy coachwork.  A handful remain, the most famous being Jay Leno’s which was built in 1925 for Dr. Lewis D. Green, the founder of San Francisco’s Green’s Eye Hospital and inventor of the Greens Eye Refractor, an early eye examination device that was built and marketed by Bausch & Lomb. Two other Murphy-bodied Dobles were built for San Francisco’s Austin and Rebuen Hills, founders of Hills Bros. Coffee. As Doble’s Murphy bodies were built over a two-year period, no two bodies were exactly the same, although there was a resemblance between them as they were all designed by Murphy’s W. Everett Miller. Incidentally, Leno also owns the only Bugatti known to be bodied by Murphy, A 1927 Bugatti T37 Roadster that was used by Katherine Hepburn in "Christopher Strong" a 1933 RKO release.

Not surprisingly, most of the Series E Dobles that were built were eventually sold in and around San Francisco, necessitating a test drive to Pasadena to pick up the coachwork, then a return back to the Emeryville factory for delivery.  From 1920 to 1932 Abner Doble created only 42 steam cars, and Murphy bodied almost 30% of them.

Tragedy stuck the Murphy organization in 1924 at the firm’s annual 4th of July beach party when George R. Fredericks attempted to rescue one of the firm’s secretarys, who had ventured to far into the Pacific and started to drown. She survived the ordeal, but Fredericks perished attempting the rescue.

While visiting a small airport in Whittier, CA, Murphy met Frank S. Spring, a pilot and professional efficiency expert. Spring offered to take a look at Murphy’s Pasadena operations and make some suggestions. Spring was a graduate of Paris’ famed Ecole des Ponts et Chausses Polytechnic Institute and had helped engineer the failed 1923 Courier automobile in Sandusky, Ohio. Spring took over as manager of Murphy’s coachbuilding operation and J. Gerard Kirchhoff was retained as the shop’s supervisor.

As Spring had lived in France for a number of years, he was well acquainted with the European automotive magazines such as Autocar, Auto Italiana, l'Auto Carrosserie, Motor, Motor Italia, and Omnia. Georges Gangloff, a Swiss coachbuilder, had pioneered the use of “Clear Vision” window frames and roof pillars. Unlike the thick windshield pillars and center posts found on most sedans, Gangloff’s system featured side windows with narrow, metal-frames surrounded by thin, cast bronze A-, B- and C- pillars, forming an attractive greenhouse with much improved outward vision for the driver.

Murphy introduced their version of Gangloff’s “Clear Vision” sedan at the 1927 New York Salon on a Packard chassis. The following year, a Minerva Convertible Coupe was exhibited at the Salon that was notable as the first American convertible to have its landau irons located inside the interior of the car, rather than on the exterior as was the common practice up until that time. Murphy had recently become a Minerva dealer, and built a number of Convertible Sedans, Convertible Coupes, Town Cars, and Phaetons on the Minerva AL and AM chassis through 1931. Murphy also showed a “Clear Vision” Sedan on a Rolls-Royce chassis.

Murphy's engineering department subsequently improved the design by substituting an aluminum forging with door hinges cast integrally with the posts. A single casting served as the common hinge pillar for both the front and rear doors. Murphy an­chored the forging to the body frame with large, gusseted floor plates that eliminated body side distortion, even when the upper pillar was removed for lowering the top as on a convertible sedan. Murphy called them their "Clear Vision" models, claiming that since the pillars were no greater in width than the interpupillary distance between the clients' eyes, they would be virtually invisible. Not only was this a major safety and comfort provision for the driver by giving unimpeded vision, but it also gave the car a light and graceful look with the top up as well as down.

The front and rear uprights in the doors were also cast, and were slightly undercut at the top of the pillars, allowing room for the locking mechanism that held the roof in place and allowing the height of the roofline to be as low as possible.

Spring added a double horizontal belt line along with a slightly curved, yet seemingly flat roof and a large detached trunk, giving the body an appearance of great length. Murphy’s “Clear Vision” sedans and coupes became very popular not only with their local customers, but with a number of Detroit’s auto manufacturers. Subsequent versions of Murphy’s convertible sedan were re-engineered with the front door hinges move to the cowl, and the rear door hinges moved to the C-pillars.

Murphy built prototype bodies for Auburn, Cord, Cunningham, Duesenberg, duPont, Franklin, Gardner, Hudson, Hupmobile, Packard, Peerless and Stutz. They also built small batches of bodies "in the white" for West Coast Packard distributor Earl C. Anthony and Franklin’s Los Angeles distributor, Ralph Hamlin. Although Murphy was too small to build their own designs in the large numbers needed by Detroit, their designs were built in quantity by the American Body Co. (Lincoln), Biddle & Smart (Hudson), the Limousine Body Co. (Auburn), and Murray (Lincoln).

Albert K. Isham, a retired railroad executive living in Santa Barbara, commissioned an impressive Murphy roadster body for a supercharged Mercedes 28/95 chassis in 1925. Four years later, his son Harold ordered a speedster body from Murphy for his brand new Mercedes SSK chassis that currently resides in the collection of Arturo Keller.

Another young designer who started his career at Murphy was George McQuerry Jr. His father was Murphy’s head bookkeeper, and while still in his teens he was hired by Frank Spring as an apprentice body draftsman. Murphy even paid for some of the younger McQuerry’s art classes at the Otis Art Institute, the former home of the Los Angeles Times’ founder, General Harrison Gray Otis. McQuerry is credited with a 1928 Minerva dual cowl phaeton with a vee'd rear windshield and Murphy’s second generation of Duesenberg convertible sedans. He also served as Murphy’s main layout draftsman through 1932, responsible for seeing that Hershey, Spring and Wright’s designs were properly thought out and executed.

For reasons that remain unclear, Harold L. Arnold, Hudson’s California distributor, swapped distributorships with Murphy in 1926 - the former, now handled Lincoln, and the latter, Hudson. Now that Murphy had a direct relationship with Hudson, the Detroit automaker became interested in gaining the services of Murphy’s roster of talented designers.

Murphy built a couple of prototype convertible sedans for Hudson in 1927 that used the Gangloff-inspired “Clear Vision” greenhouse. Six cars were eventually commissioned by Hudson and ultimately delivered to Detroit: a landau sedan, a Victoria, a seven-passenger sedan, a convertible coupe, a convertible sedan, and a fixed-head coupe. Hudson management liked them, but Murphy lacked the capacity to build in quantities that Hudson needed, so the prototypes were sent off to Amesbury for assimilation by Biddle and Smart into 1928 production and eventually wound up in the hands of Hudson Co. executives. Murphy also designed a low, handsome 1928 Hudson convertible sedan that was later produced in quantity by Biddle & Smart, albeit with a roof that was three inches taller. Each of these Biddle & Smart bodies carried a cowl tag that announced "Designed by Walter M. Murphy, Coachbuilders, Pasadena."

Both Walter M. Murphy and Frank Spring were aviation enthusiasts, and under Spring’s influence, Murphy sponsored an entry in the Guggenheim Safe Aircraft Competition. A $100,000 top prize and five $10,000 secondary awards were offered by millionaires Daniel and Harry Guggenheim to whoever could build the safest aircraft. Murphy’s entry, a twin-en­gined, high-wing monoplane with a mono­coque fuselage constructed of a sheet metal sandwich with a corrugated core, was designed by George Fuller, later of Martin Aircraft; and Wellwood Beall, later a Boeing executive. A scale model of the aircraft was even wind tunnel tested at the California Institute of Technology, but all to no avail. Twenty-seven airplanes entered the competition but only two made it to the final stage and its stringent safety tests. Murphy’s entry was never completed, and the two-year project cost the firm $80,000-$100,000 and was a major contributing factor in its eventual demise. 

Murphy’s fine reputation attracted a young General Motors designer named Philip O. Wright, who came to work for the Pasadena coachbuilder in 1929. Wright is credited with the designs of a number of L-29 town cars that Murphy built for film stars Delores Del Rio, Lola Montez and John Barrymore, plus several other L-29 Cords; a Dual Cowl Phaeton for actress Toby Wing and a blind quarter sports sedan whose doors opened part way into the roof, as well as a number of Model J Duesenbergs. On a trip to Detroit, he had a chance meeting with Cord’s president, Roy Faulkner, who persuaded him to join the automaker’s design staff. The culmination of their chance meeting was Wright’s Cord L-29 speedster, the star of the 1932 auto shows. When Faulkner moved to Pierce-Arrow/Studebaker, so did Wright, and while there he designed a streamlined 2 door fastback which was transformed by James R Hughes into the four-door Silver-Arrow show cars of 1933. 

Murphy’s next designer, Franklin Quick Hershey, had ties to Henry Leland – he taught his mother how to drive – and not surprisingly, he started designing automobiles at an early age. While still a teenager, his mother’s financial advisor suggested that Franklin show some of his designs to Murphy’s Frank Spring. However, Spring was less than enthusiastic about Hershey’s creations and didn’t offer him a job. As it turned out, his mother’s advisor was a friend of Walter M. Murphy’s, and after a short conversation between the two friends, Spring was instructed to hire the teenager part time. After graduating from college in 1930, Hershey returned to Murphy as one of its designers. An avid sportsman and outdoorsman, his influences can be seen on a number of sporting convertible sedans and roadsters built on Duesenberg Model J chassis and a trio of Cord L-29 phaetons.

Murphy’s exhibit at that 1928 New York Salon included a Minerva Convertible Coupe and a Rolls-Royce which they described as a "Clear Vision Sedan." It embodied some of the structural features of their convertibles that permitted very narrow posts between the windows. The year before, they had showed a similar sedan on a Packard chassis.

Murphy’s excellent reputation resulted in a commission from Duesenberg to build a body to exhibit on their long-awaited Model J’s debut at the 1929 New York Auto Salon - held in December of 1928. Murphy was one of the three custom body builders selected to present this new vehicle on their stands, along with LeBaron and Holbrook. Murphy's entry was a roadster with their popular disappearing top. The connection would become a profitable one for Murphy, who eventually built 125 bodies for placing on Duesenberg Model J chassis, roughly a quarter of Duesenberg’s Model J/JN/SJ/SSJ output.

The December 1928 issue of Autobody described two other vehicles exhibited on Murphy’s stand at the 1929 New York Salon:

“The Rolls-Royce sport phaeton by Murphy is trimmed with a combination of leather and Bedford cord. A Rolls-Royce disappearing-top coupe with rumble seat by the same builder has seats trimmed with Bedford cord and lining of Baronial-grain leather.”

Errett Lobban Cord contacted Frank Spring in 1929 with a request for design proposals for Cord’s L-29 custom body program. Spring produced a series of coupes, convertible coupes, sedans and convertible Victorias that followed the successful Murphy formula of simple, conservative bodies of elegant proportions. Unfortunately, Spring's designs were vetoed by Cord while on a visit to the Pasadena shops. However, a design for flamboyant 3-toned dual cowl phaeton made by young Franklin Q. Hershey, attracted Cord’s attention and 10 copies were ordered. Only three were actually built, two of them for W.A. Clark III, president of Pilot Ray Corp., and the third for the King Carol II, of Romania.

For the 1930 Salons, Murphy exhibited a Cord L-29 phaeton as well as a number of Duesenbergs. All were described in the November issue of Autobody:

“In the Murphy stand will be found an interesting Cord phaeton if completed in time for the 1930 Chicago Salon. This is to be finished in black, enlivened by polished-aluminum concave moldings; the secondary cowl has a special hinge and will open without counterbalance and includes an extremely low top. A Murphy disappearing top coupe, on Duesenberg chassis, is finished in satin aluminum below the belt line and in polished aluminum above; a special Barcelona Blue is used on fenders and splashers. The cross seat is trimmed with a soft blue leather and there is a single emergency seat in the fish-tail rear. A metal flap covers the window wells when windows are lowered. A Murphy-Duesen­berg town car has chromium-plated center pillars, door hinges of polished duralumin and polished-aluminum moldings which contrast with the black body. The in­terior is trimmed in pillow style with a silver cloth and the back squabs of the seat are decorated with a bird done in black needlepoint. The division and door friezes are of ebony inlaid with silver birds. Running boards are of ebony with chromium-plated protection strips.”

In its next issue, Autobody further described the Duesenberg Town Car:

“This Murphy Town Car is finished entirely in black, with polished-aluminum moldings. The door hinges are made of heat-­treated duralumin and polished. The up­per part of the division pillars are of bronze, chromium Plated. The rear compartment is trimmed in silver cloth, each back squab being decorated with a bird done in black needlepoint. Ebony friezes on the doors and the partition are inlaid with silver birds.”

Another article in the same issue described its unusual interior in greater detail:

“This modern interior, by Murphy on a Duesenberg town car, 'was one of the most daring and successful efforts at this Salon to create a different interior. The partition and door friezes are of ebony and of unusual shape; they are inset with silver cranes in flight and the same motif is repeated on the companion cases, the corner and dome lights and in black needlework, on the loose pillows and lap robe. The trimming fabric is gray Silvercloth, done in plain-stretched style and piped with Silvertip piping leather. The telephone is concealed in a compartment with a spring-hinged flap covered with the trim fabric. Short curtains conceal the opening above the opera seats, shown in position on the succeeding page”

Rufus L. ("Whitey") Compton was the man responsible for Murphy's tailor-made convertible tops and upholstery. His tasteful, simple creations set a standard in top and upholstery construction that remains unsurpassed to this day.

A Duesenberg “Clear Vision” Sedan was also shown at the 1930 Salons. Autobody described it as follows:

“The "Clear Vision" sedan by Murphy, on Duesenberg chassis, has an unusual belt treatment done in polished aluminum. The interior is also refreshingly different with wood trim of plain green-stained maple, and instead of the usual carpet, a gun metal leather is used on the lower half of the doors and front seatback. The chrome-Plated protection beading on the rear fender is now standard on this chassis.”

California Buick distributor Charles S. Howard, who was also the owner of Triple Crown winner Sea Biscuit, commissioned a couple of Murphy-bodied vehicles, a 1930 Cadillac V16 All-Weather Phaeton and a 1932 Buick Series 90 Town Car.

Evidently, Spring must have warmed up to Hershey, as he made him chief of design at Hudson when Murphy went out of business in 1932. Spring had left to become Hudson’s chief body designer in 1931.

Lincoln submitted an order to Murphy in 1931 for a batch of 25 roadster and phaeton bodies, the only semi-custom order built for the Detroit automaker, or for that matter any manufacturer, unless you count the 11 bodies built for Doble between 1923 and 1925.

About 1930, Murphy's design engineers decided to do away with the composite wood frame/aluminum skin construction and developed a stamped-metal body structure where wood was used only for tack strips for upholstery and trim attachment. The system was used on a handful of Duesenbergs as well as a huge Bentley 8-liter chassis. The Bentley featured a Franklin Hershey-designed Coupe deVille body and was built for C. H. Matthiessen, the owner of Pasadena’s Meyer Coupling Co. and a longtime Murphy customer. The Bentley’s body carried no discernable belt line - in its place, the radius of the hood continued back through the body just below the windows, resulting in a greenhouse that appeared to be floating on top of a long cockpit. Murphy was one of a handful of US coachbuilders that considered metal a viable alternative to wood framing, although they closed down before it long-term benefits could be evaluated.

Murphy's experiment with all-metal fabrication attracted the attention of the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) who in conjunction with James A. Bohannon, the President of Peerless, commissioned a pair of all aluminum bodies for the prototype V-16 Peerless chassis'. Franklin Hershey's ultra modern body featured a number of innovative features that were initially introduced at the Paris Salon by Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky and the European coachbuilders, D’Ieteren Freres and Van den Plas. The sedan body featured concealed rain troughs plus doors that extended into the roof - à la Kaiser.  Its fenders were highlighted by polished aluminum beading and the vehicle was one of the first to feature windshield wiper motors that were mounted underneath the windshield. Murphy also built a blind quartered Cord L-29 sports sedan sedan with the same type of doors.

According to Hershey, a second body was built for Peerless that was a virtual copy of the first, but with blind rear quarters. Its whereabouts are unknown, but the first aluminum-bodied V-16 can be found in the collection of the Frederick C. Crawford Automotive Collection of the Western Reserve Historical Society's Museum in Cleveland. Reportedly, Peerless’ James A. Bohannon tried to buy the coachworks from Murphy, but the offer was rebuffed.

With the end of Prohibition* looming on the horizon, Bohannon abandoned the automobile business and converted the Cleveland Peerless plant into a brewery and purchased a license to produce Carling Black Label Beer from Canada’s Carling Brewing Company. The first kegs emerged from Bohannon’s Brewing Corporation of America’s Quincy Ave. plant in 1933. In 1954, Brewing Corp. of America changed its name to the Carling Brewing Company, which still exists although the outdated Cleveland plant was closed in 1971.

(* In the United States, Prohibition was the period between 1919 and 1933 when the manufacture, transportation, import, export and sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited. In the US this was made into law by the Eighteenth Amendment (ratified January 16 1919) and the Volstead Act (passed October 28, 1919). Prohibition began on January 16, 1920 when the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. The Volstead Act was amended to allow "3.2 beer" (3.2 percent alcohol by weight, 4% by volume) by passage of the Blaine Act on February 17, 1933. The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed later that same year with ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment.)

The January 1931 issue of Autobody pictures the rear compartments of 2 different Murphy convertible Berlines on Duesenberg chassis:

“The top has zipper fasteners which permit neat fitting and quick opening. The division is recessed, as is also the floor, and triangular hassocks provide a comfortable angle for the rear passengers' feet; an unusual feature is the two hooded lights on the division.”

“The view at the right is the rear seat of a 4-passenger stationary Berline, by Murphy, on Duesenberg chassis. Cases are recessed in the rear quarters and the reading and ceiling lights have a modernistic framing; the door trim is in a similar spirit. The division, shown in the central view, has special cabinets at each side and clock, speedometer, etc., in the center. One of the cabinets at the side contains the loud speaker of a remote-control radio set. Besides the railing on the cabinet, ash receivers are inset in the top. In the recess under the division, hassocks of circular section are provided and the brackets into which they fit give two adjustments for distance.”

Late in its life, Murphy turned out two Gordon Buehrig-designed Duesenberg Beverly Sedans, which were noticeably different from Murphy’s earlier bodies for the marque, although they managed to retain some of Murphy’s signature clean and uncluttered look. Rollston built two more examples after Murphy closed in 1932.

It became apparent to Murphy in late 1931 that there was insufficient demand for custom body­work to keep his plant going in its present state. A substantial portion of the firms earlier profits had been poured into the $80,000 Guggen­heim safety plane fiasco, and mounting losses from his Hudson-Essex distributorship sealed the fate of Murphy’s once-prosperous automobile empire. Murphy closed down his Hudson-Essex dealership and sold the coachworks to Kenneth McKay in 1932 with Murphy holding the paper. To an outsider, the coachbuilding portion of his empire looked viable as it still had some uncompleted contracts as well as a number of unfinished customer cars, whose owners were still solvent. McKay advertised his new enterprise as "coach builders, auto painters and boat builders," but within six months, McKay was out of business and Murphy took back the property, eventually selling it to William H. Joyce, a shoe manufacturer. A large fire finally destroyed the building in February of 1950. Murphy's downtown Pasadena dealership still exists and is currently the home of the Rusnak Auto Group's Porsche dealership.

On the subject of blazes, before McKay had taken over, Murphy had ceremonially burned all of the firms numerous photographs, negatives, body drafts and shop records, much to the chagrin of today’s classic car historians. Murphy went on to found the Murphy Petroleum Company in 1933, and eventually became a large Standard Oil Company (SoCal) distributor in Southern California. He passed away in 1961.

As mentioned previously, when Murphy closed down, a number of customer’s cars (for example Eddie Peabody and Gary Cooper's Duesenbergs) remained uncompleted, and two former Murphy employees, Christian C. Bohman and Maurice L. Schwartz offered to complete the work in their own small shop. They named their firm Bohman & Schwartz, and rented a building in back of Prosser's Garage at the intersection of DeLacey and Green Streets in Pasadena. Bohman ran the sales and accounting office, while Schwartz ran the shop and did almost all of the bodybuilding. They purchased some of Murphy’s shop equipment at auction and hired a number of ex-­Murphy employees, including Milt Pfeiffer, Mark Farlow, Whitey Compton and Jack James. With a much more modest overhead, the pair were successful in establishing both a fine reputation as coachbuilders and they succeeded as a team for twelve more years and then independently for another seventeen years.

© 2004 Mark Theobald -






Wellington Everett Miller Library at the Nethercutt Collection

W. S. Snyder - Philip O. Wright: designer of Classics – The Classic Car, June 1974

Strother MacMinn, George McQuerry Jr. and W. Everett Miller - Walter M. Murphy Co. - America's Greatest Coach Builder  – Road & Track August, 1960

Strother MacMinn -  Walter M. Murphy, Coach Builders: Daring Elegance in the Classic Era - Automobile Quarterly, Vol. 23 No. 4

Hugo Pfau  - Walter M. Murphy Company - Cars & Parts – November 1974

David Wynne - Murphy Coachbuilder - Flying Lady, pp210, issue 6, 1955

Michael Lamm - The Walter M. Murphy Co. - SIA #168, November/December 1998

Michael Lamm and Dave Holls - A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design

Nick Georgano - The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile: Coachbuilding

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

Wellington Everett Miller: A Career in Automobile Design – the Classic Car, March 1980

Maurice D. Hendry - The Peerless Story - Automobile Quarterly, Vol. 11, No.1

Collectible Automobile, February 1995

Fred Roe - Duesenberg: The Pursuit of Perfection

Beverly Rae Kimes - The Classic Car

Beverly Rae Kimes - The Classic Era

Beverly Rae Kimes - Packard: A History of the Motorcar and Company

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

Richard Burns Carson - The Olympian Cars

Raymond A. Katzell - The Splendid Stutz

Marc Ralston - Pierce Arrow

Brooks T. Brierley - There Is No Mistaking a Pierce Arrow

Brooks T. Brierley - Auburn, Reo, Franklin and Pierce-Arrow Versus Cadillac, Chrysler, Lincoln and Packard

Brooks T. Brierley - Magic Motors 1930

Nick Georgano - The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile: Coachbuilding

Marian Suman-Hreblay - Dictionary of World Coachbuilders and Car Stylists

Thomas E. Bonsall - The Lincoln Motorcar: Sixty Years of Excellence

Arthur W. Soutter - The American Rolls-Royce

John Webb De Campi - Rolls-Royce in America

Hugo Pfau - The Custom Body Era

Hugo Pfau - The Coachbult Packard

Griffith Borgeson - Cord: His Empire His Motor Cars

Don Butler - Auburn Cord Duesenberg

George H. Dammann - 90 Years of Ford

George H. Dammann & James K. Wagner - The Cars of Lincoln-Mercury

George H. Dammann - Seventy Years of Chrysler

Walter M.P. McCall - 80 Years of Cadillac LaSalle

Maurice D. Hendry - Cadillac, Standard of the World: The complete seventy-year history

George H. Dammann & James A. Wren - Packard

Terry B. Dunham & Lawrence R. Gustin - Buick: A Complete History

George H. Dammann - Seventy Years of Buick

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