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Richard Hurley
Richard Hurley
Associated Firms
Brunn & Co.

The Hollywood Influence as seen in Custom Body Design

By Jay Kaye

Hollywood is just about as "cock-eyed" in its preference of motor cars as it seems to be in everything else. It's home grounds for the custommade body design to be sure, but, quoting a leading designer and body builder, approximately 70 per cent of the movie people in the higher income brackets drive stock cars of the lower price range. However, the socially elect young men and women who get into movies one way or another, producers, and others, offset the apparent conservatism or thriftiness of upper-bracket stars very nicely. Their tastes, according to those in the business, vary from a normal yearning merely to look custom built to the fantastic and occasional bizarre idea . . . the latter intended to make them stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. They generally succeed.

In general, though, the two leading designers and builders of Hollywood custom bodies — Howard "Dutch" Darrin and Richard Hurley, create few bodies that are not in good, conservative taste. That demands salesmanship as well as designing prowess. A client with inclinations to go the limit will be painlessly convinced that one or two stops this side of the limit is much better.

There is current proof that Hollywood highways and garages are not cluttered with amazing surrealist conceptions of motor cars, too, in the fact that it takes as long as six weeks in some instances, for a studio to find a car on the road that will be of use to them.

For some unexplained reason, film studios that are equipped with all machinery necessary to turn out true imitations of most anything, and usually do, rarely design automobiles. Instead, company scouts are sent out onto local highways and byways armed with a description of the certain model of car required for a particular picture script. Usually, the scout spots what he is looking for and promptly affixes a tag advising the owner that his car can be used in a motion picture production if he is willing, and will be rented if he contacts the producers. Daily rentals range from as little as $5 up to several hundred. A custom built wicker-back Rolls owned by Constance Bennett works at least four days each month and to the tune of $150 per working day. This practice seemingly accounts for the lack of the spectacular in motion picture motor cars.

Not until recently did this system promise to provide real difficulties. Scouts were dispatched post haste to "tag" a good futuristic motor car suitable for a Flash Gordon of the year 2000 and the other half of the assignment - to unearth something appropriate to that terrific, gang-busting personality, the Green Hornet. It looked to the scouts like a hopeless case when one of them, on the way back from his daily search, passed Darrin's show window. There, staring at him, was all that a Flash Gordon or a Green Hornet could have dreamed up. A light gray in hue, it was about 18 ft. in length. Rather than the conventional cloth or canvas top, it has a hydraulically operated solid metal top which rises out of a deck in the rear of the car. The body, like all Darrin bodies, is hammered out by hand from aluminum. Wheel covers are on both front and rear wheels, the front ones turning with the wheels. The brakes are controlled from the dash and the car travels at a speed of 115 miles per hour with the greatest of ease. Agents of studios swarmed down on the Darrin showroom only to discover that Darrin was neither the designer nor builder of this creation, but that it was the brainstorm of a Chinese gentleman, namely Daniel LaLee of Shanghai, and was designed and built there in China. Negotiations are now being attempted with the designer while the studios, approaching a perfect frenzy of acquisitiveness, are bidding up the rental every time somebody so much as whispers "Flash Gordon" or "The Green Hornet."

While this particular motor car is undoubtedly extreme, Howard Darrin points out that it incorporates certain elements of design that are likely to develop in cars of the future, and by no means as far removed from today as 200 A.D.

He looks with favor on the turning wheel covers on front wheels, double bumpers in the form of an arc and the convertible portion of the car that lowers into the rear deck.

Known internationally, Darrin has designed special car designs for seven late and current European Kings, did a special job on a Packard chassis for the Queen of Yugoslavia, and was decorated by former King Albert of Belgium in appreciation of a coupe he did for him—a Coupe DeVille built on a Minerva chassis.

He also designed a sports body which is still in use by Mussolini as well as orders filled for such screen luminaries as Clark Gable, Oakie, Flynn, Dick Powell, Jolson, Tom Brown, the Countess Di Frasso, and Zorina. Currently, he is busily occupied with orders from recent European arrivals of note in Hollywood. Until the fall of France he maintained a Continental showroom in Paris, his only showroom now being located on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.

Hollywoodians buy special custom bodies for any or all of several reasons: (1) Special bodies are not dated by new models each year. Built on a good chassis, a special body can conceivably cost but little more than a stock car based on longer life of fashion. (2) Most purchasers of special bodies have a desire to be distinctive by merely giving the impression of custom body work without too marked a difference from standard.

This leads in many cases to minor alterations in stock bodies such as covering over the regular hard metal top with canvas, thus giving the effect of special design to the entire body and only at a cost of about $200. One of the most recent of these is the canvas top put on the regular Cadillac for Clark Gable to add another "distinctive" car to the three or four already parked in his garage including everything from the Cadillac and station wagon down to the reconditioned Model T Ford—a gag present to Gable from his wife, Carole Lombard, a year or so ago. Having been armed with a new motor and latest equipment, the car can now hold its own with most any job on the road. Customers have only vague ideas or very rough sketches of what they want and these have to be made practical and harmonious with the rest of the body. Darrin maintains an Ohio factory where most of his work is done and his prices for a complete job to the client range from $1,200 up to many thousands of dollars.

Richard Hurley, another of the colony's leading body designers, maintains his body-building shop right in Los Angeles and an office at 155 South Maple Street in Beverly Hills. His yearly turnout runs in the neighborhood of about 12 cars and his prices range from $3,200 up to around $9,000 with the average custom job at about $5,000. Despite the prices, Mr. Hurley usually figures on a profit of only about $1,000 on each order. This, of course, does not include the number of people who purchase standard stock models and then want them cut and altered to look like a custom-built model. Many have the mistaken idea that such a job is worth "a hundred dollars or so." In general, it is worth a great deal more than that. One good cut deserves another and a single such alteration usually calls for other minor changes in the standard design not foreseen or believed necessary by the client.

Hurley is a follower of so-called streamlining and practically all of his 1941 custom bodies have front fenders running all the way to and through the rear fender lines. This is not only for eye appeal, according to him, but good practical functional design, too. He points out that fenders give added support and resistance if a car should be struck from the side, thus reducing damage to the body itself. On his Convertible Victoria he has carried the fenders completely back through the door, giving partial effect of a running board.

Incidentally, he believes in running boards as functional and not vestiges of the horse and buggy past. He considers them especially useful in California where, due to the rainy season, curb lines are exceptionally high and the extra added step is an advantage.

Certain clients are naturally more difficult to satisfy than others, but the tougher the client, thinks Mr. Hurley, the quicker he pays up as a rule. One of his regular clients is Edward Nassour, producer at Universal Studios. Just now he is having two special bodies made—one on a Buick chassis and the other, a town car, on a Packard. And Dick can expect a telephone call at most any time including the middle of the night with Nassour on the other end of the wire making suggestions for changes in designs that are under way. His town car which is currently "in the works" is the result of 12 different sketches and designs that were submitted by Hurley. Nassour is the chap who recently discovered a process for making third-dimensional animated cartoons for the screen and is one of Hollywood's youngest producers ... 26 years of age.

Dick Hurley, now in the neighborhood of 30, began designing at an early age and at 18 he had his first car custom built on a Pierce Arrow chassis. In fact, he's been drawing cars ever since he can remember. Herbert Brunn of the famous Brunn Bodies was a friend of the family's and after seeing some of his sketches, insisted that the child "had something" and that this tendency should definitely be furthered.

It was and he's been designing cars ever since except for a few years served as a newspaper drama editor, an experience that brought him into contact with the motion picture world and turned his design efforts toward specializing in Hollywood.

One of Dick's pet aversions in body design is "gingerbread" as he calls it or "outside plumbing" as it is known in Hollywood. One of his current annoyances in the Hollywood insistence upon lowering the body well below clearance of stock cars. He doesn't consider the trend practical because it does not contribute to comfort in riding, especially on country or bumpy roads. In the interiors of his creations, he goes in for the most luxurious of fabrics and more times than not a fur rug in the rear will be included. He generally uses Dunlopilla under the upholstery as, naturally, it makes for more comfort and smoother riding. All material on the interiors, besides being sun and water proof, is made alcohol proof for Hollywoodians and for obvious reasons.

On the town car for Nassour, the plan calls for a burled walnut paneling in the interior, with pleated broadcloth at the rear and leather in the front—the entire color scheme being worked out in black and white. There is a great deal of hand hammered metal work to be done on this as well as most custom jobs and which is generally farmed out to shops equipped especially for it. Generally, he says, a Hurley custom body takes four men about seven weeks of work to finish. After that, the name Richard Hurley, on a small metal panel, is placed on the dashboard and the vehicle is then ready for its new owner.

Getting design commissions in Hollywood is partly the results of being known, and mixing with the social crowd, and partly by making certain that you and your work are talked about.

Darrin is well known to many Europeans now popping up in Hollywood through his designs for Royalty and notables of Europe, and he, like Hurley, gets around in Hollywood socially a good deal. Dick Hurley estimates that as much as 75 per cent of his business starts in night clubs. You flatter the prospect into a specially designed body that suits the personality of the individual.

"After that," to quote him, "you almost have to psychoanalyze them to make good on the promise! After putting a good job down on paper, the client generally forgets about complementing personality and not infrequently decides it is too conservative."

In addition to personal contact selling, there are such "salesmen" as doormen and headwaiters at the night clubs. The doormen, because of their strategic position outside are ranked first with headwaiters running a close second. There is, of course, always interest in a special body but it is important to the designer that those who see it shall know who did it as well as who owns it. A "commission" to doormen and headwaiters will always place the job in a strategic position after which doorman, headwaiter or both, will make it a point to ask patrons if they have seen "Mr. Hurley's newest car." One of the best selling spots for Hurley creations has been the Pirate's Den with Ciro's and the Tropics good runners up. For very late at night, say about 2 a. m., the Swing Club swings into the sales picture. At any rate, social contacts are of utmost significance in obtaining body-building assignments. Many of the cars that Hurley sells are specially designed but for no specific person or order. These are usually the ones sold via the night club "routine." A friend or acquaintance becomes interested and the car is turned over to him for a try out. By the time he has tried it out, a week or maybe two, he feels that so many people and friends have seen him at the wheel of a special job that he cannot afford to go back to a stock model.

It is almost impossible to get any film studio to admit that any of its contract stars drives any but one particular make of car—the make depending on the studio. Most companies have made tie-ups with automobile manufacturers and will only use that manufacturer's product in their pictures or publicity campaigns—such as the Warner Brothers-Buick combination, Universal-Nash, etc., right on down along the line of film studios.

Although Bette Davis, Jimmy Cagney, Tyrone Power and Robert Taylor are still holding out for conservative designs and colors in motor equipment, the turn toward automobile extravagance has been definitely on the way back for the past few months. There may never be another roadster such as that in which Wally Beery and Gloria Swanson once rode, or another Buster Keaton-Lew Cody "land yacht," but the new generation of players growing into prominence and independence now, is deserting its plain, varnished station wagons and "stock" cars, and harking back slowly but surely to the days of Corrine Griffith's mechanically noisy Minerva, Bessie Love's pink Phaeton, and the days of Wally Reid and Rod LaRocque and of Maryon Aye (aka Marion Aye)—who had her full name emblazoned on the side of her car ... or had you forgotten those days?


“Original sketch by Richard Hurley of a town car for Producer Edward Nassour—with front fender lines running well to the rear. This is one of twelve sketches submitted for the producer's approval.”

“Another Richard Hurley original sketch. The color scheme of this car is to incorporate two shades of red or dubonnet, the same tones being carried out in the interior with dubonnet fur rugs and dubonnet broadcloth upholstery.”

The photograph shows the wicker-back Rolls-Royce of Constance Bennett earning rental "on location." Below it are two Richard Hurley creations, one on a Packard chassis designed for Kathie Joyce and the other, on a Lincoln chassis, for Warren Christian.

“Built on a Studebaker President chassis, this custom body was designed by Richard Hurley for Flo Ash. Partially convertible, a roof panel may be attached of desired to cover the front seat. It may be used as a sport car or chauffeur driven, even though a two door job.”

This car, with custom-built body by Howard Darrin, is one of a fleet owned by Errol Flynn. It is a convertible on a Packard chassis and is upholstered with pig-skin.

© 1941 Jay Kaye for Automotive Industries

The preceding article was first published in the January 1, 1941 issue of Automotive Industries

Hurley's listing in the 1955 Beverly Hills Directory follows:

“Richard W Hurley - 232 N Clark Dr., Beverly Hills, Ca.”







Original sketch by Richard Hurley of a town car for Producer Edward Nassour—with front fender lines running well to the rear. This is one of twelve sketches submitted for the producer's approval.

Another Richard Hurley original sketch. The color scheme of this car is to incorporate two shades of red or dubonnet, the same tones being carried out in the interior with dubonnet fur rugs and dubonnet broadcloth upholstery.

Two Richard Hurley creations, one on a Packard chassis designed for Kathie Joyce and the other, on a Lincoln chassis, for Warren Christian.

Built on a Studebaker President chassis, this custom body was designed by Richard Hurley for Flo Ash. Partially convertible, a roof panel may be attached of desired to cover the front seat. It may be used as a sport car or chauffeur driven, even though a two door job.


January 1, 1941 Automotive Industries:

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