Although he’s primarily known today as a
designer of Classic
Era automobile coachwork, Los Angeles native W.E. Miller’s career
half-century during which he designed more than 1,000 different
products and advertisements for over 100 clients.
His subjects included: automobile bodies, automobile chassis for front-drive/rear-engine racing cars, truck bodies, truck chassis, fire apparatus, armored bank cars, city & interurban buses, heavy-hauling trailers, house trailers, house cars, road rollers, wheeled toys, mobile kitchens, motorcycles, motor scooters, garden tractors, flying automobiles, horse-drawn vehicles, vending machines, auto-model kits, model-airplane engines, hydraulic presses, production machines, factory tooling, precision cameras, a rocket-test sled, gear transmissions, a mobile X-ray unit, airplanes, aircraft interiors, armament, a phonograph-record press, conveyors, turnstiles, water pumps, ceramic kilns, road graders and market carts.
of his working career was spent in Los
Angeles where he designed cars for a who's who of early Hollywood, his
clients included Rudolph Valentino, Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary
Pickford, Clark Gable and Frank R. Strayer. Other designs were
completed for restaurateur Antonio Luciano (aka Tony Lucey), oilman
Henry R. Dabney, railroad executive Albert K. Isham, and Los Angeles
dealers Ralph C. Hamlin (Franklin) and Earle C. Anthony (Packard).
During his lifetime Miller accumulated one of the world’s largest and best-known collections of automobile books, periodicals and literature which was collectively known as the ‘Library of Vehicles’. The valuable resource was acquired by the Blackhawk Collection upon Miller’s death in 1983, after which it became the nucleus of the Nethercutt Automotive Research Library and Archive of San Fernando Valley, California.
Wellington Everett Miller was born in Los Angeles, California on November 19, 1904 to William Edgar and Emma Lewis (Lyttle) Miller. His father, a machinist, was born in Beckley, West Virginia in 1874, his mother in in Audubon County, Iowa in 1879.His immediate family included an older sister, Ada Lenore, born in 1901 and two younger brothers - Donald Verne, who was born in 1907 and Leonard Haven, born in 1913. (As adults Ada remained in Beverly Hills; Donald moved to Sierra Madre, CA where he was a successful banker, and Leonard to Abilene, TX where he became a well-known preacher).
William Edgar’s job with the electric company took them round the state for much of W.E.’s childhood, which included some secondary education at East Los Angeles’ Abraham Lincoln High School. The family moved to Perris, California before he had a chance to complete his education, and W.E. took a full-time job with Rufus M. Hook’s Perris Garage, 225 D Street, Perris.
The Miller family returned to LA the following year and W.E. took a position with the McKinney Blueprint Co., 315 S. Broadway, Los Angeles as a delivery boy/shop assistant. He subsequently took a similar position with the Reim-Thompson Company (1919-1924), a recently organized automobile body builder which took over the former George Bentel body works at 1015 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, in 1919. Built in 1917, the transfer of the 78,000 sq. ft. purpose-built 4-story body plant and showroom was reported in the February 1, 1920 issue of Motor West:
Reim-Thompson’s chief draftsman and designer, Frederick A. Seilje, encouraged Miller to get some training, so he enrolled in 2-year auto body drafting and design program with Andrew F. Johnston’s Gray, Maine, correspondence school.
He became a fan of the Walter M. Murphy Co. after seeing 3 Murphy-bodied Lincolns at the 1920 Los Angeles Auto Salon which was held in mid-December at the Harold L. Arnold Building at 7th and Figueroa Streets. The December 12, 1920, Los Angeles Times reported on the Murphy display:
Within three months (March, 1921) the 16-year-old Miller was hired by Murphy’s George R. Fredericks as an assistant draftsman at the firm’s 55 N. Vernon Ave. shop in Pasadena. Murphy’s designers at that time included Fredericks, Charles Gerry and John Tjaarda.
Miller’s resume lists Ralph de Palma (1923) the Doble Steam Motors Co. (1921-1923) and the Endurance Steam Car Co. (1922-1924) as clients, and although he doesn’t specify, it’s assumed he completed the assignment as an employee of the Walter M. Murphy Co.
In 1925 20-year-old Miller left Murphy to take a higher-paying job with the Scientific Research Association where Bill Waterhouse assigned him the task of creating blueprints for ‘Fudge’ Moore’s ‘Road-Runner’ road-going airplane. Available in three versions, taxi, truck or salesman's special, and built by Virgil B. ‘Fudge’ Moore’s Autoplane Co., the prototype featured folding wings and was designed to carry mail or parcels on short suburban and interurban runs. At least one prototype was constructed, but the firm’s investors were unwilling to take it into series production. Years later Miller recalled: “Ironically I never did get paid for the month I worked there”.
Miller’s next position was with the legendary racecar builder, designer and engineer, Harry A. Miller. During his short stay at the firm (2652 Long Beach Boulevard in Los Angeles) he assisted Leo Goossen, Miller’s draftsman, with the design of a front-wheel-drive passenger car based on the firm’s model 91 and 122 FWD Indy racers.
Unable to find any steady work in Los Angeles, Murphy’s George R. Fredericks found him a drafting/design job with the Healy Aeromarine Bus Company of Keyport, New Jersey. Fredericks had started his career with Healey and maintained a good relationship with its current owner Inglis M. Uppercu.
Unfortunately the work was short-lived and in April 1926, he accepted a position with Locke & Company, a former custom body builder that had recently opened a production body factory in Rochester, New York.John Tjaarda, another old friend from Murphy who was currently working for Locke, recommended him to George Tasman, the plant’s manager. Located on Greenleaf St. and Leighton Ave., adjacent to the New York Central Railroad’s eastside Rochester rail yards, the plant specialized in open bodies, and produced a large number of beautiful, series-built cabriolets, phaeton’s, dual-cowl phaetons, convertible sedans, convertible victorias, roadsters and sport tourings for Chrysler, Duesenberg, Franklin, Graham, Lincoln, Marmon, Packard, Pierce-Arrow, Ruxton and Stutz, most of which were advertised as customs or factory, although they built regular production bodies as well.
While working for Locke Miller helped John Tjaarda with preliminary designs for his rear-engined moncoque-chassised Sterkenburg automobile, which incidentally was christened after John Tjaarda’s surname (van Sterkenburg).
There was a major company upheaval soon after his October 10, 1926, Washington D.C. marriage to Martha Katherine Gibson (b. 1908 in Oklahoma) and the newlywed was let go, returning to Los Angeles with his bride.
Tjaarda got a job with General Motors Art & Colour where he continued to work on perfecting his rear-engined car for a disinterested Harley Earl. The Sterkenberg accompanied him to a new position with Briggs Mfg. in 1932, and eventually saw the light of day as the star attraction of the Briggs Mfg. exhibit at the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. Edsel Ford loved the Briggs Dream Car, as it was publicly known, and incorporated many of its features in the production 1936 Lincoln Zephyr.
Miller worked on another, less well-known prototype at about the same time. Between 1925 and 1936 he produced a number of body designs for the Lundelius & Eccleston Motor Corp. aka L & E, a Los Angeles–based automobile engineering firm.
Founded in 1912 by Oscar Frederick Lundelius and Hubert Ward Eccleston (an LA City Engineer) and originally located at 1444 West 58th Street, the firm introduced a Franklin-based prototype in 1924 that featured a novel Lundelius-designed independent suspension. A 1924 issue of MoTor described it as follows:
The “Car Without Axles” never entered into production although six subsequent prototypes were constructed between 1925 and 1926 under the direction of L&E’s chief engineer, Melvin N. Lefler using bodies designed by W.E. Miller. The prototypes were used to sell subsequent improvements of the axle-less concept and their bodywork suggested whatever make was popular at the time, one resembled a Ford, another a Cadillac, another a Studebaker, and the final iteration – introduced in 1934 – a Franklin. A single Lundelius & Eccleston, the original 1924 prototype, is known to exist. Lundelius and Lefler were awarded a total of 30 US patents – all relating to automobile suspension systems and the firm remained in business until the start of the Second World War. The LA directory listed 357 North Labrea Ave., Los Angeles as a later address and the Fresno directory listed a branch at 1154 I Street, Fresno.
Miller also did some industrial design work for the Vickers Mfg. Co, an LA-based manufacturer of hydraulic equipment founded by Harry F. Vickers and located at 3660 S. Main Street. Vickers, the "Father of Industrial Hydraulics," later moved his business to Detroit where he teamed up with Sperry Corp.’s Frederick J. Fisher (one of the famous Fisher Bros.) in the creation of a new subsidiary, Sperry Vickers, with Vickers serving as president. That firm was incorporated into the Sperry Rand Corp., of which Vickers served as CEO and chairman until his retirement.
In November of 1926 Miller went to work for Hollywood Motor Bodies, 518-526 W. Garfield Ave., Glendale, one of the numerous body building firms founded by Gilbert E. Porter (b.1884) the creator of the short-lived Sequoia automobile. He had previously been involved with the Globe Motor Truck & Body Co. of Ypsilanti, Michigan after which he moved to Los Angeles where he helped found the Transport Body Co.
Constructed in 1926, the $3,000 Sequoia was an attractive 6-cylinder short-wheelbase (98”) boat-tail sports car equipped with a California top and a novel three-piece curved windshield with integral sun visor.
The two known examples were likely constructed in the shops of Hollywood Motor Bodies Co., 518-526 W. Garfield Ave. in Glendale, another body-building firm with which he was associated. The July 22, 1927 issue of Lumber Manufacturer & Dealer reported:
Miller states the Hollywood Coach moniker was already being used at the time of his hiring, regardless the reorganized Hollywood Coach Co., soon declared bankruptcy and Porter moved back to Detroit.
The text from a surviving circa 1927 brochure for Hollywood Coach Co. in transcribed below:
Luckily his old co-worker Frank Spring had a temporary position waiting for Miller at Walter M. Murphy which provided him with steady employment until the end of 1927 when he accepted a job with Harley J. Earl at General Motors Art & Colour at 3400 W. Grand in Detroit. At GM Miller became acquainted with clay modeling and helped design the 1929 LaSalle.
In February of 1929 he was recruited by Packard Motor Co.’s Archer L. Knapp to join the automaker's custom body styling center at 1680 E. Grand Blvd., Detroit. His duties included competitive car analysis, sketches, modeling and painting and he worked alongside such famous designers as Knapp, Raymond Birge, Werner Gubitz and Ray Dietrich.
When Dietrich left in 1931, Edward Macauley replaced him with Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky who introduced Packard’s famous elongated hood and the slanted "A" pillars, first seen on a striking convertible phaeton which debuted at the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago. He also assisted de Sakhnoffsky in the design of the very un-Packard like coachwork that graced Packard's secret (R&V) front-wheel-drive 12-cylinder prototype of 1932. Unfortunately, the ongoing economic crises forced massive lay-offs at Packard and Miller was let go midway through 1933.
By that time the Miller family now included two sons (Wilton Everett- b. 1928 and David Gibson - b. 1930) with a third one (Marc Edsel – b. 1933) on the way. In fact Marc Edsel’s birth was front page news in Emporia, Kansas, the July 20, 1933 Emporia Daily Gazette reporting:
The July 24, 1933 Emporia Daily Gazette reported on W.E.’s reunion with his new son:
Work for an automotive designer was very tough to find during the darkest days of the Depression, but Miller had plenty of friends in Los Angeles and Western Auto Supply’s L.L. Johnson hired him to create advertising art for the successful LA-based auto parts chain at its 1100 S. Grand Ave. headquarters.
Unfortunately the job was temporary and two months later he was once again looking for work. Unable to find any permanent positions, Miller spent the next two years working out of his home as a free-lance designer and draftsman. He warns: “Sometimes concurrently and at all times NOT covered by the dates shown in my employment record, I have served firms and individuals as a designer, consulting engineer or advertising artist.”
During 1935 Miller took on a special assignment for Bohman & Schwartz, the restyling of Clark Gable’s newly purchased 1935 Duesenberg Model JN Convertible Coupe. Gable envisioned the car as a sporting two-seat roadster and he and Miller set about customizing the vehicle to suit the movie star’s taste and sense of style.
Miller produced a rendering depicting a full-length hood terminating at the trailing edge of the cowl upon which a dramatically raked windscreen resided. The lengthening treatment was continued with external side exhausts which exited just ahead of the aerodynamically styled rear fender spats. To complete the car’s Continental visage, the dual side-mount spares were brought to the tail end of the car and encased in metal shrouds, and the newly skirted front fender-wells filled-in.
Gable chose a monochromatic color scheme which was extended to the body color radiator shell and headlight buckets and surrounds. Other custom touches included a lowered convertible top, elegant single-bar bumpers and mesh inserts in the sides of the hood which was fitted with scooped and v’d hood ventilators. The resulting vehicle still exists and remains a prime example of what could be accomplished when an owner, designer and coachbuilder were all on the same page.
The car appeared in the 1938 Hal Roach comedy Merrily We Live, starring Brian Aherne and Constance Bennett, albeit with a noticeably darker color and updated bullet headlights. Gable sold the car after the War after which it was acquired by a laundry list of collectors and dealers, eventually ending up with the Behring Collection who displayed it at the Blackhawk Collection for nearly a decade. Last sold in 2005, it was sold to a private collector who restored it back to its Bohman & Schwartz livery and presented it for display at the 2007 Pebble Beach Concours.
In 1936 Miller accepted a full-time position with Advance Auto Body Co., 1000 Macy Street (at N. Mission Rd.), Los Angeles, his job duties entailed doing whatever design, drafting or sales work that needed to be done.
Advance was founded in 1919 by Medardo Morgagno (1891-1985), an Italian immigrant who moved to Los Angeles shortly after his 1909 arrival in New York. His 1912 Declaration of Intention (naturalization) papers list his occupation as machinist, his address as 1420 Catalina St., Los Angeles. Morgagno was a skilled woodworker and combined his two talents by producing early commercial bodies for Los Angeles growing commercial and industrial community.
Morgagno (aka ‘Joe’ Morgagni) specialized in tank trucks, but bid on any project that walked in the door. His most popular client was the Gilmore Oil Co., a well-known west coast petroleum products manufacturer and distributor headed by Earl Bell Gilmore (b.1887-d.1964). Originally founded in 1900 by Earl’s father, Arthur F. Gilmore, Earl B. oversaw the expansion of the firm which eventually became the west coast’s largest oil and gasoline distributor with 2 refineries, 50 distribution centers and nearly 3,500 affiliated service stations.
Gilmore sponsored land speed and Indianapolis racecars and constructed California’s first purpose-built midget raceway, Gilmore Speedway. Although his oil business (acquired by Socony-Vacuum Oil Co. aka Mobiloil in 1940) is mostly forgotten, the Los Angeles Farmer's Market, constructed by Gilmore in 1934, remains one of LA’s chief tourist attractions.
One of Advance’s most notable creations for the firm was a Miller-designed streamlined COE dual axle tanker with a curved windshield and mesh grill that was used on economy runs. The second was another Miller-designed tanker which featured a custom aerodynamic front clip mated to a Mack Model BM conventional cab & chassis. It’s prominent feature being an extensive on-board blue, red and gold neon lighting display designed by W.C. James, head of Twentieth Century Pictures (later 20th Century Fox) special effects dept. The 600 feet of neon tubing required 15,000 volts of electricity, supplied by four generators located under the hood. Gold neon was used on the radiator shell, blue neon for the truck’s silhouette and side lettering and red neon for the cab lettering and the rear-mounted Lion mascot and slogan. One press photo shows a front ¾ quarter view of the illuminated truck with Earl B. Gilmore on the left and W. G Julier, head of Gilmore’s transportation division on the right. A second shows the rear ¾ view while a third shows the front ¾ view sans Gilmore executives, its text follows:
Another famous Advance-built Miller-designed project was the teardrop-shaped Arrowhead 3-wheel automobile which was constructed for the Arrowhead Spring Water Co. of Los Angeles. The advertising vehicle was pictured on the cover of the November 1935 issue of MoToR where it was referred to as the “Car of 1960”.
The rear-mounted flathead Ford V-8 was mounted backwards, transferring power to the front wheels via a standard transmission mated to a standard torque tube, axle and differential. The car was steered through the single rear wheel, and was similar in layout to Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxions.
Only one of the reportedly $8,000 vehicles was built and a circa 1960 article stated that the car still existed, however its current whereabouts are unknown.
In 1936 they constructed a streamlined remote radio truck for KMTR, a large Los Angeles-based radio station. When the station’s owner, Willard Fonda, got into financial trouble and stopped making payments on the vehicle, Advance Auto Body was forced to repossess it.
Advance Auto Body also constructed a small number
of Miller-designed streamlined White delivery trucks for Bullocks
Department Store in 1935-36. At least one of the attractive vehicles
survives and is currently undergoing restoration at Full Circle Restorations in
In 1936-37 Advance Auto Body constructed a handful of motorcycle taxi bodies for a San Francisco cycle dealer who had intended on establishing a motorcycle taxi service in Shanghai, China. The Japanese invasion of 1937 put a hold on the plans and the vehicles ended up serving tourists in San Francisco.
In 1937 the firm modified a plain-looking 3-year-old bakery truck into an attractive streamlined job for the Julia Lee Wright bakery of Los Angeles.
It’s assumed more Miller-designed streamlined trucks were constructed by the firm, but photographic evidence is lacking. He remained with Advance until September of 1940 when he had a disagreement with Morgagno and resigned.
Miller’s resume lists the following clients during the period he was working at Advance. He warns: “Sometimes concurrently and at all times NOT covered by the dates shown in my employment record, I have served firms and individuals as a designer, consulting engineer or advertising artist.” As to whether the works was produce for the client directly or through Advance, is not indicated:
Miller was well-known in Los Angeles body building circles and he quickly found a similar position with the Crown Body & Coach Corp., 2500 E 12th St., Los Angeles. He served as the firm’s chief engineer, and was responsible for designing buses, fire apparatus and truck bodies as well as writing and illustrating the company's advertising.
Another famous Miller-penned Bohman & Schwartz creation was a 1941 Packard Custom Super 8 1907 Custom Convertible Victoria. Based on an original rendering made by Miller, Schwartz lowered the body by five inches, re-drew the rear window, and incorporated such amenities as extra cigar lighters and the concealed door handles.
Miller’s position at Crown Coach was eliminated in November, 1941 and he took a job with the Lockheed Aircraft Co.’s Burbank design studio. In addition to his stated duties as an engineering designer and supervisor of the mock-up shop, he designed a personal airplane and created airbrushed rendering s for brochures and proposed aircraft.
During the War Miller took on a number of side-jobs for the following firms and individuals:
The end of the War coincided with the end of
employment at Lockheed. Joe Brunner Jr. hired me to design fifth-wheel
and landing gear at Kay-Brunner Steel Products (2721 Elm St, Los
Angeles) but the job only lasted six months. The job resulted in a
November 22, 1954 patent application on a coupling and retractable
trailer support (the aforementione project) for which Miller was
awarded US Patent No.
2809054 on October 8, 1957.
He was subsequently hired as a mechanical
engineer by Century
Engineering Inc., at 2741 N. Naomi St, Burbank, where he worked on
small projects which included a military camera, Air Corps rocket sled,
missile, Naval flight recorder and wing-tip fuel tanks for aircraft. He
Century in 1955 eventually finding a position as a project engineer
Technical Products Div. of Waste King Corp., Vernon
Angeles. Originally founded as a manufacturer of household garbage
the firm’s Technical Products division was involved in aeronautics and
an early commercial autopilot system.
During the late 40s and early 50s Miller’s private clients and side-projects included the following:
Miller resigned from his position at Waste King’s Technical Products Div. in 1958 and took a position as an electric automobile project engineer at Standard Armament, Inc., in Glendale. He resigned in 1959 to oversee his now significant collection of automobilia, which he christened the W.E. Miller Library of Vehicles.
Miller started collecting in 1914, and early on the collection was housed in Miller’s home at 5415 El Verano Ave. in the Eagle Rock subdivision of Los Angeles. In 1949 he moved the collection to a 4,000 sq. ft. office located around the corner at 2919 W. Broadway.
The ‘Library of Vehicles’ weighed in at 15 tons, and included 3,500 books, 25,000 catalogs, 7,000 periodicals, and 250,000 clippings covering any and all types of transport, albeit motorized or not. Materials housed in the collection included owner’s manuals, technical manuals, promotional material and sales literature, complete runs of automotive trade journals and periodicals, biographies of great motoring engineers, and a one-of-a-kind collection of plans, photographs, catalogs and engineering documents of American coachbuilders dating from 1900 to 1940. The 1958-1959 construction of the Glendale and Ventura Freeway interchange forced Miller to relocate both his family and his archive to a new home at 12172 Sheridan Ln., in Garden Grove, California in 1959.
During the 1960s Miller wrote two books; Perspective Geometry, pub. 1964; History of the Detroit Electric Car Company, pub. 1968, and served as the editor of the Horseless Carriage Gazette, the journal of the Horseless Carriage Club of America, a club he helped found in 1937.
In 1971 he oversaw the estate sale of his
mechanic, racer, collector, Arthur Fred Austria, who acquired them over
years. Born in Wisconsin,
Austria moved to Los
Angeles in 1920. During the next five decades he worked for a Cadillac
agency, raced Ralph DePalma
others on local tracks, opened his own garage and switched to
antique cars which were sold only when he was desperate for money. His
sizeable collection was housed at his business, Art Austria's Simplex
Garage, 200 Mildred Ave., Venice, California. His obituary had a
short interview with Miller as follows:
In 1972 he gave up editing the Gazette and
took a full-time
position as chief engineer/designer with Daystar Motor Homes, Inc.,
1414 West Artesia Blvd., Compton,
California. The firm's $70,000 26' luxury motor home was built on a
commercial truck chassis by a third party in Taiwan named Phosphorous,
a Chinese-American firm connected with Witness Lee's Southern
Californian 'Local Church'.
Miller even travelled to Phosphorous' Kaohsiung,
Taiwan (Republic of China) factory to make arrangements for the
construction of the Cor-Ten
steel body and teak interior.
Another project of Miller's was the Accumetric Perspecti-Gide, a drafting tool that allowed the layman to create accurately-scaled perspective drawings of virtually any object. The device was described in the new products column of the March-April 1965 issue of Design as follows:
In 1980 he became the editor of the Classic Car, the journal of the Classic Car Club of America, a club with which he had been associated with since its inception.
Wellington Everett Miller passed away on April 6, 1983 at the age of 79, just one month after suffering a massive debilitating stroke.
Miller’s ‘Library of Vehicles’ was acquired by Ken Behring’s Blackhawk Collection in Danville, California - the task of sorting and indexing it befell to Miller’s friend Gene Babow, a writer for Car & Driver, Collector Car News, The Classic Car and president of the Association of California Car Clubs.
Miller’s collection was subsequently purchased by the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar, California where it form’s the nucleus of the Nethercutt Automotive Research Library and Archive, a comprehensive research facility considered one of the top ten automotive libraries in the world.
The library facility is open to the public, with some restrictions on access to the research and historical stack material. There is a research service provided at a rate of $25/hour, which includes the capability to make color copies. For more information, contact the facility at (818) 364-6464 ext. 235, with inquiries directed to Archivist Lori Thornhill or Chief Curator Skip Marketti. For automotive information and automotive research inquires please email firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2004 Mark Theobald - Coachbuilt.com with special thanks to Randy Ema, The Classic Car Club of America and the Horseless Carriage Club of America