California Coach Builders
As you inspect the vintage automobiles at the Palos Verdes Concours d’Elegance on September 30th, give a thought to the artists who added opulent coachwork to the chassis and engines made by other manufacturers. Many of these craftsmen located their plants in Southern California.
Walter M. Murphy Company (1920-1932)
Murphy is primarily remembered today for their magnificent creations on the Duesenberg chassis. Records indicate that Murphy built 125 Duesenberg bodies on the Model J Chassis - about 25% of all 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.
Murphy built a new plant 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. J. Gerard Kirchhoff was the shop’s supervisor.
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.
Bohman & Schwartz (1932-1947)
When Murphy closed down, a number of customer’s cars 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 body building. 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.
Maurice Schwartz worked for The Earl Automobile Works. When the Earl Automobile Works was absorbed into the pre-existing Don Lee Coach & Body Works in 1919, Schwartz stayed with the Don Lee organization for several years where he was engaged in building Harley J. Earl's creations before he moved to Murphy in 1924.
Darrin of Paris (1937-1939)
Los Angeles, California
Howard “Dutch” Darrin opened a custom shop on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, called Darrin of Paris where he began building customs for the stars. Finding qualified coachbuilders was not a problem in Los Angles and within a few short weeks, Paul Erdos was hired as Darrin’s first employee. He served as shop foreman until Rudy Stoessel was hired away from Advance Auto Body at the beginning of 1938.
Darrin of Paris built approximately Sixteen (16) Packard Darrins. Most of these cars were purchased by Hollywood Film Stars, including Dick Powell, Errol Flynn, Preston Foster, and, Clark Gable.
Within a short time Alvan Macauley, the President of Packard, convinced Darrin to join Packard as the Chief Aesthetic Designer.
Coachcraft Ltd. (1940-Present)
Hollywood, California (aka Station Wagon Harbor)
Coachcraft, the last classic American Coachbuilder, was formed by three ex-employees of Howard "Dutch" Darrin when he sold his California operations to Packard and closed up on August 1,1939. The men, Burt Chalmers, Rudy Stoessel and Paul Erdos, established Coachcraft, Ltd. at 8671 Melrose Avenue, Hollywood, California, in the spring of 1940. This sadly coincided with the twilight of their trade, personifying this chapter in their illustrious, but financially rocky, story.
Unlike their predecessors who specialized in coachbuilding bodies upon luxurious chassis such as the Duesenberg and Rolls-Royce, Coachcraft gained a reputation for applying their trade to lower-cost Ford, Mercury, and Studebaker chassis as well as to the more up market models, Packard in particular.
One of the first cars Coachcraft Ltd. built was started late in 1940 and finished in1941 for its designer Peter Stengel, heir to the Bache family fortune, with a price tag of $6,000. According to Rudy's son Bill, who, as of this writing, still operated Coachcraft, Stengel's car was a complete ground-up job built on a 1939-40 Ford truck chassis and fitted with an Eddie Meyer-tuned flathead Ford V8.
About the same time, Coachcraft also customized a '40 Ford for Clarence Solomon. It too had a radically reworked body featuring new doors, a sectioned hood, a custom windshield and extended, although not fadeaway, fenders.
Although the three founders have died, the son of Rudy Stoessel continues to operate Coachcraft and has moved the operation from West Hollywood to Fillmore, just north of Los Angeles.
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