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Custom Car Builders' Legacy Is Reverence for the Auto

MAKING IT PERSONAL: Spotlight on Custom Cars

From the late teens to the early '30s, automobile designers transformed clunky cast-iron motorcars into objects of awe and envy.

July 30, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were artisans and artists, men who crafted to order and gave beauty and elegance to cast-iron, clunky and almost ugly motorcars.

And as surely as Tiffany created art nouveau and Chippendale begat rococo furniture, these so-called bespoke, or custom, automobile designers were the roots of a chic industry within an indulgent era and keepers of a phrase that still says it all: carriage trade.

"They were making the kinds of cars that people would look at in awe," says Ron Hill, chairman of the transportation department at Art Center College of Design, the Pasadena-based crucible of today's automobile visionaries. "They were patrician, elegant cars that set the tone of the '20s and '30s, although, in fact, only a very few people could afford them.

"Artistically, the world would be a poverty-stricken place without Murphy, Brewster and Earl and their Pierce Arrows, Duesenbergs and Cords."

There were also Tom Hibbard and Dutch Darrin, Americans in Paris in the Lost Generation years, who built custom bodies in France and fitted them to Packards, Cadillacs, Lincolns and Duesenbergs. William Brewster reversed the flow a little by designing bodies in America and fitting them to chassis and powertrains shipped to Springfield, Mass., from Rolls-Royce in England. Harley Earl, rough but charming, dashing but daunting, was a pioneer who became a patriarch--a rugby and track jock from USC and Stanford whose enormous career traveled from designing cars for Mary Pickford to conceiving the Chevrolet Corvette for GM.

And there was Walter Murphy, owner of a Pasadena wood-milling company, who sold that to buy a Colorado Boulevard car dealership, and expanded that in 1920 into a coach-building firm producing custom-bodied Lincolns. Then Duesenbergs, Packards, Mercers, Rolls-Royces, Auburns--and an L29 Cord town car for John Barrymore.

"The upholstery was brocade, and the interior was built longer because Barrymore wasn't exactly a small man," says Dennis Adler, author and classic-car historian. "In 1929, William Randolph Hearst sent a long-wheelbase Model J Duesenberg to Paris so Hibbard & Darrin could make it into a 'transferable cabriolet.' It could be a full convertible or [convert to] an open- front compartment with a closed rear.

"In those days, there were off-the-rack cars, and there were bespoke cars tailored to your taste like a fine suit. And if you had a car by Ray Dietrich," Adler says, referring to the builder of a Duesenberg for Jimmy Cagney and a parade limousine for President Harry Truman, "with his signature on the body, you had a Patek Philippe watch, a signed piece of art."

From the late teens to the early '30s, there were more than 120 coach builders and body makers in a dozen states. Companies such as Fitzgibbon & Crisp Carriage & Auto Body Co. of New Jersey died quickly, maybe from the weight of the title. A few lingered for decades, and their names survive, though often morphed by purchase, merger or foreclosure. Pontiac. Fleetwood. LeBaron. Fisher. One, Hess & Eisenhart, born in Cincinnati in 1930, is still custom-crafting cars--albeit armored sport-utility vehicles and limousines for the State Department and Middle East risk takers.

In their beginnings, most coach makers were refugees from 19th century buggy building, when "horsepower" meant something else entirely. These hand-craftsmen were a perfect fit for the ragtime years, when the poor were very poor, and the rich were bloated with bucks to spend on grand homes in New Rochelle, N.Y.; mahogany speedboats; French Champagne--and $12,000 Buehrig-Auburn Boattails at a time when a Ford Model T cost only $300.

Michael Lamm and Dave Holls, in their introduction to "A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design," write of the seduction of shape and color: "The wealthy turn-of-the-century car buyer thought carefully about how his newest toy might look in the family driveway, how it complemented his personality, how it fit his status in the community and business, and whether it matched his other possessions and preoccupations."

The fact that car builders' skills were devoted to engineering and hard metals, and not to padded creature comforts, only boosted demand for custom work.

"It fell on the lot of the upper end, the coach builder, to put together the passenger accommodations, because they were used to working with woods and leather," Hill explains.

And so--at least for the wealthy trying to keep up with the Vanderbilts--the games began. A Hibbard & Darrin Stutz showed fenders styled after the wheel pants of racing airplanes. Playboy Tommy Manville drove a swept-back, Brewster-bodied Rolls-Royce. The Derham Body Co. trumped most with a $15,000 Duesenberg Tourster, a dual-cowl phaeton with roll-up rear windshield. Gary Cooper ordered his in primrose yellow with green fenders.

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