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Pasadena-Built Masterpieces Return Home as Stars of a Classic Car Show

Automobiles: Seven custom-built coaches by legendary local designers are featured at Caltech along with 50 other vintage vehicles.

July 15, 2001|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There they stood Saturday, super models known for their flowing body lines and curves, with a one-of-a-kind classic look that drew scores of adoring fans to Pasadena.

With names like Duesenberg, Packard and Doble, these lookers are attention-grabbers wherever they go. Just ask Richard Law, who drove his 1931 Duesenberg J-204 on the Santa Ana Freeway at 60 mph from Capistrano Beach to Caltech for a classic car show.

"People get real excited when they see this," Law said of his black convertible sedan with an oh-so-long wheelbase. "It's a real head-turner."

That's the way it is supposed to be for these magnificent old automobiles, custom-built at two legendary shops. Turns out that architects Greene & Greene weren't the only famous designers in Pasadena's early days.

In the world of classic cars, Bohman & Schwartz and the earlier Walter M. Murphy Co., were custom coach builders to the stars and the famously wealthy.

From several Colorado Boulevard locations in the 1920s and '30s, Murphy and then his former employees, Christian Bohman and Maurice Schwartz, designed and built some of the most memorable coaches of the era.

The likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Howard Hughes and William Randolph Hearst drove the best of these Pasadena-made vehicles, with polished hoods that seem to go on forever, chrome grilles and spare tires that hang on the side like pieces of jewelry.

"At the time everybody in the world of cars knew about Murphy, Bohman and Schwartz," said Victoria Campbell, editor of a quarterly magazine devoted to classic cars. "You would go in, sit down and say, 'I want a low hood and swoopy fenders,' and they would sketch something out for you."

The custom bodies were then attached to chassis built for such luxury cars as Lincoln, Cadillac and Packard.

On Saturday, the Southern California chapter of the Classic Car Club of America showcased seven of the Pasadena builders' masterpieces, along with about 50 other classics, all shiny and restored to near perfection by their modern-day owners.

Today, the cars are valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, experts said. In the '20s, they would carry equally startling prices, a few as much as $20,000.

Three of the Pasadena-built cars were brought onto the grassy courtyard at Caltech in enclosed trailers from their museum homes. One of those cars is a 1925 Doble Model E roadster with a steam engine specially ordered by Howard Hughes. It is now owned by Jack B. Nethercutt, head of Merle Norman Cosmetics, and kept at his Sylmar automotive museum.

To the oohs and aahs of spectators, Arnold Schmidt of the Nethercutt Museum lifted the hood of the striking gray-and-red-painted beauty and started the gasoline-fired steam engine, which sounded like a small jet taking off. The car can travel 1,500 miles on 17 gallons of water, but its engine gets 10 miles per gallon.

Former Los Angeles Times Publisher Otis Chandler, an avid car and motorcycle collector, showed off his prize-winning 1943 Packard 1107 town car, originally built by Bohman & Schwartz for actress and singer Jeanette McDonald, a car he described as a "moving sculpture."

The back seat was outfitted with silk shades and a microphone so the actress could talk to her chauffeur. He said the one-of-a-kind vehicle is his "show queen, a piece of history" on display at his Vintage Museum of Transportation in Oxnard.

A few cars down the showcase aisle, Al Frankel, 77, of Westchester proudly stood over his 1930 Duesenberg convertible sedan. Frankel, a retired mechanical engineer, bought his diamond in the rough in 1954 for $553. "It was every cent I owned," he said. It sat in his garage untouched for years while his four children were growing up and money was tight.

He and his wife, Margaret, later built a house with a special garage for the old car, which they slowly began to restore. The couple, wearing matching Hawaiian shirts, drove their convertible, top down, to the show--sitting pretty in what has appreciated into a $400,000 investment.

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