The Walter M. Murphy Company was founded in 1920 in Pasadena, California by Walter Montgomery Murphy (1881-1961) and is primarily remembered today for their creations on the Duesenberg chassis. In the early days of motoring, prior to earning a reputation for constructing some of the finest bodies for expensive luxury chassis, the Pasadena-based firm served as the California dealer for Simplex automobiles. A little later, Walter Murphy distributed Leland Lincolns and then Duesenbergs.
The coachbuilding aspect of Murphy's business initially began as an aside. When he discovered that the Leland Lincolns he sold were often considered a bit staid and conservative for his West Coast clientele, Murphy decided to alter the top and paintwork, giving them a more modern, dashing appearance. Murphy had acquired equipment and a talented staff from the New Jersey-based Healey & Company and began to make a name for himself among wealthy patrons that included industrialists, Hollywood stars and automotive enthusiasts. Murphy is known to have built on Bentley, Bugatti, Buick, Cadillac, Cord, Crane-Simplex, Doble, Dorris, Essex, Ford, Hispano-Suiza, Hudson, Isotta- Fraschini, Lincoln, Locomobile, Marmon, Mercedes-Benz, Mercer, Minerva, Packard, Peerless, Pierce-Arrow, Rolls-Royce and Simplex chassis, but they are most famous for their work on the Duesenberg Model J.
In the early 1920s, Murphy General Manager George R. Fredericks and Murphy designer Charles Gerry developed a clever articulation which retracted a convertible's top completely into a well behind the seats, allowing it to be discreetly covered by a metal canopy and giving the bodywork a seamless, speedster-style profile. Bodies that utilized the innovation were known as Disappearing-Top Convertible Coupes and became one of Murphy's signature designs.
In 1921, Wellington Everett Miller, a 16-year-old high school student, had seen a Murphy Lincoln at the 1920 Los Angeles Auto Show and decided that he wanted to work for the coachbuilder. After graduation, Miller became Murphy's full-time designer. It was Miller's second job in the custom body business. His first was at a small Los Angeles coachbuilder who built a few custom bodies called Rheim-Thompson Co. He stayed with the firm through April of 1926 when he and his friend John Tjaarda left to work for Locke & Co. in New York. Miller temporarily returned to Murphy during 1927 before moving to Packard in 1928.
Another young designer who started his career at Murphy was George McQuerry Jr., son of Murphy?s head bookkeeper. McQuerry is credited with a 1928 Minerva dual cowl phaeton with a vee'd rear windshield and Murphy's second generation of Duesenberg convertible sedans.
Tragedy struck the Murphy organization in 1924 at the firm's annual 4th of July beach party, when George R. Fredericks attempted to rescue one of the firm's secretaries, who had ventured too far into the Pacific and started to drown. She survived, but Fredericks did not survive the rescue.
General Motors Designer Philip O. Wright came to work for the Pasadena coachbuilder in 1929. Wright is credited with the designs of a number of Cord L-29 town cars, a Dual Cowl Phaeton and a blind quarter sports sedan whose doors opened part way into the roof, as well as a number of Model J Duesenbergs.
Murphy's next designer was Franklin Quick Hershey. While still a teenager, his mother's financial advisor (a personal friend of Walter Murphy's) suggested that Franklin showed some of his designs to Frank Spring, who seemed not very enthusiastic about Hershey's creations and didn't offer him a job. After a short conversation between his mother's advisor and Walter Murphy, Spring was instructed to hire the teenager part time. After graduating from college in 1930, Hershey returned to Murphy as one of its designers. An avid outdoor- and sportsman, his influences can be seen on a number of sporting convertible sedans and roadsters built on Duesenberg Model J chassis and a trio of Cord L-29 phaetons.
By the early 1930s, Murphy had begun to construct "bodies in white" for West Coast Packard distributor Earl C. Anthony and Franklin's Los Angeles distributor, Ralph Hamlin. Although Murphy was too small to build their own designs in the large numbers needed by Detroit, their designs were built in quantity by the American Body Co. (Lincoln), Biddle & Smart (Hudson), the Limousine Body Co. (Auburn), and Murray (Lincoln).
About 1930, Murphy's design engineers decided to do away with the composite wood frame/aluminum skin construction and developed a stamped-metal body structure where wood was used only for upholstery and trim attachment. The system was used on a handful of Duesenbergs and a Bentley chassis and was considered a viable alternative to wood framing.
In late 1931 there wasn't sufficient demand for custom body work to keep the Murphy plant going in its present state, so Murphy closed down his Hudson-Essex dealership and sold the coachbuilding department to Kenneth McKay in 1932. To an outsider, the coachbuilding portion of his empire looked viable as it still had some uncompleted contracts as well as a number of unfinished customer cars, whose owners were still solvent, but within six months, McKay was out of business and Murphy took back the property and sold it to shoe manufacturer William H. Joyce. A large fire finally destroyed the building in February of 1950. Before McKay had taken over, Murphy had ceremonially burned all of the firm's numerous photographs, negatives, body drafts and shop records. Murphy went on to found the Murphy Petroleum Company in 1933, and eventually became a large Standard Oil Company (SoCal) distributor in Southern California. He passed away in 1961.
Sources: RM Auctions & coachbuilt.com