Many of you, I am sure, have read about the passing of Fat Jack Robinson a couple weeks ago. Far fewer, I’m sure, heard that Spence Murray died a few days before, on October 14. I can’t think of many people in our wide-ranging world of rods and customs more deserving of accolades for their accomplishments. And I can’t think of many people who were exact polar opposites in all other ways.
I also must remember that some of you might not even know who Spencer was. His death was not a tragedy. He was 93 years old. It was a bit sad for me to watch him decline, especially in this last year. We stayed in touch regularly and visited often (his house was 6 miles from mine). His mind was sharp and his memory was keen. But his lanky body couldn’t keep up. Being chair-bound didn’t bother him so much. But I think the most painful was when he told me, “Pat, I can’t write any more. My fingers won’t work the keys.” Maybe only a writer can understand the travesty of that.
For those of you who need a memory jog or a biographical sketch, Spence Murray was the first editor of Rod & Custom magazine in 1953, where he initiated the building of the first magazine project car, the full-custom Dream Truck, ostensibly built (and rebuilt) through reader suggestions, executed by several of the best customizers of the time. And it received the first recorded Chevy V8 engine swap, in 1955. It was also Spence’s personal vehicle, seen here in its pearl white, purple scalloped, finned form in 1957.
Whew. Just thinking about where Spence started, all the places he’s been, and the amazing things he’s done, leaves me near speechless. I can’t make this a celebration of Spence’s life, because there’s way too much to tell. It would literally take a good-sized book to catalog it all, and some of it you probably wouldn’t believe anyway. So I won’t try. I can’t. But I’ll give you some references, the best being an autobiographical piece Spence wrote in The Rodder’s Journal No. 53 titled “From the Outside Looking In.” Get that back issue if you can and read it. You’ll be surprised.
So where for me to begin? Spence obviously preceded me in the editor’s chair of R&C, so we felt a certain sort of bond. I’d often call or visit him with questions (and vice versa), and he’d usually give me straight, pithy answers. Sometimes he’d be surprisingly evasive. Other times he’d go into long, often witty, stories I’d never heard. One shorter example: Way back in Rodder’s Journal No. 4 I did a story called “A Grand Shop Tour,” in which I went to find the locations of early hot rod builders and manufacturers, to see what was currently there. So I called Spence and said, “Can you show me where Valley Custom was?” He hesitated, and said, “Sort of.” So I went and picked him up in my F-100 and we drove over to nearby Burbank, just east of the airport, and we stopped where three streets converged in a newer industrial area. He got out and pointed, “It was about there.” Of course there was no trace. But then he said, “You want to see Link Paola’s old shop?” Sure. So we drove back toward Spence’s house in La Cañada, but just a little down the hill to the village of Montrose, which is actually part of the broad city of Glendale (where I live). Link was a fairly well-known customizer during the ’40s/’50s, who did work on Spence’s first car, and then helped him build his first chopped-top custom, a ’49 Chevy. In fact one of Spence’s first full-time jobs after the Navy was working for Link, which led to a magazine job, but…. So we stopped at 3451 N. Verdugo Rd., which was then a small VW repair shop. He said, “The first shop was a 2-car garage in back. I helped build this one.” There’s more, but then he said, with a sort of twinkle in his eye, “Want to see where the first Rod & Custom office was?” Sure!
So we jumped back in the F-100 and drove across Glendale to the beginning of famed Colorado Bl., just east of Griffith Park. There at the corner of the offramp from I-5 was a large printing company. Spence pointed and said, “That’s where Road & Track magazine started. The offices were inside the printing company.” But then we pulled into a large parking lot next to it, and Spence pointed to the middle, “And there used to be a little, old 2-bedroom house here. This is where Bill Quinn decided to start his own publishing company with the small-size Hop Up in 1951. That’s where I started working. Then he started Rod & Custom in ’53, and made me the editor of that.”
OK, I’m already writing more words than I intended (as usual). Let me jump ahead a bit. Here’s how Spence got in the magazine business. When he and Link finished his custom Chevy in ’52, Spence sent a photo of it, and a letter, to Hop Up. Editor Dean Batchelor saw it, liked it, and said, “That’s just across town. Let’s go take a look.” Not only did he then send photographer Ralph Poole to shoot a feature on it (including, yes, that girl), but he used Spence’s well-written letter for the copy.
I’m quite surprised the color of this car was Mustard Metallic. The upshot, of course, was that they offered Spence a job, then came Rod & Custom, then, in 1955, Petersen bought Quinn Publications, and so Spence started a long, off-and-on history of working at Petersen Publications.
One thing I must mention here. While most remember Bob Hirohata’s “Cross Country in a Kustom” article in R&C as a hallmark, it was actually Spence who did it first, in this chopped Chevy. Like Hirohata, he was headed for the Indianapolis Custom Car Show, and photographer Poole was assigned to cover the ’52 Indy 500, so they decided to share the ride, which Poole photographed and Spence wrote as “6000 Miles in a Custom” for the Sept. ’52 Hop Up. And Spence and Poole became lifelong friends and adventurers.
So I must further digress here. While Spence was into cars, Poole’s thing was boats. So together they cruised the entire coast of Baja California as well as the Sea of Cortez, a few times, about which Spence wrote two books. After the crash of the Dream Truck, Spence, a bit disillusioned, quit R&C in ’59 and took up with the Go-Kart Co. doing PR and racing. Next came a year in Hawaii, and more kart racing, with the result that Spence was the ’61 State Karting Champion. How many can claim that? Meanwhile, during the ’60s, off-roading, 4-wheeling, and dune buggies were becoming the thing, along with a 1000-mile race to the tip of Baja. In ’67 Bruce Meyers in one of his Manxes set the record at 34-plus hours. Having explored Baja thoroughly, Spence and Ralph knew there were better roads, and plotted a bit longer, but faster course. In July ’67 they entered–of all things–a basically stock Rambler American, being not only the first passenger car to do it, but also lowering the record to 31 hours flat. I told you there was amazing stuff.
But the most amazing, to me, were his trips to Pitcairn Island. Next to Antarctica, this is the most remote piece of land in the world, at the bottom of the Pacific, where the “mutinous” crew of the Bounty ended up and settled in 1789. Their descendants are still there, in a small village, and Spence sailed there at least twice–and of course wrote a book about it. Titled “Pitcairn Island: The First 200 Years,” it might be hard to find today. But I’ve read it, and highly recommend it.
I must move on. Here’s my topic. Spence was always glad to answer my rod and custom questions. But when I’d say, “Do you have any photos of that?” he’d always reply, “No. I’m not a photographer. Poole’s the photographer.” Except one time, when I was trying to trace the history of the superb Kurtis/DuVall So-Cal Plating ’35 “Delivery.” Nobody knows what happened to it. I asked everybody. But Spence said, “I probably have the last photo of it.” So I went to his house to see what he had. He handed me a white business envelope, and inside were 56 black and white negatives, each measuring 2-1/4″ x 3-1/4″, a size common to inexpensive cameras of the ’30-’40s. It was hard to see what was on them, but he explained these were amateur shots he took–often on poor quality war-time film–of some “jalopy rods” he built with friends before he had a license, many of his first car (’41 Chevy convertible), and then various shots of any modified or customized cars he saw on the streets, mostly in the L.A. area. The one shot of the Kurtis/DuVall car he said he got over his shoulder as he drove by (luckily with the top off).
He said I could borrow them, but had to return them. So I took them home and made contact proof sheets of all the negs, then made 8 x 10 prints of several. Of course I’ve used a few in past articles or books, but the majority of these–especially of Spence’s own cars–have never been seen. So, since I can’t begin to tell the Spence Murray story, I decided my tribute would be to show as many of these Spence photos as I think you could stand.
Starting about age 14, Spence helped build hot rods like this with neighbor friends. Despite torn upholstery and lack of windshield, decklid, or chrome, he said this ’27 on ’32 rails had a “high class” Model B banger with a McDowell head and Winfeld carbs.
A bit nicer ’27 on a Deuce frame, but retaining the ’32 V8 with a pair of carbs on a slingshot. Tube shocks were unusual then, but note typical wartime bald tires.
Spence said when he turned 16 in 1943, he used “Years of yard-work money and a loan from mom” to buy a ’41 Ford, which he soon traded for a stock ’41 Chev convertible “Because everybody had Fords.” He said he couldn’t afford the windshield chop, but he increased his mom-loan by $125 to have a lift-off Carson Top made first thing. It’s off in this cool photo, but Spence has added skirts and flippers, and Paola has shaved the hood and shortened the side chrome.
Here’s the Carson in place. More side trim is shaved, and the stock grille is cut down with a filler panel molded above it.
Sailor Spence in his Navy togs at home at parents’ in La Cañada in 1944. Obviously the deck is shaved, and my note on the photo says “I stole the Buick skirts,” but I’m not sure I believe it. Spence said he hopped the six with a shaved and ported head, but those four large exhausts are quite unusual.
Another cool photo. Although trained as a tail-gunner, Spence spent wartime on a Navy base in Oakland as a Shore Patrolman driving the admiral. My note says this is ’44, his car is red, it’s downtown Oakland lined up with other S.P.s cars. The very chopped ’33 looks excellent with a Hall Top.
Finally, Spence had Paola recess the license plate. Don’t know what happened to the shiny bumper. Maybe wartime chrome wasn’t very good.
The last thing Paola did was install a ’42 Studebaker grille, which looks pretty good. Spence called the fog lights “ugly,” but they’re still there. This is how he sold the car in ’46 to buy a ’46 Fleetline.
Speaking of Fleetlines, this was Marvin Lee’s completely dechromed, black lacquer smoothie complete with filled quarter windows. Known for his City of Pasadena lakester, this fastback was parked on Foothill Bl. in La Cañada when Spence snapped the photo.
You might have seen this photo before, but not big enough to see details. This mini-’27 was obviously built to midget racecar size, with midget wheels/tires. But it’s surprisingly well-crafted with a smoothly cut down and narrowed ’27 roadster body, what looks to me like Model A frame rails, a Ford V8-60 engine, and all the pieces to make it street legal: windshield, bumpers, legal-height lights, mufflers. It has a war-time license tag (’43?) and bald front tires. It’s stopped for a train in Glendale.
Renowned Indy car and midget builder Frank Kurtis also had his shop in Glendale (on the same street as Ed Winfield and Barney Navarro–then later across Colorado from the Hop-Up/R&C office). Spence said this is Kurtis himself, in his personal, completely hand-built, V-windshield sports car, which he just happened to catch turning around in a driveway. Don’t you wonder what became of it?
Here’s the photo that started this. In the foreground you see the side of Spence’s ’41 Chev (with Carson Top off), as he got this snapshot over his right shoulder while driving by. For a full story on what I could learn about this incredible ’35 Ford Phaeton-turned-delivery-truck by Frank Kurtis and George DuVall, see TRJ No. 36. Surprisingly, Spence had this photo pegged at March 26, 1944, at 5229 Sunset Bl. in Hollywood. This is the last known photo of this vehicle. You can see it’s dirty, the back bumper is a bit crooked, it has headlights, and the So-Cal Plating signs are gone from the padded top. Spence said it was at a “gas station” (you can see one old pump), but maybe a muffler shop. There’s no sign or logo on it, but it says “Auto Wash” above the bays in back.
But there’s more to this mystery. Here’s another photo from Spence’s same set of negs, possibly taken another day. That’s Connie Wiedel’s well-known Cad flathead-powered street/race ’27 T parked in the other bay of the one-time gas station. If you look closely at the left of the picture, that’s a paint spray gun hanging from a hook on the pole, with the long hose on the floor attached to it.
And here’s another–same place, different day. That nice chopped, Carson-topped ’41 Ford, the ’39 coupe, and others are parked in front of the “Auto Wash” bays. It’s not apparent what the cars are doing there, and Spence couldn’t remember. But it’s another cool photo.
Spence was more specific about this. It was Jimmie Summers’ custom shop near Fairfax High in 1946, and he was there to get a set of Summers’ “fadeaway” fender extensions for his new ’46 Fleetline (of which we have no photos). He remembers the semi-fenderless ’32 was bright yellow. Note the nice chrome strips on the front cycle fenders. If you want to see a few more of these war-time photos, see “Ration Rods” by Spence in the June ’92 Rod & Custom. But there are way more than what’s shown there or here.
Spence’s biggest claim to fame in the custom world was his Dream Truck, built more-or-less from his own drive-to-work ’50 Chevy half ton (after a couple false starts with a ’50 Olds V8 and chassis, and then a new ’54 Chevy cab in a crate), by several well-known customizers, supposedly guided by mailed-in reader suggestions. What many forget is this first “finished” version in lavender and purple candy scallops, side-pipes up the cab, and a much modified bed still with rear fenders and without fins. Barris did the quad headlights, tube grille, and hood scoop, and you’ll note got his crests on the cowl in this version. For an excellent overview of the whole Dream Truck story–up to the crash–including many construction photos and a list of 21 articles in R&C between ’53 and ’59, written by Spence himself, see the Dec. 1990 issue of (the reborn) Rod & Custom.
Somewhat surprisingly, after Indiana’s “Fin Man” Bob Metz transformed the Dream Truck into its most memorable form with completely new rear quarter panels replacing fenders, and the addition of striking tail-fins, plus the pearl white and purple-scalloped paint job, this is the only feature coverage it got, in the Oct. ’57 R&C. I never thought to ask Spence why, but his typical answer would have been, “Well, just because.”
And hardly anybody knows or remembers that the final version of the Dream Truck was this Lime Gold repaint with purple scallops, plus a chrome tape-striped bed cover with knock-off gas filler, because this is the one and only photo ever shown of it in any magazine.
Since it’s hard to miss, I must mention that it shares the cover with one of my favorite F-100 pickups, photographer Ralph Ehorn’s, this time repainted from pearl white to candy red.
And the main reason we saw no more of the Dream Truck in the original R&C is because that same small-size issue contained, on pp. 64-65, these photos, the title “End of an Era,” and a fond “Farewell.” We all know this happened 90 miles west of Des Moines, IA, after a full night of driving to make the Des Moines Motor Sports Show. Very luckily neither Spence nor his co-driver Buzzy Blair was hurt, and Spence claimed it was a rear-tire blowout on the lead ’58 pickup that caused the wreck. Although the copy says the editors hoped “something far better may be forthcoming from salvagable parts,” Spence got an estimate from Barris of $3500 just to restore it (in primer). So he decided to sell as many of those “salvagable parts” as possible to recoup his sizable personal investment, then offed the wrecked rest for $150. He said the remains were resold several times, for about the same price, until he lost track.
Sometime in the late ’70s, hot rod-tracker Bruce Glasscock found these remains of the Dream Truck in Stockton, CA. Someone had pounded it out with a sledge hammer and slide-pull. It looks better in the photos than it was.
Through some intercession by Spence (as I understand it), Glasscock hooked up with metalman Carl Green to straighten this mess out to make a presentable restoration to the best-known white pearl version.
In fact it looked surprisingly good when Bruce debuted it at the first KKOA Leadsled meet in Wichita, KS in 1981. I’m pretty sure this is when and where I met Spence for the first time myself. He’s the one in the middle, unfortunately turned away from my camera. The guy next to him in the hat is Skitch Kenney.
The Dream Truck was soon acquired by Barris Kustom collector and restorer Kurt McCormick, who had the truck “re-restored” a second time. I’m pretty sure I took this photo of Spence with the truck at the ’91 KKOA event in Holland, MI, where I shot features on it and Kurt’s Sam Barris Buick (seen behind) for R&C. Spence and Kurt had become close friends by then. However, Kurt called me a couple of months ago to say he was ready to divest himself of most of his unequaled Barris collection. I hadn’t heard further, so I called recently and he said the Dream Truck was one of two that have been sold. He couldn’t reveal the name of the high-end collector who bought it, but he said it is now undergoing a third, full off-frame restoration, and it will make a new grand debut at some major show hopefully within a year.
Finally, I borrowed this photo from The Rodder’s Journal, which helped Spence locate his last–and long lost–project car, this “’40s style” ’36 roadster he (and Joe Bailon, and others) built from a rusty hulk he acquired from Gene Scott’s vintage junkyard. I’m not sure how long he held the position for a second round, but Spence is listed as Editor of full-size Rod & Custom in May ’68, when he announced the beginning of “Project ’36 Roadster.” Its construction was covered in 13 articles, but R&C disappeared (twice) by 1974, and the car wasn’t finished until 1976, whereupon Spence said he had to sell it, which he did at the ’76 Street Rod Nationals. And then it disappeared, completely. This is another typical Spence Murray story. So finished photos of the LaSalle-grilled, Carson-topped ’36 weren’t seen until 2008, when Spence did an article in TRJ no. 40 recapping the full project, from start to finish, and ending with the plea, “Where is It?” That question wasn’t answered until eight years ago, when the above photo was taken for an article titled “Lost and Found” published in TRJ No. 64 two years later. Somebody had finally told somebody they knew where the car was–locked in a hermetically sealed garage in “rural Pennsylvania.” Incredibly it was still owned by the guy who bought it in ’76 and he had driven it a total of 32 miles in those 36 years. When finally contacted by Spence, the owner somewhat surprisingly agreed to let him see it. So Spence and wife Carolyn jumped on a plane and flew to the East Coast to pay a 1-day visit. The owner even deigned to pull it out of the garage–and briefly remove the top for the first time–so a few photos could be taken. The car, as you can see, is immaculate and unchanged from Spence’s build. But since that day in 2012, it’s been locked back in the same garage and is adamantly not for sale. You can read the stories in TRJ.
And I could tell plenty more stories, either just like this or totally different. Enough, as I say, to fill a large and very entertaining book. But this is more than enough for now. Rest in peace, Spence.