Designer Times - Jul 12, 2000

Designer Times
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by Bob Gurr (archives)
July 12, 2000
Legendary Imagineer Bob Gurr presents the third part in his series of columns on the early days of Disneyland.

Designer Times is a continuing column by legendary Imagineer Bob Gurr on his experiences in the early days of Disneyland. If you missed any previous columns, click here for the list.

3. Autopia Manufacture

Some thought Walt was nuts to get into the automobile manufacturing busines. Why not just buy one of the typical carnival type midget autos that were commercialy available. Why go to the trouble of developing Disneyland’s own little Autopia car? Well, to buy just any car certainly was not Walt. His park was going to be “his” and so the cars going to be "his".

An importer of German amusement cars had provided the Studio with their standard car, even painted with the word “Disneyland” on the hood. Kirk Douglas was seen driving his kids around the back lot in it. Pale yellow with green left a cloud of smoke behind from the noisy two-cycle oil burning engine. Ugly I thought, and smelly too. The importer thought Walt would surely buy a bunch of his cars. Walt was smarter. Roger Broggie had John Hartman in the nearby town of Montrose build a bare chassis of a special car for Disneyland. Only it didn’t have a body.

Roger put me to work drawing up a revised version of the Hartman car while I started the final body surface development drawings for the Autopia body. Both Hartman and the German importer became upset when they learned that Walt was going to engineer and manufacture his own car. This cut them out of any contract with Disneyland.

When I finished the body drawings, Walt and Johnny Thompson of Art Center School in Los Angeles had made a students would build the full size clay model needed for the Autopia body production molds. Students don’t get paid, Walt saves money. But the school was nervous over the deal, so Joe Thompson, Art Center’s model shop teacher, invited the students to build the model in Joe’s garage in nearby North Hollywood (where I had earlier graduated from high school in 1949).

The model was soon ready for Walt’s approval. The Studio was to transport the fragile Chevant clay model over for Walt to look at. But Walt said he’d go to Joe’s garage to see it. Save all that hassle. Sure 'nuf, Walt put me in Bill Cottrell’s old Cadillac and the three of us drove to Joe’s place. As Walt placed his arm on the seat back, some white stuffing got on Walt’s sleeve. “Dammit, Bill, I pay you enough, get your car fixed.”

Roger Broggie and Dick Irvine met us at the garage to see the model. Walt climbed into the cockpit, layed his sleeve on the clay. Now he had brown clay rubbed into the white stuffing. It only took a few minutes for final approval. (No big committee meetings like later on in business). Next day the model was at the studio staff shop for the start of the production molds. Disaster struck.....the plaster used to cast the model broke apart and pulled some of the clay off the buck with it. The staff shop guys had it all fixed in no time. Whew!

Roger had made a deal with Bill Tritt of Glaspar in Costa Mesa, California to manufacture (40) Autopia car bodies. These were to be shipped down the road to Newport Beach, California. Ted Mangles and Ed Martindale of MAMECO Engineering were to assemble all the incoming parts into finished cars.....sort of a miniature seaside assembly line. All the studio had to do was get all the pieces built and send them to MAMECO.

It was easy to buy off-shelf items like engines, clutchs, tires, and wheels. But what about all the custom stuff. Aha! Roger said draw it! Oh gosh, I was only trained as a car stylist, not as an engineer. Hartman would only supply the steering gear, Dick Stoval, purchasing agent, would buy the rest from my drawings. I thought the whole rear axle assembly “came from some place”. Wrong! I now had to learn auto engineering pronto. Since Walt saw me draw the body, he figgered I did mechanical stuff too. I was to afraid to ‘fess up that I didn’t know how. Remember, all the rest of Walt’s guys were in the same boat.....nobody had ever designed a Disneyland before.

By spring 1955, I was running all over town chasing parts made from my drawings. On some trips from Burbank down to MAMECO in Newprt Beach, I loaded the trunk of my old Cadillac convertible with engines, wheels, seats, and anything else I could haul. Gad, I was production manager and truck driver to boot. By June 1955 we had almost all (40) Autopia cars ready to ship up to Disneyland. But a little bit earlier we started some testing....Oh Oh, some of this might not work.

Next month; Walt Disney Productions gets into the Automobile Destructive Testing Business......remember, millions of little kids are ready to continue your testing.

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Bob Gurr began working with Disney in 1954. He retired in 1981 but occassionally consults for the Company. Since Disney he's worked on the sinking ship at Las Vegas' Treasure Island, Universal Studios' King Kong, Godzilla for the film by the same name and much more. Among his proudest accomplishments he lists "making Walt tickled pink that some of the things he wanted to build actually worked. You could tell how proud he was when he would show off things to his friends and the press. Lincoln and the Monorail were two big ones for him."

Designer Times is normally posted the second Wednesday of each month.

The opinions expressed by Bob Gurr, and all of our columnists, do not necessarily represent the feelings of or any of its employees or advertisers. All speculation and rumors about the future of Disneyland and the Walt Disney Company are just that - speculation and rumors - and should be treated as such.

-- Posted July 12, 2000