The Academy of Art University Auto Museum: 200-Plus Lessons in Elegance, Grace, Power & Pride

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 01/2017
  • posted in: Great Garages

Richard ‘Dick’ Stephens, 91½, can teach you a lesson or two in classic automobiles.

Many of his celebrated collection of 249 classic cars are displayed at the Academy of Art University Auto Museum in downtown San Francisco. Appropriately, the building is both historic and automotive, originally housing the J.E. French Dodge and Plymouth dealership in the 1930s and 1940s. Here, too, is the Academy’s noted School of Industrial Design, led by Executive Director Tom Matano, who, among many accomplishments, designed the 1993 Mazda RX-7 and the Miata.

In its third generation of family ownership, the Academy, which teaches fine and commercial art, is ranked #4 in the Red Dot World Ranking of Industrial Design schools, with approximately 13,000 students either educated and housed in about 40 buildings downtown or taking courses online.

After returning to the United States from Paris, France, in 1929, Stephens’ parents began the art school with 25 students, strengthened by faith in their abilities and many hours invested during the Great Depression. After World War II, the GI Bill raised enrollment to 200. Stephens graduated from nearby Stanford University, finished his master’s degree, and joined the company, eventually becoming president.

Car love started up as a child. “I was 6 when my parents came back from Paris,” recalls Stephens, who with wife Sue lives part of the year in Phoenix, summers in the San Francisco area and spends a few weeks on their boat to Alaska. “They took me to different art shows and automobile shows, and I quickly took to the cars, especially those of French design.”

The very first car, a 1929 Packard model 640 coupe, was purchased in August 1999 by Dr. Elisa Stephens for her father. The granddaughter of the school founders, she is its president.

Two recent acquisitions are an immaculately restored 1933 Packard convertible coupe, with original engine and driveline, and a 1934 Packard 12 dual windshield Phaeton, also recently restored.

Every car is operational and regularly driven by museum staff and members of the Stephens family. The cars have been seen in the San Francisco Giants parade celebrating the team’s World Series victory, the recent re-opening of the Bay Bridge and other civic events. Two are traveling to this year’s Arizona Concours at the Arizona Biltmore, both 1937s: a Bugatti and a Lagonda.

The school’s transportation design students study the classic cars for their designs and details, using the collection as a vast resource and reference library. “Students in the newest degree program, auto restoration, also use the collection for first-hand exposure to their exquisite craftsmanship,” says Wayne Barnes, curator of the museum. “The collection provides both a history of auto design and a source of inspiration to the next generation of designers.”

“Our car collection provides the opportunity for our transportation design students to learn from the past masters of auto design and creativity, while they pursue learning how to create the cars of tomorrow. We are thrilled that both Academy students and the public can enjoy and learn from these magnificent cars,” Dr. Stephens adds.

For Dick Stephens, the attention to detail and the mastery of design provides continuing amazement. For him, each car is artwork, and the family has not sold one car in the collection.

“Their integrity, craftsmanship and beauty still send chills through me,” Stephens says. “I look at a Model A or a Pierce-Arrow today: “What marvels they are.”

P-A’s, A Duesy and A Speedster

•1933 Pierce-Arrow 12 Silver Arrow –– In 1933, the new Silver Arrow debuted at the New York Auto Show, priced at 10,000 Great Depression dollars.

Phil Wright’s design mimics a tear-drop, with a steeply angled grill, flush front fenders and concealed side mounted spare tires flowing into the tapered rear body with no running boards. The all-steel inhouse coachwork was mounted to the top range “1236” chassis of ladder construction, weighing 5,100 pounds.

Power comes from a massive V-12 engine connected to a 3-speed manual gear box with “free-wheeling” for added economy and quiet operation. The great Ab Jenkins achieved 115 mph in one at Bonneville, Utah. Only five were built; three remain, including this one.

•1935 Duesenberg SJ Murphy Convertible Coupe –– From 1932–1935, Duesenberg built only 36 very special chassis packages with supercharged engines at $11,750 each. Add coachwork, and your bill was $20,000. That may have been easy enough for William Randolph Hearst, one of the owners of this car; for everyone else, that’s the equivalent of today’s Bugattis, far exceeding $1 million.

This extraordinary American classic features a 420-cubic-inch Lycoming straight 8 roaring out 320 horsepower at 4000 rpm. In addition, it has power-assisted 4-wheel hydraulic brakes. This car is capable of speeds to 135 mph, extraordinary for its time. The body was designed and constructed by noted coachbuilder, Walter M. Murphy Co., Pasadena, California. Duesenberg produced the last of its 470 complete chasses in 1936 when E.L. Cord’s automotive empire of Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg ceased that October.

•1935 Auburn 851 SC Speedster –– Auburns were built in Auburn, Indiana, from 1900 to 1936. In 1924, entrepreneur E.L. Cord purchased Auburn and then Duesenberg in 1926 and hired automotive designers Alan Leamy and Gordon Buehrig to create the Speedsters, of which about only 500 were produced in 1935 and 1936.

Power comes from a 150-horse supercharged Lycoming straight 8 engine which could do 100.8 mph, as reached by Ab Jenkins. New it was approximately $3,500.

•1938 Pierce-Arrow –– This is believed to be the very last convertible coupe manufactured by the company and was intended to be featured as a show car, but the company closed that year. It was the first of only 18 150-horse 8-cylinder cars built that year and was priced at a hefty $3,460.

•1938 Talbot-Lago T120 Roadster –– The British Talbot company was started in 1902 by the Earl of Shrewsbury. Lack of a production facility led him to France, where he contracted with Adolphe Clement to produce his cars. WWI halted production after which the earl sold Talbot. Anthony Lago was an engineer who was employed at STD, Talbot’s Suresnes, France-based parent company.

Almost liquidated, the company was rescued by investors, and Talbot-Lago became synonymous with luxury, performance and race success. The T120 was created in 1935 with its 3-liter overhead valve 6-cylinder 90-horse engine and Wilson pre-selector 4-speed. Most Talbot-Lagos were bodied by Figoni et Falaschi, but this one is by Carrosserie Brandone of Cannes, France.

•1939 Lagonda LG6 Rapide –– The Lagonda is the product of an aspiring opera singer named Wilber Gunn from Springfield, Ohio. After failing to find recognition for his musical talents in the United States, Gunn moved to England, but in 1904 he gave up his musical dream and founded the Lagonda Motorcycle Co. in Middlesex.

The name comes from a small stream that flows through Springfield and is now called Buck Creek. Lagonda later became known as “the poor man’s Bentley” in the 1930s when W.O. Bentley was hired to revitalize the company. Only six Rapides were built in 1938 and 1939. This example is powered by a 4.5-liter overhead-valve straight 6 with dual side-draft carburetors. At the 2000 Pebble Beach Concours, it placed second in show.

•1939 Packard Super 8 Darrin Convertible –– By 1939, the “coachbuilt era” was closing, but before it did, some of the most exciting cars were built by Howard “Dutch” Darrin. After the failure of two coachwork partnerships in France, Darrin returned to Hollywood California, to establish a small custom body shop that would serve the stars and other well-heeled clientele. His designs were striking, and a backlog began to grow.

A long hood, lack of running boards, smooth trunk and the “Darrin Dip” became legendary. Seventeen were built in the first year including this #12, first owned by the “World’s Most Famous Lion Tamer,” Clyde Beatty. It rides on a wheel base of 127 inches and is powered by a 320-cubic-inch 130-horse straight 8 engine linked to a 3-speed manual gear box with overdrive.

Three post-war classics are a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL “Gullwing” coupe, with a 3-liter overhead cam 6-cylinder fuel-injected engine generating 215 horses connected to a 4-speed manual gear box; a 1965 Aston Martin DB5, similar to 007’s Goldfinger car, powered by a 4-liter twin-cam 6-cylinder alloy engine with triple side-draft carburetors, good for 282 horses through a 5-speed manual gearbox; and a 1965 Ferrari 275 GTB, designed by Pininfarina and manufactured by coachbuilder Scaglietti, with a top speed of almost 150 mph from its V-12 engine, fitted with three Weber carburetors, producing 270 horses.

The Academy of Art University Auto Museum is open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays by appointment. Regular admission is $10. To view the collection online or to schedule a tour, please visit the museum’s website, www.academyautomuseum.org.

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