Cars of the Stars – The Cars of Harold Lloyd

Cars of the Stars – Harold Lloyd

Based on the article ‘Harold Lloyd and His Cars’ by Bill Gleason, Car Classics Yearbook 1975

One of the most celebrated comic stars of the silent film era, Harold Lloyd exemplified the ordinary man finding himself in extraordinary situations. After faltering early attempts at inventing a screen character, Lloyd hit upon wearing a pair of horn rimmed glasses (without lenses) to make himself appear more ‘bookish’. He then began making a series of comedies in which stunts and precarious situations became the stuff of legend.

Harold Lloyd portrait1

Harold Lloyd - an ordinary character in extraordinary situations.

Like many another Hollywood star of the golden era, Lloyd had a passionate interest in cars.

Harry Bushman became Lloyd’s chauffer in 1923. He met the actor while working at the Pierce-Arrow dealership in Los Angeles. Lloyd owned an enclosed model (with special 4-wheel brakes) and was looking to hire a driver. Bushman’s employer insisted on him applying. When Bushman arrived at the Lloyd residence, he was told by the maid that the job had already been taken.

“Good!” he replied, as he was wary of working for a movie star. Lloyd was in the next room and overheard. Intrigued, he spoke to Bushman, and got his contact details. The man who got the job didn’t work out, so Lloyd hired Bushman. He would remain his driver for the next twenty years.

Safety Last -Harold Lloyd1

Harold Lloyd in a typically precarious situation in 'Safety Last'.

Besides the Pierce-Arrow, Lloyd owned a Cunningham touring car and had just bought a red Buick roadster for his wife, Mildred Davis. Bushman joined Henry Murk on Lloyd’s staff. Murk, a Dane, was Lloyd’s valet and chauffer for his morning commute to work. Bushman would start at lunch and work well into the evening.

“Harold liked me to drive fast”, explains Bushman. “He had a marshal’s badge and once on our way to San Simeon for Mr Hearst’s 70th birthday, we drove up behind a policeman near Santa Maria. Mr Lloyd insisted I pass him, which I did, sticking to the speed limit of 55 mph.”

Miffed at being passed, even at the speed limit, the cop pulled them over. “You came up pretty fast, didn’t you?” he said. Mr Lloyd opened the door and showed his credentials, but there was no response.

“’You’ve got to recognise this badge,’ Mr Lloyd said. ‘I’m going to William Randolph Hearst’s ranch. The Governor will be there. What a hell of a fine truck driver we’d make out of you! Get in the car, Harry, and let’s go.’  And as we drove off, the cop stood there dumbfounded. Later that same day he got [Hollywood gossip columnist] Louella Parsons.”

19-20Cunningham tourer -Harold Lloyd lloyd snr, Lloyd and bus mgr Jack Murphy

Step plates show that this is a 1919-20 Cunningham tourer. Driver Harry Bushman, with Harold Lloyd snr, Harold Lloyd and his business manager Jack Murphy.

Like some other actors, Lloyd was superstitious. He would never again travel by the houses where his mother and brother had died, a quirk he shared with Mary Pickford. He always returned home over the same route he had taken before, which he also did as a pedestrian when entering or leaving a building.

38Mary Pickford Cosmetics Ad

Mary Pickford - superstitious traveller.

Bushman was also placed in charge of most of the automobile-related purchasing. “The first thing I did was to convince him the 1923 Buick roadster was not suitable for Mrs. Lloyd. She needed something special. We traded the Buick on a Packard roadster, one of the first straight-eights, with balloon tires.

23Buick roadster Mildred Davis -Mrs Lloyd

1923 Buick roadster - not special enough for Mildred Davis (Mrs Harold Lloyd).

On the way through Beverly Hills, my right front tire blew out and Mrs. Lloyd, seated on the right, dropped down so far she said, ‘Oh my God! Did we lose a wheel?’ ‘No,’ I replied, ‘Just the air in the tire.’ Two nights later, Harold told me Mrs. Lloyd didn’t like the oversized tires, and they were replaced.”

When Harold Lloyd decided to trade in his Cunningham for a newer model, Bushman tried to discourage him. There was nothing wrong with the make’s V-8 side-valve engines: their 100 horse-power was still among the most powerful of cars. Neither was there fault with the quality of the chassis or custom bodies. It was that the Cunningham was the choice back east of the funeral car trade. “My brother worked for one mortuary that bought 26 at one time.”

“I complained that the back end of the car was very high over the rear wheels, but the salesman said he would drop it. The change brought the differential so low it bottomed out at every clip. After it was raised, Mr Lloyd accepted the car.

“The following Sunday, on our way to Tijuana, Harold discovered the Cunningham had an over-running gear, which was very noisy. When you reach a speed of 35 or 40 mph, you shifted into this gear for the road. ‘Harry,’ he hollered. ‘Take it out of second.’ I told him I was two gears above second.” The Cunningham’s third gear was direct, and fourth was an overdrive. “It isn’t a Rolls is it?” replied the disappointed Lloyd. That week he traded it in on a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost phaeton, for which he received $3,500 trade-in allowance, on a car which had cost him over $7,000.

After the Ghost was ordered, Bushman found out that Rolls-Royce were now building left-hand-drive models for export. Lloyd re-ordered for LHD, and when the brown touring car was delivered, the Rolls dealer asked him to keep the change quiet, as they hadn’t yet sold off all their right-hand-drive models. “Whenever people asked about the left-hand-drive, I’d say it was custom ordered”, said Bushman.

“Mr. Lloyd bought his second Rolls-Royce, a black limousine, in late 1925 from Butler’s in Hollywood. It was a Silver Ghost with right-hand-drive but American made at the Springfield, Massachusetts plant. The two rear tires were special non-skid Dunlops which had a flaw – a thicker spot on the tread making them higher at one point than at another. This unevenness caused a terrible noise inside the car. The Rolls agency told Mr. Lloyd it was the tires, but he didn’t agree.”

One night, Bushman replaced the rear tyres with the smooth front ones from the Rolls touring car. “Of course, the open car was brown and the limousine was black, and since I removed both wheels and tires, the rear wheels were now a different color. As we rode home, Mr. Lloyd said ‘What did you do to the car? It’s great. Rides like a bicycle.’ I said I just changed the color of the rear wheels. ‘Oh hell,’ he said. ‘That will look terrible.’ When I told him the truth, he dropped the Dunlops, but whenever it rained I had to be careful because the four smooth tires would skid.”

“Another time,” Bushman recalls, “I drove the Lloyds to the premiere of ‘The Iron Horse’ at the Egyptian Theatre. It was impossible to park because the fans were blocking the entrance. So I let the Lloyds out, went around the block and parked behind the crowd. This put me first car from the entrance on Hollywood Boulevard. When the film was over, a man with a cane leaned over our car trying to signal his driver, who was double parked, to pull down or something. Because he was speaking Italian, I said, ‘Hey Count! If you touch this car with your cane, I’ll break it over your head.’ He didn’t say anything, but as he pulled away someone said, ‘That’s Rudolph Valentino.’ When Mr. Lloyd arrived, I told him I insulted his friend, but he replied, ‘Anyone who scratches my car is no friend of mine!’

Sainted Devil movie poster Valentino

Fame counts for nothing if he scratches Harold's car - Rudolph Valentino.

Though Harold Lloyd never owned a Cadillac until he became Imperial Potentate of the Shriners (he was bought one by the combined membership donating a penny each) his wealthy friends owned them. Douglas Fairbanks Snr. bought one of the first Cadillac Sixteens in 1929. The V-16 was powerful but thirsty. It used so much fuel that Fairbanks and Lloyd had to check off petrol stations along the way whenever they planned the route of a long trip.

Lloyd also drove a 1931 Packard roadster with body by LeBaron (later owned by racing driver Phil Hill). His favourite dog Princie Boy rode in the rumble seat. (When Lloyd’s friend, fellow actor Francis X. Bushman sold him the Great Dane, he assured him that the show winner couldn’t have pups. When she gave birth to a litter of thirteen, Harold cried “That’s my boy!”) One day a woman ran a red light on Wilshire Boulevard and hit Lloyd’s Packard broadside. Princie Boy was knocked to the pavement. Frightened, the dog ran home. Despite the car being repaired, the Great Dane would never ride in it again. Lloyd reluctantly sold it for a Lincoln 7-passenger tourer to keep the dog happy.

Harold Lloyd was seriously considering buying a Duesenberg, when Harry Bushman talked him out of it. “I told him to buy Packards or Cadillacs and turn them in every year. That way he’d have new tires, new paint, and a new car. You could buy three of them for one Duesenberg. When he cancelled the deal, he put the blame on me, and the company offered me $500 to rekindle Mr. Lloyd’s interest. But I was on the up and up with Harold. He treated me like one of the family, so it was no deal – although I needed the money.”

In 1933 President Roosevelt closed down the banks for a week as an enforced ‘banking holiday’. It was the depths of the Depression and unemployment was high, even among many of Harold Lloyd’s friends. People were yelling ‘Buy America!’ and Lloyd was starting to feel nervous about driving foreign cars. He retired the two Rolls-Royces and would not even hire them out to the studios.

They sat until 1950, when Harold – then Imperial Potentate of the Shriners – used the brown touring car in a celebrities parade at half-time in a Los Angeles Coliseum football game. The audience laughed. They thought the old car was a comedian’s joke. Lloyd was hurt. It was never driven by Lloyd again.

The other Rolls-Royce was used by Paramount Pictures in 1952 for their classic romance ‘Sabrina’ with Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. After lying idle for 18 years, only a new battery and tyres were needed to make it run again. It lay idle for decades again, until it was fully restored by Lloyd’s friends in the early 1970s.

In his later years, Harold Lloyd drove a 1956 Ford and a 1969 Ford LTD for public appearances. He refused to sell his cars, despite offers from his friends. In his will, Lloyd stipulated that the cars would be displayed together under the auspices of the Harold Lloyd Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation of his estate, his movies and memorabilia.

Harry Bushman remembers that Harold Lloyd was one of the few men who was comfortable with being a celebrity. “A naturally kind man, [he] lived a long and happy life. He was never pretentious or phoney. Like his screen character, he was outgoing and optimistic.”

- isvintag

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