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Lot 241

1936 Buick/Chrysler 'Topper Car' Mobiloil /Gilmore Special

  • Chassis no. 7779879

Sold for $132,000

235hp, 331.1 cu. in. Chrysler Hemi V8, five-main bearings, Carter four-barrel carburetor, front and rear

semi-elliptic leaf springs, four-wheel hydraulic drum brakes. Wheelbase: 131.5"


1. Ext. Open highway -- night. Fast movie camera shot of the Kerby (Topper) car moving swiftly along the highway from Long Island to New York. (A very sporty and luxurious roadster.)"……And so the movie begins….. The 1937 Hal Roach trend-setting screwball comedy, “Topper” is a film that is well-remembered by many to this day. Based on the 1926 novel “The Jovial Ghosts” by Thorne Smith, the fact it starred a handsome, young Cary Grant (George) in his prime, or that the shapely and talented actress Constance Bennett (Marion) was at his side also doesn’t hurt either.

The sign of a good comedy is when you can take your two box office stars and have them die in a tragic car accident and yet not have your audience crying or heading for the nearest exit due to the morbid nature of the plot. Before the rather self-centered, wild and carefree ghosts of George and Marion can get through those pearly gates they must do a good deed for someone else.

The fun-loving couple chooses their stuffy, conservative banker Cosmo Topper played by Roland Young. His offbeat wife Clara Topper played by the comical Billie Burke adds to the fun although she feels Topper’s new vehicle he inherited from George and Marion Kerby is

“…the most vulgar car in town and a painted Jezebel.”

Only the car can see George and Marion, which leads to all sorts of complications and comedy, which includes numerous scenes starring the very stylish and sporty

Topper Car. The couple becomes ghosts when Grant goes off the road at high speed and crashes into a tree. Through the use of various film techniques – such as cut-away

photography and the painting on of dings, dents and scrapes the Topper Car appears to be seriously damaged.

In another scene the now invisible Grant changes a flat tire as Cosmo Topper watches the tires float around him. This scene was shot using indiscernible wires lifting the spare tire out from behind the seat and putting it into place at the hub.

The Topper Car was also fitted with special controls – including a second steering wheel, so as a stuntman drove the car, onscreen it would appear as if it was being driven by an invisible ghost. One of the great aspects of the film includes all of the shots of Topper around Los Angeles, including Bullock’s Department Store on Wilshire Blvd., only a short drive away from the Petersen Automotive Museum.

Originally, film director Norman Z. McLeod considered using the new coffin-nosed Cord but the required changes could not be made easily on the semi-unibody design.

Instead, Tony Gerrity, then at Bohman & Schwartz, transformed a Buick chassis into a very “Buck Rogers” design which included a shapely fin, supercharged Cord-like exhausts, a Graham shark-like nose, teardrop fenders on all corners and a racy cut-down windscreen. Other custom features included placing the stock headlamps higher off the fender by mounting them on catwalks, fitting standard Buick parking lights on both front and rear shapely teardrop fenders, and the addition of small fender skirts to reduce the rear wheel openings by about four-inches. Due to the prominent rear dorsal fin at the rear of the roadster there was no trunk lid.

From an automotive design perspective it is interesting to note that the front fender shape, which flowed into the doors, was very similar to the design which later appeared on the 1941 Cadillac Special and by 1942 was seen on many GM cars.

In 1939 the studio sold the Topper Car to the Gilmore Oil Company. Re-sprayed in the Gilmore colors of cream and red, the Buick was fitted with a power system and a public address system for use in their promotion of “Red Lion” gasoline. A hitch was fitted to tow a trailer with a live lion cub as part of the promotion.

Now known as the Gilmore Oil Car the Buick was modified to accommodate the car’s new potential uses. A new full chrome radiator grille of horizontal bars stretched down to the bumper. The change in appearance was more in keeping with 1940 styles and provided a fresh look for west coast motoring shows, events and processions such as the Hollywood Boulevard Christmas parade.

Later Gilmore returned the car to Bohman & Schwartz and a second trailer was designed by Gerrity that featured all the design cues including the wheel skirts and tapered fenders. This trailer was built to house the additional electrical and sound equipment required for promotions.

By the late 1940s Gilmore had been absorbed by Mobilgas, who felt the Buick was beginning to look out-of-date. It was sent back to Bohman & Schwartz for updating and to be repainted in white and adorned with a red Pegasus on the door and center of the “sombrero” hubcaps.

As well as the Topper Car, Bohman & Schwartz were responsible for the coachwork of candy heiress Ethel Mars’ 1935 Duesenberg (Herb Newport), and the 57-Varieties heir Rust Heinz’s 1938 Phantom Corsair. Other film studio and star cars by Bohman & Schwartz include Clark Gable’s and Barbara Hutton’s 1935 Duesenberg SJ convertibles.

Long time Bohman & Schwartz designer Wellington Everett Miller had been hired by Murphy at the age of sixteen as an apprentice under staff designer George McQuerry Jr.

Interestingly enough, Miller had admired the Murphy-bodied Lincolns at the 1920 Los Angeles Auto Show and had immediately decided he wanted to learn the coachbuilding trade. He later went to Packard as a designer in 1929 before joining Bohman & Schwartz to contribute designs and layouts to the new firm.

W. Everett Miller drew-up a number of possible designs for the soon to be known as “Mobilgas Special.” Apparently one was rather Ferrari-like, but Mobilgas decided on a more distinctive and unique style reminiscent of the new Studebaker.

Clearly inspired by the jet age the front grille consisted of a series of three concentric circles surrounding a bullet-nose and flanked on each side by three vertical bars with a toothy vertical grille below. The split windscreen remained, but was taller and fitted with wind

wings. Gone were the separate front fenders and chrome exhausts. A new flat hood flowed into the tops of the bulbous fenders and free-standing headlamps were mounted inboard. Oldsmobile bumpers were fitted and the license plate moved to the centre. New parking lights, mirrors and modified Olds hubcaps were added.

An eight-cylinder GM motor was fitted to improve performance. Mobil continued to utilize the old Roadmaster-based car for publicity, but by 1954 the straight eight engine and mostly original running gear were beginning to show their age.

Once again the Mobil returned to California and Bohman & Schwartz, but by this time Schwartz was no longer part of the company. C. Bohman and Son purchased a 1954 Chrysler Imperial Newport chassis furnished by General Petroleum and re-mounted

the body. The Mobil Special was now powered by a new 235hp Chrysler Hemi V8 with an estimated top speed of 125mph – although for practical reasons this was never tested.

The round front fenders were restyled to reflect the slab-sided look more in keeping with the period. The full fenders swept downward to flow into the original shape of the suicide doors and right into enlongated back fenders; devoid of their skirts, and sported small Cadillac-like fins mirroring the contours of the characteristic rear center fin.

As well as the visible changes Bohman modified the frame, relocated the master cylinder, steering column, etc. re-worked the lower wooden body structure, firewall hood and dash and fitted new instruments. All the changes were priced at over $10,000 in 1954.

Continually updated wiring, loud speakers and other public address equipment, the Mobilgas Special was also lent out for civic and sports events. In a circa 1955 magazine advertisement Mobil noted, “It is seen annually by more than five million people when it serves at such events as the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, the California State Fair; the Seattle Seafair Pageant, boat races, rodeos, horse shows and automobile races.

While in Mobil’s use the “Mobilgas Special” as it was referred to in the advertisement was estimated to have traveled over 300,000 miles and valued at $40,000.

Shortly after the final re-styling, Mobil sold the car reported first to its long time retiring driver Leon Wilson and then to the late California car collector George Warner. Eventually this iconic car became part of the Jim Brucker “Movieland – Cars of the Stars” collection.

The already well-documented history includes all the receipts from 1954 through to the 1970s including the original work order and notes from C. Bohman and Son. These records also indicate the Hemi engine was first rebuilt in 1963 and further overhauled in 1976 along with a fresh interior being fitted.

Badged the Mobil Special, this historic piece of rolling petroliana remains in its 1954 style, but painted in “MovieWorld” livery with Gilmore Red Lion markings on the prominent rear fin. An older rebuild the Mobil Special bears a rich patina, while still being very presentable and virtually impossible to miss in any venue.

Recently serviced to running condition with a rebuilt carburetor the “Topper Car” as it is still commonly referred to as, will require some refurbishment before cruising down the celebrity road again. Rich in film history and steeped in a life of North American-wide promotion this well-known, road-going icon in American society would be the crown jewel in any enthusiast’s collection. And it still holds true today what Cosmo Topper noted in Thorne Smith’s book over 70 years ago; this symbol of American film and advertising is “…a regular pip of a car.”

Special thanks to Richard Bann for his archival contributions to this description.


Please note that this vehicle is offered on a Bill of Sale only. If you would like to title your vehicle, please visit the RM Auction office and we will be happy to assist you.

Please contact our exclusive automotive transportation partner, Reliable Carriers, for a shipping quote or any other information on the transport of this vehicle.

Alexander Weaver

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Alexander Weaver joined RM Sotheby’s in 2011 as a Car Specialist after graduating from Furman University in South Carolina. Born... read more

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Pete Fisher was first introduced to antique cars in high school, working for Classic Coachworks in his hometown of Blenheim, Ontario. ... read more

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Tonnie Van der Velden joined RM Sotheby’s European division in September 2015 as a Car Specialist. A lifelong enthusiast, Tonnie... read more