Q: Hello Greg, I enjoy your columns very much and right now my wife and I are watching the Topper movie on Turner Movie Channel (TMC). Was the Topper car originally a Cord as it had those special side exhaust pipes? It also featured a custom windshield and the front end looked like a Graham.
My question is what kind of car was the Topper ghost car actually assembled on? Any information is appreciated and we enjoy your nostalgic features. Jim Shanley, Park Ridge, New Jersey.
A: Jim thank you for your recent inquiry about the Topper movie car as I had 11 separate emails come in about the movie the day it aired recently on TMC and three phone calls, including yours.
Let’s start with the movie.
I sure do remember the Topper movie, which starred Cary Grant (George Kerby), Constance Bennett (Marion Kerby) and Roland Young (Cosmo Topper). It was produced in 1937 by Hal Roach, best known for his Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang and Little Rascals movies and shorts. (All personal favorites).
To answer your question, the Topper car was at the time the most famous movie car ever to hit the screen. It was initially designed on a 1936 Buick Series 60 chassis and then later underwent a Chrysler chassis and drivetrain update along with exterior styling changes. Topper’s roadster movie car was a combo of several cars built by Pasadena Coachbuilders Bohman & Schwartz to be featured specifically in the Topper movie. The car was designed by Anthony Gerrity, then a well known designer who worked for Bohman & Schwartz.
Not surprisingly, the Topper car was just as popular as the “always out for a good time” movie star ghosts. The roadster did include as you note styling cues from Cord (exhausts) and also from the Graham (shark-like front end). Notable is that the car featured a second hidden steering wheel which allowed stuntmen to drive the car using a wheel hidden from sight. It worked for producer Roach as many times scenes featured the Topper car “with no visible driver.”
After sharing stardom with Grant, Bennett and Young, Mobil Gas purchased the roadster and had Bohman & Schwartz do some needed updates. Originally built on the aforementioned ‘36 Buick “Straight-8” powered Century/Roadmaster chassis, the car received Chrysler underpinnings in 1954, including re-fitting the body and interior on a new Chrysler Imperial chassis powered by a 235-horse Chrysler Hemi V8.
After a few more updates, including rear tail fins and a new front end design, the car was purchased by Jim Brucker as part of his “Movie World: Cars of the Stars” collection in Buena Park, Ca. The car was then auctioned off in 2006 by RM Auctions/Sotheby’s when Movie World closed. It sold for $132,000 and ended up at the fabulous R.E. “Pete” Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, he the founder of Hot Rod Magazine back in 1948. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Petersen prior to his passing in 2007 and he mentioned the Topper movie car to me several times during our talk.
I’ve attached photos of the car as it appeared in the movie, a movie poster and as the Movie World car as displayed at Pete Petersen’s museum. Hope this all helps, as the “Topper car” was such a huge part of the 1937 movie it now gives good reason for all my readers to watch Topper when it appears again on TMC or on-demand anytime.
As for you purists, Cosmo Topper played by Young (and still human in the movie) drove a 1936 Lincoln Model K and is not to be confused with the roadster “Topper movie car.”
Thanks for your letter Jim and kind comments.