For someone who spends his days surrounded by a visual feast of automotive beauty, Stephen Murphy is a surprisingly practical guy. “People ask me very often about my favorite car,” he says. “I usually answer with: ‘Whatever starts when it’s supposed to start and operates like it should.’”
But Murphy’s pragmatism makes sense. As the general manager at Chicago Vintage Motor Carriage, he directs the acquisition and restoration of the dazzling Richard H. Driehaus auto collection. The collection of vintage American cars is maintained by a team of antique car specialists, including Murphy. They take on restoration work for other car owners, too, but the Driehaus collection is its crown jewel.
Murphy says “anything that’s very stylish, unique, American made, anything that showcases the best of American design and engineering is worthy of our consideration.”
Most people will never get to see the Driehaus collection in person – at least, not all at once. The cars are kept in a private facility, and for the most part, are only brought out onto the road to be displayed at auto shows. The collection includes many cars with great historic significance, including a 1948 Tucker sedan, manufactured on Chicago’s South Side and one of only 51 ever made, and a 1933 Pierce Arrow Silver Arrow, which is believed to have been displayed at the 1933 Century of Progress.
It also includes some cars whose significance is more decorative, like a 1954 Kaiser Darrin. “It’s a Henry J underneath, a pretty pedestrian sedan. So it looks like a million dollars, but it doesn’t really perform as the outward design would suggest,” says Murphy.
The West Loop facility is part showroom, part museum, with vintage auto ephemera and art lining the walls. It’s also part old-school auto shop, where head mechanic Mark Hooper and his small team work thousands of hours to make sure that each car’s performance matches its good looks. Of the cars in his charge, Hooper says, “I love different cars for different things. If I want to go fast, I’d get in the ‘66 Corvette. If I want to go in style, I’ll go in the Duesenberg. It’s like different shoes, you have different shoes for things you love doing.”
While the collection is not open to the public, local car enthusiasts do have opportunities to see them out and about at prestigious auto shows called Concours d’Elegance, including one in Geneva, Illinois. If their trophy shelf is any indication, the Chicago Vintage Motor Carriage team has had more than a few good days. But for Hooper, any day he gets to work on old cars is a good day.
“The special job for me is getting to preserve and make these cars work the way they’re supposed to so people don’t forget how nice things were back then,” he said. “It is a dream job. This is far better than working in a normal shop.”
Note: This story was first published on Dec. 18, 2018.