Bob Gurr was hired by Walt Disney to design the Autopia. It remains a Disney classic to this very day. We have a special treat today as Disney Legend, Bob Gurr, shares the story of his love for automobiles.

Today’s Wheel of Years has stopped at 1945, and away we go. As WWII was drawing to a close, America’s interest was turning to what would life be like in the upcoming post-war period. After over three years where new cars were no longer made – all the auto plants were building tanks and planes. The Ford Motor Company’s Willow Run Plant in Michigan was turning out big four-engine B-24 bombers at the rate of one every hour, an astounding accomplishment. Soon Ford and others were going to resume auto production. The big excitement – everyone looked forward to the futuristic car designs that were sure to come.

Being a “car kid” from as early as I can remember, I searched the magazines and newspapers for any hint of what’s coming. A lot of art work was shown describing “futuristic” cars. Within a year, I saw my first real post-war car, the Studebaker Starlight Coupe, seen during a photo shoot on my paper route. The next year I saw the Tucker ’48. While I wanted to be an airplane engineer, my math was bad, now I just knew what I was meant to do in life – become an auto stylist! But I was way more interested beyond styling, I had always wanted to know how everything worked, and cars were the most interesting subject. It’s been a lifetime pursuit of learning both design and engineering ever since. See Dean’s Garage for more:


Most folks today have known that America was built on the Automobile, and our lives are both enriched and irritated by sharing the planet with these infernal but vital mechanisms. Some folks endure them, for others, it’s their main passion. Today’s automotive creations are a genuine technological marvel, just jump in and drive with not much thought of how it all works. That’s today – but I remember yesterday, and also my grandmother’s tales of what driving was like in her day. She was one of the first licensed Southern California women drivers before WWI. She was an adventurous driver, enjoyed traveling all over the state.

T18-5 Bob Gurr Drawing Dan Post 1913 Model T Ford “Bug” – Yellow Peril

Here’s how she started her 1910 Chalmers; grab hold of the radiator cap, jump down on the starting crank. (she weighed 90 pounds, no electric starter yet). Today you just push a button, on a Tesla S the car starts when you’re seated, click a direction and go. You change your oil today in some cars after 10,000 miles, early days was no more than 1,000 miles. Today, not such a thing as a tune up, old cars needed this maybe every 2,000 miles, spark plugs got changed along with a lot of other stuff. Today it’s 100,000. The big thing was engine overhaul – the rings and valves were good for 10,000 miles usually. Today, many cars will go to the junkyard because of weathered old looks and traffic rash with their engines and automatic transmissions still in great shape with way over 200,000 miles.

Bob Gurr’s 1949 Road Burners car club cast aluminum plaque

In 1938 the big news was when Oldsmobile introduced Hydramatic, the first automatic transmission, Chrysler soon followed with their Fluid Drive. Now it was possible to not need to know how to shift gears in order to drive. Of course today what red blooded American would use an automatic instead of showing off their skill shifting a 7-speed while downshifting heel and toe. Three speed floor shift was the norm up to about 1938 when column shift was introduced. The first console shifts showed up in English sports cars around 1948 and are still hot in today’s sports sedans.

Around 1932, syncho-mesh transmissions were invented. Up until then, you had to shift very carefully so as not to “grind the gears”. I thought is was jazzy to clutchless shift my Model A Ford non-syncho. You wait for the gears to match speed, then ease into the next gear. Hot rodders did speed shifts – no clutch at full throttle. Do this right and you “chirp” the rear tires – “hey man, I got second gear rubber”. Done wrong, you’ll see a trail of oil and gear teeth in the rear view mirror. Yep, I dropped my “Z” gears in my ’36 5-window once. We guys always did our own maintenance – high schools back then offered auto shop where you could work on your car while earning class credits. You modern wusses sure are missing the good stuff.

T18-1 General Motors Styling Sketch 1940 - Automobile Design R.H. Gurr
T18-1 General Motors Styling Sketch 1940 – Automobile Design R.H. Gurr

A local gas station would let us boys lift our cars up on the hoist and work underneath all we wanted, just buy your gas and oil from the owner. Don’t even think of going into a car dealer’s shop today to watch them work – hazard insurance! Today’s cars have advanced fuel injection, even direct injection and variable valve timing plus some with dual turbos. Everything is electronic, the whole car controlled by very expensive computer “black boxes”. In our day it was shade tree mechanics, do it yourself for everything. Virtually everything your car needed you could get at an auto parts store, and with minimal tools maintain everything. Naturally, we’d modify and hop up engines for more speed and noise.

T18-4 Home built motor home - 1973
T18-4 Home built motor home – 1973

Oh yeah, noise was it. You’d just had to have a set of dual steel pack Porters to get that deep Ford V8 rumble. Chevy guys with their stove bolt 6 could set up an exhaust with the loudest over-run rap. Girls noticed this stuff and picked guys for their cars. Of course, cars were where the “action” was. Today you take a date to the 3-D air conditioned surround sound digital video movie house. Long ago it was the drive in film movie privately in your car with the single hang-on sound box. Radio was keen and simple, one knob to change the music, the other knob to make it louder. Cars today can be filled with $50,000 audio systems.

T18-3 Bob Gurr "Casino" Rendering - 1951 Art Center School Art Class
T18-3 Bob Gurr “Casino” Rendering – 1951 Art Center School Art Class

I loved to learn how cars were built by fixing them. I could check out auto repair books from the public library for reference. I’d learn how cars would crumple in a crash when I’d scour the junkyards for spare parts. This was my head start on engineering stress analysis later on when designing Monorails. I rebuilt my 1930 Model A Ford engine in high school, by 1979 I rebuilt the engine in my 1955 Rolls~Royce that I had for 35 years. The last cars I could tinker with was my 1971 Citroen- Maserati and my 1964 Ferrari Lusso. I built a custom motorhome in the early 1970s, but cars became so complex and reliable by then – a fabulous era was ending. But one car stood out from all the others, my friend Dan Post’s 1913 Model T Ford “Bug”. Super easy to drive (no gears), and super cheap and easy to fix. I entered it in a fancy car show in 1954 and won best of show…oops, that’s a whole ‘nother car story.

Jay Leno’s Garage visits Pixar Motorama 2013 featuring Bob’s Autopia MkVII

 I can’t be the only one here who loves cars. Tell me your classic car stories below.

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Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part. Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park." You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."
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  • This is awesome stuff Bob. Love the video. I didn’t know that Pixar did their own car show. Neat!. Just think about Mark Walsh driving your Autopia cars around the Pixar lot to get from point A to point B. I think he’s on to something. Those cars are the perfect timeless design.

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  • KingEric

    Wow I love the Casino so much. Just incredible. So sleek and beautiful. Also think it is really cool that Pixar does their own car show.

  • Erik Olson

    Fun read, Mr. Gurr!

    My aunt’s father was Bill Mitchell. He was arguably also the father of the Stingray and many other iconic post-war creations like the ’55-’57 Bel Air, mid-60s Riviera and Camaros in the 1970s. The much-maligned Corvair was his too, and you had better not mention Ralph Nader’s name around the family if you don’t want an earful.

    The real fun really did get started right after the war and lasted up until 1972 or so. I’m glad to have some family history here and appreciate the article!



  • KENfromOC

    Love your articles and this was one of the most enjoyable! Great video too!

  • CaptainAction

    Bob would have completed the Dwarf Coaster in 5 months.

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  • davidrusk

    Wonderful article!

  • Bob Gurr

    Bill Mitchell was a GM icon just like his predecessor Harley Earl. Bill was the last Styling Chief to have the glamor sense of style. I first met him in 1951, then later in 1976 at the dedication of Art Center’s new campus, where I introduced him to Disney’s EPCOT project. We met several more times in Detroit during the 1976 Disney/GM negotiations that resulted in GM becoming the very first EPCOT sponsor. Bill would let me run all over the secret GM Tech Center without an escort…oh boy, was I ever running loose in the styling toy store!

    • Erik Olson

      How exciting for both you and Bill! I bet he was fascinated with the Epcot project and instantly imagined GM there in some capacity. You’re correct when you say that those designers represented the end of a very exciting, glamorous era at the big auto manufacturers. It has taken too long for American cars to come roaring back with some new, evocative designs. Thank goodness good work is coming out of “Detroit” again.

  • PecosBill

    Why ruin a classic 1969 Autopia vehicle with golf cart chassis? That cars just isn’t the same w/o the sound and vibrations.

    • PecosBill

      A classic sixties roadster needs a petrol engine. I doesn’t matter if that roadster was made in Italy, Britain, Detroit, or Glendale.

  • disneylandfan8

    Wow! #18 already? Where has the time gone?!

    Great car memories, indeed. I grew up with classic cars as both my father and grandfather had an appreciation for them. I can’t help but think of them when I attend a classic car show and usually have to reach for tissues.

    The best car I ever owned with a console manual shift was my 1992 Mazda Miata. I know, not a classic, but that car fit me like a glove. Once I was in it, it was all I could do NOT to take it for a spin around the hills. I loved my little blue jelly bean (the car’s nickname).

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  • James Stone

    What a great list of cars to own and operate on, Bob. Each with their own stylish and unique characteristics. What were the colors of your 1930 Model A Ford, 1955 Rolls- Royce, 1971 Citroen- Maserati and your 1964 Ferrari Lusso ? Thanks for your time and stories, can not wait for the next one.

  • BritniB

    It was great meeting you. Thank you for your article. It is wonderful to hear your perspective.

    -Britni Brault