Say Goodbye to Joe MacPherson
November 5, 1928 - March 30, 2007
Story by Richard Parks and Photographs by Roger Rohrdanz
Joe Dwight MacPherson was born on November 5, 1928 and passed away on March 30, 2007, just a week after the death of Robert E. Petersen. Both men had a huge impact on American car culture and hot rodding in general, and their passing from this mortal sphere leaves a void that is hard for us to bear. Joe MacPherson is best known for his car dealerships and his museum called simply Joe’s Garage. The Garage is a magnificent building housing over 70 cars and motorcycle with a dining area capable of handling large groups. Car clubs, civic, charitable and other groups use the building for banquets, fundraisers and other events. The museum is in constant use in the community and is centrally located near the 55 and 5 freeways in Tustin, California. Sadly, some of the requested uses for the building is for memorial and celebrations of life events and this is why we gathered here on April 13, 2007, to pay our final respects to a great man and true hot rodder. We used this building in the past to honor Louie Unser and Bill Bagnall, men who were part of our racing heritage. All anyone really needs to know about Joe MacPherson can be summed up in two words, Scot and Salesman. If you’re Scottish you will know right away what is meant. If not, here’s a brief explanation. When the Nicholson Band Piper played Amazing Grace and walked slowly through the building and then out the door with the pipes fading away in the distance, every person of Scot’s heritage knew that a great man was passing to his reward. The MacPherson clan was a noble and respected Highland clan in the north of Scotland. Five generations ago, when the MacPherson family left Scotland, they brought their honor and heritage with them, and at the memorial they wore the MacPherson tartan proudly.
Scots are famous for being loyal, honest, hardworking and thrifty. Thrifty to a point that defies all logic some say, but that simply isn’t true. The speakers said that Joe MacPherson was a tough businessman who drove a fair and honest bargain. Some of those who spoke were Stewart’s and Ferguson’s and they know exactly what that means. Other people of all nationalities who worked for Joe came to learn that fair and tough were not opposing views. Money is only part of a Scotsman’s motive for doing business. Honor, integrity, loyalty and dedication are just as important. Joe would walk away from a deal if those qualities were not part of the contract. He would delegate to his staff the functions of negotiating contracts up to a point, and if they could not conclude the deal they would come back to him and he would give them further instructions and powers. On one occasion he gave the terms that he would accept without change and the other side began to quibble. Joe looked at his attorney and said, “is there any reason for us to stay?” When his attorney said no, both of them got up and left a multi-million dollar deal on the table. He eventually concluded the deal with another group for less money but who lived up to their integrity. Joe had character and charm. He would enter a room, slap the table and start up the deal. He never lacked faith in himself or that he could make the deal. He was willing to give you the time you needed if you had something to offer of value in return. He could size up people instantly and he knew if you were someone important or a faker.
They say a man is only as important as the people that he associates with and Joe was always around the best. He knew how to identify talent and hire those that would be an asset to his businesses. He knew the value of money, how to earn it and how to spend it. He didn’t waste time or money on things, jobs, objects or people. He was a Scot and a salesman but he also could see into the hearts of people and help them to achieve their goals as well. Joe’s niece, Elaine MacPherson Smith said, “Joe was a tough businessman, but at the same time very generous with others as long as they weren’t frivolous.” Very much like a Scotsman to place values on his generosity. “Several members of the family worked for Uncle Joe,” said Elaine. “My brother Bob worked as a service manager in a dealership and Joe’s daughter, Anne worked in the office,” she told me. Joe’s father, William MacPherson, moved the family from Berkeley, California to Los Angeles, California in 1937. William was looking for a warmer and dryer climate to improve his health. William had six children; Duncan, Bill, Netta, Joe, Mary Jane and Sandy. Joe entered the Navy and served for seven years. He learned valuable skills working in the sheet metal shops and doing welding. After Joe left the Navy he sold magazine subscriptions door to door. He had an unlimited amount of faith in his ability to succeed. This enthusiasm caused one of his customers, a car dealer to, ask him if he would like to be a car salesman. “If my salesmen had your attitude we’d all be more successful,” said the owner. He was a natural salesman and it wasn’t only cars that he sold. He could also sell himself as well. The office at the dealership was staffed by married women, but a new employee was single and Joe made it his goal to get to know this pretty young lady. His charm proved successful and he married this young lady in 1955 and they were together for nearly half a century before she passed away. The young couple moved to Monterey Park and then later to Tustin, California. Joe formed his first dealership in San Clemente, California and from then on proved to be a success at everything he tried. He and his wife had three children; Jeff, Anne and Jim
Many who spoke said that Joe never said “why me,” when things went bad. He wasn’t a man who dwelt on mistakes, losses or failures. He took his losses and successes in equal stride and kept on going. He was a religious man who never preached his beliefs but lived his ideals for the world to see. The crowd that came filled up all thirty tables and then some. Perhaps 500 were in attendance to pay their respects. Many were Joe’s former employees and every one of them had that easygoing manner and friendliness about them that was Joe’s trademark. I spoke to Jim Travis, Hardy Allen, Julian Alvarez, LaVerne Unser, ‘Squeak’ White, Dick Holt and the Chrisman family, Art, Dorothy and Mike. Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart and TV host Larry Arnold, were also in attendance. Jim Travis is a car restorer and builder that specializes in racecars. Hardy Allen is a longtime crewman on oval track racecar teams. Julian Alvarez and his brothers raced drag cars from the very day the sport was created. LaVerne Unser is Louie’s widow, a member of the famous Unser racing family. Louie built the engines that many car and boat racing teams used so successfully. White is a car builder and restorer and many of his creations are in Joe’s Garage. Dick Holt builds bikes and makes custom parts for the speed performance industry. The Chrisman family is well-known for their racecars in drag and landspeed racing. Their #25 car is on display at Joe’s Garage, probably one of the most recognizable and famous drag cars in existence. Art Chrisman owns the garage and his son Mike is also well-known as a first class car builder and restorer. Larry Arnold is a Television anchorman and host for the show ‘Real Orange.’ Ivan ‘Ironman’ Stewart’s Baja 1000 championship truck is on display at Joe’s Garage.
Joe’s Garage is a memorial to Joe MacPherson and a testimony to the spirit of hot rodders and racers in Southern California and the rest of the country. It’s a testament to the spirit of men and women who came to California with a dream and made this area grow and succeed. It’s a credit to the MacPherson family and his friends. Joe’s Garage, like the man, is a first class institution. There aren’t very many other places that can hold large crowds and provide for banquets and gatherings. There aren’t very many centrally located places that are as convenient or adaptable as Joe’s Garage. Parking is convenient and everything is on the ground floor for easy access. The displays and murals are fantastic. Joe hired Bill Hueg III to paint the murals and Hueg is simply masterful. They are the equivalent of the Sistine Chapel for hot rodders and racers and stretch out over 10 feet high by 500 feet long. The first mural is that of an old shot of the Indy 500 which fades into a drag race with fans screaming for their favorite car to win. Next to that is a Jalopy race followed by a mural of track roadsters at the local track. The murals end and then blend into the next mural, which is one of midget cars racing. A huge ticket fills the wall showing the 1913 Santa Monica Road Race, then the cars, spectators and houses. The next scene is that of the old Santa Ana Register Newspaper building in Santa Ana, California, and the artist paints with such skill that the building’s edge seems to expand as you walk past. Separating the murals is a garage made to look exactly like an old racing garage of the 1920’s.
The next mural shows a beach scene from the 1950’s with a real Ford Woodie wagon next to a painted one on the wall, girls in bikinis and boys with surfboards. James Dean is portrayed in a car in one of his movies, while young people gaze up at the screen at a drive-in movie theatre. The next mural is that of the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Chrisman brothers coupe, followed by a scene of the Southern California Dry Lakes at Muroc, now Edwards Air Force Base. Ruby’s Drive-In Diner is portrayed on the next mural with cars from the 1930’s through the ‘50’s waiting for service. The last mural shows an old 1920’s Gilmore Gas station scene with the mighty Red Lion emblem on the sign. Cars on display included Dale Earnhardt’s #3 car, Dale Jarrett’s TIDE car, Jeff MacPherson’s 1987 Indy car, the A.J. Watson Bryant Heating and Cooling Special Indy car, ’62 Bruce Bromme sprint car driven by Allen Heath. A well-known car is the Eddie Kuzma built, Don O’Reilly/Urgo designed sprint car that was driven by Johnny Rutherford, Mario Andretti, Roger McCluskey and A.J. Foyt. The 1957 Tamale Wagon built by Roger McCluskey for Alex Morales won over 120 races and 4 CRA Championships. The car was driven by Foyt, Parnelli Jones, McCluskey, Chuck Hulse, Mike Mosely, Billy Vukovich II, Bruce Walkup and Bob Mathouser. Also on display is a 1935 Novi Bowes Seal Fast Special, 1966 Gurney Eagle Indy 500 car, Sheraton/Thompson #1 car driven by Foyt and many other racecars and bikes. This outstanding museum is a tribute to the very special man who built it.