Every Disney fan knows that there’s always more to see, more to read, and more to learn about Disney and the fascinating person behind the name, myth, and maker of the magic: Walt Disney! So sharpen your Number Two pencil and get out your college-ruled paper because class is about to begin at Walt Disney’s College of Knowledge!
The “car culture” of famous filmmakers is a long and storied one. Walt Disney, too, enjoyed his own cars, but unlike other celebrities of today and his day, Walt’s was not a constant love affair. In fact, Walt recalled, “I never owned a new car until way after Mickey Mouse.”
In his early days in Hollywood, with the first successes of the Alice Comedies and the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon shorts, Walt had a second-hand Ford “runabout” that he and Roy shared. Walt’s wife, Lillian, recalled that he would frequently drive Lilly and another “ink and paint girl,” Kathleen Dollard, home. “We used to work nights,” Lilly said. “By that time, he had a Ford roadster with one seat and an open back. He used to take us home after work.”
Even though Kathleen lived farther away from the studio, the shy-but-romantic Walt enjoyed his time with Lilly. “He took the other girl home first,” Lilly said.
Walt’s car financed the first sound cartoon.
Later, Walt was able to afford a car of his own, “I had a beautiful Moon Roadster that I was so proud of. A cabriolet, the top went down, red and green running lights on it. Oh it was the sportiest thing! It was a second-hand one.”
“Made in St. Louis,” Roy O. Disney recalled. “It was a pretty hot little car.”
Lilly remembered being courted as Walt drove from the Bard Theatre in Hollywood to the Alexander Theater in Glendale and other movie houses all over town, as Walt would leave her in the car while he “reviewed” the competition’s shorts, and the reactions of audiences to his own. “We would go from theater to theater,” Lilly said. “He would see a cartoon while I would wait in the car. My mother sometimes went with us, and sometimes the dog.”
Recovering from the loss of ownership of the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts in 1928 (and ramping up a whole new cartoon series to replace it) spelled the end for Walt’s beloved Moon Roadster. The New York-based sound recording sessions for the Mickey Mouse cartoon Steamboat Willie proved to be very expensive. The Disney brothers needed every dime they could squeeze out.
“So I had this beautiful Moon Roaster . . . when I went to New York,” Walt said. “By the time I got back, I didn’t have my car. I had [to request] to send the pink slip to me, I signed it, sent it back, [and] they’d sold my car to meet payrolls before I got out of there.”
After initially listing the car for $525, it was sold within a week for $475. It’s interesting to note that this sale was made in the first week of November 1928. Mickey, Minnie, and Steamboat Willie debuted at New York’s Colony Theatre only two weeks later!
Walt loved convertibles.
After his “first love,” the Moon Roadster, Walt preferred convertibles. “He always liked a roadster type with the top down,” Roy said. “Always drove with the top down.”
Even though Walt’s automotive sacrifice helped insure that Mickey Mouse was a swift hit, it took many years for Walt and Roy’s fortunes to recover. Walt remembered, “We mortgaged our homes, sold our cars and went without things, for a good many years after Mickey Mouse was a big success. I still didn’t have a new car. And I think the first new car that I actually bought, I bought for Mrs. Disney. I still drove around in a little second-hand one that I had. When I got my family and the children, then I had to get a family car, so, at that time, things were going pretty good. I splurged. I got a Packard—a brand new one.”
Later, Walt gave up his blue 1942 Packard Custom Convertible Coupe for 1948 Oldsmobile 98 Deluxe Convertible Coupe.
Walt advertised a car brand.
It is sometimes inaccurately reported that Walt was a DeSoto owner in the late 1930s. This urban legend came about because Walt was featured in a series of expensive color magazine advertisements (photographed at his Los Feliz Hills home) praising the practical aspects of the new DeSotos. (It is possible that this advertising opportunity came about in connection with Walt’s friend Spencer Tracy appearing in similar DeSoto ads.) Walt was, however, a reluctant pitch man.
Walt’s sister Ruth remembered, “They said if he’d pose in front of a DeSoto, they would give him a car,” Ruth said. “Walt said he didn’t drive a DeSoto, and he wasn’t going to claim he did. But Mother [Flora Disney] asked, ‘Why not? You can give it to us!’ So Walt did it, and they loved that little car.”
Walt’s last car became a movie prop.
Walt’s last car is fondly remembered by one of his film stars, Dean Jones. “He passed a Mercedes dealership,” Jones says, “He looked in the window and saw this little two-seater, they were about $11,000 at that time.”
Jones recalls that Walt (as he had become accustomed to doing) just walked by, thinking, “I can’t afford that.” But then he stopped and thought, “Wait! I can afford it!” and went back and bought the car.
Later, when Jones made That Darn Cat (1965), the actor noticed that the Mercedes SL230 was being used in the picture as Roddy McDowall’s car! “How come we’re using Walt’s car?” Jones asked. He found out that Walt was being paid $100 a day for the use of his car. “I think that he just felt guilty about spending $11,000, and that the Mercedes had to be of some use other than to drive him around.”
Walt’s family still owns the Mercedes to this day.
By Jeff Kurtti
JEFF KURTTI is a leading authority on The Walt Disney Company, its founder, and its history. He is the author of more than twenty books, a writer-director of award-winning documentary content, and a respected public speaker. A Seattle, Washington, native, Kurtti worked as a production coordinator on the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival, followed by two years as the assistant to the president of the California Institute of the Arts. For several years, he worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design division of The Walt Disney Company, and then for the Corporate Special Projects department of Disney. Since 1995, Kurtti has enjoyed a career as an author, writer, and consultant in the motion picture, theatre, and theme park entertainment industries. He was creative director, content consultant, and media producer for The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and a producer of The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story, a critically acclaimed documentary about the famed songwriters.
JEFF’S RECOMMENDED READING
Walt was truly a man on the move! Check out my Disney Editions book Travels with Walt Disney: A Photographic Voyage Around the World.