Spence Murray – Hot Rod Journalist Extraordinaire
Longtime hot rodders and fans of smart automotive journalism were saddened by the recent passing of Spencer “Spence” Murray, at age 93. Murray spent more than six decades as an influential writer for a host of hot-rod related magazines, including serving as the first editor of Rod & Custom magazine in 1953. He published more than two dozen books, and inadvertently pioneered the Baja off-road racing craze. There wasn’t much Murray couldn’t do when it came to four tires, a steering wheel, and a typewriter.
A Southern California native, Spence Murray was born in 1927 and by his teen years he was customizing cars. He learned to do so at Link’s Custom Shop in Glendale (owner Link Paola was an early customizing pioneer) where he was a body sander and a tow truck driver.
Murray’s first car was a ’41 Ford convertible, which he mildly customized at age 16. That led to a’41 Chevy convertible he and Link Paola restyled together. Like so many young Americans during this era, Murray’s career was put on hold by a World War II stint in the Navy. After the war, Murray picked up where he left off, customizing cars.
A notable project was a ’49 Chevy coupe, a restyling effort that ended up customizing Murray’s career. Paola had found a donor car that had been rolled by the previous owner. Spence and Link chopped the (repaired) top, then smoothed, shaved and lowered the car in tasteful custom style.
After the car’s completion in 1952, Spence Murray mailed photos to a fledgling magazine called Hop Up. Within days, Hop Up lensman Ralph Poole called, lauding the car and arranging a photo shoot. But the photo spread morphed into a lengthy road-trip saga, as Spence and editor Dean Batchelor drove the Chevy 6,000 miles from SoCal to Indianapolis and back to a car show. Sharing that much time with Bachelor – who would go on to become one of rodding’s most influential car builders and journalists – triggered in Murray an interest in writing. In fact, Bachelor had Murray write the article on the trip.
Soon thereafter, Spence quit his job at Link’s and joined Hop Up as Associate Editor. The title was more glamorous than his duties – writing photo captions and typing mailing labels. His salary was a robust $35 per week.
Quinn Publications, which owned Hop Up, expanded their offerings with a new book, Rods & Customs. In 1955, Petersen Publishing purchased Quinn and changed the title to Rod & Custom, with Murray as its first editor.
And so launched Spence Murray’s half-a-century ride down nearly every avenue of automotive publishing. Here’s a list of his greatest hits:
- Editor of Rod & Custom for 14 years
- Editor of Go-Kart magazine (and PR rep for the Go-Kart brand)
- Author of more than 2,000 articles for publications ranging from Road & Track and Hot Rod, to Off-Road and The Rodder’s Journal
- Author of more than two dozen books on topics including tech-how-to’s, off-road racing, travel guides, even rare coins and sailing
- Inducted into the NHRA Hall of Fame
- Builder of signature rides including his Dream Truck and custom ’36 Ford roadster
Spence Murray welcomed adventure. Perhaps his most influential escapade took place in 1967 while at Rod & Custom. As former R&C editor Bud Bryan tells it, one day Murray bumped into Robert Petersen in the hallway, who suggested that Rod & Custom add some off-roading content. Coincidentally, Murray recently had befriended PR-types at American Motors. Together they brainstormed the idea of racing a Rambler sedan the length of the Baja Peninsula – from Tijuana to La Paz, a on nearly impassable dirt road. The goal was to set a passenger-car record.
And that’s exactly what they did. Teaming again with photographer Ralph Poole, the duo shared driving duties of a slightly modified ’67 Rambler American. They completed the journey in an astounding 31 hours, breaking the previous mark set by a dune buggy by four hours. More importantly, the publicity that followed helped spur interest in off-road racing, which eventually grew into the Baja 1000 race.
Bryan, who followed Murray as editor of Rod & Custom, remembers him fondly. “Spence was talented at all areas of automotive journalism. In my mind, he was the best all-subject auto writer there ever was.”
Hot rod legend Alex Xydias agrees. “He was a good guy and an excellent writer,” Alex recalled in a recent interview. “I also remember him helping me out in a very unusual way. We both attended a Chrysler/Dodge media event that featured a driving challenge. Somehow, I won – but the prize was a real, live baby bull. I’m serious. I was living in the city and I had no place to put it. But Spence volunteered to take the cow to his place. I was forever grateful!”
All us hot rodders should be grateful to Spencer Murray, as well – for incalculable contribution to our hobby, from custom cars s to journalism to inspiration. Bylines live forever. He will be missed.