How many remember the Autopia cars on opening day at Disneyland? Or how about the Skyway Buckets, the People Mover, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride or perhaps the famous Flying Saucers? If you do, then you can thank Mr. Robert Henry Gurr for these and for working on more than 100 designs for attractions and vehicles during his long tenure with the Disney company. Bob even helped with the design of the first Disney Auto-animatronic, Abraham Lincoln, for the 1964-65 World’s Fair.
Bob Gurr was one of those naturally gifted individuals who could just look at a mechanical device and figure out how to repair or improve it. Bob was born in Los Angeles California in 1931. Even at an early age he loved mechanical things. His interest was further sparked by the fact he lived near the Grand Central Air Terminal during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Being so close to all the planes and cars just whetted his appetite for more. He would even sneak through a hole in the fence at the airport near the American Airlines terminal and sit in the cockpits of the new planes, playing with the controls until discovered by the mechanics. He continued his pursuit in designing planes and cars because he grew up so close to the airport.
He graduated in 1952 from the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles on a General Motors Scholarship, studying industrial design. After his graduation he went to work for the Ford Motor Company. It was Bob’s fate to become an Imagineer. He was visiting the Art Center School after he graduated when a friend who worked in the school’s job placement center asked if he did any outside work. Although he did have a job, he answered yes, even though he never did. His friend phoned the next day and told Bob to be at the Disney Studios as soon as possible. His job at Disney started in the second week of October, 1954. Over the course of his fabulous career with Disney (Officially retiring in 1981) he was involved in so many concepts and designs, it would be beyond the scope of this article to even begin to partially list them. But Bob often quipped “If it moves on wheels at Disneyland, I probably designed it!”
Bobs first task was designing the Autopia cars at Disneyland. This is how Bob first met Walt. While he and a group of engineers were studying the chassis for an Autopia car, an unshaven elderly man walked in and joined the conversation. It was when he walked away, and the group all said “See ya Walt” that Bob realized he was talking to Walt Disney himself! He officially met Walt about three weeks later. He was once asked about Walt’s mechanical knowledge. “He understood a lot. He knew what I was doing but did not interfere or challenge anything” But one time during a disagreement he said… “You can be right…[long pause]…for now!”
Bob never forgot trying to get the Autopia cars ready for Disneyland’s opening day–even after opening day, it was a nightmare to keep all the cars running. “We Started out with 40 Autopia vehicles (two of which were police cars and one on display as ‘Walt’s Car’) left 37 for guests. Mechanical failures happened faster than we could fix them. Since all the mechanics were repairing other attractions, which were vitally needed, I pitched in with my own tools to help the lone repairman. Shortly we were down to just two running cars. Part of the problem was the cars were getting vapor-locked from the 100 degree heat of the day. Walt was there to observe the scene, and asked me ‘What do you need?’ I said, ‘We need mechanics to work on the cars and a place to do it.’ In about an hour, a tractor pulls up; towing an old building and the driver says, ‘Here’s your building. Walt told me to bring it to you, where do you want it?’ The mechanics came the next morning. This is how Walt ran the show; he provided everything needed for success.”
Another of Bob’s innovations was the first tubular steel roller coaster. Walt had told him that they were going to build a Matterhorn roller coaster with two coasters inside and that he was to design the cars and the track. This was a year from Opening Day. He was the first rider. Walt said “You designed it, you ride it!” Another famed vehicle was Walt’s personal electric car in which he drove his guests around Disneyland. When Walt was in the park, he walked quickly. He always drew a crowd and that slowed him down. Bob designed a 1903 Oldsmobile that he described as “cuter than a bug’s ear”
Bob also recalled the Audio-animatronic Mr. Lincoln he worked on for the 1964-65 World’s Fair. During a test run of the figure, the hose broke and red hydraulic gushed out onto Lincoln’s shirt. A woman spectator was mortified because it resembled blood on the shirt. That’s the reason all hydraulic fluid used in the parks is colorless.
Bob was asked why so many people who worked personally with Walt always got a little wistful when speaking of him. “You had to know Walt. . . . You get a guy like Walt once a century.” He also said, “We all felt like an orchestra, and Walt waved the baton.” Everyone outside the studio thought Walt the Wizard, the Genius, but to the workers around him, he was just Walt. He was also asked if it was difficult to design products that did not yet exist. His reply? No–“because it’s easier if it doesn’t exist. You don’t waste any time researching”.
Walt knew that the only way to achieve his dreams and have them come to fruition was to hire the best craftsman, artists, musicians and engineers he could find. Walt was a perfectionist and would accept nothing less but the best from his workers so his guests could experience nothing but the best from his product. Robert Gurr certainly falls into that category. Even after retiring from Disney, he continued to help design, working for other companies, even for Universal studios’ King Kong. He stills returns to Disney from time to time to consult. Bob was named a Disney Legend in 2004 and rightly so. Because of Bob and hundreds like him, Walt’s dreams and visions are here today for all to enjoy.
Contributed by: Bill I. (NDH #35). Bill is our resident historian.