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Copple Automobile Works
Copple Automobile Works, 1919-1940s, Los Angeles, California (aka Copple Bros., Copple Auto Body, Copple Auto Body Works)
Associated Firms
Pierce Bros. Mortuary

Copple Automobile Works (aka Copple Bros. and Copple Auto Body) was a Los Angeles-based body shop that produced small numbers of commercial bodies in addition to its main line of repainting, refinishing and collision repair. It's remembered today for a series of hearses constructed for the LA-based Pierce Bros. mortuary, the region's largest funeral home operator who utilized a large fleet of Pierce-Arrow and Cadillac funeral cars.

The firm's founders were two Kentucky-born brothers named Joseph W. (Joe) and Frank T. Copple – their brother Robert A. Copple joined the firm several years after its founding in 1919.

The brother's parents were Charles (b. 1862 – d. 1925 in Kentucky to German immigrants) and Rosa (b.1864 in Ohio to French immigrants) Copple. Their oldest son, Joseph William Copple, was born September 17, 1890 in Newport, Kentucky. Robert A. Copple, their middle child, was born January 6, 1894 in Covington, Kentucky (d. Dec. 2. 1974). Frank T. Copple, the youngest, was born on June 29, 1896 in Covington, Kentucky (d. Aug. 1, 1965).

The 1900 and 1910 US Census place the Copple family in Covington (Ward 1,) Kenton County, Kentucky, with Charles' occupations being listed as Teamster (1900), then Hostler (1910); the 1910 census lists Joe's occupation as a clerk in drug store.

The family relocated to Los Angeles sometime before 1915 as they're listed in the 1915 Los Angeles directory as follows:

"Charles Copple r. 620 W. 41st pl

"Joseph W. Copple bookkeeper G.W. Walker Cigar Store r. 620 W. 41st pl

"Robert A. Copple clk. r. 620 W. 41st pl

The 1916 Los Angeles directory lists Frank for the first time, his occupation operator:

"Charles Copple r. 638 W. 41st pl

"Frank T. Copple opr. r. 638 W. 41st pl

"Joseph W. Copple bookkeeper G.W. Walker Cigar Store r. 126 E 21st

"Robert A. Copple clk. r. 620 W. 41st pl"

The 1917 Los Angeles directory lists Frank's occupation as machinist and also states that Robert was now working as a travelling salesman for the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.:

"Charles Copple r. 638 W. 41st pl

"Frank T. Copple machinist r. 638 W. 41st pl

"Joseph W. Copple bookkeeper, Stetson Barrett (2nd & Sante Fe), r. 722 W. 41st pl

"Robert A. Copple traveling salesman, Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., 1165 S. Figueroa; r. 638 W. 41st pl

Frank and Joseph founded the firm in 1919, in a leased garage located at 1406-1410 South rand Ave., Los Angeles. The test from a 1920 display ad follows:

"Frank T. Copple, Joe Copple - SPECIAL TRUNK RACKS and BODYSHIELDS Copple Automobile Works Manufacturing and Repairing FENDERS, 1406-1410 South Grand Ave. PHONE 23962"

Their listing in the 1920 Los Angeles directory:

"Copple Auto Works (Frank T. & Joe Copple) auto body mfrs, 1406 South Grand Ave., Los Angeles

"Frank T. Copple (Copple Auto Works) r. Glendale

"Joseph W. Copple (Copple Auto Works) r. 600 W. 41st dr

"Robert A. Copple traveling salesman, Kelly-Springfield Tire Co. r. 700 Plymouth av"

Copple's history with Pierce Bros. Mortuary, which coincidentally was located just one block away, dates to 1927. In an article on Pierce-Arrow professional cars published in issue #158 of The Professional Car, historian Thomas A. McPherson provided some details on that first Pierce-Arrow coach:

"Perhaps the most unique of these was a funeral car the firm designed and crafted for the Pierce Brothers Mortuary in Los Angeles in 1927. Unlike anything else the industry had seen, this unique side-loading, landaulet-type funeral coach with open-front town-car styling was mounted on a 1922 Series 33 Pierce-Arrow chassis… Copple claimed that the custom coachwork of this vehicle was unsurpassed in detailed perfection and that the side- loading arrangement allowed an unbroken body line at the rear of the vehicle."

A line drawing (seen to the right) and press release announced the distinctive side-loading coach to the funeral trades in July, 1927:

"Originality of design and excellence of construction meet in the new town car funeral coach which was made especially for Pierce Brothers, morticians of Los Angeles, California. It is, in effect, a town car, the slight elongation of the cab accentuating rather than detracting from the richness of that most stately type of cars. The car presents a striking and commanding picture with its color scheme of dark blue cab, black hood and fenders and bronze trim."

McPherson continues:

"Until quite recently, we, as professional-vehicle historians, were unsure that this vehicle had actually been produced; however, through diligent research, an original Pierce Brothers photograph illustrating a line-up of the firm's majestic all Pierce-Arrow fleet taken in 1931 clearly shows this vehicle."

Copple continued building coaches for Pierce Bros. Mortuary on Pierce-Arrow chassis into the early 1930s. McPherson described several of them in his TPC article:

"Looking much more contemporary, a Copple-designed and -built limousine-style funeral car was delivered on a 1930 Pierce-Arrow Model A chassis. However, this was strictly a side loader and was, like the earlier Town Car, devoid of a rear-loading door. The very low casket compartment floor was fitted with the Knightstown style of scientifically placed rollers and balls that eliminated the heavy and patented Heise mechanism and moveable table."

McPherson also reports that Copple built at least one limousine-style Pierce-Arrow funeral coach (1930 Model A – 144" wheelbase powered by a 132 h.p. 385 cu. in. straight-8) for the Conner-Johnson funeral home in Los Angeles who also ran a large fleet of Pierce-Arrows.

Copple's listing in the 1931 Los Angeles directory follows:

"J.W., F.T., & R.A. Copple - 806 W. Washington and 1635 El Centro"

On Jan. 9, 1931, Copple Automobile Works was sued for infringing upon W.H. Heise’s hearse patent, No. US1968205 (ser no 1721394 - Held by Big Rock Ranch Co., Los Angeles, Calif.). The court D.C., S.D., Calif. (Los Angeles) doc E. Y -8-J ruled that Heises’ patent was valid and that Copple infringed upon it. Heise / Big Rock later sued Pierce Bros. Mortuary for infringement of the same patent; 1,721,391, W. H. Heise, Hearse, filed Oct. 6, 1931, D. C, S. D. Calif. (Los Angeles), Doc. E V-9-M,Big Rock Ranch Co. v. Pierce Bros.

Pictured on this page are a number of limousine-style side-loading coaches Copple constructed for Pierce Bros. Also pictured are two ambulances, the first for the City of Beverly Hills Police Dept., the second for B.E. Dayton Inc. Also included are a number of interior view of the Copple shop circa 1932 (period photos by Richard Whittington, a local LA photographer).

The firm's listing in the 1939 Los Angeles directory:

"J.W. Copple (garage), 1032 South Olive Street, Los Angeles (Frank T., Joseph W. & Robert A. Copple)"

The firm remained in operation on a small scale during the Second World War, the last trace of the firm I could located was the from the 1948 Los Angeles directory, which indicates Frank T. Copple had gone into business with his son:

"Frank T. Copple; (wife Lillian M.) auto service r. 3425 Las Palmas Ave (also Frank T. Copple jr.)"

© 2015 Mark Theobald for with special thanks to Thomas A. McPherson







Thomas A. McPherson - Truly Regal: Pierce-Arrow Funeral Cars and Ambulances, The Professional Car #158, Jan-Feb 2015 issue

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