John J. Geraghty dies at 85; hot rod designer later became art expert

Hot rod designer-turned art expert John J. Geraghty, 85, dies

John J. Geraghty, obituary, Autry National Center for the American West, western art, hot rod, Geraghty-Crawford Grasshopper

John J. Geraghty, an automotive engineer who made his mark in hot rod design before switching gears and becoming an expert in the art of the American West, has died. He was 85.

Geraghty died May 27 of cancer at his Glendale home, his daughter LeeAnn York said.

An affable figure in his bolo tie and cowboy boots, Geraghty was a trustee of the Autry National Center for the American West. Helping to set up the Autry's annual Masters of the American West Fine Art Exhibition and Sale in 1998, he established it over the years as one of the nation's top western art shows.

"If someone disappointed him by sending in less than their very best work, they'd be reprimanded," said Autry visual arts curator Amy Scott. "Of course, they'd also be praised for going above and beyond. He had high expectations of the artists he selected for the show, and he made sure they produced."

Piloting a small plane, Geraghty frequently flew around the West, touching down in Cut Bank, Mont., or Tucson to encourage promising artists or to keep up with old pros.

"He had excellent taste and a great eye," said Howard Terpning, a prominent painter of Native Americans who accompanied Geraghty on many of his trips and frequently hosted him at his Tucson home.

"We shared a lot of time visiting in my studio. If I had a painting on the easel, I'd ask for his opinion. He was just a great friend."

Geraghty, who liked to say he was "afflicted" with a passion for western painting and sculpture, had no formal art training — but he applied an artist's touch to much of what he did.

In 1960, the Christmas display he built at his Montrose home made headlines. It included a 40-foot-tall rocket — the Saintnik I — that he put together from welded oil drums and old car parts. A tape recording blared Christmas carols, alternating with the launchpad roar of an actual Atlas rocket.

He also designed T-shirts for his Geraghty Auto and Marine business with a distinctive image: a wheeled boat billowing smoke, driven by a man with a crazy grin.

A tow truck driver when he was young, Geraghty had a passion for racing. He was a fixture around Southern California drag strips and was known for super-fast creations, including a candy-green, converted Model T roadster with nearly 1,000 horsepower that was called the Geraghty-Crawford Grasshopper.

The Grasshopper was on the cover of Hot Rod magazine in October 1959, said hot rod historian Pat Ganahl, the magazine's former editor.

"It had so much power, it would never go straight down the track," he said, "but it set a record for its class."

A duplicate of the Grasshopper will be on hand at Geraghty's funeral at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills, his daughter said.

One of his earlier racers was the first hot rod to set a Bonneville record in 1952. It went 230 mph.

Geraghty developed techniques like dynotuning for improving engine efficiency. He worked on Steve McQueen's car in the 1968 film "Bullitt" and tuned cars for the FBI. He co-wrote a book and designed a system for squeezing better gas mileage out of RVs, and churned out engine-saving tips in a column for "Trailer Life" magazine.

"He was quite a celebrity among RV'ers," York said.

Born in Los Angeles on April 3, 1930, Geraghty was raised by his grandmother. He attended Fresno State before joining the Navy, where he was assigned to the USS Toledo and became a welterweight boxing champ.

He started collecting art on a trip to Arizona in the 1970s but devoted himself full time to it when he retired from his automotive businesses in 1997.

Geraghty co-founded the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyo., and the Cowboy Artists of America Museum in Kerrville, Texas. The latter is now called the Museum of Western Art.

He also profiled artists for Western Art Collector magazine, pounding out formal yet folksy pieces on collecting paintings and sculptures of sage-dotted landscapes, Native American ceremonies, Chinese immigrants working on the railroad and elk roaming mountain meadows.

"He had a tremendous effect on how paintings were bought and sold," said Joshua Rose, the magazine's editor.

His survivors include daughter LeeAnn York, sons Steven Geraghty and John Geraghty, and nine grandchildren. Saralynn Geraghty, his wife of 60 years, died in 2013.

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