Visiting firemen love a sentimental journey on an old-time tram

At 17, Lorenzo Calce was shining shoes in the Mount Royal Hotel on Peel Street. Today, at 40, he is vice-president (operations) of Murray hill Limousine Service Ltd. The link between the jobs was Charles Hershorn, who died this month at 76 after 22 years as Murray Hill’s owner and president.

As a recent arrival from the village of Galluccio, near Naples, Mr. Calce started out looking after Mr. Hershorn’s footwear rather than his fleet. The two hit it off, and the young Italian hung up his shoeshine kit to become a Murray Hill sweeper/washer. From that unlikely springboard he vaulted to his present post overseeing maintenance for Canada’s biggest private bus and Limousine Company.

Mr. Hershorn’s career also underwent a surprising metamorphosis. He was president of Hyde Park Clothes, at the time owned by his family, when he bowed out after a dispute and in 1953 bought Murray Hill. The firm was then languishing as a modest taxi and bus operation.So both men came to their life’s work in a circuitous fashion. And it showed. Throughout their years together, they approached the transportation field with the convert’s unbounded enthusiasm. Happiness was showing a visitor Murray hill’s 80 buses, 50 Cadillac limousines – including an $18,000 silver Fleetwood that cabinet ministers have ridden in, 55 Meteor sedans (“all with air conditioning and uniformed drivers”), the two stately black $14,000 Austin Princesses hired by the Beatles during their Montreal appearances (“Could you put the Beatles in a Cadillac?” snapped Mr. Hershorn, plainly aghast at the thought) and the cavernous 750,000 square-foot garage complex on Barre Street housing the Murray hill vehicles and those of client firms.

But all this, in a sense, was a sideline for Mr. Hershorn and his protégé.
The real focus of their professional interest, the chefs d’oeuvre of their careers, was the custom built specialty buses that have made Murray hill a magic name in The North American sight-seeing industry. This unique fleet is the Hershorn legacy to the business he loved. In creating the buses, the division of labor was always the same. Mr. Hershorn advanced the concept for a new vehicle with characteristic flamboyance, repeatedly testing his ideas against Mr. Calce’s rock-hard common sense. Once the final design was negotiated, it would be turned over to Murray Hill’s six-man team of coachbuilders – headed by the self-taught Mr. Calce – for execution on a standard bus.

“You’ve got to be a nut to dream up these ideas,” Mr. Hershorn said in an interview shortly before his death.“My drivers thought I was crazy when I started to work on our first special – a convertible bus- in 1956. I wanted to show people I knew something about the sightseeing business. The question I kept hearing was: what would happen when it rained. But that bus was a hit right from the first demonstration ride in Dominion Square. Dubbed The Sunliner, the pioneering model also was inspired by the fact that, prior to conversion, its roof leaked. It’s still in use today.

The Golden Chariot, another topless carrier further delighted the army of tourists who board Murray Hill buses every summer – and particularly on holiday weekends like Labor Day – to take in the city and environs. Feeling the creative juices starting to bubble, the duo undertook the Sistine Chapel of their works. Le Tram, a bus version of an early Montreal streetcar, was not brought forth without anguish, recalls Mr. Calce.“It has to be taken apart three times before we got it right. We had no plans-only a picture of an old tram.”

Murray hill’s president never let his lack of mechanical background hamper him in running the company of launching bus-rebuilding projects. “Once you know the clothing business, you can run anything,” he said. “The principles are the same. I don’t know a radiator from a rubber tire in the beginning. But Pasquale- who put his heart and soul into this business-said why not? Se we went ahead.” (His appreciation of good engineering developed to the point of buying himself a Mercedes 600, once the preferred automobile of the king of Morocco and similar luminaries.)

“Pasquale” was what Mr. Hershorn soon dubbed his young employee. He found Lorenzo and Calce (pronounced Calsee) hard to say. The nickname’s recipient didn’t think much of being rechristened, but he got used to it. So did everyone else. Today, his business card (in green and white, the company colors) reads: Lorenzo (Pasquale) Calce. Despite his rise to the executive suite, the ex-sweeper has never lost his zest for keeping Murray hill’s garage as close to operating room clean as possible. He still gets a lift out of pouncing on flattened cigarette packages that the company’s self propelled floor cleaning machine misses. “It cost $9,000 and it can’t pick up a cigarette pack,” he laments. “But it’s good on butts.” A Calce golden rule: no vehicle leaves the garage without being washed.

The flow of specialty buses continued. The Colorama, boasting transparent roof panels, was unveiled in 1966 as an answer to the rain problem inherent in convertible carriers. Fine in the fall, it proved to be too hot for summer use. Then there was the Crystal Cube. This glass box mounted on an Austin Mini chassis is called upon to give visiting dignitaries a chance to do some downtown neck craning. Mr. Hershorn told how we first spotted the offbeat vehicle “In the European edition of Time magazine when he got off a plane in Rome during an around-the-world tour with my wife.” He immediately recognized the Cube as Murray Hill’s kind of buggy. The story said, a London firm was building it. Adding a London stop to his itinerary, Mr. Hershorn placed a Cube order of his own. The runabout was shipped to Montreal, where his men installed a heater and public address system. “It’s different,” Mr. Calce says. “That’s the name of the game today.”

In 1968, Murray hill received its first $85,000 “panoramic” tour bus, built to order by a Quebec firm. It featured what at the time was a daring innovation: ultrahigh side windows that were actually windshield turned on end. “The builder said it would look terrible,” remembers Mr. Calce. “ We told him: it’s our money: just build it. Now passengers love our panoramic.” Not all of Mr. Hershorn’s inspirations panned out. He originally wanted to festoon the company’s new Olympic bus- valued at $150,000- with imitation Grecian pillars reminiscent of the stadiums where the ancient Games once were held.

The VP felt the maestro- who despite recent poor health, came to work daily until his death- was off base on that one. “It just wouldn’t have worked. I talked him out of it.” The final version- now a familiar site on city streets features huge round windows along each side, inspired by the Olympic rings symbol. It’s billed as the only bus in the world with 11-foot-9-inch ceiling seats that swivel and an Olympic torch above the windshield. The Murray hill fleet wasn’t always a many-splendored thing.

When Louis Samuels started the firm in 1909, his rolling stock consisted of one horse-drawn wagon. Business reached its peak in the Second World War, during which Murray hill taxis ferried military pilots out to St. Hubert Airport. But the pace of expansion slowed after peace arrived. Mr. Hershorn described how the dust was “that thick” on Mr. Samuels’ desk the day he walked in to have his car washed at the company’s Oller Street garage.“Why do you want to be here at your age?” I asked him. “Do you want to buy? Was his answer. I said yes, even though I had to do it with borrowed money. I recognized the business as a sleeper that could go places.”

One of Mr. Hershorn’s first moves was to auction off some 20 aging Packards at $10 and up. He replaced them with Cadillacs. Then he bought a dilapidated former Army Service Corps depot on Barre Street and demolished it. The firm’s garage complex went up on the site in the late ‘50s. The executive offices are in the spot once occupied by the depot’s latrine. Called upon over the years to drive crowned heads, millionaires and international celebrities, Murray hill chauffeurs (not drivers, please) acquired a reputation for unshakeable aplomb. For instance, the men who chauffeured Lord Beaverbrook, the late newspaper magnate, on business trips around Eastern Canada soon learned how to handle the wheel while eating hardboiled eggs. His Lordship always brought along a bagful to avoid losing time with lunch stops.

No longer in the taxi and ambulance business, the company and its 311 unionized employees offer a complete car-bus transportation package: charters, sight-seeing tours, airport service, vehicles for weddings, funerals and other occasions. But one-of-a kind buses have been – and will continue to be- the eye-catching icing on Murray Hill’s cake, says Mr. Calce with feeling. “That’s the way Mr. Hershorn would have wanted it. The two of us lived the life of artists in the years we built those specials. The hours, the effort meant nothing to us. The challenge of doing something new- that was the thing.”

By Brian Moore