From Point A to Point B: The Los Angeles Auto Show, December 1920

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This morning, I took my 13-year old son to the final day of the Los Angeles Auto Show, a massive exhibition taking up much of the Los Angeles Convention Center, and we got there at opening time at 8 a.m. and enjoyed a few hours of gazing, gaping, and gawking at customized older vehicles, concept cars, and current production models.  My son is intensely interested in high-end cars and got to see a few Lamborghinis, Maseratis, Ferraris and others, while it was interesting for me to see the growing number of electric and fuel cell vehicles, in addition to future concept cars.

The show has a long history in the car-centric city, dating back to the first edition back in late January 1907, when some 3,000 visitors went to a skating ring on Grand Avenue between 9th and 10th streets and examined about 100 “horseless carriages” just a decade after the first automobile was found on the streets of Los Angeles.

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From the Homestead’s collection is this image and the following several from the program of the ninth Los Angeles Auto Show, held 11-19 December 1920.

The Homestead has some artifacts related to the auto shows conducted during the 1920s, including a program, highlighted here, from the ninth edition of the event, held from 11-19 December 1920.

The location was the Arnold Buiilding, recently erected at the northwest corner of Figueroa and 7th streets, where the two-story home of pioneer saddler Samuel C. Foy, who was a competitor to William and Nicolasa Workman’s nephews, Elijah and William H. Workman.  Foy’s house was moved for the construction of the new structure and ended up in Angelino Heights, where it still stands.

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As for the three-story Arnold Building, it was built to house an auto dealership, a garage for serving cars, and an office building and took up an entire block.  Later, the structure housed the showroom of major auto dealer Paul Hoffman, who’d recently the local retail branch of the Studebaker Corporation and became vice-president in 1925 and president a decade later.  Hoffman later ran the Ford Foundation and was a director of Time, Inc., United Airlines, Encyclopaedia Britannica and involved in lots of other important business and political endeavors.  These included heading the United Nations Development Program and being the first administrator of the Marshall Plan, both after World War II.

Hoffman, who was only 29, was also the chairman of the 1920 auto show as well as serving as treasurer of the Motor Car Dealers Association of Los Angeles, which sponsored the show and billed itself as “the oldest and largest organization of its kind in the world.”  The program added:

the objects of the Association are to promote the building of good roads and the Association as a body has contributed large amounts of money for this purpose; to assist in securing equitable city, county, state and national laws governing motor car use and travel; to assist its members in economical methods of conducting the motor car business; to educate mechanics, chauffeurs and owners in proper care and use of motor cars; to promote harmonious co-operation between owners, motor car dealers and factories so that the greatest possible benefit, at the lowest possible cost, may be derived from the use of motor cars and commercial vehicles.

Exhibits features cars, trucks and accessories and it was pointed out that “all kinds of motive power is used—gasoline, distillate, steam and electricity.”  Wait!  Steam?  Electricity?  In fact, the extracting of adequate supplies of crude petroleum was far from assured in those days, and the recently concluded First World War absorbed much supply, until technology evolved by the end of the decade to drill more deeply to tap into larger pools of the fossil fuel.  So, yes, there were electric cars in the 1920s, though their reliability was an issue.

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It was also stated that the value of all of the exhibited vehicles “exceeds ONE MILLION DOLLARS” and the sum total of capital invested by exhibitors ran into the many millions.  The design theme was “The Temple of the Four Seasons,” which was said to have been “symbolical of the all-year pleasure which ownership of a motor car brings to a Southern Californian.”

Signage was provided for the show by the rapidly growing Automobile Club of Southern California, which took responsibility, before standards were introduced, for much of the signage out on the highways and byways of the region.  The Auto Club, the headquarters of which have been down the street on Figueroa at Adams, near U.S.C. since 1923, also provided “a luxurious reception room” in the building for the benefit of visitors.

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Entertainment was provided by three orchestras: The Royal Italian Orchestra, Ben Laietsky’s Orchestra, and The Vassar Girls led by Isabel Chandler, with the first two including soloists.  In addition, “there will be special vocal and instrumental programs each day.”

Maps for the first floor and basement provided locations of the exhibitors with entrances off Figueroa and Seventh.  Another street on which the building fronted was “Orange Street,” which shortly afterward was renamed Wilshire Boulevard.

Over fifty auto dealers were represented and the number of makes, compared to today, is remarkable, including such obscure ones as Apperson, Columbia, Saxon, Templar, Auburn, Marmon, Lexington, Velie, Dorris, Roamer and Westcott.  Somewhat better known, though long gone, are such examples as Willys-Knight, Kissell, Stanley Steamer, Hupmobile, Pierce Arrow, and Stutz.

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Another unusual make was Locomobile, founded in 1899 and taken over by Durant Motors two years after the show.  Walter P. Temple owned a Locomobile touring car, which was a luxury product for Durant, and, though the name was a combination of “locomotive” and “automobile,” Temple, a fluent Spanish speaker, was probably more than amused that it could be construed as “crazy car.”

Truck exhibitors included standard car makers like Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge, as well as ones lesser-known today like White, Autocar, and Vim.  Accessory firms ran the gamut from those that produced carburetors, piston rings, shock absorbers, bumpers,  and oil and lubricans to “auto theft signals,” the “Fulberth automatic windshield cleaner,” and insurance.

The 12 December 1920 issue of the Los Angeles Times covered the previous day’s show opening and noted

the huge structure was jammed almost to the bursting point [fire codes, anyone?!]  with an enormous throng of interested spectators who clustered thickly amongst the nifty show cars and trampled [tramped] endless [well, there had to be an end} miles up and down the aisles.

While repeating the program’s statement that there were a million dollars in valuation in the autos displayed, the paper observed that “the humble, rut-leaping product of Henry Ford’s enormous plant drew as big a share of the interest as the most costly and elegant of the custom-built creations” of higher cost.

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Coverage of the ninth Los Angeles Auto Show, Los Angeles Times, 12 December 1920.

Four days later, a mid-week edition of the paper has a fantastic cartoon showing worn-out visitors resting their “dogs;” the aggressive advertising of all those essential accessories; Hoffman and his fellow show “master minds” calling out to “stop that little guy that’s just going out the Figueroa St. entrance—he’s got a bank account and no car!; and the artist’s exclamation “this was too good a coincidence not to be sketched” in which a beautiful woman sat in a chair next to a sign that read “Don Lee Custom Built Bodies.”

With its sleek, futuristic design, heavy use of audio and visual imagery, and well-trained employees giving presentations on vehicles, the 2017 Los Angeles Auto Show is exponentially much larger and more sophisticated than its predecessor 97 years ago, but the fundamentals are still there: demonstrating current and future automobiles to enthusiasts in the city that still epitomizes and embodies the finer points of “car culture.”

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An amazing cartoon caricature of the show, Times, 16 December 1920.

With regard to the home of the 1920 show, the Arnold Building lasted just under 30 years and was razed for the building of the Hotel Statler, touted as the largest hotel, comprising nearly 1,300 rooms, built in the United States in two decades, when it opened in 1952 at a cost of some $25 million.  Conrad Hilton bought the hotel soon after and it was known as the Los Angeles Hilton for years before it became an Omni hotel in 1979 and then the Wilshire Grand by owner Korean Air.  That company just completed in June the 73-story Wilshire Grand skyscraper that replaced the hotel and which is, at 1,100 feet the tallest building west of Chicago, besting the nearby U.S. Bank Tower by 82 feet.

2 thoughts

  1. Steam and electric cars were really obsolete by 1920. They flourished in 1900-1910 because they did not need to be hand cranked to start like the gasoline cars. Steam was a common power source in factories making its operation understood. Electric cars were much quieter than gas cars. Their range was very limited and they were suitable only for in town use. They appealed to women. Mrs Henry Ford drove one.
    Steam and electric cars also do not have transmissions or clutches that need to mastered.

    The Lincoln was a brand new make and in December 1920 very few were even in existence. It was built in a factory that had been specially constructed to built Liberty airplane engines. The airplane contracts were cancelled in 1919 so the owner Henry Leland returned to making automobiles. Sadly the economic downturn of 1921 sent it into bankruptcy to be eventually purchased by Henry Ford by 1923.

    By 1929 the LA auto show was held in a tent. It caught fire and destroyed every car in the show. A fascinating story in its own right.

  2. Hi Jim, thanks for the comment and additional info on steam and electric cars. On the 1929 show, the Homestead’s collection has several photos showing the site after the conflagration, so that will be a topic for a future post for sure!

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