by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The development by the end of the 1920s of greater Los Angeles as an anto-centric region is one of the area’s best-known attributes, along with its connection to the Hollywood film industry, its tourism, and its urban sprawl (which, of course, is directly tied to the prevalence of the car as well as lots of open space.)
Embracing the automobile involved a wide variety of motivations, including pride of ownership, freedom of movement, control of time, and the thrill of speed, among others. As is often the case with new and developing technology, rapid responses and adjustments had to be made with traffic safety, public order, and other broader social issues, aside from individual adaptations. It’s hard to think of any other major transformative change that was more groundbreaking and earthshaking than the growth of car culture.
It’s not surprising, then, to note that, when collecting photographs, specifically snapshots (academically often termed “vernacular photography”) taken by non-professionals, it is easily observed that among the most common images are those of the houses and automobiles of the photographer. This reflects the pride of ownership issue noted earlier and, often, a photo will include both, with the auto parked in front of the home or on the driveway.
Today’s “From Point A to Point B” post highlights a snapshot photograph from the Homestead’s collection that, while not showing the house, does depict a 1927 Nash two-door coupe parked in front of a garage, somewhere in Los Angeles, on 25 June 1928. An inscription on the back merely states, “This is our garage and driveway,” though it is curious that there is no mention of what was obviously one of the most expensive possessions of the owner, the auto.
The 1927 Nash coupe, likely what was called a “Light 6”, with room for two passengers in the cab, but also containing a rumble seat in the back, retailed from about $925 (the Special 6 went for $1165, while the Advanced 6, which could seat up to 4, ran for $1775.) By then, the company had about a decade under its belt producing cars.
The firm was founded in 1916 by Charles W. Nash, a former head of Buick and General Motors, who purchased the Thomas B. Jeffrey Company, an early manufacturer of autos based in Wisconsin. Luring Nils Erik Wahlberg, an engineer from GM, Nash began production of vehicles for the 1918 model year, with the firm seeking the mid-level priced portion of the car market. By the end of the 1920s, Nash was the eighth largest auto maker and the firm moved to larger engine and vehicles sizes, aiming to provide the look of luxury while keeping the vehicles affordable.
The onset of the Great Depression in late 1929 hit the auto industry hard, as it did across the board in America, but Nash managed to survive. In 1937, Charles Nash arranged a merger with Kelvinator, a maker of high-end refrigerators and other appliances, and switched with its president, George Mason, in operating the two businesses. Mason ran Nash for the remainder of its history, including the difficult days of World War II.
In the postwar period, as independent auto firms faced challenges from the big players, like GM, Ford and Chrysler, Mason sought to merge companies into American Motors Corporation (AMC). Though he died before the deal was done, AMC did form, in 1954, through the combination of Nash-Kelvinator and Hudson Motors (Studebaker and Packard, which were courted, opted out). At just under $200 million, it was the largest corporate merger in American history to date (the ill-fated AOL/Time-Warner merger of 2000, by contrast, was for $165 billion).
Nash automobiles (which, over the years, pioneered unibody construction; ventilation and heating/air-conditioning systems; and seat belts, among others) continued to be produced under the AMC umbrella for a few years before the nameplate of it and Hudson was phased out for the 1958 model year and cars promoted under the AMC moniker.
The CEO of the firm, who’d joined Nash-Kelvinator as a protege of Mason in the late Forties, was George W. Romney, who resigned to successfully run for governor of Michigan, serving two terms; mounted an ill-fated attempt for the Republican nomination for president in 1968; served as Secretary for Housing and Urban Development under Richard Nixon for that president’s first term; and was the father of former Massachusetts governor, 2012 presidential candidate, and likely upcoming Utah senator, Mitt Romney.
This photograph, like others in the museum’s holdings, reflects the growing prominence of the automobile in regional and national life. It is also a tangible reminder of the important of the car, along with the house, as among the most important possessions of a society that was rising rapidly in the economic realm and in the resulting growth of materialism in America.