by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the first decades of the twentieth century, there were few new technological wonders as revolutionary in greater Los Angeles than the automobile. From the appearance of the first “horseless carriage” in the Angel City in 1897 (a future post will highlight that vehicle and its first honorary passenger, William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman), the car quickly emerged as a significant force in local transportation.
By the mid-1920s, horse-driven conveyances were all but consigned to the ash heap of history in the region (though there were probably a few Luddites in the rural hinterlands) and the dominance of the streetcar was seriously threatened as the main way for locals to get from point A to point B. One of the many ways to see just how rapidly the automobile became in car-crazy and car-centric Los Angeles is through the development of the Los Angeles Auto Show, the premier opportunity for manufacturers, dealers, accessory providers, and enthusiasts and the buying public to converge and celebrate the car.
Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is a program for the 1924 edition of the event, held at the southwest corner of Exposition Park, next to the recently completed (1923) Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Held in four massive tents linked by covered passageways, the show hosted some forty different auto companies. Familiar names still around today or recently so include Ford, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Dodge, Cadillac, Buick and Rolls Royce. There were plenty, however, who have long faded away, including Oakland, Auburn, Piece-Arrow, Nash, Maxwell, Hudson, Stutz, and Locomobile, the latter being the provider of one of several cars owned by the Temple family during the ownership of the Homested at the time.
In addition, one of the tents, which included an office and cafe, was largely devoted to exhibitors of parts and accessories, including brakes, water pumps, wheels, carburetors, shock absorbers, windshields, auto tops, oils and lubricants, batteries, paints and finishes, and much more. There were a few esoteric or novelty vendors, including Tourists Supply Company and its auto kitchenette for travelers.
The program listed committee and management members and the officers and directors of he Los Angeles Motor Car Dealers Association, who sponsored the event and which was described as “the oldest and largest organization of its kind in the world.” As to the “Objects of the Show,” it was asserted that “probably no commodity manufactured has more generally relieved man and animals of heavy labor in transportation and has promoted the industrial life of our entire country to such an extent as the automobile and commercial truck.” Therefore, “it is to show the amazing advancement in these 1924 creations for passenger travel and the great ability of the commercial truck that the exhibition is given.”
As for the association, its statement of purpose was expressed as: “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 OWNERS, MECHANICS and CHAUFFEURS in the proper use and care of motor cars; to promote harmonious co-operation between OWNERS, MOTOR CAR DEALERS and FACTORIES so that the greatest possible benefit, at the lower possible cost, may be derived from the use of MOTOR CARS and COMMERCIAL VEHICLES.”
It was also proclaimed that the value of all of the show’s exhibits topped $1 million, while the capital invested in the auto business in greater Los Angeles was said to be many millions. Moreover, the Automobile Club of Southern California, which led the way to uniform signage of roads and highways, safety standards, and other crucial best practices, had a Bureau of Information for the show, hosted a “luxurious reception room” and provided the signage for the event.
Orchestras provided entertainment in all four tents and was supervised by Don Clark, who was the conductor of the widely known Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel Orchestra (that famous hostelry, still operating across from Pershing Square, celebrates its centennial in a couple of years.) It should also be noted that “motive power of all kinds is used—gasoline, distillate and electricity.” Yes, there were all-electric cars at the time and the “distillate” meant a fuel for internal combustion vehicles that either had electric or mechanical transmissions.
Press coverage was heavy for the event, emblematic of the rising importance of the automobile in the region and during the time, especially in the Los Angeles Times, which hastened to enthusiastically endorse and promote any elements that would boost the region. In its edition of the 1st, for example, the paper devoted lots of effort and ink to pushing the show to its readers, with many articles and some impressive imagery employed to that effect. It was also observed that there were many executives from Detroit, the manufacturing megalopolis of the motor car industry, who were expected to attend the show. In addition, lots of advertisements were taken out by car makers and others who were exhibiting at the event.
Also effusive in its coverage was the Los Angeles Record and its automotive section for the same day’s issue. The paper exclaimed that the show was forecast to shatter attendance records and was expected to be “the greatest ever staged in Los Angeles or anywhere else in California.” It was also asserted that “this is the first show in the country where builders are displaying their wares” for 1925 and it was added the, previously, it was only at the New York and Chicago car shows that manufacturers showed the next year’s models.
The paper also commented on and commended the planners for having an “Oriental” design scheme, in keeping with the exoticism prevalent in the Roaring Twenties, for the tent decor, while the music under Clark’s organization was noted for adding “an element of gayety and enthusiasm” to the proceedings. Finally, there is a fun large-size cartoon to add a bit of humor and a light touch to the Record’s promotion of the event.
Not as effusive and more sanguine than its competitors was the Express, which did run a number of promotional articles, but refrained from having lots of photos or drawings/cartoons. Still, on the 3rd, the paper did report that the show “has been the center of attraction for the past two days” in the Angel City “and is scheduled to keep in the limelight for the rest of the week.” Some detail was provided, such as the fact that some exhibitors “presented cutaway chassis to show what is going on in a machine while it is in operation.” By contrast, the modern show offers virtual reality simulators and other very high-tech means of giving glimpses of where the auto industry looks to be heading.
The paper added that the show had more exhibits of accessories than any other, while displays by such entities as the county’s motor patrol (the California Highway Patrol was still five years from being organized) promoted safety, including through displays of headlights in advance of a state law taking effect at the dawn of the new year. Also focusing on safety and legal matters were representatives from the state’s motor vehicles department and the Los Angeles Police Department.
Illustrative of both the growth of the motor vehicle and the motion picture industry in greater Los Angeles, Wednesday the 5th was denoted as “Movie Night” and a few major film stars, including Marguerite de la Motte, Colleen Moore, Dustin Farnum, and Pola Negri were reported to be among those perusing the exhibits. The Times ran a cartoon that joked that show manager Burt Roberts, with his balding pate, would be recognized by google-eyed star-struck attendees as prominent movie producer and director Cecil B. De Mille.
For those attending the show on the prior day, the 4th, hours were extended specifically because it was the presidential election and, as returns were being announced later in the evening for western states, the show’s promoters not only wisely had the event remain open “until final returns” were in, but arranged for radio broadcasting (there was another burgeoning technological advancement, as commercial radio was only four years old) of results.
As mentioned here previously, President Calvin Coolidge, who ascended to the highest office from the vice-presidency after the sudden death in summer 1923 of Warren G. Harding, cruised easily to victory over Democrat John W. Davis and third-party candidate Robert M. LaFollette, whose candidacy was promoted by the Record. Given the Republican Party’s rhetoric in our time, it is interesting to note that the Express issued an editorial on the 7th that proclaimed that “radicalism was routed” and the knockout delivered by Coolidge’s supporters beat back “the doctrines of socialism and unrest and disorder” so that “the American people arose to meet a threatened crisis.”
After the show ran its nine-day course, it was widely reported that it was highly successful, even though the last day was a rainy one and kept attendance from being even more record-shattering. The Express stated that managers were congratulated for hosting the finest show ever held on the west coast and noted that it was considered a success from the standpoints of display techniques, educational content and, quite importantly, receipts and car sales. Folders about traffic laws and school safety, in addition to the aforementioned elements, were handed out in droves.
The rise of the auto in this region and the nation broadly continued its dramatic upswing through the remainder of the decade and the Los Angeles Auto Show grew in scope and scale accordingly. The Twenties also found a major increase in the manufacturing of such elements as tires, with manufacturers like Goodrich, Goodyear, Firestone and Samson opening plants in the industrial suburbs south and southeast of Los Angeles. There was a terrible tragedy at the 1929 event, held at Washington Park closer to downtown, when a fire roared through the tents and ravaged the valuable contents, including many vehicles. Even with the Great Depression and World War II years, as economic privation and wartime rationing limited growth, Los Angeles continued its unparalleled ascent as the world capital of the auto.
This program, with its impressive front cover giving an air of glamor to the event, notably with its dramatic curtain reveal showing the distinctive facade of the Coliseum, as well as the luxury vehicle and the nattily attired persons around it, is an excellent example of the ascent of the auto during the 1920s.