by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In attending this year’s “recharged” Los Angeles Auto Show, which, of course, was shut down in 2020 during the pandemic, it was striking just how much more emphasis was placed on electric cars, charging stations (including nationwide systems), and related aspects than there was in recent shows.
As the owner of a hybrid and an electric car, but with a teenage son who loves and knows a great deal about super cars and muscle cars, with a current fascination with the Corvette, it was certainly interesting to see how the divergence between newer (well, electric cars actually go back to the early days of the “horseless carriage”) technologies and the internal combustion engine was presented.
The sense of urgency among some about accelerating climate change has not translated yet into a general upswing in the consumer towards electric vehicles, but manufacturers are definitely providing more of a presence for them, including quite a number of new firms looking to compete with the industry mainstays, as well as Tesla, Fisker and others who have been around for a few years to date.
One of the reasons electric cars were being manufactured and promoted to a significant extent a century or more ago was because of concerns about the long-term supply of petroleum, though by the late 1920s, improved drilling techniques, such as much more durable bits and other tools, allowed for deeper exploration and tapping of pools of crude oil.
With a boom in production, including expansion in many areas of the United States and the globe, electric cars faded and gas-powered vehicles using the internal combusion engine became dominant as fuel prices remained very inexpensive and supplies appeared to be inexhaustible.
We’re in a different era now, with the specter of immense environmental damage weighing heavier, but as the recent Glasgow climate summit showed, it is not at all clear whether the commitments, as with past confabs, will be anywhere close to met. How the automobile industry and consumers adjust will, naturally, be very interesting to observe.
Today’s trek (remarkable for the light traffic as well as for the warm, dry weather, portending another winter of low precipitation) out to the convention center for the show found, not surprisingly, fewer displays in the lower level garage, where customized vehicles, super cars and other unusual vehicles were previously in much greater abundance, while there were some auto makers in the main exhibit areas in the south and east hall which were absent, such as Audi and BMW, while others, like Honda, had a smaller presence. Perhaps the most elaborate display was that of Subaru, which had a forest scene with an elevated view bridge and fake snow as it played up its environmental angle.
Even if there was some scaling back, the show’s sheer scale is light years away from what was presented in its early years, which could be seen on panels along the long corridor leading to the west hall. Among these were a pair highlighting the 1920s, when the event became larger and more impressive than in previous years (the show began in 1907.) A third panel was devoted to the terrible fire that erupted in 1929 and destroyed the entire show—this was featured in a previous post here and photos from the Homestead’s collection recently highlighted in an online article by Kristin Shaw on TheDrive.com.
Tonight’s spotlight is on the program from the 1928 show, held at Washington Park (venue from 1926 to 1929) at the corner of Washington and Hill streets, from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. from 25 February to 4 March, which has a striking Art Deco design (with what looks like Craftsman elements with the potted plants) for its cover; a list of exhibitors of auto dealers, commercial and truck dealers, those who sold accessories, manufacturers of airplanes and engines, and more; a map of the layout of the displays in the five massive canvas tents (perhaps the same ones that were consumed in the conflagration the following year); and general information.
In the latter were the names of the officers and directors of the Los Angeles Motor Car Dealers Association, which put on the events and the committee who organized the show, including manager Burt Roberts; admission fees of a quarter for children and “three bits” (that would be 75 cents) for adults; the list of bands performing, including the Patrick & Marsh Orchestra, the Chet Mittendorf KNX Merrymakers from that early Los Angeles radio station; and Juanita Connors’ Girls Orchestra; and more.
The stated objects of the show included the assertion that “no commodity manufactured has more generally relieved man and animals of heavy labor in transportation and promoted the industrial life of our entire county” as autos and trucks, that the show was “to show the amazing advancement in these 1928 creations,” and that the Association was “the oldest and largest organization of its kind in the world.”
With respect to the sponsor, it existed to lobby for good roads; promote equitable laws for cars and travel; help its members economically sell cars and trucks; educate owners, oeprators (chauffeurs, specifically) and mechanics “in the proper use and care of motor cars;” and to advocate for harmony between manufacturers, dealers and owners “so that the greatest possible benefit, at the lowest possible cost, may be derived.”
Notably, it was stated that “motive power of all kinds is used—gasoline, distillate (basically a lighter fuel akin to heating oil or kerosene), and electricity.” The program noted that “THE TOTAL VALUATION OF ALL THE EXHIBITS EXCEEDS ONE MILLION DOLLARS” while expended capital in the business in the car-centric Angel City, which had more vehicles per capita than anywhere in the world, “runs into many millions.”
The map shows just how many vehicle makes existed that have long passed far beyond the memory of most of us, except the most die-hard of car buffs, including: Moon; Graham-Paige; Nash; Willys Knight; Moreland; Durant (Star); Chandler; Hupmobile; Gardner; Jordan-Falcon Knight; Auburn; Mamon; Franklin; Erskin; and Hudson Essex. Of course, there are those who remain in operation, including Buick, Chevrolet; Chrysler; Dodge; Ford; and Lincoln.
There were no foreign makes at all and the fifth tent included organizations, such as the Automobile Club of Southern California (which provided the program) and aircraft and boat entities, while the center part of the tent included aircraft companies like Western Air Express, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, Aero Corporation of California and others. Each tent had a band stand and the second included the offices, cafe and rest rooms, as well as small exhibitors for auto parts, accessories, engines and the like. The back cover featured the Auto Club’s highly successful signage program, with 187,000 of these installed and maintained by the Club.
Press coverage was also extensive, with the opening day’s edition of the Los Angeles Express and its Motor Section’s Frederick Wagner declaring:
Color, magnificent coachwork, mechanical betterments and amazingly low prices are the outstanding features of the 1928 automobile shows in the United States, and today Los Angeles and Southern California have their first glimpse of the very last word of motor car design and construction in the formal opening of the fifteenth annual Automotive Exposition of the Los Angeles Motor Car Dealers Association.
In no year in the meteoric history of the automobile has so much been accomplished in beautification and refinement of motor cars as reflected in the strikingly attractive new cars on display in the mammoth tents at Washington and Hill streets.
Today, more than ever before, the automobile represents a work of art in which eryunit, mechanical and otherwise, has ben thoroughly considered.
No radical departure from conventional practice [unlike today’s concept car] are evidenced mechanically in the car of today, but there has been a constant betterment toward quietness, smoothness, comfort, durability, speed and comfort.
Not to be outdone, the Los Angeles Times, in its automobile section of the same day, featured Al Parmenter asking the rhetorical question: “Why hold an automobile show when those vehicles are one of the most commonest sights in our modern city life—or in rural life for that matter?” His rejoinder was that over 100,000 persons went to the 1927 edition “and because of the unusual number of entirely new cars that are exhibited this year.” He added that “all indications point to the fact that the heaviest buying of automobiles in the past eighteen months is about to take place.” Moreover, 25,000 more visitors were expected than went to last year’s show.
Parmenter contrasted this largest ever display with the early days when only a few makes nad models were presented “as a novelty and were doing well if they made a complete circuit of the track on which they were being demonstrated.” He sought to draw a parallel between auto buyers (mostly, presumably, being men) to women buying a fur coat in that neither was an everyday activity and it was a major decision for the individual and household. Unlike today’s shows, however, visitors could buy cars at the event and, Parmenter added, save the trouble of having to visit multiple locations at the showrooms of the various auto makers.
Yet, he cautioned, salesmen were “instructed not to ‘sell’ but to furnish information sought by visitors. This prohibits the offensiveness of high-prssure salesmanship . . . [which] is fast disappearing in all automobile sales work.” Notably, Parmenter continueded by suggesting that “mechanical ability in the automobile has become as nearly standardized as it will ever be,” so that “the greatest changes are found in style,” including color, as ” a few years ago the car having any finish other than black was a freak.”
Now that color was considered “almost unknown” thanks to the onset of pyroxlin, or parkesine, an early plastic nitrocellulose lacquer also used for celluloid and which was water-repellant. Also emphasized was the question of comfort, which “is augmented by developments in both the car interior and chasiss details.” Parmenter ended with another question: “It is taken for granted that the car will take its passengers there and bring them back so now it is asked—with how much comfort?” Think of today’s seductive ads for the luxury Lincoln brand and its “comfort in the extreme.”
At the end of February, after four days, the Express reported that the show “is rolling its way along merrily to a new high place among the exhibitions of the land” with emphasis placed on the decorative schemes, by Alen Decorators between Echo and Elysian parks on Sunset Boulevard, of exotic foreign lands.
One example was the booth of Nelson and Price at Flower and 10th Street (later changed to Olympic Boulevard for the 1932 summer games held in the Angel City), which sold “India tires” and, therefore, had a decorative scheme supposedly evocative of the East Indies (Southeast Asia), where the rubber used in the products was derived.
Also reemphasized was the “infinite variety of different cars” and body styles, mechanical features, price and more. The orchestras performing were described as “jazz bands,” while an added feature was “a special program provided by some one of the great [motion] picture studios” each day.
One, for instance, was produced by the Fox studio, while that evening’s was to be a surprise and the next day’s “will be Wampas [Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers and its “Baby Stars” promotional campaign of budding female starlets] night, when all the 13 baby stars for 1928 will dazzle with their charm and beauty.” Another feature of the week were several luncheons held by major auto manufacturers, such as Graham-Paige, Cadillac and La Salle (General Motors), and others, at prominent hostelries like the Mayfair and the Biltmore.
On the 2nd, the Express quoted an unidentified Eastern manufacturing executive as suggesting that “appearance and luxury and utmost comfort are the three most important elements in designing and building motor cars today” and that one wasmaking “freak cars.” Rather, he continued, “the modern cars are dependable, serviceable, beautiful and practical” and “sheer beauty being an outstanding feature,” the local motor car dealers association “deserve the heartiest of congratulations.”
The next day’s edition of that paper included an interesting summary of a future-thinking speech made by World War I hero flying ace Eddie V. Rickenbacker, a sales manager for the La Salle division of General Motors, at the Cadillac/La Salle luncheon at the Biltmore on the 2nd. He prognosticated that, by 1950, there would be 150 million Americans and 50 million cars and, in fact, there were 150,697,361 persons counted in that year’s federal census, though auto registrations were half of what he predicted (by 1960, however, the tremendous economic boom meant there were some 62 million registered cars—now that number is a staggering 287 million, which, again, attests to the environmental issues we face.)
Rickenbacker envisioned 100-foot wide, four-lane “superhighways,” with the two central for high-speed, long-distance travel and the two outer for local travel and circumventing cities for efficiency (up to 80 miles per hour) throughout the country and easy access by auto to Central and South America for auto-based tourism and also talked about the future of aviation, including the dirigible; the decentralization of cities because of transportation improvements; the leveling of the “peaks of prosperity” and the “valleys of depression.”
Combined with the great development of aviation, the auto industry, he forecast, would be the leading industry in America and:
through this [these will] bring about a mutual, social, commercial and economic understanding and unity throughout the nations of the world [so that] future world wars will be elimintated . . . [otherwise] the worst war of history will come with no non-combatants. Everywhere will be the front. Men, women and children will be subjected to deadly gases, explosives and all the other vast annihilative forces now known and being rapidly produced. [A] transportation engineering mentality wil make a new world for coming generations.
As the show came to a close, the Times reported that attendance was expected to surge past 160,000 with 1928 deemed “to be one of the most outstanding motor-car years of more than a decade.” General manager Roberts told the paper that there were 357 cars and trucks displayed with a value of some $885,000. The aircraft was pegged at another $168,000 for a grand total of over $1,050,000.
Follow-up articles in the Express reinforced the idea that 1928 would be a record-breaking year for auto and truck sales in the United States and it was noted that production was being expanded dramaticaly by manufacturers across the board as orders were skyrocketing. Irving Kaiser of Kaiser Brothers, the local dealer for William Durant’s Star make, told the paper that “the automobile, more than any other article of manufacture, established the principle of installment buying,” even as this engendered controversy with government investigations of lending practices.
Still, the piece continued, most economists were in favor of using installment plans as “stimulating rather than harmful to business.” The use of plans for consumers to buy cars “on time” allowed for more orders and increased production and, therefore, “has added incalculable sums to wages and working capital.” Finally, the article ended, “this in turn has increased the buying power of workers and manufacturers in the automotive industry.”
While purchasing cars and other durable goods such as major appliances, as well as houses, through installment plans was becoming standard, the stock market was evolving into an arena for purchasing stocks “on margin,” in which the funds were borrowed from a broker, but this introduced an exponentially greater level of risk. A year-and-a half after this show ended, the crash of the New York Stock Exchange brought the beginnings of the Great Depression and, along with every other sector of the economy, the automobile industry was severely affected.
The buoyant enthusiasm reflected in the 1928 Los Angeles Auto Show and which continued in the following year’s edition mirrored what was happening in American society broadly before the stunning and brutal reality of the Depression came and this program is a tangible artifact connected to that environment.