by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Whereas today’s editions of the Los Angeles Auto Show, held in the massive Convention Center take place toward the end of the year, some of the early versions were held in the late winter. Today’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is the program from the 1927 show, which was presented from 26 February to 6 March at Washington Park on the southeast corner of the intersection of Hill Street and Washington Boulevard.
The first show, held under the auspices of the Los Angeles Motor Car Dealers’ Association, was in late January 1907 at Morley’s Skating Rink, which later in the year became the Grand Avenue Dancing Auditorium and then Fred H. Solomon’s well-known dance hall, located on that thoroughfare near the intersection of 9th (now Olympic Boulevard). There were ninety-nine “horseless carriages” and other vehicles displayed on the rink at that inaugural event and, naturally, the show grew immensely in scale and scope over the years.
For 1927, the location was at Washington Park, at the southeast corner of Hill Street and Washington Boulevard where the show was held for several years (including in 1929 where a fire ravaged the tents and contents, as has been discussed here before) and there were some 425 car models exhibited, including trucks, along with accessories (brakes, carburetors, oil, radiators, shocks, tools, and a great deal more,) airplanes and motors, and boats. Admission was fifty cents for adults and a quarter for children.
A two-page layout in the program provides a map for the six tents and the myriad exhibit areas from well-known makes from Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, Lincoln, Pontiac and Studebaker to more obscure and long-gone ones like Paige, Marmon, Gardner, Elcar, McFarlan, Jordan, Moon and Star. The aircraft companies were just four, but included Aero Corporation of California and Western Air Express, while there was a quartet boat-related firms, including the Pacific Coast Hydroplane Association and Harry A. Miller, Inc.
The program listed the show times of 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. (opening day began at 2 p.m.), members of the event committee and the officers and directors of the Association, the objects of the show (to show how important autos and trucks were to improving transportation and “the amazing advancement in these 1927 creations”), and the purpose of the Association in promoting the use of motor vehicles and development of good roads, as well as the education of drivers and mechanics and instilling cooperation between car owners, dealers and manufacturers.
The program also noted that “motive power of all kinds is used—gasoline, distillate and electricity” and that fifty trucks, meeting any need, were to be exhibited. The value of the exhibits was said to be in excess of $1 million while the exhibitors represented, in their investment in the industry, many millions. Entertainment was to be provided by five orchestras, including one led by Irene Franklin, and credit was given to the decorators and the providers of lighting and heating.
As for publicity, there was plenty of that from major newspapers like the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, the Los Angeles Record, and, especially, the Los Angeles Times, which devoted more than 20 pages to the show in its 27 February automotive section. The latter’s A.F. Parmenter opened his article with:
The largest automobile show in the history of the industry, both from the standpoint of space occupied and in the number of cars exhibited, opened in this city yesterday when the Los Angeles Motor Car Dealers’ Association drew back the curtains to reveal what the automotive industry has to offer for the year 1927—425 machines that are the result of twenty-seven years of development in what has grown to become America’s leading industry.
He added that the total value of all the exhibited materials was pegged at $1.25 million, while the spending on the decorations in the several tents, which could accommodate 10,000 people at one time, was almost $100,000. Naturally, there were many vehicle models that were new for 1927 and almost 80 dealers were represented among the exhibitors and the Association worked for two months on the show (presumably, this is now a year-round job for those putting on today’s versions.)
For the Angel City’s dealers, Parmenter said that they were “thoroughly proud of their product and taking delight in every minute they are privileged to take in telling motor-wise Los Angeles, the most tasteful and discriminating group of buyers in the world, of changes that have been made in these new models.” Among the new elements were faster cars with better general performance, more comfort, and improved gas mileage (a recent test of Fords showed that MPG of up to 35 was not uncommon) and lower consumption of motor oil.
As an illustration of just how many advances were made in autos, the journalist noted that it was not that long before that drivers expressed with satisfaction that they could navigate up the steep sections of Grand Avenue, likely at Bunker Hill, without having to downshift into low gear, but, in 1927, “the ordinary driver goes over the crest of the same hill without shifting out of high gear.” Parmenter envisioned a visitor who became a buyer “and it is hard to say whether the new baby or the new car is going to get the most attention.”
Notably, the writer mentioned that about three-quarters of all autos manufactured in 1926 were closed model and “this transition from a preference of open cars . . . is a phenomenal reversal that has taken place largely within the last three years.” He adjudged the transformation as “perhaps the quickest change in buyer’s preference in the twenty-seven years existence of automobiles.” Open cars were basically custom orders for some makers by 1927, but Parmenter added that custom vehicles “have practically disappeared where they were once the center of interest at the show.”
What happened in the industry, he went on, was that the public’s demand for more aesthetics in car making “has led manufacturers to pay fabulous salaries to obtain the services of designers of custom-built automobiles and their skill and handiwork is today embodied in stock cars.” Even the simple screw-on radiator cap, Parmenter wrote, “is now a thing of beauty.” He also observed that “a feature of the exhibit that stood out was the variety and colorings of the cars.” Paraphrasing a famous statement of Henry Ford that a buyer could have any color they wanted as long as it was black, he noted that there were many colors “in different combinations and interpretations.”
Another emerging trend was that vehicles were made to ride lower for aesthetics and safety, while all-wheel braking systems and balloon tires were becoming standardized. Parmenter also observed that “there is a growing tendency on the part of owners to take a vital interest in how automobiles are maintained and kept in good running condition,” so that one tent of 4,800 square feet right off Washington Boulevard was devoted to “shop equipment” and staffed by representatives of four firms. Additionally, the Frank Wiggins trade school, now Los Angeles Trade Technical College, just a few blocks west from the show, had a display about its auto mechanic training program.
The manager of the show, Burt Roberts, worked with a committee that include dealers of such makes as Oakland, Pontiac, Dodge, Stearns, Lincoln and REO (which had the new Flying Cloud model, named after a famous clipper ship), to put the event together. Roberts told Parmenter that “to one who has been following automobile shows for twenty years, the perfection of the 1927 automobile is amazing.”
Given the Times’ dominance in the newspaper business in the Angel City, it is hardly a surprise to see the plethora of advertisements from dealers for their products spread across the many pages of that Sunday automotive section of the paper. It is a reflection of both the power of the Times for companies shilling for their product and the dramatic transformation of the ownership and use of the automobile in society, especially car-centric Los Angeles.
An editorial in the Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News of the 26th noted:
Although automobiles are so thick in Los Angeles that one of our problems is how to get about in them, today begins the only time of the year when we can see all makes side by side and compare the newest with the oldest models . . . the show will be interesting even to those well satisfied with the vehicles they have. They will see models they have never seen on the streets and will be able to examine more closely other models just lately on the market.
The paper observed that “twenty-seven years of engineering coach work and mechanical skill reaches its crowning achievement in the magnificent display of the latest automobile models” and added that “there are ample demonstrations of the fact that refinement of far-reaching magnitude will continue to attract the attention of the manufacturer and of the people.”
Cited specifically were improvements with carburetors, motor bearings, weight distribution, better shock absorbers, and upholstery that held up more under use. Moreover, attendance was expected to surpass pervious records and, after the first couple of days, Roberts reported just that.
Long-time Times columnist Alma Whitaker, who wrote on women’s issues, contributed an unusual piece on 1 March about the show called “Motor Aristocrats Parade In Costume For Women.” She began by averring that “automobiles, like ships, must be feminine. Beautiful, sleek, seductive things—men love them so, and want them to be so perfect, yet utilitarian withal.”
Whitaker went on to suggest that men “adore them stylish, expensive, aristocratic. They adore them snappy, speedy, impudent. They want to own them, body and soul, and they are so annoyed when they fail them. And, oh, they expect thrice as much service and loyalty from them, when they don’t cost much and are not very beautiful.”
The columnist repeated the notion that cars were the basis of evil in modern times, “just as the saints have said of women,” but she countered that “Like women, they are necessary evils now and civilization would not be half so civilized without them.” As Whitaker walked through the tents, professing it was heavy going through all six, she described the vehicles as “representing every type of their sex from the flaunting extravagant queen of the housewife that’s thrifty, from the swift, ostentatious, showy minx to the hard-working respectable working girl, from the nice family time to the clever responsible woman.”
Also on the 1st, the Times noted the emergence of what it called the “Traffic Car,” observing that “another diversion is the first indication of the trend toward the European-type car, a machine built with the problems in mind the driver faced in traffic such as is found in Los Angeles.” These had smaller wheelbases, were lighter and had smaller motors, but not with a drop in horsepower. One such auto appeared to have been the Tomboy, made by the Jordan Motor Car Company of Cleveland.
Notably, after discussing the fact that “the dull shades, one color for the entire car, have seemingly disappeared,” in favor of bright colors, especially in sport models (coupes, speedsters and roadsters), the article observed that the trend toward closed cars, mentioned above, did not apply locally, as “in Los Angeles different weather conditions lead buyers to hold more preference for open cars.” It was pointed out that “the first car that is seen after entering by the main door is a roadster, a cream-colored creation, and it holds a constant group of admirers.”
Bailey Millard, who, while in San Francisco, published works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Frank Norris and Joaquin Miller, contributed “Human Side of Motor Seen In Great Throng of Visitors” about the show in the 3 March issue of the Times and stated, as he was “in the midst of the vortex of humanity” in the tents, “I was better able than ever before to realize the tremendous hold that motors have come to have upon the people of this planet.”
He observed people so fixated on cars that they were like an archaeologist pondering an urn newly unearthed in Egypt or cynics who questioned why extra equipment weren’t made standard and marveled at “the open expression of the great American people concerning their chief material institution—the automobile.” He drew the conclusion that the car wasn’t just a major leap in travel, but “means the cultivation of those great gifts, imagination and the social instinct” and further suggested that, when it came to car owners, previously ignorant of the principles of mechanics, working on their autos
every twist of the wrench, every squirt from the oil can means something in a cultural way and leads to the accession of that pure joy of motion and freedom of individual action which are as full of poetry as an old anthology . . . you would realize that it [the application of mechanics in car ownership] is only a beginning—a peep into that domain of beauty and beyondness which is the true realm of poetry and song
Millard felt that the biggest draw of any exhibit would be one that continually had car parts of any kind in motion, except, he averred, “the stand where the girls’ band plays its lively airs” but even there the power of the attraction of sheer motion was represented in “the revolutions of the nifty girl drummer, who puts a lot of snap into her work, as do also her sister musicians.”
The columnist added that the number of women at the show was not surprising and that they were quite knowledgeable about autos, as “plenty of them know a good car when they see one, and don’t buy just for a favorite color of body or upholstery or the silver-plated spreadeagle ornament on the radiator cap.”
On the 4th, Parmenter, in his regular column during the run of the event, “Sidelights At Auto Show,” noted that Don Lee, the local Cadillac dealer, was able to offer the world premiere of the 8-cylinder LaSalle luxury sedan, the companion to the Cadillac, and of which there were five models. The journalist praised the vehicle, observing that “the lines are something that has not been seen heretofore in motor cars . . .the finish of the car is all quality . . . and the wonder will be if they do not outstrip the parent car, the Cadillac.” The LaSalle became a success, but by the mid-Depression years sales were sluggish was made until 1940, but those who remember the theme song for the 1970s television hit, “All in the Family,” will recall a reference to how “our dear old LaSalle ran great.”
One novelty at the show was the writing by the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce of 5,000 letters promoting the Angel City, handed out at the Western Air Express exhibit, signed by attendees, and then delivered by Western Air planes to eastern locales, from which they were to be delivered to locales around the world. The company also offered a drawing with trips by air to Salt Lake City or Las Vegas (though the latter was a long way from having any casinos!) with the drawing to take place at the close of the show.
Another touted component was the booth of the Los Angeles Traffic Commission, staffed during the evenings by starlets from Hollywood, and which secured signed pledges from thousands of show attendees to drive more carefully in 1927. It was reported, for example, that 20% of accidents were caused by improper arm signaling, so those who signed the pledge were given a folder reminding them of the appropriate signs. It was added that “motorists are permitted to make right hand turns against traffic signals in residential districts” so that traffic could move more expeditiously.
Despite rain toward the end of the show, attendance records were still set and the goal of 100,000 visitors appears to have been reached. The growth of the show continued over the next couple of years, though the terrible tragedy of the fire in 1929 marred what was otherwise the end of a very successful decade for the event, which returned in-person last year after a pandemic-induced hiatus in 2020.