by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This afternoon’s presentation on the new Angel City Press book, Driving Force: Automobiles and the New American City, 1900-1930, by its authors Darryl Holter and Stephen Gee was a very interesting and information survey of how the early automobile industry moved from totally uncharted territory as a revolution in transportation with no precedence on which to operate to a (largely) well-oiled machine with dealers paving the way in how to market and sell vehicles.
As they discussed, greater Los Angeles became car-centric for several basic reasons, not the least of which was climate, especially in the early days as the “horseless carriage” performed far better in the balmy climate of our region, but the fast development of a largely horizontal city, including far-flung suburbs made the auto more desirable for locals. By the mid-1920s, as has been discussed here before, the massive Pacific Electric Railway streetcar system was in deep trouble due to competition from the motorcar.
Darryl noted the late 1890s origins of autos in Los Angeles, including an early, if not very successful, prototype by J. Philip Erie, and observed that those who latched onto selling the newfangled vehicles were bicycle dealers. Cars, however, were made to order, one at a time, and a buyer would pay the cost of construction to a dealer who would place the order and then after roughly two months, the auto would arrive.
The earliest “auto row” was located on Main Street, near the southern junction with Spring Street, at 9th street (this was a block south of where Walter P. Temple later invested in the Great Republic Life and National City Bank buildings). Because of the simple system of ordering and delivery and the fact that a “demonstrator” was the only vehicle in a small showroom—often filled with bicycles— this older part of town worked, for a short time, in this capacity.
Soon, though, as the industry grew and production increased to the point where a number of cars would be available to inspect and buy “on the spot,” the auto row shifted west to Olive Street, also in the vicinity of 9th, where the buildings were larger and had the space to accommodate the quantity of vehicles and the number of prospective and actual buyers coming to see them.
Another movement occurred by which the auto row migrated down Figueroa Street, which was wide enough to handle more cars and with buildings and lots substantially larger, as well. Notably, Darryl was CEO of an automotive group that owned several dealerships including the iconic Felix Chevrolet, still on Figueroa near the University of Southern California, and where there is a comeback in this historic car dealer district.
In fact, Darryl observed that, when he joined his father-in-law’s dealership business in the 1990s, it was after the civil unrest following the verdict in the trial of the Los Angeles Police Department officers charged in the beating of Rodney King (a period in which USC actually contemplated moving after more than 110 years), and the conditions were such that only five dealers remained in that section.
In his quarter century or so of working with the business, becoming CEO of the group and a leader in the trade associations, Darryl noted that the quantity of dealerships has grown to 13, but that there are a couple of more in the pipeline and with campuses that will be multi-storied and very extensive, reflecting a remarkable resurgence in recent years.
One of the more interesting portions of the presentation was the discussion of Sybil Geary, a unique example of a woman playing a vital executive role in a male-dominated world. In her case, Geary worked her way up in the Automobile Club of Southern California, who wrote for its monthly magazine, Touring Topics, and became its editor and then became the Club’s secretary and executive director. She used innovative techniques to dramatically increase membership, oversaw the organization’s critical road signage program, and led the charge to develop the first general laws for automobile regulation in the Golden State. Sadly, a nervous breakdown forced her to step down in 1913, but her pioneering work for women in the industry was truly remarkable.
Speaking of women and automobiles, Darryl pointed out that the electric car was dominant in early auto history, largely because of the uncertainty of oil supplies and it was not until Edward Doheny and others established the modern oil industry through intensive drilling and production efforts that the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine seized supremacy over such alternatives as electric and even steam. He added that women were drawn to electric cars because they didn’t require the cranking of gas vehicles and discussed some of the marketing of these autos to female buyers and drivers.
Stephen then turned the discussion toward some of the important early auto dealers of the Angel City, observing that the first sale of cars in this area took place in 1899 as the 19th century was coming to a close and the 20th century was on the horizon. He reiterated that bicycle dealers were some of the earliest to sell the “horseless carriage” and noted that one of the first in the field was Ygnacio del Valle, Jr., whose father and only sibling, Reginaldo, have been featured in prior posts on this blog as among the most prominent Latinos in Los Angeles.
Others discussed in some detail by Stephen were Earle C. Anthony, who as a teen built his own early auto with a simple vehicle not unlike that of Erie, and became an enormous presence in the auto dealer industry in Los Angeles. This was also true of Don Lee and Paul G. Hoffman and it was added that this trio not only were successful in marketing their businesses through standard print media, such as newspapers and magazines, but quickly embraced radio, owning their own stations, and, in early experimental television.
Having written books on local architecture, Stephen also addressed the increasing size and sophistication of showrooms, which reflected the enormous growth of the automobile industry. Not unlike, perhaps, the parallel rise of the motion picture business with the creation of the “movie palaces” of the 1920s, dealer showrooms became more architecturally decorative and design-conscious, adding to the ambient experience of shoppers.
One of Stephen’s past subjects was John Parkinson, a descendant of which was in the audience this afternoon, and an Anthony showroom that was the last word in function and form was worked on by Parkinson and his son, Donald, along with Bernard Maybeck. A prior post here highlighted a publication for Anthony’s updated and expanded Packard Building, when that work was completed in February 1929 and which represented just how far the dealer industry in the Angel City had come in three decades.
Stephen also briefly covered the development of the Los Angeles Auto Show, which has become a massive event held in the cavernous Los Angeles Convention Center, but which, naturally, had humble origins when it was launched in 1907. After being held in a few locations in structures, it was decided to hold the show in huge tents at the southern fringes of downtown and some past posts here have discussed some of these, including the 1929 edition. As Stephen pointed out, however, the biggest risk of these tents was fire and that year a blaze quickly consumed the entirety of the show grounds.
After this great talk, Darryl, a fine musician, regaled the audience with a tune called “Don’t Touch My Chevy,” based on a personal experience involving the discovery of an old model found at one the dealerships which he ran and his purchase of the vehicle. He and Stephen then sold and signed copies of Driving Force, while visitors could also enjoy viewing a quartet of classic cars parked outside The Homestead Gallery, including a 1924 Ford Model A, a 1929 Cadillac, and a 1942 Hudson.
In the introduction of the speakers, it was mentioned, as has often been the case, that the Gallery is roughly the site of an 1860s winery built by the Workman family and which was repurposed by Walter P. Temple in the 1920s as an auditorium where guests could sit and watch movies—not unlike what we do in the Gallery today, even facing the same direction (that would be west.)
Moreover, just to the east of that building was another of the three winery structures (the other was adjacent on the south to the one just mentioned and was a cafeteria-style dining hall in the Twenties) and was the smallest. It was remodeled by Temple into a garage, with space for nine cars and a gasoline tank and pump was placed at one end so that, in the rural Puente area, the family didn’t have to drive into town to fill up. The four cars displayed outdoors were parked right next to where the garage and pump were once located.
Among the several vehicles owned by Temple and housed in the garage were a Packard (perhaps purchased from Anthony?), a Cadillac (maybe bought from Lee?) and an REO truck, but the one that seems to have been the most prized was the Locomobile. This make originated in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1899, the year the first car was sold in Los Angeles, and the brand existed for three decades until it was shuttered in 1929, just before the onset of the Great Depression, as part of the dramatic collapse of Durant Motors.
The name “Locomobile” came from the combination of “locomotive” and “automobile” and the fact the first of these vehicles were powered by steam. In fact, the term became a general one for steam-powered autos in those early days and it was fun to locate such early references as advertisements and an article from the 25 October 1900 edition of the Los Angeles Times about an auto race, certainly one of the earliest of its kind, at the old Agricultural Park, now Exposition Park, very close to the aforementioned auto row, with a locomobile contest—the 3-mile race was won in 7 minutes and 53 seconds!
For most of its history, the sole offering of the Locomobile company was its Model 48 and some considered the brand the “Mercedes of America” because of the emphasis on the highest-quality materials for the chassis and engine, as well as the fine appointments in the cabin. Consequently, these cars were among the most expensive of that 30-year period, and, while most of the vehicles were essentially substantially recycled because of the high quality of the steel and other components, some survivors are highly prized and can now fetch in the range of $150,000 to $200,000 at auction.
To this untutored observer, it looks like the Locomobile in the quartet of snapshots from the Museum’s collection featured here is a 1924 Model 48, which would have cost Temple in the upper four-figures, perhaps around $8,000. The average cost of an American house was somewhere in that vicinity by point of comparison and, it should be recalled, he owned other cars and that truck during that period, as well.
In a 1983 oral history conducted by Enid Douglass, Temple’s son, Walter P., Jr., recalled
Dad had a Locomobile. In fact, when we back east [a summer 1926 family trip after which Walter, Jr. and his brothers Thomas and Edgar, were placed at Harvard and Dummer Academy] we went by the plant there . . . And it was an open car. It was a very nice looking car. It had a glass partition in front of the back seat with wings on both sides so you could keep the draft out. And our driver, whose name was Don Godman, was the only one who could shift that car without making the gears make a noise . . . And he had a whistle put in that war, which Dad didn’t know was in here, and he would go alongside of these buses as they were going into Los Angeles, and he would pull this old horn out and they would almost go off the road.
The younger Temple added that the vehicle was taken to Ensenada, where his father invested in a lavish hotel project and then resided in the early 1930s when his stained finances forced a stringent level of economy, including the lease of the Homestead, which was lost in 1932, but he wondered “how we ever got down I still can’t figure out.”
Also mentioned by Walter, Jr. was that “we went deer hunting in that car in the northern part of California,” which is reflected in these images, and he added that the Locomobile had truck tires because “the car so was so heavy.” He also observed that the vehicle had a four-gear transmission and “it took forever to get started but, boy, if you got it in high hear you would go off to the races. It had a lot of pick up.” Also added was that the gas pump had one grade and was used “when gasoline was about nine or ten cents a gallon,” but the Temples “never ran out” of fuel.
In 1997, I had the opportunity to conduct an oral history with Jack Romero, whose aunt, Maud Bassity, was Walter P. Temple, Sr.’s companion and whose father, Maud’s brother, Frank, was the Homestead ranch foreman and driver after Godman was let go due to the deteriorating financial situation. Born in 1921, Jack recalled his boyhood spent at the Homestead, something we can look to feature in a future post, along with that of Walter, Jr. and others who did oral histories for the Museum.
When it came to the Locomobile, he told a particularly interesting Prohibition-related anecdote concerning the car:
[There was] one big party that Mr. Temple was going to have. It was a big party, and he asked my father if he knew where he could get the booze . . . My father said, sure, he knew all the bootleggers down in LA. So we came down in that Locomobile. He had taken the back seat out, had a big canvas back there, and here went down . . . Oh, we loaded that car up, the back seat, with that wine and put the canvas over it. We were coming out Valley Boulevard, and that Locomobile . . . it had a big ring down here on the floorboard, he’d pull it like a train whistle, and it was load. When that motor [police] officer picked us up, he starts going, my father. He floored that thing. And any cars in front of us . . . you know, Valley Boulevard used to have a dich . . . instead of a gutter . . . and boy, he’d come up on those cars, pull that whistle, and some of them went right off into that ditch trying to get away from this car. And we got to that entrance [an easement, still in existence, to get to the 92-acre Homestead] . . . he spun in there . . . that was a thrill to see that car move that fast. Gee!
When the production of the Locomobile was ended in 1929, the Temples were, as noted above, also in financial distress and it is not known what happened to that magnificent automobile with the customized horn and the removable back seat.
Hearing Darryl and Stephen talk about those first three decades of the auto industry in Los Angeles was certainly very illuminating and enlightening and anyone with an interest in the region from 1900-1930, much less about automobile history from that time, is definitely encouraged to pick up Driving Force and give it a spin.