Modern Marvels

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Easy access to open desert roads, proximity to Los Angeles, predictably sunny skies and warm temperatures—these factors can make Palm Springs a popular location for automakers to showcase their new performance models in the fall. Chevrolet brought its Corvette Stingray convertible there in early December; a couple weeks before, in mid-November, Cadillac was in town, hosting a group of writers as they test-drove the company’s swoopy new ELR plug-in electric coupe. But Cadillac had a reason besides convenience for staging the drives in Palm Springs.

Outside the Parker Palm Springs Hotel—which opened in 1959 as a Holiday Inn before being acquired by Gene Autry and then Merv Griffin—Thomas Kingsley viewed the ELR. One of the city’s many weekend residents from Los Angeles, Kingsley had spotted the car on Palm Canyon Drive after having seen it only online. He rolled down the window of his BMW X5 and asked if he could take a closer look. The ELR’s occupants—who included Cadillac’s director of exterior design, Bob Boniface—invited him to follow them to the hotel parking lot. There, Kingsley studied the exterior, then sat behind the wheel and declared, “I think it has panache. I think it’s a little bit avant-garde. It’s out of the norm.” Those attributes make the car a good fit for Palm Springs, where desert modernism, the midcentury-modern architecture that dominates the cityscape, once could have been described similarly but soon became the norm. To underscore the forward-thinking design of the ELR, Cadillac held the test-drives in Palm Springs and even arranged for the auto writers to tour some of the city’s more significant modern houses.

In their book Palm Springs Weekend: The Architecture and Design of a Midcentury Oasis, Alan Hess and Andrew Danish write, “Modernism’s vision proclaimed the heroic ability of modern technology to make the harsh environment livable.” That vision is reflected in the designs of Palm Springs’ midcentury houses, many of which were built for Los Angeles–area industrialists and celebrities who, in the years before and shortly after World War II, adopted the city as a getaway destination and fostered a lifestyle there of leisure and recreation.

Like the desert-modernism architecture, the ELR, which arrived in showrooms in January with a base price of about $76,000, represents the capabilities of its era’s latest technology. Though the ELR is an electric car, an owner can drive it from Los Angeles to Palm Springs and back without experiencing any range anxiety (the fear of being stranded by a depleted battery). The car is equipped with a small gas engine that powers the electric motor when the battery pack runs out. The system extends the vehicle’s single-charge range from 37 miles to more than 300.

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Photo by Olivier Staub
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