Long before flocks of irksome rent-a-scooters descended on Los Angeles sidewalks and electric vehicles shuffled head-to-tail along bloated freeways, cars were Southern California’s symbol of unfettered freedom. Here, the automobile was embraced by Angelenos young and old, rich and poor, honest and not quite so. From the beginning, when LA’s Sepulveda, Sunset, and Olympic Boulevards were the primary arteries linking beaches, the Valley, and downtown, the automobile was our way to connect the dots. And at one point, pepper trees were ripped out of sidewalks along famous avenues and palms were planted instead, their narrower profiles and root structures making room . . . for more cars.
The automobile stood for more than freedom of movement and “Westward Ho!” exploration, of course, and still does. It was never merely a matter of arriving at Point B from Point A—one had to get there in style, whether cruising the boulevard or driving a getaway car. Just as “the hat makes the man,” to quote the title of Max Ernst’s 1920 collage, so the motorcar has—over the course of a century—become the accessory that defines its driver. In the era of the $500 Ford Model A, a $15,000 Duesenberg served to impress as mightily as a block of Beverly Hills real estate. Adjusted for inflation, a Kia-to-Rolls-Royce comparison holds true today. As a symbol, the automobile speaks eloquently about its owner, and sometimes not in flattering terms. Supercars (of which there are arguably more here than in any other U.S. city)—especially those with names ending in “i”—seem to ratchet up the onlookers’ response, eliciting ecstasy or opprobrium: a thumbs-up or an extended central digit.
Probably no city is more admiring of—and dependent on—the automobile than Los Angeles. Here, drive-ins, drive-throughs, and even drive-bys rely on the automobile to ply their respective trades. Bob’s Big Boy set the stage for informal gatherings of hot-rodders, young men who shaped the enthusiast car culture of the city, especially after World War II.
In their heyday, drive-in theaters, with hospitable outdoor weather year-round, entertained moviegoers while no doubt contributing to the baby boom. For decades, SoCal car washes have orchestrated their own vehicular pageants with processions of gleaming beauties. Fiction writing, film, and even breaking news weave cars into their fabric; the world’s most-watched car chase followed O.J.’s white Bronco on the 405 freeway, while local pizza deliveries soared as viewers sat immobilized, glued to the TV screen.
That Angelenos are attached to their cars was amply brought home to me some years ago when I bought a house in the hills of Los Angeles. It had been foreclosed upon, its previous owner having abandoned the property in apparent haste, leaving behind domestic tidbits including a gerbil habitat and assorted rock-and-roll paraphernalia. In the vacant garage, Alpine’s iconic poster featuring a Lamborghini Countach was stapled to the studs. Sometime afterward, a musical acquaintance with whom I’d shared the story mentioned a popular heavy-metal band, one of whose members was temporarily undomiciled and occupying a garage—sleeping beside his Lamborghini. It all made perfect sense, but only in LA.