A sultry scene from the 1955 auto show

A sultry scene from the 1955 auto show (December 3, 2012)

Southern California’s love affair with the automobile is expressed annually at the Los Angeles Auto Show, which for over a hundred years has been a barometer of industry trends and public tastes in all things car-related.

As a city, Los Angeles grew up with the automobile, ballooning from a population of around 100,000 in 1902, when America’s first mass-production car factory (the Oldsmobile plant in Lansing, Mich.) opened, to 15 times that number by the outbreak of World War II. Contemporary L.A.’s sprawling urban landscape both reflects and necessitates the proliferation of motor vehicles in the city: As of 2007 Los Angeles had a 26% higher rate of vehicle ownership than New York.

Announcing the first L.A. Auto Show in 1907, this newspaper declared, “Los Angeles has entered the automobilist’s galaxy by having an automobile show of her own, the first ever held on the Pacific Coast.”

The event survived a catastrophic fire in 1929, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and two world wars. Its inaugural edition at Morley’s Skating Rink on Grand Avenue, billed as “The social event of the season” featuring “magnificent electrical effects,” displayed 99 cars. This year’s extravaganza will fill five halls of the sleek Los Angeles Convention Center with over 1,000 vehicles. 

In its early years, the L.A. Auto Show was an itinerant event. It moved from the basement of Hamburger’s Department Store in 1909 to a football field at Fiesta Park the following year, where tons of real redwood branches, plants and boulders were used to simulate Yosemite’s Bridal Veil Falls. It then moved into four floors of a vacant department store in 1915, where it was billed as the Broadway Automobile and Flower Show, incongruously displaying both cars and competitive blooms.

Los Angeles’ first traffic light was installed at Broadway between 3rd and 7th in 1920 and the city’s first traffic laws enacted in 1925. L.A. was becoming a major car town, already with more cars per person than either New York or Chicago. Its auto show expanded accordingly. In 1926 the show settled in for a four-year stay at the corner of Hill Street and Washington Boulevard. There was 120,000 square feet of tented exhibition space, which allowed boats and even airplanes to be included.

It was an airplane exhibit that started a fire that devastated the 1929 edition of the show. Though controlled within 30 minutes, the blaze destroyed 320 vehicles that ended up in the fortuitously located junkyard next door. But none of the show’s 2,500 visitors that afternoon was seriously injured, and the shocking sight of a field of charred cars became a crowd-puller in itself. Thanks to the efforts of a legion of volunteers and tow trucks provided by the Southern California Auto Club, the show miraculously reopened at an extravagantly decorated Shrine Auditorium just days after the disaster with a full complement of vehicles.

The auto show persisted through the witheringly tough economy of the 1930s, when U.S. annual auto production plummeted by nearly three-fourths between 1929 and 1932. It was booming once again when World War II forced a 12-year hiatus.  

The show didn’t return until 1952, when a relatively modest 152 vehicles were displayed at the Pan Pacific Auditorium. But what the revived show lacked in scale it made up for with cosmopolitan variety, as the war had exposed thousands of Americans serving overseas to European vehicles, and Southern California made an obvious entry market for these brands to meet newfound stateside demand. By the end of the 1950s the L.A. Auto show included vehicles from seven foreign countries, and the word “international” was added to its title.  

With increasing auto imports and the heyday of the American muscle car, the show had to add 60,000 square feet of exhibition space at the Pan Pacific in the 1960s, as manufacturer exhibits became more elaborate and futuristic. By the early 1970s, continuing rapid growth necessitated relocation to Los Angeles’ downtown convention center, but even there additional tent space was required.  

Not until 1993, when the convention center was expanded, did the L.A. Auto Show find a permanent indoor home, where it today fills 760,000 square feet of exhibition space with everything from quirky concepts and swanky supercars to the latest in tire designs and aftermarket entertainment and communication technologies. 

 

PAUL ROGERS
Custom Publishing Writer