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Cowboys to carpools

TransportationRoad TransportationTravelEntertainmentTheaterCulture

1800s

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1889 Rancher Miguel Leonis, known for his rough ways, becomes the area's first recorded traffic death, after getting sloshing drunk and falling out of his wagon in the Cahuenga Pass. Mothers Against Drunk Cowboys is born.

1897 In the dark of night so as not to draw crowds, the first gas-powered horseless carriage built west of the Mississippi takes a test drive down Broadway. Driven by J. Philip Erie, a wealthy New York inventor, it turned east on 6th Street, then south again on Main before turning onto 7th Street. There were four cylinders, but only one was used during the test drive. "It rolled down one slope and up the other without the slightest trouble," The Times reported.

1899 The first flurry of electric vehicles hits the streets, though it's still unclear whether gas or electric motors will prevail. Describing a throng of electric cabs, the term "rush hour" is coined. Eventually — maybe in a week — it will span longer than an hour.

1900s

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1900 The city's first auto club is formed. The Los Angeles Automobile Club, which will enroll 200 mostly well-to-do members in its first two months, is designed partly as a social group, partly to defend the rights of car owners. In a day ride, a motorcade leaves downtown Los Angeles, stops at Eagle Rock and then motors on to Pasadena. The Times reports: "There was one electric vehicle in the run and it was driven by Miss Anna Hare, who was accompanied by her sister, Miss Bessie."

1902 Just in case horseless carriages don't work out, the city begins a major mass-transit initiative: the Red Cars. The first line runs from Los Angeles to Long Beach. The electric trains eventually will provide 1,150 miles of service in four Southern California counties. Miss Bessie is not impressed.

1906 First used-car ads appear in The Times, including a 1905 Pope-Toledo, a big steel-framed touring car. "In good condition," the ad states. Honest.

1907 Visitors from as far away as San Francisco come to town for the first L.A. auto show, held at Morley's Skating Rink, just four blocks from the current site of the L.A. Convention Center.

1908 A one-pump gas station opens in Montebello, one of the first full-time service stations in the area. Montebello would never be the same. Or would it?

1910s

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1912 Standard Oil takes out permits to open 35 service stations in Los Angeles. It's the first sign that even then the mom-and-pops wouldn't have a chance.

1915 The first crosswalks are tested at three busy corners along Broadway, modeled after a system used in Detroit. The white lines, painted at intersections where streetcars stop, are aimed at easing congestion.

1920s

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1920 The first traffic signals go up, on Broadway between 3rd and 7th streets. And the first motorist, late for work, curses his lousy luck.

1925 L.A. enacts its first traffic code. Finally, the pedestrian is king. Among the edicts: Pedestrians have the right of way in crosswalks.

1927 Safety glass is developed for windshields, fusing together two layers of glass and a plastic sheet. It is filtered to reduce sunlight and headlight glare.

1930s

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1930 After occasional lapses in driver etiquette and human decency, the first center lines are used to divide the street for two-way traffic. Figueroa Street, Wilshire Boulevard and Ventura Boulevard are the first streets to get frosted.

1934 The first drive-in theater in Southern California goes up at Pico and Westwood boulevards. Imaginatively named the Drive-In Theater, its first show was "Handy Andy," starring Will Rogers. Developers tout the audio system: "It has been found that the top of a car acts as a perfect sound diaphragm," news reports say. And back seats function as perfect … back seats.

1937 In the midst of the Depression, a bank in Vernon allows customers to make deposits without leaving their cars. It is believed to be the first drive-thru-anything in the nation.

1940s

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1940 The Arroyo Seco Parkway opens and is considered the West's first freeway (it would be renamed the Pasadena Freeway in 1955). Across town, the eight-lane Cahuenga Pass Freeway (now the Hollywood Freeway) is also dedicated, linking Hollywood with the San Fernando Valley. Electric railway tracks run between the north-south lanes.

1944 The Times first uses the term "smog" in accounts of a dirty haze hanging over downtown. But don't blame cars — at least not yet. The smog is linked to synthetic-rubber plants and increased factory output for war products.

1948 The Van Nuys Drive-In Theater, one of the area's largest, opens. It eventually has a vehicle capacity of 1,400. The first show is a double bill: "Buffalo Bill," starring Joel McCrea and Maureen O'Hara, and "Wings of the Morning," with Henry Fonda.

1949 Parking meters are unveiled, along Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. A nickel buys an hour.

1950s

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Early 1950s Reflecting the region's growing appreciation of car culture — and blonds in bathing suits — hot rod magazines flourish. Meanwhile car customizers thrive and flamboyant colors and designs begin to take off. West Coast car mystique broadens under the stylings of professional car painters such as Von Dutch, whose wild designs have a mad, surrealist bent.

1953 Lucky day: The first cloverleaf opens, a soaring four-level structure that is part of the Harbor, Hollywood, Pasadena and Santa Ana freeways.

The first sanctioned drag race is held at the Pomona Fairgrounds before 2,500 fans. The winner, over 374 other vehicles, is a yellow dragster that reaches 132 mph.

1955 On Labor Day, the first SigAlert is broadcast by six radio stations for a train wreck that tied up traffic near Union Station. It is devised by broadcaster Loyd C. Sigmon, who was looking for ways to boost his audiences. "SigAlert shows promise of being a temporary solution to freeway congestion," The Times reports. With a straight face.

1957 The first car dealer mega-scandal erupts as H.J. Caruso, the 35-year-old owner of four dealerships , pleads guilty to grand theft and forgery. Witnesses described intricate maneuvers in which Caruso and his salesmen altered contracts and swindled them out of trade-ins. (Hey, that's illegal?)

1960s

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1961 Mass-transit suffers a setback as the last Red Line cars are taken out of service. They are replaced by buses, considered less appealing by many. "I tried to talk to some of the older people who went along," said a passenger on the last Red Line trip. "They were rather quiet, like they were at a funeral."

1966 The first Botts dots are cemented in place. Named for Elbert D. Botts, a state chemical testing engineer, the raised, reflective dots soon become a fixture on most of the state's freeways. Over the years, the markers have become embedded in California myth and culture — which may say more about California myth and culture than it does about Botts dots.

1970s

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1970 Vanity pl8s make their debut.

1972 Message board signs are installed for the first time, on the Santa Monica Freeway, warning motorists of slowdowns and accidents ahead.

1974 The transition to unleaded gas begins. Special nozzles keep motorists from using leaded gasoline, which would ruin the pollution controls installed on new cars.

1976 The carpool lane is born, on that living test lab of vehicle safety, the Santa Monica Freeway. Begun in March, it marks the first time regular lanes of a major U.S. highway have been set aside for special use, The Times reports. "The whole thing sums up bureaucratic stupidity," a commuter moans.

1980s

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1986 Authorities coin the term "smash-and-grab" for crimes in which car windows are broken and purses are taken. It's the '80s, and "greed is good."

1987 The national media turn a spotlight on a rash of Los Angeles freeway shootings.

1990s

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1990 Fear over carjackings builds. More than 4,000 are reported over the year, an L.A. record.

1992 The LAPD notes that, though carjackings are still growing, they represent only 6% of total car thefts and that the odds of becoming a victim remain low. Even so, Gov. Pete Wilson signs a bill lengthening prison terms for carjacking to nine years.

1994 O.J. Simpson leads police on a chase in a white Ford Bronco. It was telecast live around the nation and became one of the most bizarre and public crime spectacles of modern times. Traffic comes to a halt from Disneyland to Los Angeles, and commuters jam the overpasses to cheer and wave.

1995 Los Angeles City Council members first propose high-resolution cameras at problem intersections where cars speed through the red lights. Smile.

1996 The Van Nuys Drive-In Theater closes (it's demolished two years later). From Burbank to Reseda, mothers of teenagers breathe sighs of relief.

2000s

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2002 California first uses its freeway message signs to alert drivers about abducted children. They're called Amber Alerts, named for a 9-year-old Texas girl who was kidnapped and murdered in 1996.

2005 Drivers of hybrid vehicles that combine gas and electric engines are allowed in L.A. carpool lanes — even when driving solo, honoring a fine L.A. tradition.

2006 Reflecting growing concerns over fuel sustainability and the environment, the first pure vegetable oil engine conversion boutique opens in Silver Lake. It is among a handful of local shops that adapt diesel engines to burn a variety of biofuels.

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Sources: Times archives; John Fisher, L.A. Department of Transportation; Matthew Roth, the Automobile Club of Southern California. Compiled by Vicki Gallay.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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