CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY : Flathead Fords and the Chevy Plant : The GM facility seemed immutable, like Bob’s Big Boy and Southern Pacific’s Daylight Express.


The newspaper article said the General Motors Assembly Division came to Van Nuys in 1947. I guess that’s about right. I was a boy then, and watched the buildings go up. They made Chevrolets and we just called it the Chevy plant.

The railroad built a small switching yard out near Roscoe Boulevard at about the time that construction started on the factory. The yard was complete with a locomotive turntable. At least twice a week, a bunch of us would ride our bikes out to the factory site, climb up on the boxcars and watch trains glide across the valley on Southern Pacific’s main line.

My favorite was S.P.'s Daylight, the orange and red passenger train that flew into Los Angeles from San Francisco each evening. And the line’s famous cab-forward steam engine, storming at the head of a fast freight, was the most beautiful machinery in the world.

Ideas on beauty change, of course, and years later our same group could be found sitting in a Ford coupe at the Bob’s Big Boy drive-in on Van Nuys Boulevard. These were the days when the flathead Ford was king and nothing seemed more beautiful than a big Ford stroker pulsing through barely muffled headers. These were the engines in which you could rebuild the carburetor with a screwdriver and a half-inch open end, that would maybe go 5,000 miles between water pumps.


“You going to college?” guys would ask, while a waitress hung a tray on the window of my yellow 1936 five-window.

“I don’t know,” I’d answer. “Maybe I’ll just work at Chevy.” It was an option.

One year, for three months between semesters at UCLA, I did work at Chevy. I almost didn’t get the job because I went to the interview in a coat and tie. “We don’t have any office positions open,” the personnel man told me.

“I don’t want the front office,” I said. “Put me on the line.”


“You wouldn’t like it over there,” he said, eyeing my starched white shirt. He set my application aside and stood up to end the interview.

I came back the next day wearing a T-shirt, boots and an almost clean pair of Levi’s. I filled out a new application, spelled most of the words right and was put on the assembly line the following Monday. The pay was about 15% more than what the front-office clerks made.

I worked the finishing section and polished hoods and right-front fenders of ’56 Chevrolets. The parts were hung on hooks and moved endlessly past while I attacked each piece with a hand-held polishing wheel.

The factory was hot and loud and dirty, and the work demanded an expert touch. Too much pressure on the polishing wheel and you’d burn through the paint. Too little and you wouldn’t get a shine. The wheel seemed to weigh a hundred pounds by the end of the day. But Chevy paid me, and paid me well. The money was enough, back then, to support a family. The lead man, only a couple of years older, had two children and a wife at home and was buying a house on the GI bill.


But even Chevy’s going to go. The same newspaper article said that they’ll close the old plant on Van Nuys Boulevard next August, and I guess that’s about right. Because the Daylight’s gone--no more orange and red passenger cars glide across the valley; no more fast freights pulled by a legend in steel and steam.

Bob’s Big Boy has been sold--they’ll call it something else. It doesn’t really matter, though, because for years now, you could sit there in your car all day and there’d be no one come out to take your order.

No one runs flathead Fords any more. It’s no secret that no matter how nice they sounded, they just didn’t run as strong as the small-block Chevys.

And now, come next August, there’ll be no more Chevy plant. And I guess it’s about right. I mean, there’s nothing that’s forever. But I’m wondering where a man goes now, wearing a T-shirt, boots and Levi’s, to make enough money to support a wife and family.