100 Years and Miles to Go


Easterners in the early 1900s who heeded Horace Greeley’s advice to go west could thank the Automobile Club of Southern California for ensuring that they didn’t get lost. The Auto Club’s 1913 decision to place 4,000 directional signs on the patchwork road system stretching between Kansas City and Los Angeles helped motorists navigate in an era when maps were as unreliable as the roads they purported to describe.

But the signposts that carried the Auto Club’s logo did more than tell motorists the way to L.A. They also served as a covert membership drive for the fledgling club, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year.

Working in concert with bankers, real estate developers and the Southern Pacific Railroad, the signage program encouraged increasingly mobile Americans to consider the Golden State as a vacation destination or a place to put down roots.


The drive--augmented by advertising in the Saturday Evening Post and railroad cars decorated with pictures of orange groves--contributed to Los Angeles’ spectacular growth, as the city’s population swelled from about 570,000 to 1.24 million during the 1920s.

And it didn’t hurt the Auto Club, either.

From its founding Dec. 13, 1900, by a handful of Los Angeles automobile enthusiasts, the club has grown to become the largest regional AAA affiliate in the country, with nearly 5 million members in all and at least one in 45% of Southern California households.

As Auto Club historian Matt Roth notes, the nonprofit organization reaches more Southern Californians than any other nongovernmental entity.

In achieving such reach, the club has survived economic downturns, gas crises and its own occasional business missteps. And as it looks ahead to a second century, the club can boast of a significant role in building much of the driving infrastructure we take for granted today.


The Auto Club’s founding members didn’t have to look very far to find ways to stay busy.

A century ago, California motorists had to make do with “trails and cow paths,” according to documents in the California Department of Transportation Library in Sacramento. When the Bureau of Highways was created in 1895, one of its first decisions was to send two employees out in a buckboard wagon to gather data for a proposed highway system.

When the Auto Club’s founders met in Los Angeles in 1900, cars were the province of rich businessmen, historian Roth said.


The club, which counted such familiar names as Hancock, Garland and Chandler among early members, catered to the needs of enthusiasts who wanted to travel to the ocean, the mountains and faraway towns (relatively speaking) in Southern California.

By 1905, Roth said, the club’s founders recognized that cars weren’t just a rich man’s plaything.

“They correctly recognized that cars would become a middle-class technology,” he said. “Automobiles were going to be embraced by someone other than wealthy gentlemen who could afford to have both horses and cars.”

Two important decisions in 1905 helped shift the club’s emphasis. Monthly dues were slashed from $5 to $1, opening the door to a wider range of potential members. The club also decided to restrict membership to motorists--and prohibited car manufacturers and dealers, whose interests might run counter to what benefited drivers.

The drivers-first stance wasn’t always popular. The club irked established insurers, for example, with a 1912 decision to enter the market with competitively priced policies. (“The for-profits were livid and planted stories in insurance publications” that questioned the club’s business practices, Roth said.)

The club also started a travel agency and financed a monthly magazine called Touring Topics, a precursor to today’s Westways, that featured such up-and-coming California artists and writers as Edward Weston and William Saroyan.



Many of the club’s early programs were driven by necessity.

Early on, the club began posting signs in Greater Los Angeles to help motorists find their way around town. Signs were welcomed by motorists, “because you didn’t know if that narrow, muddy road would take you to the beach, or if it was merely an access road for mechanized vehicles used in harvesting,” Roth said.

Indeed, the Auto Club and the San Francisco-based California State Automobile Assn.--which also will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year--installed road signs throughout California. The signs were paid for by the state, but the clubs assumed the expense of installing them. (The state assumed control over road signs in 1956, but the clubs continued to participate in a state body that governs signage.)

By 1910, the Los Angeles-based club was helping guide motorists to such far-flung destinations as Santa Barbara, Ventura and Santa Ana. The club distributed early versions of its trademark TripTiks, which included directions on routes that were clearly marked with Auto Club signs.

The club formed a safety patrol that predated the 1929 appearance of the California Highway Patrol. Roaming trucks rescued broken-down vehicles, and club employees cleared broken glass that might otherwise puncture relatively delicate balloon tires. When thieves began to steal cars, the club added a theft bureau to track them down.

Documents from the state transportation library show that the club was an active player in Sacramento from its earliest days.

A 1966 state report credits the Los Angeles and San Francisco clubs with playing “a key role in obtaining legal recognition for the California Highway Commission.” In 1917, the report notes, the two clubs “forced great improvements in highway construction techniques.”


During the 1910s and ‘20s, the report noted, the two clubs “took active part in campaigning in favor of the various bond issues” to raise money for highway construction.

Club executives didn’t simply support highway bond issues. When they thought the state wasn’t spending road money wisely, they spoke out. The clubs spent $30,000 on an engineering study in 1920 because “failures of paved highways in California have become frequent in the past two years,” according a document in the state transportation library.

Sacramento lore suggests that legislators and statehouse staffers used the boundary between the northern and southern auto clubs to end debate over how to disburse gas tax revenue. Roth’s research shows that the auto clubs helped broker a boundary that gave the booming Southland its fair share of funds that had been steered to northern counties.

Today it might seem laughable that a club best known for selling insurance, arranging vacations, and certifying auto garages and tow services would engage in Chamber of Commerce boosterism.

But Roth describes the organization’s decision to build interest in the region as logical: “Auto Club leaders were very much a part of the growth function. It was part of the place promotion and boosterism evident in the 1920s.”

The Auto Club has remained active in the political arena, most noticeably in Sacramento, where it has championed such proposals as the graduated license program for beginning drivers. The club has several lobbyists based in Sacramento who track issues of interest to its members.


In addition, the club is examining another issue of growing importance: how to keep roads safe as aging baby boomers head out on the highways.


Of course, it hasn’t always been a smooth ride. The Great Depression threatened the Auto Club’s existence, World War II stalled growth in membership and services, gas crises loomed in the ‘70s, and financial woes at the club’s insurance affiliate during the late 1980s pushed it to the brink of financial disaster.

But a painful restructuring in the early 1990s has laid the groundwork for renewed health:

* The nonprofit organization reported a $573.1-million operating budget in 1999. The club has $265.1 million in its Member Protection Fund, a pot of money used to cover gaps between revenue and expenses. Two years ago, the club reported a $509.3-million operating budget and a $237-million protection fund.

* The Auto Club also owns AAA affiliates in Texas, New Mexico and Hawaii. The combined employee count at the clubs and related insurance operations is 6,500.

* The club has managed to keep pace with population growth, increasing its reach from 43% of households in the mid-’90s to the current 45%.

And after decades of marketing programs, the club’s red, white and blue logo remains one of Southern California’s most recognized symbols.


Yet the challenge facing the club, executives acknowledge, is to expand its list of member services without damaging the carefully cultivated brand.

The club generally has stuck to its core interests. It earned a high rating from J.D. Power & Associates in a 1999 survey of towing services. It also offers discounts to club members at such diverse businesses as paint stores and fudge shops. And the insurance arm has expanded to include home policies.

The club’s decision to move into areas not strictly related to automobiles has prompted grumbling among some longtime members and employees who fear that the organization will lose its focus.


But President and Chief Executive Thomas V. McKernan Jr. believes that the club must expand its services if it hopes to remain relevant.

As it does so, however, the club faces competition on many fronts. For starters, consumers can fit only so many cards into their wallets and purses, so the Auto Club finds itself competing with such organizations as the AARP for dues-paying members.

The organization that was founded by rich white businessmen has actively marketed itself to Latinos, Asian Americans and other minorities. For example, the club translates brochures into Spanish, Chinese, Russian and other languages and hires employees with language skills needed to serve Southern California’s diverse population.


The club also funds such school programs as “Otto the Auto,” which uses a remote-controlled talking car to teach youngsters about pedestrian and bike safety. As part of its continuing bid to broaden services, McKernan said, the club is considering a training program for new drivers.

And, as the world moves online--with digital mapping, do-it-yourself travel planning and innumerable how-to sites covering care care and insurance--the Auto Club risks being left behind unless it makes its services available on the Internet.

“That’s probably the biggest challenge,” McKernan said. “How younger consumers view us is important. Will they see us as an old-line organization? Or something more modern? We’ve got to be [online] in the future to remain relevant.”


Times staff writer Greg Johnson covers advertising and marketing for the Business section. He can be reached at