The Car Gene Has Skipped a Generation

My 8-year-old son, Nathaniel, and I were taking an after-dinner stroll the other night when he announced that he'd decided what kind of car he was going to buy when he grew up: a blue VW bug.

"And what kind of car did you want when you were little?" he asked.

I stammered, realizing that I was about to sound like a total dweeb. "Um," I replied finally, "I guess I didn't have a favorite."

That conversation replayed in my head as I read Lynell George's story on the Ruelas brothers and their Duke's car club in South L.A., a bridge between communities in a city that has become all too riven by racial strife ("Under the Hood," page 14).

"The Ruelases . . . have been here not quite as long as some of these ghost cars, but long enough," George writes. "Mostly they've been here long enough to remember when black and brown men could be found under the same car, swapping stories, pulling on beers, grooving to a steady stream of R&B; culled from brother Julio's prized and priceless collection. Because, as Fernando knows, who doesn't love cars?"

Truth be told: me.

It's not that I dislike them. But for my money--and I say this recognizing that my good friend and colleague Dan "Rumble Seat" Neil is sure to heap scorn and ridicule upon me--cars have always been a means to get from one place to another. Nothing more, nothing less.

On some level, I feel as if this is the one piece of me that is still stuck back East, that hasn't morphed into a bona fide Californian. I get it that auto design and the making of aftermarket parts is huge here, generating more than $17 billion in business the last time local economic development officials took a close look. And I understand that for many people, their cars are more important than their homes--the ultimate symbol of the lifestyle they want to lead: young, hip, sexy, fun.

"People here . . . have their rituals," fastidiously washing and otherwise babying their cars in a way that they don't anywhere else, says Verena Kloos, president of DesignworksUSA, a Newbury Park-based design studio owned by BMW Group. It's cliche, she adds, but it's true: Southern California possesses "a very unique car culture," conducive to outdoor living and influenced by the flamboyance of Hollywood.

For some, nostalgia is at play. After World War II, L.A. was "a car guy's paradise," hot-rod legend Wally Parks recalls in Mark Christensen's new book, "So-Cal Speed Shop." There were "no freeways, light traffic . . . plenty of isolated back roads and endless nearby miles of smog-free country for club cruises and weekend gatherings."

Now that gridlock reigns, you hear a different spin: If you've got to spend all that time stuck in traffic, you might as well make the experience as pleasant as possible.

Tooling around in my dinged-up Passat, it honestly all escapes me. I'm just hoping that Nathaniel forgives this shortcoming. I'd like to ride shotgun with him someday.

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