California Roll

Diversity of the car culture
Oct 1 2010 - Jan 30 2011

California Roll Diversity of the Car Culture

An examination of the cultural influences that have

produced our unique automotive phenomenon

 

Americans love their cars; an obvious understatement, sure. But we go one step further; we create something new from our cars – not being satisfied with what Detroit or Japan offers us. We personalize our wheels to express who we are or how we see ourselves. From the early days when an automobilist designed and installed his hood ornament to announce that his automobile was special - that he was special - this personalization process has continued to the point where manufacturers came to offer options like special wheels, or upholstery, or sound systems to set the owner apart from the masses. But some individuals had a greater level of creativity and need to express themselves and did so in some very interesting ways.

From Hot Rods to Customs, styling and technology have been hallmarks of California. Creative people like Harley Earl, George Barris, Harry Westergard, Dick Bertolucci, Bruce Crower, Ed Iskenderian, Dean Moon, and Ed Roth to name just a few of the notables of the auto industry. They have made important contributions to the automotive world, which have spread throughout this nation and across the seas.

Other influences have evolved from the unique culture of the California West Coast. Surfer Woodies, Baja Buggies, Off-Road Racers, and the look that came out of San Francisco in the 1960s – the Hippie VW Bus. We see these creations anywhere in the U.S., but they originated with the California mind set – to do what has not been done before.

California has some advantages over the rest of the country. After all, most abandoned airfields have been located in the open spaces of our deserts. Southern California is where most of the surfing is done on this continent, and the American counter culture was centered in the Bay Area, at least in its initial years.  Even the Lowrider grew from the racial tensions of the Los Angeles region during and after World War II. And importantly, WWII left a grand residue of high technology ready to be put to use in the shiny new American made autos coming off the lines in Detroit.

America in post-war ‘50s was typified as “grey flannel” sameness. The crew-cut, the diet, the consumerism was all a part of the uniform and California was surely a part of that regimen. Could it be that the pervasive sameness and predictability of life in California was the impetus that energized the young to make their own reality utilizing the ubiquitous automobile, the icon of consumerism in a state that boosted the greatest number of both cars and roads?

The contrasts and contradictions are many. Consider the personality types that produced the Hot Rods and the Dry Lakes racers in contrast to the clean-cut surfers who favored the old Woodies and vans for their low cost and ample space. Consider then the Lowriders who represented a counter-culture of the 1930s and ‘40s where young Mexican men rejected the hot rod style in favor of low cost, easy to find Chevys with every accessory made by the manufacturer. Low and slow was the theme. The customizers were able to express an artistic interpretation of what their cars should be reforming the steel into new and creative lines. Lastly, there was the true counter-culture hippies of the 1960s with their low tech, high art VW Microbus’ that defied the current emphasis on chrome and horsepower. How did all of this happen to take place in California and why at that time?

Yet, many have criticized California youth for their sameness and middle-class, middle of the road psychology. But how do we explain the often bizarre automotive creations that have originated in the Golden State?

The San Diego Automotive Museum will explore this phenomenon in order to facilitate an understanding of our special place in automotive history. This is our past and, no doubt, our future.