The Concept of Cars at the L.A. Auto Show

Dream Car
Dream Car | Photo: aldenjewell | Flickr: Creative Commons License

Californians buy one out of every ten new cars sold in America. Southern Californians buy most of them. Angeleños buy most of those. Beginning in 1907 (with a hiatus World War II) and returning this week, the L.A. Auto Show has put the most desirable of those cars on display for Angeleños eager to be recruited into the city's régime of speed.

Despite rainy January weather in 1907, crowds of automobile owners (of which the city had more than 3,000) turned out for a motorized parade before the show opened. Even more waited in line to buy a ticket to enter Morley's Grand Avenue Skating Rink where the cars were arranged among baskets of flowers. The lines were just as long the following day.

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"There are towns in the East that boast an automobile to every one hundred of the population... Los Angeles, with a quarter of a million people, has an automobile for every eighty persons," the Los Angeles Times characteristically ballyhooed, calling Los Angeles "without exception, the banner automobile city of the world."

Henry Ford was there, "delighted" said the Times by the city's enthusiasm for the 97 gasoline-powered models on display (including a French import). There also were two electric cars, aimed primarily at women drivers of independent means and disposition.

Like the first, the latest L.A. Auto Show will have crowds, too. Organizers expect as many as a million visitors between November 30 and December 9. Last year, more than 920,000 attended.

The 2012 show will have many more "green" cars than in 1907. That makes sense. A third of all electric vehicles and a quarter of all hybrids sold in the U.S. are on the road in California according to Edmunds.com, the Santa Monica-based automobile information site. Several new hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and all-electric vehicles from U.S. and overseas manufacturers will debut at this year's car show, including BMW's i8 Spyder, Ford's C-Max Energi and Fusion Energi, Chevrolet's Spark EV, Fiat's 500e, and an Accord plug-in hybrid.

I used to go with my father and brother to the old Pan Pacific Auditorium to see the auto show in the late 1950s. My brother was besotted by cars and their mechanical presence. He became one of those mechanics to whom machinery responds -- a motor whisperer of sorts. I went along, partly to go along and partly because the cars and the displays around them tried so hard to materialize the new. I wanted to be new, just like everyone else.

Then, the show was mostly about design and far less about what makes a car run. Power was on display, of course, and cutaway engines gleaming in slow revolutions of the polished crankshaft that were of interest to my brother. The buyer's attention, however, was supposed to be on this year's sheet metal, not under the hood.

But even under the lights and with a pretty model in an evening gown standing by, the new cars you could actually own looked uninspiring. The newest cars -- the concept cars -- belonged to a tomorrow you would never be able to buy. Most of the concept cars lacked a motor. Some of them were just fiberglass and plastic over an armature of wood and modeling clay, pieces of sculpture pretending to be future commodities.

There will be concept cars at the 2012 car show, but the focus has shifted from chrome and fins to cost saving for the average buyer and outrageous luxury for the not-so-average. Ford will show its new Transit Connect Wagon that holds up to seven passengers. Lamborghini's Aventador LP700-4 roadster swaddles two.

The irony, of course, is that most of the time in Los Angeles, Lamborghinis travel at hardly more than 25 miles an hour -- not much faster than the cars of 1907.

The car show is at the Los Angeles Convention Center. It's easy to get to by public transit. The Pico Station of the Blue Line is just across the street.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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