Rust Never Sleeps

What is it about vintage cars that we can’t let go?  We scour junkyards. We burnish the metal with our bare hands as lovingly as we would polish a fertility goddess for luck.

Observe…a Mid-Century moment of Zen in the form of a 1957 Chevy Bel-Air Townsman. A gas guzzler before we had a phrase for it.  Futuristic, yet simultaneously maternal. Like driving a sofa.  When City Hall planned the post-war Valley street grid it had the Townsman in mind. Fins and chrome and low rise development as far as the eye can see.  As she made a left on Sepulveda seventy years of suburban landscape condensed to a single frame and very briefly fell into a rare decadal alignment.

I drive a Toyota hybrid, a nearly silent machine of flawless efficiency and lightweight, plyable materials, perfectly suited to its time and purpose. The day the battery system ceases to work it will get compacted and placed on a barge to China and I won’t miss it. There’s no chance I’ll be looking for a used one in 2050 to occupy me in retirement.

And then there’s this…nest of 1970s Pontiacs stashed in Granada Hills. A fire swept through in 2018, scorching the cars beyond restoration, yet the carci remain like a murder of crows, waiting to be summoned to life by Stephen King or a landscape installation by Christo or a post-America where nomadic clans roam the Hobbesian landscape chaining the bodies of their defeated enemies to the hood like a 12-point buck.  The owner isn’t calling the scrapyard. Why would he? Form, not function, is the obsession.

Looking down from Google Earth one finds hoarder yards with fifty cars stashed behind the fence, the remnant of a custom car culture of which the Valley was once the apotheosis: George Barris, Don Beebe and The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby.   The cars won’t be moved until the owner dies and his quarreling heirs build an ADU.  Unless…

In 2016 a man in Illinois named Chris Carter saw this picture on Facebook and recognized the van from its appearance in the 1979 drive-in classic Van Nuys Blvd., a film released a year before he was born.  For a year he sleuthed online, crowdsourcing its location.

“I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. To see that van abandoned with a tree on it, and to know its former glory, how nice that it looked, how it was in a movie … I knew I had to do something.”

Since 1992 it had been parked by an access road on a bluff outside Lancaster. Carter drove to California with a flatbed trailer, hooked it up, returned to his body shop in Illinois, lovingly restored it, then drove it back to California for a celebratory cruise down Van Nuys Blvd., only to be charged with auto theft.

The “owner” of the Wild Cherry van, a woman named Laura Godin, had once cruised, traveled, camped and lived in the van as a young bride in the early 80s.  Though she not registered it in nearly three decades and abandoned it on rural property she rarely visited, and had no plans to restore it, she couldn’t let it go, either.

What followed is what happens when the restoration impulse and the hoarder impulse lay irreconcilable claims to the same assemblage of metal.

Carter could have created a replica from parts of other 1975 Chevy Vans, but didn’t. Like Indiana Jones, he had to find the relic and bring it to the museum. Twice.

There was a time when we built muscle cars in Van Nuys at one end of the boulevard, sold them at the other end, and in between had an unregulated cruising culture.  Now we have road diets and traffic calming measures and preposterously long red lights designed to make driving so unpalatable we will sell our cars and ride trolley lines that won’t be built for five years.

We won’t recreate Valley 1.0 but we can cling to the artifacts of memory.

Everything Old is New Again

There was no jaywalking in 1906 because there were no crosswalks.  There were no illegal left hand turns to make because there were no traffic signals. Automobiles and horse drawn carriages, cable cars and pedestrians  shared the roadway with men with brooms sweeping horse dung.  It is remarkable to think the people in this frame not only have no idea the earthquake is coming, but no idea we would, a century later, watch with fascination as they skittered across Market Street in black ankle length dresses and bowler hats and think: how primitive.  For them, compared to the Gold Rush days, this must have been the apex of modernity. Futuristic, even.

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In 1954 the monorail was Los Angeles’ great plan for shuttling people to the Valley. No, really. This is the mockup. It wasn’t going to be loud, dark and dingy like the elevated trains of New York and Chicago. It wasn’t going to blight the neighborhoods it served. It was going to be sleek and fast like the looming Jet Age.  “A proper beginning of mass rapid transit throughout Los Angeles County.”  Among its most vocal proponents was none other than Ray Bradbury, a man who claimed never to have driven in a lifetime of living in LA.  In case you were wondering, there was a bond measure, and people voted with their tires.

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They voted for this. For little ranch houses with breezeways and sprinklers and streets names chosen randomly from the English countryside. For freedom of movement. An entire car culture was built around this freedom. A mating ritual developed around the car culture.  People came from all over California, to Van Nuys, to partake of it.

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They built muscle cars at the north end of the boulevard, and they sold them at the south end of the same street in the same week. There was no foreign competition for the Camaro, nor fuel standards, nor anti-lock brakes, nor airbags.  Eight cylinders and a gas pedal. Made to look cool and burn rubber and little else.

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Between the GM plant and the auto dealerships, they had both means of production and a promenade between the two to display the products of conception. You rev your engine. The girls would flip their hair. The mating call was complete.  There was nothing to keep you indoors.  It was a holistic, self-contained world.  Until it wasn’t.

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Now the arteries of Los Angeles are so clogged with cars, we are reviving the trains, along the very routes the track was once laid, then buried beneath asphalt.

Which brings us back to the beginning.

God isn’t making any more of it

Panorama City, built for the car
Panorama City, built for the car
Panorama Towers today. Fifteen years empty...
Panorama Towers today. Fifteen years empty…
Remnants of Panorama Mall today. Though the car is still king...
Remnants of Panorama Mall today. Though the car is still king…
There isn't the same car culture
…there isn’t the same car culture.
When the three people above were born...
When the three people above were born, it was thus…
When the streetcar was king....
When their parents were born, the streetcar was king….
Before that, the horse was king
Before them, the horse was king.

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Here we are today. No streetcars. No horses. Plenty of cars. Houses built atop garages with no yards and no trees, squeezed four to a lot on the lots of old, ringed by a wall. It’s a single family home, but you can stick a broom out your window and scratch your neighbor on the shoulder while he’s shaving in the morning.  A century of Valley history squeezed into one frame.

At the Galpin Auto Show

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…the torch is passed to the next generation.

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…they argue the value of an original Shelby Cobra.  Which was apparently an argument over what criteria one should employ before deeming it an ‘original Shelby’.   These two were a million dollars apart in their estimations. The owner kept pointing to the sign on the windshield: “Yes, it’s real”. It was 105 degrees in the parking lot…what better venue to settle the issue?

Cholo Heaven
Cholo Heaven
Old white guys wiping the finish
…old white guys wipe the finish
The Scooby van, always a big hit with the ladies
…the Scooby van is always a big hit with the ladies
Funny car-inspired re-enactment
….and funny cars inspire re-enactments