Auto aficionado Kevin Nelson talks hot rods, hybrids, and the romance of the road.
America’s love affair with the car is well documented. Not so well surveyed, however, is the Golden State’s role in the development of ol’ Betsy, Nellie Belle, or whatever handle graces your beloved freedom machine. Filling this gap is Wheels of Change: From Zero to 600 M.P.H., The Amazing Story of California and the Automobile (Heyday Books/California Historical Society 2009), a new tome from Benicia baseball historian and writer Kevin Nelson. Like his previous look at the history of baseball in California, Wheels of Change leaves little doubt about the importance of Californians in developing everything from tail fins to hot rods and beyond. As a car worshipper, I know a fellow gearhead when I see one, so I rang Nelson recently to find out not just about California’s motoring past, but what the future holds as well.
Paul Kilduff: There’s a lot of speculation today about the future of cars. Could you look into your crystal ball?
Kevin Nelson: Yes, absolutely. One of the interesting things about cars is the more things change, the more they stay the same. For instance, a lot of people are not aware that electric cars were around a hundred years ago. The fastest car in the world in 1897 was a French electric car [that] went 37 miles an hour. The same problems plagued them back then. Mainly the battery wouldn’t hold the charge long enough and it wouldn’t go fast enough.
PK: And I wonder how many Prius owners realize that when their battery racks go out, they’re looking at maybe 8,000 to 10,000 bucks to have that replaced. Have you heard that figure?
KN: Yeah, absolutely. My son’s got a kid-oriented magazine where they talk about the electric car not polluting. Well, who’s making the batteries? That’s one of the key elements. If a coal-fired plant is making that battery then there’s pollution. As well as, what do you do with the disposal issue related to the batteries?
PK: You send them to France.
KN: That’s right. You offshore them.
PK: France wants all of our Prius batteries because they know what to do with nuclear waste too, right?
KN: There you go, maybe we can just send them off into space. Back a hundred years ago, Thomas Edison knew a little bit about electricity and he made cars. There was an Edison battery wagon and the same sort of responses which is to expand the size of the battery which they’re doing today. Things have changed a lot but still those same problems exist. Now what is new and different is the idea of a hybrid. Nobody back then thought of having dual motors in the same vehicle, a gas engine and electric, so that is new and an innovation that seems to be working.
PK: One of the things that caused you to want to write this book is you had this love of the romance and the freedom of cars. Is there any romance in a Prius? I’m not feeling the love there.
KN: Yeah, I agree with that a hundred percent. I was at a dinner party once and a woman was talking about her Prius and she said, “It’s amazing, it doesn’t make any sound at all.” And I’m looking at her like, “And yeah, that’s a plus?” I mean, the visceral appeal of a gas car is the sound it makes. I don’t mean this in any way disparaging [but the Prius] right now appeals to a class of buyers and that’s commuters, seniors, and sort of eco-friendly people who want to be green. It’s a narrow band. It’s an upper-income band. When you go back a hundred years, [electric cars] appealed to a narrow slice of the marketplace, mainly upper income. They were the most expensive cars and so it sort of hasn’t changed all that much. Chevrolet—can they expand the marketplace for electric cars? That remains a big, big question. A lot of people are not feeling the love. It doesn’t appeal to them.
PK: I get Car and Driver. I don’t consider myself to be a car nut, but I enjoy reading it and a car that they don’t really like they always refer to it as an appliance. The new cars now, they all look the same. An Accord looks like an Ultima, looks like a Fusion, looks like a Malibu. Does that sort of take the wind out of your sails, at least when it comes to cars?
KN: Yeah, a lot of Japanese makes, they tend to copy each other and so they do all the same sort of engineering tests. The Germans, too. And that sort of appliance versus a beautiful object that runs fast goes again back to the history of cars. The appliance idea of an automobile is Henry Ford’s idea, that it was basically a box on wheels—useful, reliable, cheap, good gas mileage, gets you from place to place. It’d be handy on the farm, in the town, wherever, whatever you wanted to do, haul things and so forth. The other viewpoint is represented by Harley Earl, who was probably the foremost American car designer of the 20th century, a Californian. He grew up in Hollywood, customized cars for Hollywood stars, and then got recruited by Detroit to become the first automobile designer for a major car company. He then influenced the design of cars for the next 50 years at GM. He believed fundamentally in the car as a beautiful object. He was the anti-Ford. You’re always going to find those strains where people are just interested in getting from point A to point B. And then there’s a huge body which sees the car as more than that, an expression of their individual identity, which I don’t think some of the legislators understand about people, that these cars are for better or worse, without making any judgment, these cars are a reflection of your identity as a person and your social standing.
PK: So it’s like you wear a car.
KN: You wear a car, right. And this comes out of, again, the hot rod movement, which was they take an old Model T and customize it and individualize it. So that it wasn’t just this mass-produced product that came off the assembly line but rather something unique and individual. They made these things look beautiful and they made them go fast. Then you had customizing, which is changing the shape of a car so that it’s really almost architectural in nature. All these elements are true today. For instance, the kids in California, where it started at least in the United States, it’s souping up their Toyotas and Hondas and customizing them and taking a mass-produced product and then changing it to make it more individual to suit their needs.
PK: But the big issue is the environmentalists. Are they taking all the fun out of cruising around?
KN: Well, God knows they’re trying to.
PK: It’s just not an “every man a king,” rear-wheel drive V8 world anymore. How does this play into cars being cool and fun?
KN: Yeah, P.J. O’Rourke wrote a book recently about cars, saying that the death of that sort of fun with cars in the era of cheap gas and driving those big V8s is over. But I’ve talked about the book all around the state and spoken to groups in southern California and northern California. There’s this passion that people feel for cars and inevitably, the question comes up, “What are young people doing?”
PK: They’re into car sharing. That’s what they’re doing.
KN: Car sharing, right. One guy speculated that because computers are in cars now, which need special equipment and special training, it’s not as easy to work on it in your backyard and that’s why there’s interest in these pre-computer cars. And eventually, they’ll run out. It looks like kids aren’t as into cars in that way. But then in Pasadena, a shop guy who teaches an automotive class said, “No, no. The kids are still into cars.” And he cited the tuners as they’re more computer savvy and they trick the car up. It’s the new hot rod. It’s just different and so maybe they’re not running these V8s that we used to but they’ve got these little imports.
PK: It’s kind of the fast and the furious generation.
KN: That’s right, and they’re having fun with cars. I know they’re still doing the nasty in the back seat of cars. It’s just taken different forms. I don’t obviously have a crystal ball but I know one thing for sure is that cars are going to be around. They’re not going to be replaced by the bicycle. They’re not going to be replaced by mass transit.
PK: Well I agree. I mean, look at China, they get a chance for everybody to have a car and it’s the biggest car market in the world now.
KN: Same with India. They’re extraordinarily useful and they encourage freedom. I mean, they give you more freedom than when you’re dependent on mass transit. That’s something that people sometimes forget out in California is how big it is in relation to the automobile. I mean, we could squeeze six or seven of those eastern seaboard states into the land mass of California. It’s big. So even with BART, we still need a car to get from home to the train and then the train is only point to point. It doesn’t take you everywhere you want to go.
PK: Mobility. As you know, the only [auto-manufacturing] plant west of the Mississippi that is a union plant, by the way, in Fremont is slated to close this month. I don’t think that’s any surprise that that’s Toyota’s only UAW plant. There used to be cars built in this state all over the place. They made the Camaro in Van Nuys, I know they built Mustangs in Milpitas, they built the Model T in Richmond. We can’t build an oil refinery. We can’t build the cars, yet we’re so dependent on them here in this state. What’s up with that?
KN: Yeah, that’s a big political question. A lot of our manufacturing in so many areas is not leaving the state, it’s leaving the country and cars are built internationally now. They’re built in Australia, in Korea, all over the place, which wasn’t true 30, 40, 50 years ago. In California, there’s a lot of reasons, one being land cost. I knew that the Fremont plant was not going to stay even before they officially announced it because it’s just so expensive. It’s more cost-effective for a developer to do something else there than build cars.
KN: Tesla has plans to build cars in Downey, to refurbish an old plant there. Is that a sign that manufacturing could come back in California? In my opinion, no. It’s just Tesla’s getting huge subsidies from the city of Downey and probably from the federal and state government and that’s allowing them to do it. All the car manufacturing has gone to the South, because it’s non-union and it’s cheaper. There’s a whole bunch of reasons why that’s occurring and it’s been tough on Detroit most of all. We’ve been able to shift as a state away from car manufacturing, for instance, and the big aviation industry was huge down there and they’ve had to shift away from that. But as people are recognizing, we’ve got to have good jobs for working people. We can’t just have jobs where people sit, and as important as we are, in front of a computer and type. We’ve got to build things. and I do think it’s a serious concern and an important issue to be addressed and I don’t pretend to have any solutions to it.
PK: We’re going to become a nation of people that sit in front of a computer and order pizza and other things online and I mean, why even get dressed? We won’t need cars, right? There’s no place to go because there’s no jobs anyway, right?
KN: Right, right. Except for this little thing that cars are related to economic activity [and] traffic jams. Traffic is still a raging mess during the commute hours if you’re in the Bay Area but it has decreased with the decrease in economy activity due to the recession.
PK: I’ve noticed that. The freeways are a little bit quieter, yeah.
KN: One thing about cars that’s always interesting is that, and this has been true from the beginning, it’s always kind of a plus/minus. I mean there’s never been a time of innocence for the automobile. There’ve been obvious attributes, obvious benefits, clear benefits, and in my opinion the benefits far outweigh the negatives but there are always negatives. There’s pollution and then with the economic activity, through cars because you can get to your job and so forth, there’s traffic jams. And so, it’s one of the interesting things about writing about cars is that there is this plus/minus aspect to it, a double-edged sword.
PK: You point out that Southern California seems to be the heart of a lot of the development of cars in the state. What has northern California really contributed and especially, is there anything we can say about the East Bay?
KN: Southern California is the place for cars and that’s where it all starts and it is true, it is definitely the capital of car culture. There’s no question about that and so many of the trends do start in southern California. But lots of things have happened up here, too. The East Bay from about Oakland down to Hayward has been a center, going back to the ’30s. One of the early pioneers of hot-rodding, Lee Chapel, moved from southern California and set up a shop on East 14th Street and it was an early hot rod shop. When customs came in, when they started to really redesign, when backyard mechanics and hot-rodders started to really change the look of cars, the Bay Area was a leader in that along with Sacramento. There were other speed shops and hot rod shops in Oakland and going south to Hayward and the Fremont drag strip.
PK: Oh yeah, I remember that.
KN: Yeah, and it began in the late ’50s or early ’60s. It was the center for car racing and that’s just speaking of things that have gone away. I mean, there’s not as many places for kids to, you know . . .
PK: Drive recklessly?
KN: Under controlled circumstances . . .
PK: Damn it, we’ve got to do something about that, Kevin.
KN: Yeah, exactly, exactly. I mean you go back in the early 1900s, it used to be called the Hayward-San Leandro run where people from all over the Bay Area would bring their cars and get them up to 40, 50 miles an hour from Mission Boulevard [and] East 14th. That was kind of the early hot rod area and traditionally, it’s always been a center for cars—the Oakland raceway which was a very hot raceway back before World War II and after; it’s now the site of, in San Leandro, what’s it called? The Bayfair Mall?
PK: Oh, that was a raceway? I didn’t know that.
KN: They had some really hot races there where all the top racers [went]. I mean it’s really East Bay grease, a lot of power. I grew up in Hayward and we used to cruise down East 14th and Mission Boulevard, so the spirit lives in the East Bay.
PK: Speaking of the East Bay and cars, a pretty dangerous thing, obviously, are the side shows where guys ride on the outside of cars as they spin around.
PK: I mean, I cannot believe that.
KN: From the beginning, teenagers did stupid things in cars, driving too fast and too recklessly, and street racing. It’s going back to the positive/negative aspect of cars. I mean 35,000 to 40,000 people every year are killed on the nation’s highways and we don’t even blink about it. And that’s really been true since the ’20s. I mean, we have accepted as a culture that we’re going to have this loss of life related to automobiles. It doesn’t make the headlines. I mean, if there’s a terrorist attack that kills five people, as awful as that is, that’s front-page news everywhere. You have this daily mayhem caused by automobiles and it’s, “Oh well, that’s just life in the United States.” So then you throw [in] teenage testosterone along with alcohol and drugs and you’ve got a pretty potent combination.
PK: Do you believe in the old adage, you are what you drive?
KN: God knows, no.
PK: Obviously the next question coming, Kevin, is what, in fact, do you take to the highways and byways?
KN: Oh man, this is the most embarrassing part of my talk because I’m just strictly a family man now so I drive an SUV.
KN: Oh yeah, man, it’s too embarrassing. For a couple of newspaper articles they wanted to take pictures of me next to [my] vehicles. I went to a car museum because a picture of me next to my SUV, that was pretty darn embarrassing. All my spare spending money is taken up with a kid in college and two more on the way.
For more Kilduff, go to thekilduff-file.blogspot.com.
Age: If I told you, I’d have to kill you.
Birthplace: Not as relevant as where I grew up—in the land of East Bay grease: Hayward, Calif.
Astrological sign: Virgo
First real job: Lifeguard for East Bay Regional Parks.
Planet I’d emigrate to: None. I like it here.
First car: Austin America, one of the worst cars ever made. It had a built-in electronic sensor. If I ever needed to get some place important or go some place fast, the sensor told the car not to start..