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From the Red Car to the Hummer

1895: Electric-car line from downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena is constructed.

1900: The Auto Club (AAA) is founded in Los Angeles.

1901: Henry Huntington establishes the Pacific Electric Railway (PE) and takes over the Los Angeles–Pasadena interurban line.

1903: Henry Ford founds the Ford Motor Company and introduces the Model A, a small, two-cylinder car with an eight-horsepower engine. It sells for $850. The Auto Club begins to sponsor its first automobile races.

1908: Buick, Cadillac, Oldsmobile and Oakland (later renamed Pontiac) merge into a single corporation, General Motors. Ford introduces the Model T, which comes in "any color, as long as it’s black," and costs under $300.

1909: J.W. Earl, father of famed designer Harley Earl, starts to make and market the first custom bodies and accessories for automobiles on South Main Street in downtown Los Angeles, inventing the bling-bling after-market in the process.

1914: Trolley lines circumnavigate Los Angeles, running from downtown L.A. to San Bernardino, Santa Ana, San Pedro and San Fernando.




1918: Harley Earl designs automobiles for Tom Mix and Fatty Arbuckle. Arbuckle’s ostentatious custom ride costs more than $25,000, setting a modern precedent for over-the-top celebrity cars. The Second Street tunnel, which will become an iconic element in movies and car commercials, opens under Bunker Hill.

1927: The LaSalle, designed by Harley Earl, sets a trend toward wider, more aerodynamic cars. Earl will later go on to invent both the tail fin and the Corvette.

1932: The Art Center College of Design, originally located in Los Angeles, starts its first course in industrial design, headed by Kem Weber.

1932: Ford introduces a new coupe and roadster model known as the Deuce. It was the first model to provide greater torsional rigidity, meaning the frame was not only tighter but could handle more load and stress. 1932 was also the year of Ford’s first production V-8, which sets the standard for big engines to this day.

1936: Cadillac introduces the Series Sixty, ushering in a new class of high-end American automobiles. First song lyrics about the brand appear soon after.




1937: Buick unveils the Y-Job, the auto industry’s first-ever concept car.

1938: Buick makes turn signals available for the first time.

1940: L.A.’s population tops 1.5 million. The first freeway, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, later renamed the Pasadena Freeway, opens. The first traffic jam occurs moments later.

1941–45: World War II mothballs car production and design in both Southern California and around the country.

1947: GM opens the Van Nuys Assembly Plant, building such seminal Chevrolets as the Camaro and the El Camino until it closes some 40 years later.

1948: Hot Rod magazine launches its first issue. The very first Porsche, the 356/1, is introduced, paving the way for the first auto-related midlife crisis.

1949: Art Center’s Strother MacMinn establishes the school’s connection with transportation design, which will revolutionize automotive design worldwide. Hot rodders hold their first Speedweek at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

1951: The state of California creates the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

1953: Harley Earl’s "dream car," the fiberglass-bodied Corvette, debuts at the 1953 Motorama exhibit. Three hundred were made, of which 255 survive. The base price was $3,498.

1961: Los Angeles County’s freeways grow to 250 miles, while both the Pacific Electric and the Los Angeles Railway lines are discontinued.

1962: Carroll Shelby introduces the AC Cobra, a small British sports car featuring a high-output Ford V-8. Shelby becomes an overnight legend, his small Los Angeles auto shop a racing mecca.




1964: Ford introduces an inexpensive, mass-market sports car — the Mustang — inextricably altering the landscape of the industry forever. Meanwhile, Porsche brings out the 911.

1967: GM debuts the Mustang-inspired Chevrolet Camaro, changing the lives of heshers worldwide. For the next five years, until federal emissions standards are toughened, a muscle-car war breaks out. Dodge releases the Hemi-powered Challenger and Charger models, Pontiac releases the GTO, and Plymouth brings to market the most awesome car ever made, a stock, purple Hemi ’Cuda convertible with a 426 Hemi V-8 that produces 425 horsepower.




1968: Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen, is released. His co-star is a Mustang fastback.

1969: Richard Nixon creates the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Los Angeles suffers through the worst smog season on record, with 137 smog-alert days.

1971: Chrysler closes its City of Industry auto plant. For the next decade and a half, a gas crisis, the rise of the import car and mismanagement causes sales of the underperforming, badly designed and cheaply made American automobiles to slump dramatically.

1974: Highlighting the annals of worst cars ever made, Ford releases the Pinto-derived Mustang II. It comes with a base 2.3-liter engine that rates an anemic 88 horsepower. (It lasts until 1978, when Ford sends this iteration of its pony car to the glue factory.) On the flipside, Datsun (now Nissan) releases the 260 ZX, which comes with a superfast inline six and a superb suspension.

1976: The South Coast Air Basin reports 102 Stage I and seven Stage II smog alerts.

1977: Smokey and the Bandit opens up worlds of possibilities involving a Pontiac Trans-Am, bushy mustaches and Burt Reynolds.

1979: Ford closes its Pico Rivera auto plant, in use since the ’50s for assembly of the Thunderbird and other models. Domestic sales still wane as import sales rise.

1981: Lee Iacocca–run Chrysler releases the Chrysler LeBaron, Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, a.k.a. the K-cars. These boxy, front-wheel-drive cars prove that the domestics can compete with the imports. They save Chrysler from bankruptcy and turn Iacocca into a major star.

1989: Michael Moore’s documentary Roger & Me lambastes GM for its plant closures. We are saddled with Moore’s pontifications ever since.




1991: Ford debuts the Explorer, its first truck-based sport-utility vehicle, and reaps giant profit margins. Ford and the rest of the Big Three forget how to make passenger cars for the next decade.

2000: Toyota debuts the 2001 Prius, the first gas-electric hybrid on the market.

2004: GM introduces the most absurd and reviled automobile of the decade, the $50,000 Hummer H2. It’s an instant hit and a target for conservationists everywhere. The H2 gets less than 12 miles to the gallon, at the same time that gas prices spike to more than $2.25 a gallon. Hybrid sales go through the roof, with a seven-month waiting list for the Prius. Ford promises hybrids of its own, but, in an underpublicized mea culpa, turns to licensing Toyota’s technology instead.

Today and Tomorrow: Dodge introduces a new Hemi V-8, OPEC cuts oil production, and there are hostages in the Middle East. It’s the 1970s all over again.

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