Old myths die hard. For years Los Angeles area residents have believed that the rise in popularity of the automobile occurred because the region's extensive electric railway system fell victim to a conspiracy. This erroneous conclusion emerged largely in response to the claims of critics like Bradford Snell.
In a widely quoted report to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1974, Snell, a legislative analyst, argued that automobile manufacturers conspired during the 1940s to destroy a thriving, efficient system of streetcars in cities throughout the United States. By purchasing controlling interests in urban railways, the corporations replaced electric trolleys with diesel motor coaches. The inefficiency of the buses in turn led to the demise of a once-healthy public transportation network and left urban residents with the automobile as their only means of transport. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, Snell claimed, had reshaped "American ground transportation to serve corporate wants instead of social needs."
Snell believed that Los Angeles' experience epitomized the malevolent plans of the consortium. "The noisy, foul-smelling buses," wrote Snell, "turned earlier patrons of the high-speed rail system away from public transit and, in effect, sold millions of private automobiles."
It is true that General Motors and other automobile-related manufacturers invested in a company that purchased urban streetcar lines. During 1944, the Henry Huntington estate sold the Los Angeles Railway (LARY) to American City Lines, a subsidiary of National City Lines. Minority stockholders in National City included GM, Standard Oil of California, Firestone Tire and Rubber, Phillips Petroleum and Mack Truck. The new management immediately began to replace streetcars with buses. Two years later, a federal grand jury brought suit against National City for several antitrust violations. A trial in Chicago brought both acquittals and convictions; most important, the corporate stockholders of National City divested their holdings before the suit came to trial.