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PLEASURES OF THE ROAD : LEGACY and LIFE STYLE : California's Love Affair With the Car

March 13, 1988|DAN GURNEY | Gurney, president of All American Racers Inc., has won Formula One, Indianapolis, stock and sports car championships during his 15-year driving career.

This career of mine, its quick cars, all the finishes and the failures from Indianapolis to Le Mans, has produced a million photographs.

The one that means just about everything stands on an easel alongside my desk.

It's a black-and-white blowup pulled from a 1950 snapshot, and that's me in the 10-gallon hat. I'm 19. With Skip Hudson, Ray Torres and Teddy Bear. It's just past midnight outside Ruby's Drive-In at Riverside, and we're headed for Utah and the Bonneville Salt Flats.

That car we're grinning over is our Bonneville Express. It was a '29 "A" roadster on '32 rails with a flathead V-8. We took turns on the salt and ran 130.43 m.p.h. in that old car. I've still got the brass dash plate to prove it.

I've also kept that photograph as a reminder, my touchstone to a California era when candy-apple paint jobs got the oohs and ahs, teen-agers put cars before baseball, and building street rods from wrecks was learning automotive engineering the greasy way. It was, I'm certain, a moment that was exclusively Californian.

It was also part of the social and cultural progression of California and the car, a long and satisfying attachment to a form of transportation that people in this state, more than any other, have made a relaxing, competitive, expressive, sometimes excessive but always enjoyable personal necessity.

Sure, America has been hooked on cars as a means of getting from A to Anywhere since 1906, when a farmer in Wentzville, Mo., actually traded in a horse on an ABC Autobuggy. But in California . . . well, I'll bet that a few days after Henry Ford decreed that all Model Ts would look better in black, somebody in Fresno opened a pin-striping shop.

I guess it really began in the '20s and '30s with Hollywood. Being a movie star meant a palace on Sunset Boulevard and driving something beamy with exposed chromium exhausts. Auburn. Cord. Duesenberg. Stutz. An Isotta-Fraschini that cost $22,750 in 1929. Or the V-12, 9.5-liter Hispano-Suiza.

And so the car became California's glitz.

When European sports cars--the little T-series MGs, the bathtub Porsches and the deep-breathing Jaguar XK-120s--were imported to the United States in the '40s and '50s, they came first to California. We mixed them with Morgans, Corvettes and Lotus Sevens at Palm Springs Airport, and sports car racing was born. So was drag-racing at Santa Ana. So was off-road from Mojave to the Baja. And dune buggies.

And so the car became California's year-round adventure.

This year--as last year and many previous years--more new cars, domestic and imported, will be sold in California than in any other state. There are more Porsches driving our freeways than are tooling all of Germany's autobahns . California is three-car families buying 10% of the nation's supply of new cars and daily commutes on a freeway system that reigns as the most efficient metropolitan people mover since subways.

Barney Oldfield was setting records in Los Angeles half a century before Phil Hill of Santa Monica won the world driving championship. Cruising. Woodies. Ragtops. The Chevy Malibu. Collector cars. Custom cars. Muscle cars. On Mulholland. Along Pacific Coast Highway. Barris Kustom Industries and The Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby.

And so the car is California life style.

I've often thought that an ignition key should be included in the next time capsule. In 2087, somebody recovering it may recall the importance of the auto to California in 1987 and say: "This, not the dog, was man's best friend."

After all, in a car you can chart your own course. To the beach or the forest. To the high desert or the High Sierra. Rain or shine, winter or summer, north or south, it supplies freedom with a reliable friend.

Sometimes, I think we take the modern automobile for granted. A turn signal quits. A wheel gets out of alignment. That, say the critics, is pretty bad after only 60,000 miles. That, I like to remind them, is pretty remarkable when you realize that 60,000 miles logs in at more than two trips around the world.

Unfortunately, the car's predominance in our daily lives and weekend pleasures has also dirtied our air and gulped fuel resources. We have been forced to develop safeguards--pollution controls, etc.--that in some cases have restricted the automotive hobbyist.

For example, my modified '34 Ford roadster that escorted the Bonneville Express to the salt flats definitely would not be street-legal by today's emission standards.

Therefore, California may be living off momentum created when we were allowed to have a great deal of fun with cars. The hot rod, the car with the sinister look through its lack of chrome, the different rumble in an exhaust system--these have been the casualties of the era we've just journeyed through.

On the other hand . . . .

Today has become tinted glass and low-profile tires on aluminum wheels, and lowered suspensions and customized minitrucks.

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