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L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen

Youth's Electric Carriage Led to an Empire

June 21, 1998|Cecilia Rasmussen

Los Angeles is widely recognized as the birthplace of what has come to be called "the car culture." Few people, however, recall that the godfather of that sort-of-blessed event was a mechanic turned merchant prince named Earle C. Anthony.

Long before the internal combustion engine replaced equine transit on Los Angeles' streets, Anthony--a self-taught teenage mechanic--put the city on the horseless carriage map when he designed and built L.A.'s first electric vehicle: the "Anthony Special Runabout."

In 1897, about a decade after brothers Charles and Frank Duryea sold the nation's first gasoline-powered buggy, Anthony, whose friends called him "E.C.," shocked Angelenos with a 1/2-horsepower converted buckboard that gasped and sputtered through Los Angeles' streets at the electrifying speed of 6 mph. (Anthony also was involved in L.A.'s first automobile crash, when his "speedster" hit a pothole while accelerating down Beaudry Hill.)

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The buckboard-bender notwithstanding, young Earle had begun his full-throttle ascent on the road to success--a journey to an automotive empire that ultimately would include a gas station chain, a bus line, radio and television stations, neon signs, roads, bridges and a private castle called Villa San Giuseppe.

Illinois-born in 1880, Anthony arrived in L.A. with his family at age 12. While attending Los Angeles High School, he built his revolutionary runabout out of a buckboard, bicycle tires, wheelchair parts and a homemade battery.

Shortly afterward, he headed north to study engineering at UC Berkeley. While there, he worked as a stringer for major newspapers and founded the school's humor magazine, the Pelican.

Returning to Los Angeles after graduating in 1903, he began to refine his vision of a future on wheels. Facing the challenge of making the city more friendly to the auto age, he took his $2,000 in savings and purchased one of L.A.'s first car dealerships, at 4th and Hill streets. He soon was a distributor for 18 manufacturers, and by 1905 he had a toehold in the lucrative Packard franchise.

His influence helped his chums obtain the distributorships for other big car makers. Charlie Howard got Buick and Don Lee took Cadillac. Another close friend, Bill Hewson, already had the Ford dealership.

Finding new ways of increasing car sales, this so-called "Big Four" bought the first full-page newspaper ads urging construction of a bridge across San Francisco Bay. These early road warriors led the way in the "good roads" movement that evolved into an interstate system.

Angelenos' passion for cars began to grow in 1909, when Anthony organized the first auto show in Southern California. In a tent at Pico Boulevard and Grand Avenue, thousands who had never seen a car looked in wide-eyed wonderment at the fanciful displays.

That same year, the city's first gas station (a farm wagon with a gas tank on top) sprang up at Wilshire Boulevard and La Brea Avenue. Fuel was 10 cents a gallon. Motorists unlucky enough to live too far from the proto-filling station had to continue searching out grocery and hardware stores where gas could be purchased.

Tired of the inconvenience, Anthony and a group of fellow entrepreneurs opened L.A.'s first full-service gas station at Washington Boulevard and Grand Avenue, selling 200 gallons of gas in two hours in 1913. Within a year, hundreds of National Supply Stations dotted the coast in a red, white and blue color scheme. The group cashed in on its quick success, selling the chain to Standard Oil.

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In 1922, pioneering the local use of radio, Anthony mounted a five-watt transmitter to a bread board on his kitchen table and began advertising his Packards to surprised listeners. His radio station was KFI, which soon became the West's first 50,000-watt, clear channel station.

Two years later, using his initials, he launched another station--KECA. It was sold in 1944 in the wake of a new antitrust law, and the new owners changed its call letters to KABC.

Always quick to recognize new advertising venues, Anthony returned from a 1923 trip to France with three neon signs--a commercial art form perfected by Frenchman Georges Claude a little more than a decade earlier. The signs were an immediate sensation and set off a rage for neon across America. Two of the original signs went to his newly opened dealerships in Oakland and San Francisco, and the third was erected in downtown Los Angeles near 7th and Flower streets.

The 30-foot sign glowed the word PACKARD with the logo of Earle C. Anthony Inc. below in smaller script. Like a movie premiere, thousands flocked to see it. Later, a smaller one would blaze over the 1000 S. Hope St. entrance where his new dealership opened in 1927.

Propelled by his motto--"Don't waste time dreaming about it! If it's worth thinking about, do it! If not, forget it!"--Anthony built a four-story Taj Mahal of auto showrooms, designed by architect Bernard Maybeck, at Hope Street and Olympic Boulevard.

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