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Westways magazine celebrates a century of car culture

The Automobile Club of Southern California publication has put L.A. in the driver's seat, advocating for travel the four-wheeled way.

February 23, 2009|Christopher Smith

If you've read any article about newspapers or magazines recently, they likely were stuffed with predictions of doom. Search the phrase "death of print" in Google and you'll come up with almost a million results. But even in this gloomy landscape, there are bright spots, perhaps none more unlikely than Westways magazine, which is growing as it turns 100 years old this month.

Hip? Nope, and it has no pretenses to be so. Instead, this driving-centric lifestyle magazine -- the longest continuously published magazine in Southern California -- is flourishing with a circulation of 3.6 million, making it the country's 10th largest.

Unlike most magazines that rely on subscriptions and newsstand sales, Westways has a business model more tortoise than hare. You can't buy it anywhere; the magazine is distributed eight times a year only to members of the Automobile Club of Southern California. This might seem a dowdy approach, but consider that, over this decade, Westways is up by almost a million copies, reflective of increases in Auto Club membership.

Topics that are the lifeblood for most lifestyle magazines aren't included. No celebrity photos. No financial advice. No decorating and remodeling tips. Not even the one topic that every publication -- from AARP, the world's largest-circulation magazine with 33 million readers, to Z, a self-defined leftist monthly claiming a circulation of 26,000 -- feels compelled to tackle.

"There's no sex," said Automobile Club historian Matthew W. Roth, more matter-of-factly than censoriously.

Well, no sex per se, but Westways has always had an inside track on something that has defined sexy to Southern Californians for the last century: cars.

Cars have revved Westways' engine from the start with articles about driving them, racing them, crashing them, fixing them, maintaining them, insuring them and, in general, traveling in them. Leave it to others (environmentalists, bicyclists, mass-transit boosters) to critique the car culture; Westways' love for the automobile remains unabashed, a love affair that helped define Southern California.

A century ago, the state's nascent car culture was experiencing its first boom. California entered that year with 19,375 cars registered, second only to New York. The Automobile Club, 300 members strong, wanted to encourage and knit these pioneers together, as the first Westways editor put it, in a way to "create a greater demand for automobiles by showing some of the pleasures of touring."

Thus, the magazine's initial name: Touring Topics, under which it launched in February 1909. The underlying current of the publication's early years is of people in the thrall of a new technology that is creating a future for all that nobody can exactly envision but that they know is coming. (Think back a decade or so to the noise level from acolytes yammering about the World Wide Web and you've pretty much got it.)

One topic that dominated Touring Topics early on was roads. There weren't many places a car could go easily so the hue and cry was for new roads, better roads, well-maintained roads and roads with signs -- and for the state of California to get in there and make this happen immediately!

This zeal-meets-civic-boosterism is front and center in the first paragraph in a 1911 article about a proposal to build Vermont Avenue: "A boulevard that will rival the famous Appian Way of Rome, that will excel the wonderful Champs-Elysees of Paris, that will rank among the greatest roadways the world over has ever known -- this is the goal Los Angeles has set for her highway builders and one toward which progressive and farseeing citizens are striving."

It's easy to poke fun, but there is a bracing, exuberant passion underlying the stilted prose during this period, a sense of Southern California in the process of becoming.

The rudimentary infrastructure of Southern California was largely in place and expanding exponentially. Henry Ford's mass-produced Model T -- 15 million sold between 1908 and 1927 -- diminished the novelty of driving. By the end of the '20s, spurred in part by more roads and cheaper cars, Los Angeles' population had grown to 1.2 million.

In 1927, former Los Angeles newspaperman Phil Townsend Hanna became editor. In a photo from the period, Hanna doesn't look formidable -- more the cliche of a Depression-era movie milquetoast, peering anxiously through goggle-eyed glasses, with a pencil-thin mustache and a gangly frame.

Appearances deceive. Hanna had vision with a capital V, not only for the magazine, but also for what California was starting to mean in the fabric of American society.

"He wanted the magazine to showcase the cultural achievements and opportunities of life here, pushing back against the dominance of the East Coast," said historian Roth.

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