California Car Culture Is The Ultimate Custom
A Decade By Decade Look At California Car Customization
The Golden State is addicted to driving. But for a region so vast, it would be hard not to be: how else are we supposed to travel up a coastline that spans 840 miles, and navigate a landscape that includes just about every type of geography (deserts, mountains, beaches, and everything in between)? Over time, California’s diverse demographics and physical features made it an ideal spot for everyone from Hollywood filmmakers to DIY carmakers, resulting in a vibrant car culture that produced some of automotive history’s most iconic customs.
1. From Golden Age to Depression: the 1920s and 1930s
It’s hard to imagine a version of California that includes decent public transport, but at the dawn of the roaring ‘20s the Golden State was much different than it is today. Streetcars, like L.A.’s Pacific Electric railway line, covered cities with thousands of miles of track. That system peaked in popularity in the mid-20s, before slowly acquiescing to the appeal of the open road.
Just as the dominance of streetcars in California was waning, enthusiasm for automobiles was building to new heights. California roadways were expanding based on obvious need, and drivers found themselves benefitting from a growing array of reliable options. Ford replaced the Model T with the more versatile Model A in 1927, and the coachbuilders who bodied more luxurious vehicles were taking their artistry to a stunning new level, particularly in California. The Western oil boom happened to coincide with the rise of the SoCal film industry, attracting the attention of well-regarded luxury dealers and designers like Don Lee, and launching the careers of others. Harley Earl, GM design chief and father of the Chevy Corvette, got his start working with Lee in Los Angeles.
In the 1930s, the world of customs changed forever following the introduction of the 1932 Ford, or as hot rodders came to affectionately call it, the Deuce. The onset of the Great Depression had taken a toll on Ford’s sales, so they made plans to become the first in their price range to offer an engine larger than six cylinders. Finally, a lightweight, affordable vehicle with an engine that packed the kind of power only luxury cars were thought to be capable of – all thanks to the introduction of Ford’s Flathead V-8.
Ford fans in the ‘20s had already grasped the racing potential of otherwise ordinary cars like the Model T, but with the Flathead V-8, they had some serious horsepower to work with. In California, DIY racing was particularly enticing due to the proximity of deserts and dry lake beds, which allowed gearheads to test their creations without having to illegally race on city streets. The vast expanse of desert regions like the Mojave also became the perfect breeding ground for the next generation of land speed record-breakers.
2. War and Speed: The 1940s
In the tumult of the early to mid-1940s, few would’ve guessed that this decade would become such a pivotal turning point in automotive history. In fact, from 1942-45, no one was making new cars in America at all, as FDR’s War Production Board ensured that all automakers repurposed their plants for the production of military equipment and machinery. It was a huge national undertaking that drew thousands of workers to California, a coastal region believed to be vulnerable to Japanese attack. In response, captains of industry invested in new manufacturing jobs in the state, with Henry Kaiser of Kaiser-Frazer employing 93,000 workers in one just one Bay Area shipyard. So, after the conflict was over, what did all those people choose to do with their wartime skills?
For many Californians, the beloved ’32 Ford was the answer to that question. In the late 1940s, the Deuce became a popular custom simply because it was a popular car, and there weren’t very many of those for Americans to choose from. Many were still driving their Depression-era rides when the U.S. entered the war, and after the war ended, some vets didn’t feel a need to wait for the massive industry expansion that the Big Three had planned. California “hot rodders” began modifying pre-war cars with a distinctively flashy, bare-bones style that sometimes scandalized the desert racers who came before them. Nevertheless, these high-performance customs always produced thrilling results out on the dry lake beds.
The recipe for a perfect ’32 Ford hot rod was simple: make it look cool, and take off anything you don’t absolutely need. This technique was pioneered by hot rodders like Bob McGee, a WWII veteran who returned to California after the war to find his ’32 Ford in desperate need of an update. His “McGee roadster” is now one of the most revered examples of the style. But what if you didn’t even have a car to begin with? Not a problem, because plenty of other materials were ripe for the picking.
Remember all of that war industry that California attracted in the early ‘40s? It quickly turned into excess supplies, meaning an intrepid amateur engineer could pick up items like airplane fuel tanks and turn them into racers for cheap. Belly tankers were typically made from fighter jet drop tanks – not exactly an easy item to come by today. But after World War II, military surplus yards couldn’t get rid of this stuff fast enough (in the Bay Area, residents rushed to snatch up military Jeeps that were selling for as low as $100). And WWII veterans usually knew their way around a junkyard racer, having gained plenty of mechanical experience driving tanks, sailing ships, or flying planes.
3. Excess and Artistry: The 1950s and 1960s
Peace and prosperity followed the WWII years, as America’s buoyant national mood led to increased car sales and flashier, more powerful vehicles. It was great news for car customizers, who were able to take bigger risks when working out of California’s bustling automotive scene. Take Max Balchowsky, the legendary engine swapper behind L.A.’s Hollywood Motors, for example: nobody really expected his “Old Yellers,” a series of stripped-down, scratch-built racers from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, to find much success against luxury brands on the track. But Balchowsky had the home turf advantage, first testing his cars up and down the California coast, and then finding himself the local favorite to win at Riverside International Raceway. In 1960, factory racing teams from Europe watched in shock as the Old Yeller Mark II became one of the winningest racecars of all time.
Given the sheer number of customs shops popping up in California at this time, the development of specialized skills became a crucial way to stand out from the pack. Balchowsky’s specialty was engine swaps, boasting that he could “replace anything with anything,” but he also made a name for himself in Hollywood as a stuntman. Other customs shop owners were even more involved in the entertainment industry, which provided a steady stream of work for visionaries like George Barris of Barris Kustom Industries. The brilliance of Barris’s 1966 Batmobile might not have been possible if he had not relocated to Los Angeles following World War II, and joined a hotbed of creativity and innovation.
The effect of custom culture on the auto industry as a whole was also at its most pronounced in this period. Today, many have forgotten that America’s first six-cylinder, two-door, fiberglass sports car was not the Chevy Corvette but the Kaiser Darrin 161, designed by Sunset Boulevard’s own Howard “Dutch” Darrin. Darrin cut his teeth in Paris during the interwar period, when French design innovation was unparalleled, but he clearly had a good sense of where the wind was blowing. Even major manufacturers like General Motors tried to evoke the opulent, forward-thinking, effortlessly cool style of California customs, naming their iconic Bel Air (introduced in 1950) after one of L.A.’s wealthiest neighborhoods. But car lovers, even those in the counterculture, could still get in on this trend without purchasing a new model: West Coast surfers of the ‘60s often chose to breathe new life into vintage wood-paneled station wagons called woodies, or make a versatile, Meyers Manx-style dune buggy out of a Volkswagen Beetle. For a while, it felt like the possibilities were endless.
4. Heritage Builders: The 1970s and Beyond
By the 1970s, hot rodding was no longer a young man’s game, and the late ‘60s counterculture of surfers and vagabonds was losing its allure. So, another type of custom stepped up to claim its rightful place in California car history: the lowrider.
Lowriding had already been around in various forms for decades, having started as a Mexican-American response to the mostly white practice of post-war hot rodding. Instead of making a car that was stripped-down and fast, why not make one that was extravagant, artistic, and slow? It was a simple concept, but one that continues to define California car culture today.
As enthusiasm grew for the modified Chevys being built by Chicano-owned shops, custom cars became a passion around which entire communities could gather. As Chicano identity became more clearly defined and celebrated in the ‘70s, lowriding clubs found themselves at the center of a movement to provide community-led aid and services to Mexican-Americans. As the years went by, they also became important to the African American community, as the imagery of the lowrider was adopted by West Coast hip hop culture of the 1990s.
With so many iconic styles to choose from, it’s safe to say that there’s no way to define a quintessentially California car. But the spirit of customs definitely permeates the state, with a myriad of different builds and designs coming together to make up the fabric of West Coast car culture. All that is left is to wonder how future generations can tap into the creativity and ingenuity of the customs scene, especially considering California won’t be ready to kick its driviving addiction any time soon.