Los Angeles: City of Cars

August 28, 2023 to March 24, 2024

Have you ever wondered how and why Los Angeles became so obsessed with cars? While historians and sociologists have provided numerous explanations, little or no credit has been given to the dealers, who ventured into unknown territory to sell a product regarded as a fad, at best, by nearly all banks and most businesses.

The early days of the city’s auto business owed its inception to the bicycle shop owners who began repairing and selling cars; carriage retailers; and automobile aficionados who learned how to broaden the market for automobiles and convince the public that the car was no longer a luxury. It was a necessity.

Los Angeles dealers helped change the way cars were sold. They pioneered selling cars on credit while accepting “used cars” that buyers “traded in” in order to buy a new vehicle. These determined businessmen introduced the West Coast to the concept of dealerships with service bays for on-site car repairs, persuaded manufacturers to design cars to the dealer’s specifications, and created custom vehicles and innovations that were copied around the country.

By 1910, Los Angeles was the seventeenth largest city in the nation, and some seventy local dealers represented 105 different automobile brands. “There was a time when the horse was in a majority but conditions are such on the coast today that in one city at least, Los Angeles, the horse is all but shooed off the street,” Out West reported in February 1913. “There is not more than one horse-drawn vehicle to every twenty motors, and the horses delay traffic frightfully in that rapidly moving city.” There would soon be more cars per capita in Southern California than any other part of the country.

The city’s automobile dealers campaigned for road improvements and traffic regulations, and to promote the cars they sold, launched beloved L.A. radio and television stations, including KNX, KFI, and KCBS-KCAL.

While the early pioneers of auto retailing may be long forgotten, their legacy has come to define the City of Angels, and their work continues to impact everyday life in Los Angeles.

—Darryl Holter & Stephen Gee, authors of Driving Force: Automobiles and the New American City, 1900-1930 (Angel City Press)