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SoCal Auto Historians Go Under The Hood Of LA’s Rich Auto Manufacturing And Retail History

The neon sign above the Felix Chevrolet Dealership near Downtown Los Angeles
The neon sign above the Felix Chevrolet Dealership near Downtown Los Angeles
Felix Chevrolet

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Outside of Detroit, there is no American city more associated with cars than Los Angeles.

And while SoCal’s car-centric culture may often be traced anecdotally to its urban sprawl, perpetually clogged freeways and the inordinate amount of time it often takes to get from point A to point B, the City of Angels was once as much of a hub for automobile manufacturing as it has become for car culture.

The automobile arrived in Southern California in the late 19th century at a time when rail was popular. Trains made way for electric streetcars, which thrived in Los Angeles for a couple of decades beginning at the turn of the 20th century, but by the 1910s the streetcars were on the outs due to general public unhappiness due to overcrowded trains, unreliable schedules and the increasing popularity and affordability of automobiles, which numbered about 6,500 in California by 1905. The 1910s also brought in new federal and state funding for road construction projects, further increasing the demand for automobiles.

Ford Motor Company opened L.A.’s first auto assembly plant in 1914 to assemble Model Ts. That plant moved to Long Beach in 1930 and operated near the harbor there for another 29 years before it shut down in 1959. Southern California’s last domestic auto manufacturing facility, a General Motors plant in Van Nuys, ceased operations in 1992. And the story of auto manufacturing in Los Angeles wouldn’t be complete without also mentioning the retail side and the auto dealers, who were instrumental in developing the sales, distribution and financing model that is now the industry standard.

Today on AirTalk, we’ll explore the history of automobile manufacturing and retail in Southern California from its start at the turn of the 20th century to its current state today.


Leslie Kendall, chief historian at the Petersen Automotive Museum in West Los Angeles

Darryl Holter, historian and CEO of the Shammas Group, which has owned the Felix Chevrolet dealership in Downtown Los Angeles since 1957 and, up until 2017, owned the Downtown L.A. Auto Group, which included eight car dealerships along the Figueroa corridor and one in Carson; he is also a member of the board of directors of the Greater Los Angeles New Car Dealers Association and the California New Car Dealers Association