From Point A to Point B: The Los Angeles Auto Show of 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As I did last year, I attended the Los Angeles Auto Show, heading over with my wife and younger son early on Saturday, the second day of this year’s edition.  The massive exposition at the Los Angeles Convention Center is a remarkable mix of classic, customized, standard production, and exotic vehicles in several large and smaller exhibit halls.

Like I mentioned last year, among the most fascinating aspects were glimpses into the near and somewhat more distant future of transportation, whether it is the steady growth of electric vehicles or the autonomous concept cars that could be many years away from appearing on the market.

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These first four images are a sampling of pages from a program, in the Homestead’s collection, for the 1929 Los Angeles Auto Show.

After about four hours, even my 14-year old, who knows a great deal about cars and was bounding through the halls sitting in as many cars to fantasize about driving an Acura NSX, a Maserati Quattroporte, or Audi R8 and a host of others, was worn down and we headed home.  He did, in addition, get a last-minute boost from seeing a colorfully-decorated Lamborghini owned by a favorite YouTube personality.

On the drive back, I mentioned to my son that there was a devastating fire at the 1929 show, so this seems like a good time to post something about that year’s edition.  In those days, the event was held in early March and that year the location was the southeast corner of Washington Boulevard and Hill Street.

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This spot had a roughly fifty year history as a site for various types of amusement for Los Angeles residents.  On a 35-acre tract was, from the 1870s, Washington Gardens, which then evolved in 1887, during the famed Boom of the Eighties, into Chutes Park.  There were a variety of rides, including a water slide and roller coaster, a theater, and displays of animals at the park, which was renamed Luna Park in 1910, until it was shut down in 1914.

Meantime, a baseball stadium, also called Chutes Park, was built on the site for the Los Angeles Angels franchise.  That facility was situated in the middle of the tract, but, in 1911, a new stadium, Washington Park, opened slightly to the southeast, which allowed for Hill Street to be extended south from Washington Boulevard.

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After Chicago chewing gum magnate and owner of the Chicago Cubs, William Wrigley, purchased the Angels, he sought an expansion of Washington Park, but this was denied by the City of Los Angeles.  He acquired some land further south at Avalon Boulevard and 42nd Place and built Wrigley Field, which opened in 1925.

This is why the site of the auto show was open and available four years later, but, because the lot was undeveloped, four large tents were set up on the site for all of the displays.  The dates of the show were from 2-10 March with hours from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and planning and management was under the auspices of the Los Angeles Motor Car Dealers Association.

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Because of the massive tents, which were set back quite a distance from Washington, it was decided to landscape the area between the street and the tens like a desert, including the temporary installation of palm trees along with wood fencing and an interesting false brick wall with arches, joined by what looked by Moorish towers framed by cypresses, while other trees of that type lined the entrance area.  In a decade where Asian and Middle Eastern exotica ran rampant, the decor was definitely in vogue.

Among the automobile makes exhibiting at the show were well-known names to us like Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, Lincoln, Oldsmobile, Plymouth, and Pontiac.  There were many other manufacturers, however, who’ve largely been forgotten, except by car buffs, such as Auburn, DeSoto, Essex, Hudson, Kissel, Nash, Pierce Arrow, and Studebaker.  Airplanes, boats, and other craft were also to be found along with auto parts suppliers, accessory makers and retailers, and others. Musical performances by three orchestras were among the entertainment offered.

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This and the following image are from coverage from the 6 March 1929 edition of the Los Angeles Times concerning a fire that consumed the show grounds within about 30 minutes.

There was another vendor mentioned in the program to point out, this being the Foamite Childs Corporation of California, a Los Angeles-based firm that manufactured Foamite Fire Extinguishers.  Unfortunately, the presence of these devices as well as a constant deployment of Los Angeles Fire Department personnel could not prevent a disaster.

Evidently due to a woman dropping a cigarette on the ground or lighting a match too close to the tent material, a blaze erupted around 4 p.m. on Wednesday, 5 March and it was just a matter of about a half-hour before the highly flammable enclosure was speedily engulfed.  While the capacity of the two tents was roughly 10,000, it was said that there were probably about a quarter that many present when the conflagration broke out.

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The damage, described in the Los Angeles Times as resulting in “a mass of smoking embers, charred wood, burning rubber and twisted steel,” was estimated to be $1.25 million with about $725,000 incurred among the auto makers; commercial cars suffering losses of over $90,000; airplanes, boats and accessories hit with nearly $130,000 in damages; and about $90,000 in other damages.

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This and the remaining two photos from the museum’s holdings show the Auto Show grounds, the fire that broke out in the second tent, and the ruins of the site.

An emergency meeting of the Los Angeles Motor Car Dealers Association resulted in a decision to continue with a new show for the final few scheduled days at the Shrine Auditorium, an exuberant Moorish headquarters for the fraternal order opened in 1926 near the University of Southern California.

The Times reported that “all of the exhibitors who participated in the first show will take part in the new one.  Cars similar to the ones destroyed will be on the display with the exception of specially built models.”  But, because the auditorium was substantially smaller than the Washington Park location, only a small selection of trucks and no accessories were to be exhibited.

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In addition to some pages from the program, today’s highlighted artifacts include a trio of a quartet of aerial photographs in the Homestead’s collection showing the Washington Park site when completed and then two views of the fire and the devastated site.  The extent of the disaster can be fully appreciated with these images, but it is remarkable that aside from some injuries to firefighters and workers at the show, there were not only no fatalities, but no severe injuries reported in the immediate aftermath of the blaze.

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The Los Angeles Auto Show has come a long way in the last ninety years in scope, scale, attendance and every other component.  Fortunately, modern building design, emergency preparedness and other elements would not allow for a disaster like the 1929 fire, as well.

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