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California Street Pileup (1944)




By Leon J. Pinkson 
Automobile Editor, The Chronicle

Automobiles entered the local picture when San Franciscans began to read in The Chronicle about the exploits of dashing young “Teddy” Roosevelt. That was in the late nineties. Turning back the pages of automobile history, one finds that our citizens have been motor minded ever since.

In fact, it is worth noting that even in the experimental days of this era interest in the newest method of transportation ran high. Among the wealthy families in the fashionable Pacific Heights and Western Addition sections of the city there appeared a few venturesome gentlemen who took up the motoring fad. At the same time the records show that in the industrial end of the city several local engineers, who had read of the development of the internal combustion engine in France, Germany and England, tried with varying success to capitalize on the information received by constructing odd-looking self-propelled vehicles.

The exploits of the young bloods and the mechanical-minded gentry in taming their snorting horseless wagons were favorite subjects of conversation for conservative citizens. In those years of motordom’s inception it was newsworthy to complete a spin out as far as the Cliff House without either a breakdown or a blowout, or both.

The Automobile as A Public Servant

However, the automobile soon became more than a “rich man’s toy” to San Franciscans. Faced by the tremendous emergency of April 18, 1906, the city put its automobiles to work. Supplies, food and medicine had to be distributed to widely scattered sections of the ruined town. Horses performed their task patiently and nobly but motor cars, though still far from their present mechanical perfection, came through the situation with flying colors.

Commandeered by the army officers who were governing the stricken city during the emergency, all motorcars were housed at relief headquarters. Every evening after the day’s work these cars were “serviced,” which is to say that they were practically rebuilt. But they held up remarkably well and all San Francisco realized that the motor car had come to stay as a means of quick, efficient and reliable transportation.

But before going on with the story of San Francisco’s automotive growth, it is appropriate to recall some of the pioneers who made the first cars available to the public. Though it has been 35 or 40 years since they introduced the idea of private ownership of four-wheeled self-propelled vehicles, their names are remembered even today by members of the auto world.

Pioneering the Local Auto Market

There was, for instance, E. P. Brinegar, who headed the Pioneer Motor Company, distributors of the Winton and Oldsmobile, the first car to be commercially manufactured in America. And there was J. A. Marsh, president of the Mobile Carriage Company, distributors of the Pierce-Arrow. Marsh later became associated with C. F. Culberson in the Pierce-Arrow Pacific Company, though both of them are now dead.

William Middleton and his sons, William and George, handled the Rambler and the Columbia gasoline and electric car. These men converted the huge Mercantile Library building into an automobile salesroom covering half a block. The immensity of their quarters was a new development that astounded the citizenry.

Max Rosenfeld introduced the Peerless line here, and Frank Minor had the agency for the early chain-drive Locomobile. Charles S. Hawkins introduced the Stanhope steamer and, later, the White steam car. A. B. Costigan and A. Rathbourne had the Packard, Cuyler Lee the Cadillac, Louis Bill the Knox and later the Rambler, J. W. Leavitt the Reo, Gus Beyer the Franklin, and Thomas B. Varney the Waverly Electric. Frank E. Carroll was Varney’s demonstrator. None of these men is now connected with the automobile industry and, with the exception of the Oldsmobile, Packard and Cadillac, even the cars have sunk into oblivion. Most of them are not even remembered by the car buying public today.

Among the automobile pioneers in San Francisco who became connected with the Industry in its early days and still head their respective companies are William L. Hughson and Charles S. Howard.

Ford Moves in on The West Coast

Back in 1903 William L. (“Billy”) Hughson, who was then head of the machinery parts supply company known as Hughson & Merton, signed a contract for the Ford franchise. That was the year the Ford Motor Company was established. “Billy” journeyed to Detroit with $5000 in his pocket to buy Fords for shipment to San Francisco. When he arrived Henry Ford and several of the partners with whom he was then associated suggested that Hughson invest his money in the Ford Motor Company. Billy thought it over and decided to accept their advice but his own partners wanted the automobiles instead of the stock so he was forced to decline the proposition. Not so many years after this incident Hughson’s $5000 worth of stock would have been purchased back by Henry Ford for several million dollars. However, Billy is still happy and holds the record of being the oldest Ford dealer in point of service in the world.

Charles S. Howard of the Buick agency entered the San Francisco industry in a minor role but his business acumen soon brought him to the top of the ladder as an automobile dealer and distributor. Howard, son of the owner of the Howard piano manufacturing company in Boston, came here after serving with the Roosevelt Rough Riders in the Spanish-American war. He was then working as field representative in the Western States for the growing Buick Motor Company, which was then under the leadership of the legendary W. C. Durant. Liking San Francisco, young Howard went back to Detroit and sold his chief on the idea of making him Pacific Coast distributor of the line. He then returned and after a tough start, including a fire that wiped out the temporary building in which he was established and destroyed his stock of cars, succeeded in surmounting his difficulties and became one of the outstanding men in the American industry.

Golden Gate Avenue Was First Auto Row

But to go back to the days before the fire, the establishments of the industry’s pioneers were, in most cases, simple stores with doors wide enough to permit a motor car to be driven through. For the most part, young Auto Row centered on Golden Gate avenue. After 1906 Auto Row grew down Van Ness from Golden Gate to Market, and with the establishment of the Civic Center project, spread toward the northern end of Van Ness, resulting in our present streamlined automobile marketing channel extending as far as Washington street.

By the time San Francisco took shape again after the fire the city’s residents had adopted the new mode of transportation and kept the dealers hard pressed to supply enough cars. Engineering improved and citizens boasted they “averaged 35 all the way to San Jose” or “climbed California street hill in low gear.” The next period of development in the city’s automotive world then centered around the improvement of streets and highways. Perhaps our streets and roads would have been improved anyway, but it is certain that the popularity of the motor car and the articulate mass opinion of car owners accelerated the good roads program.

Lest it be through that this development took place without growing pains, consider the typical instance of a community’s desire to meet its problems. As cars multiplied their drivers took to the green stretches of Golden Gate Park in increasing numbers. The owners of “spanking bays” and buggies objected loudly. The cars frightened the horses! Enter John Law (or maybe it was John McLaren) with the edict that cars must keep to the south end of the park. In addition, every person driving a car in the park had to pass a test providing his capability. During this test a dummy was thrown out of the car at unexpected moments and if the driver could not stop in time or successfully maneuver his car so that he avoided running over the dummy, he could not use the park’s south road.

San Francisco’s Hills A Test for Climbing

As automobiles developed, a wide choice of cars was offered the public. As a result, for a time at least there were too many different cars manufactured, although each claimed at least one bona fide feature to distinguish it from the others. For a while a motor car connoisseur browsing along Van Ness could have ordered a hundred different makes. But the natural law of business risk and mechanical fallibility took care of the situation and the roster of car brands gradually dropped to 50, then 40, and finally to the present figure of about 20.

Interest in automobiles was stimulated locally by the promotion of stamina contests, economy runs and hill-climbing performances by the industry’s leaders. San Franciscans delighted in these exhibitions and their outcome was hot news of the day. For feats of hill-climbing Fillmore street, California and Duncan provided true tests of power. In fact, many a visiting Eastern auto official took a look at San Francisco’s hills and called in engineers to build cars that could conquer them. Small chance for sales unless those hills could be surmounted with power to spare!

So it came about that by 1915 the pioneering days were over and distributors and dealers were organizing their businesses on the sound lines that distinguish them today. Howard-Buick, for example, extended its territory and influence through all California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and part of Washington, becoming the “largest distributors of automobiles in the world,” and selling one-tenth of Buick’s annual output. Others built on the same basis, improving service facilities and regularizing the rebuilding and selling of used cars.

Expo of 1915 Brings Detroit to the Natives

At the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 for the first time at any fair anywhere “Detroit was brought to the front door”—a production line was set up which built Fords for the edification of spectators. Frank Vivian, now of the Richmond Ford factory, was in charge of the line and he was a proud citizen when Henry Ford, Thomas A. Edison and Harvey Firestone dropped in one day to watch the work. On another occasion Ford himself donned a jacket and “personally” built a Ford car as a gift for Rear Admiral Fullam, his guest.

Yes, the time was ripe for the consolidation of automotive gains. In the East Bay Cliff Durant, Cliff Steves and Norman DeVaux erected the first plant for the Chevrolet Motor Company of California. The Ford Company opened a big distributing headquarters and warehouse here in San Francisco. In the East Bay, too, a large Durant plant was opened for the construction of Stars and Flints.

San Francisco early took the lead as distributing headquarters and “home office” for hundreds of big executives in the Western States area. The city was a meeting ground for dealers for many miles around, as well as a point of departure for regional and zone executives who served the dealers. To this day the city is, in an automotive way, a “suburb” of Detroit. Every national figure in the industry has, at one time or another, staged meetings here. There was, for instance, the banquet given in honor of Alfred P. Sloan Jr., then president of General Motors, at the Palace Hotel Among the distinguished guests were William Knudsen, the present president; R. H. Grant, vice president of the company; Herbert Hoover, and a long list of notable business and civic leaders.

The Saturation Point And Absorption

Another such occasion was the National Automobile Dealers’ Association convention last year. The spotlight event during the convention was the closing banquet at which William E. Holler, general sales manager of Chevrolet, was keynote speaker. Holler’s entourage included prominent Chevrolet sales and advertising executives from General Motors.

During the war cars sold at premium prices, due to the fact that most of the manufacturers were making war materials instead of cars. At the same time the general wage scale had risen sharply. The shortage was alleviated by rounding up used cars from every available source and rebuilding them. With the advent of the Coolidge era economists began predicting the arrival of a time when the public could not absorb any more automobiles. Dealers worried, but the public went on buying. Now the industry has learned from experience with “saturation” periods that every third year a big new market is released as a result of depreciation and the all too human desire to enjoy  the latest engineering advancements.

There was great development, too, in those years right after the war, in body types. The first cars, of course, either had no tops at all or were fitted with carriage tops. Then Harley Earl, chief designer for Don Lee and now head of the color, art and style section of General Motors, built a “California top,” a semi-permanent covering of leather over a wooden structure featuring sliding glass windows. So popular did this top become in other parts of the country that it was responsible for closed cars as we know them now.

Low Priced Cars Are the Answer

In San Francisco the arrival of the low-priced car, pioneered simultaneously by Hudson, Buick, Dodge, Ford and others was cheered. All through the 1920’s Auto Row prospered steadily, for the roads program had also made great strides. Heralded by a full-page ad in The Chronicle, local auto dealers announced their campaign to bridge the bay. San Francisco’s “bottleneck” was also being broken by the construction of the Bayshore highway. Better parking facilities were developed. Transbay ferries improved their auto service.

And concurrently the pioneers of Auto Row and their successors were making names for themselves in many ways. H. O. Harrison, the Hudson and later Chrysler distributor, became noted as a big game hunter. George Campe was a celebrated sportsman and collector of the arts. The list was long and the activities innumerable of these tycoons of the local auto empire.

Then came 1931, when Auto Row discovered that the stock market had really crashed in 1929. Along with other businessmen, the local auto men took it on the chin. Operations had to be curtailed. Out of the bleak outlook the hardier souls stiffened themselves for a tough battle against economic odds. In that period many of the wise auto heads of today were proven, such as J. E. French, Eaton McMillan, James McAlister, Jimmy Waters, “Babe” Maggini, Ernest Ingold, Glenn Slater, George Daniels, Bill Street, the Remensperger brothers and others.

Perpetual Motion—All Straight Ahead

Working harder and serving the public better, the local auto men weathered the storm. The national automobile industry helped local businessmen in their efforts at recovery. Walter Chrysler, Henry Ford, Charles Nash, Alvin McCauley and William Knudsen contributed to the success that the industry knows today.

Today the local figures on the automotive economic scoreboard stand as follows: There are approximately 165,000 passenger cars and trucks registered in the city. There are 65 new car distributors, dealers or sub-dealers, and almost 100 used car establishments. The total investment in buildings, materials and current car and truck stocks is estimated at $25,000,000 to $30,000,000. In a decade, as technological advances proceed, it is predicted that the total of cars and trucks can increase half again and the total investment go up to $50,000,000. Why? Because there’s always progress in the automobile business.




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