American Car Culture

1934 Ford Model 40 Deluxe Roadster

One of the reasons I enjoy visiting automobile museums—of which there are five that I know of in Southern California—is that classic American cars represent a culture that is so uniquely different from that of our European cousins. That 1934 Ford Roadster from the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar is brash, yet built along classical lines. Compare it with a Rolls Royce, Voisin, Maybach, Talbot Lago, or Bugatti and you will see it different from American cars in pretty much the same way that American literature is different from European literature.

There are some classic American car designs that are characterized by some restraint, but for the most part Detroit says, “Here! This is what you want! It’s you!” One feels one has to grow into a Bentley or a Hispano-Suiza: It is something to which to attain. The American model is much closer to the Id, whereas the European model is closer to the Superego.

The Pep Boys: Manny, Moe, and Jack

I was enthralled yesterday by this Pep Boys plastic logo at Oxnard’s Murphy Automotive Museum. I compare Manny, Moe, and Jack to the automobile repairman in Patrick Modiano’s novel Villa Triste: cool, detached, intellectual.

It is possible, perhaps, to carry this McLuhanesque comparison too far, but it does seem to make sense. Look, for example at the logos.

Plymouth Barracuda Logo

Can you imagine Rolls Royce calling one of its Silver Phantoms a Phan’? Or Talbot Lago, a ’Bot? Even though Rolls Royces are affectionately referred to as Rolls, the company would never abbreviate the name on one of their automobiles. Yet, Plymouth gladly adopted an abbreviated name to put on the rear bumpers of their later model Barracudas.

Now then, is the American approach any worse? It appears to sit well with the American automobile-buying public. Of course, it would be far better if the American automobiles themselves have not declined so precipitately. I have owned nothing but Japanese cars since I began to drive. Yet, looking back at Detroit products of the Golden Age, I would have had no trouble with Packard or Pierce Arrow or Duesenberg. They were beautiful cars that compared favorably with the best that Europe could manufacture.


In Praise of Old Cars

Cadillac El Dorado Dashboard

Cadillac El Dorado Dashboard

Martine and I drove to Oxnard today to pay a return visit to the Murphy Auto Museum. We began our trip with a big surprise. When we were there in April, Martine had left her Magellan cane seat in the rest room. After three months’ absence, a volunteer went into the back room, fetched it in a few seconds, and handed it over to Martine. We were both bowled over. That put our visit on a good footing from the word go.

Unlike the two major auto museums in L.A., the Murphy concentrates on American cars, many only 10 or 20 years old, that are beautifully restored and cared for, such as the metallic blue El Dorado from the above photo (I forget the model year) .

There was a special exhibit of vintage trailers, including a large Airstream and a small teardrop. It led me to dreaming about getting a small camper van for visiting desert campgrounds. (If only I had the money!) A number of the trailers were custom-made and manufactured from a variety of materials with varying degrees of professionalism.


A City Named After a Raven?

Martine Communing with Bob’s Big Boy

Martine Communing with Bob’s Big Boy

For those of us who grew up in Cleveland, Oxnard is the name of TV Host Ghoulardi’s pet raven. For residents of Southern California, it is also a nondescript agrarian city in nearby Ventura County famous for its strawberries, and home to the Murphy Auto Museum.

Now that tax season is over, Martine and I decided to take a road trip to Oxnard, driving along the coast through Malibu past Point Mugu until we reached distant Oxnard. There, we located the Murphy Auto Museum near the corner of Statham and Oxnard and spent three hours looking at the old cars, exhibits of nostalgic memorabilia, and a huge HO model railroad setup that made me green with envy. (Of course, if I had a model railroad setup in my apartment, I would have to construct tunnels consisting of books.)

1930s Packard Hood Ornament

1930s Packard Hood Ornament

Unlike the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar and the Petersen Automotive Museum in L.A., the Murphy has cars that are more likely to have been driven: There is no “Mint in Box” feeling about the displays. There is no plethora of Rolls Royces, Talbot Lagos, Duesenbergs, Bugattis, and Bentleys—but there are lots of great American cars from the 1920s onward, plus specialty items such as early camping trailers and an intriguing collection of Volkswagens.

My guess is that we’ll probably be back later this year. I guess we were swayed by the charms of Oxnard.