A second innovation also eased entry into car culture: the used-car trade-in. This made new cars affordable to many and the sale of those used cars accessible to still more. Dealers at first resisted opening used car divisions. Like used clothes, dealers in a luxury item such as early cars thought selling them used was degrading—like high-end dress shops selling used skirts. Yet, as fewer customers were first-time buyers and more needed financial incentives to buy new, trade-ins became the norm. This was not always advantageous to dealers who, when pressed into selling new cars, had to offer unprofitable trade-ins. Still, the logic of the used-car market greatly expanded ownership: by 1923, while 3.6 million new cars were sold in the United States, there were 2.8 million trade-ins. Given the variety and different vintages of used cars, finding a “fair” price was a problem for both buyer and seller, producing the need for a reliable price guide for used cars, which was eventually provided in 1926 by Leslie “Les” Kelley, of L.A.’s Kelley Kar Company, in the form of his business’s inaugural Blue Book.
Winning commitment to the car required more than making it affordable. Cautious customers needed assurance that the car could be fixed when it broke down, as it did far more often than today. Bad roads and driver misuse and ignorance were compounded by the lack of car manuals and standardized parts, creating demand for the hit-and-miss work of auto mechanics. Car dealers, of course, opened service departments but also pushed manufacturers to improve parts and service training. These seemingly prosaic advancements made US car culture possible .
Less tangible, but no less necessary, was how dealers created a mystique around the car and its possession. Though automobiles were known as practical machines of mobility, which were first sold in the often cramped and dirty settings of machine shops and livery stables, dealers soon realized that their cars could represent not simply vehicles of transport but, rather, expressions of status for an emerging middle class. Dealers learned to display and glamorize their autos, just as modern downtown department stores did their suits and gowns. Such expectations have largely disappeared from our discount shopping world. But early in the 20th century, with many of the new sites of consumption, dealers concentrated their showrooms downtown, usually near each other on a succession of auto rows (first on Main Street and then, by the 1910s, on Figueroa). Dealers in Packards, Lincolns, Stutzes, and Chandlers moved to architect-built structures, often multistoried, with well-lit showrooms and upper floors for parts, used cars, and repair—a surprisingly early application of the concept of “full service” at a time when most business was small and often specialized. These buildings suggested not only elegance but also efficiency—they were emblems of progress.
These car dealers were at the center of a modern age of commercial spectacle. They entered their cars in races. But they also sponsored frequent car shows with increasingly grandiose displays and luxurious settings. Auto shows became modern festivals of timely glamor and the sublimity of progress, often set, like the traditional festival, at special times and places. Car shows were very different from the everyday commercialism of the dealer showroom; they were even called the “social event of the season,” though their object was primarily to sell cars. Promoted by leading dealers and local officials from 1907, the shows became sites of boosterism and even cross-city competition. Rival dealers tried to outdo each other with decorations. One show was bedecked with expensive colored Chinese lanterns, and even enormous vases and ornamental plants, further adding to the aura and allure.
The history of human mobility has long been dominated by men: horses, wagons, trains, and ships. And so it was in 1900, as many saw the car as a modern horse (complete with horsepower). But this was also the age when women were beginning to break from Victorian and traditional constraints and conventions. Holter describes women running dealerships, but also women extending traditional female social and community service with their involvement in pressure groups for car safety and better roads. In the pioneering days of the automobile, women also entered endurance races, and a few tinkered with customizing cars. More conventionally, in a growing consumer culture where women were becoming the primary shoppers for many new products, women’s “interests” in comfort and convenience began to be considered in car design. Especially designed for women were electric cars, noted for their ease of start-up—without the front crank of early internal combustion vehicles, which was replaced in 1913 by the electric starter.
Holter takes seriously the personal element in explaining all this. Complementing these themes are a series of biographical sketches of major players in this story. The long-forgotten first car dealer, William K. Cowan, like many others, was a Midwestern migrant to Los Angeles, starting life in the jewelry business before entering the car trade, through operating the Rambler Bicycle Shop in the 1890s before its eponymous manufacturer switched to making cars. From these seemingly accidental beginnings, he promoted the industry with races and diversification in trucks. Ralph Hamlin—whose early skills led him to build, repair, and race, in succession, bicycles, motorcycles, and cars—secured a Franklin dealership. Angelenos will recognize the frequent references to the addresses and sites of Cowan’s shop and those of many other entrepreneurs, whose stories are told here. Many early dealers were closely associated with the emerging movie business (like Don Lee), or quickly entered or became connected with other avant-garde businesses: service stations (Earle Anthony), radio and TV (again Lee and Anthony, as well as Paul G. Hoffman), and even cartoons (Winslow Felix). Selling cars was about turning a profit, but it was also about being part of an ongoing enthusiasm for modernity in all its forms. Dealers not only arguably introduced Americans to the vehicle of modern life but were also often in the vanguard of a fast-paced and rapidly changing world of media and consumer culture.
In his afterword, Holter notes that Los Angeles has become “synonymous with gridlock, freeways, smog, high insurance rates and permit parking and yet the bond between people and their cars remained as unbreakable as it ever has been”—with the county counting 6,386,830 cars in 2021. For better or worse, the car culture that these early-20th-century dealers promoted remains securely in place 100 years later.