Motown and Showtown

For more than a century, a reciprocating relationship in the automotive and entertainment industries has benefited Detroit and Los Angeles. Could the two cities be entirely themselves without each other?
Famed General Motors designer Harvey Earl, shown here with his wife, Sue, was the first stylist in the domestic auto industry. He oversaw many innovations, including the first concept car, annual model changeovers, and the first dedicated technical center (Tech Center in Warren). Photograph courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

The world’s longest and heaviest parade float couldn’t have performed at peak efficiency in the 2012 Rose Parade, driving at 2.5 miles per hour for two hours, if not for the technical expertise developed in Detroit.

Sponsored by a pet food company, the float featured a wave machine that carried surfing dogs across a large pool of water. Stretching 119 feet and weighing nearly 66 tons, the float was powered by a Ford Super Duty V-10 engine and six-speed automatic transmission, which stayed in first gear along the entire five-and-a-half-mile route along Orange Grove and Colorado boulevards.

The fact that an engineer from Roush Industries in Livonia oversaw the installation of the powertrain is typical of a longstanding symbiotic relationship between Detroit and Los Angeles. The two cities need each other. Whether it’s the annual Rose Parade, the entertainment business, or the automotive industry, synergies between the two municipalities have been at play for 110 years. Showtown couldn’t quite be itself without Motown, and vice versa.

Besides its uniqueness, the relationship is financially lucrative. From Detroit’s perspective, Los Angeles is arguably a more valued trading partner than Chicago or New York. Looking at population growth since 1900, personal income statistics, and percentages of the national GDP, David Littman — senior economist for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute in Midland, and former chief economist at Comerica Bank in Detroit — computed the annual value of trade between Detroit and L.A. at $205 million. He estimates trade with Chicago is $200 million, and trade with New York is at $145 million.

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The starting point for the intercity relationship can be pegged at 1902, when the Tournament of Roses first experimented with an East-versus-West football game. Traveling from Ann Arbor, Coach Fielding Yost’s Michigan Wolverines laid waste to Stanford University, 49-0. The Rose Parade that year offered a sterling silver cup worth $100 to the best-decorated automobile in classes encompassing steam, electric, and gasoline vehicles.

With Los Angeles demonstrating a ravenous appetite for automobiles, Ford established a branch factory at 12th and Olive streets in Los Angeles in 1911, although the more discerning customers found the Ford styling a bit stodgy. “If you were making something for a movie star or the likes of a Howard Hughes and you wanted to express power, authority, and gracefulness, you’d look to aircraft and race cars,” says Stewart Reed, director of transportation design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. “They’re all about big wheels, and they’re all about lowering the center of gravity and making things flush and aerodynamic.”

The first to meet the demand for restyled cars was Walter M. Murphy Co. Coachbuilders, which operated in Pasadena from 1920 until 1932. Murphy had come from Detroit. His father, lumber baron William Murphy, an early supporter of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, backed Henry Ford in the short-lived Detroit Automobile Co. When Ford quit as chief engineer in 1902, Murphy and his partners renamed the enterprise Cadillac Automobile Co.

From the younger Murphy’s Pasadena workshop, new luxury cars were lowered and repainted — a durable California custom-treatment. Employing designers like Frank Hershey, the company created custom bodies to go on coachbuilders’ chassis, which were little more than a manufacturer’s powertrain and running gear inserted into a naked frame. The Murphy look emphasized thin windshield pillars and disappearing convertible tops. Murphy bodies were created for Packard, Hudson, Buick, Cadillac, and even, somewhat ironically, Ford. After Murphy Coachbuilders folded, Hershey took his sense of theatricality to GM’s Pontiac Division, where he designed the brand’s streamlined bodies in 1933 and, two years later, created the enduring Silver Streak styling motif.


Picture Palaces 

While Detroit and Pasadena were informally collaborating on the automobile’s refinement, Detroit was helping Hollywood translate its vision for mass entertainment into temporal reality. Architect C. Howard Crane, an alumnus of Detroit-based firms Albert Kahn Associates and Smith, Hinchman & Grylls, struck out on his own in 1909, opening a practice near the Detroit Institute of Arts. Crane specialized in movie palaces, which were growing in popularity.

Interviewed years later, he said, “I might say that I entered the field of designing motion picture houses when the industry was in its childhood, as one who early recognized the possibilities of developing a building especially designed as a motion picture theater.” While the Fox Theaters in Brooklyn, St. Louis, and Detroit, completed in the late 1920s, were regarded among Crane’s crowning achievements, he also designed significant Detroit theaters like the Capitol (1922) and the State (1925) for impresarios John Kunsky and George Washington Trendle, partners in United Detroit Theaters Co.

Crane worked in the era of the vertically integrated Hollywood studios, which owned everything from the stars to the showrooms. Besides receiving some plum assignments from Fox Film Corp., Crane also worked for United Artists. In 1927, actress Mary Pickford personally broke ground on his United Artists’ theater on Broadway Street in Los Angeles. Crane’s Spanish Gothic masterpiece there, with its auditorium crowned with a gold-and-silver sunburst, occupied the lower part of a 12-story office tower.

Back in Detroit, after Kunsky and Trendle sold United Detroit Theaters to Paramount-Publix, they turned around and acquired radio station WGHP in 1930 for $250,000. The call letters were changed to WXYZ, and within a few years the creative team that included director James Jewell and writer Fran Striker debuted such radio dramas as The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet. Both were grist for Hollywood, becoming movie serials in 1938 and 1940, respectively, and later transitioning to television as regular series.

In a testimony to the Green Hornet’s timelessness, the 2011 Columbia Pictures’ remake starring Seth Rogen and Cameron Diaz racked up worldwide sales of nearly $250 million. Walt Disney Pictures, meanwhile, is slated to bring back the The Lone Ranger this summer. The $250-million production stars Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp as Tonto (Detroit native Jerry Bruckheimer is the producer). The original radio series was developed and produced on the 14th floor of the Maccabees Building on Woodward Avenue, just south of the Detroit Public Library.


My Name is Earl

If it can be said Hollywood fished for material in Detroit, the reverse was also true. Lawrence Fisher, the manager of General Motors’ Cadillac Division who, with his six brothers, founded Fisher Body, was open-minded enough to know Detroit wasn’t the only place where talented auto designers could be found.

At a Los Angeles dealership that had a custom body shop — and boasted actors Fatty Arbuckle and Tom Mix as customers — Fisher discovered designer Harley Earl, a Hollywood native. GM chairman Alfred Sloan later recalled why Fisher invited Earl to Detroit: “Mr. Fisher had a particular project in mind: that of designing a quality car of the same family as Cadillac, but somewhat lower-priced.”

Arriving in Motown in early 1926, Earl set to work using the innovative method of working with clay models. The result was the 1927 LaSalle. Typical of the California design vernacular shared with Murphy of Pasadena, it was long and low, and the surfaces were rounded. It was the first car designed by a stylist and not dictated by the needs of engineers.

Encouraged by the LaSalle’s success, Sloan established GM’s Art and Color Section and put Earl in charge of 10 designers and dozens of support staff. Alas, things didn’t go perfectly. Critics derided the 1929 Buick as “the pregnant Buick.” A replacement was quickly readied. But Earl’s department, which was soon renamed the Styling Section, began to issue one beaver-tailed, turret-topped styling smash hit after another, leading up to all-time classics such as the 1938 Cadillac Sixty Special, a daring release from a major automaker. California-flavored styling, mildly seasoned by European accents, now ruled the American auto industry.

Hollywood’s inroads at Detroit’s New Center, where GM had its headquarters from 1923 to 1996, were not complete. On the heels of the stunning new Cadillac, Earl and Buick chief Harlow Curtice were party guests at the Beverly Hills home of movie producer Norman McLeod and his wife, Evelyn, known as “Bunny.” They asked Bunny why she didn’t drive a Buick. Her answer: “No station wagon is available.” So Earl set to work. The results: The 1940 Buick Estate Wagon, which had a beautiful ash framework supporting mahogany body panels. The prototype was presented to Bunny in a special ceremony at the Coconut Grove nightclub, representing the ultimate union of Detroit and L.A.

But there’s more to the story. Of the 495 Estate Wagons built that year, Warner Brothers Studios purchased one. Among other duties, it appeared in Now, Voyager, a 1942 star turn for Bette Davis. Warner’s brass later gave Davis the car. Highly prized among collectors, it is displayed at LeMay America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Wash. The popular Buick Estate Wagon remained in production until 1996.


Face Time

If anything, the relationship between Detroit and Los Angeles intensified during and after World War II, and some of the best examples derived from the Tournament of Roses. In 1941, actor Leo Carillo arrived at the Rose Bowl game in the Chrysler Newport Phaeton, the company’s cutting-edge design exercise built in extremely limited quantity. With the 1942 Rose Parade being suspended for security reasons, there remained the selection of a queen and princesses, who, according to a newspaper account, “traversed the line of march in a car” — a 1942 Buick Eight convertible — “surmounted by a victory V and preceded by trumpeters.”

Pontiac advertised in the Rose Parade program after the war, and Oldsmobile supplied official cars in the late 1950s. Over the next couple of decades, Chevrolet and Chrysler waged a fight for automotive supremacy in the Rose Parade — not only buying program ad pages, but also sponsoring floats. Chrysler took over as the official car; in 1969 the company’s spokesman, Bob Hope, serving as the parade’s Grand Marshal, rode the five-mile route in an Imperial convertible. But Chevy answered the challenge that year when the inside-cover ad for the Camaro SS and Corvette dared: “We’ll take on any two cars in the program.”

The automakers’ strategies extended to supporting national productions as the television business migrated from its New York origins to Hollywood. The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, which debuted in 1956, was a more elaborate version of a variety show Chevy had already sponsored for five years. It ran on Sunday evenings until it vacated its time slot for Bonanza, another ratings heavyweight for GM’s Chevy division.

In many respects, the sponsorships put auto executives on equal footing with the stars. On Aug. 13, 1963, The Detroit News’ television critic, Frank Judge, reported, “The men of Bonanza and Route 66, aware of the popularity of their television series, came to Detroit last night to check up with the most important viewer of all, Semon ‘Bunkie’ Knudsen, the boss.” Knudsen, Chevy’s general manager, was pictured smiling with the casts of both shows.

Knudsen’s successor was John DeLorean, who hung out in L.A. when the brand’s ads were shot, playing golf at the Bel Air Country Club and running wild with a Hollywood producer friend. In 1969, after having dated several actresses, DeLorean married Kelly Harmon, the daughter of Michigan football legend and broadcaster Tom Harmon.

Of course, DeLorean went on to found the DeLorean Motor Co. with support from the British government and American investors like late-night host Johnny Carson and singer Sammy Davis Jr. Although the company ultimately collapsed amid scandal, its only product, the DMC-12, a sleek sports car with a stainless-steel body and gull-wing doors, took a star turn in the Back to the Future trilogy; the first movie in the series was the highest-grossing film of 1985.


Detroit’s Motown Record Corp. also has a robust relationship with L.A. Founded by Berry Gordy Jr. in 1959, the company moved its headquarters to Tinseltown in 1972. Motown’s new film production arm created Lady Sings the Blues, for which Detroit native Diana Ross was nominated for an Academy Award.

But if Motown was having a Hollywood heyday at the time, the automakers began to lose their edge — due, in part, to edicts from Washington, D.C. As DeLorean noted, GM’s management was becoming “paralyzed by fear and indecision.” Federal regulations restricted the output of engines in favor of increased fuel economy and reduced emissions; even the Corvette suffered from something akin to anemia.

Yet in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley, about 15 miles east of Pasadena, Detroit would find a solution. Gale Banks, a young engineer who was elbows-deep in the hot rod scene, accepted consulting jobs with Chevrolet and Oldsmobile. His small firm, Gale Banks Engineering, received a $400,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to study engine technology. “I became an advocate of the small turbocharged engine,” Banks says. “I did a lot of work for Buick when, in the late 1970s, they discontinued the V-8.”

The result of his work on turbocharging the Buick V-6 engine is now legendary. He explains: “I ended up, in 1981, building what became the prototype of the Buick Grand National, and that car and those engines were displayed by Buick at major car shows everywhere.” He later contributed to the GMC Syclone, a high-performance compact pickup. Today Ford is relying on Banks’ formula by using turbocharged engines under the EcoBoost banner.

Michigan entrepreneur Scott Devon, the man who tried to buy the Dodge Viper brand out of Chrysler’s bankruptcy, turned to L.A. when, in 2008, he created his Viper-based Devon GTX sports car. Concept-car builder Aria Group in Irvine did the carbon-fiber bodywork for him. Conversely, on a commission from Pasadena car collector Peter Mullin, a unique coach-building project was recently completed north of Detroit near Port Huron. Mike Kleeves, owner of Automobile Metal Shaping, and his small staff hand-formed the custom body — designed by Art Center’s Stewart Reed — for a historic Bugatti chassis that Mullin acquired.

It’s hard to know what enhancements and complements will emerge between Detroit and L.A. in the next 110 years. But a healthy relationship continues as the two cities seek to raise their collective fortunes. And while Henry Ford once quipped that customers could order a Model T in “any color as long as it was black,” it took Hollywood native Harley Earl to prove the maxim that superior design is the ultimate motivation among car buyers. db

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