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San Diego’s Historic Places: San Diego Automotive Museum

May 2, 2010 Leave a comment

Ken Colclasure and Louis Mattar car that had everything

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO—There are many automotive museums around the world, interpreting their missions in a variety of fashions. Some collect, wanting to obtain representative automobiles of every make, nationality, or year. Others love to show the marriages of art and technology, form and function, and marketing and self-perceptions all shaping people’s love affairs with their cars.

Elements of these themes are presented at the San Diego Automotive Museum in Balboa Park, but anyone reading the carefully researched, easily understood narrations that accompany each exhibit soon realizes that the museum gravitates towards the human stories behind the cars and the industries that they engender.

Ken Colclasure, a teacher with the San Diego Community Colleges and former auto mechanic who is responsible for researching and writing many of the narrations, says he likes to explore the question of “what is the social impact that cars have for all of us?” He’s particularly interested in the American story, which he describes as “unique and unending.”

“You could build a certificate program around the history of the automobile and its impact on our lives,” he says. “Almost any direction you look, you see that the automobile has had some effect.”

Three exhibits that were on display in January of 2010 illustrate the kinds of stories that Colclasure likes to tell. Cars and other artifacts coupled with strong narrations illustrated the dreams of Louis Mattar, Preston Tucker and Ed Fletcher.

Mattar and two friends drove in 1952 roundtrip from San Diego to New York – a total of 6,320 miles—without ever stopping. How is this possible? Their 1947 Cadillac, on which Mattar had spent five years and $75,000 to specially modify, was refueled three times while in motion by a gas truck. Appliances that people need for daily life were packed under the removable back seats, the dashboard and into a small utility trailer. Although it kept moving, the car could be driven slowly enough to permit people to go back and forth to the trailer.

“During their trip Louie and his co-drivers had all the comforts of home, although space was limited. The equipment in the back seat includes an electric stove, a refrigerator, washing machine, chemical toilet and ironing board, medicine cabinet and a kitchen sink. All of these appliance could be stored under the backseat cushions. Up front in addition to the many switches and dials surrounding the dash board, a nationwide mobile telephone, a tape recorder, a public address system for speakers on both the trailer and the hood of the car, and a Turkish water pipe.

“On the right running board is a shower and at the rear taillight is a drinking fountain. The car holds 50 gallons of reserve water, and 25 gallons in the trailer. The trailer also holds 225 gallons of gas, and 10 gallons of oil in addition to a dining area at the end.”

Many of the modifications were intended to permit on-the-go maintenance. Tires could be changed from a moveable platform that attached to the car, while panels on the hood could be folded up to permit maintenance even while the car was in motion.

The “car that has everything” was the subject of a 1952 Life magazine article. Mattar could have sold his creation for a tidy fortune, but money wasn’t what he had in mind. He explained: “If I sold that car and put all the money in the bank I wouldn’t meet the important people I do; that’s worth all the money in the world.”

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The legacy of Preston Tucker became known to many Americans in 1988 when Jeff Bridges starred in the movie, Tucker: The Man and His Dreams. At the museum, near one of the 51 automobiles he produced forty years earlier, is an advertising poster for that movie. It declares: “When they tried to buy him, he refused; when they tried to bully him, he resisted; when they tried to break him, he became an American legend – the true story of Preston Tucker.”

Colclasure smiles indulgently at the Hollywood hype. “The story, if you watched the movie, was that major manufacturers forced him out of business, calling the government in on him to investigate his securities. The other side of the story was that he over-reached himself and was pulling in money based on nothing. The truth probably was somewhere in between.”

Tucker had revolutionary ideas and was dismissive of the major car manufacturers whom he accused of building “junk.” Colclasure marveled that Tucker “built in safety features at a time when Ford and GM didn’t want to touch them.”

The Tucker had three headlights, two in their usual positions and one in the middle. Said the narration: “The Cyclops eye headlight was just of several safety features that were placed in the Tucker. The dash area was padded; windshields could be popped out, and all the controls were grouped in front of the deriver. “The area ahead of the front seat, called the safety chamber, was a large carpeted box that front seat occupants could drop into if a crash was imminent. Tucker had considered safety belts but they were abandoned because designers figured they might imply his car was unsafe….”

Colclasure said he once came across a statistic, circa 1970, that 60 percent of the economy was somehow related to the automobile –whether it be the plants that built them, the gasoline companies that nourished them, or the highway builders who helped them have places to go.

San Diegan Ed Fletcher didn’t build automobiles. He built one of the nation’s most unusual roads to accommodate them. The “Plank Road,” as it was known, can still be seen today along Highway 8 in southeastern California near the Arizona border.

For this exhibit, the museum includes a hand-cranked Model-T Ford, a documentary film, a large blow-up photograph of the road, circa 1920, and some planks laid out in the style of the road. But it is the narration that helps us understand the extent of Fletcher’s accomplishments.

During the 19th century, San Diego had rivaled unsuccessfully with Los Angeles to become the western terminus of the southern transcontinental railroad. With the onset of the automobile in the 20th century, Fletcher decided San Diego could become the western terminus of a highway system built for automobiles, which were growing in popularity. To prove San Diego’s utility, a race to Yuma was arranged between a car leaving Los Angeles a day earlier and San Diego. The San Diego car won, although it had to be dragged through the Imperial Sand Hills with a team of six horses. Obviously everyone couldn’t bring six horses along with their car – so how could 6 ½ miles of the sandy desert be navigated? Fletcher decided to build a plank road.

According to the narration: “With local newspapers supporting the plan, Fletcher raised the money to pay for 13,000 planks plus the freight to ship them from San Diego to Holtville, California. Meantime (Imperial County Supervisor Ed) Boyd and his constituents persuaded the Imperial County Board of Supervisors to appropriate $8,600 toward construction expenses. L.F. (Newt) Gray, a local man chosen to supervise road building, dug a well at the western edge of the sand hills and found water. Gray’s Well as the spot has become known served as the work camp. With great fanfare the first planks were laid on February 14, 1915, and for the next two months a combination of volunteer and paid workers hauled lumber and laid down two parallel plan tracks each 25 inches wide (with) cross pieces underneath….

Work ended April 4, 1915, and the following week 35 cars loaded with 100 riders, “gaily traveled the plank road and declared it a success.” However, the road deteriorated under the combined assault of winds which blew sand across it, and maintenance crews which scraped the sand off it. The California Highway Commission built a new plank road in 1916, this one 8 feet wide with turnouts every 1,000 feet to permit cars to pass from the opposite direction.

One time, 20 cars proceeding in one direction encountered a lone car coming in the opposite direction. “Whether through timidity or stubbornness the driver refused to back up to a turn out behind him. Finally the party took matters in hand; they lifted the car, set it on the sand while the women proceeded to advance the caravan.” Once they had passed the other car, it was “lifted back on the road and all continued on their way.” The turnouts were marked with posts stacked with tires to make them visible from far away.

Despite the romance and adventure of the Plank Road, it really was not practical. Sand frequently covered it, rendering it inoperable. Engineers studied the pattern of the sand hills’ movement and concluded that a road could be safely built atop a high embankment. “The new road, 20 feet wide, officially opened August 12, 1926…”
 
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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  This article appeared previously on examiner.com