Wendy Rockett, over at Heyday Books, is starting up to gear up publicity for Wheels of Change for next fall. Its catalog (or press kit, I’m not sure which) is going to include this interview with me, which I thought some people might enjoy:
Questions for Kevin Nelson
You have many books under your belt, but this is the first on cars. How did you become interested in the topic?
I love cars. I love the romance and freedom of cars. One of the first times I ever made out with a girl was in the parking lot of Round Table Pizza in Hayward in the front seat of her Daddy’s1958 Chevy Bel Air two-door coupe.
What about California’s car culture is unique or special compared to other parts of the country?
Just about everything. California is where it all starts. Woody Allen said in “Annie Hall” that he didn’t want to live any place where the only cultural advantage is being able to turn right on a red light. Spoken like a true New Yorker. Because Californians love to turn right on red, and sometimes they even stop before they do it.
What surprises did you find in researching the book?
I was amazed at how big of a story this was, and how many Californians influenced the history and development of the automobile not only nationally but internationally. Everybody thinks of Detroit. But the real city at the center of the car revolution is Los Angeles.
In the introduction to Wheels of Change, you say the book is the story, in part, of “, youth and the passions of the young.” What do you mean by this?
Cars are at the core of youthful rebellion. I write about this a lot in the book. Go back to the fifties and sixties. Look at hot rods and drive-ins and James Dean and Jack Kerouac and “Easy Rider” and hippie vans and all that. But it didn’t start then. It started in the 1890s and 1900s as soon as the automobile began to appear in this country. Teenagers started jumping in them and tinkering with them and getting away from their parents in them.
Do you have a favorite personality of those you researched?
Barney Oldfield. I loved that guy. The greatest race driver of all time. Drove like a maniac, walked away from flaming car wrecks countless times, smoked cigars, drank, gambled, owned a saloon, partied with Hollywood stars, and loved a God-fearing Christian woman who prayed for him every time he got behind the wheel of a race car.
Would you say the center of California’s car culture is Southern California, or is that a misconception?
That is absolute fact. It’s not only the center of car culture for California, it’s the center of car culture for the world. All the top car manufacturers have design studios there. Hollywood is there, which helps set the trends. Its racing scene is large and active and vital. The high-end super expensive luxury market in LA and Beverly Hills is the biggest in the world. And there are lots of kids screaming around the freeways in their “tuners” and what have you.
What influence has California had on the car?
My goodness, where do I start? Hot rods, customizing, countless automobile design and mechanical innovations, low riding, drive-ins, road songs, teen movies, the Corvette, convertibles, imports, vans, motor homes, self-serve gas stations, fast food, Googie architectural design—the list goes on and on. California played a huge role in all of that, and still does.
What influence has the car had on California?
It has transformed the state. Wheels of Change begins in the 1890s and ends in the mid-1960s. During that time California went from virtually no cars to a place where there were millions of them on the roads. The automobile changed the physical landscape of the state and country. It changed our views of time and distance. It increased the pace of our lives. The changes caused by cars have reached into every nook and cranny of our lives.
Do you have a favorite Hollywood chase scene?
The greatest car chase ever filmed was “Bullitt,” with Steve McQueen behind the wheel of a Shelby Mustang. I loved that. The racing sequences in “Grand Prix” are phenomenal. The reason is that Phil Hill, one of the greatest race drivers ever and a California boy, drove the camera car. I also loved the chase sequence—or is it a car crash sequence?—in “Blues Brothers.” That is hilarious.