Category Archives: Wheels of Change

More Beautiful People: Wheels of Change Road Trip Comes to Benicia

Some of the world’s most beautiful, intelligent, and well-read people came to Bookshop Benicia in Benicia yesterday to celebrate the publication of my new book, Wheels of Change. What, you think I’m exaggerating? No way. Just scroll down these pictures to see some of the attendees, and I know you will agree.

JaclClaudia Albano, Leyna Bernstein, Jennifer Kaiser, Alison Barnsley

Marti & Joe FuccyMarti and Joe Fuccy

Max and DanMax Lateiner, Dan Crouch

LeongsEric and Colleen Leong with their sons Evan and Riley

Annette & LeynaAnnette Kaiser, Leyna Bernstein

KaseyKasey Kath

Elizabeth JacksElizabeth Jack

Darrell, Devon, HankDarrell Haber, his son Devin Jack-Haber, Hank Nelson

Gabe NelsonGabe Nelson

KatieKatie Lynn

Lance and VickyLance and Vicky Barnett

Brian and ClaudiaBrian Parker and Claudia Albano

Dale & ClaudiaClaudia and Dale Hagen

Sue HutchSue Hutchinson

Tom DalrympleTom Dalrymple

Mike and BeckyMike and Becky Maggart

TrybullsThree of the Trybull family: Jeff, Leslie and daughter Jennifer

Bob BurmanBob Berman

Barnsley-LeeAlison Barnsley, Vernon Lee and their children Aero and Cielo

Christine & JenniferChristine Mayall, the host of this fabulous soiree and the owner of Bookshop Benicia, and the most beautiful person of all, Jennifer Kaiser

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Filed under Adventures in Writing, Books, Cars, Wheels of Change

Where the Beautiful People Meet: Wheels of Change Launch Party

Wednesday night in San Francisco the California Historical Society hosted a launch party for Wheels of Change, attended by forty to fifty connoisseurs of cars, history, and fine literature. I gave a talk, and nobody in the audience threw anything at me so I guess I did okay. Afterward I signed books and chatted with people, which is always the best part of these book gatherings.

Below are photographs from the evening, picturing some of the people at the California Historical Society and Heyday Books who have worked behind the scenes to make this book happen. Please, allow me to introduce them to you:

McNeely and KN

That’s Bob McNeely and me. Bob, the executive vice president of Union Bank in San Diego, is a trustee and former president of the board of the California Historical Society. It was Bob’s idea to do a book about cars because he wanted the historical society to tackle a subject that everyone could relate to. Bob changed my life, and yet I had never met him until Wednesday night. As one might expect, he is a connoisseur of fine automobiles, particularly ones that are low, red, and fast.

Chet at CHS party

What, you think only guys in suits came to the party? Chet hails from a Hayward car club, and the ink on his arms depicts two of his deepest passions: cars and women. He’s not affiliated with CHS or Heyday, but he was out there representin’, and I appreciate it.

Malcolm and Kevin

This is Malcolm Margolin, making a point. Malcolm is the publisher and founder of Heyday Books, which has now published two of my books, Wheels of Change and The Golden Game. He is a friend and supporter of mine, as he is for countless other writers, editors, publishers, and booksellers. Every writer should be so lucky as to have Malcolm Margolin as his publisher.

David C. and Stephen B

Two executive directors of the California Historical Society, past and present: Stephen Becker, left, and David Crosson. Stephen was the head of CHS when Bob McNeely approached him with his idea to bring people together through cars. Stephen said, “Let’s do it.” After Stephen left the organization, David took over his spot, a position he currently holds, meanwhile taking over stewardship of Wheels of Change, which was then still a work in progress. Showing patience and faith, David helped steer the book to its completion. I owe them both a great deal.

George and Jeannine

Here are George Young and Jeannine Gendar, both of Heyday Books. George is a consultant and marketing and publishing guru with decades of experience in the business, and a former hot shoe guy to boot. (Vintage car slang: “Hot shoe” equals hot car.) Jeannine Gendar represents a rapidly disappearing species in the book industry: an editor who actually edits. She worked with me on Wheels of Change, helping turn it into a sleek and sassy Corvette of a book. At the risk of repeating myself, the same sentiment applies equally here: Every writer should be so lucky as to have Jeannine Gendar as his editor.

Lillian and Malcolm

Here, Malcolm hugs Lillian Fleer, the talented and hard-working events and outreach coordinator for Heyday. If you’d like to hear a lively and entertaining speaker who knows cars the way Grey Goose knows vodka, call her at 510-549-3564. I talk at bookstores, libraries, garden and house parties, book clubs, and Rotary and other civic groups. I’m also available for bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, christenings, baptisms, and bachelor parties. I’ll be there for you, and I’ll be representin’.

After rocking the house Thursday at the Oakland Rotary Club, I’m off to my next stops on the Wheels of Change Road Trip: Sunday, Nov. 8, 2 to 4 p.m. Signing. Bookshop Benicia, 856 Southampton Road, Benicia. 707-747-5155. And Tuesday, Nov. 10, 7 p.m. Talk and signing. Clayton Books, 5433 D Clayton Road, Clayton. 925-673-3325. Be there or be square!

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Filed under Adventures in Writing, Books, Hayward, California, Wheels of Change

James Dean’s Last Drive: Correcting the Record

James Dean 75

“God,” said Mies van der Rohe, “is in the details.” If that’s true, then car people are very godly people because they love, and appreciate, and relish in, the details of automobiles. I experienced this yet again the other day when I received a letter from Steve Conlin, an ex-bartender at the Bar at the Hotel Bel-Air, one of Southern California’s most famous see-and-be-seen cocktail lounges.

As Steve says, he has “shaken cocktails for everyone from President Ronald Reagan to O.J. Simpson, from Clint Eastwood to Britney Spears.” Among his interests are automobiles and James Dean, seen above in a photo from Wheels of Change, probably at a race in Palm Springs in 1955, the year he died. Although the book is not out yet (but soon, very soon!), while perusing the Net Steve came across the excerpt from the book about Dean on my website. Enlivened by brisk detail, here is a piece of what he said:

Hi Kevin, Here’s wishing you great reviews and huge sales for your soon-to-be-released California auto book. I was browsing random Internet files when I came across an excerpt, your story on James Dean’s fatal drive in his 1955 Porsche Spyder 550.

As a California native and UCLA alumni you might be surprised to learn that the gas station fill-up photo you referred to as being taken at Blackwell’s Corner was actually snapped at the corner of Beverly Glen and Ventura Blvd., in Sherman Oaks. This was perhaps two blocks from Dean’s home at the time, and where he probably had a credit account. James Dean at gas station

You are correct that it was the last picture of Dean alive [the picture you see here], but it was snapped as his caravan headed from Hollywood through the San Fernando Valley for the drive north on Highway 99.  Photographer Sanford Roth had taken a few action shots of Dean driving along the Hollywood Freeway and along Ventura Blvd. just prior to arriving at the station.

The old station office still stands, although it has been converted to a funky flower shop. The extended roof over what was once the pump bay is newer, heavier, and the two slender support columns that can be seen in the James Dean picture have been strengthened to hold it aloft. Interestingly, the footprints of the three red 1950s gasoline pumps are still preserved on their original concrete island. The fill-up photo you mention was actually taken by Rolf Wutherich, Dean’s mechanic and passenger, with Dean’s own Leica camera. The sturdy Leica survived the accident and Dean’s family had the film developed shortly afterward.

Kevin, most of this information is based on the research of my friend Warren Beath, author of The Death of James Dean.  I can send along a few of my own photos of the station, if you’re interested. Best regards, Steve Conlin, Los Angeles

I thanked Steve for his letter and his desire to correct the record on some of the details about Dean’s fatal last drive. On his way to a race in Salinas, Dean smashed into another car near San Luis Obispo while speeding in that silver Porsche Spyder and was killed. The star of “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause” remains a top Hollywood earner despite being dead for more half a century. The Wall Street Journal said in a piece last week that Dean’s estate netted $5 million in licensing fees for his image.

Steve and I have exchanged e-mails, and perhaps we’ll meet at one of my speaking gigs for Wheels in southern California in November and December. Tomorrow I’m off to The Book Seller to talk about the history of cars in historic Grass Valley. My radio interview with Eric Tomb of “Booktown” of KVMR Radio aired on Monday; if you’d like to listen to it you can find it here on his blog. Just click on the link at the bottom that says “to hear this program.”

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Move over, Sarah Palin: Wheels of Change is Coming After You

Vallejo pic

Sarah Palin’s new book, Going Rogue, is coming out Nov. 17, nine days after the official publication date of Wheels of Change: From Zero to 600 M.P.H., The Amazing Story of California and the Automobile. Is the timing of the release of Palin’s instant bestseller a vast conspiracy to draw attention away from my book? How else can you explain the fact that I’ve been sitting patiently, and fruitlessly, by the phone all day waiting for Oprah to call but then I hear that she has booked Palin to be a guest on her show rather than me?

Oh well, Wheels of Change is not yet in bookstores but we’re starting to get a good buzz going, starting with a nice interview with me in the electronic newsletter of Heyday Books. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Favorite place to eat?
Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank on Friday night hot rod nights. Cool customs and bikes pour in from all over, and the sounds of the engines make your ears hurt. It’s a slice of 1959 in 2009.

Proudest achievement?
Not killing myself when I was a stupid teen driver wheeling around the streets of Hayward and spinning donuts on the lawns of schools.

Scariest moment?
On a trip to Lake Tahoe two winters ago, we drove over Donner Summit on I-80 in the teeth of a howling snowstorm. It was a near-total white-out. We couldn’t see two feet in front of us. Thank God my wife was driving. I was a pathetic, sniveling wretch in the passenger seat.

First car you ever owned?
A British-made Austin America. It was possibly the worst car ever made. If I had to get somewhere fast or on time, it had a built-in electronic sensor that told the engine not to start.

An article about me and the book, entitled “Author Hopes Book Signings Are Standing Vrroom Only,” appeared in today’s Vallejo Times-Herald, promoting my upcoming appearances at Bookshop Benicia (Nov. 8) and the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum (Nov. 14). The photo above accompanied the article, with me sitting in the front seat of a ’57 convertible Cadillac, which is owned by a local car collector who stores it in a warehouse.

Close observers of my interview in Heyday and Rich Freedman’s article in the Times-Herald will notice that I made a similar joke in both forums about that truly awful Austin America. This is what happens to all authors (including Sarah Palin, when she starts hitting the circuit). You find a line, it works for you, and you keep using it. Author talks are sort of performance art, albeit a very, very minor form of it.

I also did an interview Thursday with Eric Tomb, the host of “Booktown” on KVBR-FM in Nevada City, promoting an Oct. 28 appearance at The Book Seller in Grass Valley. The interview was taped at 7:30 a.m., and I believe I did not make the Austin America joke although I’m not really sure because I was half-asleep and unclear about what I was saying most of the time. Eric, who has been the radio host of “Booktown” for ten years, covered for me though, and I was fascinated to hear about the technology he uses.

He called me (he was at his home in Nevada City) on Skype, and recorded the interview into his Mac with Audiohijack software. Using an audio-editing software program called Amadeus, he takes my ramblings and through the miracle of modern technology, turns them into brilliant and insightful analysis of the history of automobiles in California. As of this writing, the program had not yet aired, but when it does, you will be the first to know. Count on it!

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Filed under Adventures in Writing, Books, Hayward, California, Personal, Wheels of Change

Randy Breckenridge, and a True Story of the Colorado River

Randy Breckenridge 1985_1I have a new book coming out next month, Wheels of Change, and it’s dedicated to Randy Breckenridge, who died under sad circumstances, at too young of an age. He lost a baby to SIDs, went through a tough divorce (is there ever an easy one?), grew estranged from many of his friends, and had his spirit roughed up by drugs and alcohol.

I met Randy at UCLA when we were both freshmen in the Rieber Hall dorm. We became fast friends because of a shared interest in mountains and rivers. He was a real river rat and an expert whitewater boatman who guided commercial rafting trips for the American River Touring Association (ARTA). Together we rafted the Stanislaus, South Fork of the American, Tuolumne, and the Big Daddy of all western rivers, the Colorado in the Grand Canyon.

If you ever get a chance to go down the Colorado on a raft, jump on it. It’s the Sistine Chapel of whitewater river experiences. My chance to raft the Colorado came when I was twenty and kicking around the country with no money, no job, and happy as a fellow could be. Randy was working for ARTA, and there was an opening for an assistant boatman for a two-week, oar-powered trip down the Grand. He invited me. Free of charge. Needless to say, I found time in my busy schedule to go. Rafting Colorado_1

The Colorado is a big, wide, fast desert river. Our trip covered more than 200 river miles, passing all the while through the amazing Technicolor walls of the Grand Canyon. Most surprising to me was how tropical it was. Down at the river, at the base of these ancient, incredibly beautiful canyon walls, there is an abundance of something you don’t ordinarily find much of in the desert: water. You can hike up these side canyons with overflowing creeks and waterfalls with lush ferns and greenery, and it’s like you’ve been transported to Tahiti.

Once a gila monster walked through our camp, and late in the day at another site several of us stood around and watched the petals of a white datura flower open up before our very eyes, as if we were viewing it through time-lapse photography. Datura 2

On the mighty Colorado, once you are inside a major rapid, it is impossible to turn or maneuver your raft because the water is too strong and fast. So you must set your boat up straight at the top of the rapid before you enter, and then hang on for dear life once you’re in it. Boats full of people flip quite often on the river, and that was what happened to us on our trip.

But we did not flip on Lava Falls or Sockdolager or some other big rapid on the river. It wasn’t even a rapid, and it didn’t have a name at the time. Because there are long stretches of open, flat water on the Colorado, it is common for the professional boatmen (or boatwomen) to turn the oars over to passengers to give them the experience of rowing. This was what Randy did. A passenger was rowing, and no one noticed the big rock jutting from the water ahead of us. We reacted too late. The power and speed of the river even in this mild stretch caught us off guard, dumping us all into the drink.

Two of the passengers were not strong swimmers and not wearing their life jackets. I towed one to shore, and Randy pulled out the other. Everyone made it to shore safely. But our inflatable six-person rubber raft was wrecked. It filled with water and both ends of it wrapped around the rock. The only way we eventually set it free was by cutting it with a Buck knife.

There were two other boats on the trip, following after us. They picked us up, and the five of us on Randy’s boat squeezed into their boats and rode the rest of the way. We recovered our clothes and gear, stored in waterproof bags, as they floated down the river until getting snagged on rocks or running aground.

Our mishap became a permanent part of rafting lore on the Grand Canyon. It is virtually impossible to lose a raft on the Colorado, because the force and power of the water will almost always push it off a rock or wherever it is stuck. But we had done it. We had achieved the impossible, and if you look in the official guidebook for rafting on the Colorado, at Mile 126, you will see the notation for “Randy’s Rock Rapid.” That is the true story of how it got its name.

So now my old buddy has a rapid named after him, and a book dedicated to his memory. I’m sure he’d happily give them both up to once again breathe air.

Colorado River map 2

Randy’s Rock Rapid, from The Colorado River in Grand Canyon, A Guide, p. 83.

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Author Interview: Wheels of Change

wheelsofchangefinal1Wendy 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.

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