Tag Archives: Cars

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.”



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

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!


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

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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Filed under Adventures in Writing, Books, Wheels of Change