Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Photo Essay: Visiting Honda, Upon the 60th Anniversary of Its Arrival to the U.S.

Soichiro Honda took a huge risk, coming to the United States and establishing its first overseas subsidiary right here in Los Angeles, at 4077 Pico Boulevard.

It was 1959—60 years ago, only a decade after Honda debuted its first product in Japan (the “Dream” D-type motorcycle) and only 13 years after the last of the Japanese internment camps had closed in the U.S.

The California Alien Land Laws—which were enacted to discourage immigration from Asian countries like Japan by making it illegal for the immigrants to own land here—had only been struck down by the state supreme court in the case of Sei Fujii v. California in 1952.

After that, the Japanese were protected under the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment. And although Japanese could legally immigrate to the U.S., they weren't exactly welcome.

Photo courtesy of Honda News

That didn't deter Honda, who bought a fleet of Chevy pickup trucks to deliver the company's bikes to the dealerships they'd signed up. Honda the company hadn't started making cars—or trucks—yet.

In commemoration of its 60th anniversary, American Honda restored a classic 1961 Chevrolet Apache 10 pickup truck, featuring a near-identical paint job to the original and put it on display at its current headquarters in Torrance, California, where it's been located since 1990.

Honda's first big motorcycle success in the U.S. came in 1965—"The Nifty Thrifty Honda 50" Super Cub, which ultimately became the most produced motor vehicle in history.

Along with the 1965 CB160 bike, it was included in the "You meet the nicest people on a Honda" ad campaign.

You normally can't get anywhere near Honda's classic car and bike collection, though an extensive array of specimens are housed in an on-campus museum—in an unmarked building, with no published open hours, and no website, phone number, or email address. Its location has even been removed from Google Maps.

Lucky for me, the tight security is being relaxed a little bit around this 60th anniversary—and after years of trying, I finally got into the Honda Collection Hall.

It's got a small collection of motorcycles, including a Rose Parade-branded one (Honda has been the title sponsor), plus models like the GL 1000 and CB 1100...

...but its main attraction is the cars.

The first Honda automobile sold in the continental U.S. didn't come until 1970, though it debuted in Hawaii the year prior.

The 2-cylinder N600 could go a maximum of 80 mph and only cost $1395, about a dollar per pound.

The Z600 Coupe, which debuted stateside in 1971, was the first Honda coupe sold in U.S.

It only lasted two model years, though, before the debut of the first-ever Honda Civic in 1973. The Civic is said to have increased the length, width, height, and wheelbase of the N600, essentially replacing it.

It was the 1975 Civic, though, that put Honda on the map, with its CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) engine.

Those first-generation Civics from back then look nothing like the Civics today—or even like the second generation of Civics, including the 1981 model of the 5-door wagon (above).

Over the years, other models have come and gone—like the EV Plus, Honda's first battery electric vehicle, which was produced only from 1997 to 1999. Being the first battery electric vehicle with non-lead acid batteries (actually a nickel metal hybrid battery) from a major automaker wasn't enough to keep it around for longer. Although maybe that's because its range was only 110 miles.

Then there was the FC Sport concept car, which made its surprise debut at the 2008 LA Auto Show. A creation of Honda's Advanced Design Studio in Pasadena, the three-seat sports car promised an ultra-clean hydrogen future, with power coming from the company's "V Flow" vertical fuel-cell stack. It never made it past the concept stage and onto the production line.

People just keep going back to the tried-and-true Honda models—whether the Civic or the Accord (which came out as a hatchback in 1976 and a 4-door sedan in 1979).  One man, nicknamed "Million Mile Joe" (Joe LoCicero of Maine), famously drove his 1990 Honda Accord (purchased in 1996) 1,002,517 miles before turning it in. It had hit the millionth-mile mark in 2011.

Some other Honda drivers can't quite make it past 36,000 miles or three years before turning theirs in. But I'm not naming any names...

Everybody wants a new car these days. And cars are no longer built to last—any more than cell phones are.

A new luxury-performance division was added to Honda's operations in 1984, with its first release in 1986—the Acura Integra, which marked the first luxury brand from a Japanese automaker.

More Integra models would follow, becoming sportier...

...and ultimately leading up to the 1991 Acura NSX, the first "supercar" from a Japanese automaker.

Its improved performance with reduced emissions and higher fuel efficiency would eventually be applied to all Acuras (and Hondas) sold in the United States...

...but at the time, the VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) engine technology was so groundbreaking...

...that the NSX carried at $65,000 price tag.

Of course, Honda has known a bit about performance vehicles for a while now—at least, on the racetrack. It started racing in the IndyCar World Series in 1994. Acura made its Le Mans debut in 2007.

And the Honda Museum in Torrance includes a few of those racecar examples, too...

...though typically the engines are Honda and not the chassis.

The #44 McDonald's Honda-Reynard Champ Car, owned by McDonald's Championship Racing Team founder Gerald Forsythe, made its debut at the Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami in 1999.

Founder Soichiro Honda was quoted as saying, "Without racing the automobile would not get better. Head-to-head competition in front of a crowd is the way to become number one in the world."

And although Hondas may not be the top-selling cars in the U.S., they're the most frequently stolen in Los Angeles.

Which makes them pretty popular, I guess.

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Monday, June 17, 2019

Photo Essay: A Mid-Century Cathedral of the Oil Industry, Saved By Hollywood

In 1955, the Four Level Interchange that connected the 101 with the 110 had only been open for a couple of years. The section north of it had just been designated the Pasadena Freeway, and the section south of it—the Harbor Freeway—continued to inch towards San Pedro.

The area immediately to the west of the 110 near the stack interchange was a bit of a "no man's land" at that point—too far east to be MacArthur Park or Westlake, and too far west to be Downtown Los Angeles or Center City (and now cut off from it by the freeway).

Some people still call it "City West." Lots of people don't even know it's there.

circa 1957 (Photo: Julius Shulman, Julius Shulman Photography Archive. Getty Research Institute.)

And that's where the former Union Oil Company of California chose to build its LA headquarters, known as Union Oil Center (and after 1983, as Unocal Center).

circa 1959 (Photo: Los Angeles Public Library)

It chose the architectural firm Pereira and Luckman—the partnership of William Pereira and Charles Luckman, with Gin Wong (who appropriately designed the 76 gas station in Beverly Hills a decade later)—to build a campus in the International style, which would provide "modern utility with architectural beauty."

The result featured a 12-story, hexagonal (or "diamond-shaped") tower—perhaps influenced by architect Mies van der Rohe or perhaps just interpreted as Miesian-style after the fact—presiding over adjacent wings and pedestrian sky bridges to connect its buildings.

At the time of its design, city height limits restricted it from being built any taller—but because of the elevation of the hill it sat on, it still rose higher than City Hall. And reportedly, it was the only office building in DTLA to employ escalators at the time. (Footnote: The Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration was completed in 1960 and has escalators—not sure which office building was next, but the A. Hamburger & Sons Department Store featured the first escalator in California.)

The Union Oil Center was built by the Phoenix-based Del E. Webb Construction Company—known for its work on The Beverly Hilton and the Flamingo Las Vegas, hired by Bugsy Siegel himself—which completed it in 1958 (a year after the city height limit had been repealed).

From afar, it was easily recognizable for its six-sided tower and aluminum louvers that covered all the tower's windows. Up close, you notice the terrazzo floor by Venetian Terrazzo and Mosaic Company in Alhambra, which extends from the sidewalk all the way through the black granite lobby.

Few people outside of the oil industry probably ever got to see this beauty in person—at least, until 1996, when Unocol vacated the premises, a year before selling to Tosco, which was later acquired by Phillips, which later merged with Conoco. (76 is now owned by Chevron.)

In the absence of the oil company, the campus almost became a hotel complex. When that idea fell through, demolition was considered, perhaps to replace the former Union Oil Center with a basketball and ice hockey arena. (Staples Center was built farther east in Downtown LA in 1999.)

Instead, it became Los Angeles Center Studios—the first new movie studio in the downtown area since the 1920's, which catered to productions outside of the big "studio system" (i.e. Warner, Paramount, Sony/MGM, Fox) and provided a "vertical backlot" (the tower) in a location other than Hollywood, Burbank, or Culver City.

Producers of pilot episodes love how plug-and-play it is—with existing sets that include a corporate lobby (DUH), exteriors, offices, a cafeteria/restaurant, a malt shop, and a tavern.

Los Angeles Center Studios provided enough authentic mid-century filming locations to keep Mad Men shooting its office interiors there multiple seasons.

There's even one Mad Men elevator—in a bank of differently-themed elevators with various decor motifs. (That's where you can find the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie elevator from Mr. and Mrs. Smith, too.)

The office set is still there, though mostly undressed...

...and has been used in other productions, including The Wolf of Wall Street and the music video for "Bad Blood" by Taylor Swift.

It almost seamlessly leads into a medical set...

...used by such TV hospital dramas as ER and Grey's Anatomy. 

Having a morgue set there also attracted such crime shows as NUMB3RS, Bones, 24, Cold Case, Castle, Criminal Minds, The Closer, JAG, Law and Order Los Angeles, The Mentalist, Medium, The X-Files, Without a Trace, CSI and CSI Miami and New York, and NCIS and NCIS LA. 

The list goes on and on (and also includes plenty of film productions, too).

But, as our tour guide told us, "It's all fake."

One set doubles as a DMV office and a police station—and includes the lineup set from The Usual Suspects.

The jail cells look real, but of course the cell doors don't lock.

Anything that Los Angeles Center Studios doesn't have can be built—as a temporary set on one of its many soundstages (including the former Telemundo studio) or as a permanent fixture somewhere else in the 20-acre complex, perhaps as a project of the students attending the Studio School on the LA Center Studios campus.

The tower is no longer used as a "vertical backlot"—and the complex has tenants that aren't entertainment companies per se.

But if there's one thing that Hollywood is good at that makes it a preservation-minded industry, it's using what's already there—and making the most of it.

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