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When I first moved to South Pasadena almost 8 years ago, I noticed that old buildings and heritage trees were not the only historic reminders of the past. The town has a LOT of vintage cars. Hang out in front of Busters on a weekend afternoon and you’ll see a promenade of enough old roadsters, coupes and muscle cars to satisfy even the most persnickety car buff. I’m not just talking about your standard issue American Graffiti-worthy hot rods, either. I’ve spotted a late 1930s Peugot 402, 1949 Hudson Commodore and a mysterious, black sedan that confounded two car aficionados arguing about it nearby. (One insisted it was an unmarked 1939 Cadillac. The other swore it was a Citroen Traction Avant.)
It’s not surprising that South Pasadena, Pasadena and the surrounding areas have so many examples of our driving history. The area has always held a prominent spot in the changing landscape of Southern California transportation. Back at the turn of the 20th Century, the horseless carriage was considered no more than an amusement created by eccentrics. The future, according to those in the know, would not be paved with asphalt but rather etched in rail.
In 1901, Henry Huntington incorporated the Pacific Electric Railway Company and began work on what would eventually develop into the largest interurban electric rail system in the world. One of the main hubs was Oneonta Station, located at the corner of present-day Huntington Drive and Fair Oaks in South Pasadena. This spot marked the junction of the Pasadena Short Line and the Monrovia line, two of the most important Big Red Car trolley routes. Within a few decades, a huge network of trains and streetcars wound their way through Southern California, connecting Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The system was hailed as the one to copy, and reporters all over the world began to refer to Los Angeles as a mecca of reliable public transportation. South Pasadena was at the heart of it all.
But by the mid-1920s, those reliable trolleys had been upstaged by Henry Ford’s mass-produced, reasonably-priced automobiles. No longer a carnival curiosity or novelty, the personal car was becoming a viable means of transportation. By the time the Model T was discontinued in 1927, Ford had sold some 15 million cars – many to Southern California residents. San Gabriel Valley contractors had a huge upsurge in business as local homeowners tore down carriage houses to build carports and garages. The trolleys might have been efficient and dependable, but the mild SoCal climate tempted residents to put the top down and cruise around.
While the Red Car line continued for several more decades, it was no match for our region’s growing obsession with cars. Little by little, rail rights of way were lost to the roads. Once again, South Pasadena was part of an enormous transportation shift when the Arroyo Parkway – now known as the 110 or Pasadena Freeway – opened in December of 1940. Similar to how the rails had once made South Pasadena , the Arroyo Parkway etched the city forever into the region’s road maps. “Travel down the Arroyo Parkway,” on reporter wrote, “and you’ll end up in the fairest city of all: South Pasadena.”
Although the Pennsylvania Turnpike had opened a few months earlier, many historians argue that the Arroyo Parkway more closely matches the definition of an actual freeway. Hailed at the time as a marvel of motoring, the sleek, well-paved Parkway offered South Pasadenans and neighboring residents the chance to open up their vehicles full-throttle and travel at top speeds. Connecting downtown LA with Pasadena along the Arroyo Seco, the parkway was revolutionary because engineers had designed the gently curving road to accommodate modern speeds up to a dizzying 45 miles per hour.
The 110 we know today is almost identical to the one that beckoned South Pasadena car lovers 60 years ago, with modern SUVs whipping over those 45 mph curves at speeds the original engineers would never have believed possible. It is a National Scenic Byway, a National Civil Engineering Landmark and a State Scenic Highway. And if you sit at the overlook on Arroyo Drive and watch the traffic flow, you’ll see a lot of vintage cars heading to and from South Pasadena.
Every September, South Pasadena puts its love of classic cars on display by hosting the Cruz’N For Roses Hot Rod and Classic Car Show. There, local car owners are joined by hundreds of others around the region in a display of enough steel, chrome and shiny paint to make the most jaded gearhead swoon. Proceeds of the event go toward South Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses Parade float.
The original owners of those vintage cars discovered something that is still true today: when you’re behind the wheel on the open road, it’s not always about the destination. Most of the fun is in getting there.
(Car buffs, be sure to check out this great historical footage of the original Ford assembly line.)
A modified version of this post originally appeared in my former column for Patch.