Established 1978

California’s Car Culture Trailblazers

by David Swig

Two American cities specifically come to mind when considering the automobile: Detroit and Los Angeles. Detroit for its legacy as the epicenter of American automotive manufacturing and design; L.A. for what it has contributed to California’s car culture—the birth of hot rodding, the nucleus of automotive journalism (Hot Rod, Motor Trend, Road & Track), Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design (whose students have dictated the direction of modern automotive design), and personalities such as Carroll Shelby and many others like him whose exploits are the substance of automotive history books.

Our own little slice of California sometimes gets overlooked; we fly under the radar, despite the fact that some of the biggest movers and shakers in the car world live right under our noses.

Lunches with Mr. Q

Right here in San Francisco, a living legend can be found sitting at his desk on Van Ness Avenue: 92-year-old Kjell Qvale. I’ve known Qvale since the time the only wheels I had were attached to a stroller, so it was with great interest that I had an early read of Kevin Nelson’s new book, Lunches With Mr. Q.

Qvale is a guy who trusts his gut; this is a man who has started car companies from scratch (the Jensen-Healey, Jensen Interceptor, and Qvale Mangusta are some of his more memorable creations) and can largely be credited for introducing sports cars to the West Coast, as an early importer of MGs, Jaguars, Austin-Healeys, and more. He was instrumental in the early days of California sports car racing at Pebble Beach and right here in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park—events that ultimately inspired the creation of the permanent racing circuits we enjoy today, such as Laguna Seca on the Monterey Peninsula.

The book, incidentally, is dedicated to my father—the former writer of this column, Martin Swig. It’s well worth a read; Qvale’s wisdom and lessons extend far beyond the car business.

Automobiles and Academia

Stanford students are often at the forefront of what’s happening tomorrow, and I was treated to a dose of this when I sat down for lunch recently with Reilly Brennan, executive director of the Revs Automotive Research Program at Stanford. The Revs program, largely the brainchild of Florida-based vintage car collector Miles Collier, seeks to develop an “intellectual community around the car as technological and aesthetic artifact and cultural symbol,” according to program director, Professor Clifford Nass.

It might be selling Collier (the program’s founding supporter) short to describe him as merely a collector. He is the most forward thinking man in the vintage car hobby business today, and might be better described as an “automotive archaeologist.” His articles regularly appear in the pages of Sports Car Market, and his ideas toward collecting have been the driving force behind the car-collecting world’s attitude shift—from preserving the originality of vintage vehicles to restoring them to “like-new” condition.

The Revs program’s curriculum reflects Collier’s wide-ranging interests in the automotive field, and is novel because it bridges the gap between automobiles and academia. Students are involved in subjects as disparate as developing solar-powered vehicles, learning the skills of vintage automobile restoration, and utilizing chemical engineering tactics to understand corrosion and find new methods of preserving the surfaces of ancient vehicles.

Other research projects include Exploring Driver Psychophysiology—for which physiological signals from drivers are monitored and analyzed to determine how one thinks and feels at a given moment during the operation of a vehicle. Students of the Revs program have employed legendary racecar driver John Morton, who appeared (alongside fellow racing colleague Brian Redman) at this year’s Monterey Motorsports Reunion in a Ford GT40 from the Collier Collection. Both car and driver were hooked up to all manner of equipment monitoring the driver’s heart rate and brain wave activity, along with minute-by-minute input from the car’s steering, throttle, and brakes. Morton successfully raced the GT40 while a bevy of Stanford students stood by with their laptops to download and analyze the data obtained. The idea is to extrapolate this data to further understand our relationship with our machines.

These are merely two examples out of a vast network of the Bay Area’s automotive innovators. Others might include Academy of Art University’s Richard and Elisa Stephens and the School of Industrial Design. Or, consider Pixar Studios in Emeryville, whose series of Cars movies has revolutionized the world of animated films. This doesn’t even begin to consider the incredible array of specialized automobile restorers, collectors, and certified car nuts, which make the Bay Area’s automotive culture so incredibly rich. What exactly explains it? I can’t say, but the “special sauce” is right here in our own backyard.

David Swig is a car enthusiast and a regular participant in historic car activities, including circuit racing, road tours, and Concours d’Elegance. He is an expert on specialty collector cars, especially sports racing cars (1950s thru 1980s). David and his brother, Howard, are carrying on the California Mille for their father, Martin, who founded the car tour in 1991.

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