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Reedley History: Autorama

IN THE November 18 ISSUE

FROM THE 2017 Articles,
andHometown History,
andJim Bulls
SECTIONS

by Jim Bulls

Since I was born just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, my first exposure to “gear-head-itis” was to the cars of the 1930s. At that time, all the car makers were vying for what few dollars there were available for new cars. During the Great Depression, many of America’s finest auto makers would perish from bankruptcy.

The fabulous cars made by Franklin, Pierce Arrow, Cord, Marmon, Stutz, Auburn, Doble, and Duesenberg didn’t survive the decade. Those automakers that survived included Graham Page, who used Cord bodies to produce the Hollywood Graham. Packard introduced the Junior Series to compete with Olds, Pontiac, Dodge, Willys and DeSoto. You could get Packard styling in a medium priced car for just a few dollars more. Ford, America’s leading auto maker. introduced their second series Model A, and in 1932, Ford introduced V-8 power. All the automakers were trying to come up with car designs that would sell.

In the early 1940s, many auto companies tooled up for new bodies. But on December 7, 1941, Japan invited America to join WWII, and in doing so, our great industrial complex geared up to fight Hitler, fascism and the Japanese. From 1942 through 1945, America’s auto makers produced airplanes, tanks, airplane and marine engines, artillery, munitions, etc. The first new cars off the assembly line for the civilian market came in 1946.

Kaiser Frazer was the first new car maker after WWII. My Uncle Pete bought a new Kaiser. Because chromium was still scarce following the war, the Kaiser had 2×10 wooden bumpers for the first six months my Uncle Pete owned. Eventually he was notified that his chrome bumpers were available at the dealership and he went in to have them installed on the car.

Following the war, most automakers just dolled up there pre-war models for sale. The first vehicles considered to have new styling were the pickup lines. But 1949 was a banner year in auto design, with the majority of automakers replacing their old car body styles. Oldsmobile and

Cadillac introduced the overhead valve V-8 engine, and Studebaker and Chrysler soon followed with their own versions.

The first cars I remember were my Grandpa Graham’s 1936 Ford and Dad’s 1936 Oldsmobile. As an only child, I thought of the Olds as part of the family; a faithful security blanket that surrounded me out on the open road. She faithfully carried us to and from Reedley to Texas and Oklahoma over the long and treacherous Route 66. Back in those days, it would take the most part of three days and a lot of hard driving to complete the trip—we made it five times with that Olds.

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Jim and a 1936 Olds

In 1949 Dad traded in the Olds for a 1947 Plymouth. At that time I was seven years old and fascinated with the column shift on the Plymouth. The Olds had a floor shift. In 1953, Dad spotted a 1951 Buick on Jackson’s used car lot. Always a Buick lover, Dad traded the Plymouth in for the Buick. It was more luxurious than any car I had ever ridden in. You didn’t even have to shift gears. The big straight-eight engine added weight, and the coil spring suspension really smoothed out the bumps of old Route 66. Her maiden voyage to Texas and Oklahoma was uneventful until the trip back home, when the transmission broke down…but that’s another story (read The Four Good Samaritans in Kings River Life).

Dad was not one to invest money without a return, so we were going to drive out our investment with a vision of buying our first new car in 1955. During our 1954 trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma for Grandma and Grandpa Graham’s 50th Wedding Anniversary, Mom and I played the “count the car” game—every new car we met on the way to Tulsa was recorded. By our calculations, Ford was number one, Chevrolet number two, and the new Buick Special (with the new V-8 engine) came in third, and Plymouth was fourth. The most popular color for Buicks was a canary yellow body with a white top.

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1955 Buick

Grandma’s house was overflowing with relatives, with no vacant chairs, so we cousins sat in the cars parked in the drive and compared accessories. There was the bullet-shaped gauge cluster mounted on the steering column of Uncle Glenn Spangler’s Nash. Uncle Willy Penn’s Hudson had dashboard like a Chris Craft motorboat. Uncle J.H. Graham had a brand new Mercury Monterey station wagon with a new overhead valve V-8. My Dad’s Buick held its own, but the car I loved the most was Grandpa’s 1936 Ford. Although rarely driven, it was a great window to the past and the elegant design of pre-war autos. The dash was mahogany wood grained and it had the deluxe Ford steering wheel where the spokes looked liked strings on a banjo, and there was an embossed V-8 on the gearshift knob.

By the time we returned to Reedley, and I was buying school clothes from All-American Kids and a new Sunday suit from Tejerians, it was almost time for the local auto dealers in town to get ready for the arrival of new car models. This annual fall event called for taping butcher paper on the dealer showroom windows to hide the new cars from view until after the “by invitation only” pre-showing extravaganzas held at each dealership.

Following church one Sunday in November 1954, instead of heading to the Parlier Inn for a fried chicken dinner, we drove right on by to HWY 99, headed to Fresno. Our destination was the Veteran’s Memorial Hall and the “AUTORAMA.”

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Fresno Memorial Auditorium

1955 was another banner year for America’s auto makers. Packard, Plymouth, Pontiac, Dodge and Chevrolet all had new V-8 engines and everyone except the independents had new bodies. The small block V-8 would revolutionize the auto world as did the Ford flat head of 1932.

As you entered the foyer of the auditorium, Chevrolet took center stage. There was a Corvette flanked by a Nomad station wagon; a Bel Air convertible, hardtop and sedan rounded out the display.

Packard introduced their version of the new V-8 engine, as well as torsion bar suspension on all four wheels. The Packard display had a bare chassis that showed the suspension. The display was crowded with potential buyers, all watching how the suspension worked.

All the major automakers had displays at the Autorama, and all of their1955 models were featured. I collected brochures from every display and for every model. My Dad was mostly interested in the Buck line, and I don’t think he ventured too far away from that exhibit.

In May of 1955, we would purchase our first brand new car, a spruce green and Dover white Buick Special two-door, hardtop sedan.

Of course I can’t talk about Autorama and Fresno, without giving a shout out to Blackie Gegean.

Blackie introduced the Fresno Autorama in 1958 and it was held annually in Fresno for 51 years. The Autorama drew some of the finest examples of automotive ingenuity. including hot-rods, custom cars, ski boats, race cars, and a few classic Packards, Cadillacs and Dusenbergs thrown in for added interest.history

I attended that first Blackie Gegean Autorama in 1958 with Robert Pampian. It was held at Headquarters Company of the National Guard on the Fresno Fair Grounds. You could walk the mezzanine and get a bird’s eye view of all the exhibits. In my opinion, a full–fendered black 1932 Ford five window coupe was the prettiest car at the show. The upholstery was black and white “tuck and roll”. Each roll was a contrasting color, ala black and white stripes.

It has been 62 years since that Autorama of 1955. There have been so many advancements in automotive technology, that they are too many to list. The 2017 autos make those mid-1950s cars look as simple as Grandpa’s 1936 Ford. But, there are a lot of us old gear-heads that would like to have one of those “tree-five” Chevys (1955-56-57) sitting in the garage. Just attend a Barrett Jackson auto auction, or check out Hemmings Auto Magazine to see what those cars cost today. We should have hung on to the ones we had back then.

Check out more Reedley history articles by Jim in our Hometown History section.

Jim Bulls is a contributor to our Hometown History section, being a charter member of the Reedley Historical Society; he also restores vintage cars.

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