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The Caldron Of Cool

Drenched with cultural diversity and clamoring for individuality, Southern California’s influences on automobiles are manifold.

“Hey, look at me. I’m alive, I’m happening and I’m cool!” That’s what Southern Californians say to the world. They don’t have to shout it, just lay back and dig the scene, check out what’s new. Californians just do their thing in the caldron of cool and trends and new activities just keep spinning off as the world watches, listens and often adopts and adapts, or sometimes just plain steals.

The Saleen S7 is powered by a 550-hp, 7.0L V-8 that makes 520 lb.ft. of torque.
The automotive world pays close attention, has SoCal pretty completely wired for direct input, in fact. After all, California is a state where residents will sing about their “409” and “little deuce coupe” and will do so till “daddy takes her T-bird away.” It’s a straight line from the California street rods to halo vehicles like the DCX Prowler or the Chevy SSR (aka: Trowler).

From surfboards to skateboards, from hot rods to muscle cars to low riders to tuners to drifting, the latest craze, it all happens in California first and on a big scale. While cable and direct TV have accelerated participation by the rest of us, California remains the springboard for the next thing.

The caldron of cool has a much different makeup than the U.S. generally. With over 35 million inhabitants, highest in the nation, only 59.5 percent are white vs. 75 percent nationally; only 6.7 percent are black vs. 12.3 nationally. Yet persons of Hispanic or Latino origin account for 32.4 percent vs. 12.5 nationally; Asians account for 10.9 vs. 3.9 percent. Fully 16.8 percent are from some other race, vs. 5.5 nationally. California is much more diverse than perhaps any nation, but actually reflects the world at large.

It is a litany of cultures and ideas not only living in the same area codes, but moving forward with real synergy. The California car culture says it all. The highest fuel prices in the country and toughest emission regulations actually sharpen its leading edge rather than blunt it.

California is a widely diverse place geographically, as well as culturally. The natural surroundings stimulate enthusiasts of the winding wind, four wheelers who like to deviate from the beaten path, beachcombers, street-racers, drifters, classic car collectors or the run of the mill Ferrari club member. Few countries account for more Ferrari sales each year than California natives, who clearly know cool cars when they see them.

Barry Meguiar and his surface enhancing products put the shine in many of Southern California’s custom cars.
With all this nuanced car enthusiasm sitting in the fertile crescent of the entertainment industry, trends come to permeate throughout the rest of the country. Movies like “Fast And Furious” and “The Italian Job” make stars of cars. Or, check your local listing for “Pimp My Ride” and “Overhaulin’.” The fringes of vehicular maximization are always in plain view in California.

One of the most current and interesting cross-pollinations of cultures and car movements is the entry of the Pontiac GTO and Ford Mustang into the drifting world. Drifting is a motorsport born in Japan that has swept California and rapidly spreading across the country. It is a judged event where the most crucial element is being able to kick the side of the car into a lateral drift, holding a smoky burnout throughout the entire course.

In Japan the sport has been dominated by Supras, RX-7s and the like, while the entrylevel drift car had classically been older Corollatype vehicles that featured a rear end capable of drifting. The importance of the U.S.A. entries, on a manufacturer level, not only speaks to the desire to see the U.S.A. vs. Japan on the track, but rather to see them all flying sideways through turn two, grinning from ear to ear.

Nearly one dozen Asian car companies call California home for their U.S.A. operations, and some two dozen domestic and international car builders have design studios of some sort there. Ford moved its Premier Automotive Group (PAG) to Irvine, pretty much the heart and soul of SoCal, in 2000 to co-locate with Lincoln-Mercury, which had moved there from Dearborn in 1998. Surprisingly, Lincoln- Mercury moved back to Dearborn in 2003 to solve its dilemma sans SoCal cool or energy.

Invited to attend this year’s Concours d’Elegance in Irvine this fall, Automotive Industries looked in on some notable automotive organizations to try and qualify and quantify California’s special automotive attributes. This was just before taking in the outdoor event at Strawberry Farms Golf Club, which very nearly got rained out, but then at the last minute was salvaged by sunshine. (Best of Show Award bestowed on Sissy & Roger Morrison’s 1912 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.)

First stop was the Irvine company itself, the organization responsible for the planned development of The Irvine Ranch, a prize 93,000 acre tract taking up about 20 percent of Orange County and stretching 22 miles eastward from the Pacific, is often said to be the best example of city planning, period. Nationally, the Kennedys stimulated the early excitement with city planning and indeed it was at the same time, in 1960, that the Irvine Company drew up the original master plan guided by architect and planner William Pereira.

German customizer Brabus works out of a shop in Newport Beach, Calif. The company performs Mercedes factory approved conversions on vehicles like this S-Class. Brabus also does Chrysler products like the Crossfire and PT Cruiser convertible.
Pereira’s central ideas were to stop the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, which at the time seemed quite likely, and preserve and enhance the California lifestyle by placing emphasis on education, planned communities and preservation of undeveloped space. Some 50,000 acres are protected forever as wilderness, parks and greenbelts. The first thing developed was the university, UC Irvine, and the rest of the communities followed.

That is what makes it an attractive place for automotive interests to put down roots and many of them have. Irvine is home to Saleen Inc., builder of the S7 American supercar, the S281 series Saleen Mustangs and the Saleen N20 Focus. On occasion, it will do a special car for a movie. Saleen is a major supplier to the Ford GT40 program and also produces parts, accessories and wheels. For that program, Saleen has built a new plant in Troy, Mich., and it is a UAW shop. Troy is also capable of turning out the 2005 Saleen Mustang.

Steve Saleen’s whole scene is about bringing superior racing technology to the street. By way of accomplishing that, SoCal’s strength in aerospace technology also provides an edge. He very much thinks of his company as an OEM organization rather than a tuner. Of SoCal, he says, “I think it’s hard to go anywhere in the world and find a team like we have here. We defy the laws of physics every day. We can go to an extreme that others can’t.”

Saleen builds the S7, which is ULEV certified for 2005, entirely from the ground up. It is 100 percent Saleen. And cars from Saleen all meet applicable EPA/CARB, NHTSA-FMVSS regulations. Mr. Saleen thinks bigger auto companies are much more interested is “mass customization” than they used to be. It certainly can be said that halo cars for brand promotion are also more than a sometime thing these days. Saleen has been mining that seam very successfully for more than 20 years now and just might be close to really finding the mother lode.

People who cotton up to sweet machinery, whether road rod or classic, will know waxes and surface car products from Meguiar’s. It is a premium brand that enthusiasts just drool over. Well, CEO Barry Meguiar is one of the coolest Californians you can meet. Movie star good looking, sun tanned and turned out with a casual perfection, doing his “car guy” spiel at local shows and around the world, probably pays more for his shirts than most guys spend on a suit.

“I can’t see myself anywhere but Southern California,” he tells AI. “When people really love their cars, they look here for the latest thing or maybe it’s classic cars they like. Either way, for the most part they will find it right here. If you are a car guy, this is the place you want to be.” Meguiar’s also has headquarters in Irvine.

UC Irvine has been home to the National Fuel Cell Research Center (NFCRC) since its creation in 1998. While most of the work here was originally directed to stationary power applications of fuel cells, such as in distributed power or cogeneration systems, it is also now at work testing the world’s first fleet of fuel cell vehicles with general public use and pioneering the installations of hydrogen infrastructure in Orange County. It also houses and tests a Toyota Highlander SUV.

One of its most interesting programs is the Aero Emission Vehicle Network Enabled Transport (ZEV•NET) program, where it shared the research lead with the Institute of Transportation Studies. Toyota Motor Sales is a research collaborator. This is a transportation system that would combine shared-use fuel cell vehicles with global positioning, internet reservations and smart access, so that a single vehicle could be used by multiple drivers many times each day. The result would be many fewer vehicles, but with optimized usage. NFCRC is about bridging the gap between today and the introduction of fuel cell technology into daily life by providing leadership, research education and outreach support.

Victor Doolan, president and CEO of Volvo Cars of North America, says that California is the home of trends.
Aston Martin, Rover and Jaguar, to California for the simplest of reasons. “It’s the biggest premier automotive market in the world,” enthuses Victor Doolan, president and CEO of Volvo Cars of North America. “We’re trying to immerse ourselves into the community and blend with the customer. There is a strong sense of diversity here, particularly with the Latino and Asian influences. This is the home of trends. It is an advantage to be talking to our customers rather than the head office.”

Volvo’s California contingent itself is an amalgam of transplants from its former NA headquarters in New Jersey, from Sweden and also new local talent. It has a design staff of approximately 50 in Irvine. As Doolan explained to us, product designs at this time are enhanced by the California staff more than they are initiated.

At Boyd Coddington’s hot rod shop in LeHabre, the designs are 100 percent California inspired, initiated and built. Boyd will build you a street rod like the Boydster III introduced last year, sell you a kit, sell you a used street rod, help you modify your current car, sell you a frame, a chassis, wheels, accessories or just a T-shirt.

Custom wheels are probably the biggest activity, though. Coddington manufacturers some 150,000 cast, 2-piece or machined billet wheels per year. But the wheel business might not exist without the 25-year tradition for building hot rods and the strong image behind them. “Wheels by Coddington” is a statement that says cool all over.

Alligator Motorcycles by Dan Gurney’s All American Racers company make an equally hip statement. Gurney’s group has been producing this novel bike since mid-2002 and its Santa Ana production facility has a terrific backlog. AAR also builds other interesting things like drone aircraft used by the military. The Alligator is such an unusual bike that sets up with an extremely low center of gravity because of the unusual seating position. The driver becomes integral with the machine. Though this configuration may take some wheelie action out of sport biking, the Alligator has blinding acceleration and a top end of 140 mph from only 70 hp. The handling is said to be exquisite by many enthusiasts.

While the Alligator is produced by the dozen, other California-initiated designs like the Mazda Miata get into the tens of thousands. Mazda’s U.S. Research and Design center takes most of the design credit for that roadster and other vehicles like the B-Series truck. Most of Mazda’s designers we met with are graduates of Art Center of Pasadena, but one hailed from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

What they derive from the California environment is the rich flux of influences, sometimes divergent, but in all a bigger plate of diversity to relate to then they set out to answer such needs. A richer mixture of influences helps dial in the vehicle design. The strong presence of the enthusiast puts everything on a more emotional level.

The expression of automotive individualism also drives Mazda designers to create many dealer-installed option packages for both styling and performance. This program is proving extremely successful for Mazda and bridges OEM production and aftermarket customization, while controlling a major piece of the customization action.

This is not restricted to Mazda’s end of the market either. Mercedes customers are also looking for personalized performance and identity upgrades. And again that current runs strongest in California. That’s why in 1998 Mercedes factory-approved customizer Brabus, based in Battrop, Germany, set up facilities in Newport Beach.

Want quality custom interiors in fabulously subtle hues of the entire rainbow? Want to power up your Mercedes E 55 by more than 50 hp to 530 hp with peak torque of 775 Nm at 3000 rpm? Look no further. This is no low balled tuner operation, but the work is also fully warranted. Bring a checkbook and an open mind, but the work is flawless.

In the Newport Beach facility I also saw some impressive upgrades on DCX Vipers and the Crossfire. Later at the Concours d’Elegance, I caught up with Brabus North America President Steven Beaty. “Why is it that California is so compelling as your North American location?” I asked. He answered without hesitation, “For one thing, California accounts for about 28 percent of Mercedes North American new car sales. And Californians, well, they are always looking for something a little special.”

What’s particularly cool, as Barry Meguiar told us, is that they will find it! That’s really the bottom line.

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