The Early History of Automobile Dealerships in Los Angeles

Car Dealership on Wilshire Blvd

Car dealership on Wilshire Blvd (circa 1937) courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

By Michael Block

Through a grant administered by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, I am helping to research the early history of automobile dealerships in Los Angeles. Scholars have frequently written about “car culture” (especially as it developed in Los Angeles), but they have focused almost exclusively on the roles of manufacturers, drivers, and drivers’ advocacy groups like the Automobile Club of Southern California. History has paid far less attention to the role of car dealers. The car industry in the early twentieth century was similar to the technology sector today: innovation and competition meant that firms popped rapidly in and out of existence. Los Angeles, led partly by its car dealers and partly by heavy demand for cars, wanted to be at the forefront of the excitement. In 1907, car dealers in Los Angeles organized the first car show west of the Mississippi, narrowly beating out San Francisco. In 1917, the chair of the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce declared the Los Angeles dealers’ association to be the largest in the country, and claimed that Los Angeles had “more cars than in any other county in the country, and judging by the traffic conditions in Los Angeles, it has more cars per mile of street than New York or any other city.”[1] Despite the excitement at the time, we know very little today about how the automobile selling business took shape in Los Angeles. Part of the project will involve mapping the locations of dealerships (the auto row on Figueroa Street turns out not to have been the first such concentration). My research so far has focused on the collections of the Seaver Center for Western History Research at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

[1] “Reeves Praises California,” Motor West 26, no. 11 (15 March 1917): 13.

Don Lee Cadillac LaSalle in Pasadena

Don Lee Cadillac and LaSalle dealership in Pasadena (circa 1935) courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.


Michael Block received his PhD in history from USC in 2011. He is currently a lecturer in the history program at CSU Channel Islands. 

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3 comments
  1. Romee said:

    San Pedro has always had a thriving car culture and we had a small auto row of our own. We were home to 2 of the famous Thomas dealerships, Glenn E. Thomas ( still in business) and Cecil Thomas (he and his son LaRue went on to have one of the most successful Cadillac dealerships in the country). I’ve found stories about the early dealers using some of our famous hills to promote the power of the engines.

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  2. David Boule' said:

    Wonderful subject to explore! Car shows, sponsored then as now by new car dealer associations, also played an important part in marketing automobiles in their earliest days. Continued good luck in your research!

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  3. Michael Palmer said:

    Perhaps a bit late for your research interests, but between 1925 and 1927 the mining entrepreneur and philanthropist William L. Honnold (1866-1950) operated an automobile financing business in Los Angeles with his former chauffeur and mechanic, Gail Hutchinson (1892-1945). The records of the business are in Box 18, folders 1-4, William L. Honnold papers, H.Mss.0381, Special Collections, Honnold/Mudd Library, The Claremont Colleges, https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/c89s1rpp/entire_text/

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