Eight decades of American automotive history

Posted: September 21st, 2018 | Columns, Community, PastMatters, Top Story | No Comments

By Katherine Hon | PastMatters

Fifty classic cars representing more than 80 years of American automotive manufacturing sparkled in the sun at the ninth annual North Park Car Show on Sept. 8. Vehicles from 1906 to 1989 were on display. The old, the rare and the simply fabulous earned the trophies for People’s Favorites in extremely close voting by hundreds of attendees.

The crowd bestowed the Grand Trophy on a 1906 REO (Ransom Eli Olds) touring car owned by Robert Bardin. He noted that at one time the car was used for mail delivery in Sonora, California, a small town east of San Francisco near Yosemite National Park. He has only had the car for three weeks and enjoyed showing it “in real life, not as a static piece in a museum.”

Proud owner Robert Bardin shows off the Grand Trophy for his 1906 REO touring car while admirers peek inside (Photos by Katherine Hon)

The 1906 REO is the oldest car ever shown at the North Park Car Show and represents the very beginning of American car manufacturing. REO Motor Car Company was founded by Ransom Eli Olds in 1905. Olds previously founded Olds Motor Vehicle Company in 1897; he claimed to have built his first steam car in 1894 and his first gasoline-powered car in 1896. He also invented the power lawn mower and was the first person to use a stationary assembly line in the car industry.

If the name “Olds” seems familiar, it’s because Olds Motor Vehicle Company eventually became Oldsmobile, which formed the initial divisions of General Motors Corporation along with Buick and Cadillac.

Oldsmobiles were produced for nearly 100 years until the brand was discontinued in 2004. The Curved Dash Oldsmobile — one of 11 prototype vehicles Ransom E. Olds built by 1901 — was the first mass-produced, low-priced, American motor vehicle, contrary to popular legend that assigns this honor to the Ford Model T.

In 1899, Olds sold his vehicle company to Samuel Smith, a copper and lumber magnate. Although Ransom E. Olds remained vice president and general manager, by 1904, clashes with Smith’s son resulted in Olds leaving to found REO Motor Car Company, named with his initials.

If readers of a certain age recognize REO, it is because the popular band REO Speedwagon took their name from a light delivery truck called a Speed Wagon developed by the company. However, the company name is typically pronounced as a word, not as initials like the band.

Rich and Donna Grosch said they “had a blast” at the North Park Car Show and were thrilled with their second-place trophy for their 1949 DeSoto. (Photo by Katherine Hon)

Second-place People’s Favorite was awarded to a 1949 DeSoto “Woodie” station wagon and hand-built teardrop trailer owned by Rich and Donna Grosch. The DeSoto make was created by Walter Chrysler in 1928; the brand was discontinued in 1961. The wood-sided station wagon displayed at the car show is one of only about a dozen left on the road.

Grosch explained that his teardrop trailer was a style that “became popular after a Popular Mechanics article in 1945 and again in 1947 showed how to build them with surplus aluminum that was left after the second world war.”

“One of the things that impressed us so much about your show [North Park Historical Society Car Show] was the variety of the cars,” he continued. “There were several rare cars there as well.” (Though he didn’t say it himself, one of those rarities was his DeSoto.)

Nostalgia is big in historic North Park, and the crowd enthusiastically awarded third-place People’s Favorite to a bright green 1969 Ford van, decked out in fabulous tiki fashion by Gary and Lisa Douglass. With a mermaid on the grill, hula girls on the surfboard-shaped visors, pineapples in the windows, and an animal-print awning stretched over a rattan bar, this vehicle epitomized fun in the tropical sun.

Third-place winners Gary and Lisa Douglass “really enjoyed sharing Van Tiki with the community and seeing the other cars.” (Photo by Katherine Hon)

Other fine examples of automotive excellence through the decades included an immaculate 1928 Ford Phaeton, a 1937 Ford Pick Up Street Rod brought by the San Diego Automotive Museum in Balboa Park, a two-tone 1955 Buick Century, an enormous 1960 Plymouth Fury, a sleek 1971 AMC AMX, and a 1989 Chevrolet Caprice provided by the San Diego Sheriff’s Museum in Old Town.

Visit in October for professional photos of the event taken by Michael Carreon. The North Park Historical Society appreciates all the volunteers, sponsors, exhibitors and attendees who contributed to this event.

—Katherine Hon is the secretary of the North Park Historical Society. Reach her at or 619-294-8990.

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