For the love of cars and history

Posted: August 28th, 2015 | Community Voices, Feature, Featured | No Comments

North Park Car Show returns to Balboa Park

By Bob Bauer

For the past six years, the North Park Historical Society has organized a car show on the first Saturday after Labor Day. So what do automobiles, motorcycles and the occasional travel trailer have to do with history, you might be wondering?

The answer is simple: The history of Americans is closely linked to getting from point A to point B comfortably, stylishly and economically. The development of North Park is integrally tied to the expansion of San Diego first by the electric rail car system and eventually the automobile. Once on the very eastern fringe of San Diego, North Park is now part of the “Mid-City” area.

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This 1960 Plymouth Belvedere at the 2013 North Park Car Show sports some of the biggest tail fins ever. (Courtesy of Jim Brady)

The history of the automobile is a glimpse into so much of our history. Events in history influence the availability of the auto, the style of the auto, the materials used in the auto, and the source of the auto. The availability of buying a new automobile was interrupted by World War II, and even the ability to replace tires and purchase gasoline for existing pre-war cars were challenging. The automobile industry was retooled for war-time production.

In England, the last new cars were being produced in the fall of 1939 and did not resume until late 1945. In the United States, there was some car production into 1942 and once again by late 1945.

poster copywebOne of the many interesting sidelines of the war-time auto industry involved Rolls-Royce and the Packard Motor Car Co. (1899-1958). Packard was a manufacturer of high quality American luxury motor cars, and one of several American manufacturers vying for the license to build the Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engines used in the Royal Air Force (RAF) Spitfires, the RAF Hawker Hurricane fighter and the RAF DeHavilland Mosquito bomber/fighter. Packard was selected by Rolls-Royce for the American license due to their “build quality” and went on to produce the engines (V-1650) in the famous P-51 Mustang fighters. The history of these fighter planes and the performance of the engines live on, but alas the Packard Motor Car Co. does not.

The post-war fascination in the Jet Age drove the design response for tail fins on the back of the automobile, with the peak occurring between 1955 and 1959. The 1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air and the Nomad station wagon, with their distinctive vertical tail fins, eventually gave way to the Chevrolet swept tail fins. General Motors and Chrysler seemed to be in competition for the most distinctive tail fin design during this era. The 1959 Cadillac Eldorado had the most iconic and extreme vertical tail fins with dual bullet tail lights.

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The distinctive tail fins on this 1956 Chevrolet Nomad helped this car win second place People’s Choice at the 2014 North Park Car Show. (Courtesy of Jim Brady)

But by 1965, it was difficult to find a fin on the rear of an automobile, with a few exceptions, such as the Volvo P-1800S.

Some readers might remember the 1973 Arab oil crisis and the long lines of cars waiting for rationing gas stations to change from red to green flags, so that you could eventually arrive at the pump and purchase up to 10 gallons of gasoline. This event, which lasted from October 1973 through March 1974, helped result in the demise of the American “muscle cars” and focused the consumer interest in Japanese and European compact cars with their more thrifty gasoline consumption. The less impactful Iran oil crisis of 1979 cemented our concern with obtaining better gas mileage from our cars. From 1973 onward, we lost sight of inexpensive gasoline, where a dollar could buy three, four or more gallons of gasoline.

Not only does the motor car provide Americans glimpses into our past 100-plus years of history, each motor car company has its own unique history; just ask the owner of one of the unique cars or motorcycles on display at the North Park Car Show.

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This 1970 Plymouth Super Bird at the 2012 North Park Car Show is just one example of the high-powered muscle cars popular before the 1973 oil crisis. (Courtesy of Mike Ward)

This year, the North Park Historical Society presents the North Park Car Show on Saturday, Sept. 12 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the parking lot of the Balboa Tennis Club in Morley Field.

If you have a fine classic car or vintage motorcycle to show (pre-1990 is preferred), the exhibition fee is $10 for one vehicle and $20 for two or three. Visit our website at for a registration form and car show information, or contact the NPHS secretary at or 619-294-8990. This event is free to attendees, so please come join us to meander through history.

—Bob Bauer is a board member of the North Park Historical Society.

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