V&R Stories: My First Auto Show…and How It Stunted My Childhood

1971 Toyota Celica ST
All Photos by Randy Stern

At five years old, I knew I would I would have a long-term love affair with the automobile. Of course, who knew that I would be working with them and the industry that produces and supports this magnificent machine.

That was 1969. The new Plymouth Barracuda and the Dodge Challenger would kick off the new decade with style and muscle. Though I remember being with my parents and brother as my father traded in his 1965 Plymouth Satellite for a new 1967 Chevrolet Impala Sports Coupe, the Barracuda and Challenger would open up a whole new world for this overweight Jewish child from Reseda.

In elementary school, I was a car kid. And, a sports kid. And, a music kid. And, a world affairs kid. Hell, I was too well-rounded for a kid.

If one event would solidify the “car kid” in me, it was my first auto show I ever attended. Rather, the first one I recalled.

It was in May of 1971. The place was the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena on Figueroa Street at the southeast corner of Exposition Park. The arena south of downtown Los Angeles had plenty of floor space if you pushed the lower basketball seats back. It was the first home of the Lakers, who moved from Minneapolis in 1960. It was the place where the Clippers moved to after they left San Diego in the 1980s.

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Back in 1971, you had two auto shows. The Los Angeles Auto Show was held in January at the Convention Center. Then, there was the Auto Expo. The latter was the one my family and I attended.

There was clearly a difference between the two. The L.A. Auto Show had every make and model sold in Southern California, while the Auto Expo was import-focused. The only “domestic” car on display was General Motors’ Opel – which was sold by Buick at the time. You had your share of Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Volvo, Saab, Peugeot, Renault, Toyota, Mazda, Subaru, Datsun, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, and more.

I tried to find some information on the Auto Expo on the internet. Sadly, no one had a website or a Wikipedia page talking about this second show. My memory tells me there was such a show. I believe I attended it twice before it acquiesced to the larger L.A. Auto Show in the 1980s. Of course, I am going by what I remember from 1971 here…

MNNI Weekly Meet/Pre-Andy's Birthday

My family’s attendance at the Auto Expo came at a very interesting time for the imported brands. In California, the Japanese brands were taking root in the marketplace. Toyota and Datsun emerged from the years of making thin-walled, small cars and trucks to prove its reliability and durability. Both brands introduced some really compelling products that simply took off in my backyard. The Celica was new for 1971, which became a huge hit with its pony car-influenced design and solid driving dynamics. The 240Z was the most desirable non-European sports car on the planet. It, too, would be a massive hit among California enthusiasts. The Datsun 510 had been track-proven, which translated into comparisons with the more expensive BMW 2002. The 1.6-liter overhead camshaft engine alone was something of a surprise to everyone – except for enthusiasts who were charmed by its performance.

We had plenty of European brands being sold in California, as well. British Leyland was organized as a single importer in the USA, comprising of MG, Triumph, Rover, Jaguar, and Austin. Land Rover was sold in very small numbers – perhaps too small to be counted back then. Having never known its history, BL made quite an impression for those who wanted “affordable” British sporting cars – save for the expensive and luxurious Jaguar lineup. Jaguars were quite popular in Southern California within the entertainment business.

Twin Cities VWs Bug-In

Volkswagen remained the top import brand in the USA. The old air-cooled rear-engine design was showing its age, even with the 411 sitting on top of the lineup, soon to be replaced by the more “modern” 412. Volkswagen customers loved their Beetles, Squarebacks, Fastbacks, and Karmann Ghias – but Toyota and Datsun were gaining on Wolfsburg rather quickly with more efficient and “conventional” offerings.

Other (West) German brands were also gaining in both the mid-luxury and luxury fields. Volkswagen recently acquired Auto Union, which had to shed most of its brands for a single one: Audi. The Audi 100LS was seen as a competitor for the Peugeot 504 and Mercedes-Benz W115 240D. It was a handsome car that showed the world the future – front-wheel drive in a larger car. No one would have known about Audi if it had not been paired with Porsche across the USA. You may remember seeing Porsche + Audi dealers back in the 1970s.

Porsche lived a simpler life back in 1971. The 911 was desirable with its flat-six engine and the choice of a coupe or Targa models. Volkswagen helped Porsche with a lower-priced two-seat car called the 914. The more squared-off Porsche-Volkswagen collaboration was pretty popular in California, despite its standard flat-four engine that was massaged by Stuttgart’s engineers. You could get a flat-six version of this car – the 914/6. That was quite a fast car in its time.

Fiat 850 Spider

Fiat had a full lineup available in the USA back in 1971. You had the choice of the 850 series or the 124 series. The best-known 850 was the Spider with its Bertone body and rear-mounted 817cc four-cylinder engine. They were made for those who cannot afford the larger 124 Spider with its 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and Pininfarina design. You could choose any of the sedans and coupes Fiat sold, but you really came for the Spiders.

The same was true for Alfa Romeo. The Spider Veloce was the best-selling Alfa Romeo of the time. However, Alfa Romeo had a great lineup, with the GT Veloce coupe and the Berlina sedan. For a lower price point, an Italian car was still desirable – even with a reputation for being, well, temperamental.

For the French, there were a few cars that mattered – the Peugeot 504, the Renault 12 and 16. The Peugeot sat in the mid-luxury field and the 504 was quite a nice-looking car. The ride of the 504 was often compared to larger American full-sized sedans – with its balanced suspension system that rode soft and absorbed bumps. Citroen would do one better with its hydraulic-gas suspension system, but the DS was about to make way for its mashup with Maserati – the SM.

Renault had two cars that competed well with other similarly-sized cars, such as the Toyota Corona. The 12 was a three-box sedan, while the 16 offered a fastback style that looked rakish. The two cars may have looked similar, but they were positioned differently. In Europe, the 16 was considered the more expensive “executive” car. In the USA, we simply saw the 16 as “different,” but “lovable.” Renault’s USA lineup was about the shaken up in the next few years to come.

Minnesota Cars & Coffee August 2017

The Swedes had quite a cult following in California. Volvo’s more conventional cars were pretty popular offerings in the 140 Series and the luxurious 164. The latter was positioned in the mid-luxury segment but had higher aspirations. Volvo marketed the 164 to compete against Cadillac – yes, the “standard of the world.” Volvo also offered the 1800E coupe, which would soon see a companion model in the next several months – the 1800ES.

Saab was completely revolutionary and unconventional – not to mention quite misunderstood. The 99 was a fine car that offered front-wheel-drive, good performance and traction, along with a conventional design. What made Saab stand out at the Sports Arena was a lineup that included the 96 and the Sonnet – two unconventional cars that Southern Californians sort of passed on.

I would be remised if I did not talk about Opel. When the smallest Buick you can get was a Skylark, Opel came through with a lineup of smaller offerings, including the two-seat GT coupe. At the top of the Opel range, the two-seat GT was influenced by the C3 Corvette – which attracted an enthusiast crowd looking for a sports car worth having fun in. They had a good following in California at the time. New for 1971 was the Manta coupe, which offered a counterpoint to the Celica. Mantas brought curious customers to Buick dealerships looking for a relatively fuel-efficient alternative to the pony car.

As California was riding the wave of Toyota and Datsun, more Japanese brands began to arrive at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Honda offered the miniature lineup of the N600 and the 600 Coupe. Subaru also had a tiny machine in the 360, but the FF-1 debuted with a now-familiar boxer engine arrangement – a 1.1-liter horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine. Soon, the 360 would give way to the FF-1 and the next generation models in the next several months.

1972 Mazda RX-2

However, the biggest splash came from a company that just got their dealership network started that year – Mazda. The company prided itself by offering an alternative to the piston engine – the Wankel rotary. While NSU tried to sell the same kind of engine in this country with minimal results, Mazda seemed to have it all figured out. The RX-2 and Rotary Pickup were a one-two punch designed to entice Californians towards driving something different. Different than a Saab? Yes – and for less money, too!

Now, which one of these vehicles made an indelible impression upon a seven-year-old overweight Jewish kid from Reseda? Mazda’s fresh lineup was compelling for its time – the RX-2 was smartly designed with its rotary engine. The Audi 100LS foretold the future of the (West) German automobile. The Peugeot 504 was a lovely sight to see. Finally, the Volvo 164 was quite desirable – more so over a Mercedes-Benz or Jaguar.

The experience of the L.A. Auto Expo would have a permanent place in my psyche. Not only was it my first auto show, but it would the barometer for subsequent auto shows to come. Not to mention watching the progression of the automobile to today’s offerings. That RX-2 has since given way to Mazda6, the 100LS would emerge into the A6 and S6, the 504 would be superseded by a car from another continent – I’m thinking the Genesis G80 here. We no longer get Peugeot in this country. Finally, the 164 would eventually yield to the S90 T6 Inscription.

Then again, who knew that the original Celica would eventually lead to the Lexus RC F?

Honda N600

If you told my seven-year-old self that I would work an auto show as a member of the automotive media corps, it would only be some form of a make-believe world and “pure imagination.” Roald Dahl had Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory, Dr. Seuss had a “Cat In A Hat” and “Green Eggs and Spam,” and Oliver Twist won over audiences on stage and screen. I had this – a fantasy world that would end up being a reality.

What the 1971 L.A. Auto Expo taught me was to embrace the automobile and watch the progression of the marketplace and its products very carefully. In the course of 47 years, this journey with the automobile has been absurd and rewarding. Whoever put on the L.A. Auto Expo in 1971 – thank you. You sealed this deal.

Automobile Writing, Historiography, V&R StoriesPermalink

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