LOS ANGELES—The Volkswagen Beetle is one of the most recognizable shapes in the automotive world, a car instantly identifiable even to those who couldn’t care less about wheeled transportation. But when the 1949 VW Beetle landed on our shores for the first time, few Americans had seen anything like it.
Driving the 1949 Beetle from Volkswagen’s heritage collection made me curious about what else was new and notable in the world in 1949, so I enlisted the help of my friend Mark Malaby for a tour of 1949 Los Angeles architecture—something that would turn out to be a lot more difficult than I imagined. Making my way through a modern bustling city with 25 horsepower, a non-synchronized transmission, and cable-operated drum brakes made this one of the most challenging drives of my career.
I’ve decided to start with an easy cruise down flat-and-straight Riverside Dr., so I can get used to the transmission. Driving a non-synchronized transmission isn’t difficult, it’s just a matter of getting the rhythm right: Clutch in, shift to neutral, clutch out, then wait, wait, wait. Clutch in and shift to the next gear. Get it right and the shifter slides smoothly home. Get it a little wrong and you get a punitive crunch. Get it totally wrong and it grinds like a machine eating itself.
Fifteen minutes later I arrived at Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank, a thriving burger joint popular among gearheads for its Friday-night cruise-in. Mark is waiting, and he launches right into my first lesson about 1949 architecture.
“Bob’s Big Boy ushered in new ideas about the restaurant,” he explains. “It’s a ground-breaking building, completely designed around the car. Before, restaurants were designed for pedestrians—facades to be experienced on one side. Bob’s was designed to be experienced on all four sides, and to serve a car-based clientele. It had to function not just as a building, but as a giant road-side billboard.
“World War II brought about new materials and mechanical processes and construction methods,” he continues. “Notice all the cantilevers, even the sign, all possible because of cheap, easily-bolted-together steel. There’s masonry, but it isn’t load-bearing. Those structural elements are part of the design, much like the 1949 VW Beetle. The panel creases on the car are functional. They provide rigidity and are easy to stamp and mass-produce, and they are part of the design. Likewise, the ornament on the building is very minimal. The building itself is the ornament. Like the Volkswagen, it’s about streamlining and flow.”
Except that streamlining makes me think of speed, and the 1949 VW Beetle has none. Mark and I stuff ourselves into the Volkswagen, and I briefly contemplate hanging a sign on the back: “Yes, it really is this slow.” The Beetle is surprisingly quick off the line, but first gear tops out just more than 12 mph, which gets you about three-quarters of the way across the intersection—then all acceleration stops for the slow-motion shift to second gear. That’s when the SUV coming up fast from behind nearly rear-ends you.
Happily we avoid any such collisions on the short drive to the 1949 Burbank Water and Power building, the one that reminds me most of the old Beetle. The Volkswagen was a novelty in 1949, but its design wasn’t entirely new. Its separate fenders, running boards, and Chrysler Airflow-like aerodynamics are very much rooted in the 1930s. So, too, is B W&P—built in 1949 but with distinctive art deco and art moderne elements
“Like the Volkswagen, this building has one foot in the ’30s and one in the future,” Mark says. “Bob’s had to mediate between the scale of the human and the scale of the car driving by at 40 mph. Here, we don’t have that kind of ambiguity. It’s built on a human scale, with the expectation that people would walk up to pay their power and water bills. The design is about the presence of the city. The base of the building has real solidity, whereas with Bob’s Big Boy, it’s all plate glass. There’s no solidity at all.
“The clean quality of the Volkswagen’s design, and the clean quality of this building come from the same place. A municipal building from 1910 would have Corinthian columns and dentils and sloping roofs, but here there is a reduction to essential elements. The architects considered some ornamentation to be necessary, like the Volkswagen’s panel creases, which were needed because the metal was so thin. The Volkswagen wasn’t built on an English wheel, it was stamped. This building has fewer curves, more prefabricated pieces, simpler plasterwork. Instead of grey-haired old craftsmen, it was built by returning GIs. Put a trowel in their hand and they’re a plasterer now. Everything was simplified.”
Our next stop is in the middle of L.A., and Mark asks me to swing by Bob’s again—it’s a hot day and he’s abandoning me for the comfort of his air-conditioned Ranger pickup. A wise choice, perhaps, as the driving is about to get serious: Out of Burbank, past Universal Studios, over the hill on Barham Blvd. and into Hollywood. This is my first steep climb, and it’s a biggie.
The 1949 VW Beetle owner’s manual I found online warns against lugging the engine under load, as it relies on high fan speed to pull sufficient air over the cooling fins in the cylinders. I get a running start and the Volkswagen powers up the hill at 35 mph, 5 shy of its max-in-third-gear speed. It feels like Warp Nine. I catch the red light at the summit and let gravity slow the car, congratulating myself on an excellent bit of Volkswagen driving. I then proceed to rush the shifts into second and third, and crunch both gears. Ouch.
Coasting down the backside of Barham and onto Cahuenga, I heed the manual’s warning about relying primarily on the engine for braking. Drum brakes aren’t as bad as you’ve been led to believe, but cable-operated drum brakes are worse. They scream, they squeal, they pull—in fact they seem to do everything but actually stop the car. Thank goodness for the 1949 Volkswagen’s low gearing: There’s enough engine braking to slow the Beetle to a walking pace.
I thread my way through L.A. to arrive at the 1949 Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building. Golden State was the largest Black-owned insurance company in the western US, and the first company to offer life insurance to all persons regardless of race. The building was designed by noted African-American architect Paul Williams, and it is now a lovingly restored landmark that houses the South Central Los Angeles Regional Center. The VW is small enough to squeeze through the entrance to the building’s courtyard for photos.
“This is a straight commercial building,” says Mark, who looks a great deal more relaxed and less disheveled than I do, “and like the Volkswagen, it’s completely stripped down with minimal ornamentation. It’s strictly business. You have that strong vertical detail, like the other buildings we’ve seen today, but it’s knocking on the door of those 1950s glass-box office buildings with their strip windows and unadorned faces.
“It’s made out of poured-in-place concrete, a 1920s form of construction that makes it fireproof to protect the records stored inside. And yet it has a classic portico stripped down to its basic elements, just like Burbank Water and Power, very much a 1940s thing. The lobby, which is in beautiful original condition, is quite nice, but nothing is given to the street. It’s not human scaled. It’s a monumental presence. You can imagine it uplit in the fog in some 1950s film noir.”
Our next stop takes us in the direction of Beverly Hills. Freeways are not an option—beside the feeble engine and brakes, the 1949 VW Beetle’s lack of directional stability at 45 mph makes me reluctant to try its alleged top speed of 62. Our caravan cruises down San Vicente to Wilshire, and as traffic builds, driving becomes a serious challenge. The Volkswagen’s lack of side mirrors makes lane-changes terrifying. And if that wasn’t enough, the traffic has taken its toll on the Beetle’s clutch, which starts to slip on the hills of Sunset Blvd. Luckily we’re only a couple of blocks away from our next stop, a 1949 gem hiding in plain sight in a residential neighborhood just off of Sunset.
I’m relieved to be stopped, but Mark is ecstatic to be standing in front of Rudolph Schindler’s Tischler House. “Modern architecture and car design are all about concealing the way things go together, but this is constructivism: Expressing how things are made,” he says. “You know exactly how the Volkswagen goes together. All the panel joints are expressed. The hinges are on the outside. Screws are exposed. There’s an honesty in its expression of how it’s made, and it’s the same thing with the Tischler house. You can see how the boards that make the sunscreens are nailed together. You can see where the plaster ends and the metal starts. The roof joists are exposed and the roof is glazed, as if it’s continually under construction. Like the VW Beetle, it celebrates the craft of the making, executed in simple materials, honestly yet artistically expressed. It’s an avant-garde masterpiece.”
We spend some time exploring the Tischler House’s intricate details, and by the time we’re done, the VW’s clutch has cooled, and it happily motors over the hill back down to the San Fernando Valley. Beverly Glen Blvd. dumps us out at Ventura, right in front of our last stop: Casa de Cadillac, a Caddy dealership in continuous operation since 1949. Owner Harold Drake has resisted Cadillac’s insistence on modernization, save for the lines of shiny new CT4s and XT4s arranged outside.
Mark explains why Casa de Cadillac was so revolutionary. “Car dealerships from the ’20s and ’30s were in shopping streets. They were boutique shops,” he says. “This is something entirely new, a glass display case for automotive jewelry. We have all of the elements we saw at Bob’s Big Boy, done at a really high level of art—the aluminum, the cantilevers, the building-as-sign. It’s on a very busy intersection, and the showroom is a frame for the cars.
“It’s also quintessential California. The courtyard behind the showroom really makes this building. The courtyard brings together the glass showroom and the brick service wing. Also, in 1949, air conditioning, if it even existed, was not great, so the courtyard is a way to air condition the showroom.”
I try to imagine the reaction of the 1949 dealership staff to the 1949 VW Beetle. Surely they would have laughed it off, not realizing that the little car from Germany would soon upend the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality that was the foundation of Cadillac’s success.
I bid so-long to Mark and reflect on the education I received. Nineteen-forty-nine was a watershed year, one that saw massive changes in architecture as well as the quiet arrival of a car that would change the entire automotive landscape. Thinking about all I learned in just a few hours, I motor back to the apartment complex where I live—which, as it happens, was built in 1949.
Our thanks to Volkswagen for loaning us the 1949 Beetle, and to the Los Angeles Conservancy for helping with our location research.
Our 1949 VW Beetle L.A. Architecture Tour Stops:
4211 W. Riverside Dr., Burbank, CA 91505
164 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank, CA 91502
1999 West Adams Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90018
(Private residence—please do not disturb occupants)
14401 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
1949 Volkswagen Beetle Specifications
|PRICE||$1,280 (when new)|
|ENGINE||1.1L OHV 8-valve flat-4/25 hp @ 3,300 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 4-passenger, rear-engine, RWD coupe|
|L x W x H||160.0 x 60.5 x 61.0 in|
|0-60 MPH||42 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||62 mph|