One day in LA – a Los Angeles car culture tour in 24 hours

Iain Kelly enjoys a 24-hour blast around LA's sacred sites

Photographers: Alastair Ritchie

This article was originally published in the March 2014 issue of Street Machine magazine

AS A lifelong fan of US car culture, I was dead-set beside myself when I got the chance to hit the USA to attend the SEMA show last year. When I discovered that photographer Alastair and I actually had a free day in Los Angeles, I sat down and worked out all the things any serious gearhead would want to do in LA, and then squeezed them all into one 24-hour V8-powered bender.

Through some contacts at Ford, I managed to get the keys to a 2014-spec Mustang for a day. While I’d hoped to get my grubby mitts on one of the 660hp supercharged Shelby GT500s, I wasn’t exactly busted-up about getting a 400hp 5.0-litre drop-top GT in cherry red.

Thankfully, we were able to pick it up the day before and drop it back the morning after. This gifted us the extra hours we needed to make it to the weekly Cars and Coffee meet in Irvine, even if it did require a 4am wake-up call from our hotel in Lawndale.

We tore across pre-dawn LA with the radio locked onto KLOS, LA’s classic rock station. It was a gun call to listen to the radio rather than an iPod, with Jim Morrison wailing about breaking on through to the other side over the noise of the Coyote 302-cube V8.

We arrived in the carpark 10 minutes early and it was already filling with super-cool metal. Among the mega-buck late-model exotics rolling in were traditional hot rods, sweet restored classics and some of the toughest muscle cars to roll out of Detroit.

Cars and Coffee. From 6am to 11am, every Saturday. 7905 Gateway Boulevard, Irvine

Within minutes, a factory lightweight 427 ’63 Galaxie was parked next to a genuine Nickey-built 396 Chevy Nova. But my personal favourite was the bad-arse Royal Bobcat-built ’63 Pontiac Catalina with a full-house dual-quad 421-cube Super Duty motor – it gave me some beaut tips for my own ’62 Pontiac Bonneville.

Cars and Coffee really has a chilled out, harmonious atmosphere where it doesn’t matter if you like late model rice-burners or pre-war art deco masterpieces. It was great to see hundreds of gearheads wandering around talking shop with complete strangers.

NHRA Wally Parks Museum. 1101 West McKinley Avenue, Pomona

With the car park thinning by around 10.30am, we hooked over to the Pomona Fairgrounds and the NHRA’s Wally Parks Motorsport Museum, as Sir Mick Jagger implored us to have Sympathy For The Devil.

Opened in April 1998, the Wally Parks Museum traces the early years of the National Hot Rod Association, including dry lake racing, the formation of chartered hot rod clubs and the beginnings of structured drag racing, and even a bit of marine and speedway action.

The walls are lined with vintage pics, club plaques, paperwork, trophies and equipment (the display of speedway helmets was seriously cool!) telling the story of the NHRA from the end of World War 2 up to the 1970s. There is also an amazing array of vintage FEDs, gassers, funny cars and hot rods from yesteryear.

Resplendent in period-cool purple was the ’29 Ford of Rich Guasco, of Pure Hell fuel altered fame. An AMBR winner in 1961, it was joined by John Mumford’s 2013 AMBR-winning ’27 Ford, Kelly Brown Track T, which looked stunning opposite the entry display of the late Norm Grabowski’s and ‘TV Tommy’ Ivo’s T-buckets.

I admit I flipped out at getting up close with Ak Miller’s Caballo Die Hierro (Spanish for Iron Horse) – the home-built hot rod that beat the biggest European manufacturers in the supremely dangerous Carrera Panamericana road race.

Ak Miller’s Caballo Die Hierro (The Iron Horse) was a rough home-built jalopy, but it beat many of the best European road racers in the tough La Carrera Panamericana road race through Mexico back in the mid-50s

When we visited, there was a full collection of Moon race cars, including the Jocko-built Moonliner and Larsen-Cummins streamliner, and the Moonliner roadster, along with a comprehensive history on the Mooneyes name and Dean Moon.

At the opposite end of the hall was a display honouring another long-standing NHRA member – turbocharging pioneer Gale Banks.

Gale kicked off in ’58 as a plucky 16 year-old hopping up Studebakers and running them on dry lakes around LA. He switched to turbocharging and diesel technology in the 70s and continues to blow speed records away (when he isn’t turbocharging and injecting secret military projects or Jay Leno’s tank engines) even at the age of 71.

With our guts crying for lunch, we bailed, top down in the sun and Van Halen’s Runnin’ With The Devil howling from the Mustang’s premium Bose stereo. We headed for Mulholland Drive, a place renowned as a home of hot rodding and street racing in LA.

Winding along the back of Hollywood and Beverley Hills, it offers amazing views of the city, though drivers won’t get much chance to see them as they’ll be busy negotiating the never-ending corners.

The Mustang wasn’t exactly carving corners, the convertible chassis well out of its depths going fast. But as we dropped back through West Hollywood and onto Wilshire Boulevard, the GT came into its own, cruising smoothly along the wide streets with a good amount of rumble from the exhaust.

Halfway up Wilshire is the Petersen Auto Museum – home of some of the most collectable and desirable cars in the world. From Art Arfon’s three-time Land Speed Record-winning Green Monster in the carpark, there’s absolute hot rodding royalty packed into the site, including Boyd and Billy’s CadZZilla in the foyer, Troy Trepanier’s Sniper, John D’Agostino’s gorgeous Sophia and a clutch of AMBR winners from throughout the ages, but more on them later.

Petersen Museum. 6060 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles

There was even a mock-up of an early 50s speed shop across the hall from a similar recreation of a Barris-style custom workshop, with a chopped Merc in the build. Both were filled with period tools that, for someone like me who has only been around since ’83, offered an invaluable look into the way cars used to be built.

By far the coolest aspect of the Petersen was the 90-minute guided tour of The Vault. Down there you’ll see a host of irreplaceable classic cars including the DeTomaso that Elvis shot, the Barris-built hot rod from Grease, one-off Ferraris from the 50s and Rolls-Royces from the 20s, the Prince of Persia’s streamliner Bugatti, presidential limos and my favourites – Steve McQueen’s personal Jaguar XK-SS and Hudson.

Steve McQueen rated this Jaguar XK-SS as one of his favourite cars. The rare road-going version of Jag’s Le Mans-winning D-Type got Steve into plenty of trouble with Hollywood’s cops

The big news, though, were the collection of legendary hot rods – nine AMBR-winning rods, including Bill Niekamp’s ’29 track roadster, the winner of the first America’s Most Beautiful Roadster in 1950, the yellow ’32 hi-boy phaeton from the Van Halen video for Hot For Teacher, Lil’ John Buttera’s groundbreaking root beer-coloured ’26 Model T from 1974, and Ernie Emerso and Don Thelan’s two-time (1987 and ’91) Indy V8-powered AMBR winner known as Golden Star.

These are just a few of the mammoth collection that really we should’ve spent all day looking over. But there was still a bunch of exploring to do, so we hot-footed it out of there, pointing the Mustang towards the ocean while Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion played over the top.

Mel’s Drive-in. Open seven days a week. 8585 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood

We had to make it down to Dockweiler Beach for sunset as Alastair reckoned it was the best view of the stereotypical California sunset. It also allowed us to do another loop of the Pacific Coast Highway (to Metallica’s For Whom The Bell Tolls), back through Marina Del Ray and up to Sunset Boulevard, on our way to a dinner appointment at a place any fan of American Graffiti would know – Mel’s Drive-In.

If this spot looks familar, it should! The LA River (built over the top of a real river) has starred in a bunch of famous car flicks, including Grease, Transformers, the new Gone in 60 Seconds, The Gumball Rally and Drive. It is pretty seedy down there and the cops will come down hard if you go there to skid

Among the movie memorabilia and car-themed paraphernalia, we enjoyed a couple of awesome late-night signature burgers and shakes.

As the clock ticked past midnight, we cruised back to Lawndale down Hollywood Boulevard, The Eagles’ Hotel California providing a fitting soundtrack to the end of an awesome day.


1. This lightweight Catalina had me frothing. Back in ’63, lightweight 421 Pontiac Super Dutys ruled the strip and street as well as Daytona 500s. Unfortunately, due to GM’s racing ban, it was the last year of the Super Duty program.

2. If you go to Cars and Coffee expecting fine espresso and a healthy breakfast, you’ll be sorely disappointed. However, the diabetes-inducing pastries are authentically American and pretty darn tasty!

3. The wildest ride to turn up was this bare-metal, radically chopped, first-generation Chevy van – and it was driven to and from the site! The gasser-style van packs a wild blown small-block V8 and speedboat V-drive, and was built by students at El Toro High School.

4. This Whipple-blown Ford GT might not be a traditional sleeper, but with 960hp it would still surprise anyone expecting a 540hp stocker!

5. Fibreglass body panels and a full-house dual-quad 427 side-oiler marked this plain Jane ’63 Galaxie as a genuine factory Lightweight model. A precursor to the featherweight Thunderbolt Fairlanes, these 500hp monsters were favoured by NASCAR teams.

6. The great-grandad of the modern Nissan GT-R was the Skyline GT-R of 1971, equipped with a 160hp 2.0-litre straight six and known as the KPGC10 or Hakosuka by fans of old-school Japanese muscle. This one is a replica.


1. This ’29 Ford was Rich Guasco’s first car and went on to win the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award. Rich later became even more well known as the crazy bastard behind the infamous Pure Hell fuel altered.

2. The late, great Norm Grabowski’s Kookie Kar is one of the all-time great T-buckets, having appeared on the legendary TV show Sunset Strip. It greeted punters at the front door of the NHRA museum.

3. Sitting opposite Grabowski and Ivo’s ground-breaking T-buckets from yesteryear was John Mumford’s 2013 AMBR-winning ’27 Ford Track roadster, known as Kelly Brown. Everything on this tiny machine is detailed beyond belief.

4. The famous Chi-Town Hustler flopper took its name from the streets of Chicago and was at the museum to book-end a celebration of funny cars beginning with the equally famous (and stunning) Stone, Woods & Cook ’40 Willys gasser.

5. It never ran to its potential, but the Jocko Johnson-designed streamliner looks like it’ll do 1000mph sitting still. Unlike Norm Longfield’s running example Down Under, the Moon car is only in display set-up.


1. John D’Agostino and Oz Welch’s achingly beautiful ’40 Cadillac, known as Sophia, is a tribute to Hollywood glamour icon Sophia Lauren. The spearmint sled has a super-cool art deco style to it and was easily one of the most beautiful cars in the Petersen Museum.

2. This yellow ’32 phaeton hi-boy was made famous in the video for Van Halen’s song Hot For Teacher off their album 1984. Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth are both long-time hot rodders who’ve used many of their own cars in their music videos over the years.

3. A mid-engined aluminium injected Hemi V8 makes you realise why Chip Foose called his radically raked hot rod concept the HemisFEAR.

4. When 60s show rods go mad, they really go mad. The Barber Shop Rod features working sinks, barber poles, moving chairs and more.

5. Just chilling in the car park is this three-time Land Speed Record holder. Drag racer Art Arfons built the Green Monster in his garage after running jet and rocket dragsters.

6. Troy Trepanier’s Sniper took a bland ’54 Plymouth Savoy and a wrecked Dodge Viper and turned the author’s world upside down in 1998 when it debuted.