The Star-News - Aug. 2, 2002

The automobile is history in motion


To everybody in the county, if not farther afield, National City is synonymous with cars. And, as we approach the 11th annual National City Automobile Heritage Day, it's a sobering thought that it's nearly a century since that heritage began.

Just a glance at the official program in this week's Star-News gives a strong sense of the incredible progress that has happened here since the Colorado silver miner Ralph Granger bought his first car on the swampy, and still unpaved, National Street, as Mile of Cars Way was known in 1904.

The automotive apostles Clarence and William Hunt were 16 years ahead of their time in 1904 when they gave up working on boat engines for the San Diego fishing fleet and attempted to launch a Ford dealership in National City.

There was so little demand for their venture, that they were reduced to running tourist trips to Tijuana in two Winston cars until 1906 when Amie Babcock, the wealthy owner of the Hotel del Coronado, commissioned them to build a car sufficiently rugged to withstand National Street on his commute to his home south of Ensenada.

And so the Hunt Special was developed.

Not only was this car tough enough to withstand the rigors of Imperial Valley desert but, 44 years after it disappeared into the Mexican revolution of 1911, it reappeared behind the back wall of an Ensenada grocery store in sufficiently good shape that it was subsequently restored to full running condition.

It was the pioneering Hunt brothers who set up National City's first car manufacturing plant, the Hunt Machine Shop, on National Street in a building left vacant by the old National Carriage Works. Carriages were out. Horseless carriages were here to stay.

But car ownership was still very much the preserve of the wealthy until Henry Ford's economies of scale enabled the mass produced Model T Ford to be sold at the price of $850 which, in 1908, was the equivalent of $15,500 today.

The car industry has shaped National City politically and geographically. A young Kile Morgan began his used car business here in the early 1940s and rose in status to be elected of mayor in 1967. It was Morgan who secured a federal grant to drain the swamp, as recently as the 1970s.

Now National City's Mile of Cars has been in business for 52 straight years. The tin lizzies of the 1920s made way for the flamboyant gas guzzlers of the 1940s. The post war boom of the fifties and sixties brought an affluent, more youthful customer to the car market with a demand for high-performance muscle cars. The oil crisis of 1973 put the pinch on this and ushered in a selection of smaller imported cars. Since then, the family station wagon has made way for the ubiquitous SUV čback to gas guzzlers again.

National City's inspiring story reflects the story of the 20th century. When we watch the parade of classic cars wind through the streets from 20th and Cleveland to Kimball Park at 8:30 on Sunday morning, we're going to see our history pass before our eyes.