California’s automotive culture isn’t ready for net zero

On a hot Saturday evening in August, Sal Preciado parked his glittering 1971 Monte Carlo on Sunset Boulevard in front of El Clásico, the tattoo shop he has owned for 14 years. Throughout the evening, Sal and his friends watched a procession of “low-flying” – richly customized classic American cars – thundering up and down the driveway in front of his shop.

It was an old school cruise to Los Angeles, the one Sal organized, and the atmosphere along Sunset was festive. Some of the low riders were tricked with hydraulics that bounced the huge steel cars like bed nets, while others had “scraper plates” that left sparks flying off the floor. Crowds of Angelinos dancing and drinking beer on both sides of the Sunset cheered on the car stunts.

I thought of low-rider riders a couple of weeks later when California Governor Gavin Newsom rolled out his plan to phase out gasoline car sales by 2035, part of the state’s zero-carbon goal. by 2045. The policy was revolutionary, a first in the United States.

But Newsom’s initiative also set in motion what was probably an inevitable collision between two of California’s hallmarks: its cutting-edge environmental policy and its citizens’ almost erotic love story for the car.

There is no question which side Sal is on. He has nothing against protecting the environment, but he can’t find anything he likes in electric cars either.

“I can’t even imagine electric low-riders,” he told me, adding that driving custom American cars and drinking gasoline is a defining part of life in his native East Los Angeles. “We are all short. It is part of the Californian culture. Everyone likes these cars, man, American-made cars.

A growing number of Californians are also starting to like electric cars. California leads the United States in electric car sales, and in the first five months of the year, more than 28% of the cars sold in the state were electric or hybrid vehicles, according to the California Auto Outlook. The Tesla Model Y, a luxury electric SUV, was the best-selling vehicle of any type in California in the first quarter of this year.

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Extreme weather in California earlier this month – temperatures hit record highs across the state, pushing the power grid to the limit – reminded us why its citizens may feel more urgent about climate change than those of others. states of the United States. But California has always been a pioneer in environmental policy, particularly when it comes to automobiles.

It introduced rules in the 1960s that limited exhaust emissions from motor vehicles and later set high standards for fuel efficiency in cars that were widely followed elsewhere. In 2006, California launched the first comprehensive greenhouse gas regulation program in the United States. Some argue that Newsom’s electric car push isn’t exceptional for the environment, given the amount of mining required for batteries. However, it will reduce the carbon emissions of cars.

Yet California also practically invented car culture, then packaged it and exported it to the world via rubber burner evangelists from the Beach Boys to Dr. Dre, American graffiti to The fast and the furious. On the cinema screen and on the radio, fast cars are still running on petrol.

In his classic work on custom car culture in California, The Kandy-colored mandarin bow slims the baby, Tom Wolfe tells the story of the origins of hot-rodding, which dates back to the mid-1940s. It was a “filthy” period of “weird looking roadsters and custom cars, with very loud varoom-varoom engines” – and a lot of highly illegal drag racing.

That outlaw spirit, “varoom-varoom” was revived during the pandemic, when the usually crowded streets of Los Angeles suddenly became free and clear, allowing drivers of the new generation of American muscle cars to literally take control of the streets.

Instead of endurance races, these “acquisitions” – also known as “side shows” – usually involve huge crowds of people standing in an intersection as cars screech at high speed in tight circles. There have been around 705 acquisitions this year and six associated deaths.

When all is done, the air is filled with dense gray smoke and intersections are indelibly covered with black tire marks. Many acquisitions have been captured on YouTube and TikTok, fueling their popularity even more.

It might be hard to see how high-speed junkies like takeover drivers could be persuaded to switch to a practical electric vehicle in 2035, state government or no state government.

But Tesla has already shown that electric cars can be fast; the Model S can reach 200 miles per hour (322 km / h). Perhaps more significantly, at least in terms of building the credibility of the electric vehicle in hot rod circles, this year an unknown Tesla driver performed an incredibly dangerous jump in East Los Angeles that has been seen millions of times online. (It ended with a crash into two parked cars. Needless to say, such stunts are not a good idea.)

Sal stands still. “I hate Teslas,” she says. “There is nothing beautiful about them. Give me a nice Chevy, something with character.

christopher.grimes@ft.com

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