Tucked away in and around Downey, a suburb roughly 13 miles southeast of Los Angeles, lay landmarks and relics of 20th century culture that carry heavy influence even today. Thanks to our friends from the Great Autos car club some of us from LCOC got to experience “Yesterday Once More,” both figuratively and literally during a driving tour of the city.
Downey was the home of the Carpenters brother and sister singing group, aerospace giant North American Aviation (later North American Rockwell) and birthplace of the Space Shuttle. It still boasts the world’s oldest McDonald’s restaurant, as well as a mid-century throwback Bob’s Big Boy Broiler, while adjacent Norwalk was site of scenes from classic movie The Karate Kid.
We experienced all this and more on a nostalgic November Sunday with classic mid-century cars along with about 50 other motor tourists and their vintage vehicles. Our day began at the Downey-owned Columbia Memorial Space Center on the site of the aerospace plant where F-86 fighters, the Apollo command and service modules for the moon landing program were built and the Space Shuttle conceived.
While the aerospace hangars have given way to shopping centers, commercial buildings and a large Kaiser Hospital, a few relics remain from the former Vultee plant that occupied the site before North American, but are unoccupied due to earthquake damage. We received a brief history of the aerospace plant at the Columbia Center and then had a few minutes for photo ops.
Next stop was Randy’s Donuts, a landmark relic of a chain of what was once 12 stores around Los Angeles founded in 1950 and topped by huge donuts to attract customers. This store, opened recently, has a 27-foot tall donut structure on top. Imagine how long it would take to eat this if it were a real pastry!
Remnants of the former Bob Spreen Cadillac dealership followed. Oh, how the mighty has fallen! Still standing are remains of an elegant round canopy under which a car was once displayed surrounded by rising waters from a fountain, but the decrepit property and buildings today give little hint to its former glory.
Wyman’s Liquor in a typical ’50s-style strip mall was next. A vintage car parked in front added to the ambiance. Down the street and to the left were Little Indy and Golf N Stuff, a small amusement area seen in the original 1984 Karate Kid movie, where Ralph Macchio as Daniel took his young girlfriend out on a date in his 1940s yellow convertible.
The Carpenters family home on Newville Avenue still looks much as it did when they lived there in the ’70s, but a second home next door that they bought for office needs was since demolished. The family home was featured on their 1973 album, Now and Then. They sold more than 90 million records and had many hits including “Top of the World”, “Rainy Days and Mondays” and, of course, the aforementioned “Yesterday Once More”.
Our tour wended its way through mid-century residential neighborhoods nearby, but sadly, some of the original ’50s ramblers have been replaced with McMansions. Ugh!
A quirky statue of Poseidon, erected as part of Downey’s Art in Public Places program was next, followed by a stop at the world’s oldest McDonald’s, dating to 1953, which still operates with a modern menu but sports the original white structure with the golden arches.
A small museum on this site commemorates the original 15-cent hamburgers as well as other historical artifacts.
(Personal aside from Elayne here: I remember when the first McDonald’s was built in my home town in Connecticut, next to the A&P supermarket and across the street from the high school. It looked a lot like the survivor in Downey, but how skeptical we were about 15-cent hamburgers! Yet we loved their thick milkshakes in the B.C. era—before cholesterol knowledge— which later killed our enjoyment of this treat).
Next we cruised past an apartment complex once owned by the Carpenters called “We’ve Only Just Begun” after one of their songs, and then motored through downtown Downey. Then it was on to the former Foxy’s Restaurant on Paramount Blvd, which is now the Downey Brewing Company.
Across the street was the elegant Rives Mansion, built in 1911, by Dr. Edward Rives, the owner of Downey’s first drug store. It was once the centerpiece of a 75-acre plot of citrus and walnut groves. But today, like some of our cars, the grand dame is giving way to the ravages of time and is badly in need of repair.
Our touring ended at Bob’s Big Boy Broiler on Firestone Blvd. Designed by architect Paul Clayton it opened in 1958 as Harvey’s Broiler, and was originally a car-hop drive-in so typical of the era. It operated as a restaurant until closing in 2002. Named to the California Register of Historic Places, it saw new life as a used car dealership until 2007, when its tenant illegally demolished some of the structures.
But thanks to a combined effort of the City of Downey, Bob’s Big Boy, Friends of the Broiler and the Los Angeles Conservancy, the drive-in was recreated and now flourishes once more as a regular Bob’s Big Boy Broiler restaurant.
I hope you have enjoyed this drive down memory lane. Who knew all this was hiding in plain sight all these years in Downey?