The death of actor Paul Walker over the Thanksgiving holiday is as full of sad ironies as any of the scripts of the many movies he might have made in the years to come.
The first, obvious and most powerful ironic comparison, especially to those of us in southern California's car culture, is to James Dean. Dean was killed in a powerful and rare, limited edition Porsche, not unlike, for its time, the car Walker was in on that wide Valencia boulevard just days ago.
Dean was the young actor of his times, a powerful influence on a then-burgeoning youth culture, literally a Rebel Without A Cause. His death in that Porsche outside of Bakersfield brought together youth from around the world in grief and sadness. There were other young celebrity deaths in those years, including Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, but Dean's, who drove hot rods in his films and wore leather jackets and peg-leg chino pants, touched a chord with the new post-war generation which hadn't been mined before.
Hot rods were called a scourge of that generation and used as an example by the nation's elders of everything that was wrong with the then-teenaged crowd. In response to this criticism, the National Hot Rod Association was formed in order to keep racing off the streets and on 1/4-mile drag strips such as those which then soon included Santa Ana, Pomona and Lions. The N.H.R.A. was created in southern California by automotive businessmen who were to become industry legends, including Wally Parks and Robert Petersen, founder and publisher of Hot Rod magazine.
And here was James Dean, a bone fide movie star, using hot rods as a prop, perhaps among the first time a car was used as much as a character in movies as we'd see in the future, from the police cruiser in Adam-12 to the Ferrari Dino in Magnum, P.I., custom hot rods like the Monkeemobile (a Pontiac G.T.O.) and Firebirds galore, from those in the Rockford Files to K.I.T.T. in Knight Rider to Smokey and his Bandit.
And here was Dean dying in, not an American-bred hot rod but a European car which most people in the country had never heard of back then, much less driven.
And decades later, Paul Walker would do the same thing, known for driving outrageously-prepared and -powered European and Asian hot rods in his film series, to die in a Porsche, a custom model, one of just a few hundred ever made.
And it's touching a nerve.
Immediately, Walker's death site became a shrine to all things young, fast and furious, especially the cars Walker promoted in his films.
Walker's films were not imbued with the angst of Dean's, mostly because a generation of slackers doesn't have a lot of angst to begin with. But they do have money and that money translates into small high-performance cars which have more horsepower, more powerful braking and better handling than the hot rods in Dean's films could ever dream of.
But those cars, derisively at first called Rice Rockets, came nonetheless to represent the current youth generation. I was on-the-air at Los Angeles' KTLA/TV5 reporting about cars and writing an automotive column for the Times-Mirror Syndicate when these cars were just coming of age.
And young people, starting in the 1980s, were no longer interested in the traditional hot rod; they wanted a signature car of their own generation. Hot rods, the domestic cars of the '50s and '60s with the big V8 engines, were now housed in collections owned by businessmen in their 50s and 60s.
And the ironic sad fact is that Walker's movies, the custom car magazines, even my own work encouraged the building and driving of these cars, on and off race tracks. There were and are no doubt serious wrecks involving these kinds of cars, with people hurt and even killed, but as in the days of the original hot rods, it was all considered the price we pay for our sport, the collateral damage casualties of a youth culture with the brains and the money to build an entirely new kind of car.
There's no doubt that cars, film, TV and youth culture -- and tragedy -- have traditionally been closely bound in America and that James Dean's and Paul Walker's young deaths only remind us of this.
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