HAYWARD — Kevin Nelson's first set of wheels didn't exactly turn a lot of heads.
"It was an Austin America," said the Hayward High alum, class of '71. "Possibly the worst car ever made. It was a British car, and whenever I really needed to get somewhere, it had a built-in electronic sensor that told it to not to start."
These days, the "strictly family man" rolls an SUV that he calls a "modified barn on wheels."
Don't let that fool you — Nelson is a car buff, and he has the book to prove it.
The Benicia-based author will be at the Hayward Area Historical Society Museum on Thursday evening to talk about "Wheels of Change," the story about how car culture thrived in California and how Californians, in turn, changed the automobile.
"That's a big subject," said Nelson, who has written 17 other books. "We ain't Iowa. There's nothing that happened with the automobile that didn't start in California, or if it didn't start here, reached its greatest flowering."
He's talking about cultural shifts: drive-in diners, drive-in movies, shopping malls, self-service gas stations. That's in addition to modifications to cars themselves, such as hot rods, low riders, convertibles and motor homes.
There's also the problematic offspring, such as the traffic jam, or the street race.
"There's something in the human soul which has a definite love of speed," Nelson said. "I think if we went back to Cro-Magnon man and found the first one to raise up his body and walk on two feet, he would have had a foot race against the next Cro-Magnon man to rise up."
While Nelson maintains that the car culture capital of the world is Southern California — what with Hollywood, automotive design studios, a large racing scene and the Beverly Hills luxury market — the spread of that culture was prevalent in the East Bay stomping grounds of his youth, and it goes back to before his time.
"There was a road, between Hayward and San Leandro, maybe it was Mission, maybe East 14th," he said. "It was an early speed racer course. This was back in the early 1900s — they would be racing their cars going about 35 mph down that road."
Nelson also fondly remembers what he calls "freedom, rebellion and romance" of automobiles, including fooling around in the Round Table Pizza parking lot in Hayward with a high school sweetheart.
"You know, kids hear about freedom in books, they read about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he said. "For teens, for many Americans, pursuing happiness often takes place behind the wheel of a car, or sometimes in the back seat — then you understand freedom in a real way."
Eric Kurhi covers Hayward. Reach him at 510-293-2473. Read our blog at www.ibabuzz.com/hayword.
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