A huge car buff, James Powers’ collection of automobilia is so vast that it barely fits inside a 6,000-square-foot space packed with a treasure trove of his favorite must-have items.
At first glance, guests entering a former office building converted into an apartment are overwhelmed finding themselves surrounded by cars – about 3,000 of the model variety upstairs, along with other keepsakes, and dozens of classic, shiny automobiles in the garage below.
Visitors may have a look of wonder, struck by immediate curiosity and mind-boggling thoughts on just how did such a unique sight like this wind up in South Pasadena?
“For my own pleasure,” answered Powers, a former car designer, when asked why his collection of vehicles is so vast, quickly pointing out, “I’m an 85-year-old kid.”
Inside the unit in the 1500 block of Fair Oaks Avenue – directly across the street from South Pasadena Middle School – is much more than what could be called a mini-car museum. Along with the models and the 37 classic vehicles are a series of Retro-futuristic illustrations that ended up in the Smithsonian.
In addition, there are multiple products he designed after establishing an advertising firm, whose clients once included car dealers, RV manufacturers, toy makers and more.
His designs don’t stop with cars. Powers launched into radios, watches, shoes, cosmetics, you name it – even designing innovations for the late Bill Lear, maker of the famed Lear Jet.
Massive Collection of Items
Among his other collectables is an earthquake sensor or pendulum that leaves marks on a small pile of sand when a trembler is felt. A typewriter, used by news correspondents during World War I, sits neatly inside a display case. A device he designed in the 1970s recharging batteries in pacesetters for those receiving heart implants is also there.
Scattered throughout the place are a collection of miniature cars designed for kids that Powers reconverted into realistic, modern-looking vehicles. They’re still a favorite pastime of his to this day.
Asked when he first decided he wanted to become a car designer, Powers was quick to reply, “As soon as I found out there were car designers.”
In his youth, he was winning awards carving wooden cars. Model kits were not available back then, so Powers made them out of wood, and even designed and built a highly successful soapbox derby.
Later, during his formative years, he won a national scholarship award in the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild competition and used it to attend the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles before the institution moved to Pasadena. It was the place where most car designers honed their skill for a future in the industry.
Launching His Career
In 1955, Powers first met Alex Tremulis, the head of advanced design for the Ford Motor Company, who went to the Art Center on a recruiting mission. Soon Powers, a straight-A student, was off for Dearborn, Michigan where his illustrious career as an auto designer was underway.
A year later his illustrations, depicting transportation predictions of the future, began to show up in major periodicals and the originals were hung in Ford’s lobby area, in executive offices while attracting interest from the Smithsonian. Quickly building a reputation as young talent, Powers was asked to create concept models of a nuclear-powered car – the Nucleon – and a flying automobile, known as the Volante. The Smithsonian folks came calling again, later putting them on display.
Now on the fast track at Ford, Powers was promoted to the company’s production studio and contributed significantly to the features found in the early 1960 Galaxies, and if you’ve ever wondered who designed the sleek and sporty1961 Thunderbird, then look no further than Powers, the man responsible for its original concept.
He was named the manager of the Lincoln-Mercury Interiors Studio before departing Ford in 1964, heading west to Century City, missing the warmth of California, where he started his own product design and advertising firm, James Powers & Associates.
“I did not like the cold weather in Michigan,” said Powers, before showing one wall of his South Pasadena residence covered with laminated magazine ads from some of his big name clients including Gucci, Bulova, Max Factor, high fashion stores Joseph and I Magnin and cosmetic giant Merle Norman, in which he introduced a men’s line called Rogue.
A major breakthrough, Powers came up with and patented the flip-card clock back in the 1960s, an early prototype of today’s digital version. “My clients pretty much had the market to ourselves until some people found out ways to go around the patents,” explained Powers.
Before Nike came along, he designed a casual shoe for Keds, long the favorite sneaker in the 1950s and 1960s. “At the time, the only casual shoes were black and white tennis shoes, so we totally revolutionized the industry with that style of shoe,” he said. “Back in the day, Keds was the leading maker of those shoes.”
For Max Factor, Powers was credited with revolutionizing the engagement ring industry. In the late ‘60s and early 70s, “mostly all you could find were stones mounted between the bands,” Powers said. “There were some variation, but basically the stones were all set low. I came up with high-set stones above the bands.” Its concept eventually became one of the nation’s top sellers and photos of the ring designs are proudly hung at his office.
In another corner of his enclave, filled with many nooks and crannies, is a collection of the many trophies and awards he’s earned over the years.
A Smith & Williams Structure
Serving as both his office and home, Powers purchased the building 22 years ago, settling into a well-preserved Smith & Williams architecturally designed structure. He holds high appreciation for Whitney Roland Smith and Wayne Richard Williams, who contributed significantly to post-World War II mid-century Modernist architecture.
Together the award-winning architects designed more than 800 projects, from residential, commercial, public buildings, schools, and recreational facilities to housing tracts and multi-use complexes. Their architectural design was known for flat roofs, low ceilings and considerable use of glass.
His Wares are Featured in Movie
Some of Powers artwork of future car designs will be soon be showcased in an upcoming movie, “Ford Versus Ferrari,” that, described by Wikipedia, follows an eccentric, determined team of American engineers and designers, led by automotive visionary Carroll Shelby and his British driver, Ken Miles, who are dispatched by Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca with the mission of building the Ford GT40, a new racing car with the potential to finally defeat the perennially dominant Ferrari racing team at the 1996 24-hour Le Mans race in France.
The film stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale and is scheduled for release in mid-November by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. The film’s production crew interviewed Powers extensively at his home.
Wants to Live to 100
He claims he’s in his second life now after suffering three strokes, and now hopes to live to be 100. He said doctors didn’t expect him to come out of the last one, Powers saying his case was extremely rare after “they couldn’t get any significant brain activity.” Machines keeping him alive were going to be turned off, but Powers said his son talked them out of it.
Miraculously, he pulled through.
“They taught me how to walk and started teaching me words to begin to speak,” he said in a YouTube video. “Doctors say my case was extremely rare that I made the recovery I did.”
He walks around his apartment with metal hips and “a lot of other old man things,” he said with a laugh, “but I’ve have a good life.”
Living on the west side for 30 years, he made his way to South Pasadena more than two decades ago to store his perfectly maintained vehicles – all covered with protective plastic – along with thousands of model cars and other prized possessions squeezed under one roof.
“My broker brought me to this place, recalls Powers, and I said, ‘It has my name on it.’”
And South Pasadenan’s can be glad it did.