I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but there’s a giant bear on West Carson Street, east of Torrance.
The large animal stands guard atop a 35ft tall sign in front of Torrance Auto Repair on West Carson Street. It’s not the original name of the company, as it turns out. But, before we get to that, a word about what the happy yellow sea urchin character has to do with car repair.
Founded in 1917, The Bear Manufacturing Co. of Rock Island, Illinois began as a luggage manufacturer. In the early 1920s, the company expanded into manufacturing tools for aligning automobile wheels, adopting the bear symbol as its logo.
Seeing its equipment take hold in car garages, the company later created its own training school for mechanics, who then displayed the “happy bear” logo in their workshops to indicate that they had completed the specialized training in alignment. wheels.
With the increasing dominance of the automobile in the 1920s and 1930s, the bear school found itself training more and more mechanics. Virgel Bolles of Torrance was among those who took the course in the early 1940s.
Bolles then launched his first business in 1943, hanging a small bear sign at Virgel’s wheel alignment service at 1530 Cravens Ave., near Marcelina in downtown Torrance. He operated the specialty store as part of the Harvel gas station for five years.
In January 1948 Bolles opened his own much larger independent tire and wheel alignment shop, Virgel’s Torrance Bear Service, 1750 W. Carson St. Its most visually striking feature was the large sign near the street with a happy yellow bear holding a sign that reads “Virgel’s Wheel Alignment.”
Virgel’s bear sign wasn’t the only one. His brother, Wallace, had opened Bolles Alignment Services on Atlantic Avenue in Lynwood in 1947. This business is still in business as of this writing – and its sign still stands.
Gardena Bear Alignment Service also features a large happy bear sign, this one in a lighter brown hue. He remains standing at 13120 Crenshaw Blvd., outside the still-operating auto garage, now known simply as Gardena Bear.
About three dozen similar bear signs still exist, many of them in Southern California, according to the RoadsideArchitecture.com website. including Downey, Long Beach, Los Angeles and Rosemead. The Bear Manufacturing Co. was taken over by a larger company in 1970 and discontinued its training school shortly thereafter.
But the bear logo survived. The Grateful Dead even adapted the happy bear into their dancing bear logo in the 1970s. Bear Manufacturing was aware of the similarities between the two, but never took legal action against the band.
As for Virgel Bolles, he lived on 174th Street in North Torrance for decades. The Texas native was a founding member of the Torrance Mounted Police squad and served as its captain. After his death, his son Clem took over the management of the garage. He retired in 1989.
A few years later, in 1991, the beloved bear was seriously attacked by Torrance. It all started when then-owner Richard Errington applied to the city for a permit to attach a small neon sign advertising a brand of tires to the larger sign.
When city officials came to inspect the site, they found that the largest bear sign did not comply with sections of the city code governing signage passed in 1969. Among other things, it was way too high, 10 feet higher than allowed.
They argued that allowing such unregulated signs could lead to eyesore on city streets, with each company trying to outdo the other with bigger, garisher signs.
Inspectors suggested moving the garage sign or erecting a smaller one.
“We hope to find a solution,” a Department of Construction and Safety official told the Daily Breeze at the time. “I think everyone is in love with this bear.”
This city official was right. The threat to the bear sign has led to an outpouring of public support to keep it as it is despite the violations. Ultimately, the city relented and allowed the sign to remain.
The Torrance Bakery helped Errington celebrate his successful campaign to keep the sign by baking him a personalized cake with an image of the bear sign on it.
Since then the shop has changed hands and the original sign has been changed to read “Torrance Auto Repair” to reflect the current name of the business.
Sources: Daily Breeze Archives. “Happy Bear Signs,” by Debra Jane Selzer, SCA Journal, Fall 2017, vol. 35, No. 2. Los Angeles Times Archive. RoadsideArchitecture.com website. Torrance Press Herald Archive.