John Elwell, San Diego County Lifeguard at Cardiff By The Sea with his 1932 Ford Phaeton, year 1952


In the rear “Tub” of my 1932 Ford Phaeton I kept my diving gear a French Arbelette spear, my fins and mask and sleeping bag. The surfboard is a custom made Simmons board. These were good, fine days of freedom and not many people on the beach and highways—days of Watermen who dove for food, swam, paddleboarded, surfed and who were always stoked to see each other, no matter where you came from.

The 1932 Ford Phaeton was the first V8 and the first real high performance peoples car after the Model T and the Model A series. Not many of them were made and they eventually became collector items. The name Phaeton was used since it was a two door convertible named after the Greek God Icarus’s mythical chariot for the ride to the sun. They became very popular with gangsters and bank robbers because they could out run the cops and easily shoot from the sides because they had no windows. They became popular with California hot rodders and were often modified to be faster and called “Tubs” after WWII. They are good looking and stylish and were relatively cheap to buy and restore in the late 1940s, and could be easily equipped with better engines and speed equipment. They could out run stock cop cars with inferior radio equipment. Street racing and reckless driving was common and a small growing problem for police. Surfers Dale Velzy and Bob Simmons were notorious offenders for speeding and reckless driving, and constantly being harassed by police with citations in their stripped down V8 hot rods.

These early cars were a favorite of surfers because you could load surfboards in them and on top of them. These early automobiles were the fore runners of off road vehicles because of their high suspension, and you could run on over-sized tires deflated on the beach sand. They were perfect for exploring Mexico in the early days for new surfing and skin diving spots. Gasoline in the late 30’s was 19 cents a gallon and surfers use to collect pennies for gas for surfing trips. After the war a gallon of gas was 25 cents and gradually kept rising with road taxes.

Those of us that lived near the beach body surfed and hung out at swimming pools and were called “pools rats”. We borrowed Tom Blake paddle boards to surf until the first light weight modern surfboards came out by Bob Simmons. My first lifeguard job was with the new State of California lifeguard system at Silver Strand State Park. Larger communities had city and county lifeguarding systems. I had transferred to the San Diego County Lifeguards and worked at Imperial Beach with Dempsey Holder and Captain Bill Rumsey.

Captain Rumsey transferred me to the Solana Beach County Lifeguard Headquarters for advanced training for higher responsibilities with mentor lifeguards and surfers at Del Mar, and then to Cardiff as the sole lifeguard for a two mile stretch of beach. Cardiff was a beautiful beach with a surfing and diving reef. It was just off highway 101 and had a small station, with a phone, a rescue buoy, first aid kit and binoculars and no vehicle. I had to use my own 1932 Ford Phaeton on occasion to patrol down to Seaside near Solana Beach and up to Swami Beach, a San Diego County Park. Only the new four wheel drive trucks were available at the headquarters for the brass and mobile emergencies.

Cardiff permitted beach camping, had good surf fishing, and surf boat launching for commercial skiffs. There were a few surfers in the area and they built a shack with palm frond leaves and leaned their heavy boards on it because they were too heavy to take home if you were a kid without a car. The surfboards were never stolen. The reef had a nice easy break and was easy to surf. Bob Simmons, who I surfed with at the Tijuana Sloughs in Imperial Beach would often come by. He was from Pasadena and Malibu and would visit and surf when he placed bets at the Del Mar Race Track during the summer race season for his family in a betting system he developed from a mathematical odds theory that was successful and allowed him to surf and not work. He later became an aero space engineer before he died surfing.

The Cardiff Beach area is low-lying and the sand gradually eroded through the years from beach erosion caused by large storms and likely global warming. Today there is a wall of rocks to help protect restaurant row and the Pacific Coast Highway, but during storm surf restaurant windows break, rip-rap and boulders get tossed out of place, and the area restaurants and Highway 101 get flooded. A California State Park was developed on the bluffs. Public parking is limited and the place is well attended to and overcrowded today. The old Light House Inn is gone as well as the popular restaurant George’s. The hills and valley behind Cardiff have been vastly developed with businesses and residential housing. Dealing with increasing human waste disposal into the sea is now a huge problem for the California beaches including Cardiff. But the surf in the area still gets very good due to its sandstone and cobble-stone rocky bottoms mixed with sand.

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