Circular Reasoning

Exploring the rationale for California Historical Landmark No. 939, otherwise known as Hubcap Ranch

Taken out of context, the humble hubcap is something to be contemplated, perhaps even meditated upon. At its most uninspired -- a circle revolving around a center -- it reflects the natural world, from the atom to the solar system; in its most complex manifestations, the hubcap resembles a postindustrial mandala, a geometric interpretation of man's eternal quest for wholeness, balance, and continuity. Consider, for a moment, the chaste simplicity of a 1950 Chrysler hubcap -- a disc of smooth, slightly burnished steel spinning around a signature as delicate as a spider's web -- or the 1966 Mustang, a tiny horse (a significant spiritual totem in every culture from the Celts to the Chinese) set in an ornate ring bordered by three blades in a circle of 10 triangles of alternating light and dark. In studying similar images repeated throughout world history, Carl Jungwrote, "The mandala's basic motif is the premonition of a center of personality, a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy." Certainly, if Jung had been presented with a pile of ancient hubcaps, he could not have overlooked the significance of the numbers 10 and three; nor could he have dismissed the divine aesthetic of the 1969 Lincoln Mark V, with its intricate array of tiny spokes arranged at varying angles like the heart of a sunflower; or the primal forces embodied by the 1963 Galaxie 500, with its pyramid of concentric circles culminating in three blades befitting a gladiator's chariot; or the stark simplicity of the 1957 Chevy, with its red badge of courage, so reminiscent of early Russian constructivism. Even the more modern hubcaps, while not made of such sturdy stuff, bear the hallmarks of human quest: the 1986 Cadillac, a chaotic bramble of spokes surrounding a wreath of olive leaves; the 1992 Oldsmobile Cutlass, a galactic whirlpool of silver that would look at home on the surface of Mars; the 1986 Saab 900, a golden circular cone orbited by a ring of small round shapes, evocative of numerous crop-circle formations of particular interest to proponents of sacred geometry.

I first noticed the satisfying form and variety of the common hubcap while walking by Rolling Stockon South Van Ness. From a distance, or in a passing car, the shiny array is just a pleasant, eye-catching adornment for Rolling Stock's chain-link fence, but up close the hubcaps reveal their unique personalities. I began to pay attention to other hubcaps, on parked cars, on stopped cars, sometimes on slow-moving cars. It wasn't a very good hobby, but I did begin to identify some patterns: Volvo is consistent and highly pragmatic, using narrow spokes that emanate from a center circular emblem without flourishes; Fordis more fanciful, often trying to suggest suns, flowers, windmills, and tick-tack-toe boards; but Dodgecaptures the best of both worlds, fashioning martial-style shields as well as more elegant and complex forms you might expect under the sea or drawn in colored sand by Tibetan monks. I tried to replicate one of these Dodge specimens -- a 1985 Caravelle -- on a piece of wood, but I am no painter. I came across Collie Ryan's work, full-color mandalas on the surfaces of old hubcaps, but as beautiful as they were, I thought the inner essence of the hubcap was mostly lost. In the end, I realized, all I really wanted was to spend one full day looking at and thinking about hubcaps, so I might move on.

California Historical Landmark No. 939, better known as Hubcap Ranch, is located in Pope Valley, just a short drive north of San Francisco. Road signs leading up to the site indicate proximity with a single, gleaming hubcap hanging from each pole, but there's no mistaking the ranch once you've arrived. Thousands upon thousands of hubcaps shimmer along fences surrounding the bottom 62 acres of the property, glinting in the sun, rattling in the wind, and offering a surprise to both drunk drivers and willful cows. Begun in the 1950s by Emanuel "Litto" Damonte, the Hubcap Ranch is a lovely sight.

The Hubcap King of Pope Valley originally came from Italy to cut marble for Hearst Castleand the Stanford Chapel, but he stayed to lay out all the sidewalks in the Sunset District. After finishing 48 avenues and the dividing wall along the Great Highway, Litto Damonte retired to the country. This was long before grapes had leveled the land and lowered the water table in Napa Valley; rivulets and creek beds still pocked all the ground west of Damonte's ranch. No one could avoid losing his hubcaps traveling across that terrain day in and day out; as a courtesy Damonte gathered up all the hubcaps and hung them along the outside of his fence so they might be reclaimed.

"Thing is," explains Mike Damonte, Litto's grandson and reigning regent for great-grandson Litto III, "people didn't take the hubcaps, they hung up more. Pretty soon, my grandfather was hanging hubcaps everywhere. He'd sit at the top of the driveway in his red hat, surrounded by his hubcaps, and people would come with salami and bottles of wine and they'd drink and laugh. He's what you would call a party guy."

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