There are three make-or-break turns in California. One is Dead Man’s Curve, on West Sunset Boulevard. Another is the Corkscrew, at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The third, in Pasadena, is Camera Corner, the 107-degree right from South Orange Grove Boulevard to West Colorado that a Rose Parade float driver must negotiate — blind. Slowing down will slosh thousands of gallons of water or make acrobats quiver. Stopping is a disgrace. Over more than a century — longer than the Indianapolis 500 — the Pasadena Tournament of Roses parade has evolved into a car culture like no other.
New Year’s Day 1890: To promote the “Mediterranean of the West,” members of Pasadena’s Valley Hunt Club adorn their horse-drawn carriages with strands of blossoms and promenade along a dirt road scattered with rose petals. A day of contests and races follows. The affair is eventually expanded with the addition of the Rose Bowl football game in 1902 and the first naming of a queen and her court of princesses in 1905.
1901: Five cars, including Robert Gaylord’s Milwaukee Steamer, the first automobile in Pasadena, join the parade.
1905: The first automotive float is Harry Zier’s car, so thoroughly covered with carnations that “not a bit of running gear was visible.”
1908: The parade’s signature feature, the self-propelled low-slung float, begins its evolution as a unique automotive device. The City of Redondo Beach enters a forty-one-foot whale that spouts carnation-scented perfume twenty-five feet into the air and spurts water from its mouth. A simpler float from a local car dealer is shown below.
1920: The end of horse-drawn floats.
1924: Judging in the electric-car class ends.
1929: Designer Isabella Coleman perfects the contemporary float, with more naturalistic design cues and the powertrain and chassis nestled inside. Coleman would go on to create 250 award-winning floats.
1935: Pasadena police chief Charles H. Kelly rides in a splendid Pierce-Arrow roadster.
1950: The Edison Company’s Mississippi riverboat features an intercom — quite helpful since modern float drivers sit blind in their compartment and receive instructions from one or more observers.
1952: Uptown Chevrolet’s float, “It’s Great to Be a Champion,” features Soap Box Derby racers who glide down an incline, are pulled back up, and glide down again. Because float decorations must be made of natural materials, this float’s inclined “road” is made of 200 gallons of ripe olives.
1963: The state of Indiana’s “Memorable Moments in Indiana” presents a replica of Rodger Ward’s Indy 500-winning roadster, with the two-time race-winning driver taking his slowest victory lap.
1973: Occidental Life’s “Premiere” depicts four grandiose limos, one of them bearing movie star James Coco, arriving under floodlit skies at the premiere of Man of La Mancha.
1978: “Grand Prix,” by the City of Long Beach, “captures the thrills of its famous road race.” Murals of events in the 1977 edition of the race, inset on the white speed streaks extending from the cars, are created from 400 varieties of leaves, seeds, and petals.
1993: Television coverage spurs larger and more complex floats, like General Motors’ “Entertainment on Wheels.” It confuses onlookers by mixing a racing car’s body with an enormous retractable circuit board. Members of Team Rollerblade further cloud the message in an effort that was period-perfect for GM.
1999: The City of Duarte/City of Hope’s “Life’s Celebrations” attempts the world half-mile course record for its class at Irwindale Speedway — not a highly contested category before or since — and succeeds when it averages 16.94 mph on a lap.
2008: Honda’s “Passport to the Future” lifts a bedecked Ridgeline replica, which transforms into a spaceship. Honda can only wish that the Ridgeline’s sales had followed such a trajectory. Honda has run thirty-six floats in the Rose Parade since 1977 and now sponsors it.
2011: Honda’s “A World of Dreams,” features a hybrid powertrain.
Coming in 2012: Surfing dogs
Dick Van Patten’s Natural Balance Pet Foods will attempt to run the longest and heaviest-ever single-unit float this year. “Surf’s Up” (seen under construction, above) will have a wave machine that will push surfing dogs on a seventy-foot ride in the 10,000-gallon pool.
Builder Fiesta Parade Floats, with contributions from Roush Industries
Engine 6.8-liter Ford V-10, 362 hp, 457 lb-ft (Diesel power is prohibited by the parade rule book.)
Transmission Ford F-series SuperDuty 6-speed automatic
L x w x H 115 x 18 x 26 ft (Height is limited to 16 feet 6 inches in order to clear traffic signals and obstacles on the trip to and from the 5.5-mile parade route, but extensions can increase height for the parade.)
Weight 120,000 lb
Fuel capacity 50 gallons (Typical total consumption is about 30 gallons.)
Chassis construction Massive I-beams and welded box sections to support steel- and welded-wire bodies
Brakes Compressed air
Steering From forklifts or other industrial equipment; a high-output power-steering pump pushes fluid through 3/8-inch lines
Wheels and Tires Twenty-two wheels, pneumatic tires (Some floats feature solid or foam-filled tires.)
Spartan accommodations include an unpadded seat and a heat sensor to warn if the compartment’s temperature exceeds the allowable maximum of 120 degrees. Parade rules say that upon hearing the fire alarm, the driver must be able to stop the float, kill power, and exit his compartment within 45 seconds.
Has an emergency brake for front wheels