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Bear Manufacturing "Happy Bear" Signs

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The Bear Manufacturing Company was established in Rock Island, Illinois in 1917 as an auto luggage rack producer. The company used the slogan "Let Bear Lug Your Luggage." Although it is not known where the Bear name came from, it is thought that the animal was chosen to convey strength. A more realistic bear was used in early advertising. By the early 1920s, the company began producing wheel alignment tools. During this time, Bear developed the yellow, "Happy Bear" character which began appearing in print and signs across the country. The bear symbol indicated that auto shops had been trained by Bear and used Bear wheel alignment and diagnostic tools. By the late 1920s, the company was training mechanics from all over the country at its Rock Island headquarters. The training school was a popular destination for servicemen returning from World War II who were interested in learning a trade and starting their own businesses. In 1949, a Streamline Moderne building was constructed specifically for the Bear Automotive Safety Service School. At the time, the company was training around 1,000 mechanics annually. While the two neon bear signs are gone from the facade, the building still stands.

The "Happy Bear" is also referred to as the Laughing Bear or the Dancing Bear. The Grateful Dead rock band used the bear logo in the early 1970s. While the character was used without permission, Bear Manufacturing never pursued the band legally. Applied Power Industries bought Bear Manufacturing in 1970. The training school closed then or shortly thereafter. The Bear Automotive Service Equipment Company was sold several times until Bear products officially disappeared in 2009. However, many auto shops still display Bear signs whether they continue to use Bear equipment or not. Once ubiquitous, there are now only about three dozen of these signs on display in 11 states, with most of them in Southern California. Many of these owners will proudly show you other bear signs inside their bays or offices. For more, see this website.

Bolles Alignment Services
Lynwood, CA
After attending classes at Bear's school in Illinois, Virgel Bolles opened his first shop in Torrance (see below). In 1947, his younger brother, Wallace, opened Bolles' Alignment Services in Lynwood. This sign was built then. It originally had neon and the bear's animated mouth opened and closed. The panels are about 20 feet tall and are supported on two poles. When the sign was repainted around 2012, the owner made sure that the graphic matched vintage photos. These photos are from 2014. Typical of early Bear signs which often read "Line Up with Bear," his paws were hidden behind the text panels. When the sign was repainted, the misplaced apostrophe of "Bolle's" was also retained. While the lower panel originally read "Brake Service, Tire Truing - Balancing," it has read "Brake Service, Suspension Specialists" for decades. From the remaining paint, it is believed that the blue, yellow, and black paint scheme is original. According to David Bolles, the son of Wallace Bolles and current owner, replacing the neon would have been far too expensive. There was another bear sign on the lot which is now in storage. It was originally installed at Virgel Bolles' Torrance shop.

Bolles' Alignment still has the original Bear racks from 1947. Like other Bear shops built in the 1940s and 1950s, these racks extend over a sunken pit. This enables mechanics to have quick and easy access to vehicle undercarriages. None of the owners that I spoke with that still have these pits know of insurance company concerns about the dangers. The owners had no knowledge of accidents or lawsuits from people falling into the pits. [map]

Torrance
Auto Repair
Torrance, CA
Gardena Bear Wheel Alignment
Gardena, CA
Perfect Paint & Body
Los Angeles, CA
Monterey
Alignment Service
Rosemead, CA
Duran Auto Repair
Downey, CA
Torrance Auto Repair opened in 1944 as Virgel's Frame & Wheel Alignment. This was Virgel Bolles' first shop which operated out of Havel's Service Station. His shop was moved to this location around 1948. This sign is probably from then. By 1950, Virgel Bolles had opened a second shop in Hermosa Beach. I can't find any information about that shop. [map]

This Gardena Bear Wheel Alignment sign is probably from the late 1940s. It is very similar to the Vodie's sign in rove (see below). I suspect that this sign, the Perfect Paint sign, and the two Vodie's signs were built by the same sign shop around the same time. [map]

The Perfect Paint & Body sign is about 15 feet tall. It is probably from the late 1940s or 1950s. Perfect Paint opened here around 2001. The name of the alignment shop that was here originally is not known. In the late 1990s, the shop was known as the Modern Day Auto Center. At that time, the bear had not been painted over with brown paint. [map]

The Monterey Alignment sign reads "since 1946". This sign may be from then or from the 1950s. The shop was closed in 2017. [map]

Duran Auto Repair was previously known as Boulevard Brake Service. I don't know if that was the original business at this location. It was going by that name by 1969. The signs are probably from the 1950s. This photo is from 2012. By 2017, the business name had been changed to Multi Tires. [map]

Vodie's Wheel Alignment
Santa Ana, CA (now Pomona, CA)

Vodie's Alignment & Brakes
Garden Grove, CA
2013: 2015:
There were two Vodie's auto repair shops, both owned by Vodie Clemmons. Vodie and Virgel Bolles (see above) served together during World War II and then attended the Bear training classes in Rock Island, IL. Vodie's shops were built in the 1940s and these signs were installed then. The first photo of the sign at Vodie's Santa Ana location is from 2008. By the 2013 photo, the business was known as Guero's Auto Repair. In 2014, this sign was removed and is now part of the Museum of Neon Art collection. The sign is currently at the museum's warehouse in Pomona, CA. It will be restored at some point.

Vodie's Alignment & Brakes in Garden Grove has the original Bear-designed service pit. The shop and sign were built around 1946. In 2014, this sign was repainted. The neon was not restored. The owner of this location believes that there was another Vodie's in Compton, CA but I have not been able to find any evidence of it. It may have gone by a different name. [map]

VF Auto Sales
Bellflower, CA
Chet's Auto Repair
Long Beach, CA
B&D Wheel Alignment
Bellflower, CA
VF Auto Sales repainted this pre-existing sign for their car lot which opened around 2003. [map]

The Chet's Auto Repair sign has a patchwork of neon tubing holes. Chet hasn't worked at the shop since around the 1990s but the sign remains unchanged. This sign is probably from the 1950s. [map]

B&D Wheel Alignment opened in 1967. The original owner may have worked for Wallace Bolles. The original Bear alignment pit there is still in use. [map]

Bear Alignment & Brake Service
Corona, CA
The Bear Alignment & Brake Service sign is believed to be from 1955 when one of Virgel Bolles' employees struck out on his own and opened Corona Brake & Wheel. The sign was repainted and restored by Starr Sign Design of Corona in 2015 for about $8,000. It is the only Bear sign at an operating shop with functioning neon. This photo is from 2017. [map]

Ace 1 Auto Service
Covina, CA
Irvine's Wheel
Alignment [gone]
Harbor City, CA
Bear Safety Center
Oakland, CA
The Ace 1 Auto Service sign appears to be from the 1950s or 1960s. [map]

The Irvine's Wheel Alignment sign had a small version of the Happy Bear. The sign was probably from the 1950s or 1960s. The shop moved to its current location in the 1960s and brought this sign along. In 2017, the sign was removed.

This Bear Safety Center sign is probably from the 1950s or 1960s. [map]

Bear Frame & Wheel
Glendora, CA
Bear Frame & Wheel was built in 1962. The owner of this building built another location in Duarte, CA but it was a traditional rectangular box shape. This round building has the original sunken work pit and Bear alignment equipment. The last photo shows the upstairs office which has the original paneling. The vintage photos shown in the second row above are framed in the office. [map]

Autocraft Body Shop
Springfield, IL
Kinston
Wheel Alignment
Kinston, NC
Barnes Garage
Bedford, PA
Barton's Body Shop
Alpha, IL
The Autocraft Body Shop opened in 1948. This one-of-a-kind sign was created around the mid-1950s. It was built from two porcelain panel wall signs that had been inside the shop. The panels were painted and a steel "can" was built between them. The neon that was added then has not been lit since about the mid-1990s. Painted bear signs that were on the building in the mid-1960s are long gone. [map]

The Kinston Wheel Alignment sign was installed when the shop opened in 1952. [map]

This plastic, vacuum-formed sign at Barnes Garage is from the 1960s. These signs must have been mass-produced but this seems to be the only one left on public display. [map]

Barton's Body Shop opened in 1950. This sign is from 1965 when Barton's made an addition to the building. At that time, the shop added Bear racks and began offering Bear Alignment. [map]

Shorty's Bear Safety Service
Amarillo, TX
Campbell Automotive
Campbell, CA
Shorty's Bear Safety Service opened in 1960. Up until around 2013, there was a sign like the one in Springfield above with the flatter feet. This sign looks like it was put together with an aluminum "can" between the two flat panels like those on the building. [map]

The Campbell Automotive Bear sign appears to be a wooden sign. There were probably plastic panels here originally. The sign was covered up with a plastic sheet version around 2014. [map]

Clovis Safety Lane
Clovis, NM
Clovis Safety Lane is a full service repair garage. The shop opened in 1946. The pole sign outside is from around the mid-1950s. It never had neon. There are a couple of other Bear signs inside the shop. There is also some Bear equipment which is still in use. [map]

Zorn's Service
Ida, MI
Weldon's Tire Service
Yreka, CA
Cruz Tire
& Truck Repair
Banning, CA
Bear Manufacturing
Seattle, WA
B&B Frame
& Alignment
Yakima, WA
Zorn's Service features a rare, metal Happy Bear sign. The owner believes that the sign has been there since the early 1940s. Bear was definitely making hanging signs similar to this by the late 1940s. Many of these signs have been spiffed up with neon for collectors. I don't believe these signs were ever produced with neon originally. There have also been new reproductions of these signs made. [map]

Weldon's Tire Service opened in 1936. The shop has the same style sign as the one at Zorn's Service. Note the hanger above the bear's head. These signs are about four feet tall. According to the owner, the sign has been there since maybe the 1960s. [map]

Cruz Tire & Truck Repair has the same style bear sign as those in Ida and Yreka. It is installed on the roof. [map]

This Bear Manufacturing sign is installed in the window at Ball Graphics. This upper part of the sign was purchased at a swap meet and restored at a local sign shop. This sign is six and a half feet wide. [photo thanks Dennis Hicklin] [map]

B&B Frame & Alignment features a Bear Manufacturing sign. It appears to be from the 1950s. This photo is from 2015. I believe the shop is closed now. [map]

Moe Allen Auto Body Shop
Phoenix, AZ
The Moe Allen Auto Body Shop opened in Phoenix, Arizona in 1955. The pole sign and painted bears which flank the service bay have been there since then. The pole sign and "Moe Allen" letters on the building had neon originally. [map]

Jack's Auto Alignment & Brakes,
Phoenix, AZ
Jack's Auto Alignment & Brakes features a sunken pit and plastic sign. The company has another location in Glendale, AZ which also has a pit and bear sign. [map]

More "Happy Bear" Signs:
Long Beach, CA [map]
Campbellsville, KY
Corbin, KY [map]
Wolf Point, MT [map]
Holdrege, NE [map]
Brooklyn, NY [gone]
Naples, NY [map]
Philadelphia, PA
Childress, TX [map]
Seattle, WA
Toronto, ON [gone]

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