Bear Manufacturing "Happy Bear" Signs (page 1)

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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.

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]

Auto Repair
Torrance, CA
Gardena Bear Wheel Alignment
Gardena, CA
Perfect Paint & Body
Los Angeles, 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]

Alignment Service
Rosemead, CA
Steven Luzzi
Downey, CA
Wheel & Frame
East Los Angeles, CA
The Monterey Alignment sign reads "since 1946". This sign may be from then or from the 1950s. The shop was closed in 2017. [map]

This bear sign in Downey is installed on top of the Steven Luzzi Automotive main text sign. The bear has been there since at least 2007 and there have been various auto shops at this location over the years. [map]

The bear sign in East Los Angeles has been at Johnny's Wheel & Frame since at least 2007. [map]

former Duran Auto Repair
Downey, CA
2012: 2019:
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. Around 2017, the business name had been changed to Multi Tires and the sign was repainted. [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. I believe this location has been closed since around 2022 and the sign has faded quite a bit. [map]

Wheel Alignment & Brake
Long Beach, CA
VF Auto Sales
Bellflower, CA
B&D Wheel Alignment
Bellflower, CA
Miller's Wheel Alignment & Brake was established in 1946. The sign might be from then or possibly the 1950s. It was repainted in 2016. [map]

VF Auto Sales repainted this pre-existing sign for their car lot which opened around 2003. [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]

Chet's Auto Repair
Long Beach, CA
2013: 2022:
The Chet's Auto Repair sign has a patchwork of neon tubing holes. Chet hadn't worked at the shop since around the 1990s but the sign remained unchanged. This sign is probably from the 1950s. In 2022, the business became DeLeon Auto Repair and Transmissions and the sign was repainted. [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. The text panels were repainted around 2022 but the bear remains the same. [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]

Bear Signs
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