i Loves Balboa Park: Modern Electric Car Covers a Century of Motoring

Electric cars aren’t exactly taking over but the sight of one on the road is becoming more commonplace. Whether it’s a Nissan Leaf, a Car to Go rental or our test car this week, the Mitsubishi i, care for the environment and rising gas prices have put them on the streets.

All range anxiety aside, these are small cars that are fun to drive. The i handled like a typical gas-powered subcompact, the kind of car that excels on twisting, curving roads. Limited range means we get to explore nearby twists and curves. I guarantee that no matter where you live, there’s something close you haven’t explored that has curving streets and a cafe that’s just waiting for your first visit.

About all that’s left of Ford’s Roads of the Pacific exhibit.
About all that’s left of Ford’s Roads of the Pacific exhibit.

My home base is downtown San Diego, so what’s a better San Diego day trip a cruise to Balboa Park? And no regular tour of the park, but one that took me on a century-old road, across the golf course on a road I’d never driven before (believe it or not!), through a historic neighborhood and by one of the best sub shops in town. And there was even a charging station along the way.

For today’s route, head north on state Route 163 from downtown or Interstate 5. After passing under the historic Cabrillo Bridge, exit on Quince Street. Never taken Quince? It has a long history. Today, the 1946 overpass, which dates to the construction of the freeway, connects to what was once the access road to the valley floor. There was once a lake under the Cabrillo Bridge that disappeared when the freeway was built. That puts its construction date to somewhere around a century ago, as ground was broken in 1911 for the 1915 exposition.

Heading up century-old Quince Street extension.
Heading up century-old Quince Street extension.

The canyon access road appears on both 1915  and 1935 exposition maps. On the ’35 map, look for the Ford Building near the bottom; the twisting byway adjacent is Ford Motor Company’s Roads of the Pacific attraction (more on this later).

The Quince exit road twists up the side of the canyon, something the i really enjoyed. Small cars are generally great on curves. While this isn’t a sports car, it is fun to drive at lower speeds on curves, despite a bit of a lean and low-rolling-resistance tires, which don’t grip the road as well as more-sticky conventional tires.

Mitsubishi's i MiEV is small but won't go unnoticed.
Mitsubishi’s i MiEV is small but won’t go unnoticed.

This was once an onramp to SR-163 south as well, but if memory serves, it was closed in the 1970s, as was the onramp at Richmond Street, a bit north.

At the top of the hill is Balboa Drive, the park access road that runs through the Sixth Avenue side of the park. Cross the Cabrillo Bridge then head south through the Plaza de Panama, past the Spreckels Organ Pavilion to the Palisades area of the park, where most of the new construction came for the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition.

Here’s more auto history, present and past. In front of the San Diego Automotive Museum are several chargers and a brief charge for the i. I’d already seen the exhibit at the museum, so I took a short hike to remnants of “Roads of the Pacific,” part of the $1.5 million Ford exhibit at the 1935 fair that included the building that’s today’s San Diego Air and Space Museum.

Just to the building’s west are road cuts in the hill and some dirt-covered concrete pavement made to look like planks, which was the part of the ride. Visitors road in a swank Ford V-8 on a tour that took them through segments that evoked highways around the Pacific, including China’s Summer Palace Road, Japan’s Tokaido and the old plank road through our local desert. I was probably walking on the plank road segment.

Back in the i, we headed north to Morley Field Drive. Driving down the hill (picking up some juice with regenerative braking) to Florida Drive gives tourers a look at the park before development. Yes, it’s our native chaparral, making the fete of the original park builders ever more amazing. With fewer than 40,000 residents at the time, San Diegans raised $1 million in private capital and $1 million from voter-approved taxes to transform build the fair.

Sign from ’50s marks western portion of Balboa Park.
Sign from ’50s marks western portion of Balboa Park.

The southeast corner of the park is another jewel, with the Balboa Park Golf Course and Golden Hill rec center. I was expecting the hairpin turn from 26th Street to Golf Course Drive to just take me to the clubhouse, but it runs right through to 28th Street, the eastern boundary of the park. So here’s the road I’ve never been on before and it includes a couple of nice curves for the i to experience.

Along 28th Street are stately old homes built by bankers and leaders a century ago; many nicely restored by their current custodians. It’s a straight shot to state Route 94, but I stopped off at one of the best sub shops in San Diego, Giorgino’s Deli, 1237 28th St. Cheesesteaks, Italian sub sandwiches, pizza and other goodies are on the menu in this hole-in-the-wall cafe.

Owners of a Leaf or i generally have something else in the garage, probably an SUV. The electric vehicle – bought for trips and commuting – is a hidden jewel. Make it a fun day of driving and exploring your own nearby neighborhoods, whether it’s Balboa Park or something near you. ⚙

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 8 miles

Difficulty

  • Easy

Directions

  • SR-163 north to Quince Street.
  • Left at Balboa Park Drive.
  • Left at El Prado. Cross Cabrillo Bridge.
  • Continue through Plaza de Panama in park, exiting to the south. Continue into Pallisades parking lot. Park in front of San Diego Automotive Museum and San Diego Air and Space Museum. Remains of “Roads of the Pacific” are west of Air and Space Museum down the hill.
  • Continue on access road around Air and Space Museum.
  • Exit parking lot on Presidents’ Way.
  • Left at Park Boulevard.
  • Right at Morley Field Drive.
  • Left at 26th Street.
  • Left at Golf Course Drive.
  • Right at 28th Street to SR-94. Take SR-94 east to Interstate 5; east to I-805.

Websites

  • From July 2012

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