Last time we talked about early lighting systems and the invention of the electric starter/generator/battery systems. All found in researching why early cars used 6-volt electrical systems. As promised, we will go on from there. Once gas powered cars had an electrical system all sorts of electrical gadgets could be thought up. But one accessary that even predated the electric
light was the horn or Klaxon (comes from the Greek word “to shriek”). I don’t recall ever seeing a horse drawn carriage having a horn, not even a hand operated “OOGGA” horn. Even today driving around south eastern Pennsylvania with Mennonite and Amish buggies I see battery operated lighting systems but no horn. I suppose at the speed of a trotting horse “shrieking” to announce your presence isn’t needed. The first electric Klaxon horn in a car was 1908, just two years ahead of the
Cadillac electric starting systems.

Two other lighting features that we all rely on are turn signals and brakes lights. Let’s start with turn signals. Most of us are old enough to remember taking Drivers Ed and learning to use hand signals for turning. In driving my MG I still use them if I have someone behind me that seems to want to get so close they are about to kiss my exposed gas tank!!. The turn signal lamp in that car is a 5-watt bulb. That’s as bright as one Christmas tree light. The earliest mention of a lighted turn signal system was offered by a third-party company, The Protex Safety Signal Co offered blinking turn signal lights in 1920. The first manufacturer to offer them was Buick in 1938 but only on the rear of the car. There was an interesting attempt to solve the problem in 1916 when C. H. Thomas of Norristown, PA wrote a letter to Popular Mechanics describing an electric light bulb attached to a glove so hand signals could be seen at night. Yes, I’m thinking about it.

Interestingly Europe went another direction, Semaphores. The English Austin was the first to introduce this. When the driver turned the wheel, a small arm dropped down from the B pillar (the post between the doors of a car). Some were just the arm and some had little flags. Also known as Traficators they may still be used but the last one I’ve seen was an early pre 1960 Volkswagen that was built for the European market.

Strangely enough the federal government did not require turn signals until 1965! By that time almost all auto makers had them as standard equipment. But into the 50’s many cars did not have them, and I remember as a child riding in many cars that had third party turn signals. Brake lights weren’t needed when you drove down a rutted dirt road with no other car around. But if you’ve seen clips of early city traffic you can see the advantage.

The first brake light appeared in 1905 and by 1928 11 states required them. But these were a single light. Dual brake lights seem to have been widely introduced in the early forties, but I can’t find anywhere that states when it was required. One blog I visited said a 1949 Crossley had one light. The third brake light was introduced in 1985.

Bumpers were offered by third parties as early as 1922 They were advertised as cheap collision insurance. Within two to three years, they were offered by American manufacturers. Windshield wipers were first developed by third parties. First, they were bolt on systems that were hand cranked. From there the system was mounted to the vacuum of the intake manifold. All of us
have had experience with those systems. Under a load you lose vacuum and the wiper stops! Why not electric? Perhaps here is a case of too much draw on a 6-volt system.

The rear view mirror. I have 5 of them on that old MG. (I refer to that car quite often but even though it’s a 1954, the level of technology in it is actually 1930’s. So, it can be used as an example) Most cars have at least three and now a backup camera. The first recorded use of a rear-view mirror was in the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911. The winner, Ray Harroun driving a Marmon Wasp could drive the car alone while other drivers need another person in the car to tell them what was happening behind them. In 1912 Marmon Auto Co. put rear view mirrors in all their cars.
And here is a list of first in the auto accessories:

  • 1914 Maxwell offered the first adjustable driver’s seat.
  • 1914 Studebaker was the first to offer an in-dash gas gauge
  • 1923 Springfield was the first car to offer a radio!
  • 1928 Studebaker had an optional windshield defroster and in 1937 offered a windshield washer.

That 54 MG does have adjustable seats but none of the other three features.

This could go on forever, but I’ll close with a list of accessories that never became standard
equipment in a car.

  • Exterior Sun Visors – still see them on tractor trailers. They must have lowered your gas mileage by 2 MPG but at 10 cents a gallon for gas who cared?
  • Suicide knobs – When I grew up the local auto parts store had a 4ft display of them in the window. Other names for this knob include, necker, granny, knuckle buster, and wheel spinner. Haven’t seen one in years.
  • Curb Feelers – You just had to have them in the 50’s. Otherwise your ‘48 Merc wouldn’t look right.
  • Fender Skirts – Look out, They are coming back!
  • Continental Kits – Really big in the 50”. I saw a “57 Merc with a continental kit at a car show. I asked the owner how long the car was? He said 24 feet. That’s two feet longer than a normal garage!
  • Power radio antenna – Remember the ’60 dodges with those big wing rear fenders each with a swept back power antenna. It just screamed MACHO. Today you get a hockey puck on the roof.

We have gone through the evolution of what we know as the automobile. This morning I read that car production is being hampered by a shortage of microchips. Remember that magneto ignition system? Its been replaced by a Fuel Management Computer System. The springs and shocks have been replaced by a Ride Management System that not only offers suspension change options but can change the shift range of the 8 gears in the automatic transmission. It can park itself and now I see ads for a car that drives itself in and out of the garage! It’s not a car, it’s a Computer Controlled Electro-Mechanical Transport System.

Maybe that’s why Maggie, the 54 MG, appeals to me. It’s simple.