It’s hard to picture what today’s teenagers will wax nostalgic about 30 years from now when they reminisce about their first car. (It still required gasoline, perhaps?) Who knows how automobiles will change in the future; what we do know is how different they are today from 30 or more years ago. If you fondly remember being surrounded by two or three tons of solid Detroit steel with a whip antenna on the front from which you could tie a raccoon tail or adorn with an orange Union 76 ball, and enough leg room that you didn’t suffer from phlebitis on long road trips, then you might also miss a few of these.
1. BENCH SEATS
The last American production model car to offer a bench seat in the front, the Chevy Impala, will cease doing so after this year. Back before seat belts were even included in cars—much less mandatory to wear—three passengers could fit comfortably in the front of most cars, or four if one was a child or a skinny relative. Many sly males took advantage of the seat design while driving with a female companion; a quick, unexpected sharp turn made with his right arm resting on the seat back sent the lady sliding right into his embrace.
Tailfins were the brainchild of General Motors design chief Harley Earl. The first fins appeared on the 1948 Cadillac, inspired by the WWII Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter plane. By the late 1950s, most folks had shrugged off the war and were fixated instead on all things space-age. Tailfins grew to enormous proportions, giving cars a futuristic look.
Ashtrays were commonly found in the dashboard (along with an electric lighter), mounted on the back of the front seat, and in the armrests on opposite sides of the back seat. Even if you weren’t a smoker, the tray in the dash was handy for storing coins, and the rear ones were handy receptacles for candy wrappers and discarded chewing gum. If you want an ashtray in your new car, ask for the Smoker’s Package.
At some point in the 1950s, automotive manufacturers realized that the flat surface inside the glovebox was a perfect place to put a piping hot cup of coffee.
Of course, the idea was that you were supposed to enjoy it while the car was parked at a scenic overlook, not barrelling down the highway at 72 miles an hour on bias-ply tires and dodgy brakes.
It only took two or three generations of automotive design to realize that a ceramic cup perched delicately inside a 1/4-inch depression in the sheetmetal of a glovebox lid wasn’t a suitable place to put scalding hot liquids.
5. FULL-SIZE SPARE TIRE
The advantage with a full-size spare was that you could put it on, stow the flat tire in your trunk, and go on your merry way with no particular urgency to get it repaired (unlike today’s donuts, which are designed to be used for limited distances at speeds under 50 miles per hour). The disadvantage was that sometimes you went on your merry way for many months … until one day you got another puncture, only to discover that the tire in your trunk was just as flat as the one on the axle.
6. Hideaway Headlamps
In the USA, from the 1950s right through the 1970s, there was one headlamp design: Round. You either got two or four.
In order to give cars a cleaner, more distinctive appearance, automotive designers started putting the headlamps behind doors that looked like the grille. Most headlamps either operated electrically, or via vacuum, siphoned off of the power brake booster. In at least one instance — the Opel GT — the hidden headlamps were operated manually via a giant lever under the dash.
In the 1960s and 1970s, unique, more aerodynamic headlamp designs were offered around the world, but in the parochial United States, we stuck with horrible sealed beams until well into the 1980s.
In the 1990s, when the DOT finally caught up to lighting developments introduced when Nixon was still president, the era of the hideaway headlight came to an end.
7. VENT WINDOWS
Vent or “wing” windows were popular in the pre-air conditioning era of automotive manufacturing. But they were convenient for many purposes that are still valid today. For example, on those days when it’s temperate enough to open windows rather than run the A/C, the vent windows allowed air to circulate freely without blowing street grime in your face and messing your hair. Smokers also appreciated being able to flick their ashes out the “no-draft” without the fear of them flying back inside the vehicle.
8. HORN RINGS
Horn rings were originally considered a safety feature as well as a convenience device. Previously, the driver had to completely remove one hand from the steering wheel to depress the button in the center to honk the horn. The horn ring was designed so that both hands could remain on the wheel and just a stretch of a finger or thumb would be able to beep a warning sound. As driver side airbags started entering the market, horn activation was relocated to a button in the steering wheel spokes.
9. Rear-Mounted Fuel Fillers
That wasn’t a problem until the 1980s, because most fuel fillers were located in the middle of the car’s rear valence, or hidden behind the license plate, or a door on the rear fascia. A few notable exceptions included the Dodge Charger, which had a spring-loaded, chromed cap that sat on top of the left rear fender.
Fuel fillers moved to either side of the car in the 1990s. The idea was that center-mounted fuel fillers made the fuel tanks more vulnerable to fire if the car was rear-ended.
We’ve replaced the convenience of center mounted fuel fillers with a tiny arrow on the fuel gauge indicating the location of the filler.
10. “SUICIDE” DOORS
Rear-hinged doors got their macabre name in the pre-seat belt era; if such a door wasn’t closed tight while the car was in motion, the road wind would fling it wide open and the passenger would most likely be tossed to the pavement. But they were popular for quite a while up until the 1960s because of the convenience—there was no pillar separating the front and back seats when both side doors were opened, so there was plenty of room to daintily climb inside (especially in a time when women regularly wore dresses and high heels).
11. CONTROL KNOBS
Texting and driving is certainly dangerous, but what about having to read a touch-screen or take your eyes from the road to find the tiny button that controls your defroster/radio station/air conditioning? How much easier it used to be with nice, solid knobs and levers that you either pulled, pushed, slid or twirled, and which were always pretty much in the same place in every car? You could keep your eyes on the road and somehow your right hand instinctively knew which knob was the radio volume and how far to slide the lever to get more heat.
Tell us about your automotive memories, from riding backwards in the rearmost seat of the family station wagon to listening to Frampton Comes Alive on the 8-track player to having a separate key for the trunk!