Spending time around older cars, you realize that there were a lot of common items that anybody under the age of 25 hadn’t experienced unless they drive old cars on purpose.
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.
Bumper jacks were GM’s alternative to scissor-type jacks from other brands. Early versions had a giant hook that wrapped under the bumper, but that meant that any Ford-owning clod could use a bumper jack from a General Motors product.
Beginning around 1973, the jacks became GM-specific, with a small hook protrusion in the jack that mated to a vertical slot in the car’s bumper.
They worked great until the bumper inevitably rusted out three years after you bought the car.
In the 1960s when you bought a Ford product, instead of having a windshield washer bottle — which was glass up until the early 1960s — you got a rubber bag with a nozzle in the bottom.
Filled with blue liquid, it looked like ET’s colostomy bag.
When I took my son out in my 1978 Blazer for the first time, we drove around for a bit and he said “Dad, what’s that?” I couldn’t figure out what he was looking at, until I realized he’d NEVER SEEN A WINDOW CRANK.
These kids today.
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.
Stand at a gas pump for five minutes and you’ll witness a dozen people pulling into the gas station having no clue which side of the car the fuel filler was on.
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.
Floor Mounted Dimmer Switch
For most of the post-war era, the headlamp dimmer in American cars was located on the floor, so you could operate the high-beams without taking your hand off the wheel. Again, safety concerns moved the dimmer to the turn signal stalk, where Ford even experimented with putting the horn for a short period of time.
In an age of concern about distraction, a floor mounted dimmer switch might seem poised for a comeback, but they had one fatal flaw: their wiring was susceptible to salt tracked inside the car in the northern areas of the United States, where snow falls.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the thought was that most people weren’t even wearing lap belts, so why bother coming up with a shoulder belt that would require a complicated mechanism and would block access to the rear seat?
Manufacturers wanted offer the option, though, so they folded them up and suspended them from the headliner with spring clips. The shoulder belt would then attach to one side of the lap belt buckle via a slot cut in the shoulder belt buckle, and a post on the lap belt buckle.
Once manufacturers decided that people dying in their cars was bad for public relations, they tried encouraging passengers to buckle up. Prior to mandatory seat belt laws and airbags, many manufacturers experimented with motorized shoulder belts that proved to be the most annoying safety “feature” since the FASTEN SEAT BELT buzzer.
Manufacturers like Honda allowed a buckle so that you could disable it, leaving the motor mechanism to impotently shuttle from one end of the door opening to another.
I posted this picture of the original radio from my ’79 Blazer on my Facebook page the other day, and somebody thought it was a cassette player because of the row of five buttons between the knobs. I had to explain that those were manual memory presets.
You’d dial in the station of your choice, pull out one of five buttons and push it all the way back in to set the station. It worked exactly as well as the various schemes to save stations in memory today.
Back when we weren’t so concerned with aerodynamics, we used to equip cars and trucks with vent windows that would provide a little fresh air in the car, without opening the entire window. Some simply pushed open, some — like this 1966 Impala SS — cranked open, and some even lowered into the door.
For a long time, every automotive dashboard looked pretty much identical, with the radio, the heat controls and everything else in the same spot.
In the 1970s, we went a little crazy with placement of stuff, ending in a crescendo in 1980, when the Chevrolet Citation arrived with the radio turned on its side.
It was literally the same radio you’d get in any other 1980 GM product, but somebody went to the expense of screen printing the numerals for the indicator vertically, rather than horizontally. They were ostensibly placed this way to save space, but the radio and heat controls took up exactly the same amount of space going up and down as they would sideways.