If you think back far enough (assuming you’re old enough to remember any of these) then you will remember some of these long-forgotten features from popular cars of yesteryear. These are sure to take you back to a different time and place, so enjoy at your own leisure. Check out all 25!
25. The “Wrist Twist” Steering Control System
The product of some of the most wildly optimistic 1960s design, the Wrist Twist steering control system is an old car feature that looks outlandishly futuristic even today. Designed by a former missile engineer, the Wrist Twist replaced a conventional steering wheel with two smaller rings mounted on a vertical yolk and able to be operated either together or independently. Despite the odd look, the Wrist Twist offered some huge advantages: the driver had finer control over the vehicle, the steering mechanism required less force to operate, and the less obtrusive design improved both comfort and stability. While the Wrist Twist never made it to the road, we may see something like it in the future.
24. On board Record Players
If introduced now, the on board record player would be the absolute delight of hipsters everywhere. A stunningly classy yet retro touch, the idea of an on board record player was introduced by the Chrysler motor company back in the 1950s. A mini record player mounted inside the dashboard beneath the AM radio could be used to play specially made mini-records. Connected to the radio, the entire passenger cabin could enjoy the music as they rolled along through the newly developed suburbs and interstate highways of ninteen-fifty-something-America. However, specialty record sizes are difficult to sell to consumers, and the whole idea eventually faded away.
23. Glove Box Mini Bars
This may be the most amazingly 1950s idea short of the hula hoop. It’s also a shockingly bad one, judged by 21st century standards.
Via the miracle of Mad Men, we all know that the 1950s were one extended cocktail party. So with that in mind, some enterprising designers at Cadillac decided to take the show on the road by mounting a mini bar in the glovebox as a standard feature on the 1957 Eldorado Brougham.It was a clever design, too, with decanters and glassware mounting magnetically to the bottom and sides of the glovebox. Further magnetic mounts were provided elsewhere, to hold one’s drink steady during the commute home. This is one idea we do not anticipate seeing revived anytime soon. Don’t drink and drive.
22. Iter Avto—the Great Grandfather of GPS Navigation
GPS—the near-magical system of satellites that guide us on the path to glory, or at least our next desitnation—are a recent innovation. However, getting lost on the road is as old as time, and Iter Avro was an attempt to keep us driving right.
It worked like an old player piano, with long scrolls of paper mapping out the route. Rolling out under a screen mounted on the dashboard, the whole mechanism was connected to the drive train in order to scroll in real time and show the driver their more or less exact position. From what we gather, it actually worked fairly well—if you don’t mind carrying a stack of scrolls in your trunk like a 13th century monk on his way to visit Tucson.
21. Automatic Chin Alarm
Bear with us; this one gets a little weird.Drivers fall asleep at the wheel, and the results are often tragic. No on disputes this. However, back in the bygone era of the 1930s the solution was less “get plenty of sleep, skip that third whiskey sour, and pull over if you get tired” and more “build a gizmo to keep drivers awake, dammit.” Thus the chin alarm was born.It’s simple in design: a small electrical buzzer or bell is attached to the front of the driver’s clothing. If his or her chin drops, the alarm sounds and the buzzer . . . buzzes, thereby waking the driver and getting their eyes back on the road.
Did it work? How many were made? We have no idea, but we can say that ideas about safety have evolved quite a bit over the years.
20. Dog Sacks
The name sounds a bit dirtier than it actually is, but automotive dog sack is the kind of invention that brings animal rights activists screaming out of the treeline—and for good reason.
America loves cars, and America loves dogs. What America does not love, however, is hair on the backseat and a puppy-related cleanup accident within the vehicle. The solution, per the amazing logic of the year 1936, was the dog sack. A canvas sack that attached to the outside of the car—on the running board at the bottom and the lower part of an open window at the top. The dog was placed in the dog sack, and off you went with man’s best friend. They even provided an air hole, so the pup could stick its head out and enjoy the sights and smells of the road.
So why didn’t this catch on? Do you . . . are you seriously asking us to explain that?
19. Skull License Plates
Upon reading that header, a particular class of teenager got really excited, their heads filled with visions of metal bands, pirates, or dark magic. The reality is dark, all right, but not quite in a way that might bring joy to the adolescent heart.
The idea behind skull license plates was simple: public shaming. The plan originated in 1930s (of course) Memphis, Tennessee (should have seen that coming, too). They would be awarded to chronically bad drivers, with the license plate design incorporating a skull-and-crossbones symbol with the title “Traffic Law Violator” displayed for all to see. The idea was scrapped, we hope, in favor of just revoking driver’s licenses instead.
18. Wire Recorder Data Management
Ok, “data management” is a term that would have made a mid-century grammarian vomit into her petunias, but this one is an idea well ahead of its time. Once again, a simple idea with a rather clever implementation: an electronic voice recorder mounted in the cab of the vehicle, powered by 110-volts supplied via a “war surplus converter mounted in the trunk”. Apparently marketed for photographers or reporters who were doing work in the field, the idea was that the on-the-go media professional could record their initial notes, impressions, and ideas either on-site or while en-route elsewhere. It’s a pretty slick design, and it’s a shame that we don’t see more of these in film noir detective mysteries.
17. Everything About the MIDGET German Car
The 1950s were a hell of a time for Germany. Rebuilding from the Second World War pushed the country to both re-asses its values and re-establish its place in the global engineering world. The MIDGET, released around 1957, is chock-full of features only the Teutonic mind would come up with.
A tiny car, the MIDGET somehow managed to seat four people—by having them sit back to back. Protip: backward-facing seating has a lot of advantages, but it never seems to catch on. Folks like to look where they’re going. While priced to move at $750.00, the small size, unusual cab design, and reputation for structural instability (50 mph put the whole cab in the crumple zone) kept this baby from becoming a giant.
16. Spherical Drive Wheels
This is another one that requires a bit of explanation. Back in 1937 (surprise, surprise) a French automotive designer went a little off the rails and decided to experiment with a truly out of the box design for an automobile. While the cab was supported by two wheels, with a third added for steering much like for-mounted rudder, the powerhouse of this thing is the motorized semi-sphere at the back. That half-globe spins, apparently quite fast, and pushes the whole thing forward. There are no gears—rather, you control the speed by adjusting the angle at which the semi-sphere meets the road. Sadly we don’t know if this technology went much of anywhere, but we wouldn’t be surprised if some military or other didn’t grab onto it. Keep an eye out for the war-spheres, kids.
15. Seating for 12 Passengers
We’ve all joked about excessively large SUVs, or referred to mini-vans as “land yachts”. However, our meager 21st century aspirations fail compared to the complete excess found in the 1950s American dream. Embracing our national motto (“Bigger is Better”) to the fullest, this monster of a station wagon is actually a hearse re-configured to hold 12 passengers comfortably within its whopping 21 foot length. All the features that made the cars of the 1950s great are in evidence: two-tone leather, wood paneling, and a “completely fitted beverage cabinet” so you can mix the cocktail you’ll need to get over being a living person inside of a redesigned hearse.
14. Bullet Bouncers
While actual crime is down in the US, concerns about crime are always on the rise. Combine this with our national love of action movies, and something like the bullet bouncer became inevitable.
The concept is simple, brutal, and vaguely dystopian: quarter-inch thick steel plates mounted over the windshields are angled such that during the high-speed chases with bootleggers and mobsters Hollywood thinks dominated the first half of the 20th century. To provide visibility, shuttered windows are fitted on either side of the device. Where they popular? We know they were used by the San Francisco Police Department for a while, but that’s all. The actual numbers issued and how well they performed remained a mystery.
13. Roller Safety Devices—For Sweeping Fallen Pedestrians
Take a guess which decade gave us this great idea. Go ahead—we’ll wait.Yes, it the 30s. Specifically 1931.
We can’t mock this too much—the idea was to save lives. If an accident look inevitable, the driver deployed a device consisting of a “grooved roller”, which was mounted on an arm extending forward from the vehicle. Described as “geared to the engine” we have to assume it rotated fairly quickly in an attempt to sweep the fallen pedestrian in front of the truck rather than letting them be crushed by the hand-carved 1930s rubber tires supporting thousands of pounds of steel.
12. Front and Rear Steering
In days of old, when men were real men, women were real women, and automotive engineers of either gender were real automotive engineers, no idea was off the table, no thinking too far out of the box. These brave times gave us some fairly silly ideas, but every now and then you get a gem like this.
Dispensing with the traditional four wheel square design, this car, described as “European” arranges its wheels in a diamond shape. The two in the middle supply drive, powered as directly from the engine, and the for and aft wheels. The advantages—tight cornering and better control—are obvious. Alas, this idea didn’t seem to break through to the mainstream.
11. Retro Humanistic Driver’s Warning Signals
It’s strange to look back at now-commonplace technology through the eyes of those who saw it brand new. This warning device—designed to warn the driver behind you of an unexpected stop—is a perfect example-in-point. Hand shaped—rather than our brake lights or hazard flashers—it reflects a world slowly getting used to the omnipresence of machines. We vote to bring it back based on that alone. From there, the best part is the description of the technology used: “a glass tube containing neon at a pressure much below the atmosphere” which glows red when subjected to electric current.
That’s a beautiful 1920s description of how then-brand-new neon lighting works, and for that alone we’d consider this snippet worthy of being on our list.
10. Radio-Powered Automobiles
The period before the Great Depression was one of unbridled optimism in the shiny new future offered by technology, and this particular automotive feature is the distilled essence of that dream.
The Marmon Motor Car Company had an idea: replacing petrochemical based fuels—which burn rather well during accidents and create vast amounts of smog—with a cleaner electrical engine. But how to get the power to the motor in an age when batteries were large and cumbersome? Well, stealing a page from Nikola Telsa, the folks at Marmon decided to make cars radio-powered. Large radio transmitters would broadcast day and night, and the powerful transmissions would be captured by converters mounted in each automobile and then transformed into usable power. With the demand for green technology on the rise, maybe it’s time we took another look at this one.
9. Vehicles Designed for the Disabled
We like to think we’re more advanced, more progressive, more forward-thinking. We like to think we care more. And sometimes we’re wrong.
In the wake of the Second World War, thousands of Americans came home with permanent damage from their wartime service. Missing limbs were common, making it difficult to operate the vehicles of the day. Faced with this problem, Edward Atkins of Palo Alto, California, designed a solution. The Vetmobile was built from obsolete aircraft parts, and featured a whole host of design considerations for disabled vets. Hydraulic jacks made changing tires easy, while specially designed steering mechanisms gave drivers many options in terms of handling. Not much is known about Mr. Atkins, but just for thinking about our disabled G.I.s he’s a hero in our book.
8. DIY Turn Signals
We’re really used to thinking of turn signals as a standard feature—if an under-used one. They’re required by law, right? And always have been? Right? I mean, that only makes sense . . .
Well, not always. In days gone by—that is, as recently as the 1950s—turn signals weren’t a standard feature. Drivers were expected to roll down the window and use hand signals, a practice that remains legal to this day. However, the weather might not be cooperative, so what do you do? Well, you invest a little time and elbow grease and build yourself a high-tech set of turn signals. Utilizing the handy circuit diagram contained herein, and what we imagine was a fair amount of swearing in the garage, you could home-brew some state of the art turn signals for your coop.
7. Vertically Sweeping Windshield Wipers
We all know what a windshield wiper looks like—they’re mounted on arms, the move back and forth in an arc, and they only clean about half of your windshield. And they make that annoying “thump-bump” sound as you cruise along on a rainy day.
But it didn’t have to be that way. Back in the early 1960s some bold engineers had an idea: an up-and-down wiper that would clear the entire windshield at once! It’s genius—a long metal arm holding a huge wiper blade would move up and down, brushing dirt, rain, and snow away, quite literally in one fell swoop. . . or maybe the debris would get caught and cause the arm to jam, totally obscuring your vision and leading to a serious wreck. Perhaps we should stick with what we know.
6. Beer-Powered Cars
Oh, 1956. You were amazing and we’ll never forget you.
Vernon G. Eisel was a man with a dream: to be the most 50s American possible. Having secured his home in Levittown, NY—our nation’s first modern suburb—Eisel went on to modify his 1953 Olds into the Don Draper of automobiles. The sedan would apparently run on just about anything, but it preferred beer and whiskey. It achieved this unlikely mode of power generation via a “cavitator” mounted under the hood. The goal of this machine was nobel: by eliminating carbon building in engines, somehow, Eisel sought to make automobiles cleaner and more maintenance free. He may not have achieved that dream, but his memory lives long wherever martinis are served.
5. Paddle-Powered Sled Conversions
Snow is a thing in big parts of the country—not everywhere is Florida or Texas, apparently. So confronted with the inevitable white winters faced by much of the nation, 1930s (when else?) automobile engineers found a solution.
Invented by a Lester Cobb of Norway, Maine—a name that evokes nothing if not snow—the automobile sled was a standard car converted to run on sleigh-rails powered by a paddle wheel underneath to push it thorough the snow. This rig was capable of speeds up to 35 miles per hour—about three times as fast as a home-made paddle-powered snowmobile should move.
4. Vaguely Sexist Automotive Designed
Ok, we all know that attitudes on gender are evolving, and that past eras weren’t as open minded as we are now. Here we’ve got a case in point: an incredibly sexist approach to making cars accessible to everyone.
This ad by GM nails it with its opening question: does anyone think about a woman’s shorter reach when designing instrument panels? After all, 100% of short people are women—everyone knows that. Thankfully Joan Gatewood is hear to serve as GM’s “stylist”–she’s not an engineer, of course, don’t be silly—you have to have a Y chromosome to be one of them. But thankfully we have stylists to consider how long fingernails, tight dresses, and a skillful women’s touch affect things.
3. Trunk-Mounted Jailhouses
1936. Of course it’s 1936. When else would this look like a good idea?
Many of us have taken a ride in the back of a police car, but few if any of us have been subjected to a trunk-mounted portable prison. Designed by a cop in Oklahoma, this steel cage mounts directly into the trunk of the police car. An awning to keep the elements away and a cushion at the bottom of the cage constitute 100% of the creature comforts—this thing is basically a human rights violation on wheels. We’re told that a prisoner was transported over 1,000 miles in this rig, with periodic breaks for exercise. Just keep repeating “it was a different time”.
2. The Butt-Snuffer
Go ahead and giggle. We did. A lot.
The Butt-Snuffer is a device borne of another age, an age in which driving had become an American norm and smoking remained as much a part of life as baseball and apple pie. However, 1950s America was started to wake up to the evils of litter and the need to preserve natural spaces, so the Butt-Snuffer was born. It’s a simple concept—a place to put out your cigarette butts while driving—and a noble one, intended to “keep our forests green”.
So . . . what’s the drawback? Other than the dangers of smoking and the unintentionally hilarious name? Are we really that immature? Turns out we are. Join us in another chuckle.
1. Glow-in-the-Dark Hand Signal Mittens
As we’ve discussed, hand signals were the way drivers let each other know what was what until turn signals became standard sometime in the 1950s. While hand signals work, they have many flaws—like what happens when it gets dark.
Well, with a wonderfully 1940s faith in the power of chemistry, specially treated mittens would glow in the dark, making drivers’ hand signals visible far and wide. The purpose was safety and visibility, and those are both good things. We can’t help but wonder if there’s room for this old fashioned insanity in the modern world. In the form of a glove. With one glowing fingers. So you can express your thoughts to bad drivers on dark nights.
Bonus: Thermador Air Conditioners