Did car owners have access to better maintenance tools and components back in the day? Were the parts – inflation-adjusted – cheaper? We dug through the Canadian Tire archives to find out.
A vintage auto parts display
Spark plugs: 1941
Spark plugs: 2013
Motor oil: 1937
Motor oil: 2013
Seat covers: 1943
Seat covers: 2013
Cleaning supplies: 1940
Cleaning supplies: 2013
Wiper blades: 1940
Wiper blades: 2013
It would be truly fascinating to walk into an auto parts store from 70 or more years ago. Most of the products on display would probably look familiar, but a closer inspection would reveal they weren’t quite the same as the parts available for your car today.
We’ve dipped into the past with Canadian Tire, which started as a garage in Toronto in 1922 and published its first catalogue in 1928, to see what’s changed between
then and now.
Price: 29 to 39 cents (or $4.50 to $6 today)
There are conflicting reports of who actually invented the spark plug, and when. What is known is that it was sometime in the 1800s, and by the early 1900s, France made the lion’s share of them. One of the earliest spark plug companies was founded by French-born Albert Champion, who made and sold plugs to pay his bills, and who eventually moved to the U.S. to set up his company.
There were all kinds of plug designs in those early days: with priming cups that held gasoline for cold start-ups, with extra electrodes, with removable centres for easy cleaning — even dual-ended plugs that could be turned upside-down to double their lifespan. Most of these were gone by the 1940s, when this catalogue offered top quality plugs for 39 cents – worth 80 cents! – and a bargain line for 29 cents.
Price: $2.50 to $10
Today, spark plugs range from about $2.50 to $10 or more apiece. The priciest ones use platinum or iridium, which improves combustion and helps the spark plug last longer. The difference between “then and now” can be considerable.
The 1941 catalogue suggested it was “not a fad” to replace plugs after about 25,000 miles (40,233 km), and they frequently needed to be cleaned and regapped between changes. While today’s inexpensive copper plugs still last about as long as those old ones, high-end “long-life” plugs can potentially last as long as 90,000 km, or even 190,000 km. In their scheduled maintenance charts, many auto manufacturers today say plugs don’t need changing until at least 160,000 km.
Price: 16 cents to 25 cents per litre (or $2.50 to $3.90 per litre today)
At first glance, the major difference is in the container: metal tins, instead of the plastic bottles used today. (Prior to cans, oil was dispensed at gas stations into glass bottles.) But the stuff inside the container has undergone massive improvements since motorists were putting these oils into their cars. For 76 cents a gallon (about 16 cents a litre), your oil was good for about 1,000 miles (about 1,600 km) before it needed changing.
If you stepped up and paid 94 cents a gallon – 86 cents if you bought 12 gallons at a time – you got double the mileage. These lubricants didn’t have all the additives and detergents found in today’s formulas. Oil also had to be changed more frequently on older cars because many didn’t have oil filters to capture dirt.
Price: $5 to $10 per litre
Today, oils contain numerous detergents and additives to clean and protect engines. There’s also synthetic oil and oil additives, which use chemical compounds derived from petroleum or other base stocks. Improvements in both oils and engines mean that today’s lubricants provide better protection for longer periods, and many auto manufacturers are recommending that oil changes can be stretched for 16,000 kilometres or more under the right driving conditions.
That’s a good thing, because some of the premium synthetic oils cost more than $10 per litre. Many oils are also now packaged in larger containers, so do-it-yourselfers can change their oil without having to recycle several smaller bottles. (And just so you know: the “W” in the grade – as in 10W30 – stands for “winter,” not “weight,” since the first number is its cold-weather viscosity.)
Price: $4.29 to $19.65 (or $68.25 to $312 today)
Batteries have been around since at least the 1700s, and perhaps even earlier: archaeologists believe that clay vessels found in Iraq dating from 200 B.C.E. may have contained acidic fluids used to create electricity.
Batteries contain plates, or grids: a positive grid, coated in lead oxide; and a negative grid that’s made of lead. The cells are filled with an electrolyte that’s made of sulfuric acid and water, which is why they’re called “lead-acid batteries.” The more plates, the more power you got, which is why in 1937 you could buy an 11-plate battery for $4.29 while a 21-plate battery “for Cadillacs and special jobs” was a whopping $19.65.
Early cars had six-volt electrical systems, while later ones had twelve-volt systems, and so you had to be sure you were buying the right battery for your vehicle.
Today, good-quality batteries can start at around $85 and go up from there. Of course, today’s drivers benefit from the fact new batteries are essentially maintenance-free. With old batteries, drivers had to regularly check the water level by unscrewing the caps and looking inside. If the water was low, the cells had to be topped up. You had to be careful, because if you splashed it, you could get burned by the sulphuric acid.
Today’s batteries are sealed, and there’s no need to check and fill them. They also last longer, too. The 1937 batteries were guaranteed for between one and two years, while today’s batteries can carry warranties of three years or more.
Price: 22 cents to $1.80 (or $2.91 to $23.84 today)
Originally hubcaps were just what their name suggested: small metal caps that covered the hub only, which kept out dirt. Of course at the time, they were being fitted on large wooden-spoke wheels, so covering the whole thing wouldn’t have been easy. As cars changed to steel wheels, caps were added that covered the hub and lug nuts. Eventually, many manufacturers went to full wheel discs.
The caps pictured here include the full array. A small cap for the hub was as little as 22 cents, while big spenders could go as high as $1.80 to spruce up a Ford Model A. It’s interesting to note that this catalogue is from 1943, when cars weren’t being built. Automakers stopped civilian production during model years 1943, 1944 and 1945, since their factories were busy making supplies for the Second World War. Auto parts stores did a booming business as drivers tried to make their older cars last for the duration.
Price: $20 to $32
While the older versions were made of metal, today’s aftermarket caps
are primarily made of plastic. Many people buy wheel covers – the proper name for the full-size discs – to dress up the steel wheels they
use in the winter. However, “everything old is new again,” and some cars and trucks have alloy wheels with plastic caps to cover the hub and lug nuts.
Price: $4.29 to $8.85 (or $56.81 to $117.20 today)
The bucket seat was virtually unknown back when these seat covers were available. Cars used bench seats, and on a two-door coupe model, the back was split and the seatbacks folded forward so passengers could access the rear seat, as shown in the top picture.
The first cars were more like motorized buggies, without roofs, and so their upholstery was leather to better withstand the weather. When “closed cars” with tops were developed, they were usually upholstered in fabric, to make the interior look more like fine furniture, especially in more expensive models. It’s the opposite today, with cowhide primarily used on the top-end lines.
Price: $25 to $70
Seat covers aren’t as necessary today as they were in days gone by, since automotive fabrics are far more durable than they used to be. Still, older cars can often benefit from a “sprucing up” with covers. Be careful if you’re thinking about using them, though. If your seats have side airbags, covers that go over the sides of the seat aren’t recommended. Look for a cloth tag or plastic badge on the side of the seat that will indicate if there’s an airbag inside.
Price: 39 to 49 cents per tin (or $4.50 to $6 today)
A clean car has always been in style, but the products used to spiff it up have certainly changed over the years. In the past, owners were primarily washing their cars at home, since Canada’s first pull-through tunnel car wash didn’t appear until 1958.
For 39 cents a tin each, motorists could take off the grime with a paste cleaner, and then shine up the paint with paste wax. The relatively new liquid waxes were more expensive, at 49 cents a can. The shine didn’t last as long, but didn’t require as much work as paste wax.
Price: $6 to $35
The range of cleaners, polishes, waxes and wipes available today is almost overwhelming when compared to the slim selection available 70 years ago. Purists still insist that hard wax provides the best and longest-lasting shine, but there are all kinds of spray-on or liquid waxes that many say work just as well.
In any case, new compounds and ingredients make all of these products superior to those of the past, and even the firmest paste waxes are easier to apply than before — although 39 cents doesn’t get you very far these days.
Price: 14 to 39 cents (or $2.30 to $6.38 today)
Mary Anderson patented the first windshield wiper in 1903; it used a rubber blade that drivers swiped across the window by operating an inside handle. Keeping the windows clear was an ongoing problem for motorists when this catalogue was printed, especially since many drivers were upgrading older vehicles.
Many early cars had only one wiper blade, on the driver’s side, so the “dual wiper attachment,” at 59 cents – 98 cents if you wanted chrome – added a second one. Most wiper motors worked on engine vacuum, which meant that they slowed down just when you needed them most, such as accelerating past traffic in the rain. For $3.45, you could change over to electric wipers, which worked at a constant speed. For some reason, the rear window wiper never caught on with auto manufacturers, except on hatchbacks.
Price: $7 to $19
While a replacement wiper blade cost as little as 14 cents in 1940, you’ll spend upwards of about $7.00 for one today. The basic design of a blade squeegeeing water off the glass hasn’t really changed since Mary Anderson’s invention, but there certainly have been improvements in the rubber compound, so blades last longer and aren’t as affected by temperature extremes. Some blades also include a Teflon coating for smoother operation, and special “winter” blades feature a solid design that doesn’t ice up as easily.
Price: $4.89 (or $80 today)
Owners of older cars, buying new lights through this catalogue, were replacing the bulbs inside their headlights. But for $4.89, you could upgrade your vehicle to the new sealed-beam headlamps, which combined the filament, reflector, and lens in a single sealed unit.
Rather than take off the headlight ring, remove the glass lens, change the bulb, replace the lens and ring, and then hope the rubber gasket was still supple enough that water wouldn’t leak in, drivers now just removed two screws, replaced the headlamp, and put the two screws back in. In 1940 and 1941, new cars switched to a standard 178-mm sealed-beam design. Later, when dual headlights were introduced, a standard 146-mm round light was added.
Price: $10 to $70
Guess what: we’re back to changing the bulb! While sealed-beam headlamps are still available, many automakers use halogen lights, which use a tungsten filament inside a bulb filled with halogen gas. The light is more intense, illuminating a longer distance ahead.
Some cars also use high-intensity discharge (HID) headlights, commonly called “xenon” lights, since they contain xenon gas. They’re even pricier than halogen bulbs, but they last longer and produce an even better light beam.
Price: $4 to $8 each (or $67 to $134 today)
Today’s drivers should be thankful for modern tires. Early cars often carried two spares, because there was no way you were going any distance without needing both of them.
When this tire was advertised in 1935, it contained an inner tube that actually held the air, while the outer casing provided traction and protected the tube. It was “bias-ply,” meaning that the rubberized fabric layers inside it were placed on an angle. The simple tread didn’t provide a great deal of traction, the rubber compound could become relatively soft or hard with the temperature, the bias ply could make the tire “squirmy” on curves, and the tire was easily punctured. Depending on the size and quality, tires were about $4.00 to $8.00 each.
Price: $70 to $600
Passenger tires have come a long way since 1935. Of course they’re tubeless today, but they’re also made of special rubber compounds that handle temperature fluctuations; their treads are specially designed for better handling while helping to save fuel; their ply cords are at 90 degrees to the rim (hence the name “radial” tire) for better stability; they have steel belts for strength; they last much longer; and they’re far less vulnerable to punctures, with some even able to reseal themselves, or run safely with no air inside to get you to a garage.
Of course, most of them start around $80, and some of the high-performance ones can go more than ten times that. But once you’re out driving on them, rather than the tires of 1935, you know that “these are the good old days.”