Did you know ... ?
Airbags aren’t mandatory in Canada
Why they’re called MacPherson struts
The window sticker’s called a Munroney
In many jurisdictions, prisoners still make license plates
Early motorists made their own plates
The Car of the Year wasn’t originally a car
Gas rationing wasn’t to save gas
It isn’t a gas pedal
A woman invented windshield wipers
A Hollywood actress made navigation and Bluetooth possible
Why it’s called a Hemi
GM was almost IM
ABS is older than you think
Many tires are named for people
The automotive world is a trivia lover’s paradise, filled with all sorts of fascinating facts and interesting stories. We’ve brought several together here. How many did you know?
They are in the U.S., where they’ve been required in cars since model-year 1998, and 1999 for light trucks, but not in Canada. Instead, Transport Canada mandates a front seat safety standard, and automakers can use pretty much whatever it takes to comply. Since airbags meet the standard, and companies are already putting them in for the larger market to the south, that’s what we get.
For their inventor Earle S. MacPherson, of course. This combination shock-and-spring suspension component was developed in the 1940s. Although they’re used primarily on the front wheels today, MacPherson designed them for the rear suspension of the Cadet, a small car that Chevrolet planned to build. The Cadet project was discontinued in May 1947 and MacPherson, disappointed and angry, moved to England to work for Ford.
Today it’s fondly known as the “Fabulous Fifties,” but it was really a decade of dismay for car buyers, who were at the mercy of dealers out to get every last penny they could. With no way of knowing the actual cost, buyers paid inflated prices on the base tag, options, financing, preparation and freight. It infuriated Oklahoma senator Mike Munroney, whose Automotive Information Disclosure Act of 1958 required every new car to carry a sticker that showed its MSRP, its list of standard and optional equipment, and the individual prices of each option. Today, the sticker also includes the fuel consumption rating.
The practice began in the U.S. in the early 1920s, to reduce the cost of the process and give the prisoners useful work. Many plates are still made behind bars, including those in Ontario. But none are more ironic than those of New Hampshire, where inmates stamp out plates with the state slogan, “Live Free or Die.”
When municipalities started licensing vehicles, there weren’t very many cars around. As a result, many just issued the numbers, and left it up to the car owners to make the plates. Joseph Morris registered the first car in Edmonton, a 1903 Ford Model A (pictured with Joseph at the wheel) that he brought home on May 25, 1904, and got license number 1. When stopped by police for not having a plate, he argued that the broomstick he’d stuck in the back formed the required number, and so no ticket was issued. No one knows how true that story is, but in 1912, he did receive the first provincially-made plate.
Now given out by the thousands by various publications and organizations, “Car of the Year” awards began with Motor Trend magazine. But when it started in 1949, the award went to a manufacturer, rather than a car, and only when something was considered worthy. Cadillac got the first one, for its new overhead-valve, high-compression V8 engine, which replaced its previous flathead engine (that’s a 1949 Coupe deVille in the picture). Chrysler took the second award in 1951, and Cadillac won in 1952. None were handed out again until Ford got one in 1956. In 1960, the Chevrolet Corvair was the first car to win. Pontiac became the last manufacturer to win in 1965, and from then on, the award was given annually to specific vehicles.
During the Second World War, the U.S. government rationed gasoline. When drivers wouldn’t voluntarily limit their trips, rationing began in the northeastern states in May 1942, and spread across the country by December. Most people got four gallons a week, with more available for doctors, railway employees, postal workers, and war workers. But it wasn’t meant to save gasoline. Instead, restricting travel saved tires, since rubber was needed for war supply production. Drivers could only have five tires and had to hand in any extras before they received ration tickets for gasoline, and had to apply for new ones if old ones wore out. Before long, tires were among the most common items on the black market.
The long pedal is properly an accelerator or throttle pedal. Many people think that when they press the pedal, they’re opening a valve that sends more fuel into the engine. Instead, they’re actually sending more air. Gasoline has to be mixed with large quantities of air—turned into a vapour—before it will burn. As more air enters the system when the pedal is depressed, sensors determine how much fuel needs to be mixed with it to maintain the correct ratio. More air equals more fuel, which equals more power and speed.
Her name was Mary Anderson, and she apparently got the idea when she visited New York City from her home in Alabama and watched streetcar drivers struggling to wipe their windshields on rainy days so they could see. She developed a rubber blade on a lever that the driver moved to swipe the glass, and received a patent in November 1903. It was improved with a 1917 patent issued to Charlotte Bridgewood, who added an electric motor to move rollers across the windshield. Unfortunately, both patents expired before the women could interest automakers, and they never made any profits on their ideas.
One of Tinseltown’s most beautiful film stars, Hedy Lamarr was also a brilliant inventor who tinkered in her home workshop rather than go to the Hollywood parties that she hated. Upset by reports of German submarines attacking ships during the Second World War, she worked with a friend, composer George Antheil, on a radio signalling device that they patented as a “Secret Communications System.”
Both the transmitter and receiver jumped to different signals at the same time, and this “frequency hopping” prevented someone from intercepting the message. The military wasn’t initially interested, but the technology eventually formed the basis of GPS and cell phone transmissions.
Dodge accomplished every marketer’s dream when its “Hey, that thing got a Hemi?” ads had people wanting something even though they didn’t know exactly what it was. The name refers to the hemispherical shape of the combustion chambers, which has such advantages as more complete fuel burn and less turbulence. Many automakers have used such a design, but the name Hemi is now a Chrysler trademark.
Founded in 1908, General Motors was unusual in that it was created by a businessman, William Durant, who bought up existing automakers to create his company. By contrast, most companies were started by inventors who developed a car and then founded the business to sell it. Durant compiled a list of potential names and sent them to his lawyers, who said International Motor Company was “impractical,” and warned that someone else was using United Motors. General Motors was the next name on the list.
Anti-lock brakes have been around for quite a while, offered as an expensive option back in the 1970s, but they’re even older than that. French auto and aeronautical engineer Gabriel Voisin produced a working system in 1929, developed for pilots so they could hit the brakes as soon as they landed, instead of using threshold braking to slow down. It used a flywheel that operated a hydraulic fluid valve. The components were too large and complicated for cars, but by 1954, anti-lock brakes were being used on trains.
The expensive, low-volume 1966 Jensen FF had ABS. Other rudimentary systems included Ford’s Sure Track in 1969, and GM’s Trackmaster and Chrysler’s Four-Wheel Sure Brake in 1971. Bosch and Mercedes-Benz offered the first modern system—all electronic, multi-channel, and on all four wheels—as an option on the 1978 S-Class.
Just as men like Walter Chrysler and David Buick named their cars for themselves, so did some of the tire manufacturers. Brothers Édouard and André Michelin ran a rubber factory and developed removable tires when a cyclist’s glued-on version was tough to repair.
Harvey Firestone (pictured) often went camping with his good friends Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, who used Firestone’s tires on his cars. Benjamin Franklin Goodrich was a Civil War surgeon turned businessman who shortened his first names to initials when he started BF Goodrich in Akron, Ohio. And in 1931, Shojiro Ishibashi took the English translation of his name, stone bridge, and switched it to get Bridgestone.