Gone, but not forgotten ...
Floor-mounted dimmer switch
Accessory turn signals
Pointed dash knobs
Annual styling changes
Oil bath air filter
- Gone, but not...
- Manual choke
- Engine crank
- Starter button
- Mechanical brakes
- Bias-ply tires
- Battery maintenance
- "Armstrong" steering
- Accessory heaters
- Accessory turn...
- Pointed dash knobs
- Plate glass
- Underhood light
- Column shifter
- Golf door
- Annual styling...
- Oil bath air filter
- Paper maps
Some things haven’t changed much on cars over the years: they all still have four tires and a steering wheel, for example. Meanwhile, some features that were once found on almost everything have essentially gone the way of the dinosaur, victims of technology, safety, and sometimes even fashion. Come with us as we look at yesterday’s cars.
Every car today is fed by fuel injection, but in days gone by, it was this mechanical box. Air went in the top, gas went in the side, and it all mixed together and went down to the cylinders. Unlike today’s drive-by-wire throttles, where pedal position is translated electronically, moving your foot worked a spring, opening or closing a valve that regulated the amount of fuel and air used. Most carbs periodically required some fine tuning with a screwdriver, so the mixture wasn’t too rich or too lean.
When the engine was cold, you’d pull this lever to reduce the amount of air going into the carburetor, producing the richer fuel/air mixture needed. Starting a car required pulling out the choke, pumping the gas, starting the engine, “feathering” the throttle to add just the right amount of fuel, and then, when it started running smoothly, pushing the choke in and driving away. The invention of the automatic choke eliminated pulling the lever, but the rest of the process was pretty much the same.
Go back even further, and you started the engine from the front of the car. Before Cadillac introduced the self-starter in 1912, you had to set the throttle and spark advance, set the choke, turn on the ignition coil, and then spin the crank, which turned the crankshaft. If the gods were smiling on you, it would start on the first quarter-turn. If they weren’t, the crank could spin. More than a few early motorists broke their hands, arms, and even their jaws when that happened.
Starting a car took two steps. First, you turned the key, which turned on the ignition system. Then you pressed the starter button, which activated the starter. You had to take your finger off the button as soon as the engine caught, because the starter would run as long as the button was pushed. Although pushbutton start has made a comeback—all electronic today, of course—Chrysler revolutionized the industry when it introduced an all-in-one key start in 1949.
Hydraulic brakes, which use pressurized fluid, were adopted by most automakers in the 1930s. Prior to that, cars used mechanical linkages from the brake pedal to the wheels. Even that was an improvement over the earliest cars, where drivers might pull a lever to press a block against the wheel, or put the transmission into reverse. Early cars had brakes on only two wheels, and signs such as this warned drivers that this car could stop faster than they might expect.
Tires are formed with layers of plies, made of cord, fabric, or steel. In a bias-ply tire, these plies are laid into the mould on a bias, so they overlap. These tires flex all over, producing wobbly handling that old-car enthusiasts sometimes call the “bias-ply boogie.” Radial-ply tires don’t flex this way, and they absorb bumps for a smoother ride. Michelin commercialized the radial tire in 1946, and it quickly became popular in Europe, but North Americans stubbornly stuck to bias-ply until the mid-1970s.
Almost all car batteries today are permanently sealed, but that wasn’t the case “back in the day.” Lead-acid batteries contain plates that must be submerged in a mixture of sulfuric acid and water, which creates a chemical reaction to produce the electricity. Every so often, drivers would have to remove each of those six little caps, check the fluid level, and if necessary, add more water.
Power steering uses a hydraulic pump or electric motor to assist the driver when turning the steering wheel, so far less effort is needed to move the front wheels. But until power steering became widespread in the 1950s, it was all done with brute force, which enthusiasts often call “arm-strong” steering.
Today, you pull on the column stalk, which turns on the high beams. On older cars, you pressed this button with your foot: once for on, once for off. Some of today’s cars offer highbeam assist, which automatically turns them up or down when it senses oncoming traffic, but it’s not as new as you think: Cadillac had a version, called the Autronic Eye, back in 1952.
Automatic climate control was a futuristic dream when this Cadillac heater went on the market. Accessory heaters, sold by the automakers or by aftermarket companies, were mounted under the dash and blew out hot air. You regulated the temperature by opening or closing the little doors.
If you wanted to signal your turn in the old days, you stuck your hand out the window. Your arm straight out meant a left-hand turn, up at the elbow was right-hand, and down at the elbow was slowing down. When turn signals started showing up as factory equipment on some models, the aftermarket industry cranked out add-on versions for cars that didn’t have them.
Many people think Ralph Nader’s 1965 book ‘Unsafe At Any Speed’ was just about the Chevrolet Corvair, but he attacked numerous design flaws, including protruding knobs and buttons that could seriously injure occupants when they hit them in a crash. Nader’s campaign helped lead to the flatter, safer controls and buttons used today.
Some early motorists were killed in crashes they might otherwise have survived when they fell forward onto shards of broken window glass. Safety glass was invented in 1903, but its widespread use in cars didn’t start until the 1930s. In modern cars, the windshield is made from laminated glass, while the side and rear windows are made of tempered glass, which crumbles into tiny pieces.
Lights under the hood have been gone for about a decade. That’s primarily because the light was triggered by a switch that used mercury, which would move in the switch when the hood was opened and complete the electrical circuit. Mercury is a health hazard, and the switches were an issue when the cars were scrapped. They’re no longer used, and a current U.S. government recovery program aims to collect some 40 million of them from recycled cars by 2017.
Everything goes in circles. Early cars had their shifters on the floor, but in the late 1930s, they started migrating to the steering column, which made it easier to fit three people in the front seat. Today, all vehicles except for a handful of pickup trucks have the shifter back in the console.
Cars of the 1920s and 1930s didn’t really have a lot of trunk space, and certainly not enough to carry a set of golf clubs. Some luxury manufacturers solved the problem with the “golf door,” which opened into a narrow storage compartment behind the seat that was perfectly sized for the clubs.
It’s usually easy to tell the year of an old car—even if it doesn’t print it on the outside, as Buick did for 1957—by the body or trim changes that were made each year. It helped to stimulate sales, and today it’s considered one of the charms of older cars, but the good old days weren’t always good. It was very expensive, and quality suffered as automakers rushed through short lead-in times to get everything to fit and work together.
Air that goes into the engine has to be filtered to remove dirt and particles. Until paper filters were developed, cars used oil baths. The air was drawn in through the bottom reservoir, which was filled with engine oil, and then through filtering media, which could include copper wool or even horse hair. The oil bath had to be cleaned regularly, which was a messy job. It’s likely no one ever got one off an engine without spilling at least some of it.
While modern cars still require some grease, improved designs and sealed parts have eliminated most of the lube points that old cars required. This chart, for a 1947 Cadillac, shows the 22 fittings that needed to be greased every 1,000 miles when the oil was changed (yes, you changed the oil every 1,600 kilometres!). After you’d done that, you also had to add steering gear and rear axle fluid, oil the handbrake and hood hinges, lube the clutch release mechanism, add transmission fluid, and add grease or oil to the water pump, starter, generator, and distributor.
Navigation systems were still just science-fiction when this vending machine offered up maps for a buck. Gulf started handing them out in 1914, the logic being that people would drive more if they knew where they were going, and so they’d need to buy more gas. Before long, you could get a free map at almost any service station. Today, many of these are now highly coveted collectors’ items.
Mascots originally started as radiator caps, such as this version of the Ottawa Indian chief Pontiac, and became hood ornaments when radiators moved farther back. Almost all cars had them, and some were elaborate works of art. Stricter pedestrian safety designs, vandalism, and cost marked the beginning of the end for them. Today, Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz are pretty much the only companies to offer any stand-up logos on their vehicles.