By Jim Hinckley
In 1900, the Porter Motor Company proudly proclaimed their new Stanhope was “The Only Perfect Automobile.” It had no doors or top. It had no windshield, brakes on the wheels or lights other than a kerosene lamp hung dead center in the front. Yet in the world of 1900 this was state of the art, this was the future made manifest.
In the five years that followed automotive technology made quantum leaps but the driver was still left out in the cold, still wore goggles, and still dared not venture forth after dark. In the realm of safety or protection from the elements, the consumer was to a large degree left to his own devises.
To fill this void by 1904 after market parts was fast becoming a brisk cottage industry. Among the more popular items of the era was a windshield. However, as this oversized monocle, and similar ones that followed, were made of regular glass or even plate glass, they were impractical as well as dangerous and were more a styling feature than safety device. As a result, most motorists opted for goggles.
Astute observation of the market by management at Cadillac led, in 1906, to the introduction of the Model H coupe. Motorist, for the hefty price of $2450, could now find shelter from inclement weather with a closed car. Sales of just a few hundred did not encourage Cadillac, or other manufacturers to pursue the concept so as a result open bodied cars remained the norm for years to come.
By the early teens, much had changed in the industry and companies such as Peerless and Pierce Arrow catered to the rich and famous among who closed cars were becoming all the rage. With the introduction of the Essex coach in 1919 and the Ford center door sedan in 1916, the closed car was no longer a luxury reserved for the elite.
However, regardless of price, these cars all shared one horrendous flaw; the glass was still either plate glass or regular glass. A few companies, such as with the 1926 Stutz AA, billed as the “safety Stutz” addressed the issue of safety in novel ways. On closed cars of the series, fine wires were molded into the glass to prevent shattering.
Oddly enough by 1926, safety glass had been available for more than twenty years. In 1905 British inventor, John Wood had introduced this revolutionary type of glass; two sheets pressed together with a film of nitrocellulose between marketed under the Triplex name.
With the advent of fixed windshields and closed cars, rain obstructed views became an issue for drivers. The industry responded with a manual wiper on the driver’s side. Wipers that operated on engine vacuum followed and in 1940, Chrysler introduced as standard equipment electric powered ones. Incredibly, it would be 1947 before Chevrolet trucks featured dual wipers and another decade would pass before these, even as an option, were powered by an electric motor.
Glass was not the only safety feature integrated into the industry long after common sense dictated its adoption and use. Likewise, with convenience features such as in dash gasoline gauges, speedometers and lighted dashes.
It would be the mid 1920s before owners of Model T Fords were delivered from the inconvenience of asking front seat passengers to exit the car, lifting the cushion, and using a stick to check fuel levels. Car dealers, service stations and various merchants capitalized on this shortcoming by providing wooden sticks with calibrations on one side and advertisement on the other.
Owners of vehicles equipped with gasoline gauges did not fare much better as the gauge often was mounted directly on the gasoline tank. On some vehicles, such as the 1927 Franklin Airman sedan, reading the gauge would have challenged a contortionist as it was mounted on the tank behind the trunk.
As a result, by 1923 there were more than fifty types of after market gasoline gauges available. One of the most ingenious was an in dash gauge linked to an alarm that would sound if the fuel level dropped to one gallon.
Turn signals were another feature the American automotive industry was slow to adopt. The first production vehicle credited with having electric directional signals was the 1939 Buick. Legislation played a key role in making them an industry standard but as late as 1953 they were still only available as an option on Chevrolet trucks.
Even essential components such as brakes developed in this odd, schizophrenic manner. In the mid 1920s as hydraulic brakes came to represent the latest in innovative automotive technology, several auto manufacturers spent great sums of money on advertisement that warned of the dangers associated with them. A few of these companies, most notably Ford, stubbornly resisted abandonment of mechanical brake systems long after hydraulics had almost become an industry standard.
It would seem a logical conclusion that as not all drivers are the same size, seats that adjusted to provide better access to controls as well as visibility would be standard equipment. However, this was one of the futuristic features promoted on the introductory and revolutionary Chrysler Airflow of 1934. On Chevrolet trucks, it would be 1947 before this feature was available.
The Kelly Blue Book for the fall of 1926 presents an intriguing snap shot of just how absurd it really was during the infancy of the American auto industry. On the Pierce-Arrow Model 80 for 1926, “mechanical 4-wheel brakes” were listed as optional equipment. Companies that included this “option” in 1926 were Studebaker Big 6, Chandler 6, Gray, Kissel Standard 6, and numerous others. This during a time when there was promotion of 65 mile per hour speeds!
In less than a century, the automobile went from Spartan to palatial. Mind boggling electronic wizardry and on board computers have transformed the automobile into a climate-controlled cocoon insulating us from the world. Buzzers, lights, and synthesized voices keep us apprised of the need for fuel, when service is due and even of the temperature outside of our wheeled terrarium.
With the wonders of modern automotive technology, we can no longer get lost, cannot roll down the window to smell the flowers along the way if the battery is dead, or even change the oil. From the vantage point of the modern driver’s seat, it is almost impossible to imagine an era when an automobile was given top billing over the fat lady and albino at the Barnum & Bailey Circus, when four wheel brakes were considered an option and starting your car required a strong back. When automotive evolution is viewed in context, one cannot help but wonder what marvels await drivers in the coming century.