Lemuel Bosco of Akron, Ohio, spent $5 for an antitheft device that was supposed to lock the Splitdorf ignition switch of his car, but it did not stop a thief. He broke it off and took Bosco’s Mercer for a joyride. The cops found the car undamaged, but Bosco was mad and vowed it would not happen again. Thus was born the Bosco Collapsible Driver. When inflated and propped behind a steering wheel, it looked like Charlie Chaplin, right down to moustache and derby. When the mannequin was not needed, it was deflated and stored under the seat. Standing a foot away from a car, no thief could tell that the rubber dummy was not a real man — or so the ads in auto accessory manuals of 1910 would have you believe.
The Bosco Collapsible Driver Co. collapsed in two years, because it did not take even the dumbest thief long to realize that the guy who was sitting behind the wheel never even twitched, which meant he was either dead, in a coma, or not for real.
The Bosco dummy was one of countless inventions that never made it as auto accessories. It was not as practical as others that became popular and offered motorists additional comfort, convenience, or safety.
Many automotive components we now regard as necessities started life as accessories. They include headlamps, headlamp dimmers, turn signals, backup lights, windshield wipers, horns, jacks, speedometers, temperature gauges, rear-view mirrors, even bumpers and trunks. In most cases, an item’s transition from accessory to necessity was interrupted by a period in which it was offered as an option by the carmaker.
Today, it’s hard to believe that even the headlamp took these three steps, but it did. Some owners of the earliest cars took the candle lamps off their horse buggies and put them on their horseless carriages. they served as beacons to warn other drivers of an approaching vehicle, but they were not bright enough to light the road.
It is alleged that the first true headlamp was a kerosene lantern in the hands of a farmer. In 1887, a driver who had failed to make his destination before nightfall found an accommodating farmer who guided him by lantern light to his house. That farmer became the first “headlight.”
Soon after, someone got the bright idea of offering motorists detachable oil lamps. Placed in silvered reflectors and outfitted with stands and handles, they could also serve as sources of light to repair flat tires at night. It was only a year or so afterward that carmakers started offering oil lamps as options.
As roads improved and night driving became commonplace, cars were fitted with acetylene tanks to feed gas to headlamps. The acetylene flame was not as easy to blow out as candle flames or oil lamp wicks.
Then came electric head and tail lamps, introduced on the 1898 Columbia Electric Car. The main reason makers of gasoline buggies started putting batteries into their vehicles was to power electric headlamps.
Early electric headlamps were blinding because they could not be “dipped” when cars approached one another. This drawback gave rise to the accessory dimmer. The forerunner was the so-called depressible headlight, which was introduced by the Guide Lamp Co. in 1915. It allowed a motorist to swivel headlamps vertically by loosening and tightening clamps, but he had to get out of the car to do this.
Depressible headlamps became practical in 1917 when Cadillac “automated” them. The lamps were placed on a trunnion. A bar extending to a lever on the steering column let the driver raise or lower reflectors.
In 1925 the depressible headlight became obsolete when the Guide Lamp Co. introduced the 2-filament headlight bulb. Switching between low and high beam was accomplished through a switch on the steering column. In 1927 the dimmer switch was moved to the floor, where it stayed for about 50 years until it was moved again — to the steering column!
Another safety-oriented lighting system involved keeping the headlights or other front lights constantly on even during the day in order to help to prevent possible accidents because oncoming traffic can be seen. On December 1, 1989, Canada became the second country after Norway to require daytime running lights on all new passenger vehicles. In other countries the implementation of DRLs has had mixed response.
Another noteworthy lighting feature that started as an accessory and ended up as a necessity was the flashing turn signal, introduced by the Protex Safety Signal Co. in 1920. But the idea was proposed (sort of) in 1916 when C. H. Thomas of Norristown, PA, wrote to Popular Mechanics describing an invention — a battery and electric bulb attached to a glove so drivers could see hand signals at night.
Flashing turn signals were first offered as an option by Buick in 1938, but only as rear flashing lights. In 1940 the flashing signal was extended to front lights, and the signal switch was given a self-canceling feature.
Austin had a different approach to signal lights. When the signal lever was activated by the steering column, a lighted lever popped out of either side of the B-pillar indicating the direction of turning.
While most automakers installed signal light indicators in the dash, Cadillac put them on the front fenders. More recently, upscale cars and trucks have put a signal light in the edge of the external mirrors.
The bumper is another piece of equipment that was an accessory before motorists considered it a necessity. Two pages were devoted to it in the 1922 automobile supply catalog of The Charles William Stores of New York, which claimed that, “Bumpers are cheap collision insurance.” Priced at about $8 each, bumpers were clamped or bolted onto the front and rear of the car. Two or three years later, carmakers made bumpers standard.
Mail-order windshield wipers in the same catalog consisted of a rubber squeegee that was clamped to the top of the windshield frame. The driver moved this squeegee back and forth by hand, using a crank inside the car. At 89¢, this was the cheap model. If a guy was in the bucks, he could buy an automatic windshield wiper for $4.75 that “will work of its own accord so you can keep both hands on the wheel to control your skidding, sliding car.”
The vacuum-powered unit, connected to the intake manifold by a rubber tube, had a major drawback. When the throttle was wide open, such as going up a hill, engine vacuum dropped and the wipers either slowed to a crawl or stopped altogether. Electric wipers did not do this, but when carmakers finally made windshield wipers standard, they fitted cars with vacuum models because they were cheaper.
The first law requiring motor cars to have an audible warning signal was passed in France in 1899. In the U.S., the factory-installed electric horn or Klaxon did not become popular until about 1915. Before then the horn was an accessory a motorist bought from an auto supply dealer. He could get any sound that pleased him — squawk, toot, whistle, chime, or siren.
The era of the electric horn started in 1908 when the Lowell-McConnell Manufacturing Co. of Newark, New Jersey, purchased the rights to an electrically operated signalling device. F. W. Lowell, founder of the firm, called it a Klaxon, from the Greek word klaxo, which means to shriek. Soon, road signs warning you to “Sound Your Klaxon” were erected at sharp curves so that oncoming vehicles will be aware of your presence.
As recently as 1932, trunks were literally that — separate cargo chests that motorists bought and strapped to the rear of their cars. Later in the 1930s, cars were designed with a hump in the rear, allowing carmakers to build in luggage compartments.
The first recorded use of the rear-view mirror was the one Ray Harroun had on his Marmon Wasp when he won the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911. The adaptation allowed Harroun to ride alone in his car, while other drivers needed riding mechanics to tell them when cars were on their tails or coming up alongside. By eliminating the observer, Harroun made his car slimmer, more aerodynamic and lighter.
Capitalizing on Harroun’s success, the Marmon Auto Co. started to put rear-view mirrors on all its 1912 models. Other manufacturers followed suit. In 1940 the Guide Lamp Co. offered an accessory rear-view mirror that could be adjusted for day or night driving.
Here are some other accessories that made it to the big time:
- The 1903 Tincher introduced the motoring public to air-boost (power) brakes. It was not an option either, but standard equipment. But then, the Tincher sold for $5000 — about ten times the price of the average car of the day.
- The first adjustable driver’s seat was offered in the 1914 Maxwell. The 1921 Hudson had sliding bench seats as standard equipment. Buick, in 1946, gave motorists the first optional 2-way power seat, and the 1953 Lincoln had the first optional 4-way power seat.
- In 1921, an innovator by the name of Wills Sainte Claire mounted a bulb on the rear of his car and wired it to a switch on the car’s transmission, so it glowed when the car was shifted into reverse. Thus, the backup light was invented and sold as an accessory until federal law made it mandatory in the 1960s.
- The 1923 Springfield sedan is credited with being the first car to offer a radio as an option. Radios did not become popular until the early ’30s, when they finally lost their reputation as a driver distraction.
- The 1928 Studebaker gave us the first windshield defroster; the 1937 Studebaker, the windshield washer.
- The 1939 Packard ushered in air conditioning.
WHAT OPTIONS ARE IN THE FUTURE
All the accessories up to now may pale by comparison to those coming in the future. With the explosion in electronic technology, the world of automotive accessories promises to be more exciting than ever. Stereo systems with CD players and MP3 connections, video displays, heads up displays, remote starters, radar detectors, GPS are hot accessories today.
The Etak computer can map out trips and display a car’s location on a cathode ray tube along with the best way to get from one place to another — just like in commercial jets. Speaking of jets, did you hear about the idea of putting black boxes into cars similar to aircraft flight recorders, so courts can determine who’s at fault in accidents? It’s possible now, but likely to be as popular as The Bosco Collapsible Driver.