Soul Suck: Four Things That Made Us Love Our Cars Less

by John R. Paul

April 16, 2013

At the dawn of the automotive age, anyone with even the slightest mechanical know-how could create any kind of car imaginable. But safety regulations and uniformity standards eventually put an end to the anything-goes creativity of early car makers. Modern cars are definitely safer for it but, as this shortlist points out, some of those standards may have come at the cost of style.

Goodbye, Chrome

Chrome Bumper

 

Years ago, cars didn’t have bumpers. And for good reason: there simply weren’t that many other cars around. As more and more cars made their way onto America’s roads, multi-car accidents began to crop up. Over the years, a number of safety measures were created to help lessen the literal and figurative impact of car crashes, all of them practical, not all of them aesthetically pleasing.

Sturdy and functional, edge-to-edge chrome bumpers used to epitomize American automotive styling. A car wrapped in protective, gleaming, old-school chrome is a luxurious thing to behold. But chroming was a lengthy and costly process. Chrome bumpers were also heavy, expensive to replace and always showed damage, even in low-impact collisions.

Covering a vehicle in chrome made less and less sense as America became obsessed with aerodynamics and fuel economy in the early 1970s. Plastic was more easily produced, cheaper to replace, and could be molded into any sleek shape imaginable yet was still durable enough to meet government safety standards. A win-win for everyone, except auto owners.

Plastic, Styrofoam-filled bumpers are not only characterless but—as anyone who’s ever backed into a street sign at low speed knows—also highly susceptible to expensive cosmetic damage. Even a minor mishap with a plastic bumper can cost hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars in damage that otherwise may have been prevented with chrome bumper protection.

Wipers. Wipers. Wipers.

Headlight wiper

 

During a trip to New York City in 1903, Mary Anderson noticed that streetcar drivers had to open the windows of their cars when it rained in order to see. She soon patented “a swinging arm device with a rubber blade that was operated by the driver from within the vehicle via a lever.” By 1916, the windshield wiper had become standard equipment on all American cars.

In 1972, Ford “invented” the rear windshield wiper, now considered standard equipment on hatchbacks and SUVs. The year prior, in a classic case of a great idea gone gimmicky, Saab introduced headlight wipers on its Model 99. Eventually, somebody who didn’t understand that too many mechanic add-ons on a car are an eyesore decided to patent the idea of side mirror wipers; thankfully, however, the gizmo has not yet caught on with automakers.

Let There Be Light

Brake Lights

It used to be that brake lights came in all shapes and sizes, varying from car to car and generally plastered wherever it was most aesthetically pleasing (so long as it was somewhere on the rear).

That is, until the implementation of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108, which sought to standardize automotive lighting in order to “reduce traffic crashes and deaths and injuries resulting from traffic crashes, by providing adequate illumination of the roadway, and by enhancing the conspicuity of motor vehicles on the public roads.”

The third brake light, commonly known as the “idiot light” in car circles, arose in the mid-1980s. While the exact wording of the law varies from state to state, federal regulations required a third brake light on cars manufactured after 1986. Trucks followed suit beginning in 1994.

To further the “conspicuity of motor vehicles,” car makers have since added more external lighting to automobiles than the Griswold house on Christmas Eve. Standard fog lights and LED side-mirror turning lights are now standard equipment on most SUVs and luxury sedans. Yes, all these lights serve a function, but when is enough enough?

Seatbelt Chimes

There was a time many of us surely can recall when cars didn’t come with seatbelts. That changed in the mid-1960s as regulations tightened in the form of lap belts strapping us into our sofa-sized bench seats. Shoulder straps soon followed, along with PR campaigns urging the usage of seatbelts. Their purpose, functionality and safety capabilities are all well understood and widely accepted by most.

To further the reminder that you need to wear your seatbelt, auto manufacturers began installing annoying buzzers, chimes and flashing lights, all of which refused to silence themselves until you strapped the ol’ belt across your body. The first flashing lights began appearing in 1972, as they were seen as more cost-effective than the installation of pricey airbag systems. Flashing a warning for a full 60 seconds for both the driver and passenger once the vehicle was put in gear, they started off harmlessly enough; mildly obtrusive, but easy to ignore if you really wanted to.

That changed in 1975 when all the buzzers, bells and whistles we know today were first put in place. By going off for four to eight seconds at a time until the belt was securely fastened, the new systems demanded total compliance lest the occupants of the vehicle be driven clinically insane.

What are some other modern vehicle add-ons that you feel make them unappealing or less fun to drive? The HVA would like to hear from you. Comment below or take a minute to head over to the HVA's Facebook page to check out what other members are saying.

 

Comments

  1. Jeff Hauser Layton Utah

    Being a retired collision repairman, I will never drive a car with an airbag. I look for cars that do not have them to own and drive. My 1956 Fairlane has vacuum wipers and they work well as well as having lots of personality. Chrome and stainless is good. It looks great and it is recycle-able. Todays cars have gone crazy. We have more and more safety devices to protect us from ourselves. We should put more emphasis on safe driving rather than surviving the crash. We should not call a collision an accident......It should be called a "stupid" or "not paying attention".

  2. phil MN

    SAAB actually had wipers in the SAAB 96. In Europe.

  3. Raymond Michigan

    Today, some vehicles have WAY too many push buttons instead of knobs or sliders. We had a '96(?) Buick LaCrosse and just about every device would only function is one pushed a button. Talk about having to take your eyes off the road, or trying to manipulate those buttons in the winter with gloves on! Log live the NOB!

  4. Dean Koehler Maui

    Jeff - hopefully you'll never find yourself in a situation where you wish you did have that airbag...

  5. Mike Stewart Phoenix, AZ

    I can fix anything to do with computers. The "check engine" light might be equivalent to a "check operating system" light on a PC. A thousand things can go wrong with the OS. The check engine light has been an unnecessary, useless and expensive function for me mostly because of emissions testing. The codes to rid of it are vague recommendations that may or may not work. And why should I have to take my car to someone with a decoder or buy a cheap and inferior one myself? At least when an OS reports a problem, it usually states why there is a problem along with the problem. The check engine light is more of a money generation tool than a warning indicator. My Chevelle rides just fine without it.

  6. Eric Lund Virginia

    Interesting that your photo of headlight wipers isn't a Saab but a 73-74 140 series Volvo- that never had them. Nice photo-shop work though

  7. Harry wiggs USA

    Well, put this old gearhead down as the contrarian view: Having spent 35+ years as a professional mechanic, from the 60s to the 90s, I say, good riddance to most of what made cars of that era, and before. When I take my old car(s) out, and some wag think he's gonna be 'buddy-buddy' with me, by saying authoritatively, "Yea, buddy! They suuuure don't make'em like they used ta!", I love seeing the look on their faces when answer, "Thank GAWD they don't! One can argue about styling all day long, but it is folly to insist older was better: they AIN'T. Today's car go farther, safer, and with less environmental damage than ANYTHING of yesteryear. to those who disdain airbags, that's just tin-hatted foolery. They WORK. Now, I *kinda miss curb feelers...;)

  8. saf MO

    I always wear my seat belt but the constant "dinging" of my wife's subaru drives me nuts. I can't drive down the driveway to get the mail or inch through the pasture to check the cows without going bonkers with the buzzer in my ear! I'm all for safety features but don't like the idea of my car demanding things of me

  9. ed neval MACEDONIA OHIO

    the headrest was a nice feature for both comfort and safety until the the last few years they started to angle forward. then in 2010 they really got crazy with the mandates and the headrest is now so awkward and uncomfortable that i will not buy a new car.

  10. Steve K United States

    You forgot about the 1974 seat-belt interlock. You could not start your car until you buckled your seat-belt. i remember mechanics lifting themselves off of the seat to start the car. The interlocks lasted 1 year. In 1975 we got the system we still use today. I believe that 1974 was the first year that you could not start your car (standard transmission) unless you pushed the clutch to the floor first. We still have that technology today.

  11. Roger Greenville, NC

    I hate it when cars do things I didn't tell them to do. Still, given the phone/texting idiots, I guess the automatic driving lights are ok, but I wish there was a switch so I could turn them off.

  12. Anthony VA

    I think the most annoying thing in my company vehicle i drive, a 2013 Ford Transit Connect, is the TPMS lamp, how hard is it ot check your tire pressure really. Another annoying feature is the backup camera that is incorporated into the rear view mirror, this thing is totally useless in rain, snow, or in my case driving in coal dust after a rain. Also the backup sensor are another dumb invention on vehicles. My personal vehicles have none of these "features" and so far i have never had a low tire, hit something while backing, or anything like that. And my vehicles don't have air bags, neither of the seat belt lamps and buzzers work now and the newest is a 1997 model. Two of them have chrome and stainless trim that shines and gleams in the sun and people always make comments how nice they look.

  13. Tom Bimghamton, NY

    I love driving in snowy, wintry weather! I mount snow tires on all four corners and have at winter. I'll even attempt what might be impossible for a car just to see if I can get through. One of my first snowy and steep outings with a suitably-equipped Dodge Intrepid ES met with dismal failure trying to climb a narrow access drive to a home I was to show to a prospective purchaser. I was devastated and disheartened by the failure to make the hill and the humiliating, back-down maneuver to attempt another attack. As I regained composure and prepared for the next assault, I remembered the "TRACTION CONTROL" disable button on the dash! Shut that baby off!! The attack performance was thrilling with firm and steady throttle and great sawing turns of the wheel followed with a spectacular, full left-lock, 360 degree finish at the top, Massive cleats of snow flew from the tires and a marvelous set of ruts were carved in the process! Lesson learned is that even though TRACTION CONTROL is built into the car, the best traction control lies with the DRIVER. I haven't found a good use for TRACTION CONTROL - give me a good car and tires and I'll control the traction!

  14. Jan PA

    my1969Volvowagonhadbotharearwiper/washerandreardefrosterwires...theyworkedperfectlyforthe15+yearlifeofthecar...

  15. Joseph Peculiar MO

    Went to the Auto Show a couple months ago. What happened to the bench front seat? Nothing has a bench seat anymore.

  16. Glen Seminole

    Bull! Our 1970 Volvo 145 Wagon had a rear wiper. It use to cause crowds in the parking lots when it was new. And that was two years before Ford "Invented" this item. How did that happen? Sorry, get your facts right or don't right an article!

  17. oldcarman Oakland MI

    having worked in the Auto industry since 1966, I have never heard the 3rd brake lights referred to as idiot lights. Idiot lights have always been the red lights indicating trouble, instead of an actual gauge. Usually it indicated an oil or charging malfunction that was terminal by the time the light went off. Ford & Chrysler, and even GM, were all guilty of cheaping out this way. After FMSS 108, they were typically referred to as CHMSLs (chimsel), for Center High Mounted Stop Light. BTW, I never saw a Chrysler minivan ever have a 3rd brake light under the tailgate. Where did that photo come from? And where did they ever find one that color!!? With a Corvette trailer hitch plug??

  18. Art S. Fairfield, CT

    Funny that Ford "invented" the rear wiper in 1972 - my 1969 Volvo 145 had it a full three years before that. Maybe another safety item that Volvo didn't file a patent for?

  19. Craig Utah

    The term "idiot light" does not refer to the third brake light! That term was around long before the third brake lights were even thought of. The term "idiot light" refers to the dash instrument warning lights that replaced gauges that actually indicated what was going on.

  20. Brian VA

    It was stated here that Ford "invented" the "rear wiper" in 1972. I know for a fact that in 1955 Mercury had a rear wiper as an accessory. Maybe this came about even earlier and maybe with other auto manufacturers.

  21. Hank South Carolina

    You forgot the brief period (1974?) when the "brains" in Washington got the automakers put a kill-switch on the seat belts -- no buckle-up, no go. It was very unfortunate for one driver in a large Olds or Buick, I think, who had a malfunction of this on a railroad track when a train was coming. That "feature" went away right away.

  22. Will Handley Tehachapi CA

    Technology often provides an "illusion of safety" which causes people to leave themselves smaller safety margins. People who drove cars made in the days of cable/mechanical brakes knew they had to allow a greater stopping distance and that braking was not guaranteed. Those who drive modern cars with safety aids tend to leave themselves little if any margin and any slight misjudgement or unplanned factor now results in an accident. This is illustrated by the study of taxi drivers and anti-lock braking systems carried out in Munich in 1983 (do an internet search). We have created a generation of drivers who feel totally safe in their vehicles and believe that the safety systems built into their vehicles will protect them from the risks they take whilst driving.

  23. Robert Michigan

    The rear backglass wipers were a factory option of my 1937 Hudson 8 Country Club not a new 1972 innovation.

  24. Patrick Wyoming

    To me, there's something special about putting a traditional metal key into an ignition switch. Many fantastic drives have started and ended with the insertion and removal of a real honest-to-goodness key. The motor roars to life with just a slight turn of my wrist and I feel a physical connection to the vehicle. Modern keys, which just have to be in the vicinity of a dash mounted start button, do nothing for me. Pushing a button to start a car is about as much fun as flipping a light switch. It may be easy, but nobody gets excited about it. Give me a good old key any day!

  25. KS MI

    1974 seatbelt interlock system that prevented the car from starting if the seatbelt wasn't buckled.

  26. Jim Sulzbach Madison, Oh.

    I agree with Jeff. I NEVER wear a seat belt. Never have never will. Toget rid of the chime an d blinking idiot lite , I push a thin strip of plastic down the seat belt opening.

  27. JIM Richmond, MI

    "The third brake light, commonly known as the “idiot light” in car circles, arose in the mid-1980s." This statement from above is the first time I have heard the third brake light called an idiot light. However, the red lights in the instrument cluster ie. Oil Pressure, Engine Temperature ect. have been referred to as idiot lights.

  28. Dennis Powers N. Tonawanda, NY

    Ah Chrome! I love it, but getting anything re-chromed on classic cars these days is phenomenally expensive, as it is on a continuous upward cost curve. And who hasn't heard nightmarish stories of near impossible to replace pieces that were mysteriously "lost" at the platers, while the anxious owner waited months for their completion? As to the claim that Ford installed the first rear window wiper in 1972, the fact is that it was a factory offered accessory on most GM makes in the 1940's, Nash and Hudson, perhaps other postwar cars as well. Locally, friends own a 1949 Hudson Commodore, and a 1947 Olds 98 Custom Cruiser, both of which are originally equipped with these units.

  29. Jack Geiger Port Orchard WA

    Seatbelt chimes went even further off the deep end. 1974 saw the one year feature of start interlock; the starter wouldn't engage unless the belts were fastened. Then 80's technology introduced an electronic voice telling you to fasten your belt.

  30. Mark A Raleigh, NC

    I don't know that I would call headlight wipers (first on Saabs but then later also on Volvos) gimmicky. Driving at night in heavy snow you can get a lot of buildup of snow on the front bumper that blocks and diminishes the brightness of the headlights. Providing a way to keep some of that snow off the headlight lenses to let more light get to the road seems like a good thing.

  31. daryl judd spokane, wa

    My dad has a 1951 Packard with a rear windshield wiper, an option, and there may be others before that. As far as chrome bumpers go in the 20's thry thru the early 50's they actually had functionality with spring steel mounting brackets. Starting with the rise of styling departments at GM, Ford & Chrysler (independents too) all that chrome became onaments with little to none protection. The first time I remember hearing "idiot lights" referred to oil pressure & generator indicators on dashboards. Many 40's-50's Chrysler products had "high"brake lights on their trunk lids. As always when the Government tries to regulate anything they fail miserably because the legislate without common sense and never seem to consult with actual experts on the various subjects being regulated. I seem to remember it was a congressman who decided with how much force the early air bags should deploy. Only after some children and smaller adults were killed because the force was excessive were experts in the field consulted and the force dramatically reduced.

  32. Dave ZPerkins Iowa

    Given the opening statement that there were a LOT of mechanical tinkerers in the early automotive years (true) there should be no surprise that a number have pointed out the fallacy of the "invention" of the rear wiper in the '70's - or 'most ANYTHING like that. All one has to do is spend some time at vintage car shows & museums to realize the the applicability of the old saying, "There isn't anything new under the sun." As others have pointed out, the references made in this article (the third brake 'idiot light' etc.) do seem to point to someone who has NOT spent enough time doing field research. I know that the folks at Hagerty etc. know better. That said, one of the "safety" features in my current commuting car that drives me NUTS is the door, auto-lock. I regularly swear at it when I get out of the drivers' side then later go to get something out of the passengers' side door. I swear, if I have occasional to remove that inner door panel, I'm going to CUT that damned wire.

  33. Jay of Reno Reno, NV

    All things emissions, head rests, minimum headlight and bumper heights, roll over protection like roll bars on Jeeps and some drop tops and traction control. I also detest big soft cushy interiors. If I want to impale my head on a radio knob during a panic maneuver, it is my god given right as a car enthusiast, Traction control makes it damn near impossible to teach my nephew how to do donuts in the fresh snow of a parking lot.

  34. Michael Napa, CA

    Airbags saved me from serious injury on two occasions; they saved my youngest daughter in a head-on (fortunately at relatively low speed) so rather than a nuisance, I'm very glad to have them. We also own a vintage British sports car and I often wonder if I'd rather be thrown from it in a crash, but still opt to buckle the seat belts, even if they're not required in older cars.It's foolish to count on your own abilities when there are too many mindless fools. And while some may think it's their right to be reckless, they ought to consider their loved ones, and the first responders who have to try to rescue them from their own mistakes.

  35. Tom Lisbon, Ohio

    This is what happens when auto writers don't check their facts. Aside from all the aforementioned errors I'd like to point out that the third brake light was required on all cars beginning in 1976...not the mid '80's as stated.

  36. Randall smith Ft. Wayne IN

    I despise the rear passenger windows that will not come down more than half way as well as the door locks that kick in automatically when you put the car in gear.

  37. jim cunningham Mays Landing N.J.

    Everyone seems to have Forgotten the most annoying women's voice saying please fasten your seat belt or the door is ajar.

  38. Al Zak North Georgia

    You forgot the short term on GM cars, in 1974-75, when the car would not start unless the Driver's seatbelt was buckled. That was a supreme annoyance. Don't get me wrong, I always use my seatbelt, but the thought of that system was so offensive to people that it was discontinued part way through 1975 and the offer was made to people, who already had a car with it, to disconnect the system so only the light would operate. Another major annoyance is the "Skip-Shift" feature on GM cars with manual 6 speed transmissions. Thank God that it is easy to disable.

  39. Joseph Savard Lake Orion, Michigan

    I have had 3 vehicles (2002 F-150, 2010 Explorer and 2010 Ford Fusion) that have a function built into the right front seatbelt that locks when they are pulled out too far. This is to enable persons putting child seats in, to lock them in place. This function is used ONLY when a small child is put into the front seat, I would guess maybe 1/2 of 1% of the time. Whenever a full-size adult leans forward slightly too far the same thing happens, and when they lean back, they are TRAPPED, and must completely remove the seat belt and allow it to fully retract before it can be be put back on. This is INFURIATING and happens 2 or 3 times a week to us. I would think it FAR more practical to redesign this function such that when putting in a child seat, you could push a "Latch" button to lock the belt!

  40. Doug Ohio

    Back in '86, my buddy bought a 1980 Ford Pinto that had a "high-mount central brake light" at the top of the hatch--ahead of the 1986 model year mandate. The car was white with beige interior, stick-shift, and had been a Post Office vehicle in Pennsylvania. For what it is worth...

  41. mike Olean NY

    side wing windows and rain drip guards. you can't drive with the window down today w/out getting soaked. and the breeze from those wing windows was great. and if your a smoke you could actually flick your ash out the wing window and not burn your back seat.

  42. Zippy Baltimore

    Nobody remembers Automatic Lap/Shoulder Belts? What a soul-sucker they were. My contemporary peeve: Stupid "safety first" modern Volvos that illuminate the tail lamps in the daytime, rendering the stop lamps far less effective. Their entire lamp housings are aimed at the sky, where sunlight washes out the lamps. Their owners usually ride around with their fog lamps constantly on, which also illuminates the left stop lamp, further reducing the contrast between brakes On and Off. The complete idiotic assembly is the most unsafe rear lamp combination I've ever seen (and that includes 6v BMWs, which is saying something!)

  43. Mike Guertin Wethersfield, CT

    My parents had a 1940's Pontiac (I think it was a 1946 Silver Streak) with a rear window wiper, way earlier than the 1972 date mentioned in the article as "invented" by Ford.

  44. ROGER VANHOY Wsahougal, WA

    Third light for brakes was standard on all Chrysler product cars from 1940 through 1949. Another fact not checked before printing.

  45. Ed Labounty Long Island NY

    Bought a new Olds 88 in 1985, no third brake light, the next year had them. Glad I do not own a modern manual shift car, never push clutch pedall in when starting an old car. Early cars had the hand brake depress the clutch pedal upon application???