With how integrated cars are in our daily life, it's so easy to forget that they've only been around for a little over a century. In that span of time, there was innovation after innovation, some of which stuck and others that hardly made it off the production line. Vintage car accessories tell the story of past lives, when wearing seatbelts wasn't a thing and riding in the hatchback was commonplace. Which of these retro car accessories do you desperately wish your dealership would bring back?
Once upon a time, hood ornaments were the standard, but today they've become a sign of extreme wealth. Undoubtedly, the most recognizable hood ornament is Rolls-Royce's Art Deco designed Spirit of Ecstasy. Yet, luxury European vehicles weren't the only ones to sport these pop-up features. American brands like Plymouth and Chevrolet happily jumped on board.
Incredibly, hood ornaments weren't created with aesthetics in mind. Rather, they were a simple solution to the eyesore that was radiator caps on early 20th century cars. Think of it like putting a pretty painting in front of a hole in your wall. No one's the wiser, and you get compliments for years to come.
But why don't you see any hood ornaments on cars in most dealerships today? The answer's simple - safety. According to AAA, European investigations found that having spiky metal sculptures sticking up off of the hood of your car - the part a pedestrian would hit first - is beyond dangerous.
At one point, hood ornaments were so revered that famous designers pitched their own sculptures. Rene Lalique, the renowned Art Nouveau perfume bottle and jewelry designer, made his first of 29 hood ornaments in 1925 for Citroën, and later for Bentley, Bugatti, and more.
This vintage car accessory has possibly the worst reputation on the list, and the worst name to boot. The Brodie knob is more commonly known as the 'suicide spinner' and was a steering wheel attachment made to let people turn their wheel really quickly. Joel R. Thorp invented it in 1936, though it was Steve Brodie's outrageous stunts using the tool that got the knob its name.
Unfortunately, it was just as harmful as it was useful, earning it a bad reputation. With just a flick of the knob, you could turn the car erratically into the opposite direction, and just like when you slide on a patch of black ice, overcorrection only leads to one thing - danger.
Pistol Grip Shifter
Unlike in Europe, manual transmission cars have all but died in America. Nowadays, you really only see them in ultra-expensive vehicles or stock cars. Yet, managing that clutch and flipping between gears used to be a skill that kids learned early. Of course, if you had to use your gear shift so frequently, why not decorate it a little?
Pistol grip shifters emerged on the scene in 1970, boasting all the bravado and masculine energy that emanated from the pony cars they were built into. What better metaphor for holding your life in your hands than down-shifting with the grooved curves of a beautiful wooden pistol grip? Built completely different to regular shift handles, these heavy-duty ones were mounted to the shift lever's side.
Unfortunately, the road warrior age of the 1970s died out, and with it, the pistol grip. But, if you get the chance to hop behind the wheel of a classic car with a pistol grip, you'll race down the highway like you've never done before.
Even if you've never breathed into that handheld mic with its fuzzy reverb, you've heard the phrase "breaker, breaker." It comes from the time-honored tradition of communicating using CB radios. Whether you were a kid trying to listen in on something scandalous, a police officer calling for backup, or a truck driver keeping other drivers company, the citizen band radio was an integral part of car travel in the mid-20th century.
How could anyone resist their allure when Burt Reynolds evaded the law with one in Smokey and the Bandit? Today, our phones have more power than CB radios ever did, but they don't hold the same mysterious thrill that talking to a stranger thousands of miles away while you plowed through the countryside did.
Built-In Ash Trays and Cigarette Lighters
If you were born after the 2000s, you might not remember the days when there weren't any rules (social or otherwise) about smoking cigarettes in business, cars, or in public. It felt like more people lit up than didn't in the 1950s-1970s, and automobile manufacturers didn't have any moral hangups about these death sticks. Instead, they included built-in cigarette lighters and ash trays onto practically every economy car on the lot.
Every kid growing up at the time knows the dangers of popping out the cigarette lighter and playing hot potato with it. It might be healthier that most people aren't exposing everyone in the car to their smoke clouds, but you have to admit that there was something excitingly mature about seeing a pile of ash butts from your passenger seat vantage point.
Driving around in the 1960s and 1970s, you'd see all kinds of silly antenna toppers whipping in the wind. Huge antennas that stuck to either the hood or back of the car were the only way that cars could get a radio signal. Modern cars have reduced these antennas to miniscule looking things sitting on the rooftops.
Instead of being ashamed of these eyesores, we all decorated them with foam toppers. The one that everyone remembers today is the Union 76 topper.
The apocryphal story goes that the Union 76 gas station rebranded in the early 1960s and created these bright orange kitschy antenna toppers to promote themselves. Who'd have thought something so simple would've worked so well?
Curb feelers were the original car sensors. You didn't need to hear your car beeping at you to know you were close to the curb if you had a few curb feelers bolted to your car. These looked like little antennas sticking from underneath your car. Hilariously, they weren't really designed with function or safety in mind. Rather, it was all about aesthetic. People didn't want to dirty up their hubcaps or whitewall tires, and they used these funky gadgets to keep them away from the curb's edge.
People may wax poetic about the good old days when you didn't have to rely on a computer to diagnose any problems in your car, but one thing you never hear anyone lust after is roll-up windows. To make things even more complicated, manufacturers built a second window in between the windshield and driver's/passenger's window. This little triangle could be popped open to flick cigarette ash out of or to get some precious air blasting you in the face. After all, air conditioning wasn't a thing yet.
So, while we love so many old car accessories on this list, vent windows aren't one that we're itching to bring back anytime soon.
We've Customized our Cars for Decades
Humans can't help but want to innovate, experiment, and put their personal touch on the stuff they call their own, and cars aren't any different. Although you won't see most of these vintage car accessories outside of a classic car show, they do serve as a fun time capsule to the reckless abandon and freedom that came with driving in the mid-century.