The automobile is an integral part of modern history. From the Model T to the T-Bird, from the Volkswagen Beetle to the minivan, from the Cadillac to the Camry, the world is car crazy. But we sometimes forget every vehicle is just a collection of components. Here are the origins of some of those components.
When automobiles started appearing in significant numbers in the late 19th century, they didn’t have steering wheels—they had tillers, similar to the tillers used to steer boats. The tiller was attached to a simple mechanism that made the car’s front wheels (or wheel) turn when the tiller was pushed to the left or right. Then in 1894, a French engineer named Alfred Vacheron modified his Panhard runabout, replacing the tiller with a wheel attached to a shaft that went through the floor of the vehicle at a nearly vertical angle, where it attached to a mechanism that turned the front wheels. (The “runabout” was a popular body style—a simple carriage with no roof, no windshield, and no doors.) Vacheron drove his modified Panhard in the 1894 Paris-Rouen Rally, an early car race, and the concept of a wheel-shaped steering device spread to other automobile enthusiasts. Fellow Frenchman Arthur Krebs, one of the great innovators in early automotive history, improved on the design in 1898, giving the steering shaft the inclined configuration it still has today. (First American car with a steering wheel: the 1901 Packard Model C.)
As is the case with many automobile accessories, nobody knows for sure who came up with the idea for the glove compartment (or glove box), but automobile historians say this honor should go to the Packard Motor Car Company and their Packard Model B, introduced in 1900. At the time, cars didn’t have dashboards like the ones we know today. A dashboard, or dash, was a rectangular piece of wood, metal, or leather affixed to the front of a horse-drawn carriage to stop mud from being splashed—or dashed—onto the riders.
The dash was standard on early automobiles for similar reasons, but Packard, perhaps for the first time, changed it. An article in a 1900 edition of The Horseless Age magazine describes the Model B: “The body of the carriage shows the best possible coach work and upholstering, and the aim has been to get rid of the ‘horse wanted’ appearance. The leather dash is not used, but instead a boot or box forms part of the body. In this is ample space for parcels, waterproofs, etc.”
Other automakers soon started adding compartment-like features in place of old-fashioned dashes. The modern-looking glove compartment, with a drop-down door, first appeared in the 1920s.
Bonus fact: Credit for the name “glove compartment” is commonly given to British female racing legend Dorothy Levitt—but that’s a bit of a stretch. In her 1909 book, The Woman and the Car: A Chatty Little Handbook for All Women, Levitt advised women drivers to always have gloves handy for driving, saying, “You will find room for these gloves in the little drawer under the seat of the car.” While it’s possible this may have influenced the naming of the handy compartment, they weren’t actually called “glove compartments” until the late 1930s.
Early cars used the same type of lights that horse-drawn carriages did: oil or kerosene lamps. In the 1890s, these started to be replaced by acetylene gas lamps, which were the most common type of headlight well into the 1910s. Acetylene headlights were powered by small gas tanks, but other than that they looked a lot like modern headlights, with the flame in the center of a bowl-shaped shiny metal reflector, often with a glass covering. (Each headlight had to be ignited manually, with a match or a built-in flint striker.)
The first electric headlights appeared in 1898, on the Columbia Electric Car, made by the Electric Vehicle Company of Hartford, Connecticut. But their filament technology wasn’t up to the needs of an automobile, and these dim and fragile headlights didn’t catch on.
Workable electric headlights didn’t appear until Cadillac introduced the modern automobile electrical system in 1912, which included electric ignition and the first nearly modern headlights. The first headlight with a focusing lens—meaning a glass lens that directed the beam down the road—was the Corning Conaphore, introduced in 1917 by Corning Glass. (They were sold as accessories that could be attached to any car make or model.)
HIGH- AND LOW-BEAM HEADLIGHTS
When electric headlights became popular after Cadillac brought them out in 1912, incidents of drivers being temporarily blinded by oncoming lights became a real problem. This led to the introduction of the first “low-beam” headlights by Cleveland-based Guide Lamp Company in 1915. They didn’t work the way modern low-beams do. You had to get out of the car and tilt the headlights down manually. Cadillac improved on that in 1917, with a lever inside the car that physically tilted the headlights downward.
The first dual-filament headlight, which could be changed from normal to low-beam with a switch inside the car, was the Bilux bulb, produced by German light company Osram, introduced on German cars in 1925. Similar technology appeared in the United States that same year, and in 1927 the “dimmer switch” was…
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