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From hanging dice to spoilers, accessories come and go

Alan Cross looks back at the history of aftermarket modifications

Avatar By: Alan Cross October 11, 2021
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When my mom finally handed over the keys to her 1973 Ford Pinto, I knew I had to do something to bring the much-maligned pony up to my 16-year-old standards. With little money to spend on real modifications, I headed to Canadian Tire.

By the time I was through, the Pinto sported several kilometres of pinstripes (less than $10), storage thingies that strapped onto the sun visors ($7.99 each), a faux leather steering wheel cover ($8.99) and a tire cleaner compound ($5.99) that made the wheels look blacker and meaner.

Accessorizing cars is as old as the automobile itself. But as cars became more popular, more people wanted to personalize their wheels.

A hundred years ago, the most prestigious aftermarket accessory was a radio, with the very crude first non-factory installations showing up in 1922 for $200 U.S. (equivalent to $3,250 U.S. today).

White wall tires — tires with a circular white stripe tracing the outline of the wheel to provide contrast with the black of the rubber — first appeared around 1914 for horse carriages. Ford then offered them as options ($11.25 U.S., about $225 U.S. today) in the spring of 1936. They lasted as popular options well into the 1980s and are still available as special orders from aftermarket suppliers. To keep the sidewalls nice and bright, drivers installed curb feelers, little metal whiskers extending from the car, to give an audio warning that you were coming too close to the curb and thus risking a scuff.

White Wall Tires

The modern bumper sticker, probably the cheapest way to accessorize a car, first appeared after the First World War. A silkscreen printer from Kansas City, named Forest P. Gill, adapted new self-adhesive materials to create stickers that could serve as rolling advertisements. By the early 1950s, not only were they used to tell everyone what tourist attraction you visited, but who you supported in an election. The 1952 presential race between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson was the first to use such campaign stickers.

The iconic fuzzy dice on the rear-view mirror was a product of both 1950s car culture and returning soldiers from the Second World War. Fighter pilots used to place a pair of dice on the instrument panel, both as a token of good luck and a reminder that every mission was a “roll of the dice.” When the pilots got home, they kept up the tradition. In some places, rolling up to a stoplight next to another car with dice hanging from the mirror meant that you were ready to race.

Dice

In the era before radio antennas were embedded in windshields, they were long, slender pieces of metal rising out of the car’s body known as “whips.” In the 1960s, antenna-toppers were the rage. They could be a piece of foam in a particular shape or something like a coloured ping-pong ball. The originators seem to be Union 76, the chain of gas stations with an orange ball as part of their logo. Starting in 1962, they started giving out millions of these things.

Audio gear made huge inroads starting with the first 8-track players installed by Ford in 1966 Mustangs, Thunderbirds, and Lincolns. Cassette players, better speakers, subwoofers, and amps would follow over the decades. And for a while in the 1970s, a CB radio was the coolest thing to have. My dad’s 1978 Dodge Magnum had a factory unit in the dashboard.

The 50s, 60s, and 70s were boom time for customizers: Fat tires, custom rims, flaming paint jobs, sunroofs, body kits, aftermarket engine modifications.

At around the same time, spoilers started sprouting on trunk lids. The 1968 Plymouth Superbird, a NASCAR-inspired street machine, had a huge wing that extend higher than the roofline. Porsches’ “whale tale” first appeared in the summer of 1974 on the 911 Turbo. Spoilers continue to be popular today, both as sophisticated factory options and aftermarket installations, even on vehicles where they serve no practical purpose.

The purpose of a rear spoiler is to create downforce on the rear wheels to increase traction, thereby making it easier for the engine to put power down on the road. A rear spoiler does nothing if your car is front wheel drive.

Spoiler

There must be a zillion car accessories available today from the classic (like a dancing hula dancer or a waving cat for the dashboard) to “car lashes” for headlights (blame inventor Dottie Small of Park City, Utah). When it comes to dressing up your ride, the sky’s the limit.

But if you’re still just 16 and mom just gave you the keys to the Kia, you might want to wander around Canadian Tire to get yourself started.

Alan Cross is an incurable petrol head who also happens host the rock radio documentary series, “The Ongoing History of New Music” for Corus Radio. Find him at www.ajournalofmusicalthings.com

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