Tail Fins, Hood Ornaments, and Other Classic Car Features You Don't See Anymore

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Car features have changed quite a bit over the years — sometimes they have to. Automakers would've been just fine including or eliminating seat belts, building front ends that could impale the average pedestrian, and blinding drivers with glare from their own dashboards before Ralph Nader wrote “Unsafe at Any Speed” in 1965. While the safety concerns he highlighted helped eliminate some auto features, others just fell by the wayside as tastes changed. We looked back at the cars of the past and discovered a wide range of features you just don't see anymore. 

Related: 14 Car Innovations We Could See in the Next Decade (And One We Won't)

Rear-facing Seats
1960s Lincoln Continental Convertible
1960s Lincoln Continental Convertible by Herranderssvensson (CC BY-SA)

Rear-Hinged Doors

Before seat belts, rear-hinged doors were infamous for putting a passenger on the pavement if they weren't shut tight when the car was in motion. Auto safety restrictions dispensed with them for a while, but updated versions have appeared on Rolls-Royce, Porsche, Honda, Toyota, Mazda, and Mini vehicles. Once the norm on cars such as the 1967 Lincoln Continental, it's now mostly a nostalgic feature on newer models.

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Glove Box Mini Bar

Glove Box Mini Bar

The 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham became infamous for its magnetic minibar in the glove compartment. Considering that the U.S. didn't actually consider drunken driving all that serious of an offense until the 1970s, the minibar likely wasn't completely absurd in the “Mad Men” era.

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Tail Fins

Tail Fins

General Motors got the idea to put fins on a 1948 Cadillac after designers got a peek at a Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter plane, and more vehicles added “stabilizer” fins to cash in on the Space Age. As more children were seriously injured by sharp protrusions on parked cars, automakers spent the 1960s rounding off the edges. Today, unless you're driving a Chrysler 300 or a Cadillac sedan, there isn't even a hint of tail fins in the marketplace.

Related: 12 of the Classiest Cadillacs Ever Made

Rolling by Alexander Nie (CC BY)

Pop-Up Headlights

Back when headlights were roughly the size of streetlights, the best way to keep them from messing up a car's design was to hide them. The 1936 Cord 810 was the first to use retractable headlights (cranked by hand, no less), but '80s and '90s kids remember them on everything from the Nissan 240sx and Mazda Miata to the Corvette and Ferrari F40. Early 2000s GM vehicles saw out the trend as automakers embraced projection and LED headlights inconspicuous enough to keep out in the open.

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Foot Dimmer Switch
wachira aekwiraphong/istockphoto

Foot Dimmer Switch

From the late 1920s until about the '80s, you stepped on a little switch on the floor to make a car's headlights go from low beams to high. (If you lived in the Northeast or Midwest, you inevitably replaced the switch after rock salt tracked in during snow season rusted it into uselessness.) And when automakers moved from rear-wheel-drive to front-wheel-drive and space in the foot well got cramped, the switch migrated to the signal mast on the steering wheel.

Crank Windows


Ashtrays were in front and rear consoles, seat backs, and door handles for generations. With only 16% of the U.S. needing them in 2015 (compared with nearly 25% in 1997), the ashtray became more of a luxury than a necessity. You might still be able to get a “package” installed for this habit, but you're better off just picking up an ashtray for one of your car's many cup holders.

Related: 33 Products You Never Thought Would be Obsolete


Flower Vases

In the early 20th century, there was no Febreze. To keep a luxurious car smelling nice, you added bud vases to a dashboard or passenger-side window and let flowers do the work. Sold in jewelry stores, auto parts stores and, eventually, in production vehicles, the vases and their flowers helped keep the air fresh and the interior gorgeous. The practice was revived briefly by Volkswagen in its New Beetle in 1998, but it stopped the practice again in 2011.

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Big Trunks

Big Trunks

Back in 1961, Popular Mechanics found more than 25 cubic feet of trunk space in the Buick Special (25.5 cubic feet), Chevy Bel Air (29.7), Dodge Dart (31.6), and Mercury Meteor (32.2). Today? It's difficult to find a car with more than 20. Though there are vehicles that prioritize cargo, even many SUVs today have trouble competing with the Cadillacs of yesteryear on trunk space.

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Glove Box “Cup Holders”

Glove Box 'Cup Holders'

When you opened a car's glove box from the 1960s through about the 1990s, you'd see two small, circular grooves that passed for “cup holders” in their day. You used them at your peril, since a glove box door isn't the sturdiest of resting places. Engineers eventually devised better, more stable ways to carry beverages in vehicles.

Related: 10 Useful Car Features You Probably Didn’t Notice Before

Horn Rings

Horn Rings

This chrome ring attached to the steering wheel was believed to be a safety device: Instead of taking a hand off the wheel to hit the horn button in the center, a driver could stretch a finger or thumb to honk by tugging on the ring. While it's believed driver's-side airbags killed the horn ring, it was Nader's “Unsafe at Any Speed” that took them to task as baubles whose designers never considered that the rigid, pointy ring could impale itself in a driver's chest.

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Car Lighter


Like the ashtray, the free, push-in heated-coil lighter that came with every car for decades has been fading for decades. They've been relegated to a utility port for phone chargers and other devices, and Hyundai decided back in 2013 to do away with them altogether in favor of USB ports.

Related: Best Portable Battery Chargers

Hood Ornaments

Hood Ornaments

Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Cadillac, Chrysler, and other automakers used to display their logos as hood ornaments, which started as “radiator mascots” on a car's radiator cap. They weren't aerodynamic, they were easily stolen, and, as Nader suggested, could do serious harm to a pedestrian. Only Rolls-Royce retains its ornament, and the Spirit of Ecstasy retracts under the hood when the car is parked. 

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Front Bench Seats

Front Bench Seats

You might see a bench seat in a pickup truck today, but they used to be in everything from sedans and sports cars dating back to 1911. Why are they gone? For one thing, you no longer need a couch in your front seat when theaters outnumber drive-ins by around 5,548 to 305. Floor-mounted gear shift and center consoles need room too, and most importantly it turned out that people like the comfort of bucket seats.

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T-top on a Corvette Stingray
T-top on a Corvette Stingray by Alfvanbeem (CC BY)
Manual Transmissions

Manual Transmissions

According to Motor Trend, manual transmissions now make up about 1% of U.S. car sales, though they remain far more common in Europe. While using the third pedal on a clutch-controlled manual trans used to be the default, automatic transmissions are more efficient, less expensive to buy, and easier on fuel consumption. Shiftable “manumatic” and eight-speed automatic transmissions just make automatics a bit more fun to drive.

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Wood Paneling

Wood Paneling

Wood paneling found its way onto cars and trucks first out of necessity (steel fabrication wasn't all it could have been in the early 1900s) then out of a sense of style and craftsmanship. The wood was replaced with vinyl laminate or plastic on station wagons in the '70s and '80s and minivans in the '80s and '90s; actual wood paneling has been long gone.

Related: 29 Classic Station Wagons We Miss From Childhood

Car Phones

Car Phones

First introduced by Ericsson in Sweden in 1910, then by Bell in the U.S. in 1946, the car phone was a bulky piece of technology that allowed drivers to make phone calls over a three-channel radio system. It was clumsy (80 pounds!), expensive and, until the mid-'80s, the only option. As mobile phone networks went digital and became cheaper, the need for large, factory-installed car phones disappeared.

Fender-mounted Mirrors

Fender-Mounted Mirrors

Fender-mounted mirrors are still legal in many places and still popular — among cabbies in Japan. Unless you own a classic Datsun Z or British Roadster, you probably have little experience with them.

Related: Japanese Cars That Changed the Game

Vent Windows

Vent Windows

The quarter glass vent window was once the preferred way to cool off a car ... and to occasionally break back in after locking your keys inside. But with air conditioning far more prevalent and keys yielding to fobs and even apps, those hinged vent windows have disappeared as designers go for cleaner lines and reduced weight.

Whip/mast Antennas

Whip/Mast Antennas

It was great for getting radio signals, but is that the only information coming into your car these days? Now AM/FM antennas are either hidden within the lining of a windshield or in a fin-shaped piece with phone and GPS equipment. It's the end of an era, but also the end of having an antenna mangled at the car wash.

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Power Antennas

Power Antennas

The power antenna had a moment from the 1950 through about the 1990s. While at least fun to watch rise and retract, it still is useless in an age of windshield and shark-fin antennas.

Dual Gas Tanks

Dual Gas Tanks

We have a 1984 Ford F-250 out in the driveway with two gas tanks and a switch for diverting from one to the other when the first gets low. These started going away in the 1990s, though you'll still find dual tanks in some specialty fleet vehicles, giving Ford’s Super Duty trucks the ability to hold up to 115 gallons.

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By 2016, just 16% of cars had full-wheel hubcaps. Good riddance. In the 1990s, flashy stylized wheels came into vogue and rid us of a plastic menace plaguing U.S. cars for decades. While fleet and commercial vehicles still have them, it's been a long time since cars came with the chromed steel caps Cadillac introduced in 1934, or stainless steel caps. The emphasis on cheap materials from the 1970s onward effectively killed them.

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Ford F-Series
Ford F-Series by Sicnag (CC BY)

Rain Gutters

If you own an older Ford pickup, you have rust. Why? Part of the issue was the rain gutters meant to keep rain off of side windows and out of the cab, which had a habit of just holding moisture in place and ruining the paint and roof. It's a cool feature that becomes a huge hassle when cars are simply primed and painted instead of completely sealed as they are today.

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Chrome Front Ends

Chrome Front Ends

Looking at vehicles such as the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air is like looking at works of art, though artwork doesn't typically run much risk of slamming into a pedestrian. As Nader said in “Unsafe at Any Speed,” they featured a front-end design that made it all too easy to just plow over pedestrians. “Bumpers shaped like sled-runners and sloping grille work above the bumpers, which give the effect of 'leaning into the wind,' increase ... the car's potential for exerting down-and-under pressures on the pedestrian.”

Related: 20 Most Dangerous Places in America for Pedestrians

Gas Caps Under The License Plate

Gas Caps Under the License Plate

Automakers used to hide gas caps behind just about anything to ensure they didn't interfere with a car's design. Tucking them behind hinged rear license plates was a popular choice, with General Motors and Jeep doing so until the mid-'90s. But when Ralph Nader noted that cars with fuel systems in the rear were fire and safety hazards, automakers began backing away.

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Motorized Seatbelts

Automatic Seat Belts

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration required some sort of passive safety feature in cars of the '90s. Since automakers were reluctant to add airbags, we got these: shoulder straps that moved automatically along the roofline when car doors opened or closed. They resulted occasionally in some embarrassment and were potentially dangerous.

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Cd Changer Magazines

CD Changer Magazines

In the days before the iPod, iPhone, and streaming of any kind, you had to actually bring CDs in a car with you. To avoid changing them by hand meant springing for expensive multi-disc changers with magazines — now dirt cheap on eBay — if you've bought a '90s classic or never ripped your CDs to digital files. Automakers are ditching CD players altogether, and the CD itself is slowly fading from relevance.

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Headlight Wipers

Headlight Wipers

The Saab 99 introduced headlight wipers back in 1970 to deal with inclement European weather conditions. The combination of wipers and washer nozzles worked, but even in Europe they're starting to see waning demand.

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Analog Gauges

Analog Gauges

Yes, gauges with needles — but speedometers, odometers, and tachometers are just as susceptible to the digital revolution as any other piece of technology, and the days of “pinning it” to the top output are ending. At least drivers get precise readouts of their average speed to and from the grocery store.

Related: 32 Lies Your Mechanic Has Told You

Hand Brakes

Hand Brakes

The safety or emergency brake was doomed once there weren't enough manual transmissions left to make them necessary to prevent rolling, and now that hill-holder technology keeps cars from rolling backward on inclines. Sure, it's fun to pretend it’s there for fast and furious getaways, but hand brakes are basically redundant at this point.

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Spare Tires

Spare Tires

At one time, a spare tire was just that: a spare, full-sized tire. Run-flat tires, with either automatic sealing or reinforced sidewalls, are making headway and automakers have included smaller “doughnut” tires for years, but many automakers just go with patch and inflation kits. With roadside assistance programs more standard and car weight on automakers' minds, the spare tire is getting squeezed out.

Related: What's the Best Place to Get New Tires?

Audible Turn Signals

Audible Turn Signals

Automakers are phasing out the little clicking noise heard after flicking on a turn signal, which dates back to the 1930s and used to be made by springs, chips, and relays that confirmed turn signals were working. Computer-driven cars don't need that, but it's still a good reminder for people who tend to leave their blinkers on.

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Metal keys are becoming superfluous — start/stop ignitions and electronic key fobs are the new norm. Vehicle doors unlock automatically when a fob is nearby, and once inside, you can just push a button and go. Mazda and Ford are among automakers that have created apps to start and unlock cars remotely using smartphone apps.

Cb Radios

CB Radios

During the 1970s fuel crisis, drivers could find stations that still had gas by talking to truckers over citizens-band radio. This popularized the CB, which starred in songs such as “Convoy” and movies such as “Smokey and the Bandit.” During the 1970s and '80s, several U.S. automakers made the CB a factory option, but the practice faded in the late '80s as car phones and then cellphones grew popular. To replicate the experience, just call someone and use silly names for minutes at a time.

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