The Automobile Really Hit its Peak in 1940. Here Are Five Reasons Why. – David Conwill @Hemmings


I recently read that Toyota has switched all its remote-starter systems for vehicles built after November 2018 to a subscription-based model. Owners have apparently been finding that out the hard way as their three-year introductory period expires and suddenly their key fobs don’t work.

Technically, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’ve never owned a Toyota or a vehicle with remote start. The times I’ve used such technology, it’s been nice for cold days when you don’t want to trudge out to warm up a cold car. On the other hand, a lot of jurisdictions are banning that type of behavior anyway.

Still, I’ve seen the steady creep of subscription-based everything that has come in the wake of near universal smart-phone usage. Some of it makes sense. If something is being constantly updated and improved, that costs money. Somehow, though, I doubt remote start is changing much once it’s installed in a car. Mostly, subscription-based models just seem like a way for companies to turn a one-time purchase into a constant stream of income and I’d rather opt out of that, thanks.

That got me thinking (or ranting) about how most improvements since 1940 have been mere refinements and how much I dislike forced obsolescence. In the interest of positive thinking, though, I decided to take the opposite tack. Here are five pieces of technology that were standard in U.S. automobiles in 1940 and have never really been improved upon, especially in terms of adjustability and rebuildability.

The Down Draft Carburetor

Up to 1932, virtually every automobile used some form of up-draft or side-draft carburetor. These were largely fine from a user standpoint and even had the advantages of packaging, gravity-feed fuel, and almost never flooding the engine, but they were a major airflow restriction. Chrysler introduced the down-draft carburetor in 1929 and the industry soon followed.

Carbs don’t play well with modern emissions standards (at least not if you want any performance), but from a user standpoint, they’re simplicity itself, requiring nothing more than a vacuum gauge to achieve near-peak tuning. The truly detail obsessed can use a wide-band O2 sensor to really get things dialed in, it’s just a matter of turning wrenches and screwdrivers instead of inputting computer code.

The Headlamp

1940 Mercury. Courtesy

Headlights or headlamps, regardless of what you call them and even in six-volt 1940, the seven-inch sealed beam was perhaps the perfect lighting solution for 90-percent of American drivers. I suspect anyone who has driven in the past month likely knows how out of hand the modern lighting situation has become. We’re glad you can see the road, folks, but the rest of us would like to as well.

It happens 1940 was the model year in which the sealed-beam headlamp became standard on automobiles. Later in the 1950s, smaller versions for quad applications became legal, and still later a rectangular version was the standard. Now there is no standard that’s worth a damn, and nobody can see. Just buy a spotlight, people. It’s what they did in 1940.


For many years, electrical systems were the biggest reliability gremlin in new cars. It’s still far from a non-issue, but the basic standard electrical system of 1940 carried on for decades until all of you people started demanding your car navigate for you and order your latte ahead at the next exit.

Since the late 1920s, the charging element had been a standalone part of the engine system. By 1939, that charging element was a three-brush six-volt generator—by 1956 it had become a 12-volt generator; and in the 1960s a 12-volt alternator. Initially, battery charging was regulated by a simple cut-out—which usually resulted in over-charging. In the mid-1930s, the adjustable, mechanical voltage regulator had come along. It remained the standard through the 1960s and was replaced more for manufacturing economy than as a true improvement.

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