Drive on any road today and every car you pass will have turn signals. Whether or not the driver uses their turn signals is another matter, but each car is required to have working turn signals with flashing lights. This is such a standard safety feature in modern cars that we often forget that turn signals are actually relatively new.
Early turn signal prototypes exist, but they did not catch on. The result is that the majority of vintage automobiles, at least up until the 1940s and early 1950s did not come with turn signals. This is a problem for antique car owners who want to restore a vintage car and take their vehicle on the road. Many states will not allow it, and there are some safety concerns.
Here is a brief history of the turn signal, and the reasons why the vintage car you are restoring is missing this now-key safety feature and how you can easily add one on.
How Motorists Signaled Before the Turn Signal
As soon as Amerians started driving, they recognized the importance of being able to communicate with other drivers and set traffic standards. Horns were included on some of the first cars and cities were slowly implementing laws governing traffic.
Motorists quickly realized they needed a way to signal turns and braking. For this, they adopted the same hand signals used by bicyclists. The driver would stick his left arm out the window in a different gesture to signal:
- Left - Stick the arm and hand straight out.
- Right - Stick the arm out with the elbow bent and the hand pointed upward.
- Stop - Stick the arm out with the elbow bent and the hand pointed down.
An alternative to hand signaling was the trafficator. This bit of technology was based on the signaling apparatuses used on railroads. Drivers mounted the trafficator just behind the door with a cable that went inside. When not in use, it was flush with the side of the car. The driver could then pull the cable to raise the trafficator in the turning direction. They were more popular in Europe than America, but some early turn signal designs did use a similar idea. By 1908, trafficators had lights, although they were not the eye-catching flashing lights of modern turn signals.
Early Turn Signals on Automobiles
Trafficators and hand signals worked somewhat for signaling turns and braking, but they were cumbersome and not readily visible to other drivers. Signalling by hand necessitated keeping the windows open, which was an unpleasant idea now that cars were fully enclosed. As more drivers got onto the roads as the 1900s went on, many inventors recognized the need for a more convenient way to communicate with other drivers. The most notable names include:
- Florence Lawrence - Lawrence rose to fame as a silent film actress in the 1910s, but was also an inventor. She designed an electrical signal arm in 1915 that she placed on the back fender of her car and controlled through buttons at her seat. The brake signal arm was automatic when she pressed the brake pedal. She did not patent her device or market it.
- Naillik Motor Signal Company - In 1918, this company updated the trafficator with electricity, much like Lawrence’s invention. This was an aftermarket option on cars and auto manufacturers did not offer it as a standard.
- Edgar A. Waltz, Jr. - This is the name many people associate with the invention of the turn signal. Waltz designed a device that is similar to today’s turn signals with a switch that would turn on lights on the fender. Waltz patented the design in 1925, but was never able to sell it to anyone. The patent expired 14 years later without ever having been put into production.
- Oscar J. Simler - Simler patented his turn signal light in 1929. His device had arrows for left and right turns, a yellow light for breaking, and a red light labeled “Stop” for when the brake and clutch were depressed simultaneously. It was very similar to today’s turn signals, but few if any were ever produced beyond his handmade prototype.
- Joseph Bell - Prior to Bell, any turn signals were a solid light. Bell patented the flashing turn signal light in the 1930s as a means to provide greater visibility for other drivers on the road.
Despite the brilliance of these inventors, none of their designs really took off. A few individuals may have personally installed aftermarket turn signals on their vehicles and some more obscure auto manufacturers added them to some models, but car companies and most drivers continued to signal by hand - or not at all - for the next decades.
Turn Signals Become Standard in the 1950s
The first major car make to have turn signals come as an option was the 1939 Buick. It used flashing “directional signs” on the rear of the car to help drivers navigate traffic. In the 1940 model year, Buick added bullet-shaped front turn signal lights as well. That year, turn signals were standard on GM’s higher end cars and optional on Chevy, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile.
Other manufacturers like Ford, Dodge, Chrysler, Studebaker, and Hudson slowly began to offer turn signals as options on their vehicles. It was a feature reserved for more expensive cars in much of the 1940s, but drivers could buy aftermarket options. With many older cars still on the road and turn signals rolling out slowly on new vehicles, many cars as late as the 1950s were not using turn signals.
In fact, it was not until 1968 that Federal Motor Vehicle Standards required front and back turn signals on all driveable cars and they became the commonplace safety features we recognize in cars today.
Adding a Turn Signal to Your Antique Car
If you intend to be doing any street driving in your vintage car, a turn signal is almost a necessity on today’s roads. They are a safety feature modern drivers will expect and installing them help you avoid accidents. The DMV may also require working turn signals on your car before you can drive it. While you can still stick your arm out the window to signal your turn in some cases, adding turn signals is a relatively easy and affordable upgrade.
Vintage Auto Garage sells turn signal flashing bulbs, turn signal switches, and connecting wires to install or replace turn signals in a vintage car. We sell both individual parts and entire kits for original 6 volt systems and cars that have been updated to 12 volts. The kits make installing or replacing a turn signal straightforward with all the vintage car parts you need and comprehensive instructions.
You can browse our collection of turn signals - including older style signal switches that look authentic even when the car did not originally have a turn signal - here on our website. You can also call our team to speak with one of our vintage car experts and find out more about adding a turn signal to your classic car.