Continuing in our never-ending series on famous firsts in the auto industry, here are some things you’ve probably wondered about, leading to long and inconclusive arguments with your brother-in-law. But here’s the straight dope, so you can shut him up.*
The first SUV. The first SUV to use the name was the 1960 International Scout. Arguably, there were SUVs before that, it’s just that the Scout made the ludicrous claim that it was a “sport utility vehicle.” Where was the sport part, I ask you?
Scout chief designer Ted Ornas reflects, “[T]he market potential for a four-wheel-drive recreational vehicle was an unknown quantity in the early 1950s.” And how. There were a few Army surplus Jeeps around. Actually, wouldn’t RUV—recreational utility vehicle—have made more sense as a name?
The very first SUV-ish things were depot hacks (to take people to the station) that go back to the dawn of automobiling. These hacks, often with wood bodies, gave way to haulers like the Chevy Suburban, which dates to the 1930s. And then there was the Jeep Wagon the next decade, and the Wagoneer in 1963. Jeeps were, in fact, the first objects of desire in the modern SUV revolution, but it took decades for them to gain world dominance.
The first drive-in movie. Return with me to the dark days of 1933, when the Depression was taking firm hold. People sought escape in the movies, with show songs like “We’re in the Money.” A New Jerseyite named Richard Hollingshead, sales manager at Whiz Auto Products in Camden, struggled to get comfortable in movie seats. According to History.com, he “came up with the idea of an open-air theater where patrons watched movies in the comfort of their own automobiles.” He opened the Park-In Theater in May of 1933, investing $30,000, and charged 25 cents per car plus 25 cents a person. (How long did it take people to start hiding in the trunk, I wonder?)
Hollingshead held on to his patent until 1949, but he doesn’t seem to have gotten rich off his idea. The big expansion of drive-in theaters didn’t happen until the patent was overturned, in 1949. The peak period was the 1950s and ‘60s, with the theaters having a field day with the B movies especially created for drive-ins. Today, with DVDs and Netflix, fewer than 500 exist, and they are closing all the time.
First tow truck. Having soaked up the atmosphere at the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum in Chattanooga, I’m here to tell you that the first wreckers were converted cars. Ernest Holmes, a Chattanooga mechanic, is credited with the idea. He took a three-year-old Cadillac, and lopped off the rear body work, adding a crane and pulley system. He patented the idea in 1917. From there, he launched Holmes Wrecker and sold converted tow trucks, making many improvements before his death in 1945.
First wraparound windshield. General Motors’ LeSabre and Buick XP-300 show cars were the first vehicle to sport a wraparound windshield—before that, glass was flat, and to give a bend auto designers used two pieces with a central frame. The exclusive Cadillac Eldorado offered a curved windshield for 1953 (as did the very first Corvette that same year, powered by a Blue Flame Six), and by 1957 virtually all cars had wraparounds, which allowed greater interior space and a smoother body line.
First baby seat. In 1933, the Bunny Bear company offered a line of booster seats (though they probably didn’t call them that yet). Other manufacturers seized on the idea in the 1940s and offered basic metal-framed canvas seats. These were more to help kids see out of the windows than any safety purpose. After all, no carmaker offered a three-point seatbelt until 1959.
With seatbelts becoming standard, the modern strap-in baby seat was born, and designs from Jean Ames (in England) and Len Rivkin (in the U.S.) appeared. Ford got into the game (with the Tot-Guard) in 1968, and GM with the Infant Love Seat soon after. Federal standards for child seats were adopted in 1971. Tennessee (where the wrecker was born!) was the first state to require kids be strapped in, circa 1979, and all states had laws by 1985.
It may seem like all the really cool auto add-ons have been invented, but there’s probably some huge innovation nobody’s thought of just around the corner. So, to the inventor of the next big thing, I say: Good luck, and hurry up - I need something to write about next month!
*This article may not actually be effective at getting your brother-in-law to shut up.