There’s no doubt that today’s cars come with a lot of excellent safety features: airbags, seat belts and directional signals are standard on every car. I also like having the rear backup camera! That saves many an unwanted “Uh-Oh!” All of these additions are great.
But I still recall with fond memories some of the standards found on the cars from the 1930s — my grandfather’s old Ford — through the 1970 models. Air vents, chrome bumpers and sturdy metal running boards along the doors of each car and truck. If you backed into someone, there was no paperwork or insurance involved. No yelling, no foul, no harm, no expensive replacements of full unit panels, paint jobs, headlights or sensitive engine parts. The most you might have was a very slight scratch on a bumper.
Today, the same blow can result in needing to have the entire fender replaced, a paint job and possibly a new headlight or two installed. Our little fiberglass body shields we now rely on to protect our cars and our bodies can’t match a good steel frame and bumpers.
I really do miss the running boards.
I’ve always felt I was of average height: between 5 foot 4 and 5 foot 5. I could reach the taller shelves by stretching, could cover a good bit of ground in a few long strides, was never stuck in the front or at the end of rows with the shorter members of a group, and best of all, I didn’t have to pull the driver’s seat up until I was firmly wedged under the dash to reach the car pedals. Now the years have taken their toll — as well as a couple of inches. I was surprised to find that the last time I was measured at the doctor’s office, I was now 5 foot 3. I’d like to have those inches back AND the old running boards…. especially when I’m faced with even a halfway graceful and modest attempt to climb into one of today’s trucks or SUVs.
The interior floorboard hit me about my upper hip area. No way can I lift my leg high enough to make that stretch while balancing precariously on the other. It seems that, along with the inches, I’ve also lost elasticity and some balancing ability. Nor can I boost myself backwards up onto the seat. I’d end up on the ground instead.
My solution has been to back up, take a few half-running steps up to the open door and hurl myself — or as much of me as I can manage — face-down across the seat and grab the steering wheel or the edge of the seat and squirm my way in and up to a semi-sitting position.
My acrobatics usually leave a lot to be desired, along with a good portion of my body that is still dangling out the door. The driver often senses that, like the old song, “They’ve gone about as fur as they can go.” They will offer a hand — or being more realistic — get out and come around to give me that final over-the-hump boost to get me in.
When it’s time to get out, I simply reverse the move, go to the edge of the seat, assume the old sliding board position of legs extended straight down, and let her rip! Believe me, the Royals would never approve of the method I use to enter or leave a car. The paparazzi would have a field day.
The old running boards were particularly loved by teenage boys! They would pack the interior of the car with their friends and have four or more bodies standing on the running boards, hanging on to whatever grip they could find. And away they went!
Safe? No. Secure? No. Did that stop them? No. Was that the reason that the running boards were finally abandoned? Not entirely. Mostly it was a cost factor and the increasing government regulations of safety standards required.
Those running boards were made of steel, as were the front and rear bumpers found on all vehicles. Do away with them, and the cost of production went way down. But with those bumpers firmly affixed to the front and back of your car, you felt safe and as though your way was being cleared by something like the cowcatchers placed on the front of the old locomotives that came hustling down the tracks!
A bumper or cowcatcher would have certainly come in handy the evening a deer jumped unexpectedly from the side of the road in front of our car as we were driving on the highway. It was no contest for either party. The deer was killed, and our front end and windshield were heavily damaged. The good news was that my late husband — an excellent driver — was at the wheel. He managed to stay calm, even with me beating on his arm, yelling, “Quit hitting him!” and was able to bring the car to a safe stop. We finished our trip home smooshed into the front seat along with the driver of the tow truck. It could have been worse. We could have been in an ambulance.
The only drawback with the bumpers was when they occasionally came into contact. The bumper of the back car would slide up and over the bumper of the front car, and they were firmly joined like the antlers of battling deer at mating time. The usual solution for getting the bumpers apart was for a couple of men to stand on one bumper and jump up and down and try to get them to snap apart. Often it worked. The locked deer antlers, you just went on your way and left it to nature.
The side window air vents were discarded with the advent of air conditioning for cars. Would I prefer air vents today on a hot, muggy Missouri summer day over the wonderful cooling breeze blowing from a well-operating air conditioner? I may be nostalgic for some of the old ways, but I’m not stupid. I’m among the first to say, “Turn the air conditioner up to cool the car before we get in.” I’ve burnt the backs of legs on hot car seats and had to hold the steering wheel with a handkerchief until it cooled too many times to want to give up that modern convenience and comfort.
But at the same time, air vents were handy when you just needed a little breeze flowing in, and they could be adjusted to direct the airflow to save a hairstyle or blow in the face of an offending smoker!
I still have a visible scar on my left hand, that I got from a cracked air vent as a kid. I was pushing on the vent to adjust it when the crack split, and the fatty part of my hand went skidding down the splintered glass. I’ve never had a cut from an air conditioner.
So, I’ll keep my air conditioner, thank you and be grateful for it. But I would really love to see the return of the running boards and the sturdy chrome bumpers. They were both convenient and served a practical purpose. I might even get up the nerve and take a little ride around the block, standing on the running board again. I’ll pass on jumping up and down on locked bumpers.
Janet Douglas is the former managing editor of The Farmington Press and has served as the newspaper’s “”Around Town”” columnist for many years.