Picture of Gunbarrel Highway warning signpost in Australia. The Gunbarrel presents several challenges, even today

These were much slower and less luxurious than they are now, travelling at perhaps 50kph on country roads. This meant that long distances were best avoided. Heavy suspension and the lack of shock-absorbers meant frequent stops were necessary to allow people to stretch and re-vitalize.

A trip like this one down the Gunbarrel in Australia would be an event you would need to plan very carefully, carrying extra food, water and fuel.
Nowadays, people travel this route quite frequently. It's still something of an adventure, but if trouble is encountered, it isn't too long before another traveler arrives.


Cars mostly had three or four steel gears which were rather prone to wear during gear changing. The appropriate gear was selected by the driver moving a floor-mounted gear lever into one of five or six positions. The clutch, which separates the gear wheels for changing, was operated by a cable connected to a pedal at the driver's feet.

Drivers had to depress the clutch, place the gear-stick in the correct position, wait for the gears' speeds to match, then release the clutch. Timing of the clutch release was critical - getting it wrong meant a savage jarring of the whole car, or a nerve-wracking crunch of the gears.

Picture of an  old gearbox, with the crank-handle in place. 
          Gearboxes were much simpler devices back then.Later gears were made from bronze or similar alloys which were more durable, and mechanisms like synchro-mesh were fitted to automatically synchronize the meshing.

The clutch operating cable was also replaced with a more reliable hydraulic system. The floor-mounted gearstick was largely replaced by today's column-change one that is much simpler to operate. Then, automatic gear boxes came along and most of these problems were overcome, although many drivers still prefer a manual gearbox rather than automatic.

A gear selection lever is still required to select between forward, reverse and neutral gears, and to "lock" the car into a particular gear for instance when travelling down steep slopes.


Back then in The Olden Days, it was quite common for car-owners to do much of their own maintenance on their car, In fact, it was almost a right-of-passage for any (at least,male) owner to be able to at least change the spark-plugs and oil filter, and maybe adjust the timing and tappets.
Now, I wouldn't be game to take off the rocker-cover to look at whatever's under there!

Diagram of the some of the automated devices in a modern car

There are so many computerised controls and sensors on and around the motor that I, and many other owners would be limited to changing a wheel (but not the tyre) or wiper-blades. Even changing the battery is scarey - the radio and various other things may lose their settings, requiring a visit to or by an auto-electrician!
Go to My Life With Cars for some examples of maintenance I have attempted in the past.


Trafficators were fitted 
    on many cars in The Olden Days. 
  They were small wing-shaped fittings with a light, that was extended by the driver to indicate turning.These were small wing-shaped indicators with a light inside that popped out at the left and right sides of the car just behind the driver, to indicate their intention to turn. The driver flicked a small lever to select one or the other, then restored it after turning.

I imagine trafficators reduced the sales of wet-weather gear, since it removed the need to open the window to turn or stop!

Some cars were not fitted with indicators of any kind and their drivers used hand-signals to indicate their intentions. An arm with the hand facing upwards meant stopping, and extended to the right meant turning right. Some drivers I have known extended this "sign language" to indicate turning left (arm pointing across the roof), and slowing down (same as stopping but waving the arm a little).

Air Conditioning

Air-conditioning was achieved by opening windows, and often there was a small triangular "vent window" in front of the front doors, which could be tilted to give a bit of extra ventilation.


Top speed on most family cars was around 40-50 mph, (70 - 80 kph), a fraction of today's top speeds. Acceleration too was slow by today's standards. Fuel economy was much less than today due to improvements in vehicle design and fuel quality.

Stability when cornering, which most "average" drivers tend to take for granted these days, left a lot to be desired. The car could easily start to slide, resulting in a dangerous "fishtail" effect for less experienced drivers, or roll on a sharp turn. This has been improved greatly, by the design of springs and shock-absorbers, as well as other anti-roll developments, and better tyre-tread design.

Motor oil was recommended to be changed every 1000 miles. Again, partly due to engine developments and partly to the quality of lubricants, this has increased greatly.


The steering wheel was connected almost directly to the wheels, so all of the energy needed for turning the car was provided by the driver, with a small advantage from the rack and pinion steering mechanism. This made it quite tiring to travel over winding roads. Todays steering has power assistance as well as extra gearing to fix this problem.

Similarly, braking energy came from the driver's foot, with no power assistance. The braking was achieved by a pair of brake shoes that pressed against the brake drum inside the wheel, and because of the small area of contact the shoes got very hot, very quickly which sometimes caused 'fading' or reduction of braking power. Modern cars have some of the power for braking fed back from the motor, as well as having disc brakes which have a larger braking surface to dissipate heat better.

The Klaxon horn is still fitted by many car enthusiastsThe horn at one time was a rubber bulb which was squeezed and emitted a "phweet" sound. These were replaced by the Klaxon (or equivalent) which was electrically operated and made a sound like "a-goom-phah" (excuse the onomatopoeia). Some owners still like to fit this type of horn, although most of today's cars have one or two single-tone electric horns fitted.


These were small incandescent globes, similar to those in some bedlamps these days. For headlights, there was a larger one for high beam and a smaller one for low-beam.

Switching between them was done with the "dip-switch", a small button mounted on the floor near the driver's left foot. The positioning, whether intentional or not, helped new drivers to remember the position of the foot controls more easily - in England, from right to left, Accelerator, Brake, Clutch, Dip-switch (A, B, C, D). I guess E for Exit (the door) should have been next?

Tail-lights were smaller and red, as they are now. Stop-lights were a later addition, brighter but usually inside the same cover. Flashing turn-indicators came later as well (see Trafficators, opposite).


The Ford Prefect was quite stylish, in its time. It had trafficators, 
          running-boards and was provided with a crank-handle. The windscreen-wipers 
were vacuum-operated, so struggled a bit on uphill climbs. The windscreen, which was flat, opened outward, with hinges at the top, for ventilation.
Back when the normal speed for car travel was less than half of what it is today, aerodynamics were pretty low on the list of priorities for car manufacturers. So cars tended to be square, stately,and quite high to give easy access. Windscreens were almost vertical, and flat.

Many cars were fitted with "running boards" or steps at the bottom of the doors. Their main purpose was to make it easier for people to enter and alight from vehicles. Cars had larger wheels then; this, and deeper springs, tended to give extra height to the body.

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