Fender Skirts by Neal Murphy

March 15, 2019 - I haven’t thought of fender skirts in years until recently. I was examining a few items in my toy car collection when I looked at my 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air which had rear fender skirts. I always liked the look on most of the 1940 and 1950 model cars which sported the skirts.

When I was a kid, I considered “fender skirts” a funny term. It made me think of a car in a dress. But with the introduction of the white wall tire the fender skirt just added a bit more class to the automobile. If you were born after 1950 you probably don’t know what fender skirts were. Well, they were installed mostly on the rear fenders to cover the top half of the wheel. They had both aesthetic and aerodynamic functions. Rather than air flowing into and being trapped in the rear wheel well, it flowed smoothly over the body work. According to some fans, the fender skirts improved gas mileage due to the air flow around the vehicle, however back in those days we weren’t particularly worried about good gas mileage as gasoline was around .30 cents a gallon, a fill-up costing around $6.00.

The fender skirts were detachable to allow for tire changes and installation of snow chains. Auto makers experimented with front fender skirts on the 1950-1954 Nash Rambler, but with very limited success because the front tires must pivot which caused problems.

The fender skirt innovation introduction by Ammos Northup became common after 1933. However, by the 1970s, fender skirts began to disappear from mass market automobiles. They remained for some time longer on a few cars, particularly large American luxury cars. By 1985 fender skirts would disappear from all standard GM cars. As of 2009, the last car produced with fender skirts was the 1999-2006 Honda Insight.

Thinking about fender skirts started me thinking about other items that quickly disappear from our language with hardly a notice - like “curb feelers”. Curb feelers were springs or wires installed on a vehicle which act as “whiskers” to warn drivers that they are too close to the curb while attempting to parallel park. The devices were fitted low on the car body near the wheels. As the car approached the curb, the protruding feelers acted as whiskers and scraped against the curb making a noise and alerting the driver in time to avoid damaging the tires or hubcaps. It seems that those curb feelers have disappeared from common use today.

Remember “Continental kits”? They were rear bumper extenders and spare tire covers that were supposed to make any car look as cool as a Lincoln Continental. I used to see them installed on Fords, Chevrolets, and Plymouths frequently, but no more.

When did we stop talking about “emergency brakes”? At some point “parking brake” became the proper term. But I miss the hint of major drama which went with “emergency brake”, don’t you?

When was the last time you saw a car with a steering wheel knob? I had one on my first car, a 1950 Chevrolet Bel Air, and I loved it. It allowed me to steer with my left hand and put my right arm around the girl sitting next to me. I understand that the all-knowing government has outlawed their use except for people with disabilities. They changed the name of the knobs to “suicide knobs” as they contended that in the event of a collision the knob would do a number on one’s chest.

I think that almost all the old folks are gone who would call the accelerator the “foot feed”, or the windshield the “wind screen”.

Some words aren’t gone, but are definitely on the endangered list. The one that bothers me the most is “supper”. Now everybody says “dinner”. Let’s save a great word. Invite someone to supper and discuss fender skirts.