Boomer-Era Dashboards: Testing Our Metal

A heat wave descended on most of the country this past week (Keeping Our Collective Cool) and that got Mister Boomer thinking about the times, as young boomers, we would enter our parents’ scorching-hot car interiors. Chief among the heat-amplifying materials of the interior was the dashboard, which, more often than not, was made of metal.

Dashboards were around before there were cars. The earliest dashboard was a flat piece of wood affixed to the front of a carriage, intended to keep rocks, mud and debris from hitting the carriage passengers. When the first automobiles were being manufactured in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the interiors were either designed to mimic carriage interiors, or were contracted out and made by carriage companies. The dashboard, then, served the same purpose in a horseless carriage as on a horse-drawn carriage.

The first instrument to make it into a dashboard was a clock. Originally, the wooden dashboards had a leather holder into which a pocket watch could be placed. Next a glove compartment was added, first as a leather satchel attached to the dash with leather straps, then as a box built into the dashboard. Since cars were open to the elements, hats, gloves and goggles were a necessary part of the driving experience. The glove box allowed a driver to keep these items in the car. By the time cars became enclosed with a roof and doors, the dashboard had attained more function as the place where the steering column was affixed; then as engine performance increased, a speedometer was added around 1910. By the 1920s the dashboard began to take on more of the characteristics of what we knew as young boomers: speedometer, odometer, engine gauges, radio, clock and glove box. Dashboards were no longer just flat boards. They were being shaped and designed along with the cars, each unique to their brand. Modern materials like plastic, chrome and steel made their way into the designs.

As youngsters, boomers recall when dashboards (like the cars themselves) were so big that things could be placed on them like a table, between the dash and the windshield. Luxury cars like Cadillacs and Lincolns may have offered full- or partially-padded dashboards in the 1950s, but for Mister B, as probably most boomers, the cars of the Everyman — Fords, Chevys, Dodges and Plymouths — came equipped with dashboards of solid metal. Portions of the dash could have recessed panels emblazoned with the car’s model name, but were always painted in a color that either matched the car’s exterior or, if the interior was a contrasting color, the interior.

When hot summer days meant wearing shorts, you’d have to avoid touching even the bottom of a dash with your knees, especially as a passenger. The same held true for placing a hand on the dash while entering or exiting the car. The metal, baking all day in the sun, was just too hot to touch. This meant you couldn’t use it, in times before cup holders, as a place to set a cold drink or anything else other than a hat.

In an era before seatbelts were mandatory, the dashboard was hardly a safety feature. While it may have been the last line of defense to stop a passenger from careening through a windshield, its steel construction was not going to offer any comfort in an accident. It would be decades later before air bags were placed into dashboards.

Today dashboards are mostly made of plastic. The padding on the dash is secondary to other safety features, such as its collapsible design and air bags, intended to protect a car’s occupants in case of a collision.

In our day, the dashboard was our individual instrument panel that allowed us to take flight as soon as we could drive. We often personalized our dashboards by adding extra gauges; installing custom music options like 8-tracks; placing kinetic figures like hula dolls and animals with bobbing heads on them; adding radio station stickers, car performance products decals and specialty paint jobs. The size, shape and metal composition of boomer-era dashboards gave us that opportunity.

Dashboard styles are another indicator of the boomer era. What memories of dashboards flash through your minds, boomers?

One thought on “Boomer-Era Dashboards: Testing Our Metal”

  1. I worked at a factory that fabricated some of the ‘newer’ dashboards in the ’70s. They were some of the first injection molded plastic dashboards, over which padding was placed.

    My first two cars had metal dashboards. I had a felt sign that read “Drop Dead” which I attached to the dashboard ash tray. Behind the small felt sign i placed a $5.00 bill for emergencies. Remember this was before the widespread use of credit cards,and certainly not by a teenage male. (The concept of an ATM or debit card was only a glimmer in a banker’s eye.)

Comments are closed.