DTW celebrates an endangered species.
Around forty years ago, when I was eighteen and the proud owner of both a newly minted driving licence and my first car, they were to be found on high streets and in shopping centres across the country. I’m referring to car accessory shops, those wonderlands of shiny treasures, not to be confused with their dour and distant cousin, the motor factors.
Motor factors were austere, gloomy and slightly intimidating places where almost nothing was on display. The merchandise was instead piled high on tightly packed aisles of steel shelving at the back of the store, guarded by a slightly grumpy guy who stood behind a chipped black Formica counter.
With, apparently, little time to waste on pleasantries, he demanded precision and decisiveness from his customers. If you didn’t have the part number of the component you sought, he might have to consult his dusty micro-fiche reader, much to his annoyance and the irritation of the impatient bloke in greasy overalls behind you in the queue.
Car accessory stores were completely different. They sold sensible spare parts such as spark plugs and contact-breaker points, brake pads and fluid, oil and filters, anti-freeze and radiator hoses, but this was complemented by a dazzling array of items with which you might personalise and improve your car, all temptingly set out on display before you. I whiled away more hours than I care to admit to in such places in an attempt to beautify the demanding new love of my life, my 1973 VW Beetle.
For the novices, there were tree-shaped pine air fresheners, furry dice (why?) and even furrier seat covers, padded leather(ette) steering wheel covers and gear knobs that were “perforated for extra grip”. There were also in-car bins that straddled the transmission tunnel, held in place by nothing more than two miniature sand bags, and spherical compasses that were attached to the windscreen using a suction cup and a bit of spit. (Has anyone in the Western World ever undertaken a car journey using a compass to navigate?)
Once you had exhausted the possibilities offered by items that required no discernible skill to install, you graduated to the stick-on selection. There was the ubiquitous roll of green transparent self-adhesive film to tint the top of your windscreen. Sounds simple, but it was tricky to get on straight and without air bubbles. It was also possible to personalise the strip with the names of you and your current squeeze above your respective seats. Sadly, even a carelessly applied strip was still likely to outlast many young romances.
Next up came the stick-on pinstripe or coachline. Superficially simple to apply, these required a degree of forethought and a steady hand, otherwise the result could be rather random walk. I recall an acquaintance who set about this task after a few swift Sunday lunchtime pints, with predictably hilarious results. Fortunately, the damage was undone a day later with a hairdryer, white spirits and lots of patience.
One rather weird accessory I recall was a metallized rubber strip that attached to the rear bumper or valance, so that the other end trailed along the road. It was supposed to alleviate car-sickness by discharging to earth the static electricity that built up in the moving car. There was a cheap, if noisy, DIY alternative to this, simply bolting a length of chain to a rear bumper bracket and allowing that to rattle along in your wake. I have no idea as to whether or not either was effective. I cannot recall the last time I saw one fitted to a car in the British Isles, but they appear to be still popular elsewhere.
More advanced accessoristes could move on to items that involved drilling into their car’s body and/or cutting into its wiring loom (yikes!) to install. Spot, fog and/or driving lamps were a great way to make the front end of your pride and joy look more distinctive and imposing. At the other end, reversing and/or rear fog lamps were a popular upgrade for poverty-spec models that didn’t come with these items fitted as standard.
Inside, a radio or, even better, a combined radio/cassette player, was a must for entertaining and impressing your friends, at least until it digested your favourite tape. Fitting the telescopic aerial for this required taking your life in your hands and drilling a large hole in the front wing. A particularly ham-fisted acquaintance of my late father made three attempts at this before the aerial would clear the inner wing of his formerly pristine MG 1300. The two redundant holes were crudely plugged with a lumpy poultice of body filler and chicken wire, much to my father’s quiet amusement.
Additional instruments in a pod or, even better, a centre console finished in black leatherette, would lend your Escort 1.1 deluxe a sporting air, even if you never got around to actually connecting them up.
The electrical side of the installation was also fraught with danger for the uninitiated or careless. Often, the first sign of trouble was the faint smell of melting plastic and wisps of smoke billowing out from under the dashboard when the ignition was switched on and your wiring loom began to melt!
Before heated rear windows became commonplace, one could buy a rectangle of transparent plastic you affixed to the inside of the rear screen by means of an adhesive strip around the edges. This had no heating element, but relied on the fact that the plastic, separated from the glass by a trapped pocket of air, would never get cold enough to attract condensation. It worked, up to a point at least.
It was superseded by a self-adhesive foil heater element that stuck to the glass. Getting it square and centred on the inside of the rear window required the agility of a contortionist, especially in two-door saloons. Assuming it didn’t just fail to stick because your exertions had covered the rear window in condensation, it worked only until you forgot yourself and vigorously cleaned the window, tearing through the fragile foil strips. (Yes, dear reader that was I.)
Car accessories, like most things in life, were subject to the whims of fashion. In the 1970’s three-metre long glass-fibre ‘whip’ radio aerials that attached at one end to the front wing, at the other to the roof gutter using a little metal clip, so forming a smooth arc between both points, became irrationally popular. Inevitably, the clip would break or get lost, so the aerial would stand bolt upright or whip around wildly in the wind until some vandal broke it off.
Alas, the independent car accessory shop as I knew it is slowly disappearing. The reasons for this are manifold. Modern cars, even the entry-level versions, come with a range of standard equipment that was undreamt of forty years ago. Moreover, only a lunatic (or someone suitably skilled) would hack into a modern car’s CAN Bus wiring system and risk a computer meltdown and/or an invalidated warranty.
Long gone are the days when I happily tinkered with my car, replacing plugs and points, oil and filter, adjusting the timing and, of course, accessorising. In a decade of Porsche ownership, I’ve never even seen the engine bay of either of my Boxsters and doubt I ever will.
Although there remains a hard core of skilled customisers who gather in car parks on Saturday nights to show off their handiwork and annoy the local constabulary, most young people these days either don’t bother to drive or, if they do, regard their cars as personal transport appliances, nothing more. The Internet and that large chain of out-of-town car part (and bicycle) superstores has mopped up much of what remains of car accessory business.
43 thoughts on “Accessorize!”
Thank you for a lovely ramble down memory aisle, Daniel! I was too young to drive in the true hey-day of the accessory shop, but I remember wandering around in my father’s wake, fantasizing about all these things while he looked for something sensible like oil, or an electric torch. (If there is one item that has been improved beyond all measure by electronics, I nominate the electric torch. Today’s LED torches offer a reliability,battery life, and cheapness beyond comprehension in the seventies.) The accessory shop offered too an olfactory experience of rubber, plastic and cheap polish that somehow eludes modern superstores such as Halfords.
Those windscreen tints: does anyone else recall the outburst of “I shot JR” slogans at the end of the decade? They are firmy associated in my mind with Escort MkIIs and lime green Corolla K30s. Or were they an Irish phenomenon, like Big Tom and the Mainliners*?
* A country music performer. Rural Ireland may be geographically distant from Nashville, but the genre has a always had a strong following here, and plenty of local acts.
Good morning Michael. You’re right about old torches with incandescent bulbs and zinc batteries. It was a racing certainty that whenever you needed one in an emergency, the battery would be flat, and probably leaking acid all over the contacts too. It didn’t help that they were just acidic poultices wrapped in thin card. Remember these?
My goodness, Big Tom and the Mainliners, that takes me back. Here they are from 1990:
Never my taste in music, but they were hugely popular back in the 1970’s. It was a more innocent world back then. I don’t think that group name would work today now having an unpleasant association with heroin addiction.
Fun fact: Big Tom, dubbed ‘The King of Country and Irish’ (which is a genre of C & W music over here) hailed from Castleblaney Co. Monaghan, home also of the Shamrock motor car. Given the canny chanter’s predilection for the trappings of Americana, one could perhaps have pictured him driving one. For those whose tastes run to this kind of thing, there is a statue to the great man in Castleblaney town centre. Another post-Covid destination for you all. All part of the free DTW service…
Thanks to you Michael, I’ve got ‘Four Country Roads’ rattling round my brain now. I hope you’re pleased with yourself.
Oh, yes, I do indeed remember those wretched batteries!
Eoin, my apologies! I never meant to do that to you!
Ah, the memories! Self-adhesive bullet holes – very popular in the wake of “Bonnie & Clyde” hitting the silver screen (silver screen? When did that descriptor die out?); a subtly curving line of them across a door or the boot lid suggested the driver was at the very least a devil-may-care boot-legger.
I limited myself to covering the sides of my Heinkel with fake woven cane – just like a Radford Mini……
Hi JTC. Maybe I’m a bit prudish, I think these are in really poor taste:
This, on the other hand, is lovely!
I think those bullet holes are in bad taste, but they’re well done, if that makes sense.
The Mini is nice – I wonder if it was Peter Sellers’s. The wicker work reminds me of the Renault 4 Parisienne, a bit.
I put an aftermarket shift knob on my galant, and fitted some “racing” alloy pedal covers.
naturally, the boot was filled with subwoofer and rear parcel had been upgraded with bigger speakers.
the stock mod for kids back in the early 2000s (when i got my licence) was to replace every grille opening with alloy mesh and start slathering fiberglass on the front and rear bumpers to make the cars more fast and furious – it was also important to never finish this process, and just drive the car around with unpainted fiberglass all over.
the accessory stores also sold vinyl tribals to add to your doors, but those were only for the truly dedicated.
Hi Bjarne. Apparently, one of the hardest spare parts to source these days when restoring a 1980’s car is a rear parcel shelf without holes cut out for speakers, such was the fashion for aftermarket audio systems back then.
“Good morning [Insert authors name]”. (What a patronising and irritating comment opening line that is Dave). I dread scrolling down to comments on DTW. ‘Ah yes there it is’. Please don’t troll your contributory authors. Anyway, your own article was enjoyable. Thank you.
Dear ckracer, thank you for your comment. This is certainly a turn up for the books. The idea that we could incur the displeasure of our readership for excessive politeness genuinely never occurred to me. Still, above every grey cloud is blue sky, since it clearly offers us another potential mastheader. “Driven to Write: Still the World’s Most Patronising Motoring Site”. As you can appreciate, in the highly competitive online environment, standout is all. Therefore I am indescribably grateful. Thank you.
Kindest regards, The Editor.
I do apologise Eóin I did try to delete after posting but unable.
Funnily enough it was his comments on your contributions that seemed to grate. Perhaps I misread the sincerity. Still a little out of character for me. I even called Daniel Dave 🙈I asked Word Press to remove my comment. If you can please do. Keep up the good work. Have a great Christmas. Christian.
Seems it’s still a ‘thing’ in certain car-subcultures and more likely on certain models – especially in the worlds of Jeep, P-T Cruiser, older Vitara/Jimnys and Rav-4s, though the parts must mostly be mail-order as they seem mostly model specific.
I saw this KIA ‘thing’ a couple of years in our local DIY Hypermarket carpark – the owner was a slight looking older gent and really not the sort you’d expect to be so partial to ‘bolt on goodies’ (as we used to call them back in the day).
It’s really quite something to behold
Good morning Huw. I think that gentleman has too much time on his hands!
That sort of thing used to be more common when car accessory shops were much more numerous than they are today. They brought out a ‘magpie’ tendency in certain people, an irresistible attraction for shiny things.
That’s fantastic. I wonder what his house is like…
Carlos Fandango Super-Wide Wheels, anyone?
I wish I could find the Vauxhall accessories print ad from the ‘80s – it’s wonderful.
Good morning Charles. Another great YouTube video, thank you! How do you keep finding these gems?
Thank you, Daniel. It’s odd what one remembers, although I think that the ‘60s through to the ‘80s was a high point in witty creativity for print and film advertising..
In France we have Roady, which does all the accessories you’d want — and the adjacent fitting bays will add your chosen wheels and tyres, within reason as there’s strict regs nowadays.
Nice post, Daniel. I experienced the unique smell of these places as I was reading it.
The only accessory I’ve fitted to my car, if you can even call it an accessory, is rubber floor mats. Call me Mr Boring.
I’m struggling to think of a single mod that ever improved the external appearance of a car. Spoilers were big once, figuratively and literally. They were called spoilers because they spoil the design of the car.
For a long time I thought there were a lot of cars driving about with broken rear passenger side glass, until I finally caught on that the black fabric stretched over the window is a sun blind for the “baby on board”.
I don’t get the current trend in certain circles for putting similar black fabric around the nose cone. You used to see that in Hans G. Lehmann’s spy photographs of prototypes undergoing hot weather testing in Arizona. I don’t think that can be the reason. Don’t get me started on plastic eyelashes above headlights…
Hi John. The ‘car bra’ as it’s known, used to be a very common sight in the US:
They are intended to protect the nose of the car from stone chips, but what’s the point when you’re disfiguring its appearance so comprehensively with the bra anyway? Who are you keeping the front end chip-for anyway, the next owner? Car bras are probably bought by the same people who never remove the protective vinyl cover from their new sofa.
I think they have been supplanted by tough self-service transparent vinyl that can be applied to the front end in the manner of a ‘wrap’.
As for plastic eyelashes above headlamps:
Seems fine to me…😁
Strange that no-one’s mentioned furry dice yet….. I’ve just dug out a copy of the Daily Mail review of the 1961 Motor Show: in the accessories section is a “compact Radio Aerial” which “clips to the top of a door window in a matter of seconds” and comes with a 3-way universal plug to fit “any type of portable Transistor Radio”. The ultimate in-car infotainment system – and yours for 32 shillings & 6 pence (£1.62½)!
Then there’s a “County Car Plaque” (a rectangular plate showing the county name and crest) with the blurb: “Most people are courteous to strangers – County Car Plaques tel them at a glance – makes drivers more patient to the stranger in town.” Yeah, right – were we ever quite that naive?
Oh yes, the accessory shops. That really brings back memories. Man, what a lot of (life) time and money I wasted.
In the early days of my automotive life, these shops were too expensive for me (accessory instruments) and many of the things on offer there were already somewhat lacking in real utility for me back then (sandbag holder for the dashboard).
So the “customisation” had to be done with existing on-board equipment.
My first vehicle, a VW 1200, therefore had to undergo down-stripping. Fortunately, it came from the factory in a blue colour, so a “conversion” to Gulf-Porsche was an obvious choice. The first thing I did was to give it a matching start number. In the further course, all chrome parts inside and outside were removed, of course also the wheel covers and bumpers, and an orange stripe was painted over the bonnet, roof and boot lid – at the front with a sweep widened under the headlights.
At the end of the conversion, the Beetle felt at least 3 km/h faster – downhill.
The second vehicle, an R4 in dark green, was too short in my hands to be upgraded. It was supposed to be incarnated in a Gordini look, but the wheel carriers rusted faster than I could stick a coloured stripe on the windscreen. An unfinished project.
Its successor, a Skoda 100, got an extensive conversion into the streamlined look of the 30s and 40s (I’ve posted the pictures here before), and the interior got an upgrade with (homemade, of course) wood applications. Here I was able to enjoy the finished project for a few weeks before the car started its officially appointed journey to the scrapyard. It died much too young.
A Panda of the first series followed, which was given additional headlights from the accessory shop. But just screwing them on was not my thing. So a new “radiator grille” was built with openings for the headlights, which were elaborately mounted between the radiator and the grille. The interior (the pocket in front of the windscreen, seats, side trim) was covered with expensive woollen fabric. Even the carpet was replaced by an expensive floor covering made of wool. Needless to say, the instrument panel also got a new design in Artdeco style.
A brand-new Citroen 2CV got the chrome headlights of the Charlston series and painted running boards from the, then sinfully expensive, Citroen accessories trade. And, of course, the interior was painstakingly upgraded by hand with an elaborate dashboard.
The second Panda, series 2 with 1000 cc Fire engine in red, was transformed into a “250 Berlinetta” (Ferrari’s nomenclature, the content of a cylinder in cc – ok, they had 12, whereas I only had 4…). Lowered (shorter springs), yellow rims, painted bumpers, the whole repertoire up to “double headlights”. There were still some ideas for transforming the interior, but other things became more important.
After that, however, things got a bit quieter.
A first-series Uno Turbo was comming already screaming enough from the factory, so there wasn’t much to “improve” and vehicles like a Peugeot 203, a Ford OSI or Alfasud Sprint are classics, you don’t touch them. So no self-adhesive bullet holes, even if it sounds ironic at first…
The photo with the blue fur is hilarious!
Hi Fred, I thought the photos of your early cars deserved another airing, so here they are:
I love the spats on the rear wheels of the Škoda and the two-tone paint job
Another accessories reminder:
The Uno Turbo had a “Crushed Critter” wedged in the tailgate.
A (half) stuffed cat that looked like it had jumped into the boot and the flap closed too soon, so only the rear end and tail were visible. Although it was only half a stuffed animal, it cost about twice as much, of course.
Laughable – like many things in the 80s.
But some people felt provoked, so it was also kind of useful.
Especially popular hobby amongst Trabant owners. Can’t blame them for it, some interpreted this as a duty to finish their newly delivered automobile to at least ’70s standard in the ’80s after years of waiting. The list of available aftermarket stuff was obviously not long, but rally-like foglamps, heating devices, smoker’s accessories and electronic upgrades were common, although these parts came with an incredibly high failure rate (most East-German electrics was DoA fresh out of the factory, so it was recommended to check it out right in the car park before the shop).
Oh and I almost forgot the most important: steering wheels! Before the advent of airbags you could just pop in a new MOMO and the interior of any car instantaneously felt like you are in the world champion car of Walter Röhrl. Opel Manta owners often got mocked for it.
Hi Laszlo. It wasn’t just Eastern-bloc electrical and electronic equipment that was below par in the 1970’s and 80’s. A lot of stuff we got in the West was pretty shabby too. The standard of quality and reluability we now all take for granted was driven by improved technology, but also by much stronger consumer protection legislation.
If you bought something that proved to be faulty from the get-go, you often found yourself facing an insinuation that you had damaged it somehow when you attempted to return it. Those certainly were not the ‘good old days’ as far as I’m concerned!
I have to admit to being mildly terrified of air-bags. The winged logo in the centre boss of our Mini’s steering is very slightly misaligned, rotated a couple of degrees clockwise from the horizontal. I’d happily adjust it if I didn’t worry about triggering the airbag and I keep forgetting to mention it when the car goes in for a service. Still, I’ve lived with it for six years and there are bigger things to be concerned about…
Daniel, as with your recent item about second hand car sales, you’ve triggered another wave of nostalgia in me. I was asked, as a car-mad 14 year old, if I would like to work part-time in an independent car accessory shop in Rochdale. One of the items that we sold a lot of was clear plastic boxes containing ignition points. And the associated feeler gauges, of course. There were perks, such as complementary tickets to the Earls Court motor shows, and a Duckhams anorak. Your correspondent Michael is spot on about the olfactory experience – I can still smell the rubber mats and the oil. The company also had a filling station. The most common transaction, especially on pay days, was “a pounds-worth, please”; back then, in the late 60s/early 70s this bought just over three gallons. Happy days.
Hi Dale, I can recall exactly the combination of smells to which you refer. Near to where I grew up in Dublin was a combined garage with petrol and diesel pumps and a hardware store, the sort of place that sold everything from oil and creosote to nails and chicken wire. The combination of metallic and petrochemical smells was a world away from today’s sanitised environments. That said, in the town where we now live we still have a traditional hardware store and builders merchant, which is like a step back in time, but in a good way in this case.
I too can relate to the scent of rubber since my father had a career with Firestone in the fifties/sixties where I would frequently roam amongst racks of new tyres. Even today sixty years on when visiting a tyre outlet the memories come flooding back!
On the subject of accessories he once owned an old Dodge pick-up with an aftermarket steering wheel that had a palm sized handle mounted in a ball-bearing circular rim integrated into the left hand wheel spoke that allowed speedy turning, Steering ratios at the time required several turns of the wheel.
I’ve seen no end of steering knobs but never one inbuilt!
Interesting topic. To be honest the whole accessorizing thing has passed me by completely. All the cars I’ve owned were unmodified when I bought them and I kept them that way. The biggest changes I made were to my first car: A BMW E30 Touring, which I owned for a little over nine years: I fitted a fire extinguisher, a genuine BMW item that was gifted to me as my dad traded in his E34 for a Merc. When he traded in the Benz I got the Becker radio that replaced the rather basic Blaupunkt unit that was there before.
For those who never experienced the JC Whitney catalog.
These are jewels of the automotive history! I must admit that white cat would be a top hit amongst my daughters.
But over to “grip king”. I suppose this is supposed to be turned on only on low speeds ( you would run out of grit very fast otherwise). Absurd as it looks it has some sort of logic into it, after all, grit is just thrown in the road, right? Does anybody have any experience with it, does it actually improve traction?
I guess that had it been effective it would end up as standard equipment in colder climates…
Grip King is excellent. How much sand is needed to handle a 10 km drive? Or did one turn it on and off as required?
Just ordered me new Taycan with the Grip Kind addition as well as a Winky. The salesman said I didn’t need either as the car is adequately equipped with this kind of equipment at the factory when built. But how could you not?
But I wouldn’t be seen dead in my new Porsche with a barefoot accelerator pedal . How gauche…
Cracking article and some wonderful comments. Full marks all round, everyone!
Good morning Daniel: thanks for that post. It made me think of motor factors and the one on Morehampton Road, Dublin which precisely fitted the description.
It was a one-story shop with a corrugated iron roof at the end of a row of big 19th century houses and next to a large grassy area that belonged to a convent. It was a throwback to the 1950 when there was a kind of semi-rural vibe to the area around Waterloo Road and on to Donnybrook. I haven´t looked in for a while but I think it´s still there which is amazing given the tendency for such businesses to go big box and suburban.
The Irish Yeast Company held on for about ten years into the 21st century but even by 1989 it was a shop from the Victorian era. Back in D4 a few minutes’ walk from the Motor Factory was the Wee Stores that was run by ancient old lady until 1990, long after the supermarket chains arrived. These coelecanth enterprises are fascinating. You find a lot more in France, Germany and Italy. Around 2010 in Bern I saw a dairy shop – they only sold milk and cream and yoghurt. In Denmark butchers are nearly extinct which is why the row of butchers between Dun Laoighaire and Sandycove is a joy.
The accessories shop is still alive in Denmark and whenever I go in they are busy. As to accessories, I can´t think of any I need to add to my car or any car I have had, other than a compass for when I cross featureless expanses of tundra or the Nullarbor Plain. OEM´s must have a reduced line of accessories – is it me or did 80s Fords and Opels have more additional kit available than now? I don´t think I´ve seen any new cars with obvious dealer accessories appended. The one item I think every car needs is fitted luggage. My OCD does not tolerate the little wedges of air left over when I try to pack luggage in a few cases (and avoid anything to do with blue Ikea bags and plastic sacks).
I could buy a decent Kappa Coupé for what Lancia were charging for its beautiful leather fitted luggage set 25 years ago.
Richard, I remember that one too! I recall buying spark plugs or something like that in there in the early noughties. I’ll keep an eye out and check on it next time I’m passing there (which might be a while the way things are going!)
I can’t find an image, but as well as the “crushed cat” that Fred G Eger mentioned, you could buy stick-on fingertips as though you had someone trapped in the luggage compartment. My grandfather had a set on his Montego, though I think they disappeared when some youths used it as a free taxi to get themselves to town. My local accessory shop (now gone) had the fingertips in white or black, which could have added an uncomfortable element if they did not match the race of the driver.
Was it common for accessory shops to have a wall of stereos, or was that just a certain national UK chain? Sadly I got accused of shoplifting when I last visited that type of shop, and the independents have closed, so that smell is one that I will be unlikely to experience any more!
After working in the “Stores” of Audi NSU in 1969 I went on to become “Parts Sales Manager” for VW. I sold such creations as chrome rear wing stone guards, stick-on heated rear windows, fog lights (Lucas of course) chrome rear grille embellishers ( set of 4 for the 1302s)and the very special bonnet bras (guaranteed to damage the paintwork due to movement in the elasticated part) and the wonder bit of plastic to cover the rear grilles supposedly to keep out the rain, guaranteed to overheat your engine. All this and and oil strainer gasket sets for the 3000 mile oil service. I loved selling parts but all the staff thought the accessories were not good.
Hi William. As a VW Beetle owner in the 1970’s, I remember the parts and accessories you mention. Do you recall when they deleted the oil drain bolt from the centre of the strainer retaining plate? I suppose they did it to force you to remove and clean the strainer when you changed the oil, but it made draining the old oil a very messy business, as it would run everywhere as you loosened the plate! Here’s the later assembly without the drain plug: