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.