By on July 7, 2013

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Horns have always been a very important part of a car. They were invented to warn drivers of other drivers on the road. Horns were also invented to assist the middle finger in descriptive impromptu editorials that register drivers’ displeasure with other drivers on the road, and to engage in general non-verbal communication with other traffic participants.. History does not appear to have recorded the chicken/egg side of the equation which would sort out which came first in the automobile horn/middle finger debate.

Car horns have saved lives and cost teeth, depending upon the traffic circumstances and emotional control of drivers. An errant car horn can be an instant turbo-boost to uncontrollable road rage under the right conditions, but we still love them. Let’s see how much we do.

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The early days of automobiles featured a variety of choices like the bulb horn, the Gabriele and Klaxon horn, but the “Ahooga” sound of the Model T remains one of the most famous horn sounds. It sounded like a comedy noise from a cartoon even before we had cartoons.

I am not old enough to know whether a T horn blast at another driver produced road rage or a hearty round of laughter, but it would be difficult for me to get angry if I was the object of an angry Model T horn blast. Too many years of Bugs Bunny cartoons have made that sound mission impossible for an angry outburst from me.

I guess the same could be applied to the Chihuahua sound of a small car horn. A beep-beep horn means a beep-beep sized car and it does not provoke anger unless the beep-beep driver leans on his horn without a break in the action.

Then the horn honker gets the same reaction as a yappy Chihuahua. Eventually, tensions will rise to the breaking point, and you will have to resist a strong urge to bring some serious unhappiness into the car driver’s or small dog’s lives.

The exception to the beep-beep rule has to be the 1968 Plymouth Road Runner. The smallest engine even available in this bird was a big block 383 Magnum, and the limited menu of other ‘Runner choices were the ultra-macho 440 and 426 Hemi options.

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The Plymouth Road Runner may have had a beep-beep horn, but it was very capable of settling scores on the street right out of the showroom. The rumble of the exhaust from these cars when they were in pedal-to-the-metal street battle mode probably rendered the beep-beep horn somewhat irrelevant in the bigger picture.

Most car guys still crave the big horn sound found in most North American cars from the golden post war era of the 40s, 50s, and 60s. These babies were noise-makers of the first order, and sounded like a slightly modified train horn on some cars.

The classic car horns were big, bad and beautiful when they were unleashed on the roads of yesteryear. Maybe they were unable to wake up the dead, but they came closer than any séance.

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So let us celebrate the life, and mourn the passing of the classic car horns from the past. They were great while they lasted and so were the front teeth of people who used the horns too much.

For more of J Sutherland’s work go to mystarcollectorcar.com

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25 Comments on “Car Collector’s Corner: Honk If You Love The Classic Sound Of A Real Car Horn...”


  • avatar
    gslippy

    My Leaf came with a lame beep-beep city horn, but after some research I replaced it with a good aftermarket product that sounds like a mid-size car or minivan – much better and entirely suitable. An EV shouldn’t invite added derision by having a weak horn.

    • 0 avatar
      NormSV650

      Well, it was sort of fitting on Leaf, no?

      With my V8 engine cars with performance exhaust I just rev the engine. The rumble brings their eyes from from their phones.

      I took off the piezo horn off my Suzuki for a Stebel Nautilus 139 db. I don’t mind the added delay but when it’s sitting a couple of feet from your ears it’s loud even with earplugs in.

      But seldom use the horn unless I’m a few cars back at a green light that’s gotten moldy sitting for so long. I just drive around them keeping both hands on the wheel.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    in 1970, my sister owned a 1962 Mercedes 220 with twin horns (bought used, as-is, $695, needed 40 lbs. of bondo, 3 cans of spray paint and a clutch). One day a woman pulled out in front of her and she hit the horn. It was so loud, the woman froze in fear, and my sister barely braked in time. She had one of the two horns disconnected.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    The purpose of a horn is to ask for someone’s attention for any number of reasons. How another person reacts to that request is determined by how worthy you and the situation are for that person’s attention. If the request is a warning that will result in the saving of his own butt from doom, a quick evasive maneuver will ensue followed, maybe, by a slight wave of the hand indicating “My bad, sorry” and life will go on. However, if the situation is deemed not worthy of the other driver’s attention, be prepared for an opposing viewpoint…

    Choose your requests for attention carefully

  • avatar
    Summicron

    I don’t need a horn…

    AmpliVox car PA system blasting Carpenter’s hits.

    Parts the metal sea.

    • 0 avatar
      Lie2me

      Crazy works too…

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        I had a CB radio with a PA speaker in my first car. All sorts of fun in the hands of a 17yo…

        My small cars all have Italian air horns. They are LOUD, attention getting, and oh so chic. :-) Of course, 2/3rds of my small cars are in fact Italian.

        • 0 avatar
          panzerfaust

          That is an interesting observation about Italian cars, which I think speaks of the motoring experience in Italy, (especially in the cities) where the car’s horn gets used as much or more as the turn signals and headlights.

  • avatar
    Windy

    in the 1950s and 60s the Bermuda bell was the popular option for signaling in many resort areas with high numbers of bicycle users on rental bikes, as many of these folks had not ridden a bike since they were kids a loud car horn was liable it frighten them into falling off right in front of you.
    The pleasant ding dong of the Bermuda Bell was the response of quite a few of the residents
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bermuda_carriage_bell
    hard to find these days in the all brass original form with foot operated plunger your best bet is eBay if you want a goof one.

    Made in india versions with rustable steel parts were sold by places like J C Whitney into the 1990s and as the thing mounts under the drivers side floor rust they did with a vengeance.

    as a cheerful and polite way of letting others on the road know of your presence, the two tone bell sound would seem to be ideal for electric cars today,,, rather amazed that someone has not adopted a standard electric chime doorbell for use in them.

    • 0 avatar
      Luke42

      The Volt is supposed to have a system like the doorbell that you mentioned, which is actuated by a lever on the steering wheel.

      I didn’t notice the lever when I drove the car, though. I was too busy listening for the electric motor and reading the MPG meter. It’s a really nice car with great NVH, but it’s a near-luxury ride that isn’t really intended as a family hauler.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    When the first Japanese cars hit mainstream America during the first gas crunch, the wimpy horns were often a source of laughter. Our neighbor pulled a three horn setup out of his Buick Lesabre before he sold it and put it in his Datsun. Talk about surprised looks! The horn relay failed due to the excessive current draw, but that was easily repaired.

    • 0 avatar
      Cubista

      This hasn’t changed. I would almost rather crash my Nissan Cube than use its horn in a public place. Now, those ’70′s era superluxury Mercedes limos driven by third world dictators and Elvis Presley…I like the idea of one of those. Sounds like the home team scored a goal in an NHL arena.

      • 0 avatar
        NoGoYo

        Yeah, dunno why Japan insists on using puny horns still. My 1987 Chevy Nova was hilarious, and my mom’s boyfriend’s 2010 Civic is still hilarious.

        • 0 avatar
          sgeffe

          Honda had cleaned up their act beginning on the 6th-Generation Accords back in 1998, but retrograded back to the Jap “meeeep” for the new Accord!

          Fortunately, replacements are available.

  • avatar
    Juniper

    When I hit the horn on my 64 Impala I’m still amazed at how good it sounds compared to my DDs horns. Although I only use it as a greeting or fairwell, not in anger.

  • avatar
    sco

    well now you’ve got me thinking. My 74 Peugeot 504 has a tooty sort of horn that may be suitable in a rural town but is probably inaudible at highway speeds. It’s actuated by pulling on the turn signal stalk so its rarely used in anger as it takes a few moments to remember where it is (maybe not a bad idea). Anyway, something with a big more presence I’m sure is readily available at any junkyard. May have to look into this

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    I knew a loud mouth guy in the 1970s who could do a pretty fair imitation of a police siren, just not as loud. I rode with him only once, since he was a super-aggressive driver, but he managed to get past four cars in line at a light that had just turned green by sticking his head out the window and doing his thing.

    I told him he should record his voice for his later, weak-voiced years, but another passenger pointed out that while imitating a siren with his voice is in a gray area, using a recorded imitation siren was undoubtedly good for a court date.

  • avatar

    Now this is a horn:

    carsindepth.com/?p=10436

    Fiamm air horns were a popular accessory for sports cars back in the ’60s and early ’70s. If they couldn’t see you, at least they could hear you.

  • avatar
    willbodine

    My all-time favorite horn is the “trumpet horns” option on 60s and 70s Cadillacs. Very distinctive and authoritative. One of the many good things that made Cads desirable before they went craptastic from about 1976 on.

  • avatar
    panzerfaust

    Speaking of the Model T horn, anyone know why Henry I chose that particular sound (other than cost).

    • 0 avatar
      Summicron

      Yeah…. given the possible closing speeds and the relative quiet in the model T era he could have just provided a duck call or kazoo.

    • 0 avatar
      cdotson

      In the early days of the motor car the primary concern and use for horns was alerting pedestrians, horses, and livestock about your approach. I’m sure the Model T horn was chosen because it was less likely to spook horses and cause a stampede than for its ability to be heard by another automobile operator.

      When I was a kid I remember my dad’s uncle’s beat up old 72 GMC had a “cow horn” installed that you pulled out like a manual choke, and as it was drawn back in under spring tension it made a “moo” noise. He used to have to drive through cow pastures a lot and the factory horn would spook the cows too badly. Since most pastures had a bull in them this could have been problematic.

  • avatar
    nrd515

    I don’t have a problem as much with the horns on my cars now as I do with the horn button that isn’t worth a crap. This is a side effect of the air bag era, but it seems like a real button, like there used to be on the steering wheel would be a no brainer.

    I loved the air horn I had on my ’72 Cutlass for about 6 months, until the junky compressor died. I loved making slow pokes jump like they had been hit with a cattle prod.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I’m one of those crazy Gear Heads who’s always loved horns and collects them off derelict vehicles , repairs them , up grades the horns on most every vehicle I own .

    Indeed , Junkyards are wonderful places to find old horns and here’s a tip : pick two horns that sound nasty when tooted separately and they’ll sound nice when tooted as a matched pair .

    I had an N.O.S. purple Road Runner horn until my then 18 Y.O. Son
    ” borrowed ” it and I never heard nor saw it again . FWIW , those were just cheap ” Spartan ” brand 12 volt forklift horns painted purple…

    ” Klaxon ” was a brand name for the motor driven horns .

    There’s no excuse not to have a good sounding , _LOUD_ horn on your DD to wake those sleepy , texting or plain old brain dead soccer moms & kids up .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Junebug

    I remember back in ’75 when my girlfriend’s parents traded their beloved Chyrsler wagon for a Chevy – the thing that they hated was the horn. It sounded like a deep cow fart, kinda like whuuuuuup or something. I got a couple horns out of the salvage yard and problem solved. I really hate the wimpy beep beep horns of today, and if I had a few bucks to spend on vanity I would buy a replacement for my Camry and my daughters’ Mazda 3.


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