By on December 12, 2013


Gordon Buehrig’s design of the Cord 810/812 was revolutionary for its day. One innovation was that it lacked running boards, something automobiles had featured almost since the dawn of the motoring age. I’m guessing that the origin of running boards has to do with the fact that in the early days car bodies were typically mounted right on top exposed frame rails, putting the body up high, and the running boards were used as step to get up into the interior. From a design standpoint, they also visually connected the front and rear fenders, creating one flowing line. What was stylish in 1913, though, wasn’t necessarily au courant in the mid 1930s. Also automotive design started getting more formally established in the 1930s, with GM and Ford both having in-house design staffs by the end of that decade. Based on the then young science of aerodynamics and the related streamlined aesthetic, new shapes started appearing on cars.

1937 Cord 812 Roadster

1937 Cord 812 Roadster

One of the clearest points of departure was the lack of running boards. By the end of the 1930s they were seen as old-fashioned, an impression that was helped along by the Cord and other futuristic designs of the day. The Pierce Arrow Silver Arrow show cars from 1933 had bodies with mostly slab sides (except for the rear fenders) and no running boards. The five ’33 Silver Arrows that were built were so revolutionary that the production Silver Arrow of 1935, which borrowed styling from the show car, still had footboards.



Another show car, perhaps the most important prewar show car because it was General Motors’ first “concept” car, Harley Earl’s Buick Y Job of 1937, also lacked running boards.

y job img_0153_r

By the end of the decade, with the introduction of the smooth sided production 1939 Lincoln Continental, running boards were on their way out.


It would take until after World War II for the transformation to be complete, but as far as I know, no all-new postwar car designs had running boards.

The growth of the SUV market brought running boards back to make it easier to climb in and out of utility vehicles’ high seating positions, but those are trucks and we haven’t seen anything like that on cars, until recently. Ironically, what is bringing door sills on cars back is what got rid of them in the first place, aerodynamics. Back in the 1930s, designers were going more by common sense than by using wind tunnels, and a smooth, streamlined look seemed logical and was indeed consistent with what early aerodynamicists like Paul Jaray were espousing. Today, however, automotive designers know that smooth isn’t always aerodynamic. Just look at all of the odd appurtenances hung on modern Formula One racers, and high performance road cars have sprouted spoilers and splitters as well. Now side sills, which cosmetically look pretty much like running boards, are starting to appear as well.


The Ferrari LaFerrari has what some call undertray sill extensions. Those are narrow  compared to carbon fiber sills on the McLaren P1, essentially continuations of the splitter up front.


The McLaren P1 and Ferrari LaFerrari hybrid supercars both have aero effective side sills, and if you look at the photos from last week’s reveal of the all-new 2015 Mustang, it has sills as well. I’ll have to wait to find out from Ford engineers if those side sills are actually aerodynamic or just for looks, but whichever they are, they look aero and no car designer ever minded his or her design being associated with the look of a much more expensive car (Tesla designer Franz Von Holzenhaus told me that his Model S “looks completely different” from the front end of current Maseratis, but he smiled broadly when doing so). Since car designers (and their bosses) are some of the most faddish people on the planet, I think we can expect more running boards, er, aerodynamic side sills to proliferate on performance cars and those with sporting aspirations. We’ll be seeing the Z06 version of the new C7 Corvette next month at the NAIAS in Detroit.  The ZR1 version of the C6 ‘Vette had sills and from the teaser photo that GM has released it looks like the next Z06 will have aero “running boards” as well.


Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

19 Comments on “The Return of the Running Board...”

  • avatar

    The coolest “running boards” are the retractable type some install on their SUVs and trucks.

    On cars? Umm… no. Those side “pockets” shown above on the high-performance cars can carry your cat or your small-to-medium dog – with proper restraint, of course! Dogs would probably love being out there. Cats? Not so much.

    • 0 avatar

      Those retractable running boards on luxury SUVs and pickups are pretty cool–until they get frozen shut or packed with that filthy gray street-snow up here in MN. Nerf bar-style steps, with some space between the step and the frame, are the most practical, since you can easily kick the snow out through the space. The only trucks that really look good with running boards are one-ton duallies where the board extends all the way to the rear fender. Like this:

  • avatar

    Another side benefit of running boards is they help keep spray off the bottom sides of the car protecting the paint better. Not sure if it helps much on the cars shown here though.

    • 0 avatar

      In the early days of motoring the benefit of running boards was that they kept the spray of mud from entering open-cockpit cars as you drove down roads that were inevitably unimproved wagon trails.

      These modern iterations look more like long and narrow winglets that would be easy to break off, unlike Depression-era running boards that could support a few Thompson-toting gangsters.

  • avatar

    It wasn’t that long ago that many mass-market cars had black/unpainted “lowers” (or sills or running boards or whatever you’d like to call them). The same goes for rub strips, which are often black in the rest of the world, but painted in the US. It’s an easy wayt to make a car look more upmarket for cheap.

    I think a great mass-market luxury example is the 7-series Bimmer, which oddly held onto the black lowers until around 2001 or so (E38, arguably the last good-looking one before the Bangle era). In today’s context, it looks quaint, but that was the norm for quite a while, and for a lot of manufacturers.

    I personally love them because they’re practical and help the car blend into the ground, sort of a visual transition strip. They can also be scrubbed with harsh chemicals, and the portion on the bottom of the door–if utilized–protects the paint and metal from dings when opening the doors uphill, or into a sidewalk/curb.

    • 0 avatar

      The black “lowers”, as you call them, are still common. Designers love them because it makes the side of the car look visually shorter (less slab sided), and with CUV’s gives the impression of increased ground clearance.

    • 0 avatar

      My first car had them (’92 Accord). I thought they were a brilliant idea. Then everyone started painting them on the “upmarket” versions. I never understood that.

  • avatar

    Now we just need to bring back the TAILFIN! Come on Cadillac, be brave and stretch those rear quarter panel creases up another 2 to 3 inches.

  • avatar

    Good article Ronnie. The difference between racing aerodynamics and production car aerodynamics is those various appendages are used to generate downforce, but with an increase in drag.

    Two examples I found in putting together my display are the 1983 Ford Probe IV concept car and the Ford GT from two decades later. Both are only 43 inches tall to reduce frontal area, and they resemble each other in general side profile.

    But, the Probe IV had narrow tires, fully skirted wheels, and other design details that gave it an extremely low Cd of 0.153. In comparison, the Ford GT had a large spoiler in the back and small chin spoilers to generate downforce, along with its steamroller wheels, it gave it a Cd of 0.39. (The Cd of a typical production sedan is around 0.30.)

  • avatar

    I think stylistically this is more an homage to the splitter extension as shown via McLaren.

    One other design benefit may be that it allows the body color to stop “higher” giving the car slightly less vertical heft. Given the relatively high beltline on most modern cars, this has a bit of a slimming effect for the car’s body, while simoultaneously retaining a more aggressive posture by subtly extending darker bodywork lower/wider.

  • avatar

    Another great article with a lot of great pictures. I can’t wait to see a bunch of gansters swinging their machine guns around and spraying the street while standing on the running boards of their new Lambo. It’ll be a return to the good ol’ days.

  • avatar

    Something to do with endplate effect, or merely cut the air flow from the sides under the car.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    The 1st generation New Beetle has them keeping with their retro look. For some reason almost every time you see one they are banged up and scraped. The new version still has them but they seem to look more substantial.

  • avatar

    So, when is a running board not a running board and just a stylish effect? To me they are different things. A running board is a functional appendage that assists with entry and egress of the vehicle. It can be stylish and it can have a dual purpose as a type of mud flap. The other is a stylish sill or splitter extension that serves no real function but may aid in the aerodynamics of the vehicle. I’m just not seeing the relationship of the two.

  • avatar

    You know, this is the only site that ever posts anything about the historical and technical aspects of car design. I appreciate these and the Vellum Venom series quite a lot.

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • RHD: Agreed about the lack of colors. A lot of new vehicles look like they just clearcoated the primer.
  • stuki: In a world in decay, “dated” is a compliment.
  • stuki: Competing head on with Camry and Accord, like competing with Google in internet search, has to rate among the...
  • RHD: That and the nearly useless “truck bed” make this a non-starter. I saw one on the road a week ago,...
  • RHD: You are right about that! A facelift is all it needs to recover the sales volume. “Polarizing” is...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber