Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Motor Robes Revisited

In July I was puzzled by a 1929 advertisement for "motor robes." We decided -- on anecdotal evidence mainly -- that these robes were for keeping passengers warm in the backseat, in the days before cars had heaters.

By way of confirmation and with a tip o' the hat to synchronicity, here's the paragraph I read last night in "Medical Center" by Faith Baldwin:
Danny and the McDonald car rolled for them at a quarter past seven. Sophie, smiling into Danny's interested eyes--she couldn't help smiling at any man and any man's eyes would have been interested--settled herself under the robe with a sigh of comfort. She said, "This is what I call luxury."
What's interesting here is not the confirmation of the "car robe theory," but rather the fact that this book was written in 1940...and they still hadn't designed a car heater. I wonder when this amazing innovation finally came about?


Anonymous said...



Adam Thornton said...

Sadly, the first invention doesn't mention a date, and the second is about a device to heat the ENGINE.

I'm still very curious. Like many with the benefit of hindsight, it seems like it should have been an obvious invention from the start.

Mantelli said...

I was born in 1953, and the first car I can remember us having definitely had a heater. I'm pretty sure the first one I remember was a 1956 Chevrolet, because I remember learning to spell out "Chevrolet". It couldn't have been too much newer than that, because we couldn't afford to replace our cars very often.

Anonymous said...

At the start of the 20's cars were very basic but still a vast improvement over horse and buggy. Most of the early cars were open tourers) but it didn't take long before they were enclosed and fitted with heaters to improve passenger comfort. By the end of the 1920's however, cars had advanced enough in terms of style, speed and beauty with high levels of comfort and safety. By 1923, closed sedans became more common than open cars making these 1920's cars more comfortable.

You can also check out page 55 of The Big Book of Car Culture By Jim Hinckley, Jon G. Robinson which offers a brief explanation.


Adam Thornton said...

In these days of instant access to all answers via the internet, it's frustrating to find those questions which AREN'T answered!

I can find out when the car heater was first INVENTED (1850 apparently), but not when it first became used commonly in cars. Lots of inventions are clunky and impractical at the beginning.

I can also find out when BLOCK heaters were invented, and when cars were more fully enclosed...

...but nothing like "The first car to be produced with a central heating option was..."

Adam Thornton said...

Errr...1850 = 1890.

And I'm wondering about when it became a COMMON feature -- common enough to phase out the "Motor Robe" -- not when it just appeared in one type of car as a wacky invention.

Anonymous said...

But one can still purchase motor robes today...although they are mow more of an affectation than a necessity.

Unless you work in my office where you need a hat, sweater and a lap throw at your desk.

Anonymous said...

My father's 1951 Plymouth had a heater (air-conditioning, too, if you counted the open windows). Didn't need a motor robe.

But I remember him telling me that his stepfather had a business that manufactured car coats in the 1930's. From what I recall, this was somewhat of a luxury-clothing item, as his fortunes dipped along with the Depression.

I don't know if the coats were for drivers, or for the passengers bundled into rumble seats. I hope I remember to ask him when I visit him next.

Adam Thornton said...

Car coats! The plot thickens (and so does the outerwear!)

I am amazed that you can still buy motor robes...does anybody have a link?

Anonymous said...

Electric Car Heater Thomas Ahearn invented the first electric car heater in 1890

Adam Thornton said...

Invented, yes, but when was it in common use enough -- and practical enough -- to appear regularly in cars?

Anonymous said...

I asked my father about the car coats and motor robes. He confirmed that his stepfather had manufactured both (he was actually a sewing contractor, not a vendor).

He believes that the motor robes were from the 19-teens and 20's. He remembers taking the car coats and carrying them from his stepfather's shop on East 8th Street, all the way to the Bowery, where another contractor would put in the buttonholes.

It's his feeling that items like motor robes and car coats were more like sportswear than actual necessities for driving. Their heyday may have peaked with the Roaring 20's economy. Of course, he was a youngster at the time.

The car anachronism of today is the "glove box." Although my father did keep a pair of gloves there (in addition to numerous other items), the gloves were almost never used.

Adam Thornton said...

Thanks, Gary! And thanks "Gary's Dad!" You often find out more from the anecdotes of those who've "been there" than you do from a Wikipedia article.

I suspect that the "fashionable" aspect of motor robes kept them in cars even after heaters became available...and maybe the heaters were insufficient during the first few years too.

I have never actually seen a pair of gloves in a glove box. I have never seen a rumble in a rumble seat either...