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Meeep!

By Ian Nance - posted Wednesday, 1 November 2017


This is a sound which may well confirm how all things change; a sound growing increasingly more commonplace in our traffic-cluttered environment, a sound many drivers of modern vehicles cause when there's an emergency on the road, a reason to give some form of warning, or even just to tell someone you're waiting for them outside their home!

But in what way have things changed in this car horn sound realm? Let me indulge in a little nostalgia as I explain.

In my childhood I used to enjoy helping my grandfather and uncle tinker with a wide variety of cars. My grandfather had been a marine engineer and my uncle had a good knowledge of things mechanical, sothey both put their skills to use in their well-equipped little home workshop, active in the hobby of repairing and subsequently selling what we would now call old cars - De Sotos, Chevrolets, Dodges, Buicks, Chryslers, Hudsons, Fords.

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There was a feeling of mechanical solidity about the design of many of these vehicles, some with canvas hoods, others hard top, most with running boards ranging from rather wide to agility-demanding narrow, some having extra passenger carrying ability in the opening "dickie" seat on the chassis rear, but all having the characteristic smell of leather upholstery and a mantle of individuality about their design and shape.

As an impressionable youngster who was still mastering the riding of a bicycle under these same relatives' tuition in the quiet back lane behind their home, imagine my delight when I was also taught how to operate a few of these restored cars. Particularly those which I had to learn to start by crank handle and for which I needed to understand the physical hazard of doing it incorrectly, then going on to the awareness of the need to advance or retard the spark by use of a control mounted on the steering column.

What a total change to today's starters and automatic ignition systems!

As well as the overpowering impact of the bodywork and upholstery smells of these old vehicles, there was the aural impact of their various horns, all gutsy and attention-grabbing in their call.

They ranged from the klaxon with its classic "ah-ooo-gah" yell, to the low pitched "barp" of an electric horn, the "woop woop" of an occasional ancient bulb horn mounted near the driver's window, or a symphonic blend of two different pitched tones in an electric powered horn.

A common feature was that none were quiet or tonally enjoyable; the overall range of car horns of that era was an outcome of the leading carmakers in the US and Great Britain who enjoyed massive sales and became standard-setters for the industry.

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In a manner a little like their distinctive name badging, the sound of a vehicle's horn conveyed instant image association –you didn't have to sight the car to know its brand, merely listen to its horn sound.

But today, that's almost gone in the move to uniformity by the pathetic high pitched modern "meeep" of stock standard vehicles. Nowadays, it is almost only because of the conscious efforts of owners who don't wish to sing from a common song sheet that alternative horns with dual tones, or truck air horns, bring a touch of distinctive individuality to mass production.

I'm not decrying the advantages and economic benefits of quality controlled and designed products but suggest that, particularly with an item so emotionally targeted as the purchase of a motor car, perhaps more of a distinctive difference could be given to how it sounds, and the engine resonance could be partnered with a differentiating note of its horn.

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About the Author

Ian Nance's media career began in radio drama production and news. He took up TV direction of news/current affairs, thence freelance television and film producing, directing and writing. He operated a program and commercial production company, later moving into advertising and marketing.

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