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Q&A with Kit Foster: April 16, 2015

Q. At first there were open touring cars, and after 1926 convertibles and roadsters. My first car was a 1942 Plymouth convertible with an “automatic” hydraulic reclining top. I have not been able to find out the year or make of the very first “automatic” reclining top. Does anyone know?

— Dave Reader, via e-mail

A. The history of open cars, touring cars, convertibles and roadsters is a bit more complex than your first sentence implies, particularly as manufacturers didn’t have a standard way of defining the various styles. As to the first “automatic” tops, which I think refers to power-operated tops, the Chrysler History website ( claims a first with the 1939 Plymouth. A Vintage Chevrolet Club of America forum explains that Chevy had vacuum-operated tops in 1940 and ’41, electric tops for 1942, and a hydro-electric system from 1946 onward. Ford had vacuum-operated tops for 1940; by 1946 the Club Convertible and Sportsman shared a hydro-electric system. Marque experts, feel free to chime in with your make’s history with power tops.

As another exercise, what was the first car to have a power-operated top on a convertible sedan?


Q. I am a member of a car club in Vermont that began in 1953 called “Vermont Automobile Enthusiasts.” I am also the editor of our monthly publication Wheel Tracks. Another member recently brought an item to a meet and we made guesses but would like to know exactly what this item is. We think it is for cigarette butts, but the pull-out tray is plastic. There is a fitting that might hook up to a vacuum hose. Would the smoke go into the engine? The whole device is about 14 inches long and 4 inches wide. Where would it be mounted?

— Gary Fiske, Enosburg Falls, Vt.

A. Yes, it looks like a butt collector that uses engine vacuum to pull the dead smokes into a collector jar. Some smoke will be pulled into the engine, which won’t harm it, and I expect the plastic part is a type of Bakelite, which has a high melting point. It has been used for household ash trays, after all. The device is an early environment-friendly accessory, removing the smell of old cigarettes from the car and keeping tossed butts from littering the countryside. I expect you could mount it under the dashboard, wherever it would fit and where the “ashtray” could be reached by smokers.


Q. The car pictured here is clearly a 1956 Cadillac, but the dual headlamps perplex me. Dual headlamps were not introduced until the 1957 model year by Ford, Chrysler, and Nash, and then only on an optional basis, where permitted, as some states did not allow them. I think Cadillac did offer quad lamps for ’57, but only on the Eldorado Brougham. GM did not introduce dual headlamps until the 1958 model year, and they were standard equipment (by then, all states had revised their laws to permit them).

So how did this 1956 Cadillac get these dual lamps? They almost look aftermarket, as the styling of the lamp bezels doesn’t quite look GM.

— Patrick Bisson, Flushing, Mich.

A. I think they totally look aftermarket. I haven’t yet found conversion kits for Cadillacs, but I have 1958 J.C. Whitney catalog that offers kits for 1957 Fords and Chevys. From memory, I think that Mercury and Lincoln were the only Ford brands with optional “four-eye” installations in 1957, and I believe Nash just said to heck with the holdout states and offered only vertically stacked dual headlamps. I have read time and again that “14 states” prohibited duals in 1957, but I’ve never seen a list naming them. Does anyone know?

To submit questions to this column: E-mail or mail to: Q&A, c/o Angelo Van Bogart, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990-0001.

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