Flicker Rings

Monkees Flicker Ring

Circa 1966, opening a box of cereal, or a box of Cracker Jack, or one of those plastic egg-shaped containers from a gumball machine would often reveal a plastic ring that magically made an image transform before our very own seven-year-old eyes! It was amazing, high-tech stuff that epitomized the technological age we were living in.

The rings were cheap, simple, and a hit with kids. Nowadays, originals are no longer cheap. The technology behind them was also far from simple. But Chinese-made flicker rings continue to be a hit with the latest crop of kids.

The flicker ring traces its roots back to the late 1930’s. A company called VariVue (or Vari-Vue, they appeared to use both names) began marketing a technology called lenticular images. The idea behind them was that two or more distinct images were placed under a plastic lens which had been very precisely cut with parallel slits. These slits would allow the eye to see one image at a time, and as the object was moved slightly, a different image would appear.

The result was apparent motion. It was decidedly cool.

VariVue began marketing their lenses and technology to advertisers, and flicker images began appearing on signs and billboards. By the time the 50’s arrived, you could see flicker images on pin-on buttons, post cards, book covers, and advertising giveaways.

Of course, another popular use of flicker technology was in magically transforming voluptuous young ladies from states of dress to states of undress. Of course.

Sign advertising flicker rings, would have been seen above the display of rings

You probably recall little flat pictures found inside Cracker Jack and cereal boxes. These were popular, but it was the rings that many of us remember the most fondly.

The rings were sported by Boomer kids all over the world. They were typically brightly colored, and featured characters from cartoons, comic books, and TV shows. I know that I had rings that depicted Batman, Superman, and various Looney Toons fixtures.

Flicker rings are still out there, to be sure. Today’s children continue to enjoy them, as have every generation since the 1950’s, but let’s face it: they don’t hold the same magic.

How could they? We grew up in a time when computers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and required large climate-controlled rooms for their operation. The closest thing we had to the internet was the public library. We were coming to terms with seeing TV images in color, not comparing the merits of 1080i vs. 1080p HD resolutions.

But still, it gives me a good feeling knowing that a generation of six-year-old kids is proudly wearing flicker rings, perhaps even bearing moving images of Batman, Superman, or a Looney Toons character.

When Cars Had Hood Ornaments

Packard hood ornament

We Boomers saw the decline, fall, and disappearance of many things during our lifetimes. One of these once-familiar sights that has become much more rare is the hood ornament.

Once upon a time, hood ornaments graced the exposed radiator caps of cars built in the 30’s and 40’s. They were often exquisite art deco creations, and are, of course, avidly sought after by collectors.

But as radiator caps disappeared, hood ornaments continued to hold a proud position on the cars our parents drove. And we kids of the 50’s and 60’s were used to seeing twenty-year-old automobiles, complete with hood ornaments that defined the era.

For example, flying ladies typified the 30’s and 40’s. Airplanes began to appear in the 40’s, to be displaced by jets in the 50’s.

As the 60’s debuted and wore on, hood ornaments began to vanish from mainstream automobiles. Where once every model of car seemed to be graced by one, now they were by and large becoming status symbols of cars with a reputation for luxury.

The 1958 Chevy Bel-Air, beginning to show the longer, sleeker lines that would typify the 60’s, was released with a hood ornament conspicuously absent. It was a sign of things to come.

Ford Fairlane hood ornament

By the time I was around and beginning to remember things, my father’s Plymouth had nothing but smooth metal on its hood. Ornaments were found on those funny looking fat cars from the 50’s.

Buick, for one, continued to put ornaments on many of its models. So did Cadillac. The writing was on the wall: hood ornaments were no longer for the general masses. Now, they would have a home on more prestigious automobiles.

Somewhere along the line, litigation reared its hideous head. Pedestrians who were hit by cars with hood ornaments were badly injured. The few hood-mounted sculptures installed at the factory were either removed by automakers, or

Chevy hood ornament

spring-loaded.

It seems to me that if a pedestrian is hit by a car, the issue of whether or not a hood ornament is present is among the more minor worries that he has. But lawyers have gotten wealthy by exploiting the damage specifically done by the device, so things have changed as a response.

But hood ornaments have never disappeared. Of course, the Beemers, Mecedes’,and Rolls Royces of the world are still adorned, but more mundane vehicles also might spot the occasional piece of metallic art, thanks to aftermarket producers.

J.C. Whitney in particular has a large variety of affordable hood ornaments. For the more luxury-minded, you can get an ornament from mascots unlimited, the same folks who supply decorations to the automobiles that British royalty motor around in on the wrong side of the road.

But try as you might, you just can’t return to the days when cars were huge, boxy, and sported sleek, jet-shaped hood ornaments.

The CB Radio Craze

Vintage CB radio

Burt Reynolds and Richard Nixon might seem like unlikely partners, but together they teamed up to start a craze. An unknown songwriter named Bill Fries was also a major contributor, as were a couple of country boys named Bo and Luke.

Nixon did his part by enacting into law the nationwide 55 MPH speed limit, putting the federal government in the business of determining how fast you could drive on highways, a job that belonged to individual states before Tricky Dick signed the papers. His other bone-headed proclamation, year-round DST, was mercifully gone within a year.

Arguably, driving 55 saved gasoline. It also wasted our lifetimes, turning eight hour trips into ten hours. Many say it saved lives. That is a dubious argument at best, as the evidence points as much to improved safety features in cars as much as the reduced speed limits.

Truckers were livid. Their livelihoods depended on getting their loads to various destinations in a timely matter, and the nationwide speed limit put a serious damper on that. By and large, non-professional drivers grew to resent the law as well. The interstate highways were designed to be safely traveled at speeds of 70 MPH and faster, and tooling along at 55 just didn’t seem right in many ways.

So, the nation rebelled. And their main weapon in the non-violent coup was the CB radio.

Citizen’s band radios were originally intended for public and small business communication. It took an FCC license to legally operate them. The 1960’s saw them used by contractors, taxi drivers, and especially truck drivers. They developed their own slang, as well as a protocol that was to be followed at all costs.

The aforementioned speed limit in 1974 brought them to the forefront in the trucking industry. Fellow drivers warned each other of speed traps over the airwaves.

Smokey on the CB

That’s where Burt Reynolds, “C.W. McCall,” and the Duke boys stepped in. As tales of the trucker’s circumvention of the cops and their radar guns began to circulate, a pop culture formed around their communication medium, the CB radio.

Burt, of course, was the star of 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, a movie which was a huge hit, and which featured use of CB’s throughout its length. The Dukes of Hazzard also used the device to foil Boss Hogg. And Jim Fries noticed the character of C.W. McCall, created to sell baked goods in the Omaha, Nebraska area, and took his persona in performing one of the biggest hits of the 70’s, Convoy.

When I was a junior in school in late 1975, the CB radio craze hit my little town of Pea Ridge, Arkansas. Lunch hours were spent ratchet jawing with truckers. Nights were spent doing the same. And we all adapted handles. I was Trapper John, BTW.

Longtime CB users were outraged. They had paid good money to get their licenses, and here were a bunch of people using their bandwidth illegally, and completely ignoring their protocol! So many CB’s were sold that the government ended up lifting the license requirement, infuriating the old-timers even more.

Other abusers bought devices known as linear amplifiers to magnify their signals from the legal five watts to a thousand or more. These would interfere with neighbor’s TV reception, and would also bleed over onto other channels within the bandwidth.

Linear amplifier from the 70’s

However, many amplified home base users were foiled by a simple straight pin thrust through the coaxial cable leading to the antenna. When the mike was keyed, the amp was instantly smoked. Frontier justice at its finest!

In many ways, the original users of the internet were like the early licensed CB users. Posting on USENET required that you know the rules of behavior beforehand. That was brought to a screeching halt by two lawyers from Phoenix. I quote from net historian Brad Templeton:

In April of 1994, the term (spam) was not born, but it did jump a great deal in popularity when two lawyers from Phoenix named Canter and Siegel posted a message advertising their fairly useless services in an upcoming U.S. “green card” lottery. This wasn’t the first such abusive posting, nor the first mass posting to be called a spam, but it was the first deliberate mass posting to commonly get that name. They had posted their message a few times before, but on April 12, they hired a mercenary programmer to write a simple script to post their ad to every single newsgroup (message board) on USENET, the world’s largest online conferencing system. There were several thousand such newsgroups, and each one got the ad.

CB usage faded away, until it was back in the hands of the original folks who found practical value from it. However, protocol has slipped badly. It was once seriously frowned upon to use even mild profanity on the air. Alas, listening to channel 19 these days will make your ears turn blue.

The internet, however, is only growing larger. It is becoming more and more a part of our daily lives, and in fact will likely need to be redesigned as it gets more and more stressed by its daily addition of tens of thousands more users.

Oh well. Even CB radios had to be ramped up from 23 channels to 40.

The Cassette Tape Takes Over from Eight Tracks

Four track players and tape

Recording tape is barely older than the senior members of the Boomer generation. It was introduced in the 1940’s as an alternative to direct-to-disc recording, which was how records were being produced prior to then.

The idea of putting music (or whatever) on a strip of magnetic tape was quite revolutionary. Recording studios embraced it at once. But tape for the home consumer was a different matter. It had some growing up to do before it would be widely embraced.

Tape came on big reels. It took a long time to rewind or fast-forward, as opposed to quickly moving a tonearm to different tracks on a record.

But the concept of recording tape for the consumer was too good to be ignored. As the 60’s debuted, several tape cartridge systems were under development, including a four-track, continuous-loop cartridge devised by the Lear Company, the Fidelipac system used by radio broadcasters, and the “Casino” cartridge introduced by the RCA company for use in its home audio units.

Phillips tape and player/recorder, 1963

In 1962, Philips introduced a cartridge which held a tape 1/8″ wide, as opposed to the 1/4″ wide reel-to-reel tape that others were attempting to integrate int a self-contained cartridge.

The 1/8″ tape had crappy audio qualities when first introduced, and sales crawled. But Philips felt like they were on to something. They encouraged other companies to develop the cassette technology, but to observe the standards that they had laid down by licensing its use. The result was a swarm of development on the cassette.

By 1968, nearly a hundred different manufacturers had sold more than 2.4 million cassette players worldwide. The cassette business was worth about $150 million. Thanks to worldwide adherence to the standards established by the Philips company, the compact cassette was the most widely used format for tape recording by 1970.

Ferrichrome cassette introduced in the 70’s

But the sound still sucked. There was a lot of hiss on the slowly-moving narrow tape, and audiophiles either listened to records, or four- and eight-track tapes. Some of them purchased music on reels of tape. For cassettes to take over the world, their fidelity would have to be improved.

That year, top-end cassette machine manufacturer began selling units with Dolby noise reduction. The idea was that high-end sounds would be amplified during recording, then muffled a bit during playback. The tape’s hiss would fade into the background.

It worked fairly well, but not as expected, in many cases. The first automobile cassette players were notoriously weak on high end sounds, and playing the Dolby-encoded tape with the Dolby compensation shut off would make the highs blast forth. The tape hiss would disappear as the highway noise would mask it. But when you listened to cassettes with the engine off, it was obvious that there was a ton of background noise.

But cassettes gradually nudged eight-tracks aside, and by 1980, dominated the market.

Nowadays, I listen to high-fidelity mp3’s on a car stereo that reads memory cards. I put sixteen hours of music on a single gigabyte card. And it sounds perfect.

But I grew up with cassettes loaded with hiss that also played beautifully, as long as you were going at least fifty miles per hour.

Radar Detectors

Original Fuzzbuster

It began with a bunch of Arabs with attitudes. It ended with a law forbidding us from traveling over our highways, many of which were designed to be safely traversed at 75 or more miles per hour, at a maximum speed of 55.

The 1973 oil embargo changed history. It forced the passage of energy saving laws, or perhaps laws that intended the saving of energy might be a better description.

The public wasn’t nuts about it. Imagine being forced to drive 15 or more miles per hour slower in the name of energy savings that may or may not be taking place. It was certainly an inconvenience for commuters in general, but for the nation’s trucking industry, which was based on getting loads hauled to distant locations as quickly as possible, it was intolerable.

Even worse, the radar units themselves that cops used could give whacked readings, so you might find yourself being hit in the pocketbook by a device that misread your speed. Guess whose side the judge is going to take with THAT argument!

So a market was quickly created and addressed for devices that would warn all, especially truckers whose livelihood depended on speed, of invisible radar waves that could cost you a hundred or more bucks. Thus was born the Fuzzbuster.

Radartron radar detector from the 70’s

Radar detection is as old as radar itself, born in the 1930’s. But inventor Dale Smith created a portable unit small enough to sit on the dashboard and plug into a cigarette lighter. It was also fairly cheap, the price of a couple of speeding tickets.

So it wasn’t long before Fuzzbusters were seen all over the country. And they certainly helped in the struggle of cop vs. speeder.

What’s sad is that the nation took this turn in the first place. Did the law save lives? Arguments could be made both ways. Did it save gasoline? Probably, although, once again, the evidence is not clear. But there’s no doubt that what it DID do was turn the average American into a lawbreaker. And that was a nefarious effect that should have been taken into consideration before clamping down on highway speeds.

So, alongside truckers, average Joes started equipping their vehicles with radar detectors.

The police fought back. New radar technology was undetectable to X band radar detectors sold early that decade. Instant-on guns caught speeders red-handed at strategic locations where cops could hide. And lawmakers got in on the act, too, banning radar detectors in certain states.

Now I live on a normally quiet street that turns into a shortcut for hundreds of speeding commuters in a hurry to get home from work at 5:00. I hate it when speeding takes place in residential areas where people could get run over. But I also believe that if a police officer has the right to detect a driver’s speed via radar, the driver has the right to know when he’s doing so. So I feel statewide bans should be tested for constitutionality.

That being said, many of us who drove during the polyester decade did so with the assistance of small electronic units that let us know when our speed was being judged by radar waves.

Putting Stereo Music in Your First Car

Underdash eight track player, complete with exposed add-on wires

Our kids are starting out, for the most part, like we did, with their first cars being older and cheap. It’s a rite of passage. When you start out with an old piece of junk, you learn to appreciate a nicer car when you can afford it.

However, a key difference between our kids’ first cars and ours is basic and fundamental: We likely had an AM radio with a single front dash speaker in ours. The old Toyotas and Hondas MY kids started out with had decent FM stereos that also played cassettes.

That would have been a dream to many of us, to get that first car already equipped with stereo. No, we had to install that first one ourselves. And we had to do it on a budget

So, tired of hearing that scratchy AM radio in my 1966 Ford Falcon (although it DID pull in WLS!), I went to the local Wal-Mart (and this was 1976, before the rest of the world had ever heard of the store chain) and purchased myself an under-dash eight track player and a set of plastic wedge speakers. Total investment: about 50 bucks.

But no 50-dollar investment ever enhanced an automobile as much, I assure you.

70’s wedge speakers for the rear deck

Installation consisted of finding a place under the dash of the ancient four-door Ford where two screws could be affixed and the player would sit within easy reach of the driver. Then, a wire was to be run to the fuse box to pick up power (you preferred an always-on lead, so you could listen to tapes at lunch without turning the key on). Next, you snaked two wires under the carpet and along the edge of the back seat until they finally appeared at the rear deck, where you placed your wedge speakers as far apart as possible. They had screw holes to mount them solidly, but I didn’t bother.

Get all the wires screwed down in the back of the player, then you hold your breath while you plug that first tape in.

To this day, I’ll never forget the rush I felt when the first notes of the cheap sound-alike tape I had also purchased filled the interior of that car. The song was Sweet Thing, sung to sound like Rufus. To this day, I have never been as thrilled to hear stereo music as I was that summer night in 1976, with my 50 dollar eight-track setup in that 500 dollar car.

The wedge-mounted speakers, about four inches in diameter, had little treble and absolutely no bass. But the difference between a single speaker in the dash and sweet stereo from the rear deck was profound.

Some things never change. I still drive an inexpensive car (to work), a 1990 Tercel that cost me $2400, a new engine included in that price. However, it has a sweet sound system, including an amplified subwoofer, nice front and rear speakers, and a player that lets me load up a flash drive with mp3’s and have many hours of perfect quality tunes.

But as much as I love that system, there was something about the way Sweet Thing sounded in 1976 that was better.

Pushbutton Transmissions

1962 Dodge Dart push button shifter

An innovation that first appeared in 1956, and lasted until 1966, was the push-button transmission. I remember my oldest brother had a Plymouth from the early 60’s that had it.

The pushbutton transmission was available in two incarnations: mechanical (pretty darned reliable) and electrical (extremely unreliable).

Packard introduced it with their 1956 Caribbean. It was the electrical one, and it had problems. If you parked on a steep hill, the shifting motor would lock up trying to get the car out of Park. It would trip a breaker, and you would be stuck. To make matters worse, when Packard’s production ceased that year, the manufacturers of the shifting mechanism destroyed the tooling. Replacement parts became impossible to obtain.

The king of the boneheaded electrical shifters was the Edsel. Not only did the shifter have lots of problems, they mounted the buttons in the middle of the steering wheel! Guess what would would happen when drivers made an emergency move for the horn.

The most reliable shifters were in the Chryslers, Dodges, and Plymouths. They used mecahnical linkage to engage the various gears. In 1956, the Neutral button even started the car! You pushed it all the way in and it would engage the starter motor. A vacuum switch was supposed to disengage the motor contacts while the engine was running, but if it failed, you could grind your starter by pushing the Neutral button too hard.

The pushbuttons were like the Dallas Cowboys: people either loved them or hated them. Aficionados would make sure that the cars they bought had them, building product loyalty for Chrysler Motors.

The pushbutton option never really set the world on fire, though. In 1966 or thereabouts, the government’s General Services Administration declared that any autos for government usage would have either column- or floor-mounted shifters. Chrysler dropped pushbuttons on the spot.

Today, pushbutton transmissions and the strange problems they would have (buttons pushed all the way into the dash assembly weren’t uncommon) are a distant memory.

Push-Button AM Radios in the Car

Pushbutton AM radio in the dash

Don’t look now, Baby Boomers, this one slipped away while you weren’t looking!

The AM push-button radio, the same we used to yank out of our dashboards and throw away when we replaced it with a shiny new AM/FM/8-track player, is extinct.

Now I haven’t confirmed this, but every new car I’ve seen, even the most basic economy models, have AM/FM electronic radios or better in them. But when we were kids, and even adults just a few years ago, the push-button AM radio was what you got when you bought a new car.

The push buttons were ingenious. When I was a kid, I wondered how on earth my dad’s favorite stations would come up when he hit the buttons. I thought it was amazing that Plymouth (dad always bought Plymouths) knew ahead of time where KMOX was on the dial!

Eventually, I learned that you programmed the buttons yourself. Perhaps “programmed” isn’t the best term to use, because it very low-tech. You manually found your station, pulled the button you wanted to find it with out with a mighty yank, then push it all the way back in.

As a teenager, it was great fun to get in a friend’s car and switch his WLS or WOAI buttons to, say, the local gospel station.

Every Boomer probably threw away at least a dozen of these venerable, solid-as-a-rock receivers of static-plagued AM. Perhaps we should have stashed them away instead. No doubt vintage radios have value to collectors, as well as to people looking for authentic stuff for restorations.

I have a sweet car stereo system now. It has a subwoofer, numerous tweeters, mid-ranges, etc., and a multimedia in-dash unit that lets me load mp3’s onto a flash drive and play them. But sometimes, I tune in a scratchy AM station just to remember what it used to sound like driving down the road.