“A long, long time ago, I can still remember how,
That music used to make me smile.” American Pie—Don McLean
Suicide, necker, knuckle buster, or steering wheel spinner: terms used to describe a rare piece of Americana that, to a kid from the mid-50s, was better known as a “girlie knob.”
Plans to attend the “Rust Rally” car show in Pittsburg last Saturday featuring rusty hot rods (a.k.a. “rat rods”), pinup girl contest and live “rock-a-billy” music had me searching for the iconic auto accessories I had stashed. Somewhere.
Research reveals that steering wheel knobs were invented by Joel R. Thorp of Wisconsin in 1936. Popular in an era that predated power steering, the freely rotating knobs attached to a steering wheel made guiding the car with one hand less difficult.
Quickly becoming an accessory and a convenience, two things probably boosted their popularity. One was their adornment with images featuring scantily clad or swimsuit-wearing pinup girls, hence “girlie” knobs.
Another was a generation of crew-cut wearing youngsters learning that the devices allowed for controlling the car with one arm while leaving the other tightly wrapped around their date sitting next to them.
Finally wrapping my hands around the right box last week, I removed the dusty lid to discover the four pristine examples procured from one proprietor in Memphis, Tennessee in 1986.
With time to spare before boarding a flight back to East Texas after a business meeting, I invested it in an indoor flea market near the airport. Spotting the spectacular spinners, I knew at once they would soon be headed for a new home in Texas.
As I gazed on them with awe commonly reserved for viewing rare pieces of museum art, I overheard a couple of ladies standing beside me.
“Oh, look,” one said to the other. “I haven’t seen one of them in years. My daddy used to have one on the steering wheel in his pickup truck,” she giggled. “My mother would fuss about it, but my grandmother refused to ride with him unless he covered it with his handkerchief,” she laughed. “As kids, we used to sneak out to the barn and peek under the handkerchief when no one was looking.”
Smiling last Saturday as I peeked at my collection seeing daylight for the first time in many years, I remembered the ladies at the flea market. I also remembered Saturday afternoons in Mount Pleasant after the movie matinee when my friends and I parked our bicycles at the Western Auto Store on the square to investigate the store’s newest 45 rpm record arrivals.
Tunes by Elvis Presley and Fats Domino weren’t the only things on our mind, however. Although we perused the records, when we thought no one was looking our direction, we also managed to sneak a quick peek at the cardboard display of girlie knobs displayed behind the counter for sale at 98¢ each.
With a touch of the same juvenile delight Friday, I whispered “Perfect,” to myself as I removed the pinnacle piece from its storage spot. Still looking like new, the 1940s image of a blonde in a one-piece swimsuit against a crimson red background smiled over her shoulder as if to tease the driver.
Saturday arrived with me teasing my ’55 Ford, “Miss Vicky” up toward Camp County for the Rust Rally, rat rods and rock-a-billy music as the bathing suit blonde smiled at me from the car’s steering wheel.
If only for a day, it was 1955 again.
Aldridge columns are also published in the Center, Texas, Light and Champion and the Mount Pleasant, Texas, Tribune newspapers.