History and Evolution of the Car Horn

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old horns

It’s a distinctive sound that provides a constant backdrop to cities around the world: the car horn. Ever wonder why the car horn was invented? Or, how car horns have changed through the years? Here’s a quick look at the history of car horns. 

Early Warning Signals 

Before the days of highways, backup cameras and drive-throughs, drivers made use of warning signals to alert other road users to their approach or potential danger. In the early 1900s, signalling options included bells, whistles and hand-squeezed horns. These simple sounds and motions were helpful to other vehicles and pedestrians as “horseless carriages” became more common on the roads. However, the increased speed of cars required something a little louder than a simple bell. 

Klaxon (Ahooga) and the Early Car Horns 

At the beginning of the 20th century, the quest for effective in-car signalling devices changed the acoustics of roads forever. Automobile owners had their choice of whistles, sirens and bells so they could manually alert pedestrians and other road users.

According to MoparMagazine.com, old car horns had many interesting variations. Antique car horns included the Sireno, which could be heard a mile away according to its manufacturers; the Godin, a “press while you steer” device; and the Gabriel, an inventive, multi-toned horn. 

A young inventor, Miller Reese Hutchison, who also worked with Thomas Edison, set to work to improve on the existing horn, says Car and Driver.

His invention emitted a loud and piercing sound, the now infamous “ahooga” horn sound, which became known as the Klaxon. The Klaxon, which was found on the early Ford Model T and Model A cars, was operated either by a small hand crank or via motor-powered batteries. Klaxon horns remained popular until the 1930s when they were replaced by electric car horns. 

Modern Car Horns – Electric Disc and Fanfare

Modern car horns’ function has changed little over the years, but they require less power and electronic magnetic interference. They are also built to last longer — using anti-corrosion materials and filtering out dirt and humidity. 

The tones of car horns have changed over the years, though. Over the past century, the practice of combining two horns that produce two different notes has resulted in more unique tones. Car and Driver states that there are three main types of modern car horns: compressor trumpets, disc and fanfare horns. Compressor trumpets are only used in commercial vehicles, while disc horns and fanfare horns are used in personal vehicles. You’ll recognize a disc horn by its metallic sounding beep, while a fanfare horn is a fuller and more rich tone. 

One memorable horn in the 1960s took a unique turn and did not use the common two-tone sound. MoparMagazine.com notes the Plymouth Road Runner’s horn had a familiar high-pitched, single-toned “beep-beep,” which sounded like its famous cartoon namesake. The Road Runner emitted a sound that didn’t quite fit with its tough muscle car exterior, but it was certainly attention-grabbing.

The car horn has its roots in road safety — something that remains as important today as it was then.

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