The History of Automobile Horns

Written by Chloe Harwood

Car horns and automobiles pretty much go hand in hand. In fact, you won’t find any motoring vehicle without a horn today. And, as you probably know, the relationship between cars and their horns goes back a real long time.  In fact, it goes back to the very beginning of self-propelled vehicles. Here’s the story.

It Started in Britain

Car horns date back to the mid-1800s in the UK where steam-powered carriages were just beginning to appear. For the safety of others on the roads, laws were passed that stated “…self-propelled vehicles on public roads must be preceded by a man on foot waving a red flag and blowing a horn.” That’s right, the man walking in front of the vehicle was not only waving a red flag but was blowing a horn. (Editors Note: This must have quite a sight.) Of course, it did not take long to realize that a horn mounted on the vehicle was a bit more efficient and the laws were amended to allow this.

In the early 1900s, when automobiles started to appear in America, the horns mounted on cars were “rubber-bulb horns.” You have probably seen these. They were pretty simple to operate; a simple squeeze on the bulb and a rude sound-blast was emitted.  By 1910, however, some people were calling for a more powerful warning device, one that could be heard at least an eighth of a mile ahead of the vehicle. Manufacturers responded with a variety of whistles, chimes, sirens, and horns.

The “Aoogha Horn”

By the 1920s, the Klaxon horn appeared. A Klaxon horn, whose name was derived from the Greek word klaxo, meaning “to shriek,” produced its sound via an electrically-powered vibrating metal diaphragm. Arguably, the most memorable Klaxon horn is the inimitable “Aoogha” horns that were sold with the Model T and Model A Fords of the 1920’s and early 1930’s.  They were quite effective.

Since the 1930s, manufacturers have experimented with the basic Klaxon-type diaphragm and sound chamber to produce a variety of sounds. Unlike the old days, when the object seemed to be to make a loud, annoying sound, the new goal generally is to produce horns that were more pleasing to the ear. For example, up until the mid-1960’s most American car horns were tuned to the musical notes of E-flat or C. Our technical contact at Sheridan Nissan of Newcastle, DE said that that isn’t the case today. Because cars are soundproofed better today, they are more frequently tuned to notes F-sharp and A-sharp which are a bit more penetrating.

Digital Horns

Just a decade or so ago, the design of automobile horns has entered the digital era with some car horns being really just powerful speakers driven by electronic circuitry.  However, along with such high-tech designs, the old fashioned vibrating diaphragm car horn still thrives. The reason for this is simple; it works well and its inexpensive. Why change?

About the author

Chloe Harwood