Trafficators/flippers: how old cars used to indicate
Trafficators was the official name for old car indicators, but they were informally called flippers because they flipped out to show that the car was about to turn and flipped back in when the car was going straight. This page describes and illustrates them and explains why they were unreliable, why accompanying hand signals were essential and why today's flashing lights were such a welcome improvement.
By the webmaster based on childhood recollections, discussions with older people and research in museums
What trafficators were and how they were used
Family cars started to trickle back onto British roads after the end of the Second World War. These were cars that had been stored away in garages during the war because petrol had only been available for essential work. Consequently, many of the cars that I saw as a child in the 1940s were old ones from the 1920s and 1930s. Some were even earlier.
What struck me particularly about these old cars was their indicators for turning left or right. (There was nothing to indicate slowing down.) They were widely known as 'flippers' but their formal name was 'trafficators' and they were bright yellow arms a few inches long on each side of the car. From inside the car, drivers could swing one out to indicate which way they wanted to turn. After turning, the drivers could - in theory! - close them back down into the body of the car, not that this always worked.
I have seen it written that trafficators were semaphore signals, but this seems strange to me because I never saw them at any angle other than pointing straight out.
Why trafficators were unreliable and dangerous
The trafficator system was not at all satisfactory because the mechanism tended to jam so that the flipper was either stuck in or out all the time, irrespective of whether the car was about to turn. I learnt later that there was a bulb inside some trafficators which was supposed to draw attention by lighting up - not flashing. It speaks for itself that I never knew this at the time.
Closed trafficators sat in a recess, which could become gummed up with dirt, grime, polish and all manner of things, and they could be frozen stuck in winter. Water could seep into the aperture and (maybe because of this) the solenoids that worked the arms failed or jammed. Bulb life was not brilliant either, possibly because the trafficator arms opened and closed with a bit of a 'thwack'. Trafficators were also a pedestrian liability. They would suddenly pop out at head, throat or arm level and I understand that several people were injured by them.
My father said that if you turned the engine off before the trafficator had come in, it would stay sticking out and he had broken several by getting out and walking into them.
Trafficators were expensive to replace and broke frequently. I used everything from Araldite to sticking plasters to repair them - not very reliably.
That trafficator indicators did not result in more accidents must have been due to there being so little traffic on the roads.
Trafficators on buses and lorries
Some buses and lorries were fitted with trafficators which were usually somewhat larger than those on cars and vans. Some buses also had complimenting left and right pointing illuminated arrows on the rear, and these were often retained after the advent of flashing indicators.
Were hand signals the answer?
As far as I know there were no indicators at the time for slowing down.
The solution to this and the unreliability of trafficators was seen to be hand signals. The driver opened his window and stuck out his arm as explained in some detail on the traffic control page.
As you can imagine hand signalling was not a rapid reaction process. To add to the problem, it relied on the driver behind having to concentrate on the car in front rather than on the road generally.
Problems with hand signals while driving a car
My first car was a 1960 VW Beetle with trafficators, which, after use, I always had to lean out of the window and slap down again by hand because they refused to retract into their slots. This was easier on the driver's side of course. So if I didn't have a travelling companion to do the slapping-down on the nearside every time I turned left, I had to resort to hand signals, knowledge of which was mandatory for the driving test in those days.
The first Government approved car indicator – the Hunt Safety Sign
My father managed a farm in North Dorset owned by a Mr Hunt, an industrialist who made amongst other things the first Government approved car indicator. It was the one that had the retractable arm that protected from the side of the car as described above with the light inside the indicator made by Lucas. At the time, the indicator was widely known as The Hunt Safety Sign. The Ministry of Transport tested Hunt's sign on roads in Manchester and approved it, as it was considered to give the clearest yet intention of what the driver was about to do.
I understand that the simplest way to fit the new indicators in existing cars was to fix a black box containing the mechanism behind the front seats at high level. This black box carried the name Hunt Safety Sign marked on it at the time of construction. Perhaps one of the many motor museums still has an example attached to one of their older vehicles as I assume that the name was used on all the indicators made by Hunt.
In 1947, Mr Hunt suffered a heart attack and died on his farm. His factory had to be sold to pay for death duties, and I understand that Lucas bought his business and cancelled the manufacture of the Hunt Safety Sign in favour of the indicator we see on motor vehicles today.
From trafficators to today's flashing indicators
John Bukrell's report of Mr Hunt's death fits with the dates suggested in the following box for the changeover to today's style of flashing indicators, as it would have taken a few years for Lucas to take over Hunt's business and start the new manufacture.
I reckon that the law allowing flashing indicators was probably around 1954. My reasoning is as follows:
My Dad had a 1954 Vauxhall Velox (Caribbean Blue metallic, blue and grey upholstery, RKT 918 if memory serves, which certainly had trafficator indicators. He replaced the car with a 1956 Cresta (black, brown leather seats SGN 334) which definitely had flashing indicators.
The changeover from trafficators to today's flashing indicators was a process.
As I recall, the 1955 Vauxhall models had flashing indicators by way of tricky wiring of the stop lights at the back, so that if you were braking both stop lights came on but if you were braking and indicating, only one brake light flashed while the other stayed lit. In 1956 the cars had separate amber flashers front and rear. 1957 saw a further change for the rear lamps: they were all incorporated into one enlarged unit, whilst a new grille helped tidy up the front.
Vauxhall did a rapid rewiring job and saved themselves the cost of trafficators for the price of a flasher unit, were criticised because the chosen quick fix was fairly unsatisfactory, improved things for 1956 but at the cost of extra lamps. It finally got sorted for 1957, only to have the 'E' Series replaced by the 'PA' series for 1958.
When trafficators were made obsolete on new vehicles by law at some point, I remember, as a child, my father commenting that it was "...a ****** good thing too".
The history of vehicle indicators
Detailed technical matters of how old car indicators worked and were developed over time is out of the scope of this website which is about the everyday lives of ordinary people. However, Wikipedia does give an account. It also reports that car indicators [of sorts] first appeared in the 1900s.