Posted: Mon Aug 06, 2018 11:49 pm
The visual impact of a Brass-Era automobile is so striking, it can overshadow the other senses, which is kind of a shame because the way these cars sound is also wonderfully unique, and everyone who works with them just loves the low-revving grumble of a long-stroke engine and the kisskisskisskiss idle of an "L" or "T-head." Oh, but the horns! I was surprised to learn that Klaxon "Ahooga" horns had been marketed fairly early in the game—1908—which coincided with the very earliest production of Henry Ford's Model T. I had thought that those early days had been the sole domain of the squeeze-bulb horn. Not so.
Miller Reese Hutchinson (who later became Thomas Edison's chief engineer), invented the Ahooga horn and it was first marketed by the Lovell-McConnell Manufacturing Co., the founder of which named the device, "Klaxon," a slight bastardization of "Klazo," which, translated from the Ancient Greek, means, "I shriek." The first units were electric and later models, like the "Klaxonet," were hand-powered, but either type gets its characteristic ahooga sound from a spinning cog that beats its teeth against a rivet in the middle of a spring-steel diaphragm. Originally priced at about $5.75 for a hand-powered type and $30 for a top-of-the-line electric, they might have been thought of as a bit expensive considering a lawn mower of that era could be purchased for $3.50 and a washing machine for $7.15
A typical Klaxon ad read, "To the motorist who has not used a KLAXON, its harsh metallic blare often seems unnecessary. But the motorist who has used one knows that no other signaling device ever used on an automobile compares with it as an insurance against collision and an aid to sustained speed.
"To the KLAXON user, blind crossing and hidden turns are virtually non-existent; his approach is heralded in ample time for unseen traffic to make way. Heavy vehicles going the same way are signaled long before they are overtaken, and turn out in season to require no slackening. On steep, winding hills, a KLAXON may be the sole protection against disaster.
"The value of the KLAXON as a safeguard and a time-saver for the conservative motorist was never better attested than in its adoption by President Taft on the White House automobile."
Indeed, President William Howard Taft did have a White Steamer equipped with a Klaxon horn prepared for his 1909 inauguration. This was the very first use of an automobile by a U.S. president, the purpose of which was to enhance public acceptance of motor vehicles and boost the sales of their generally Republican-voting manufacturers and stockholders. To that end, Mr. Taft's chauffeur was encouraged to attract as much attention as possible by making a habit of driving at an unheard of (in 1909) speed of 60 mph, with the Klaxon blasting away to warn off horse-drawn traffic.
It's good to know that these horns are period-correct for fairly early horseless-carriages because... well, I've always felt a little like it was cheating to have a hand-Klaxon instead of a squeeze-bulbed Mr. Magoo horn on my '15 Ford, for contrary to popular belief, Henry never offered Ahooga horns as Model T equipment. My defense for the compromise with historical accuracy had been a pretty weak excuse; simply that car-show spectators loved the sound of darned thing and expected antique cars to have them (Okay—it also happens that the distinctive sound of these little beauties is so loudly raucous and attention-getting that from a safety standpoint, they're a good thing to have in busy traffic).
Today, genuine antique Ahooga horns made under the Klaxon and Klaxonet name (and very good knock-offs like "New Tone") are most easily found on E-bay where prices for original, hand-operated and electric units generally range between $125 and $275.