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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Change leaves me all wet

It’s a familiar situation. I pull up to a drive-in order kiosk, roll down my window to speak to the attendant and am greeted by a sheet of rain, sleet or snow, pouring in off my roof onto my arm and into my door.

Even a few inches of open window results in a waterfall.

It didn’t used to be this way. There was a time when every automobile had drip rails that ran around the perimeter of the roof, put there to catch runoff and divert it away from the windows.

They worked just fine ... and also doubled as a convenient anchoring point for roof racks and other after-market automobile accessories.

Back in the day, for example, I vividly remember my dad fastening a “car cooler” — which resembled an old tank-style vacuum cleaner — to the drip rail above the passenger’s side window in our ’52 Lincoln. He filled a tank in the cooler with water, inserted a vent in through the window opening and wound up the window until it butted up against the device.

As we drove, water saturated some cloth layers inside the cooler, and the evaporation cooled incoming air a few degrees below the ambient temperature.

In the days before air conditioning was standard, it was all we had.

But those days are long gone — and so is the drip rail.

Note that car manufacturers made no attempt to duplicate its function when they removed it. I guess they just figured we’d wear raincoats whenever we drove.

A recent column by Mark Phelan of the Detroit Free Press offered some hope for the future:

“Drip rails or rain gutters used to be de rigueur on all automobiles,” Phelan quoted Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., as saying.

“They started to disappear in the mid-’80s. It was a concession to styling and fuel economy and reducing wind noise,” Anderson said, “but you do get snow on the seat and rain falling on your head.”

The change made cars more attractive and aerodynamic, said Peter Davis, vehicle design chief for consultant Tata Technologies. The rails on the roof disrupted air flow and altered the car’s profile, and getting rid of them improved fuel efficiency and reduced wind noise.

The advent of one-piece body sides also contributed to the drip rail’s demise. Using a big single piece of metal for the entire side of a vehicle eliminates squeaks and gaps between body panels, but it also got rid of the gutter’s spot where the panels met.

Aesthetics and aerodynamics also drove a move from vehicles with vertical sides to windows that angle inward and doors that wrap up into the roof. That creates another opportunity for snow or rain to fall into the car by moving the opening where the door and roof come together so snow falls onto the seat rather than to the vehicle floor.

The 1986 Ford Taurus was the beginning of the end for drip rails. Acclaimed for its aerodynamic “jelly bean” look, it rewrote the book on the American family sedan. When the ’89 Honda Accord followed without drip rails, the die was cast.

But Phelan writes that Ford hopes the 2015 Mustang coupe and convertible will reduce the problem when they go on sale late this year. Both have roofs designed to direct water away from the doors and windows.

The Mustang coupe’s metal roof has little ridges along its outer edges that channel water to the front and rear of the car. “The sheet metal and offsets and moldings in the doors were developed to keep water from pouring in,” Ford engineer Ron Lovasz told the columnist.

“We added a V-shaped insert” along the edge of the convertible’s fabric roof, Ford engineer Andre Beduschi added. “It acts as a trough to wick water away. It performs much better than our current convertible roof.”

We can only hope that Phelan’s right, and other manufacturers belatedly realize what they’ve done and make changes to improve the situation.

In the meantime, I’m thinking of creating a left-arm-only raincoat and apron, to be worn while picking up fast food. Perhaps I’ll market it as the “Order Arm Overcoat.”

I’d make a fortune.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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