Opinion: Remembering mox nix sticks

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Commentary by Ward Degler

If you didn’t live in Germany in the 1950s, you probably never heard of Mox Nix sticks. They were what the GIs dubbed the mechanical turn signals on European cars.

The signals were actually metal semaphore flags that fit into the right and left door posts of Volkswagens, Mercedes and BMWs. On the Beemers and the Mercedes you operated the signals with a toggle switch – up for left, down for right. Mox Nix sticks on the VW had to be lowered with a lever on the floor between the seats. Both types had to be manually cancelled after the turn.

Mox Nix, by the way, comes from the German macht nichts, which means it really doesn’t matter.

Some Mox Nix sticks had lights that flashed while they were active. The cheaper version was painted red. I remember some of them had beepers to remind you to cancel.

Several people held patents for turn signals in the United States, but who actually deserves the credit remains unclear. Percy Douglas-Hamilton patented a bumper-mounted device in 1907, but his patent expired after car makers rejected the idea as frivolous. Edgar Walz Jr. trod a similar path in 1925. In 1929 Oscar Simler patented a turn indicator that can be seen today in the automotive area of the Smithsonian.

Buick was first to install turn signals on new cars in the late 1940s. The first ones I recall seeing were after-market jobs that you bolted onto the steering column and hard wired into your tail lights.

Before solid state electronics, the electric systems in our cars were assembled of miles and miles of wire. Connecting the turn signals was tricky, and it was easy to tie into the wrong wire. A neighbor accidentally hooked into his horn wire and every time he flicked his blinker the horn honked. He actually left it that way for a while and used to amuse the kids in the neighborhood by honking first for a left turn, and then for a right turn.

When I started driving turn signals were made by hand. You rolled down the window, stuck out your arm and signaled your turn. It was hand up for a right turn, straight out for a left turn, and straight down for a stop. It worked, but it could be pretty miserable when it was raining or snowing.

Today’s turn signals work well if you use them. Oddly, while folks obediently rolled down their windows to signal a turn with their arm back in the day, many of today’s drivers don’t bother signaling at all.

To them I guess it’s all mox nix.


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