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Why Did Old Cars Not Have Passenger Side Mirrors?

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You take many elements of modern vehicles for granted. Components that seem essential today — like seat belts, air conditioning, and automatic transmissions — were not included in vehicles until just recently.

One such addition is the passenger side mirror, which you might be surprised to learn was only widely standardized a couple decades ago.

For many decades in the 20th century, passenger side-view mirrors were an optional feature that buyers could equip on their new car, but they weren’t a standard feature. Here’s why so many cars did not have passenger side mirrors.

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Why cars didn’t need passenger side mirrors for so long

Row of antique classic sports cars at the 2018 Dayton British Car Show

Photo: The News Wheel

Vehicle codes varied wildly over the past century, so the design and safety requirements of a particular model depended heavily on the regulations when it was manufactured and what lawmakers deemed necessary. For a long time, passenger side mirrors — or even any mirrors — were not part of those essentials.

The reason regulators didn’t prioritize passenger side-view mirrors has to do with their function and the country’s transportation infrastructure.

For the first half of the 20th century, nearly all roads consisted of two lanes, each lane headed in the opposite direction. The four-lane roads prevalent today (in which two lanes are headed in the same direction) didn’t exist for the first-half of the 20th century.

So why would you need to see over your right shoulder if there wasn’t a lane of traffic on that side of your car?

It wasn’t until President Eisenhower passed a bill for a national multi-lane highway system that a second lane was added, which necessitated rules for changing lanes.

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Even until the late 1980s, new cars didn’t come pre-installed with passenger side-view mirrors. It cost extra and had to be installed by the dealership if a buyer wanted one.

Still to this day, the law requires only a rear-view mirror and a driver’s-side mirror (though many states specify that a car must possess all the safety equipment that was originally installed at the factory to pass inspection).

It’s only been a couple decades that passenger-side mirrors have been standard equipment on vehicles, but pretty soon — with the rapid development of cameras, sensors, and automated driving — they might become obsolete.

Sources: City Data, Wikipedia