What do you think of when you hear the name Porsche? Is it the iconic 911, or the legendary 917 racers that dominated at Le Mans in the early ’70s? Is it the science fiction technology of the 918 hybrid, or the new Macan luxury crossover? While the 911 may have more of a direct link to its company’s origins than almost any other car on the road, what if nearly every major auto manufacturer in the world has a direct and forgotten connection to Stuttgart’s storied past?
The short answer is, they do. Porsche, the manufacturer of some of the most desirable cars in the world, is also responsible for one of the most mundane and overlooked features on road cars today: the rear windshield wiper. The origins of the lowly rear wiper’s storied and surprisingly interesting history have been uncovered over at Petrolicious, and what eventually became one of the firsts part to fail on hatchbacks and minivans the world over was once considered a must-have status symbol.
The first standard rear wipers appeared on the Peninfarina-styled 1957 Lancia Flaminia Berlina sedan, but they proved to be a little too far ahead of their time, due in part to the designs of the day. Back then, most cars utilized the three-box design, with a long trunk keeping the rear window from getting excessively dirty, making the rear wiper seem superfluous.
But by the 1960s, things started to change. The fastback design began to gain popularity, and drivers found that visibility out their rakishly angled rear windows was now affected by weather conditions. In 1965, a German industrialist ordered one of Porsche’s new 911 sports cars and asked for a rear wiper to be installed. Porsche found that the proximity of the engine grille to the rear window made for an easy installation of a wiper unit without any major modifications to the car, and the company was happy to oblige.
Soon, the industrialist’s 911 soon became a staple on the Autobahn, and other Porsche owners began clamoring for wipers of their own. In response, Porsche began to offer a retrofit wiper kit, and it became an official option in 1966. Soon, dirty 911s with clean windows were showing up all over Europe, and other automakers finally began to take notice.
The rear wiper came closer to the masses in 1969, when they became standard equipment on the Volvo 145 station wagon. By the mid-1970s, hatchbacks like the Volkswagen Golf, Dodge Omni, and Chevrolet Chevette had become sales successes, but there was a problem: The hatchback shape and lack of a standard trunk created a vacuum as the car drove through inclement weather, pulling rain and road grime down over the rear window.
The solution was Porsche’s rear wiper, and it quickly became a standard feature on some of the blandest econoboxes money could buy. As every major automaker began offering rear wipers, its sporting pedigree and reputation as a status symbol became lost to history.
In the intervening decades, rear wipers have become a ubiquitous feature on nearly every every hatchback, SUV, station wagon, and minivan on the road. They’re taken for granted and have gone from hi-tech option to unspoken standard feature. They’ve become one of the first things to go when a car begins to age, and one of the first areas where rust starts to appear. But there once was a time when the lowly rear wiper was found almost exclusively on one of the greatest sports cars in the world.
It was a message to all the other drivers on the road that this Porsche 911 was used in even the worst weather conditions — no small feat, considering the early cars’ propensity to find trees and guardrails like a heat-seeking missile. It showed that the car was a rugged, go-anywhere daily driver, and that its owner wasn’t afraid to take risks. Five decades later, the rear wiper is such a common sight that it barely registers as a design feature anymore. Really, it deserves so much more than that.
Next time you’re stuck in traffic behind the wheel of a yawn-inducing minivan, econobox, or family crossover, just look in the rear-view mirror and find that little black strip of steel and rubber, and imagine that you’re practically behind the wheel of a Porsche 911. Just don’t try to challenge a real one to a race.