Saloon with a View: An Incompleat History of the Rear Window Wiper

Checking out Paul’s paean to the 1955 Lancia Florida, a design that influenced auto design worldwide for over a decade, I was taking in the sensuous curves and crisply ironed creases of the legendary Pininfarina concept when a minor detail drew my eye. Perched between the flying buttresses at back of the greenhouse was a pair of sparkling chrome windshield…um… rear window wipers.

Now there’s a novel idea, I thought. Rear wipers on a sedan. Wonder why that never caught on?

To someone accustomed to seeing a single muscular black squeegee on the tailgate of an SUV, the spindly chrome wipers at the base of the Florida’s rear window look a bit misplaced, like ankle bracelets at a debutante ball. They may have seemed even odder by the currency of mid-century, extravagant and unnecessary in a time when even sideview mirrors weren’t standard equipment on many cars. Nevertheless, they surfaced on a few other 1955 custom bodied cars, such as the Ferrari 250 GT Europa and a one-off Mercedes 300B (above), both designs also penned by Pininfarina. Rear wipers seem to have been a trifling trademark of Carrozzeria Farina in that year.

Which isn’t to say they became a common accessory in that or any decade. Not on sedans, anyway. Despite appearing on production Lancia Flaminias (introduced in 1957), the rear wiper didn’t catch on in common usage. It didn’t seem necessary, as conventional wisdom declared rear windows on sedans with long decks didn’t get dirty enough to merit it, and the noise might be an annoyance to rear passengers.

Eventually, the idea got some traction in Germany. Steve Brachmann, reporting for IPWatchdog.com, states that a rear wiper system was introduced by Bosch in 1926. On Petrolicious.com, James Kraus wrote in his seminal article that a version became a popular option on one marque, Porsche, after a wealthy German industrialist requested a custom setup for his 911 fastback in 1965. Porsche complied, and other owners clamored for duplicate installations. The rear window wiper became, if not ubiquitous, requested often enough to be offered for retrofit, and available as an option on new Porsches from 1966.

But the variant of the rear wiper that would become common today first found a place on the tailgate of the lowly family station wagon, 15 years after Pininfarina’s pet accessory appeared. Kraus writes that it was offered on the 1969 Volvo 140 series. It was perfect for the 145 “brick” wagon with its vertical rear window. We’ll call the 1970 model, above, a Swedish Blue… “Pinin for the Fjiords”.

Where did America fit in the development of the rear window wiper? Pretty far back.

In fact, all the way back. The first patent for a windshield cleaning device was awarded in 1903 to a Hall of Fame inventor from Alabama. Her name was Mary Anderson.

Various relating patents were granted during the following decades, and in 1938, J. H. Herzog applied with a design for a rear wiper that was dependent on continued popularity of split back windows, as it was mounted, teeter-totter style, on the pillar between them.

A patent was granted to O.W. Sailer in 1943 for a front and rear system “utilizing…a heating and defrosting and washing fluid, such as hot air or hot water, (that) may be selectively directed to one or more windshield wipers and through the latter applied to the windshield or window of the vehicle body in a manner such as to most efficiently perform its cleaning and washing functions.” One wonders how many windows Mr. Sailer shattered by applying hot “liquid” to them on a subzero day.

Patents that referenced the WWII era awards were granted to GM employees in 1963 and 1969 for variations on the tailgate mounted wiper specific to the roll down windows that were then popular, showing that American manufacturers, along with the Swedes, saw its usefulness on station wagons.

But that wasn’t always the case. looking over the pages on oldcarbrochures.com, I was dumbfounded to discover that one American manufacturer listed rear window wipers as an option as early as 1952…and, only on sedans.

That manufacturer was Nash. This was fully 3 years before it appeared on the Farina show car, and 5 years before it went into production on the Lancia Flaminia.

The connections are intriguing, because the 1952 Nash Airflyte was, of course, designed with consultation by (drum roll, please) Pinin Farina. Even though the Carrozzeria’s final contributions were limited to details, Nash milked the Farina name for half a decade.

My copy of August, 1955 Road and Track introduces the Farina Florida in a page 33 story on the Turin Salone dell’Automobile. Described as “a most interesting and outstanding design” it is never mentioned by name, only by coach house and chassis (“Lancia Aurelia long W.B.”). In neither photo of it (2nd row from the bottom) are the rear wipers visible.  At the top of the same page is Farina’s rejected concept for the 1955 Nash. Still in existence, It has only front wipers.

All of this begs the question: Did Farina influence Nash, or did Nash influence Farina?

The answer may come from a chance encounter with a “bathtub” Nash in the fall of 2012 by PurveyorOfTheOdd (CC’s Nigel Tate, formerly Mr. Mann) and originally published by Paul on Nov. 15th of that year. It suggests that Nash offered the rear wiper option as early as 1950, as seen on this Ambassador.

Which brings us back to J. H. Herzog’s 1941 patent, again. There were actually two drawings in his 1938 submission, the odd looking two blade affair for a split light shown earlier in this article, and the one above for a single window. Maybe he made a little something from his invention, after all.

But wait, there’s more. Surfing for additional photos—to confirm that the wiper on the arch of that black 1950 Ambassador wasn’t a retrofit—brought me to the website of Desert Classics in Butte, Montana. In their yard is this multicolored short wheelbase example. They advertise it as a model 600 Brougham (it’s got the remains of the super cool canted club seats in back). Even without looking inside, the narrow rear window establishes its birth year: 1949.

Nash president George Mason toured the major European auto shows in the fall of 1950, and was taken by Pinin Farina’s latest designs, such as the Lancia Aurelia B10. That led to a consulting contract, for the new 1952 models, probably signed sometime in early 1951.

Airflytes offering the rear window option were in production for three years by that time, so it’s reasonable to think the idea for the rear window wiper traveled from Kenosha to Italy, and not the other way around. (Photo by John Trotta)

Coda: In 2008, Haroon Malik wrote on gizmodo.com about a new Pininfarina concept called the Hidra, designed by Leonardo Fioravanti, which utilized aerodynamics, chemical surface treatment and an electrical field to repel water from the windshield.

It had no wipers at all.