Printz: Longing for 1 more spin in a rumble seat
Last week, I was walking the leafy environs of the 2014 Greenwich Concours d’Elegance when I spied a 1939 Mercedes-Benz 170 V Roadster that captured my heart.
Owned by Mark Masselink of Boca Grande, Fla., the car was being shown for only the second time since a three-year, 6,000-hour restoration.
The 170 V was a fairly advanced car for its day. It was built using a tube chassis and front independent suspension and was powered by a 38-horsepower, 1.7-liter four-cylinder engine through a four-speed manual transmission. Like other roadsters of that era, it had a folding windshield and snap-in side curtains, rather than roll-up windows. Unlike most of them, it still had a “rumble seat.”
By 1939, most cars no longer offered them; engineering advances rendered them anachronisms. But there it was, ready to be used and enjoyed. Nicknamed the “mother-in-law seat,” the rumble seat was common in the early 20th century. It was situated in the rear of the car and open to the weather — thus its nickname.
Like so many features in early automobiles, the rumble seat came courtesy of coach builders who were used to building horse-drawn vehicles. On better carriages, servants sat outside the passenger cabin on what the British called a dickey seat. When automobiles replaced horse-drawn carriages, the dickey seat was adapted for use on roadsters, the most popular type of car in America until the 1930s.
Roadsters were popular for one simple reason: They were cheaper to build than sedans. Automakers had yet to perfect an affordable way to build a closed car, so they were usually the most expensive body style in a car line. To offer an economically priced four-passenger vehicle, auto manufacturers added a rumble seat to a roadster.
This meant giving up some trunk space, but buyers didn’t care since they rarely ventured far from home. Most cars of the era didn’t have much power — a Model T’s 25-horsepower four-cylinder engine topped out at 40 mph. Even if you could go fast, the nation’s roads were mostly unpaved, and given the tire technology of the time, a flat tire was a certainty on most trips. So was getting stuck in mud.
By 1939, the rumble seat was history, thanks to the arrival of paved roads and inexpensive closed cars. Motorists, especially women, welcomed the change. Getting into the back seat of a sedan was a lot easier.
To get in a rumble seat, you must climb a series of small metal steps on the car’s right rear fender. Once you reach that top step, your left foot must be free to climb into the seat. There are no handles to grab as you climb, so good balance is essential. Of course, getting your feet into the footwell is best reserved for the limber. And wearing a skirt while doing this is not for the modest, which is why good girls reportedly didn’t ride in rumble seats.
Once seated, you’ll find that riding in a rumble seat is like riding in a convertible, except that you’re riding in what is ostensibly the trunk. This can be quite awkward, as there are no seat belts. The only place to rest your arms is on the car’s hot sheet metal, or in your lap.
It’s thrilling, even if you’re not a mother-in-law.
Larry Printz is an automotive journalist based in Virginia Beach. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.