It takes guts to be a side mirror

The other day I noticed a car whose side mirror had recently undergone some major trauma, losing its mirror and outer casing, ignominiously showing its guts. Here:

Side Mirror inside mechanism

These electrically-operated mirrors are now ubiquitous, but this brought home the complexity of their inner mechanism, with the wiring, motors, pivots and the chassis that everything must screw onto.

Vintage Side MirrorWhich made me think for a moment of how far forward – or is it backward? – we’ve come from the days of the simple mirrors still seen on vintage cars, as in the photo at right. In the fifties, a mirror was just that – a round sheet of silvered glass fixed in a round metal plate that pivoted on an arm. That was all – 4-5 parts, max, all externally visible. No innards at all. And cheaper to replace, I’m sure, than the bill the owner of the car in the first photo will face.

This growth in complexity is seen in all parts of our cars and other products. So speak up – is this trend a Good Thing (it is really comfy to move the mirror from inside the car, to be sure) or Bad (loss of elegance in design, for one thing)?

Photo courtesy Glen Edelson, shared on flickr under CC license.

8 Responses to “It takes guts to be a side mirror”

  1. 1 Mike Darnell

    I was wondering what they opted for in the Tata Nano.
    Looked at an image and it seems they went for the “no mirror” option…
    ; )


  2. 2 Justin James

    The only functional difference between the two is that an old-style mirror requires periodic readjustment. I will say this, from a repair/technical/usage point of view, the electric mirrors are an improvement over the cable-adjusted mirrors from the 1980’s. Not only did those require periodic readjustment, but it was had to get them pointed the way you wanted, and the mechanism was clumsy and difficult to work with!


  3. 3 Nathan Zeldes

    Actually, Justin, I don’t think the mirror in the older car shown (definitely pre-1980’s) had cables – it was adjusted by opening the window, grabbing the round frame and yanking it around in its friction-based socket.

    Come to think of it, those would definitely need readjustment if anything hit the mirror – the fairing around today’s version gives some protection to the reflecting part for the lighter cases of abuse.

  4. 4 Justin James

    Nathan –

    Well aware that the model in the bottom picture had no cables; I was referring to the models that you saw in the 70’s and 80’s, which were te worst of both worlds. They had the internal complexity of the electronic models we see today, plus they were hard to adjust, *and* they would need periodic readjustment. Regarding the readjustment on the older models, yes, it was definitely a pain in the neck (I’ve owned a car or two with the old style mirrors). Even without anything touching it, with the vibration from closing the doors, and the wind, and everything else, they needed frequent readjustment. On top of that, depending on the model, you would sometimes need to re-tighten the friction fitting as well.

    Overall, while the modern electronic ones are much mroe expensive to make, much more difficult to replace, and definitely not easily (if at all) repaired when they break, for day-today-usage, they are a vast improvement.


  5. 5 Cynthia Young

    Yup. You are spot on. There are a number of times when going “low-tech” is the real revolution in design and technology. What awesome innovations could we have if designers sought out inspiration in ancient artifacts?

  6. 6 Nathan Zeldes

    What an intriguing idea, Cynthia!

  7. 7 Felipe Mobus

    Talk about serendipity! One day after this entry was posted to this blog, I hit my passenger-side mirror on another car. Its case folded as expected, but somehow its internals got messed up, and the mirror remained loose in the case, hanging by the adjusment cable.

    When I got home, I tried fixing it, to no avail. There was no simple way of dismantling the case surrounding the mirror in order to mount it in its support. No screws, no latches, no nothing.

    I ended up going to a mechanic, *specialized in car mirrors*, to fix it. He had to dismantle the inner panel of the *door*, by unscrewing a hidden screw and releasing several latches and plugs. That allowed him access to the screws holding the mirror case in place. He then tore the mirror apart, along with its case, and moved to a workbench where he would perform the fix. It took him the best part of an hour solving a tricky puzzle of cables, levers and hinges.

    Thanks to this complexity, I wasted 60 brazilian bucks and one full hour, when a simpler mechanism, such as the one in the second picture would require just latching it again in place and maybe replacing the mirror.

    Unfortunately I did not take pictures of this whole ordeal. Surely they would be worth of a whole entry.

  8. 8 Jai

    So far so good! The only reason that you go for an electric mirror is that your hands are not long enough to reach them to adjust from driving position. I found something awkward too. They do not provide rear reverse mirrors for small cars where that could be of so use for parking in small areas.

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