Let’s face it, when you buy a car, whether new or “new to you”, you probably overlook one of the most important features that contributes to the fun and success of any road trip – the car antenna. After all, what would your earlier family road trips have been like without dad tuning into Casey Kasem’s  American Top 40 and everyone singing “That’s the way (uh huh, uh huh) I like it, (uh huh, uh huh)” along with that other K.C. of Sunshine Band fame.

Because that’s the way (uh huh, uh huh) Mom and Dad liked it (uh huh, uh huh)!

Anyway, we’ll tell you what those trips without the radio would have been like – boring!  And that’s probably how you feel about the car antenna – boring!  Nonetheless,  bear with us as we look into this often neglected, but always necessary, part of your road trip vehicle and one of the biggest car culture fads it created back during the golden era of road tripping.

A Brief History of Car Antennas

The history of the car antenna goes back to  the 1930s when car radios were first introduced; however, back then most radio stations were AM stations, so it was actually a hidden car radio antenna built inside the body of the radio instead of being mounted on the outside of the car. By 1940, more and more FM stations were becoming popular which required a straight, flexible vertical wire made of steel or alloy known as a whip antenna. At the time, each automaker had their own ideas about where the antenna should go. This is why you’ll see whip antennas placed in many different locations on cars of the era.

The Buick Super had it’s antenna installed in the middle of the roof right above the windshield.

By the 1950s and 1960s, AM/FM radios became standard items on new cars and of course, with the radios came antennas. With 61.6 million cars on the road in 1960, that’s a lot of antennas. Seizing on this previously unseen opportunity, the folks at the Union 76) chain of gas stations came up with a clever marketing idea.

It Happened at the World’s Fair

 In 1962, Union 76 (named after the year of American independence and today just called 76) came up with a new style of sign to use at their gas stations – a rotating orange ball with the number “76” in blue lettering outlined in white – and introduced it  at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle.  The sign became so iconic on the American roads of the West, they made millions of plastic-foam Polystyrene balls imitating their iconic sign to customers living there in 1967.

An advertisement for the Union 76 Skyride at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair where the iconic antenna toppers were handed out to visitor’s for free.

The idea was simple. Just push the antenna ball down on top of your antenna until it was secure enough not to blow away while you were driving down the highways at 65 m.p.h. The 76 balls even managed to find their way to through the Heartland to the East Coast of America, where folks were using them to find their cars in the ever-growing crowded parking lots of ever growing crowded shopping centers and a new-fangled concept called shopping malls that were being popping up all over the country.  Thus began a car culture fad that would last from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Ray Pedersen, an advertising designer, was given the assignment to create a new sign for Union Oil that would debut at the World’s Fair in Seattle. His round Union ’76 signs would become the inspiration for Union 76’s iconic antenna ball.

As one would guess, other companies started taking advantage of 76’s new marketing idea all across the country and antenna swag included everything from smiley faces to sports team mascots. People kept topping off their antennas even though they were frequently stolen in the same parking lots that made it easier for them to find their cars.

Fading  Out

The 1980s saw a decline in antenna toppers as newer cars were made with their antennas in the windshield. They made a brief comeback, however, when Jack in the Box gave away their clown-faced antenna toppers in the ’90s, but with whip antennas slowing dying out and satellite radio subscriptions coming into vogue, antenna toppers have faded out of car culture and with, satellite radio antennae typically being  nothing more than small, black plastic square grounded away from the vehicle, it’s highly unlikely that antenna toppers will be making a comeback.

The Jack in the Box antenna toppers revived this part of American car culture for awhile in the 1990s.

You may see still see a few antenna toppers in the wild once in awhile, mostly on classic cars or at hot rod shows held around the country – a trend worth mentioning, however, in the history of road tripping and car culture. If there there is a bright side to its demise, with satellite radio you can sing along to K.C. and the Sunshine Band on your next trip and maybe even get your kids to join in, too.

And if retro kitsch and road trip fun is the way you like it (uh huh, uh huh), then the next time you see a Stuckey’s sign and you’re hungry for something big, check out our new 10oz pecan log roll. While you’re there, pick up some things for the folks back home like more Stuckey’s pecan log rolls, t-shirts, hats, mugs, or other fine pecan candies and Stuckey’s merchandise.

Can’t find a Stuckey’s location near you? No problem. You can still get our delicious Stuckey’s pecan log or other great pecan candies delivered right to your front door. How convenient is that? Find out more at stuckeys.com.

Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again!