Home » Ford’s Weird 1980s Decisions: Why Did They Move The Horn There?

Ford’s Weird 1980s Decisions: Why Did They Move The Horn There?

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Normally, I enjoy helping to give you new information, interesting facts you can roll about in your mind and savor and enjoy. This time, though, all I really have for you are more questions, more confusion, and a bit of genuine bafflement. It has to do, like so many of the things I bring to your attention, with a minor detail, really a footnote in the automotive world, but one I nevertheless think is important. It has to do with where Ford moved their horn controls on most of their cars from around 1980-ish to 1984. Most of us instinctively expect horns to be, ideally, in the center of the steering wheel, where it can be smacked or pounded by an unskilled, panicked, or wrathful fist. That’s where The Almighty Himself decreed it should go.

Unfortunately, humans being imperfect as they are, sometimes that horn control gets moved. On many old cars, it’s activated by a chrome ring; on later cars, buttons on the steering wheel activate the horn. And, sometimes, if we stray far enough from the Lord’s healing light, that horn control can end up perched on the end of a silly stalk, sticking out of the side of the steering column, shared with more natural stalk-dwelling controls like turn indicators or headlight dimmers.

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And that’s exactly what Ford did. Really, look at this stalk from an ’83 Mustang:

Stalk Stang

…or an ’82-’84 Escort:

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Stalk1

They really did this. Ford moved the horn from the steering wheel center to the turn signal stalk, where you had to push it sideways to honk the horn.

This decision is incredible and baffling to me. Why did Ford choose this? Precisely 0.00% of Americans wanted this change, and if you don’t believe me, I’ll be the first to hop in the seat next to you in your time machine to go back to the ’80s and prove it. We can kill baby Hitler on the way back, it’ll be fine.

The only explanation I’ve ever heard for the change is that Ford wanted their cars to feel a bit more European, and, in that sense, it barely makes sense, because, yes, if you were going to find the stalk-horn anywhere, it’d be on European cars. The French especially seemed to like it; here’s a diagram of a Renault Dauphine’s controls, and it has a (two-tone, even) horn that is sounded by pushing the stalk towards the steering column:

Dauphine Horn

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I have owned a car with the stalk-horn setup, my old Reliant Scimitar. I loved that car, but I was never able to get used to that dumb horn-honking method. It never felt right! Of all the controls on a car, the one that inspires the most visceral and physical reactions has to be the horn. You go for the horn in moments of alarm or distress, when some idiot is about to sideswipe you changing lanes or some dummy on a scooter almost bolts out in front of you, and in these moments you just want to smack something and make a loud sound; hence why the center-of-steering-wheel horn setup remains the ideal.

Myscim

The small fussiness of the turn signal stalk coupled with the strange action of pushing it sideways into the steering column makes this horn-honking method terrible. Sure, it’s fine for calm, controlled, friendly tootles, daintily done with fingertips, but that’s not when you need your horn the most.

I just don’t get this strange decision. And Ford didn’t just keep it to their affordable brands; even Lincoln was forced down this dark path:

Olds

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… but Ford, at least for those couple of years, did seem to be really leaning into the horn stalk, since it ended up on so many models of their cars (think Panther-platforms, Mustangs and other Fox platforms, Escorts, Fairmonts, and more) and trucks.

By 1984 it was gone, as quickly and mysteriously as it appeared, I suspect screamed out of existence by frustrated owners brandishing snapped-off horn/signal stalks at their local Ford dealers.

I’d love to know the actual reasons why Ford made this decision, but so far I haven’t found anything. I reached out to Ford and see if there’s any further insight to be had, and, if there is, I’ll be sure to update everyone. Was it preparation for airbags in the wheel? Maybe, but there were many other solutions for that, and, besides, none of these cars actually had airbags in their steering wheels.

At this moment, the origin of the horn-stalk remains a mystery, but I’m hopeful for some spirited discussion in the comments that may help us understand this odd choice a bit better. Also, if anyone actually prefers a horn on the stalk, now’s the time to speak up, because I sure as hell would love to hear a defense of this madness.

 

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Donald Haack Jr
Donald Haack Jr
24 days ago

Everyone knows the horn belongs on the touchscreen!

Autojunkie
Autojunkie
29 days ago

I’ve been trying to find this answer since the 80s. A local news station in Detroit did the teaser once with “why Ford is moving it’s horn from the steering wheel” or something like that, but I had missed the actual story. In the end, I never found out why. Fast forward to the internet era where I thought that old question that still haunts me could be easily answered, but I was very wrong. Now, I see this story here, and even you guys can’t sleuth the real answer into existence.

Thanks for nothing 😉

BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
1 month ago

This allowed me to pull a little prank. Being long of leg, I could beep the horn by moving my knee sideways. So would raise both hands high and make a friendly, little toot with my knee. I did this to a salesman at work, and he almost died laughing because he said it looked like I was honking the horn with my wiener.

OttosPhotos
OttosPhotos
1 month ago

My dad’s first car in the early 70’s was a Ford Escort, and IIRC, the horn button was on the turn signal stalk. Very different from my grandfather’s Fairlane that had the big chrome half-ring that was more fun to push.

Anonymous Person
Anonymous Person
1 month ago

Our ’77 MGB has this, too. Sometimes when I try to beep at someone I know, I end up turning on the turn signal. Oops. Kind of a dumb idea.

But not as dumb as getting a RHD Diahatsu while in the Cayman Islands back in the day. It was a 5-speed. Driving a stick shift from the opposite side from what I was used to wasn’t all that bad. However, I found it maddening that they didn’t also swap the stalks on the column. If you were steering and needed to shift, you had to keep your right hand on the wheel and shift with your left. But… The signal stalk was still on the left side of the column. So, you guessed it. When I went to use my turn signal with my non-shifting hand, I inevitably ended up turning on the wipers (usually on a nice sunny day) Every Single Day I was there.
Dumb.

J Money
J Money
1 month ago

Want a modern equivalent? When automakers get stupid-cute with their transmission selectors. I’m looking at you especially, Mercedes-Benz. Nobody asked for it to be on a little stalk!

Black Peter
Black Peter
1 month ago
Reply to  J Money

I got a GLA 250 as a rental once and had to google how to put it in gear. I also couldn’t find the #$(&ing AC, interior lighting options, exterior lighting options sure, but no AC!

Chronometric
Chronometric
1 month ago

So lap dances can be honk free.

Andre Ervin
Andre Ervin
1 month ago

For me it was my ’84 Mercury Lynx, which somehow managed to have the horn on both the stalk and the steering wheel center!

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
1 month ago

“…look at this stalk from an ’83 Mustang”

“…or an ’82-’84 Escort”

This is a trick question, isn’t it?
That’s the same thing you took two pictures of – Right?

Shinynugget
Shinynugget
1 month ago

The horn stalk and the white button underneath the steering wheel that had to be pushed to take out the keys. GMs square key, round key they stuck with forever. Some of the decisions the Big 3 made in the 70’s and 80’s still baffle me.

Michael Fortenbery
Michael Fortenbery
1 month ago

I have always hated the horn stalk AND the vertical HVAC panels on Fords.

i3 Driving Indicator Fetishist
i3 Driving Indicator Fetishist
1 month ago

I got to experience this horn setup on my first car, a 1980 Fairmont, thanks for the memory Torch!

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
1 month ago

My MGB has a stalk horn that doesn’t work. Lucas electronics, amirite?

NotSpanky
NotSpanky
1 month ago

Had a Peugeot (406SV) with the stalk horn. Definitely took some adjustment, and I’m sure a had a couple of times early on where I just angrily pressed the airbag cover in the wheel instead of sounding the actual horn. But I’ve adapts quick enough.
Apart from the possibly more obvious reason already mentioned by others here (i.e. Easier to integrate wiring than in-wheel horn back in earlier days, and then French drivers just got used to the position), I liked to think it was a deliberate placement to reduce road rage and encourage the use of the horn for polite greetings. Hard to maintain that pure rage as you delicately tap the little stalk, making sure you don’t trigger your wipers at the same time.

Scott Rietscha
Scott Rietscha
1 month ago

I had a 1980 Mustang for my first car. I always assumed the horn didn’t work since nothing happened when I pushed the center of the wheel. One day while I was between classes at college, I was studying in my car and I pushed the turn signal stalk with my leg which I probably had out the window and the horn blew. Unfortunately a fellow student was walking in front of my car when that happened… I was almost as surprised as he was.

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
1 month ago

I grew up with Citroens. Having a horn, or any electrical contact, that had to by made between the vehicle wiring harness and the wildly spinning steering wheel just seemed like an unnecessary complication.

I’m fine with it now though. Punch the middle of the wheel instead of the face of another driver. It feels right.

The Lotus has two tiny buttons on the wheel under the leather that I can never find when I need them. I’m trying to develop muscle memory for it by honking on deserted roads.

Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
1 month ago

I grew up with Fords and Citroëns, so found it natural with a stalk mounted horn switch.
It has the one advantage, that if you really need to “signal” the “person” in front of you, you can give them both the high beams AND the horn in one go with the same gesture (push it in while pulling towards you)

But it’s just more physical satisfaction in pushing the centre button, although you DO have to remove one hand from the rim of the steering wheel, which must in some way (maybe not measureable) be bad for safety.

Last edited 1 month ago by Jakob K's Garage
Andy Individual
Andy Individual
1 month ago

People get way too distressed about this stuff. All you have to do now is go to the infotainment screen and press:

-function
-alert others
-select tone
-set volume
-use horn

Or download the app to your smartphone and use that.

Provided, of course, that you paid for the subscription.

Chartreuse Bison
Chartreuse Bison
1 month ago

Teslas use “AI” to determine when to honk the horn automatically.

Alpine 911
Alpine 911
1 month ago

Must be a cost issue

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
1 month ago
Reply to  Alpine 911

Well, somehow they were the only ones who did it. And if it were that great of a cost solution, every other automaker would be doing it today.

You may have noticed that they are not, and neither is Ford.

Alpine 911
Alpine 911
1 month ago

This view doesn’t take into account that Ford pushed ahead but was wrong and reverted back upon realizing it. Cost decisions in automotive can make odd turns, in this case it might have been pressure on the supplier to come up with a solution, without much consideration of what drivers think (or ignoring it/hoping to get drivers used to it). From a HMI lens, it is clearly inferior to pushing a button. Renault came up with a similar idea for some models, which were built to a certain cost.

Twobox Designgineer
Twobox Designgineer
1 month ago
Reply to  Alpine 911

I would also assume it’s a cost issue.
– cheaper wiring harness if, say, 8 conductors go to the stalk than if 7 go to the stalk and 1 to the front of the column through a breakout
– cheaper to have a somewhat more complex stalk than to have a somewhat less complex stalk plus a functional surface on the hub, as opposed to a purely aesthetic one.
As to why only Ford if it’s cheaper, my answer would be because sometimes consumer preference actually outweighs cost in driving brand feeling, and eventually unit sales.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
1 month ago

If Ford owners hadn’t been cursing their dealers, we all would have gotten horn stalks for 1983.
I am 100% certain that Chrysler and GM were following Ford’s customers’ reactions closely, in the hope of also saving several pennies per car.

Alpine 911
Alpine 911
1 month ago

Indeed. Plus it might save weight and more importantly, assembly time which was likely a key factor

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
1 month ago

As you said “it was the style at the time” The Series III Land Rover also had a turn signal horn. I’ve never had to deal with this but did encounter two of Ford’s “better ideas” in a Mercury Colony Park with a rim blow horn, and the parking brake release integrated with the column shift.

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
1 month ago
Reply to  Slow Joe Crow

The rim horn was for when you’re in white knuckle situations.

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
1 month ago

When I saw the headline I immediately thought, “My brother’s Dauphine had that, with two tones.” Glad to see you also knew about that. You’d change the tone by rotating the lever on the end of the stalk. There was even a commercial with two Dauphines passing on the road. One honked “boop-boop” and the other replied “beep-beep.” Ah, memories from ancient times.

Geo Metro Mike
Geo Metro Mike
1 month ago

I’ll trade all the futuristic crap being built into cars for two horn honk settings

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
1 month ago
Reply to  Geo Metro Mike

Or at least Mark Rober’s friendly honk.

Flyingstitch
Flyingstitch
1 month ago

Tangential story: I had an ’88 Horizon with the horn in the customary place, but about a year after I bought it, I got an urgent postcard from Chrysler. It seems they had forgotten to put the “bugle horn symbol” (official nomenclature there) in the middle of the pad. I was solemnly instructed on how to sound the horn. I wonder how much this folly cost in consultations with NHTSA; time spent drafting and legally vetting this postcard; and printing and postage.

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
1 month ago
Reply to  Flyingstitch

At least Chrysler could afford the postage by 1988. God bless Lee Iacocca.

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