Home » Why Windows Down In Modern Cars Suck And How To Possibly Fix It

Why Windows Down In Modern Cars Suck And How To Possibly Fix It

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It’s a rare perfect day in Chicago, where the weather typically boils down to Snow Removal and a few weeks of Road Construction Season. Warm but not too hot, the humidity and mosquito situation are remarkably peachy as well. Driving along in your ride, you feel like you’d be ticketed for not taking advantage of this rare climate event, and you hit the DOWN button on your driver’s window.

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Honda

BOOMBOOMBOOMBOOM. Ouch! It’s like a jet taking off. If your kid rolls down a back window alone it’s even worse- seems like your eardrums will rupture. Opening the sunroof adds more unpleasantness. In the twelve years I owned my previous car, I think I can count on the fingers of both hands the number of times that I had the giant glass roof open; if just wasn’t pleasant to drive. Is this just my car, or are others experiencing this?

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Vidframe Min Bottom

Mass Collisions

Apparently, I’m not alone, and there’s a reason for this phenomenon. I did some quick searches for ‘Buffeting’ and ‘Buffett’, and after dismissing the many links dealing with a Boomer musician that performs to thousands of aging Tommy Bahama clad fans, I found some answers.

According to a number of sources, including The Family Handyman of all things:

The throbbing, helicopter-like sound is the outside air passing over and interacting with the contained air inside the vehicle.

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When the two air masses collide, they compress and decompress repeatedly. This produces the throbbing effect. It can be as loud as a commercial aircraft.

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Honda

He continues:

Many variables contribute to the effect: car shape and size, how far you lower windows down and your speed. The effect can happen when any single window is down, including the sunroof.

The helicopter sound is more pronounced when a rear window is down. This is because the side mirrors are designed to direct air flow away from the front windows. Lowering a rear window amplifies the effect.

So you aren’t imagining that the rear windows lowered alone always seems far worse. But why? More importantly, why can you roll down the side windows in a ’67 Impala and not experience this phenomenon so badly?

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Good Aero Is Bad?

Well, good aero is certainly bad for windows down driving. Today almost all cars are very aerodynamically efficient, the air clinging tightly to the outside of the car.

Malibus
Beverly Hills Car Club, General Motors

As The Family Handyman says:

When a window opens, the air flow is disrupted, magnifying the buffeting effect. Older vehicles were designed less efficiently, and air leaked from their insides. The leaking air relieves the pressure caused by wind buffeting, reducing the effect.

Obviously, the one solution is to open another window, but that still doesn’t eliminate the problem, just reduces it. Is there a solution? Historically, there have been a few, and some from very unlikely sources.

[Editor’s Note: I actually wrote about this ten years ago (holy crap) and I asked an actual physicist, not some internet handyman. Here’s how Dr. Stephen Granade explained it to me:

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That “whum whum WHUM WHUM” noise happens because the wind passing over the small window opening is like a bored drunk blowing over the neck of an empty beer bottle.

Air passing over an opening forms tiny tornadoes as it moves past the front edge of that opening. When those tornadoes, or vortices, reach the opening’s back edge, they make a wave of pressure that pushes air into and out of the car. Since sound is nothing more than waves of pressure, this makes noise. If you’re driving slowly the effect’s not too bad, but if you drive fast enough, you reach a resonant point. Imagine I stand by your open car window and use my science powers to push on the air inside the car, compressing it a bit. The car air then springs back out, then back in, then back out, then back in. With each cycle of moving out and in, the amount of air movement gets smaller until it completely dies away. But if I push on the car air again just as it finishes springing back out and is headed back in, and I do that over and over again, the amount of air movement gets a whole lot bigger and doesn’t die away. That’s what happens when you drive fast enough. The vortices keep pressing on the air in your car just at the right time to make big pressure waves that we can feel and hear.

The technical term for this effect is the Helmholtz resonance, though car people call it “side window buffeting”. Back in the 1850s, a scientist named Hermann von Helmholtz showed that the sound’s pitch depends on the size of your container of air and of the opening. The bigger the container of air, the lower the pitch. The smaller the opening, the higher the pitch. If you blow over a bottle, you get a medium-pitch whistle. Since a car’s a big container of air, you get a low throbbing noise.

So, there you go, from an actual, working physicist! – JT]

Cracks In History

If you’ve opened a sliding rear window in a pickup you know how that really helps airflow. Instead of the truck cab being a pressurized box or a big air scoop the wind has a place to escape. Even some cars had an answer for this, particularly Mercury cars from the sixties with power lowering rear backlights:

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Ford

Mercury supposedly dropped the feature after air conditioning became popular, but if you’ve ever owned a black-on-black car you’d kill to be able to get the hot air flushed out of your ride this quickly and help the poor climate control do its job.

Another great solution came from what might be the oddest place imaginable: the designers and coachbuilders at the Italian firm Zagato., often makers of some of some of the most bizarre automotive creations ever (even by Italian standards). Maybe they discovered this by accident and made it a feature, but the hatchbacks of a number of their cars could be electrically raised by a switch on the dashboard.  Here’s the feature on an Alfa Romeo Junior Zagato:

Alfa
Bring A Trailer

Or on this Lancia Fulvia Zagato. By the way, you could still open and close the hatch when is was raised since the latch itself moved:

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Fulvia
Charles Crail (car for sale)

If you scroll forward to the 15:00 point in the video below you can see it open. Like the later Stratos these Lancias make noise that hits the receptors in your brain in such a way that you want to triple the speed limit and not care about the consequences.

This Lancia Flavia Zagato might have been the first one to have the feature back in 1962.

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Flavia
Bonhams

Shit, look at that thing: if aliens really landed in Roswell and instead of being probed and killed they were put into slavery designing cars, you might imagine their creations looking something like this. Why do I want one so much?

Needless to say, I have heard that owners of these cars will get people at stoplights yelling at them YER HATCH IS OPEN BUD!  Which is understandable.

The Matra Djet had a far less sophisticated way to deal with the airflow issue, almost out of necessity if you believe the remarks at around 4:30 by this somewhat familiar reviewer:

I’ve found that T-tops and targa roof cars are particularly bad in the buffeting department, except for cars like the Honda CR-X Del Sol or the Miata RF where you can roll down the rear backlight. Only one Nissan Z car I found to be reasonable with the roof panels off, and that was the disco-era 280ZX 2+2; it had remote control rear quarter windows to let out the pressure.

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Datsun
Bring A Trailer

Our family had a later 1990 Z32 which had no such openings and was essentially undriveable at speed with the roof panels removed.

Banishing The Boom

The aftermarket has actually latched onto this idea, literally. There are numerous sources that offer a clip that Corvette owners can put onto their hatch to allow the thing to close and secure but leave a few inches of air gap to relieve the pressure of the big targa air scoop (at least on C4s).

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exotic car trader, ebay

I found a bunch of suppliers making these things so they MUST work, right? Why can’t mainstream OEM manufacturers latch onto this idea?

Once again, I’m using the Tesla Model 3 as the guinea pig of this device. Right on the switch panel for the windows would be a button to pop the glass on the hatch just enough to get air flow to run through. Of course, being a Tesla they’d probably make you go through a bunch of menus to open this thing, but let’s just apply logic anyway.

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Tesla

One detail- you might need to add a small mesh screen that raises with the window. My fear is the the airflow will be so good that your gas receipts and wedding invitations or whatever is on your seats might end up the street behind you without it.

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Look, we all want fresh air now and then, but we want our eardrums not to bleed in the process. Do we need to buy a car with the aerodynamics of a brick to get that? I don’t think so, especially if there’s a trick we could employ to give us the best of both worlds.

Relatedbar

The Tiny Rear Wipers On Modern Cars Are Pathetic But I Have A Solution – The Autopian

Third Brake Lights Should Be Mounted On Rear Wiper Arms – The Autopian

This Could Be A Fix For The Stupid Little Arcs So Many Rear Window Wipers Make – The Autopian

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Our Daydreaming Designer Came Up With The Ultimate Autopian Car And It Is Full Of Terrible Ideas – The Autopian

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Space
Space
1 month ago

This might be the one thing I have a easy solution for (at least for cars with a glass lift gate). My Ford’s Glass lift gate has 2 struts, a stock one that acts normal and an undersized one (specifically one meant for the hood) that is attached with a pin. The undersized strut allows the glass to open but only about 2 inches and can be opened while driving with the fob. If you want to open the window fully just detach the pin of the unsersized strut and reattach when done.

Steven Kohler
Steven Kohler
1 month ago

The controls to open the vents on the 280 shown above look like the coolest set of switches ever put in a car. I thought they were flap controls from an airplane at first glance.

MDMK
MDMK
1 month ago

Lowering the tailgate window was my favorite part of driving a rental 4-Runner for hours on I-80 through PA. Eighty-plus degrees and it felt like I was sitting in the shade under a nice breeze and the wind noise was minimal. With all the different model CUVs on the road, I’m surprised this feature never caught on.

Ryan Huelsemann
Ryan Huelsemann
1 month ago
Reply to  MDMK

same. we had one for a week in Denver last July and it was heaven. the only issue was the exhaust fumes that would get sucked into the back at higher speeds. i never noticed it but my passengers did, so we used the rear window at city speeds but shut things up at interstate speeds ( when we weren’t stuck in traffic that is)

Bill Zalenski
Bill Zalenski
1 month ago

On my CX-5 if I open the diagonally opposed window the effect goes down greatly.

Jerry Johnson
Jerry Johnson
1 month ago

I’ve had an idea to make the rear window on my neon a pop-up (it would have to be plastic) and convert the rear 1/4 glass windows to pop-outs. But even at 70MPH there’s no buffeting sound as it is.

Maybe I’ll experiment with making a trunk pop-latch and leaving the rear seat down. The car doesn’t have AC, so anything to help, will help.

Kenneth Penney
Kenneth Penney
1 month ago

On my Chevy Bolt, I’ve found that if I lower the rear windows about 1.5″ while traveling with the front windows open, it will usually stop the boom up to around 60 MPH. Above that speed, I turn on the AC.

Autojunkie
Autojunkie
1 month ago

As the former owner of a 63 Mercury “Breezeway”, I can attest to their efficiency of cabin air flow. I have a hard time handling very humid heat (a medical issue I picked up in my 40s), but I found that I never needed air conditioning with all windows, including the rear vent window, open.
Also, just to ease your worries, I never had to worry about things flying out of my back window. I think the venting rear window is a brilliant idea for all modern cars. Especially for a BEV where there is zero worry of getting carbon monoxide poisoning.

Scruffinater
Scruffinater
1 month ago

Former fox body notchback owner here: that was the best windows down ride I have ever experienced by far. One window down, both windows down, one or both part down, any combination and it was utterly pleasant. No buffeting and no crazy wind in the cabin, just a nice pleasant breeze, exactly how you imagine it should be. And those don’t have wing vents or anything else, just a driver’s window and a passenger’s window. Maybe it’s the fairly blocky shape? I dunno, but it was magical…

Xavier Arenas
Xavier Arenas
1 month ago

The best part of the 4Runner and Tundra are the rear sliding window. There are so many window position combinations that change how the airflows in the cabin and eliminate the buffeting. My personal favorite is the front passenger windows closed, moonroof tilted or open, rear hatch/sliding glass down halfway, and rear passenger windows all the way open. Allow for the perfect airflow with no buffeting and your hair won’t look like you just had wild sex. Bummed that the new Sequoia lost the rear window, I hope Toyota doesn’t make the mistake of dropping that with the new 4Runner.

Rob Kern
Rob Kern
1 month ago

I just want the wing vents back. Those were awesome.

Ncbrit
Ncbrit
1 month ago

I see you forgot to mention the rear side windows on Chrysler/Dodge minivans.

Methane generator
Methane generator
1 month ago

‘My fear is the the airflow will be so good that your gas receipts and wedding invitations or whatever is on your seats might end up the street behind you without it.’

lol wedding invitations to a Tesla owner?

ProudLuddite
ProudLuddite
1 month ago

I like convertibles but don’t like the side blast of air that comes from a closed car with the window down. Hardly ever drive with windows down even on a nice day. Based on.my unscientific observations there is a big chunk of windows up people even on a beautiful spring day, and a smaller chunk of windows down folks who will drive around with windows open at -5 degrees.

In my experience the thrumming goes away if you open the back windows.

Also, an obligatory–bring back the vent wing.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
1 month ago

The solution is SOO easy! Just drill a few speed holes under the rear windows. Problem solved!

In some parts of the country winter will helpfully make these holes for you. If you do not live in such parts of the country you can sometimes find locals who will generously use their constitutionally protected tools to put in those holes for you as a drive by service.

CSRoad
CSRoad
1 month ago

The air flow on that older car is wrong, the base of the windshield is a high pressure area, hence the cowl vent and the popularity of cowl induction hood scoops.
The problem with modern cars is lack of free air flow in behind the windshield.
The air turbulence is all a question of pressure balance, the extreme of which with a motorcycle or with a formula car will give you bobble head with a helmet.
The solution is letting air in with deflectors, NACA ducts, double windshields etc.
Back windows that open up are great, but only work if there is enough flow through behind the windshield in the initial design. I miss the sliding back window of my much missed old C10 square body.

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