The latest cars automatically change to low beam without drivers needing to do anything. In all other cars there’s a lever by the wheel to do just that. That wasn’t always the case though. New cars were still being equipped with a foot dip switch as late as the 1970s. In some American models it even stuck around until the early 1990s.
There were and are a few things drivers put their foot on. The accelerator and brake pedals, for example. Every car has them. Fans of manual transmissions also have the clutch as a third pedal. A fourth can be found in cars in which the parking brake has its own pedal. “Pulling” it on requires the driver to step on it forcefully, while it can be released manually using a comparatively unobtrusive button. Those who believe that this surely fills up the footwell would be surprised to discover two other controls in classic cars. For one, there’s the squeeze bulb which drivers could step on to pump water onto the windscreen. And then there’s today’s top of the flops, the foot dip switch.
Two generations of VW Beetle drivers found it perfectly normal to use it for switching between high beam and dipped beam and vice versa. This splendid switch could be found in Germany’s most common car until around 1977. In most others it disappeared in the early 1970s. Or more specifically, it moved to the wheel where it still is today. So the question is, why did the foot ever have to serve as a means for controlling the light?
Some of you may think of reasons such as the hands not having to be taken off the wheel so often. Or perhaps because it required a lot more effort to turn the wheel because of the lack of power steering around at the time. Others may even suspect that regulations were behind the foot dip switch.
Far from it. This thing helped car manufacturers to save money, plain and simple. It was cheaper than a lever switch plus relay, which is necessary for its usual function. What’s more, there was enough space in the footwell for the big switch casing, which had to house the bulky contacts required for the high currents of the headlight lamps. 6-volt electrical systems were widely used in the era of the foot dip switch. Any of you who didn’t dream of Ferrari & co in Physics at school would know that halving the voltage would double the current for the same (lamp) output. That’s why the feed cables were quite thick, and the industry’s bean counters were delighted about saving a few decimeters or inches of expensive copper cable feeding into the steering control stalk.
In the 1960s, headlamp flashers found their way into many models. The footswitch was no longer suitable to operate them. For a while some cars therefore had a separate lever for the headlamp flashers only. Manufacturers who weren’t quite so stingy also treated drivers to a dipper relay, and hey presto we have the solution which is commonly used today.
Are there still any drivers who miss the foot dip switch?