4 Weird Car Traditions Explained

Ever cruised the strip, tied cans to a wedded couple’s bumper, or honked in a tunnel? Find out how these crazy car traditions got started.

Have you ever wondered where certain car traditions came from — like hanging fuzzy dice from the rearview mirror or tying tin cans to a bride and groom’s car? Well, wonder no more! In honor of summer (wedding season, road trip season, cruising season, and, er, tchotchke season), we dug up the history and legend behind some common customs.

1. Tying cans behind a newlywed couple’s car

There are a few different theories about this, but the practice most likely stems from the old French tradition of charivari, in which friends (and frenemies) would show up late at night outside the home of the just-married couple and serenade them noisily with pots, pans, and anything else that made a racket. This would continue until the newlyweds invited the revelers in for refreshments. French settlers brought the practice to the American frontier, where it was known as shivaree.

In more recent times, neighbors have become, ahem, less tolerant of cookware-wielding mobs in the wee hours, so people started tying tin or aluminum cans to the back of the wedding car instead. Since the wedding guests would’ve had their food and drink, the point now seems to be more about embarrassing the couple. Aw, how sweet!

2. Lifting your feet when driving over railroad tracks

Again, the folklore on this varies somewhat, but in general, people do it for luck. Superstitions about crossroads have abounded in many cultures for centuries, so this may be one modern version. Apparently, it also helps if you touch the roof of the car with your fingers as you lift your feet. Some say that if you don’t, you’ll lose your sweetheart.

Honking your horn in a tunnel is also supposed to be good luck since honking is said to frighten away evil spirits. (You don’t want them following you on vacation or joining you on your commute, right?) Then again, some people just like to hear the echo. My burning question is this: Why must the tune always be “Shave and a Haircut”?

3. Cruising

When I was a teenager growing up in Reno, Nevada, the thing to do on Saturday nights was drive slowly up and down Virginia Street, past the casinos and under the arch that spelled out “Biggest Little City in the World” in lights. We did it to meet boys (definitely not to show off my four-door orange Datsun). But this tradition started as a way to display one’s seriously tricked-out ride.

The custom of cruising originated with the Mexican American communities of Southern California. Some believe it’s an extension of the Mexican tradition of el paseo, when villagers would stroll through the center of their town in the early evenings, dressed in their finest. For Mexican American teenagers in the late 30s, that finery meant a zoot suit and a beautifully restored, lowered Chevy.

One of the first (if not the first) cruising routes in the U.S. was Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles. A mecca for lowriders since the 1940s, this strip reached its heyday in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and remained popular until the late ‘90s when cruising on the Boulevard was finally banned. Other legendary cruising strips include Woodward Avenue in Detroit and McHenry Avenue in Modesto (where the film American Graffiti was set).

4. Fuzzy dice

A pair of plush dice swinging from the rearview mirror has been a fixture of hot-rod culture since the 1950s. According to legend, this trend originated with American pilots in WWII who placed dice (with 7s showing) in the cockpits of their planes for good luck on their missions. After the war, many of those pilots shifted their need for speed from airplanes to street rods and kept the dice tradition alive. Plastic dice had a tendency to melt (along with the good luck, presumably) so the plush version became popular instead.

What are your favorite car traditions?

Did you ever go cruising as a teenager? What about lifting your feet at railroad crossings? And do you have dice — or some other item — dangling from your rearview? (In my Reno days, we hung our graduation tassels.) Let us know.

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