JC Whitney shares a century of auto parts oddities

The cover of an early Warshawsky catalog | JC Whitney photos
The cover of an early Warshawsky catalog | JC Whitney photos

As part of its centennial celebration, JC Whitney, the gigantic auto parts and accessories company, has searched the archives of its catalogs to find the 10 oddest auto accessories it ever has offered.

“As we celebrate our centennial anniversary, it’s only natural to look back at some of the classics found in our catalog,” company president Shane Evangelist said in a news release. “We found more than a few crazy accessories from the past, especially around the 1960s — turn signal stuffed animals and record players — things that make you shake your head and laugh. But we also found a few hidden gems that were ahead of their time, precursors to today’s in-car gizmos.”

It was in 1915 that Lithuanian immigrant Israel Warshawsky opened a metal scrap yard on the south side of Chicago. The Warshawsky Company sold a lot of used auto parts, and Warshawsky had the foresight to buy up the parts inventory of struggling American auto makers as they were going out of business.

Warshawsky’s business really picked up after his son, Roy, graduated from the University of Chicago and joined the firm. It was Roy who thought they could sell auto parts and accessories nationwide and spent $60 for an advertisement of the renamed JC Whitney company in Popular Mechanics, promising to send a “giant auto parts catalog” to anyone who sent 25 cents to cover shipping and handling costs.

Here are what the company now believes were the among the most “strange and colorful… creative, unusual and just plain bizarre” items it ever offered for sale:

Do Re Me Chime kit
Door Re Me Chime kit

Door Re Me Door Chime. A music box that plays a song melody when the car door opened, this accessory offered an easy way to class up your ride… and surprise that special someone. Available in four different versions, including “Ave Maria,” “Let Me call you Sweetheart,” the “Anniversary Waltz” and “I Love You Truly.” Vintage sale price in the 1960s: $4.98 per selection.

Fuzzy Car Muffs. Because cold weather makes people loopy enough to put fuzzy warmers on their cars. What was promoted as a “countrywide rage” featured wrapped fuzzy white fur over mirrors, horn rings, visors and car club plaques. It’s like driving a polar bear! Vintage sale price in the 1960s: $0.79 – $1.50.

Dashboard Record Player. Was this an early version of the aux port? The integrated mp3? No. But it was an interesting idea: Hook up a portable record player to the car radio. It played 45s with the claim that it “Performs smoothly even over rough roads, rough curves, even during fast starting and stopping.” There were also full-size record players available for travel trailers during the ’40s and ’50s. Vintage sale price in the 1960s: $59.95.

Actual Race Recordings/Sports Car Recordings. The precursor to audiobooks, perhaps? How about a spoken word biography of Carroll Shelby or Sir Sterling Moss. You could get it in the JC Whitney catalog and, of course, play them on your on-dash record player. Recordings of famous races at Le Mans, Monaco or Silverstone were included. Vintage sale price in the 1960s: $5.00 – $5.95.

Radio Foot Switch
Radio Foot Switch

Foot Operated Radio Selection. Serious drivers want to know: Why move your hands from the wheel to tune the radio when you can do it with the tap of your foot? And what’s the difference between this and today’s advanced head’s up display telematics? Vintage sale price in the 1960s: $2.95.

Automotive Radio Phone & Accessories. Once again demonstrating that JC Whitney was on the cutting edge of in-car electronics and accessories. Well before the cellular revolution arrived, it took specialized equipment to turn your car, truck or boat into a low-power radio station to conduct business and stay in touch with family. Here was everything you needed, including the transmitter/receiver and antenna to give you a range of up to 10 miles. Unintended benefits included looking like a business mogul or law enforcement officer to passers-by. Vintage sale price in the 1960s for multiple components from $0.65 to $169.00.

Gyroscopic Stabilizers. Anything that has the word “Gyroscope” in the title is sure to get car fanatics dreaming about the scientific possibilities of whizzing widgets. The stabilizers claimed to increase tire life, automatically balance wheels, iron out bumps, improve handling and do your laundry. Vintage sale price in the 1960s: $19.95 (set of two).

In-Car Coffee Service
In-Car Coffee Service

In the Car Coffee Maker Kit. A brilliant product that never made it to the big time, this idea came around long before Starbucks was on every corner:  This kit served four cups of coffee. For the price of a few tall lattes you received all of the items to percolate, pour and organize your cream and sugar… all while securing the coffee maker while you rushed to work. The perfect accessory for cupholders! Vintage sale price in the 1960s: $17.00.

Foot Operated Radio Selection. Serious drivers want to know: Why move your hands from the wheel to tune the radio when you can do it with the tap of your foot? And what’s the difference between this and today’s advanced head’s up display telematics? Vintage sale price in the 1960s: $2.95.

Deluxe Left Foot Accelerator. Give the right foot a rest from all that tiring movement! Ad copy boasted benefits like “Rest the right foot” and “easily install on any make or model car… with or without a clutch.” A popular modification for drummers who wanted to practice their footwork while driving. Vintage sale price in the 1960s: $3.98.

Winky & Friends
Winky & Friends

Winky and Friends. Whatever happened to Duchess and Mac? Just like a musical super group, these plush characters enjoyed some success in the JC Whitney catalog until Duchess and Mac left to pursue solo careers in the automotive turn signal and brake light industry. A reunion has been discussed. Winky was sold in the catalog until around 1987. Vintage sale price in the 1960s: $6.95 each.

OK, now, admit it, you’ve spent hours going through JC Whitney catalogs over the years. What’s the strangest thing you ever ordered and put on your own vehicle? (Use the Share your comments box below to confess.)

For more on the JC Whitney centennial, see the company’s special website.

16 thoughts on “JC Whitney shares a century of auto parts oddities”

  1. The Hi-Way HiFi under dash record player was available as a Chrysler accessory in the late ’50s.

    “Records for the system were manufactured exclusively by Columbia Special Products, and could hold roughly 45 minutes of music or an hour of speech per side. This was accomplished by the use of a very slow rotation speed of 16⅔ RPM—versus 33 RPM for long-playing records and 45 RPM for singles—in conjunction with an extremely tight groove pitch of 550 grooves per inch (216.5 grooves per centimeter, over four times that of a standard monaural LP of the period)”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highway_Hi-Fi

  2. Growing up in the sixties I carried my Warshawsky’s catalog everywhere. I would sit in study hall and instead of doing my home work I would page through the catalog. When I bought my first car, a 1960 Chevrolet I order many parts from the catalog. Later in life I customized a Ford Van and ordered all the seats and extra from them also. I wish there was a neat catalog like that today, I wish I would have kept my old one. Has anyone scanned an old catalog and put it on the internet, would be fun to reminisce.

  3. Built my 30 Model A from J.C. Whitney. They had all the finishing pieces and they were new and chromed. Even bought my tools from them and, yes, I bought a 45 RPM record player for my 53 Ford. Like Peter said, I wish I would have kept that catalog.

  4. I like the sound of the foot operated radio selector. I wish the headlight switch were still on the floor, it was much more handy

  5. I used to read through the catalog and create a wish list. Over the years I bought quite a few things. My favorite product that i kept around the auto repair shop was the engine overhaul pellet kit. If a customer needed a engine overhaul and could not afford the few thousand dollar job I’d offer them the pellet kit for $19.95 installed.

  6. I remember ordering a set of opera lights along with a ‘mylar’ targa band. The band turned out to be a sheet of brushed aluminum contact paper. I would have to guess it was 1979. Loved that catalog.

  7. During the gasoline shortages in the mid 1970s, a friend joked that we should install every one of the numerous magical gas saving devices featured in the Warshawsky catalog. He figured that if we did that, our gas guzzlers would get at least 50 miles per gallon!

    Man, I loved that catalog. The wishbook for car geeks!

  8. The foot operated radio station selector was on my ’55 cadillac. I purchased it used in ’62
    & am not sure if it was original equipment.

  9. Wow, you just brought back a slew of summer memories as a teen and into my 20’s. Here’s a little more trivia about them. I’m a southsider. I live on the southside of Chicago and did years ago too. It was a half-hour cruise or about a 10-12 mile ride.to Warshawsky’s on a summer afternoon. I would drive down south Western Av. for about 5 miles, then I turned right on to Archer Av. (Archer runs on an angle to downtown Chicago) and take that the rest of the way down to where it ends at State street. Warshawky’s was right on that corner. You couldn’t miss it. Free secure parking was right across the street under the “L” train tracks. Warshawsky had a huge collection of very old cars and had a few of them right on the floor behind those big glass windows at 18th st. (the corner of Archer Av.and State Street) .. I specifically remember an old 1940’s Lincoln all roped off up in the front corner of the store. Anyway, The main counter was right there and you took a number and waited for your number to be called. Sometimes it was really busy and you would have to wait 20-30 minutes to get up to the counter but that was mostly on the weekends So I would go during the week in the afternoon usually listening to the Cubs game on my radio with all the windows down. Most small to medium sized parts that you wanted were hand picked from the warehouse upstairs and then came down a conveyer belt in a plastic bin after you told them what you wanted at the counter The counter was 15 feet long and had 6-8 countermen working it. They sold a lot of parts. Then you would wait sometimes up to another 15 minutes for the parts to come down the belt. They had a guy handing out the parts from the belt. They also had a clearance room towards the south end of the store and you could find super deals on broken, scratched and/or dented items in there while you waited for your other parts to come down the belt. They had a 2 cashiers working in the front of the store near the exit doors. If it was a large part or just sometimes that was not so popular of an item then you would have to drive to their big warehouse about a mile away right off 22nd street and go inside to get those parts That warehouse was their main warehouse. It was huge and about 9-10 floors high and a half-block long at least. The first floor was the customer counter area and some more sale items on the floor and shelves but the rest of the building was the warehouse and employees only and full of parts. It was rumored that the rest of Warshawsky’s car collection was up on the 9th floor of that warehouse away from the public eyes . I had to go to that warehouse many a times to pick up parts. I usually went to Warshawsky’s in the spring or summer when I was out working on my vehicles. I worked nights so I had all afternoon to goof off. The last few items I bought there were a pair of 9″ long disco lights that dance to the sound of your stereo. I still have them stuck to the inside roof of my old Ford showtruck. .I also bought my “Zoomie” exhaust collectors from there too that I still have on my custom showtruck. Boy, are they ever LOUD. !!! Most parts or gizmos that they carried were made in Japan or Taiwan but they were the only place you could get them. I bought their replacement woodgrain vinyl siding for my ’69 Country Squire from them back in 1996. It was only $99.00 for theirs and enough to do the entire car, compared to well over $400 for the Ford dealer woodgrain if you could even find it as it was obsolete from the dealer by then. That woodgrain vinyl is still on the car and it held up for almost 20 years now so I can’t complain about that at all. It’s starting to show it’s age now so it finally needs replacement. That was the last item I bought from them before they closed up the Chicago locations sometime around 1997 and moved the entire operation to a brand new building in Lasalle , IL. about 50-60 miles away. Easy access right off of route 80 but still too far to drive there for me.. They also dropped the Warshawsky name completely and just go by J.C. Whitney now since the father passed away back in the mid to late 1990’s and the son took over. J.C. Whitney was originally the mail order part of the company and Warshawsky’s was just for the Chicago Metro local walk-in crowd so they dropped everything to do with Chicago and the Warshawsky name. . I believe and correct me if I’m wrong but I remember hearing that J.C. Whitney was actually Warshawsky’s daughter-in-law and that’s what they named the mail-order business part of the company after.. Once the father passed, unfortunately everything changed and they closed up and moved to Lasalle. where the son and his wife supposedly lived. Now their J.C. Whitney catalog is completely different and they sell pretty much only R.V. and VW parts and don’t have any of the usual “made in Taiwan” gizmos anymore that I’m aware of that they had originally and were famous for. They still carry the woodgrain rolls online and their prices still aren’t bad but I believe all the gizmos are long gone. I miss driving down to the Chicago store. They were cheaper than any other store, they had anything I ever wanted for my car and were only a half-hour drive from my home. I had a bunch of their old catalogs from the 70’s and 80’s but they got destroyed in a house basement flood I had a few years ago. I could browse thru those catalogs for hours on end and check off everything I wanted from them. Unfortunately I checked off a whole lot more than I could afford but still bought a lot of stuff from their catalogs. I used to get free catalogs from them in the mail almost once a month or so, so I had a big collection over the years as I never threw any of them away until they got ruined in the flood recently. .
    Kenny.

  10. My favorite was the multi tune car horn. It had four tunes, but LaCucaracha was system standard for the food trucks. I worked in the graphics department for a while. That was a trip as most of the catalog was pen & ink drawings of the products. There was also an optional wolf whistle to add to the car horn and the ultra-wide rear view mirror. Any kind of hubcap from baby moons to fake wires. Dummy antennas and spots. Pages of additives to give more performance and mileage. Gangster white tire appliques. The list goes on and on.

  11. I had a “Winky the cat” with the flashing turn signal eyes in my new ’66 Mustang on the back window shelf, the “GT” side racing stripes, and the custom tail lights that were flat against the back trunk panel with continuous chrome strips that ran horizontally across the back panel except for the gas cap. From the back, people couldn’t figure out what kind of car it was. All the “upgrades” from the J.C. Whitney catalogs.

  12. I had a 56 Buick Special I bought for $200.00 in 1964, it had a button on the floor to change the radio stations (stock).
    I had the girls thinking the car was haunted!!!!!
    I now collect classic cars & only wish I could afford a 56 Buick!!!

    Torry

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