It goes by lots of names. In my northwest Ohio town we called it a “barney knob.” In other places it is known by other names. Wikipedia uses the generic term “Brodie” knob after a man named Steve Brodie, a New York daredevil who is reputed in 1886 to have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge to collect a bet and survived. Other names for the device include necker, knuckle buster, and suicide knob. A variety of them are shown throughout this post.
With my first automobile, a 1953 Chevrolet two-door that cruised at 80 miles an hour, for a while I had a barney knob on the steering wheel, have not used one since, and had largely forgotten about the device. What put me in mind of it was a younger friend who fell, broke a wrist and was told not to drive. “If you had a barney knob,” you could drive with one hand,” I told him. He had never heard of them.
The object in question is a small, independently rotating knob (not unlike the standard door knob). As shown here, it faces the driver and is securely mounted on the outside rim of a steering wheel. The knob is intended to help make steering with one hand less difficult and faster. It was invented in 1936 by Joel R. Thorp, a resident of a Milwaukee suburb, West Allis, Wisconsin. He called it a “steering wheel spinner knob.” Later Thorp would invent an improved accelerator pedal.
In its heyday the knob made a fashion statement. After World War II, hard plastic like lucite had hit the market and colorful knobs were the rage. As I remember, mine was drum shaped with a bright yellow plastic flower display. As shown here, others displayed plastic dice, the eight ball of pool, and sometime an image you did not want your mother to see.
Placement of the barney knob was crucial. It had to be available to the major driving hand and to turn a hard corner. Being left handed, mine, I recall, was about 8 o’clock on left side of the wheel. Others tended to locate it at 1 o’clock.
It was sometimes called the “necker” knob because it allowed the user to drive while having one arm around the shoulders of a girl friend snuggled close or perhaps holding her hand. A youthful pal of mine was employing the knob to good use in that fashion but in his romantic haze drove into a busy intersection and had a fender bender that got him grounded for several weeks.
Wikipedia points out that the device is “notoriously useless” for controlling the automobile during an emergency. The knob also be the cause of an emergency if it flips back and hits the driver’s arm. Today it frequently is termed the “suicide knob.” Potential hazards also are responsible for it being called a “Brodie knob,” since his daredevil antics popularly were seen as a death wish.
During the 1950s, rumors constantly were flying among the barney knob crowd that the Ohio state legislature had passed a law making them illegal and if stopped by the police for a traffic infraction a second citation would follow. I have no doubt that bills were introduced in many states to outlaw the knob and that nationwide proponents of the gizmo were left to worry. To date, however, I cannot find any evidence that the barney knob ever was declared illegal in Ohio or any other state.
Nonetheless, whether it was fear of arrest or my father’s strong objection to it, I removed my barney knob only months after tightening the screws on my Chevrolet steering wheel. The knob was kept lovingly in my dresser drawer where I would take it out occasionally and gaze at it in appreciation.
But I never replaced it on the steering wheel of my Chevrolet.
Some sixty years have elapsed since then. The barney knob with the bright yellow flower long since has vanished from my possession. I no longer cruise at 80 miles an hour and am usually holding tightly onto the steering wheel with both hands. But it pains me that the knob has faded into almost utter obscurity even among the younger set. I mourn its passing. Thus the requiem.