Up Close With The 'First' Rear-View Mirror And Two Secret Facts About It

If you read any of my posts last week, you may know I was in Indianapolis setting up my Lancia-controlled-huge-Pole-Position installation. While I was there, I was lucky enough to get a quick look in the Indy 500’s museum, which is where I found what’s normally considered the first rear-view mirror ever. Except it’s a little more complicated.


The car you see there is the vivid yellow Marmon that Ray Harroun piloted to win the very first Indianapolis 500 back in 1911. One of the famously-repeated reasons for Harroun’s win had to do with the fact that he ditched the on-board mechanic the rules specified, replacing that person with a small rectangular mirror mounted to the cowl of the car.

The reason Harroun was able to replace an actual, breathing, thinking human being with a few pounds of yellow metal and silvered glass is that one of the main jobs of the onboard mechanic was to look behind the driver and let him know when it was safe to pass or warn of any approaching cars, etc.

A full-sized mechanic weighs much more than a little mirror assembly, and as we all know, less weight usually means more speed for a racing car, a fact not lost on Harroun. Harroun’s modification was allowed by race officials, and it certainly seems to have paid off, since he ended up winning. As a result of his well-publicized run with this novel contraption on his car, Harroun is often credited with having the first rear-view mirror. There’s only two problems:

• It wasn’t the first


• It didn’t work.

Let’s tackle the second part there first — how could it not work? It’s a mirror on some legs? What could go wrong?


What went wrong has to do with the race itself — the Indy 500. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a nickname — the Brickyard — that it earned because it was originally paved with bricks. As anyone who’s driven over or passed out on bricks knows, bricks are bumpy. The result was that Harroun’s mirror was vibrating so much as he drove it was all but useless, and he had to look over his shoulder when he needed to see behind him. A great idea, just the wrong setting.


The other bit — the part about this mirror not being the first — seems to be true, as references to rear-view mirrors exist well before 1906. Now, Harroun’s mirror is likely the first used on a racing car, and that’s valuable right there, so it’s not like that Marmon has no mirror-related significance.

But if we look around a bit, it does seem that rear-view mirrors were by no means unknown. In fact, Harroun himself says he got the idea from a device seen on a horse-drawn buggy in 1904, and even if that use wasn’t on a motor vehicle, we have two very clear references in one book, Dorthy Levitt’s The Woman and the Car from 1906.


The first suggests how a woman motorist should carry a hand mirror, and use it as needed to see what’s behind her:


It seems like this advice was targeted at the common open cars of the time. For an enclosed vehicle, less common in 1906 but certainly around, she makes reference to rear-view mirrors that could be expected as accessories in closed cars:


So, it’s not like Harroun was coming out of nowhere with this mirror idea. Again, he does seem to be the first to use one, or at least try to use one, in a race, so let’s not take that from him.

It’s usually said that first patent given to a rear-view mirror wasn’t until 1921 by Elmer Berger, and he clearly had a very specific use in mind for such a mirror, as he called it the COP-SPOTTER. It’s a little puzzling to find that earlier patents, like this one from 1914, exist as well.


So, like so many famous automotive ‘firsts’ we hear about, this one isn’t really definitive, first, or clear at all. It barely matters, since the first Indy 500 win is plenty to give Ray Harroun all the recognition he’s want, and it never hurts to be reminded that nothing in history is as clear or easy as it sounds.

Contact the author at jason@jalopnik.com.

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