The parking assist feature on modern cars might seem like a recent innovation, but if Brooks Walker had his way we would have been using it since the 1930s. You heard that right—the 1930s.
We stumbled upon this news reel featuring a California inventor’s ingenious spin on the term “fifth wheel.” Demonstrating his glorious creation on a four-door Packard—presumably in 1933, judging from the license plate—the car’s spare tire lowers from its rear mount and raises the rear wheels, allowing the tail to swivel left and right, making it a snap to parallel park or maneuver in tight spaces.
As the narrator says, why the fifth wheel never caught on we’ll never know. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying.
In a second film from the 1950s, I-U News reports from Piedmont, California, about an unnamed inventor who “has developed something to soothe the motorist’s headache by putting the spare tire to work” on a 1951 Cadillac. “He calls this device the ‘Park Car,’ and says it can be installed on any model. Watch how it works. Taking power from the driveshaft, the spare tire swings the rear end into the clear. Then he just retracts the spare, backs into the street, and away we go!”
Evidence suggests the two films refer to the same innovative genius. A patent for the device was issued to Brooks Walker on Dec. 6, 1938, more than six years after it was filed on March 21, 1932 (which was a year before the first film was made). Years later, shortly after the second film was produced, Life Magazine featured the fifth wheel in its November 17, 1952 and identified the inventor as “California lumberman Brooks Walker.” Life reported that Walker was “taking his invention to Detroit” and that each device would cost about $175. That’s $1628 today, so perhaps automakers thought it was cost prohibitive. Plus, the mechanicals required all of the trunk space in Walker’s Cadillac. Detroit turned him away.
Walker was not deterred, however. Before long he was making the rounds again, this time demonstrating his park assist device on a 1953 Packard Cavalier and taking advantage of an extended continental kit to mount the fifth wheel outside the trunk. Using a series of gears and hydraulic pumps and lines, Walker’s system could be activated with the push of a button beneath the dash. Surprisingly, Detroit said no again.
Walker continued to perfect his parallel parking system into the 1970s, but he died without ever realizing his dream—a dream that is now reality. So the next time you take your hands off the wheel of your Chevy Malibu as it methodically parallel parks itself, give thanks for Brooks Walker.