One automobile accessory that predates the automobile itself is leather driving gloves. An open wagon with a seat and an engine underneath was the oldest type of horseless transport. There was no top, but there was also no windshield. Typically, the driver wore a large duster coat, a cap, goggles, and sometimes even a scarf. To block out weather and insects, the gloves were thick leather gauntlets that went over the ends of the coat sleeves.
The automobile and its accessories both underwent significant development in the subsequent two decades. In the 1920s, the fully enclosed sedan with roll-up windows and a permanent roof rose to popularity. By the 1930s, it even featured a dependable heater. The driving glove had changed from a gauntlet to a much more refined, form-fitting, and far less intrusive item of clothing, typically unlined and thinner for greater road feel.
The postwar era gave rise to the modern driving glove as we know it today. Giuseppe Farina won the first Formula 1 world championship race at Silverstone in May 1950, defeating Alfa Romeo teammates Luigi Fagioli and Reg Parnell. Newsreels of dashing drivers waving their gloved hands to the cameras in exotic open-cockpit cars, including Juan Manuel Fangio, Mike Hawthorn, Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss, and Alberto Ascari, were soon shown throughout the world.
These gloves had two functions. The majority of early Formula 1 steering wheels were made of hard plastic or wood. Gloves gave the driver a better grip on the wheel while maximizing feel thanks to their thin leather structure and expert seaming. The leather was often perforated and had air holes to keep the driver’s hands cool.
By the middle of the 1950s, both coasts were experiencing a sports-car explosion that brought in previously unknown brands like Alfa Romeo, MG, Porsche, and Triumph as well as gave rise to a cottage industry that catered to the needs of the sports-car lifestyle. In the back pages of the nascent automotive enthusiast periodicals of the time, legendary Southern California-based merchants like MG Mitten and Vilem B. Haan of Beverly Hills pleaded with readers to send 50 cents for the most recent catalog, which included, among other things, driving gloves.
Along with pairs of driving gloves bearing the names of Formula 1 drivers Brabham and John Surtees and official Ferrari team gloves for the Ferraristi, MG Mitten also offered Champion driving gloves that were “handcrafted from Abyssinian kid and sewed with Terylene thread.” Italian Sala Sport gloves with a unique nonslip grip were available from Haan. They were advertised as skin-soft, well-ventilated Italian leather with double-leather palms, available in both men’s and women’s sizes, and priced at $7.50 prepaid. Additionally, a one-piece Sala Sport racing and driver’s costume was offered for an extra $15.95 for those looking to make a more dramatic statement.
Jim Clark, a legendary Formula 1 champion in the 1960s, was frequently pictured wearing driving gloves, raising the question of whether or not they were glued on. It’s not surprising that he ended up with a pair of gloves bearing his name in the Haan catalog. Furthermore, in the infamous Bullitt chase scene, Steve McQueen maneuvers a famous green Mustang fastback without using his hands, despite the fact that both of the antagonists in the black Charger were wearing driving gloves.
This brings us to the present, where driving gloves are largely considered a throwback and a luxury due to the widespread use of gripping leather or suede-covered steering wheels, while owners of classic sports cars from the 1950s and 1960s may still view them as necessary. But even if you drive a brand-new Miata or a Mustang, try to convince us that your hands aren’t feeling caressed and content by slipping them into a pair of light, buttery, fragrant driving gloves. Moreover, you don’t sense a connection to previous generations of drivers and racers who performed the identical actions when they got behind the wheel.