The secret history of the American drive-thru

Will Kreznick

A “drive-thru” the past Now a staple of fast food culture in America and beyond, the drive-thru has been on quite a journey. The concept began as a modest burger shack with a drive-up window, and burgeoned into the flashy, tech-savvy joints ubiquitous across the globe today. In […]


Now a staple of fast food culture in America and beyond, the drive-thru has been on quite a journey. The concept began as a modest burger shack with a drive-up window, and burgeoned into the flashy, tech-savvy joints ubiquitous across the globe today. In these nostalgic snaps, we chronicle the fascinating history of the drive-thru.




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The story of the drive-thru begins with the drive-in. Peddling the strapline of “America’s Motor Lunch”, the Pig Stands fast food chain is typically held up as America’s first drive-in – a restaurant that sees diners park up and eat their dinner at the wheel. The very first Pig Stand was built on the Dallas-Fort Worth Highway right back in 1921.




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Car ownership rose dramatically through the Roaring Twenties and drive-in restaurants sprung up to cater to America’s new motorists. An early purveyor of the concept was Carpenter’s Sandwiches, a sandwich shop with a menu of comforting classics (think homemade pies and grilled cheese). It’s pictured here on a busy day in the early 1930s.




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At these new-fangled restaurants, the car became the dining room. Diners would relay their order to carhops who would bring steaming plates of American comfort food right to their vehicle. This photo dates to 1932 and sees a Carpenter’s Sandwiches carhop deliver dinner and a smile to parked punters.




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Celebrity foodies soon caught drive-in fever too. This throwback snap shows silent movie star Monte Blue in Hollywood in 1933, as he’s served a club sandwich in his mini racing car.




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Fast-forward to the 1940s and America’s love affair with the motorcar showed little sign of fizzling out. After the Second World War, car ownership began to rise once more and the drive-thru restaurant was on the near horizon. First, though, came everything else. By this decade, drive-thru banks and even drive-thru grocery and liquor stores (as pictured in 1949 in Los Angeles, California) were commonplace.




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Red’s Giant Hamburg, a down-home joint along Route 66 in Springfield, Missouri, opened in 1947, and is widely credited with being America’s first drive-thru restaurant. The spot began life as a gas station until owner Sheldon “Red” Chaney decided his time would be better spent as a restaurant proprietor.




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Hot on the heels of Red’s Hamburg was In-N-Out, a burger chain that’s still a staple of America’s fast food scene today. Harry and Esther Snyder founded the well-loved drive-thru in 1948, and they went one step further than Sheldon “Red” Chaney. Their early strapline was “No Delay” and they made good on what they promised.




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The first In-N-Out was in Baldwin Park, California and its USP was an innovative two-way speaker box that allowed drivers to order dinner without leaving their car. It’s tipped as the first fast food set-up of its kind and it paved the way for the modern drive-thru.




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The Snyders (pictured here with their kids) were a dream team, with Harry front and center in the kitchen, and Esther managing the restaurant’s accounts. By night, after long days slinging burgers, Harry Snyder would also work on perfecting his pioneering speaker system. The duo’s hard work paid off and a steady stream of burger-loving motorists made In-N-Out a success.




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Come the 1950s, with a decade of growth and experience under its belt, In-N-Out swapped its early “No Delay” sign for the iconic arrow ubiquitous in the American Southwest today. In this retro shot, you can make out the new sign, the vintage speaker system and the simple, no-frills menu that hasn’t changed much to this day.




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It didn’t take long for copycat versions of In-N-Out and Harry Snyder’s innovative speaker system to pop up around the States. This nostalgic snap dates to 1951 and shows a coiffed motorist entering a drive-thru burger and hot dog joint in Hollywood, Los Angeles.




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Just like In-N-Out, Jack-in-the-Box had a two-way speaker system from the get go. The brand mascot was Jack, a giant smiling clown who sat atop the intercom box. “Jack will speak to you” was the message that greeted punters as they drove up.




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In true drive-thru style, the Jack-in-the-Box menu focused on speedy-to-make, simple-to-eat foods – think hamburgers, boneless chicken, French fries and apple turnover for dessert. In fact, the drive-thru revolutionized the quick-service food industry. Gone were the messy pies and chili served at drive-ins. The drive-thru was all about food you could easily consume on the go, so the burger reigned supreme.




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Alongside menus, even cars were changing too. Many credit the invention of cup holders to the surging popularity of drive-thrus across America. Soon you’d be hard pushed to find a modern motor without one. This snap shows a car pulling up at a Jack-in-the-Box circa the 1960s.




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Drive-thrus continued to pop up through the 1950s and the 1960s, but the trusty drive-in stayed popular too. While the drive-thru catered to those in need of a quick, convenient bite, the drive-in was a more relaxed, indulgent affair. The automobile remained a novelty for many, and new car owners still savored the chance to dine behind the wheel.




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Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.


Another small chain to jump on the drive-thru bandwagon was Wienerschnitzel, a fast food hot dog joint founded in 1961 by John Galardi, a former Taco Bell employee. The first restaurant was in Southern California and became known for its striking A-frame drive-thrus. Now Wienerschnitzel has locations all over the States.




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A now-global brand that pioneered the drive-thru concept was Wendy’s, founded in 1969 by Dave Thomas (pictured here in the early days). The very first location was in Columbus, Ohio and, of course, it had a drive-thru service window. In fact, the brand tips itself as having “the first modern-day pick-up window”.




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Following the lead of other successful drive-thru restaurants, Wendy’s doled out hamburgers and super-thick shakes from day one. Soon, a second Wendy’s followed in Columbus, and the brand burgeoned across the States and beyond in the following decades. The drive-thru remains a key part of the Wendy’s model today.




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As drive-thru fever caught on across the States, it wasn’t just humans who looked forward to a snack on the road. Banks and grocery stores across the country were embracing the drive-thru model and here, at Coral Ridge National Bank in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a pampered pooch gets his biscuits to go. The snap dates to 1969.




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While smaller chains were capitalizing on the drive-thru hype, fast food juggernauts were dragging their feet. Burger King wouldn’t embrace the drive-thru window until 1975. Instead, the brand, which began as Insta-Burger King, focused on a self-service model that relied on a piece of kit called “the Insta-Broiler”, which cooked burgers super-fast. An early store is pictured here.




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Fast food titan McDonald’s was surprisingly slow on the uptake too. Through the late 1940s and 50s, McDonald’s instead pioneered the “Speedee Service System”, where a streamlined menu was prepared super-quickly, and customers would walk up and order at a self-serve window. Drive-thru service was not available, though.




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The super-fast service and moreish hamburgers at McDonald’s meant the lack of a drive-thru didn’t dim the chain’s success in the 1950s and 60s. Still, the amount of cars parked up in this circa 1950s shot suggests punters would soon be impatient for a drive-thru fix.




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The first McDonald’s drive-thru finally came in 1975, in the same year as Burger King, and nearly three decades after Red’s Giant Hamburg first rolled out its early version of the concept. The chosen location was Sierra Vista, southern Arizona, and a sign still proudly touts the restaurant as a world first.




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By the 1980s, the drive-thru craze was catching on around the globe. The very first drive-thru restaurant in Europe (pictured here) opened in 1985 at the Nutgrove Shopping Centre in Rathfarnham in Dublin, Ireland. It was a McDonald’s joint and it was branded “McDrive” in the hope of appealing to a European audience.




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The UK soon followed suit. Pictured here is the nation’s first McDonald’s drive-thru, which opened in Fallowfield, Manchester in late 1986. The concept soon piqued the interest of Brits and it wasn’t long before more drive-thrus with golden arches began popping up across the country. Dudley in the West Midlands and Neasden in northwest London were also early hosts of the McDonald’s drive-thru.




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Back across the pond, in Canada, the drive-thru concept was gathering just as much momentum. Wendy’s arrived in Canada in the 1970s, while Tim Hortons, the country’s most iconic quick-service brand, gained its first drive-thru in the 1980s. Rumor has it the drive-thru came about by accident, since the legendary chain took over an old fried chicken outlet that already had a service window.




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Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.


Of course, the place where it all began, the USA, continued to embrace the drive-thru concept into the 1990s and beyond. By this point, drive-thru pharmacies, banks, liquor stores, grocery shops and, of course, fast food joints, pervaded the entire country. This Illinois grocery store – the Dairy Market Express Drive-Thru in Lake Zurich – took the concept one extra step, with shoppers able to motor right through the middle of the store. It’s pictured here in 1990.




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Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.




Microsoft and partners may be compensated if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.


36/36 SLIDES

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