An automotive appendage that often goes unnoticed — unless it loses a battle with the automatic car wash — is disappearing in the face of changing technology, tastes and economics.
The stalwart stick, pole or fixed-mast antenna, mounted on the body of nearly every vehicle two decades ago, is now on about half of all new models and its ranks are dwindling. When trucks are removed from the equation, it's around 25 percent.
Its vanishing act is notable on many new vehicles, some of which are on display at the North American International Auto Show, open through Sunday. The 2008 Ford Taurus, for example, has a hidden, in-glass antenna and optional small, roof-mounted satellite radio antenna.
"There's an industrywide push to move away from a metal mast antenna," said Ford Motor Co. spokesman Alan Hall. "It's safe to say that within the next few years, all (Ford) cars and crossovers will have transitioned to the smaller antenna."
The stick antenna faces interference on several fronts: Designers seek to erase anything that detracts from sleek lines, engineers want to eliminate the drag that increases noise and decreases gas mileage, and consumers desire signals for their cellular phones, satellite radios and global-positioning system devices.
The change has challenged antenna suppliers. Some have gone out of business or been acquired by larger suppliers as automakers have sought to squeeze costs.
"You have to provide what they want or else you lose their business," said Jan Boring, president of Southfield-based Global Products Inc. and sales representative for the U.S. subsidiary of Japan-based Harada Industry Co. Ltd., one of the world's major mobile antenna makers.
Boring said Harada continues to make the stick antennas, but has moved toward roof-mounted and in-glass models that can accommodate GPS, cellular and other frequencies.
The old stick probably would have vanished by now — but for one nagging thing: It has provided better reception than its offspring.
"For really good reception for low and high frequency, boy, it's hard to beat a good stick on a large field of metal," Williamsen said.
He said automakers have worked for 25 years on a "diversity antenna," a field of antennas that can be embedded in the side and rear glass of the vehicles to pull in signals. It's a way of achieving similar results from the stick.
General Motors Corp. tried putting antennas in windshields in the 1970s, but they didn't offer adequate reception. And the standard stick also was threatened in the 1980s and 90s by power mast antennas, electronically controlled by drivers. Problem was, the power antenna was even more likely to be damaged in car washes if it wasn't lowered.
Boring said the evolution of the antenna — and demise of the stick — is positive.
"You have abilities to have navigation systems in your vehicle, cellular phones, and telematics, capability of having satellite radio and others," he said. "You have these conveniences without having extra antenna masts protruding from the vehicle."