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What is a Running Board?

By J. Beam
Updated May 23, 2024
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A running board, sometimes also called a footboard, is an external vehicle accessory that essentially acts as a step or balance for passengers. In most cases it is located beneath the doors and runs along the side of the vehicle, all the way from the front wheel well to the back wheel well; cars and trucks that have these almost always have two, one for each side. They were features on many of the earliest cars as a matter of safety and convenience, as these cars often sat high off the ground. A place to step in and out prevented falls and accidental contact with the tires. These boards are still common features on some modern cars, but usually only as a style accent. Trucks and larger sport utility vehicles, however, often still make use of them as a practicality. Modern iterations are most commonly made of chrome or fiberglass, and if they don’t come standard on a vehicle they can often be added later as an accessory.

Basic Concept

Running boards usually serve two main purposes, namely passenger assistance and aesthetic value. Vehicles that sit high off the ground can be challenging to climb into, particularly for children or elderly people. In the early days of motoring, the long dresses worn by most women also made quick alights or descents somewhat difficult. A firm place to plant one’s feet when getting in or out of the car can make the process easier.

Depending on the vehicle, the boards might also enhance the overall visual appeal. They create continuity in the siding that often has a very “vintage” feel, and might also make the car or truck seem sportier.

Customization

Early model cars typically featured running boards on both sides of the vehicles as a practicality. Later models of cars that sat lower to the ground no longer needed running boards since they were so much easier to get in and out of, but the features remained nevertheless common as a stylistic feature. Most of the cars manufactured during the 1940s and 1950s had them, for instance, even though most of these cars sat very low to the ground. A lot of this was owing to customization, basically the consumer’s ability to influence the stylistic elements of his or her vehicle.

Custom cars became popular in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and they have maintained their popularity. A modern customization of any vehicle might include the addition of running boards. Full-size trucks are often seen with chrome running boards, but on a car with a custom paint job, the running boards usually are fiberglass and are painted to match. In addition to the various designs and finishes, a running board might even be lighted.

Style and Options Available

Traditional footboards were often made to look like part of the original siding. This is still sometimes true, but it doesn’t have to be; there are many modern options. It’s also common for larger vehicles, vans, and trucks to have “hidden” or moveable footboards. These are mechanically activated and will come out, usually from a well beneath the siding, when the vehicle is unlocked or when a door is opened. This sort of feature provides maximum utility without detracting from the look or performance of the vehicle as a whole.

Similar Vehicle Accessories

There are other accessory parts that serve one or both of the purposes of running boards that can sometimes be used instead of or even in addition to these features. Nerf bars, for instance, are pipes — usually made of chrome or steel — that added to the sides of vehicles, often with small footpads on the bars so that they can be used as steps. More utilitarian truck steps are much shorter that running boards. Rather than extending from wheel to wheel, they usually sit just beneath each door jamb and serve a practical purpose rather than being known for their looks.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1005315 — On Aug 03, 2021

When I was little, back in the 1940s, the runningboards of cars parked along our street was our meeting bench. After the war, as money rolled in and people bought modern cars, our "bench" spots noticeably disappeared, little-by-little.

By LisaLou — On Jul 09, 2012

I drive an SUV and am glad this came with running boards. Even while stepping on the running board to get into the vehicle, I still grab the strap to help me.

Our SUV is built on a truck frame, so it sits up higher than some of the smaller sport utility vehicles. If these had not come with the vehicle when we bought it, I would have paid to have them installed.

I could get into the vehicle if I had to, but the running boards sure make it a lot easier. For someone like my mom who has a harder time getting around, she would not even be able to get inside my vehicle if I didn't have the running boards on it.

By andee — On Jul 08, 2012

I like looking at vintage cars and think the running boards really add to their unique look. If I drove around with running boards on my car today, I would probably get a lot of funny looks.

My car sits down so close to the ground, that it would not be much of an asset, and would probably make getting in and out of the car even more difficult than it already is.

By John57 — On Jul 08, 2012

I would have a really hard time getting in and out of our truck if it didn't have running boards on it. My husband is the one who always drives the truck, but when I go with him someplace, it is nice to have the running boards to step on before getting in the truck.

I am not very tall, so this makes more of a difference for me than for my husband. They are also great for the kids. They are used to climbing on things though, so it wouldn't be as much of an issue for them.

I have seen some lighted running boards that look nice, but for me, they are much more a matter of being practical than anything else.

By hyrax53 — On Jan 21, 2011

While sometimes people use them to look cool, running boards are actually useful if you ever have to ride in a car that is really high off the ground and are, like me, less than average height.

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