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The early days of banking on the go

The introduction of motor banks in the 1930s made banking more convenient for customers — and led to future innovations.
A green hued image of a 1960’s Motor bank. Three cars are parked at teller windows conducting banking business. The teller windows have glass on three sides and were occupied by employees.
Featured photo caption: A photo from a 1959 brochure for the newly installed motor bank at Iowa-Des Moines National Bank (today Wells Fargo). Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives.

While today’s busy customers often conduct their banking on the go with their mobile devices, in the past they drove their cars to the nearest motor bank. Introduced in the 1930s, motor banks (also called drive-in and drive-thru banks) were the banking solution to changing and increasingly fast-paced lifestyles, allowing people to bank from the comfort of their vehicles. As the nation’s first drive-in theaters and curbside-service restaurants also opened, people started to anticipate a world in which they would never have to leave their cars.

A black and white illustration with a car parked at a curb on the left. A man leans out the window to reach a curb teller machine. An xray visual allows the internal workings of the box to be seen, showing an elevator that takes money below street level to an area where a teller sits at a desk waiting to conduct business. Image link will enlarge image.
This curb teller machine in High Point, North Carolina, in 1949 connected the driver with a bank teller through a periscope-like system of mirrors and speakers nicknamed a “snorkel”. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

At the time, motor banking didn’t just offer convenience, it meant security. The rise of gang violence led to many high-profile bank robberies by infamous names like John Dillinger, “Baby Face” Nelson, and “Machine Gun Kelly.” People planning to make big deposits wanted an alternative to walking on the street and waiting in lines and crowds. The motor bank offered them the quick, safe service they needed.

A covered drive-in banking operation with three prominent teller boxes in the foreground. A bank employee is stationed in each box. Multiple cars are parked in front of tellers conducting banking business. The background shows additional cars and teller boxes. Image link will enlarge image.
When it was introduced in 1964, the 15-lane drive-in at Denver U.S. National Bank (today Wells Fargo) was reportedly the world’s largest motor bank. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

While an innovation in the 1930s, the motor bank had become a part of the landscape in most towns by the end of World War II. Veterans returned to marry and start families in growing suburban communities with spacious yards, swimming pools, and modern home appliances. They bought cars to get from their new homes to work and shopping centers. Financed through bank loans, the number of cars in the U.S. doubled to 50 million between 1945 and 1955. More cars meant more traffic, and free parking became a standard offering for customers. More and more banks installed drive-in windows with dedicated tellers so customers could do their banking without leaving — or parking — their cars.

An advertisement for Wells Fargo Bank American Trust Company that reads: The easy way to bank Use our Drive-In Window! You can take it easy and take the whole family along when you bank at our drive-in window. Make deposits, cash checks, get change…in a jiffy. Accompanying illustration shows a mother and three children in a car using a drive-in window. Image link will enlarge image.
This 1960s Wells Fargo ad shows the appeal of motor banking to busy mothers who handled most bank errands at the time. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

First National Bank of Arizona took this convenience a step further. The population of Arizona was booming in the 1950s, as people and businesses moved to the Southwest. To help busy customers flying out of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport, the bank installed the nation’s first “fly-in bank” in 1956, offering all of the conveniences of a motor bank for passengers arriving by airplanes instead of cars.

A small aircraft is parked in the foreground. From the cockpit a woman stretches out her hand to a man standing along side the plane. In the background a partial sign can be seen that reads: First National Bank of Arizona. Image link will enlarge image.
First National Bank of Arizona (today Wells Fargo) made history when it opened the nation’s first fly-in bank branch in Phoenix in 1956. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
A woman teller inserts an envelope and presses buttons on a machine labeled a Vuematic. The machine allows the teller to see the drive-in customer via camera. Image link will enlarge image.
A TV teller at Northwestern National Bank of Sioux Falls, South Dakota (today Wells Fargo), in the 1960s. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
A child sits in a rideable toy car parked in a drive-in lane before a glass teller window. A bank employee and a police officer smile down on him from the sidewalk. Two more uniformed police officers stand in the background. Image link will enlarge image.
The popularity of the drive-in bank reflected the nation’s love of cars. This boy shows off his new wheels at the U.S. National Bank of Omaha (today Wells Fargo) in the 1960s. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
A young driver reaches out through an open door and window of their car to insert a container into a pneumatic tube system. Image link will enlarge image.
A pneumatic tube system shuttles transactions back and forth between the teller and a customer in this undated photo from San Bernardino, California. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Adjusting to new ways of banking

The drive-thru window has become so common that it is easy to forget that, for people in the mid-1900s, it was a completely new way to interact with tellers and required training and adjustment. When Iowa-Des Moines National Bank opened its motor bank in 1959, several customers drove the wrong way through the drive-thru during the first week. One customer even confused the drive-in teller with a parking attendant and handed the teller a $1 payment instead of their bank deposit. Customers needed time to adjust to the new way of banking. Brochures helped advertise and explain the new services.

A tan brochure featuring both illustration and photos accompanied by instructions for using the TV Auto bank. The top section shows the view from the customer in the car and from the teller in the box. Caption reads, “TV Banking! Now you can bank by television with our Mosler Auto-Banker system. It’s new, different – fun to use.” 960 branches is handwritten in pencil across the top. Image link will enlarge image.
This 1960s Wells Fargo brochure gives detailed instructions to help customers transition to new technology. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Motor banks had a reputation for being futuristic, and banks capitalized on this idea by installing new technologies, including television. TV tellers interacted with customers at drive-up stations using TV screens and a closed-caption circuit. By the 1960s, many families had added a TV to their living room, but TV banking offered excited families a chance to see themselves onscreen.

A black and white illustration of a convertible car parked at a TV Teller box. A woman is driving, and a child stands in the back seat and points at the tv screen. The top of the brochure features different shades of green geometric designs and reads: Caption reads, “Look mom … we’re on TV!” The First National Bank of Atlanta 5 Pointer. Image link will enlarge image.
This 1964 brochure illustrates the excitement of visiting TV tellers at First National Bank of Atlanta (today Wells Fargo). Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

The ATM also became a pivotal feature of motor banking. Introduced in 1967, the ATM allowed customers to withdraw money from a machine outside of the bank instead of inside at the teller’s counter. For the first time, customers could do banking on their schedule, even outside of business hours.

A woman drives a convertible toward a drive-in entrance to a building with signage above the entrance that says Midland National Bank. Two boys in white shirts sits beside her in the front seat. Image link will enlarge image.
A mother enters the drive-in lane at Midland National Bank in Minneapolis (today Wells Fargo) in the 1960s. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

Wells Fargo released its “Express Stop” ATMs in 1978, and within 10 years, 70 percent of customers reported using the new machines every month. Wells Fargo and other banks realized that demand for 24-hour banking at ATMs meant that they had to revamp the drive-in too. In the 1980s, banks began to install ATMs in drive-in lanes, making them even more convenient. A stop at the ATM could be as quick and comfortable as the drive-in lane — with no need to get out of the car in bad weather or miss your favorite song on the radio. Today, Wells Fargo continues to look for innovative ways to make banking convenient for its customers.

A bank teller holds up a bone shaped dog treat in view of a dog waiting for its arrival via a pneumatic tube. A man and his dog are visible in the driver’s window of the parked car. The teller’s workstation has multiple stamps, pens and adding machines. Image link will enlarge image.
Drive-thru tellers welcomed their customers with a friendly greeting, convenient service, and an occasional treat at this Wells Fargo branch in 1976. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives
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