If you believed every car advertisement you saw, you'd swear every "digital" innovation in the automotive industry happened in the last 20 years. A lot of them did, but some of them go back way further.
Heads-up display (HUD)
Adjustable steering wheel with memory
Automatic "passive" shoulder belts
Directional driving lamps
Heated car seats
Digital speedometers and gauges
Active safety features
Steering wheel-mounted cruise control
Manufacturer: General Motors
Wha—how? In the mid-‘80s, GM partnered with Atari-backed upstart Etak on a then-$1,395 in-car navigation system (for northern Californians only). The system used a 16-bit microprocessor to read “cassette maps” and project the data on a four-and-a-half-inch screen. An electronic compass and motion sensor would track the car’s motion — no satellites required. [A similar Honda unit is pictured.]
Wha—how? While not technically a “website,” the, uh, e-brochure Buick sent prospective buyers on Apple II diskettes included the same info you’ll now find on manufacturers’ webpages: technical specs, interactive animations, a car cost calculator and dealer info. OK, so it was all rendered in 8-bit graphics and was crammed onto a 286-kilobyte disk. It still helped sell cars, didn’t it?
Wha—how? Surprised the 1957 Ford Sunliner wasn’t the first car with a convertible hardtop? Us too. The technology actually dates back to the late ’20s and early ’30s; the hydro-mechanical system Georges Paulin fitted to the Peugeot 402 Éclipse Décapotable (literally “removable top”) marks the first mass-market example. The Sunliner was the first production one, though.
Wha—how? Details are hard to come by, but Volvo’s 1972 Volvo Experimental Safety Car (VESC) apparently came equipped with a backup camera mounted right between the taillights. The car was just a concept, but it still goes to show that even by the early ’70s someone’d realized periscopes were not the way to go.
Wha—how? Heads-up display (HUD) systems that project essential information up on the windshield have yet to catch on, but when they do, they’ll have been decades in development. General Motors first toyed with HUD in cars in 1988 on their Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. They’re still toying with it, in fact, most recently on the Corvette.
Wha—how? If you thought memory settings required computers, explain the memory on this Ford concept car steering wheel. The sporty, European-looking Allegro II featured a “cantilevered arm steering wheel with memory unit” that could both telescope back and forth and move up or down; it could also swing upward out of the way for easy exit. When you got back in, the wheel could reset itself at the touch of a button.
Wha—how? The popularization of seatbelts themselves was actually a little behind its time, but when they caught on in a big way in the 1980s, Toyota was there to catch up and take a few extra steps ahead. The 1981 Cressida featured automatic seatbelts that used small motors to retract the strap around your torso, in case you forgot to buckle up. We’re kind of glad they’re not around any more. [A similar Honda unit is pictured.]
Wha—how? It didn’t take long for automakers to figure out headlights that could peek around corners could be pretty helpful; that’s why in the early 1930s Cadillac installed these directional driving lights (the bumper-mounted ones, in front of the grille) that turned with the steering wheel. This particular ’31 belongs to Ontario’s Steve Plunkett.
Wha—how? While car phones technically date back to the late 1940s, they were more like two-way radios (connected via an operator you had to call first) than telephones. Still, it’s sort of neat to think that distracted driving isn’t that new a phenomenon.
Wha—how? You’d almost think Canadian drivers would’ve insisted on this feature well before the 1960s, but it was Cadillac’s Series 75 that was first to have heated seats, in 1966. (There were likely some earlier aftermarket units we’re missing, here.) The cars used a special carbon-cloth heating pad to warm your, uh, seat in colder climates.
Manufacturer: Aston Martin
Wha—how? Digital speedometers and gauges were one of those things that trickled down from luxury cars into the mainstream. The 1976 Aston Martin Lagonda featured them first, though Cadillac picked up on the technology shortly after. They’re no big deal now, but imagine (or remember) the shock then of seeing little green lights where needles used to be.
Wha—how? The procon-ten system (“programmed contraction-tension”) Audi stuffed in their 1986 100 cars didn’t really involve much programming, despite its name. It simply used a series of thick cables to pull the steering wheel out of the way and tighten the seatbelts when the engine was pushed backward in a collision. This feature’s more recently been replaced by, uh, airbags.
Wha—how? The Ford Thunderbird’s Highway Pilot Automatic Speed Control marks the first steering wheel-mounted application of cruise control. With a press on a rocker switch on the wheel hub, you could set or lower your speed (the brake would turn it off). The system used vacuum motors, pull chains, cables and sensor pumps — who needs electronics?
Wha—how? The 1951 Buick LeSabre Concept was just that: a concept. But it was also legendary stylist Harley Earl’s daily driver. We don’t know how often he drove it in the rain, but we do know if he did, the folding top would pop up automatically, courtesy a tip-off from a set of moisture sensors mounted to the car.
Manufacturer: Nissan (Datsun)
Wha—how? In 1982, TV viewers dazzled by Knight Rider’s conversational KITT only had to get to a Datsun dealer if they wanted their own talking car. If you forgot to buckle up or turn off your lights in a then-new Datsun 810 Maxima, then, you’d get a verbal reminder – one of six – from a sultry, female voice. It came out of a tiny phonograph behind the dashboard and, thankfully, had an “off” switch.
Designed For: Airplanes
Wha—how? Anti-lock brakes or ABS were originally made for aircraft way back in 1929. Next, they found their way on to trains. The original systems were too bulky for cars though, and they only worked well if you were braking in a nice straight line. It wasn’t until the 1966 Jensen FF that ABS made its way to the automotive world. Chrysler, Ford and GM meanwhile had rudimentary systems in the early 1970s. It was the 1978 Mercedes-Benz S-Class though that introduced us to the modern electronic, multi-channel, four-wheel system. Developed jointly by Mercedes and Bosch ABS became standard on all Mercedes cars in 1984. The 1986 Corvette was the first North American car to come standard with ABS.