By Samuel Smith
Published: Wednesday, July 31, 2019
Updated: October 29, 2019 at 10:32 am
Car cabins have always been at the forefront of innovation, technology and design.
From air con and power windows to audio-visual advancements, we celebrate some of the most important advancements in car cabins over the last century.
Back in the automotive dawn age, evolution was rapid. Believe it or not, there was once a time when cars didn’t have steering wheels. Instead, they were controlled by a tiller or lever, similar to those used in watercraft. The first steering wheel was fitted to an 1894 Panhard et Levassor by professional driver – Alfred Vacheron as he prepared to take part in the Paris–Rouen race.
Speedometers came along a little later, in 1901 Oldsmobiles, while fuel gauges first hit production in 1914 Studebakers. We can thank American inventor Mary Anderson for the first operational windscreen wiper, patented in 1903.
Seatbelts were first offered as standard equipment in the 1958 Saab GT 750.
Remember when power windows were still something to brag about? Now imagine the smug satisfaction you’d get from hitting that switch in 1940.
The first power windows were introduced in the 1940 Packard 180 and were driven by a hydro-electric lift system.
Packard were also the first manufacturer to offer air conditioning in their cars. Introduced in 1940, the units were manufactured externally and called the Bishop and Babcock Weather Conditioner. The price – $274 USD (almost $5000 USD in 2019) – was abysmally expensive for most depression/pre-war Americans.
Power seats (which many cars manufactured in 2019 still don’t have) first slid into production in a range of 1948 Cadillacs, Buicks and Oldsmobiles. Power steering debuted in the 1950 Chrysler Imperial, as did cruise control, in the 1956 model.
The world’s first heated car seats appeared in the 1966 Cadillac Fleetwood and consisted of fibreglass pads, interwoven with ‘electric conductive carbon yarn’ (to quote the Fleetwood’s sales brochure). Seat temperature could be set from 30 to 38 degrees Celsius, with the system turning on automatically whenever the car was started in the cold.
The first commercially available car with passenger airbags was the 1973 Oldsmobile Tornado. The idea, however, had already been around for decades.
In 1964, a Japanese auto engineer named Yasuzaburou Kobori invented an airbag system very similar to what’s used in modern cars today. It was awarded patents in 14 countries, but tragically Kobori passed away before it was put into widespread production.
In-car entertainment is a huge business with humble beginnings.
The first car radio was fitted to a Ford Model T in 1922 by 18-year-old George Frost, the president of a Chicago high school radio club. Over the next few decades, in-car sound technology progressed in leaps and bounds, with the first FM radio fitted in a range of 1959 Lincolns.
In 1978, in-car cassette players began to appear in Cadillacs and Buicks; CD players first hit the streets in the ultra-luxe 1987 Lincoln Town Car.
The 1987 Toyota Soarer was a technophile’s dream, boasting the Electro Multivision system – an on-board television, diagnostics centre, electronic maintenance guide and suspension control centre. Nothing like this had ever been fitted to a car before.
The aptly-named Mazda Protegé MP3 graced our ears with the world’s first MP3-capable audio system in 2001, while the utterly bizarre 2003 Geely BL (only available in China) featured the world’s first in-car karaoke system.
Today, most of us use our phones to navigate from A to B, but in 1981, Honda invented the world’s first automatic in-car navigation system named the Electro Gyro-Cator.
Available exclusively in Japan, with a production run of just one year, the Electro Gyro-Cator was fitted to selected Honda Accord models and was almost a quarter of the price of the entire car.
The Gyro-Cator operated very differently to modern-day GPS systems, using motion sensors, rotation sensors and a helium gas gyroscope to pinpoint your location. This was set against a series of scrolling transparent maps, illuminated by a 6 inch screen – much like a mini projector. A pen was included in the package, so you could mark down your favourite locations.
In recent years, many car cabin firsts have come from Japan – most notably, Toyota’s otherworldly Driver Monitoring System, released in 2006 in the Lexus GS450h and revised in the 2008 Toyota Crown.
Using infrared sensors, the system monitors attentiveness through tracking eye movements and blinking patterns. If a driver is deemed not to be paying attention, the system warns them with flashing lights and warning sounds. If the driver doesn’t respond, it automatically applies the brakes.
With cars rapidly shifting away from petrol power and driver-assist technology becoming the norm, the shape and function of our car interiors are set to change drastically.
We’re already starting to see a shift towards the use of environmentally friendly materials in place of traditional leather, plastic and woodgrain. Design will continue to progress, incorporating a new wave of voice and movement-activated controls – think Siri, but for all your car’s functions.
Electric-powered vehicles feature more cabin space, allowing for more radical designs. We can expect to see exceedingly spacious interiors – more lounge room than cockpit.
Ultimately, a day may even come – perhaps sooner than we think – when there’ll be no need for pedals, traditional dials or steering wheels.