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1955 Chevrolet Corvette


A tribute to classic dashboards

The German Mercedes-Benz W25 debuted in time for the 1934 Gran Prix. To keep things simple for drivers, its dashboard was made with a minimum of instruments. Click for more vintage designs  

June 29, 2000
Web posted at: 5:55 p.m. EDT (2155 GMT)

In this story:

Designs with character

Who cares about speed

The no-nonsense Model T

Comfort and plastic

End of an era


(CNN) -- The next time you hop in the car, take a moment to check those instruments looking back at you on the dash.

Speedometer? Sure. Odometer? Right there. Oil/brake/temperature lights? Check, check and check.

Now look for the choke. No? How about the fuel hand pump? Missing? The horn bulb? Hmph. Well, how about your paraffin-burning sidelights?

Yes, paraffin-burning sidelights.

Don't fret. Those old gadgets now are the stuff of museums, memories and "Dashboards," (Phaidon Press, $19.95) author David Holland's 224-page, glossy tribute to instrumentation from another time.

Today's dashes, puffy-cheeked with air bags, are certainly safer than those old, polished aluminum-and-walnut panels that turned flat, hard faces to drivers, writes car designer Gordon Murray. But, he notes in the foreword, the dashboard should be more than just a tiny wall of information tucked behind a steering wheel.

"The dashboard and controls -- tactile, aesthetically pleasing and always in view -- represent an area of car design where the designer has an opportunity to project and display the vehicle's innermost character," he writes.

Designs with character

The 1958 Ford Edsel was the first of three Edsel models that were commercial lemons, despite pre-design market research. The dashboard has an innovative, rotating drum speedometer  

And what character some of the old cars had, said Ken Gross, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Open since 1994, the museum has an extensive collection of automobiles and automotive paraphernalia.

"What's interesting is how many interpretations there were to instrument panels," he said recently.

Consider the 1904 Panhard et Levassor, a spindly French beauty. Its wooden steering wheel, thick as the handle of a baseball bat, featured hand controls that set the throttle. A driver had to simultaneously steer the car while fine-tuning the engine as the machine clattered down the street.

"To drive a Panhard ... showed knowledge and discrimination in your choice of car," Holland writes. It also showed a driver with one hand on the wheel and another on the throttle; other motorists could only hope his eyes were on the road.

Look inside the 1923 Aston Martin GB. This was a fast car, and to hell with comfort: It had an 18 1/2-inch-wide cockpit. Drivers called it the "razor blade."

Its main gauge, big as a platter on the pitted aluminum dash, was the tachometer, a dial that recorded the rpms (revolutions per minute) the engine produced. It also featured smaller dials that kept track of water temperature, oil levels and fuel-tank pressure. (If pressure dropped, the driver had to hand-pump more gasoline to make sure the engine didn't falter.)

Who cares about speed

A speedometer? Not enough space.

Speedometers, Holland notes, were usually an afterthought on most early cars. Who cared how fast you went? Great Britain did not require speedos in their cars until 1937, notes Holland, a Brit.

The maharajah of Bharatpur, India, probably didn't worry too much about going too fast, either. He was more concerned with tigers, as his 1925 Rolls-Royce 20 illustrated.

In 1911, Ettore Bugatti designed a small car for the French firm Peugeot Freres called the Bebe-Peugeot. Its simple dashboard has a prominent American Stewart speedometer  

A massive thing, the Rolls came equipped with the standard dash attachments of the day -- among them, a cigar lighter and a precision eight-day clock that had to be wound about once a week -- plus a few customized options. It also had a button that activated a dazzling spotlight -- yes, just in case his excellency wanted to shoot a tiger from the comfort of his car.

The no-nonsense Model T

Yet not every dashboard in Holland's book is attached to a millionaire's toy.

Also featured is the dashboard of the 1927 Ford Model T, the last year in the 19-year production of the car that did more than any other to put the world on wheels. Its dash was as Spartan and no-nonsense as the rest of the machine: with a choke, an ammeter and not much more.

"The dashboard reflected the somewhat rustic, but essentially practical, nature of a car for all types of first-time buyer," Holland writes.

Who's heard of an oil temperature gauge? The goggled daredevils who crawled into the Mercedes-Benz W25 GP in the mid-1930s knew them well.

Powered by a supercharged, eight-cylinder engine, the first W25 debuted in time for the 1934 Gran Prix, where officials decreed that it was fractionally overweight and could not compete unless it lost a few pounds.

To reduce its weight, the German team removed the car's white paint, revealing a silver skin underneath. Thence, all Mercedes W25s were silver -- the color of airplanes, the color of speed. Their machined aluminum dashes featured the basics for a machine that basically flew.

Comfort and plastic

Britain's Leyland Motors launched the Trojan in 1924 with the advertising slogan: "Can you afford to walk?"  

Speed made way for comfort in the post-war years. Chrysler, for example, produced the New Yorker, answering a pent-up demand for luxury. A "woodie" with hardwood flowing along its doors and fenders, the New Yorker was one of the first passenger cars to place all the gauges in front of the steering wheel -- an ergonomic innovation taken from race cars.

The New Yorker also introduced a relative newcomer to many car interiors -- plastic. In the New Yorker, it was the color of butterscotch. Its plastic steering wheel glowed like a rising sun.

Buick did Chrysler one better, outfitting is 1951 Le Sabre with an altimeter that worked up to 10,000 feet. The futuristic car -- it featured a lone rear brake light the size of a basketball hoop -- had a cluster of instruments that resembled those found on a fighter plane. Some circled the steering wheel, while additional dials marched across the dashboard toward the passenger.

End of an era

Other innovations are highlighted in "Dashboards" -- "teletouch" buttons recessed in steering wheels to activate automatic transmissions; brake pedals wide enough to accommodate a snoozing cat; bilingual gauges for Franco-Anglo operators. The array, like the cars they grace, are nearly endless.

But the heyday of dashboards is ended. Today's automotive instrument panels have an assembly-line sameness, Holland writes.

But in the old days, he notes, the dash was something that gave a car, well, dash. They were the open road, the blacktop hissing underneath, the sky passing blue and big above. They were nothing less than the face of adventure.

Petersen Automotive Museum
Panhard et Levassor
Rolls-Royce & Bentley

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