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Dashboard Retrospective

When I was a kid, and a developing car enthusiast, I was fascinated with dashboards. At a car show, the interior of a vehicle was usually the first place I’d go, up on tippy-toes, peering over the driver’s side belt-line to have a look inside. I was fascinated with all of the different ways to design a dashboard and integrate all the different instrumentation and features into something useful and visually appealing.

I’ve never spoken with a vehicle interior designer, but I would imagine that a great deal of thought goes into how a dashboard is designed. Probably more effort than most of us ever consider when we get in a car and turn the key. Let’s face it; when you purchase a car, you’re committing to look at the dashboard for as long as you own it. You’ll likely spend more time looking at the dash than any other part of the car, so they’ve got to get it right.

Think about all of the different design aspects and characteristics that go into the design of a dashboard. The font of the dash and instrument markings. The size and shape of the gauges and needles. The design, location, size and feel of the different controls and features. How colors and materials are are used to create a design aesthetic that makes it appealing to the owner? How can you integrate safety in this design? How do you bring all of the features, controls and instruments together in a way that’s intuitive, yet unique, and where controls fall easily to hand? How do you illuminate the dashboard at night in a way that is safe, effective and pleasing to the eye?

As the car has evolved over the past 100 plus years, so then of course have the dashboards that have gone into them. Today, modern automotive dashboards are stacked full of powerful infotainment systems, informative diagnostic and safety systems, and advanced audio and HVAC controls, all with enough computing technology to send Apollo 11 back to the moon, and all in a safe, modern looking contemporary layout.

Obviously, it wasn’t always this way.

And so, I thought a dashboard retrospective was called for; a careful examination of some of my favorite dashboards from the 1930's-70's. I like them all for different reasons. Some are simplistic, while others are modern, elegant and in some cases, perhaps slightly ahead of their time. They all have one common theme- I would appreciate looking at all of them if I had to drive the cars they are attached to.

1930’s: 1937 Mercedes Benz 540:

German luxury at its pre-war finest. Stunning attention to detail and high quality materials. Clear, legible instrumentation laid out in a way that makes good sense. Tasteful application of chrome, and these things are beautiful to look at lit up at night. The 540 was exciting to drive too- with power hydraulic brakes, optional 5 speed transmission and 5.4 liter straight eight with Roots supercharger. 180 horsepower was available to you once you actuated the supercharger by flooring the accelerator pedal.

1935 Duesenberg Model SJ:

Unless you are driving a late '70's Trans-Am, an engine turned instrument panel almost assures you a seat at the classy car table, and this dash is no exception. Luckily, Duesey SJ's had the chops to back up the need for full instrumentation to monitor the supercharged 320 horsepower straight-8 engine. For perspective; Ford's flathead V-8 in 1935 made only 85 horsepower.

Honorable Mention: 1937 Cord:

More engine turned instrument panels, trimmed with bakelite switch covers, the Cord was a bit of an oddity in its day. Ahead of its time in many ways, it was one of the first vehicles to offer a radio as standard equipment. It also offered variable speed windshield wipers at a time when not all cars were equipped with wipers at all. Another interesting feature of the car was its pre-selector semi-automatic transmission. That big gauge next to the left of the clock? Oil pressure, which is enormous compared to the radio frequency dial, on the far right next to the generator gauge.

1940's: 1949 Jaguar XK 120

This one just makes the cut- roadster production started in '49. Pure simplicity and class; everything you need, and nothing more. Speedo, tach with clock, fuel, oil pressure, water temp, and amps. Stare long enough at the photo and you'll begin to smell the leather.

1949 Buick Roadmaster:

Arguably the best looking dash of any GM vehicle in 1949. Simple and subdued, but with classy spun aluminum inserts inside the recessed gauges. Heater controls are to the left of the steering wheel, well out of passenger reach.

Honorable Mention: 1947 DeSoto:

Something completely different from the Jaguar and more ornate than the Buick. The 1940's were not a great era for dashboards. The first half of the decade was lost to war production, and the other half was spent scrambling to find out what post-war consumers wanted to look at when they were driving down the road. DeSoto thought you might like the doorknob from your grandma's hallway closet to shift with... Still, it was an attempt to see what worked and what didn't.

1950's 1954 Mercedes Benz 300SL

How can one look back at the great dashboards of the 1950's and ignore the 300 SL? A technological marvel in many respects, and the first production car to use fuel injection. The dash was ahead of its time- it wouldn’t have looked dated in a mid-sixties sports car. Full VDO instrumentation, (and that speedo denoted all the way to 160 for a reason... in 1955, if your ordered your 300 with the optional 3.25:1 rear end, the car would run out to 160), a fold away steering wheel for easier entry and exit, and 2 horn buttons; one on the wheel for the driver, and one for the passenger, underneath the "SL" on the dash left of the cigarette lighter. Mercedes thought of everything.

Triumph TR3

Clean, simple, and in my opinion a better alternative to its closest competition, the MGA. I appreciate how much bigger the tach and speedo are compared to the MGA, with big, clear printing on the gauge faces. I like that the ancillary gauges aren't shared like the oil pressure and water temperature are on the MGA. Another feature offered that wasn't on the MG- a real glove box. The banjo wheel, the placement of the shifter, just under the dash, and optional overdrive. There's a lot to like here.

Honorable Mention- Aston Martin DB2/4

Sort of a strange dash before A-M went mainstream with a more conventional dash redesign in the DB4 in 1958. The gauges, up close, are exquisite Smiths pieces, set in beautiful walnut, centered in the dash, with open storage cubbies on each side, a design element later stolen by the golf cart industry. You better have good eyesight if you're going to keep an eye on the water temperature- the gauge sits all the way to the right. It's a mid-fifties dash that harkens back to a bygone era, this would have been advanced in the thirties, but it was old hat in the fifties. Today, it is just classic.

1960's: Mercedes Benz 600

Much like the SL of the 1950's, you can't have a discussion about unique dashboards of the 1960's without talking about the 600. The best everything. Exquisite use of wood- real wood- throughout. It's wrapped beautifully around the gauge cluster, lines the top and front of the dash, and is used all over the doors and trim. Fit and finish to rival many of today's finer cars. This car could be had with any conceivable option you could dream up in the sixties. Phone, TV, refrigerated console, anything you like. Much has already been written about its devastatingly complex hydraulic system which controlled windows, moonroof, seats, and the trunk. A-listers, heads of state, and dictators from the 60's and 70's lined up in droves to get theirs.

Lamborghini Miura

While Enzo Ferrari's company was tearing up racetracks all over the globe in the 1960's, agricultural equipment producer Ferruccio Lamborghini was bringing to market attractive and stylish grand tourers, slowly establishing his company as a force to be reckoned with in the high performance sports car market. Just three years after producing his first car, the 350GT, Lamborghini introduced the stunning Miura. The interior is a leather wrapped, futuristic work of art, and a big change from the traditionally styled 350 and 400 GT's. Note the speedo is as far away from the passenger as possible, probably for good reason.

Honorable Mention- 1963 Corvette Stingray

1963 is the first year the Corvette had a dash designed for driving enthusiasts. From '53-'57, the tach was positioned senselessly in the center of the dash, directly above the gearshift. Things improved somewhat in '58, when a tiny tach appeared beneath a large half-moon sweeping speedo, but at least it was finally in front of the driver where it belonged. With Duntov constantly improving and developing the vehicle beginning in '55, they finally got it right in '63. The dash was very stylish; you could almost mistake it as European. Full instrumentation carried over from the '62, but now the driver gets a huge speedo and tach, and in '63 only, all the gauges were deeply recessed with what looked like brushed aluminum inserts in the centers. The gauges lost the silver in '64, and lost the unique cone shaped recesses in '65. The handle over the glove box made entry and exit a little easier. The narrow center stack felt like an afterthought to me, as did the parking brake handle. You can't see it here, but the handle sits to the right of the steering wheel just below the gauge cluster, and was a part pulled straight from the Bel-Air. It was a rush job in order to bring the car to market on-time in ’63. In '67, it was properly relocated in front of the armrest on the center console.

1970's: Ferrari 365 GTB/4 "Daytona"

In my opinion, one of Ferrari's first great dashboards, attached to an equally great car. A terrific improvement over the dash of the 275GTB this car replaced. Full instrumentation with large and clear Veglia instruments. The interior was much more roomy than the 275, however neither the seat nor steering wheel were adjustable. To compensate for this, the pedal pads were adjustable, and could be brought up to 5 centimeters closer to the driver. The gated 5 speed shifter in the pictured car indicates this is an early Daytona. Later Daytona's went with a more conventional, and boring, leather boot over the shifter.

Aston Martin DBS

The DBS V-8 was an amazing car. Smooth, stylish and very fast, it was Aston Martin's answer to its Italian competitors like Maserati, Ferrari and Lamborghini. Upon its introduction in '69 with a newly designed twin-cam V8, the DBS was the world’s fastest four seater production car. All the standard creature comforts of a proper GT car are here, and while the traditional Smiths instruments might look a little dated for the era, I think they provide a classic look in this dash. The shifter on the 5 speed ZF gearbox seems like it could have been 2-3” shorter.

Alpine A110

The Alpine A110 is a French built rear engine rally car killer of the late sixties and early seventies. The interior is extremely cramped, but I always appreciated the two oversize Veglia instruments with cut-in gauges for water temperature on the tach and fuel level on the speedo. There is little else to look at on an Alpine dash, and the instrument cluster is arranged tightly, with all important vehicle information clearly displayed to the driver at a moment’s notice. Some Alpines lost the clock situated between the tach and speedo, and in its place was a matching oil temperature gauge. The gear shifter is high and close to the steering wheel, great for rally car use. If you ever see an A110 in person, don't dismiss it, as they really are very interesting cars.

Fifty years represented here, and it's interesting to look back on how much dashboards have changed, and reflect on how much more different they are now today. I have some favorites from the '80's and '90's as well, but I'll save those for another blog.

Dashboards are great- they help to create a memorable driving experience, and can help you to better understand all that goes on where it matters most; under the hood. The dash provides you with all the vital signs- temperature control, fluid pressure, kinetic energy, all happening just a few feet in front (or behind) of us. Only time will tell how modern dashboards will be regarded- but like these dashboards, and others not mentioned here, I am confident that enthusiasts across the world will continue to appreciate vehicle dashboards that incite excitement every time we slip behind the wheel and watch the tach needle as we blip the throttle or rev match when approaching a tight corner.

Happy Motoring.

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