Which talking car from the 1980s left the strongest impression?
If you’ve somehow missed the current wave of nostalgia seeping through almost every aspect of pop culture, the 1980s made a lasting generational impact. The era of big hair and heavy metal left a lasting impression on those who lived through it, but its powers of charm affected those who were born much later, despite experiencing it all secondhand. The decade’s approach to technology—whether it be expressed via the music industry, the nascent computer craze, or the modernization of the automobile—is a particular source of fascination. One of the more enduring ‘80s nuggets happens to combine all of the above into a perfect time capsule of the era: the talking car.
Anyone who’s ever played around with a Casio keyboard and then wondered, “Why can’t I have a similarly cold and robotic voice prattling at me on my way to work every day?” will completely understand the automotive industry’s brief obsession with making Knight Rider a reality. For the rest of us, chatty Chryslers and nattering Nissans eventually faded from the zeitgeist, with brands all but abandoning the idea of a conversational car by the end of the decade. Still, for a brief, shining moment this feature seemed to define what the future of driving would look like, and for that reason it’s more than a footnote in automotive design.
Which talking cars had the most impact? I brought some contenders to the mic and had them sound off in a bid to determine who was bringing the (mostly) digital heat in the ‘80s.
Chrysler New Yorker
Chrysler didn’t invent the concept of a car with a vocabulary, but it did arguably perfect the gimmick by the time the 1987 Chrysler New Yorker came along. Although Chrysler had offered a slew of speech-capable autos starting earlier in the decade, those efforts were primarily limited to a few simple phrases. The first Electronic Voice Alert (EVA), launched in 1983, offered 11 different vocal warnings ranging from the classic “Door Is Ajar” to the soothing “All Monitored Systems Are Functioning.” It was available on a wide range of vehicles, including the LeBaron, the Fifth Avenue, the Laser/Daytona twins, and the Town & Country.
A few years later, however, Chrysler took the gloves off of the Texas Instruments voice synthesis chip, moving from a 2-kilobyte ROM to a 16-kilobyte ROM that would more than double the available list of vocalized warnings and status updates that its flagship New Yorker could deliver. Using the same phonetic technology used in the era’s Speak ‘n Spell educational toys, the New Yorker could tell you that “Your Engine Oil Pressure Is Critical. Engine Damage May Occur,” or “Your Engine Is Overheating. Prompt Service Is Required,” or even “Your Keys Are In The Ignition,” at which point it kinda felt like Chrysler’s engineering team was just showing off.
At the very least, voice-equipped cars were able to say “Thank You” when you complied with their commands, putting a polite face on the robotic revolution that thankfully never came to pass. By 1984, Chrysler actually had to curtail the car’s manners, because the overwhelming etiquette was driving large numbers of owners to simply switch off the entire system.
Fun piece of trivia: The Chrysler Conquest/Mitsubishi Starion also came with an EVA system that not only scolded you for leaving your door open, but would also play a minute-long jingle afterwards to further convince you to close the damn door, please. Built in Japan, the American cars were just as tuneful as their JDM counterparts.
Nissan was the company that brought talking cars into the mainstream, back in 1981 when it was still known as Datsun on this side of the Pacific. The earliest voice alert system on offer from the company (found in the ‘81–82 Maxima) is noteworthy not so much for its verbosity (initially, it could only ask you to turn off the vehicle’s lights), but rather its design: instead of a voice chip, it relied on a tiny spinning plastic disc that was read with a tone arm, analog-style, much like a traditional vinyl LP. For 1982, another five messages were added to its litany of warnings, all on an itty-bitty three-inch record. The entire enterprise was made possible by the brand’s partnership with National Semiconductor, which co-developed the feature.
By 1984, Nissan had expanded the system to include a number of other models, such as the 300ZX, and it was able to offer context-sensitive warnings such as telling you that the parking brake was engaged should you try to drive away without releasing it, or that the fuel tank was about to run dry. You didn’t even need a stereo sitting in the car for it to work—it functioned by cutting the signal to the driver’s side front speaker and replacing the audio with its own gentle guidance. Or you could hit a switch and silence the system entirely, so that it would stop interrupting that really, really cool Whitesnake guitar solo on the way home from high school.
Oldsmobile Toronado Caliente
National Semiconductor didn’t give up on its speech synthesis program after its work with Nissan had ended. Much like the Texas Instruments initiative, it would transition to a system that could be programmed to say nearly any words required by way of phonetic simulation code.
The project was called “Digitalker,” and one of its applications was the 1984–85 Oldsmobile Toronado Caliente. Dubbed a “Voice Information Reminder System,” the Caliente went all-in on explaining not just what was wrong with the vehicle, but the dire consequences associated with each particular problem, and how it should be addressed. Oldsmobile would also offer the Digitalker technology in its Oldsmobile 98 flagship sedan.
Although most of the models listed above are currently rotting in junkyards, or languishing in the garage of an elderly relative, there is a movement afoot to preserve their early tech talking points. Some individuals devote themselves to copying over the code that made these original chips speak up, pulling them not just from cars, but any other consumer product of the era that dabbled in speech emulation. Others, fascinated by the painstaking engineering behind the minutiae of the Nissan setup, hunt down the analog talkers to preserve and appreciate their unique design. Either way, it appears as though there’s no danger of these automotive artifacts being forgotten in a sea of Members Only jackets and NES cartridges.