10 features from the ’80s and ’90s that either hit hard or missed big
The ’80s and ’90s were a time of exciting new ideas, when the silicon chip became small enough and cheap enough to add computing power everywhere.
We wore digital watches, listened to synthesized sounds, and the technology in our cars progressed rapidly. Rotor arms, distributors, and carburetors made way for electronic ignition and fuel injection. Catalytic converters came along to help clean up our exhausts, turbochargers boosted performance, all-wheel drive improved traction and handling. The modern motor car was born and at its core, it remained almost unchanged until the EV revolution.
The RAD era brought us many innovations that we now take for granted but, amid all the experimentation not everything was a success. Here are ten hits and misses that sprung to mind as we explored the hundreds of ’80s and ’90s cars on show at a recent RADwood event. We’re sure you can add to the list.
There’s a lot to thank Japan’s bubble economy for, from crazy Kei cars like the Autozam AZ-1 to Honda NSX. However, it’s four-wheel steering that we’re championing. Honda introduced its 4WS on the Prelude, Nissan made the 300ZX and Skyline available with a Super HICAS system, Mazda had a version on the 626 and MX-6 and Mitsubishi got in on the action with the Galant VR-4. Designed to aid low-speed maneuverability and high-speed stability, four-wheel steering wasn’t exactly embraced by car buyers and it faded away for several years, but now it’s back in a big way. As cars have become ever larger you’ll find versions of 4WS on Porsches, Mercedes, Audis, BMWs, Lamborghinis and Ferraris. Verdict: Hit!
There have been many attempts to re-invent the car door. Butterfly-style, gullwing, and freestyle all still make appearances to this day, but the drop-down doors that appeared on BMW’s Z1 roadster haven’t captured the imaginations of car designers since. The mechanism that allowed the doors to slide down and under the car was ingenious, but also heavy, cumbersome, and required the Z1 to have rather unnecessarily fat sills. Getting in and out, especially with the roof up, wasn’t an elegant exercise. Verdict: Miss
Today, finding a new car without a digital display of some kind is almost impossible, but in the ’80s and ’90s they were just coming into fashion. Aston Martin’s Lagonda had paved the way the previous decade, but it was the Renault 11 that made the LED-driven digital dashboard mainstream in Europe. (The Buick Reatta even had a touchscreen)Among our favorites of the era are the Audi Quattro, Opel Monza, and later the Subaru XT and Toyota Soarer. In car screens are now ubiquitous and we can thank these early pioneers. Verdict: Hit!
Hiding away the headlamps to aid aerodynamics and smooth styling has been around since even before the 1960s, but it really took off in the next three decades. Think Mazda MX-5 Miata, Porsche 944, BMW 8 Series, TVR 350i, Ferrari 308, and Toyota MR2. Just how much of these cars’ characters comes down to the change of expression when you flick a switch? Everyone loves pop-ups. Well, everyone except road safety experts, that is, because it was pedestrian safety measures that killed this most charming feature in the early 2000s. Verdict: Miss
Coming in right at the end of the RADwood age keyless entry rendered the ignition key obsolete. As with so many motoring innovations it was the Mercedes-Benz S-Class that first offered the technology in 1998. With a Smart Key in your pocket or handbag you could simply stroll up to your big Benz, open the door and press start to be on your way. Then at the end of the journey you would simply switch off, exit the car, close the door and stroll off. Maybe it’s just us, but even now we still always double check that the doors are locked when we drive a keyless car. Verdict: Hit!
Retractable radio antennae
Like pop-up lights, the idea to conceal something that wasn’t always in use and could interrupt a car’s lines wasn’t terrible. However, retractable powered radio antennas were prone to being easily damaged and expensive to replace as anyone who forgot to retract theirs as they drove into a car wash knows only too well. Verdict: Miss
Another light-related miss-step was the fitting of headlamp wipers. Installed on cars with large flat-fronted lights such as the Volvo 240, Range Rover and W123 Mercedes the idea was sound, but the execution flawed. Keeping your lights clear in foul weather or snow is, of course, important but a quick blast from a jet of washer fluid is usually just as effective, and cheaper to integrate too, which is why you don’t see theses mini wipers adorning the front of cars of this century. Verdict: Miss
Electronic Stability Control
Electronic Stability Control (ESC or ESP – Program) first appearance came about 30 years before it was standard on all vehicles. In 1983 the Toyota Crown was available with an anti-skid control system, followed soon after by BMW and Mercedes-Benz in 1987 and there have been incarnations from every manufacturer since. By detecting slip at the driven wheels and reducing torque or applying brake these systems have prevented countless accidents. Verdict: Hit!
Forget for a moment the stories of people blindly following navigation guidance systems into lakes or whatnot, for the most part in-car navigation has made driving safer and less stressful. It all began in 1990 with Mazda’s Eunos Cosmo a sleek, triple-rotary coupe with a GPS-based on board navigation system‚another bubble-born piece of genius from Japan, to follow the kooky Honda Gyro-Cator of 1981. Verdict: Hit!
Automatic seatbelt guides (butlers)
Seatbelts save lives, but only if you actually wear one. In the late 1970s there was a drive to encourage people to buckle up, which resulted in the development of fiendishly complex automatic seatbelts. VW first fitted a system to the Golf in 1975 and by the 1980s many carmakers were at it. The Toyota Cressida had them, the Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, and many more. Mercedes even have a “butler” system on its E-Class coupé and convertible so that occupants didn’t have to stretch back to grab their belts. Moving to belts integrated into the seats was a far better solution. Verdict: Miss
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The very 1st production onboard satellite navigation I believe was in the 1st gen Toyota Celica XX/Supra in 1978 to 1981. This historic gen of Supra also introduced the 1st EFI for Toyota in North America and should be the next million dollar sports car like it’s predecessor halo car, the Toyota 2000GT.
That option was in 1981 for the Celica/Supra, but it might not be the first as both Nissan and Honda had systems for sale that very same year. Read more here: https://www.hagerty.com/media/automotive-history/japan-inc-made-in-car-navigation-systems-of-their-own-accord/
Most of these failed and only some came back with improved technology,
Too often things like the Digital dash were rushed out before it really had the tech to hold up. Pop up head lamps are gone mostly due to the new lights being lighter and the fact they need to be solid mounted to be aimed properly as they are pre precise. The weight cut from the Corvette was significant.
4 Wheel Steer was a gimmick and tech was just not there to move it. Today EV can do this much more easily.
The BMW drop door had to be used due to the engineering that it had. It was never a new trend.
Sat, Stability and the like all have been improved and standardized. Head lamp wipers gimmick but cleaners for cameras on the rear are still in play. Antennas are going the way of the fin.