To­day’s cars’ cab­ins are an ex­ten­sion of the mod­ern home, but it wasn’t al­ways so


The science of er­gonomics didn’t re­ally ex­ist in 1928. The cabin of a car from that era was a chaotic place: dash­boards had di­als sited wher­ever was con­ve­nient for the plumb­ing or ca­bling they re­quired, switches were scat­tered with the same ex­pe­di­ence and there was still no con­ven­tion for pedal place­ment.

Alvis’s FA 12/50, apart from its sur­pris­ing fea­ture of front-wheel drive, is typ­i­cal of the time. Au­to­car’s then sports ed­i­tor, Sammy Davis, raced one at Le Mans in 1928 and had to wres­tle with an ac­cel­er­a­tor pedal placed be­tween those for clutch and foot­brake, while the steer­ing wheel was so close to his chest that crois­sants had to stay right off the 24 Hours menu. I know; I’ve driven it.

A sem­blance of plan­ning started to ap­pear in the 1930s. The ac­cel­er­a­tor was gen­er­ally to be found on the right, and there was a move to­wards plac­ing the main in­stru­ments in front of the driver, where they could be seen at an easy glance. Bri­tain’s car mak­ers seemed oddly re­sis­tant to this trend, how­ever – some of them main­tain­ing a sym­met­ri­cal dash de­sign, with cen­tral in­stru­ments, into the 1950s and even be­yond. Dash­boards in many early cars were made of wood, be­cause it was strong yet easily shaped. Seats were of­ten clad in leather be­cause it was durable and read­ily avail­able, but th­ese ma­te­ri­als un­der­went a change in sta­tus as the decades passed. Syn­thetic and mass-pro­duced sub­sti­tutes be­came the norm, the brown Bake­lite dash­board of a Mor­ris 8 Se­ries E be­ing an early ex­am­ple, while the tra­di­tional sub­stances took on a new role in up­mar­ket cars, sug­gest­ing so­lid­ity, crafts­man­ship and an ad­her­ence to the cer­tainty of old val­ues.

It was dur­ing the 1960s that wood ceased to be a struc­tural el­e­ment of a dash­board, one ex­cep­tion be­ing the Lo­tus Elan, whose ve­neered plank not only an­chored the steer­ing col­umn but also con­trib­uted sig­nif­i­cantly to the fi­bre­glass body’s stiff­ness. Wood be­came mere dec­o­ra­tion in­stead, and of­ten it wasn’t even real (Ford’s 1990s Tim­ber­lex is a fine ex­am­ple). It’s worth not­ing, in­ci­den­tally, that cars that were both rapid and up­mar­ket sel­dom had wooden dashes back in the 1960s, as a con­tem­po­rary Fer­rari, As­ton or Jaguar E-type will show.

In main­stream cars, leather was largely ousted, via a cloth­backed, var­nished ma­te­rial called Rex­ine, by vinyl. Adopted in the 1950s, this mod­ern sub­stance was en­thu­si­as­ti­cally em­braced by US man­u­fac­tur­ers which ex­ploited the fu­tur­is­tic look it could of­fer, with more in­tri­cate panel mark­ings formed by welds in­stead of stitch­ing, and even met­allised colours. But to this day the de­fault fin­ish for vinyl, and its other plas­tic rel­a­tives, is to at­tempt to look like leather, some­times achieved with un­canny ac­cu­racy, of­ten not. Mean­while, cloth trim has al­ways been with us, with in­creas­ingly colour­ful pat­terns from the 1970s and the plush­ness of faux­suede Al­can­tara from the 1980s.

As for the plan of the in­te­rior it­self, the av­er­age width from driver’s door to front pas­sen­ger’s has got ever greater over the years. Pre­war car bodies were nar­row, of­ten set well within the in­side faces of the wheels and ta­per­ing to­wards a proud, up­right ra­di­a­tor. The post­war ‘full-width’ look pulled the doors out­wards, be­yond the wheels, al­low­ing space for the 1950s and ’60s fash­ion, Us-in­spired, for a bench front seat. It could ac­com­mo­date three peo­ple at a pinch, pro­vided the gear­lever had been moved to the

steer­ing col­umn. Ford’s Con­suls, Ze­phyrs and Zo­di­acs of­fered the ar­che­typal front bench.

Hot on the heels of the wider body came thin­ner roof pil­lars, a lower scut­tle and a mas­sively im­proved view out through wider, deeper win­dows. Wind­screen pil­lars got very thin in the 1960s and ’70s (look out from a BMW 2002 for a per­fect panorama), but first fash­ions changed, bring­ing back a sense of bod­ily sub­stance, and then ev­er­tight­en­ing safety rules caused pil­lars to thicken mas­sively. Com­bine that with to­day’s pen­chant for a high waist­line and let­ter­box-size rear win­dow, and we’re prac­ti­cally back to 1930s cabin claus­tro­pho­bia.

The same trend ap­plies to in­te­rior space, even though hu­mans are, on av­er­age, rather larger than they were half way through the last cen­tury. Huge rear leg room was once com­mon­place, helped by plac­ing the rear seat far back be­tween the wheels, but as lug­gage com­part­ments grew and wheel­bases be­gan to shrink, rear room got squeezed. To­day, many cars are no roomier than their an­ces­tors two or three model changes ago, de­spite be­ing longer, wider and taller, and they also of­ten have less in­te­rior stor­age space in their smaller door pock­ets, con­sole cub­bies and glove­boxes.

Safety is the rea­son, caus­ing doors to be both thicker and set fur­ther from seats, and crash struc­tures to take up more space as they en­croach into the boot and dash­board. The elec­tric park­ing brake is one at­tempt to re­gain stor­age space be­tween the seats, but it brings its own prob­lems. We are un­likely to see again such a mir­a­cle of pack­ag­ing as the BMC Mini of 1959, in which four peo­ple could travel com­fort­ably in an in­te­rior that oc­cu­pied 80% of the car’s 3.05m length. Nor do buy­ers any longer seem in­ter­ested in the idea, in­vented by Re­nault in the 1980s for its Es­pace, of a one-box MPV whose mid­dle and rear seat rows could be re­moved to cre­ate a van.

Gear­levers have be­come shorter and, thanks to power steer­ing, steer­ing wheels are smaller and driv­ing po­si­tions more laid-back. In­stru­ments, once off-the-shelf gener­ics, started to be­come a part of a car’s spe­cific de­sign from the 1950s, again led by the US, and par­tic­u­lar mar­ques be­gan to de­velop their own dial-looks, such as the ver­ti­cal ‘ther­mome­ter’ speedo of a 1960s fin­tail Mercedes, or the crisp clar­ity of a 1980s BMW. Dig­i­tal dashes ar­rived in that decade, went out of fash­ion and then re­turned, as real nee­dles gave way to vir­tual im­ages on in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated screens.

Switchgear be­came more log­i­cally laid out to take ac­count of how of­ten they were used and how quickly the driver needed them: Rover’s 1963 P6 was an early ex­am­ple of func­tions moved from the dash­board or even the floor to stalks on the steer­ing col­umn, while Vaux­hall shape-coded its switches so they could be iden­ti­fied by touch. Then in the 2000s BMW in­vented idrive, through which many func­tions could be con­trolled by a sin­gle knob and a screen, and ev­ery­thing changed.

Now, no mod­ern car is com­plete with­out a least a piece of that revo­lu­tion­ary mul­ti­me­dia in­ter­face. A car’s dash­board dis­play­ing the func­tions of a mo­bile tele­phone: in 1928, not even science fic­tion had thought that pos­si­ble.

Re­nault Es­pace be­gan a short-lived ‘car as van’ rev­o­lu­tion

There was no in­dus­try-wide con­sen­sus for the place­ment or de­sign of early con­trols

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