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