Oh, the 1980s! Ties were narrow, shoulder pads were wide, airplanes had smoking sections, chest hair was sexy, Thirtysomething wasn't a parody of itself, and Christopher Walken was a Bond villain. But for all the quirks of the Reagan Years, little about them was more loathsome to the minds of decent men than the electronic instrument cluster. The unfortunate consequence of when technology advanced faster than good taste, almost every manufacturer dabbled in the digital, and some of their designs stuck around far longer than they should have. Thanks to YouTube, we take a look at twelve examples that remind us why we're glad the 1980s are nearly two decades behind us.
The realized dream of long-time Liberace pal Lee Iacocca, Chrysler's digital dashboards were immortalized in such memorable Hollywood fare as The Wraith and Short Circuit 2. Optional with the cluster was Chrysler's Electronic Voice Alert module, which replaced pesky idiot lights with a voice prompts of messages such as "Your engine oil pressure is critical, engine damage may occur." Unfortunately, by the time the digitized voice finished leisurely conveying that information, the engine usually had a connecting rod or two aerating the side of the block.
At the other end of the spectrum would be Chevrolet's Cavalier. You can almost hear the boardroom meeting where marketing types, panicked and flustered, demanded the option in order to capture the fickle youth market. What they got was an amalgam of new and old tech, combining digital gauges with Magoo-sized idiot lights. And far from voice prompts, the Cavalier is equipped with an embarrassing buzzer that warbles before slowly petering out.
Not only did the 300ZX have Nissan's fantastic BodySonic seats, which would transmit bass directly into occupants' bums, the cars were available with a digital cluster that had not just an eight-inch tach, but one that would change its height based on engine load. For added '80s flair, the top of the gauge was curved to represent the engine's powerband.
Available with a height-adjustable suspension to let the car ford deep water — a feature that makes perfect sense for a sport coupe — Subaru's XT6 also included an animated infographic in the middle of its cluster that would show the car rising up on its haunches. Flanked by an asymmetric steering wheel and gauges that were rendered in diminishing perspective, the XT6's cluster was the closest that buyers could come to the
laborthrill of playing Pole Position without having to hook up the 2600.
Audi's Quattro had all the essential ingredients to be a successful '80s car: Styling that was an evolution of the Giugiaro "wedge," prominent decals, a turbocharger, and the pièce de résistance, an optional digital instrument cluster. The pot is sweetened even more, however, by the recorded female voice alerts, which eschew the Chrysler's Speak & Spell monotone for that of a sibilant British nanny.
Not many people know it, but the Chevy Lumina was available with a digital speedometer when ordered with the police prep package. Chevy's decision to offer the digital readout on those Luminas is even stranger when you consider that Ford put its bleep-blorp gauges only on civilian Crown Victorias and not on its Police Interceptor models. The digital display was illuminated whenever the car was on, requiring GM to install a kill switch so that cops on a nighttime stakeout wouldn't be conspicuous.
There are two, and only two, positive things which can be said about the Renault 11, which was sold here as the regrettable little Renault Encore from 1984 to 1987. The first is that the majority of them have now been recycled into real cars. The second is that, in a fit of mercy, Renault never saw fit to import models outfitted with this Euro-only electronic, talking dashboard.
It's not the C4 Corvette's digital information display that offends us — the car is supposed to make drivers feel as though they're piloting a home theater system. Neither can we find fault with its sweeping digital speedometer and tachometer. The problem, as we see it, was that the speedometer graph was limited to a neutered 85 mph in accordance with the hand-wringing government regulations of the time. Fortunately, a second, three-digit speedometer readout directly below it suffered no such indignity.
It wasn't until 1994 that the DSM IV officially recognized Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but Nissan had already been catering to the afflicted for five years with the optional digital dashboard on its 1989-1994 Maxima sedan. Not only did the gauge cluster include both numeric digital readouts and analog gauges rendered in digital bars, it also had a head-up display, ostensibly to prevent distraction while driving.
The Volkswagen "Digifiz" cluster is the holy grail of modifications for Mk.2 Volkswagen owners. Not technically available in the United States but imported through the burgeoning grey market, only a handful of cars were equipped with this numeric display "back in the day." Today, enthusiasts scramble to import as many of the units as they can. And they'd better hurry, because the clusters stop working after 300,000 miles.
When the Riviera switched to front-wheel drive in 1985, Buick decided to make the classy coupe its technological flagship. And to that end, Buick equipped the Riv with a first for a production car: A touch-screen CRT installed in the dashboard that controlled every function of the car, from its climate control to its radio. Unfortunately, Buick offered no redundant buttons for common functions, so when the TV broke — and make no mistake, it did, frequently — drivers were left without any way of turning down the heat or lowering the volume.
Just as personal computers embraced VGA graphics and 256 colors, Oldsmobile introduced an updated version of the touch-screen CRT used on the Riviera that could display four simultaneous colors in the same glorious CGA resolution that we used to play Oregon Trail. In response to complaints about the durability of the membrane touch-screen pad on the Buick, Oldsmobile engineers designed a different system that used a grid of infrared sensors to detect where a driver's finger was on the screen. This system worked until dust and gunk covered over the sensors, which usually meant eight months before it quit entirely. Fewer if the owner had a dog.
Limiting a list to twelve means that there will always be those left behind, but this video does a mighty fine job of assembling some of the other offenders that were brought to market, all set against a fantastic remix of Sigue Sigue Sputnik's Love Missile F1-11.