Car Life Nation

When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

Bad idea is shown written with wooden blocks.

The Nuclear Ford, Joystick Saab, and Other Failed Features

It’s hard to imagine where today’s cars, trucks, and SUVs would be without features like cruise control, anti-lock brakes, and airbags. These innovations helped usher in a new era of automotive safety and convenience, allowing drivers to navigate the road with confidence and making for an all-around more enjoyable ride. Contemporary advancements like Bluetooth connectivity, bird’s-eye view cameras, and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) have taken things to a new level. But for every game-changing technology that made our vehicles safer, more convenient, or luxurious, there’s another that never quite delivered on the hype.

From in-vehicle record players and wet bars to light-up tires, automatic seatbelts, and even a small nuclear reactor, automakers will go to great and not-so-great lengths to set their vehicles apart from the competition. While some of these cutting-edge features eventually become the industry norm, most are relegated to the dustbin of history or, in this case, the pages of CarLifeNation. Read on as we explore some of our favorite short-lived features that never really made the cut and learn how they’ve informed modern automotive design.

Record Players

For the first entry on our list, we’ll take you back to the days of vinyl. While today’s drivers can access the width and breadth of mankind’s musical output by simply opening the Spotify app, it hasn’t always been quite so easy. Before iPods, CDs, cassettes, and eight-track players, there was the vinyl record. Beloved for their warm, high-fidelity sound, vinyl records present a more tactile alternative to the intangible streams and .mp3 files that dominate today’s music industry.

While a mobile turntable might sound impractical, dangerous, and prone to skipping, that didn’t stop automakers from glomming onto the tech in the late 1950s. Chrysler was the first to feel the groove, installing the Highway Hi-Fi record player as an option for select Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge, and DeSoto models. RCA and Philips Norelco would join the party in the 1960s, introducing their own record players designed specifically for in-vehicle use. These record players gave drivers the chance to enjoy their favorite music on the go. In the end, they were just a flash in the pan. Cassette tape technology took hold in the mid-60s, ushering in the more practical 8-track tape era.

With 40 million sales in 2021 alone, vinyl has had something of a comeback in recent decades. Sadly, this resurgence has not extended to the auto realm, with in-vehicle record players largely relegated to the odd museum or private collection, save one notable exception. In 2021, Lexus teamed up with hip-hop producers Madlib and Kaytranada to create an in-car turntable for the Lexus IS Wax Edition. Built with a rotating motor designed to stabilize the turntable when the vehicle is in motion, this Lexus turntable was sadly a one-off creation.

Automatic Seatbelts

A staple of the 90’s auto industry, automatic seatbelts are nowhere to be found in today’s vehicles. For those unfamiliar with this dubious safety feature, these were essentially cross-chest, motor-driven belts that usually moved along a track from a car’s A-pillar to its B-pillar. Simply sit in the driver’s seat, turn on the ignition, and the belt will glide along the track as it wraps itself across your chest. In truth, the belts were really only half-automatic, as drivers still had to manually attach the cross-lap portion of the belt by hand.

Designed to improve safety by ensuring the driver was nice and snug, the seatbelts often had the opposite effect. The moving shoulder belt would often take passengers by surprise, hitting their heads or wrapping the belt around them the wrong way if they weren’t ready. Although many were designed with a quick-release feature, these seatbelts could make it difficult for first responders to get to crash victims in emergency scenarios. They were also easy to game for those who prefer to live on the edge, an ethos we still see today with so-called “Bluetooth” seatbelts.

Automatic seatbelt technology would ultimately be phased out. Before 1998, automakers could get away with installing either a driver-side airbag or automatic seatbelt, but that all changed towards the end of the decade as the federal government put an increased focus on automotive safety. Driver-side, and later driver and passenger airbags, became legally mandated.

Nuclear Reactor

While this one might have never made it out of the concept stage, we’d be remiss if we didn’t dedicate a little ink to the Ford Nucleon. Developed during the height of the Atomic Age, this 1957 prototype was to be powered by a small nuclear reactor located about as far from the passenger compartment as designers could manage. The Nucleon would essentially be a steam-powered car, heating water through uranium fission to push the vehicle down the road. Ford said the Nucleon could travel up to 5,000 miles between fill-ups, though that process would have required switching out the entire reactor.

The concept isn’t that far-fetched. It’s largely the same technology used in a nuclear-powered submarine. However, the Nucleon was impractical for daily use due to one simple fact: it was a 3/8-scale model. Ford designed the Lilliputian Nucleon to demonstrate nuclear power’s potential. There is no indication that it was ever intended to become a full-on production model. A mock-up of the Nucleon can be seen at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. No radiation suit is required.

Glovebox Bar

Luxury brands tend to be some of the worst culprits for misguided innovation. In the race to outdo their competitors, these companies often introduce features of dubious necessity, like steering wheel-mounted cigarette dispensers, ice makers, and perfume dispensers. Then there’s the Cadillac Brougham. With a sale price of $14,000 ($132,000 in today’s money), the 1957 Brougham certainly qualified as a luxury model. The sedan packed all the luxury features a driver would expect for the price and some that defy logic from a 21st-century perspective. The Brougham’s glove box contained a full bar, complete with magnetized shot glasses, allowing drivers to enjoy a little drink after a hard day at work. It’s not hard to see why the feature failed to stand the test of time, but it’s a funny example of the lax safety standards of a bygone era.

Joystick Steering

Saab certainly wasn’t kidding around when it came to its “Born From Jets” advertising campaign. The Swedish brand has long set itself apart with its aircraft-inspired design. It might have gone too far in paying homage to its history as an aerospace company in 1992 when it introduced the Drive-By-Wire concept. The feature, tested on the Saab 9000, essentially replaced the steering wheel with a side-mounted joystick that could be used to navigate the road.

Developed as part of Europe’s Eureka Prometheus smart highway program, the joystick would theoretically improve safety by reducing the chance that the driver would get up close and personal with the steering wheel in the event of an accident. The joystick was really more of a thought experiment than a production-ready feature and was ultimately a poor replacement for the traditional steering wheel, which simply offers a more precise form of control. The joystick also tended to cause more fatigue than the steering wheel, though its steer-by-wire design is still used on a small number of production vehicles today.

Colorful, Light-Up Tires

Today’s vehicles are becoming more customizable with every passing year. From optional equipment and color schemes to memory features that allow drivers to call up their preferred setting as soon as they sit behind the wheel, turning your car, truck, or SUV into a one-of-a-kind ride has never been easier. BMW has even fooled around with a color-changing concept car in the i Vision Dee, which uses the brand’s E Ink technology to swap between 32 different hues. This might sound like a slice of sci-fi futurism, but Goodyear beat BMW to the color-changing game by about 70 years.

In the late 1950s, Goodyear introduced a new polyurethane compound called neothane. This material could be dyed in any number of colors, giving drivers the chance to create a bespoke color scheme to match their car or even their outfit. ”Someday, a wife may tell a husband: ‘Charlie, go out and change the tires. I’m wearing my blue dress tonight,’” said Goodyear’s development manager John J. Hartz in 1962.

Customizable colors weren’t the only thing that set Goodyear’s tires of the future apart. They were also paired with wheels that had 18 built-in bulbs, creating a unique light show that would mesmerize passersby, sometimes to a fault. Those rubbernecking the light-up tires couldn’t give their full attention to the road, resulting in no shortage of ignored red lights and stop signs. Ultimately, the tire’s high cost and poor performance would keep them from becoming a mainstream feature. The neothane tires were expensive to produce, couldn’t safely handle wet conditions, and were prone to melting when subjected to extreme braking forces.

While they’re mostly just good for a laugh, these regrettable examples of automotive innovation show how far the industry has come regarding automotive design. Today’s vehicles are smarter, safer, and more convenient than ever, though even in this day and age, all these “advancements” aren’t necessarily a good thing. While power windows, doors, and tailgates can be seen as an improvement over their manually operated forerunners, some drivers will tell you they’re just another unnecessarily complex part that’ll be expensive to fix or replace when it breaks. We’ve already started to see some backlash against digital control interfaces for stereo and HVAC systems, with more and more brands ditching these newfangled touchscreens for good old-fashioned knobs and switches. Only time will tell which features will become de rigueur and which will end up as regrettable examples of auto design hubris, but we still commend automakers for taking some chances in an effort to build a better ride.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *