Smart Car Features That Never Quite Took Off

While software engineers are always looking for the “killer app,” automotive engineers are on a constant quest for the “killer feature.” Unfortunately for automakers, sometimes the public isn’t quite ready for the next big thing, and a killer feature can just end up killing sales.
Here are some fantastic features that didn’t catch on … at least the first time they were introduced.

Aerodynamic Body Design

The 1934 Chrysler Airflow was the first American ride to be designed in a wind tunnel. Here’s something most people don’t know: cars designed with pointed front ends are not very aerodynamic when traveling below supersonic speeds, which you will not be doing … hopefully. Blunt, but rounded, front ends give the most efficient airflow around objects hurtling through the air.
In fact, when Chrysler developed the Airflow, wind tunnel testing revealed that the standard car designs common in that era were more aerodynamic when driven backwards. If you’re trying to come up with a good aerodynamic design, teardrop is the way to go. Picture the whale, with its large bulbous head and body that tapers off.

1934 Chrysler Airflow

The Airflow sported a somewhat blunt-but-rounded front end contrary to the popular squared-off designs of the day. Unfortunately, it didn’t catch on, and Chrysler soon dropped the Airflow.
Advertised as the world’s safest motorcar body, it was incredibly solid, even down to it’s shatter-proof glass. Watch this safety and durability demonstration of the vehicle in a variety of entertaining tests.

The Third Eye

The Tucker automobile was an amazing creation, but years ahead of it’s time. In 1948, the automobile world was taken aback by a sleek new kid on the block from a visionary outsider who wanted to shake up the car industry. The car pridefully displayed an additional headlight, centered between the usual two. This light actually swiveled as you drove, lighting corners before you arrived.
Tucker designed a safety feature to protect passengers when ejected- a pop-out windshield. The engine was in the rear and the fenders pivoted when the drivers turned the steering wheel. It had disc brakes and a dashboard that was padded for luxury and safety.

If you ever get the chance, watch the move “Tucker: The Man and His Dream“.

The First Minivan?

The 1936 Stout Scarab might have been the world’s first mini-van. Imagine a jelly bean with tires at the corners. There’s a door for the driver and one passenger side door located in the middle of the opposite side, similar to the location of today’s mini-van doors.

1936 Stout Scarab, courtesy Grant Manley.

Even the interior seating could be reconfigured, much in the same way that families remove mini-van seats today when they need to take all the kids’ bikes on vacation. Optional third-row seating, on the other hand, was not included in the Scarab.
Of course “scarab” is another word for “beetle,” and this innovative design also suggests a close relative to the VW Beetle, the classic Microbus.

Teletouch Transmission Systems

The Edsel is a story worthy of a miniseries in it’s own right. But it came equipped with several innovations especially bolted together for Edsel Ford, the son of Henry Ford. It was a thoughtful gift but, sadly, the American car market did not appreciate it as much as Edsel probably did. One fascinating addition was the push button transmission system that was directly in the center of the steering wheel. It was called the Teletouch and designed to keep both hands on the wheel.

While it had it’s remarkable character traits, we have not seen this system repeated in many new cars of late.  Collectors love them though, however!

AWD Compact Station Wagon

Today, the brilliance of an all-wheel drive compact station wagon is obvious. That wasn’t the case in 1979 when AMC introduced its Eagle. Subaru AWD vehicles were available, but they were essentially a cheap import that hadn’t yet connected with buyers in U.S. new car market.
Specialized four-wheel drive vehicles were available, but most of them appealed only to the off-road crowd. Who could picture Mom driving to the Walmart Supercenter in a vehicle that could tackle abandoned BLM trails across the Mojave Desert?
AMC sales weren’t enough to keep the marque going, and Chrysler eventually snapped it up, keeping AMC and the Eagle alive for a while but eventually allowing the brand and the vehicle to die a somewhat slow death.

The Convenience Package

Virtually any vehicle today can be outfitted with a “convenience package,” including features like steering-wheel mounted audio controls. Many of these features were found on the 1980s-vintage Renault Fuego. It came with an electronic locking system that allowed occupants to skip the pesky button pushing required by manual door locks. Another innovation was controls mounted on the steer wheel. The Renault Fuego even had information built into its tachometer that showed drivers where to get the best fuel economy.
Sales were terrible. It was too far ahead of it’s time.

A Successful Electric Car, Not

Much has been written and said about General Motors’ EV1, the first all-electric vehicle seriously developed for the consumer market, at least for the consumer market in California, virtually the only place it was offered for lease between 1996 and 1999.
Check out this vintage 1997 Top Gear episode, featuring the EV1.
As GM developed the technology, some EV1s had a range of as much as 140 miles. GM abandoned the program, took back leased cars, crushed almost all of them, decommissioned some more and left one EV1 fully functional, which it donated to the Smithsonian Institution. There is still controversy as to who or what really doomed the EV1. Possible culprits include

  • economics
  • evil GM corporate honchos
  • the oil industry
  • or all of the above

Innovations Regain Traction

Most of these features finally showed up at the finish line in one form or another. Soccer moms now drive 4-wheel drives to schools and potlucks, high-end cars come with responsive headlights, and aerodynamics took a front seat in all factory designs.
We look back fondly at the vehicles that paraded them past our field of view for the first time with admiration. We respect the designers and engineers who are willing to take a chance on new technologies and fresh ideas. Finally, we all learn together, once again, the classic truth and sage advice passed down through generations of successful comedians and tune-up garages of old: it’s all in the timing.

Featured images:

License: Image author owned
License: Creative Commons image source
Carrie Thompson works with Aspen Auto Clinic in the gorgeous Rocky Mountains area. She enjoys tech and history, especially when they are combined with cool modes of transporation.