If a book were written about the truly dumb things that have been invented for automobiles — and one could be — then one could easily add a chapter for inventions that could have been brilliant but were put on the exact wrong automobiles.
Let’s start with dumb. Case in point, in the Fifties someone came up with the idea of a record player for automobiles. The only problem was those days’ super soft suspensions; driver and passengers floated down the road … until an emergency came up. When you slammed on the brakes, your front wheels slammed into the fender well, and there went your record. Or just a mere bump in the road would do it. If you’re under 30, ask your parents what a record player is to understand that automotive idiocy.
Another foolish creation was the Doggie Carrier, basically a canvas bag you hung on the outside of your car to carry your pet in. It even came with a hole in the front for Fido to stick his head out of, so he could potentially witness the last few moments of his brief life. Probably would have sold better if they’d called it Lassie Luggage.
Then who can forget mini-microwave ovens for automobiles? Well, on this one it helps to let you know that those devices really exist, even now; one Internet hype site, posing as a legitimate consumer publication, points out that if you “spend a lot of time in your car or don’t need a full-sized microwave for reheating leftovers,” these little machines are just great. And they do warn you that the downside to this little automotive miracle of a popcorn maker at 80 mph is the huge drain on your car’s battery. Scratch that; some of these are so small that a microwave popcorn bag doesn’t have room to expand.
Come to think of it, Fiat made a portable espresso machine for its 500 series in Italy. And another manufacturer made a combination hamburger press and cooker that attached to your exhaust system. Imagine that; you pullover to the side of the road, make a patty out of fresh ground meat, put it into the press and attach that to your exhaust system, and then drive until you have the perfect hamburger ready to eat. Other than having to pull over to the side of the road, put on gloves to take the press and cooker off your exhaust, drain the fat, and somehow turn that metal unit over to get the hamburger patty onto a bun instead of on the ground, what could go wrong? Or more simply, you could use the drive-through at any hamburger chain — but you’d miss out on the fragrant whiff of carbon monoxide on the burger you made yourself.
And yeah, someone actually made a tray that attached to your steering wheel so you could place your food, espresso, mini-microwave popcorn, and other goodies right in front of you. Of course, the concept was meant for a stationary car, but you just know someone tried to drive with their food on the tray in front of them. And the first hard turn dropped it all right into their lap.
Good Invention, Bad Application
Of course, sometimes the bad invention is the car itself. When Time magazine published its 50 Worst Inventions of All Time article, the Pontiac Aztec was listed along with asbestos, Red Dye No. 2, and DDT. Bummer. Then again, when individuals used to ask me about that particular Pontiac, I usually suggested that it was a fine purchase as long as you chose black as your color. At least that way at night no one could see what you were driving.
Then again, sometimes the invention is right, but the application is all wrong. Some will remember the four-wheel steering units of a generation ago. Even Honda fell for this one. Offered as an optional model on the Prelude of the early Nineties, it worked as advertised: At low speeds when you turned the wheel in one direction, the back wheels turned the opposite way, greatly tightening the turning radius — thereby, at least theoretically, making the vehicle far more maneuverable.
On the other hand, at higher speeds the back wheels turned in the same direction as the front, so lane changes could happen almost instantaneously. But seemingly the obvious was not apparent to the Honda engineers who came up with this idea, because the Prelude was already extremely easy to park, turned around handily in any tight situation, and made excellent lane changes on the freeway without any additional mechanical help. Just testing that device on a Prelude in a parking lot would require Dramamine to stop the motion sickness.
But there were vehicles a four-wheel-drive system could have worked wonders on — for example, the coming wave of full-sized SUVs for the masses.
GM Almost Got It Right
In 2002 GM came up with Quadrasteer on its full-sized trucks and 2500 Series Suburbans, and it worked in a fashion similar to the Honda system of a decade earlier. GM even promoted it heavily in ads for its trucks, but the sales rate for that option was so poor that it was discontinued three years later.
Why? Well, people who use trucks for a living know how to maneuver them, even if they are pulling a trailer, even one that weighs many tons. While Quadrasteer did make backing up more convenient, again most who owned work trucks didn’t need any mechanical options to deal with those circumstances. Where GM messed up on this was in not adding that system to its half-ton Suburban, which was the one that was in huge demand for soccer moms everywhere. After all, a full-sized Suburban with Quadrasteer could easily be driven and parked in some of the tighter spaces anywhere. It had the ability to make that full-sized people carrier as easy to maneuver as any sedan. But that selling logic was completely over the heads of those at General Motors making this decision. And that wasn’t GM’s only mistake from that era with new tech.
There’s Real Dark Out There
No, another one was GM Night Vision, offered on Cadillacs starting in 2000. It had taken years and loads of money to make a reality, and GM’s partner in that invention was none other than Raytheon, which had been a contractor for night vision for our military. And what this system did was put a heads-up display on your front windshield, just above the dash, to let you see everything in front of you. Even in the darkest night on the darkest road.
We should have known something was off about this idea when GM pulled journalists in to demonstrate it and had a hard time finding a place in DFW that was dark enough to prove its worth. The very first time I used it I came to a stop sign in West Fort Worth, looked into the Night Vision’s heads-up display and saw a cat in the middle of the road three blocks away. Amazing — until I looked through the windshield without the aid of Night Vision and still could easily see that same cat sitting in the road. That’s right, cities are so well lit that Night Vision was useless. And GM should have known that, because it took forever to find places to demonstrate it to journalists.
More to the point, many Cadillac owners are older and not as likely to go out driving at night. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t brilliant and a real safety device; it was just put on the wrong vehicles for the wrong customers. Instead, it should have been an option for trucks and other vehicles, specifically the ones owned by people who live in the country. Many times driving the backroads of our Northern farm states at night, you’d come perilously close to hitting a deer or some other large mammal running out of a cornfield. Night Vision, because it used a thermographic camera, would not only see the animal in the road, but would likely show it still in the field running toward the highway.
I’m also reminded of a Corvette road rally GM put on from Thousand Oaks, Calif., to San Francisco in 1998. Leaving Paso Robles at night on a completely unlit back country road, driving at excessive speeds, our caravan of ’Vettes rounded a minor corner and standing right in our lane was a huge black Angus bull. It’s amazing no one hit it as we made a fast pass around it; had that bull moved one foot, someone would have been killed. If a GM engineer working on Night Vision had been in that rally, they would easily have understood the logic of using it on different vehicles in different locations in America.
Of course, if someone had hit that cow, I guess we could have made hamburger patties and cooked them with the hamburger exhaust cooker on the tailpipes of those ’Vettes. Well, except we’d just had dinner.
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org