Please, No: Failed Automotive Trends

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 09, 2016

My first reaction was “Noooooo!” 

Apple, the company that brought us computers without disc drives and seems to think that USB inputs are a luxury item, is doing away with the earphone jack on the new iPhone 7. It views our future as wireless, so who needs to plug in those ancient, analog headphones?

Was this '76 Cadillac Eldorado America's last convertible? Nah, not by a long shot. (Cadillac photo)

The initial reviews aren’t good, but Apple is free to conclude that the public will catch up as it presses the borders of what’s possible in new technology. The imbroglio made me think of the auto industry, which has stumbled frequently in trying to identify new trends. Some things have had to be “walked back,” as they say. Here are a few entries:

R.I.P. CD Player. I’ll be the first to admit that CDs are toast. My daughters abandoned them long ago, sales are falling precipitously, and most people are dumping their collections at yard sales. And yet, there’s still tons of them out there, and having that slot remains convenient. I’m no Neanderthal; I listen to music in the car via my phone and Bluetooth, or via a USB-connected hard drive. I tap into a library I store in the Amazon cloud.

But I still like to have the option of listening to CDs, and it seems that automakers are in too big a rush to reclaim that dash real estate. Half the test cars I get now have dropped the CD player. Take it a bit slower, guys.

Don't see the CD player in this Cadillac CT6? That's because there isn't one. But this trend is happening too fast. (Cadillac photo)

Automatic Seat Belts. People with long memories will remember the annoying, rattly automatic belts that traveled along obtrusive tracks once your butt was seated. You couldn’t not buckle them (well, you could, but the car wouldn’t start if you didn’t). The darned things even talked to you, annoyingly saying things like, “The door is ajar” and "The seatbelt is retracting." Duh.

The history is fascinating. It’s a perfect illustration of that terrifying declaration, “We’re from the government, and we’re here to help.”

In 1981, the problem was that only 11 percent of drivers were using their seatbelts. Admittedly, a horrendous number. State Farm, which had to pay accident claims, took the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to court to require automatic belts, and won. NHTSA then proposed automatic restraints on all new vehicles by September 1989—unless states covering two thirds of the population adopted mandatory seat belt laws. Amazingly enough, this happens—by September of 1989, 34 states had enacted laws (by 1995, only live-free-or-die New Hampshire didn’t require belts).

This 1990 Honda Civic boasts automatic seatbelts. Note the track in the door, which guaranteed the belt would strangle the driver at some point. (Wikipedia photo)

But even though they were never officially mandated, scared automakers definitely offered automated seatbelts (the 1987 to 1991 Toyota Camry had them, for instance). And, aside from breaking down regularly, they strangled unsuspecting Americans from coast to coast. This video offers priceless evidence:

The Last Convertibles. Detroit concluded that Washington’s safety regulations would kill off the ragtop for good. It was widely believed that the 1976 Cadillac Eldorado would be the last droptop built in the U.S., and some people hoarded examples for that reason—a pair of them were offered by a New York dealer for $138,000. Cadillac said in a contemporary ad, “It is the only convertible now built in America. And it will be our last. The very last.” In some weird act of transference, fake convertibles became popular. There was even a bestseller called The Last Convertible.

Oh c’mon. Convertibles were soon back. As Hemmings reports, only two years later the coachbuilder Hess and Eisenhardt (which also made very cool wood-sided Cadillac station wagons) was offering converted Coupe de Villes as “Le Cabriolets,” and they were even sold through Cadillac dealerships. Chrysler introduced the LeBaron convertible in 1982, and Ford a droptop Mustang in 1983. The drought was over.

Semi-Automatic Transmissions. I never understood this concept, and the units were almost always trouble-prone. You could, for instance, buy a 1950s Mercedes-Benz with an automatic clutch abomination known as “Hydrak,” which replaced the column four-speed shifter I had in my ’59 220S. I—wisely—passed on a Hydrak car.

Hydrak was the answer to the question nobody was asking. "The potential for wear and other problems is fairly high." (Mercedes-Benz graphic)

Here’s the way a German blogger describes it: “The Hydrak never became an equipment detail that was particularly liked, which made the Stuttgart engineers distance themselves from further development….Because the system depends upon a combination of vacuum and electrical components to function properly, the potential for wear and other problems is fairly high.” That is so understated. People hated Hydrak! And they replaced it with standard transmissions as soon as possible.

Volkswagen offered an “Automatic Stickshift” in the Beetle, and Porsche’s version was called Sportmatic. All you need to know about these systems is that cars so-equipped are worth a lot less.

Barely functional attempts at automatic shifting were common in the early days of motoring, but the stuff I’m talking about was introduced after we’d learned how to make reliable automatics.

I’m sure you have your own stories about failed automotive trends. We want to hear them! Post them in the comments here or on Car Talk's Facebook page.


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