Past Times

Past Times: Dashboard computers kept drivers informed

Dash-mounted computers were the nerve center of some luxury cars in 1979.
Dash-mounted computers were the nerve center of some luxury cars in 1979. N&O Photo

In this age of (almost) self-driving cars and on-board communication systems, we pity our grandparents, whose automobiles provided only transportation. But in 1979, while the personal computer was still a ways down the road for most of us, Raleigh Times reporter Mary Burch took a look at what some of the top car makers were marketing as their version of the “smart” car.

Have you ever spent some uneasy miles wondering how far you’d get before running out of gas?

That uncertainty is gone with a gadget being offered on some Ford Motor Co. and General Motors cars.

Just a push of a button will tell you how much gas is in the tank and how many miles you’ll go before running dry.

The device offering this information is a small computer that instantly provides the driver with information not available before.

The driver can punch in the estimated trip mileage and speed, and the computer will give the estimated time of arrival, the amount of gasoline that will be required, the estimated cost of the trip and the number of miles obtained per gallon of gas.

Local Chevrolet dealers are using the computers this month to show people how improved driving habits will save gas.

The computer shows what most everyone knows – jackrabbit starts and screeching halts cut gas mileage sharply.

A consumer can test-drive a 1980 car with the computer mounted on the dashboard and watch the digital readouts change as he guns away from a traffic light or swings into the passing lane.

The main reason for the test-drive is not to show how many miles per gallon you get on straight, flat highway. The computer read around 24 to 25 miles per gallon, at an average cost of 6.3 cents per gallon.

As the car moved into city traffic, the computer blipped along at 13 to 17 miles per gallon. A sudden stop at a traffic light dropped it sharply – 3 miles per gallon, the level at which the car would idle for the duration of the light. Swinging around corners, accelerating on a hill, switching lanes – all affected fuel efficiency.

The computer was first introduced on the 1979 Cadillac and may become a standard feature on many cars during the 1980s.

A spokesman for Thompson Cadillac-Oldsmobile dealership said the computer wasn’t too popular on 1979 models, primarily because it cost $1,000.

But with 1980 models, the computer is cheaper and offered on more cars. A dash-mounted unit for Chevrolets can be ordered for about $200. Some Fords, Lincolns and Mercurys offer it as an in-dash option at prices ranging from about $300 to $700.

Computer functions on the various models range from simple speedometer and clock digital read-outs to an elaborate electronic “message center” that does an instantaneous check of the car’s mechanical systems.

The 1980 Lincoln Continental, Continental Mark VI and Mercury Cougar, for example, offer the computerized “keyless entry system” – a series of numbers that when punched unlock the driver's door, the passenger doors or the trunk. That option costs $231 for the Cougar and from $253 to $293 for the Continentals, depending on the number of doors.

A spokesman for Leith-Lincoln Mercury said the keyless system is very popular and is standard on the Continentals this year. The Raleigh Times Dec. 4, 1979

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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