10 Car Features That Came Back From The Dead

Today’s most advanced cars offer the kind of luxury and safety features our ancestors couldn’t even dream of. Or is it?

It is true that 30 years ago drivers could not imagine buying a car that they could pull out of the garage with a pocket computer, drive for hours without touching the steering wheel, or one that shows augmented reality navigation instructions projected onto the windshield , many of the gadgets that we see as new and innovative were tried and tested years before.

Often these attempts failed because the technology was not advanced enough to make them work properly or reliably. But with modern computing power behind them, these ideas were given a second chance. Here are 10 car features that are back from the dead.

1. Turbocharging

There is hardly a combustion car on offer that doesn’t use the power of the exhaust gases to stuff more air into its engine. But when GM abandoned its short-lived experiment in the early 1960s to give the Oldmsobile F-85 Jetfire and Chevy Corvair Monza the performance of much more powerful cars, it was years before another major OEM tried the same trick.

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When turbo technology returned, it was picked up first by high-performance cars like the 1974 BMW 2002 Turbo and the 1975 Porsche 911 Turbo, and then by diesel engines, including the 1978 Mercedes-Benz 300SD. Forced induction in ordinary gas-powered cars wasn’t really common around the world until the VW Group launched its 1.8-litre engine in the mid-1990s and put it in almost everything, but by the 2010s non-turbocharged cars, to become the anomalies .

2. Automatic headlights

Before the new millennium, driving a car on a twisting country road meant preparing your fingers to jump off the wheel and either push the turn signal stalk away or click it towards you to lower your high beams to avoid other drivers to blind .

Most cars these days will do the work for you (if not perfectly), but Cadillac brought an early version of the technology called the Autronic Eye to market back in 1952 in the early 1980s as the Guide-Matic.

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Most cars today also have headlights that turn on when it gets dark and stay lit so we can see the path to our front doors, two features that GM’s Twilight Sentinel system promised during the 1960s modern swiveling headlamps certainly drew inspiration from cars like the Citroën DS and SM and the Tucker 48, as well as aftermarket cornering lamp systems that were available in the 1920s.

3rd cylinder on demand / variable displacement

Cars only require a fraction of their maximum optimal power when cruising, so turning off half the engine when not needed to save fuel seems like a good idea. And if you’ve ever driven a modern small Audi, current Ford Fiesta ST, or 5.7L Dodge or Jeep, you know it’s surprisingly smooth.

That’s more than could be said about the 1981 Cadillac V8-6-4, whose clever ideas for overcoming the second gas crisis did not match the cleverness (or reliability) of the electronics needed to make the system work properly. It was quickly dropped, but two decades later the technology was back and finally delivering what it promised.

4. Flush, color-coded bumpers

Modern cars always have sleek, color-coded bumpers that don’t interfere with body panel lines unless they’re trying to look like tough off-road warriors. It’s a styling trend that the industry adopted en masse in the mid-1990s, instantly making everything built earlier seem obsolete.

But the Porsche 928 had been doing the same trick since 1978, the Corvette since ’73 and the Pontiac GTO’s Endura bumper had appeared as early as fall 1967.

5. Rear axle steering

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Four-wheel steering was popular with tech-savvy Japanese automakers in the 1980s, who used it in cars like the Honda Prelude and Mazda 626. The Nissan Skyline GT-R also adopted rear axle steering on its 1989 comeback and championed it in the 1990s even as the technology fell out of favor with other automakers.

But ironically, Nissan dropped the GT-R feature with the death of the R34 Skyline. When the R35 GT-R was launched in 2007, it was only front-wheel steer, just as other automakers were beginning to rediscover the benefits.

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6. Electric powertrains

As we approach the 2030s, internal combustion engines will be phased out in favor of cleaner, quieter electric alternatives. But a very similar war was fought in the late 1890s and early 1900s, and back then it was electrical power that was being forced into submission. Early gasoline cars were noisy, smelly, dangerous, more complicated to start and drive, and required frequent attention. But they were also lighter, cheaper, and the batteries (then lead-acid) in EV alternatives couldn’t store much energy relative to the added weight. Sound familiar?

The introduction of an electric starter was a big boost for internal combustion cars, but Edwin Black writes in his book combustion that petroleum interests helped derail the electric car movement. In 2022, however, as battery technology improves and climate concerns prompt governments to turn against internal combustion engines, EV adoption is back on track, just 100 years behind schedule.

7. Digital dashboards

Large digital infotainment displays have transformed the look of our cars’ center consoles and dashboard areas over the past 20 years. And now almost every new car coming out will also feature a secondary digital display instead of a traditional analog instrument cluster. Some, like the Mercedes EQS, cover their entire dashboard with digital gauges.

Digital dashboards first appeared in the 1980s, but were largely abandoned by the end of that decade (at least by European automakers). However, digital instrument clusters are back in vogue thanks to real-life advantages over analogue clocks, including the ability to display navigation maps. And this time there’s no going back to analogue, especially since Apple’s CarPlay will soon be integrated into the cluster and not just your car’s central touchscreen.

8. Talking cars

This ties in closely with the previous post on digital dashboards as both became talking points in the early 1980s. Unfortunately, the real talking cars of the early 1980s were nowhere near as smart as TV’s most famous talking car, Knight Rider’s KITT, and the technology was exposed as a gimmick.

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It’s a lot better these days, especially with the advent of the built-in Google Assistant, as your car not only talks to you, it listens as well. However, it almost never really understands what I have to say…

9. Frunks

The electric vehicle has revolutionized how and where we “fuel” our cars, but also how we load them with groceries. Rather than opening a rear trunk or tailgate, we could just as likely pop up the hood and toss our bags in, because omitting the internal combustion engine usually frees up useful cargo space, as seen here on the new Ford F-150 Lightning.

Of course, if you’ve ever owned certain mid-engined sports cars, like an early Toyota MR2 or a rear-engined Porsche 911, none of this will seem strange to you, but neither would it happen to millions of drivers of European cars 50 years from now than many BMW, Fiat, Renault, Skoda and Volkswagen models had their engines mounted at the rear. Luckily, the uncanny swing axle suspension and wet-weather handling that were also often part of the vintage rear-engine experience didn’t help frunks make a comeback in the 2020s.

10. Wankel engines

From Citroën to Mercedes, most manufacturers in the late 1960s and early 1970s were enthusiastic about Felix Wankel’s super-light Wankel engine. While Benz never put one into production, NSU did, as did Citroën, although it soon wished it hadn’t: the French company attempted to buy back and destroy every single GS Birotor it had sold.

Only Mazda lasted, although when the RX-8 died in 2010 (and many did) due to its inability to meet Euro 5 emissions standards, it looked like the rotary had worn out its last rotor tip and a comeback seemed unlikely. However, around the same time that the RX-8 was dying, Audi showed off an A1 concept that used a gyro as a range extender, and Mazda has decided to do the same to extend the electric MX-30’s measly range to enhance.

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