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The dashboard or instrument panel – personally I call it my office. But whatever you may call it, I feel it is often overlooked in our multiple and colourful discussions about classic cars. What makes a good dashboard? Is it design? Quality? Or perhaps sheer functionalism?

Back at the very beginning – in terms of automotive history of course – the dashboard started as a comfort enhancing installment on horse-drawn carts. The history books tell us that either a wooden panel or a strong piece of leather would be attached to the front of the cart. This would prevent stones and mud from being thrown (or “dashed” – leading of course to the name dashboard) from the horse’s hooves and onto the passengers. The construction of the earliest automobiles was of course very similar to the horse-drawn carts, but lacking the horses the dashboard was suddenly unnecessary and a new function for it needed to be found. It initially became the natural place to position the steering wheel, and as automobiles were developed, further controls and functions joined.

1926 Bentley.

The dashboard as we know it today, got its breakthrough in the USA during the late thirties. This was where the leading car manufacturers started experimenting with various designs and functions. This invariably lead to multiple utterly useless and unreadable instrument designs, but they found that the buying public saw this new dimension to car design as both interesting and alluring. Despite these exaggerated designs, evolution eventually lead to a common dashboard logic – a basic form which is largely retained to this day. Though especially during the early- and mid-fifties was that essence of what makes a good and aesthetically pleasing dashboard interpreted slightly differently in the various major automobile producing countries.

1956 Mercury Montclair.

In the UK, with the budding sportscar craze, the dashboard needed to create a cockpitlike atmosphere in the spirit of the famous Spitfire aircraft. This required an abundance of instruments and toggle switches, preferably scattered fairly randomly across the dashboard. One wouldn’t want it too sensible and ergonomically correct, as that would naturally distract from “the enhanced driving experience”. The dresscode for the driver dictated lambswool bomberjacket combined with the mandatory leather motoring helmet and googles. The evergreen Smiths instruments were favoured by all and every enthusiast of British automobiles, and preferably mounted in a dash of walnut wood or birds eye veneer with multiple layers of thick highly polished lacquer.

Conservatively British with Smiths instruments and walnut veneer in a Jaguar XK 150.

After the war, Italy slowly but surely reestablished their manufacturing industry, specializing largely in labour intensive handcrafted produce and design. Especially the automotive industry benefitted from this, and their cars were equipped with the big, classic GT-instruments with large, easily readable, sans-serif fonts. In particular Veglia found huge success in suppling their beautiful instruments to both the small and the large Italian car manufacturers. Also in Italy were the dashboards often made of wood, though the preference here was towards mahogany or sapele woodsorts, and almost always with just a thin appliance of silk-gloss lacquer or even merely oiled.

Ultraitalian: Large Veglia instruments in Ferrari 250GT. Grand Turismo par excellence!

The Germans took a different approach – not totally unexpected. Art Deco was still very much in fashion among the Germans after the war, and especially Mercedes-Benz designed some utterly exceptional instrument / switch combinations up through the fifties – of course as always executed in the highest of quality. But as the functional Bauhaus design language gained popularity during the reestablishment of postwar Germany, the car industry moved with it and design changed. Germany’s main manufacturer of instruments VDO launched functional no-nonsense instruments with Helvetica fonts. The whole of the dashboard layout became decidedly ergonomic and effective – which just wasn’t quite as romantic as the Italians or as stylish as the Brits. Still, anyone who has ever driven a classic Porsche 911 knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Mercedes-Benz 300SL.

Porsche 911 – functionality of the highest caliber.

The Frenchmen seem to have noted this nationality-defined “instrument religion”, and duly proceeded to create their own beliefs. In the same manner as they stubbornly insisted on redefining general car construction – for which I personally feel we owe the French a great deal of gratitude! – they equally continued this tour de folie when it came to their dashboards. Think back to those famous rotating drum instruments of the first Citroën CX. Or how about the peculiar windshield wipers on a 2CV, which were connected to the speedometer cable? Just ponder on that one for a moment to let the construction fully sink in dear Gentlemen… The French automobile manufacturers were soon also fully engulfed in an intense love affair with the new hot chick in class: Plastic.  With this they managed sculpt dashboards suitable for their eccentric cars. Very few Citroën CX-owners will ever accept any other dashboard than their own as being even remotely ingenious. The biggest of the French instrument manufacturers is Jaeger – a spinoff from the famous watch maker Jaeger-LeCoultre. Truly exquisite!

Citroen CX with idiosyncratic rotating drum instruments.

In the USA, where it had all started, the space age further influenced the development and design of instruments. Mass-production was already at full blast here, and the various car manufacturers competed intensely for the buying public’s attention with a high frequency introduction of new models. In the late fifties, the insanity reached its peak with abnormal and massive tailfins with various complimenting design features such as dagmar bumpers and exuberant use of chrome. Naturally the instruments needed to follow suit in this absurd escape from normality, which lead to multiple exciting and imaginative creations. I especially find the dashboard from a mid-fifties Corvette noteworthy, as it’s at least as beautiful as the car itself. Later the American trend was to place the instruments deep within individual barrels in the dashboard – perhaps not the most elegant solution, but at least effective in reducing reflections. Unfortunately, the American manufacturers were – just like the French – blinded by the new fancy material, plastic. Sadly, the quality was often quite poor, and many criticised the instruments for being unclear and difficult to read. But in light of the enormous country needing to kick-start the consumer society and not least mobilise the public, it was of course sensible to utilise this new and cost effective material in order to keep profitability at a maximum.

1953 Corvette’s exquisite – yet so simple – instruments and dashboard.

The above nationalization of the dashboard is naturally somewhat exaggerated and caricatured. But I feel it serves to emphasize how cars and their components where influenced and shaped by the situation each nation found themselves in after two big wars.

In my previous article The Perfect Circle and the Fifth Wheel, I wrote about my almost childish enthusiasm for the steering wheel. The dashboard effects anyone with the slightest interest in cars much the same way: As you slide into the driver’s seat, most will evaluate and admire the dashboard first. Only then do you look around have a look around the rest of the interior. I’m sure the red indicating tape within the Volvo Amazon’s horizontal speedometer was utterly magical for most children. Just like the huge centrally placed speedometer in a Mini surely made a lasting impression?

So back to the opening question: What makes a good dashboard? Is it design? Quality? Or perhaps sheer functionalism?

And would you buy a specific classic car based on the design of the dashboard?

2 Responses

  1. Morten Kragh-Mortensen

    My first car was based on the dashboard. (MGB) I saw it first time, when i was 13 years old, in UK on Holiday with my parents.
    Monti.

    Reply
  2. Anders Bilidt

    You are oh-so-right Søren. All too often, the dashboard seems to be grossly overlooked when people choose their dream classic car.
    Okay, as a fanatical BMW 2002 owner, I probably shouldn’t talk. While the 02 cockpit is logical and ergonomically excellent, even I must admit that the 02 dash is hardly a style icon. I doubt many 02 owners choose their classic based on the dashboard…
    I got much more pleasure from the dashboard in my old Triumph 2.5PI mk1. Quite stylish and funky. For me though, the best dashboard in automotive history is quite possibly that of the Gordon-Keeble GK1. Perfection…

    Reply

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