Home » GM’s Futuristic ’80s Digital Displays Are Dying But This Man Is Fighting To Keep Them Alive

GM’s Futuristic ’80s Digital Displays Are Dying But This Man Is Fighting To Keep Them Alive

Gm Crt Dash Ts
ADVERTISEMENT

Infotainment screens became mainstream in the last decade or so, for better or worse. Like so many technologies, though, GM was well ahead of the curve. It had Oldsmobile putting screens in cars all the way back in the 1980s. Amazingly, some of these ancient units live on to this day, thanks in part to the efforts of one dedicated Oldsmobile fan.

The Visual Information Center (VIC) was a brand-new feature for the 1989 Oldsmobile Toronado. The color touchscreen CRT was mounted in the center of the dash, with controls for the radio, HVAC system, and trip computer. It even had a compass, among other features! It could also control the integrated car phone, because those were a big deal in the decade before cell phones really took off. It wasn’t the first infotainment system from GM, but it followed shortly after the Graphic Control Center that the company threw on the Buick Riviera back in 1986.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

These old displays are dripping in retro charm, and they’re a key part of what makes these cars special. Keeping these old electronics humming along is no mean feat, and there are precious few qualified to do it. When he could find nobody else to help, Jon Morlan decided that he would shoulder this sage duty himself.

Digital Toronado

92128201990207
The VIC wasn’t huge, but it previewed the infotainment screens that would become the norm in decades to come.
Img 9010
Hitting the market in 1989, it looked sharper than a lot of newer infotainment systems that came out over the next two decades.

Electronics Wizard

Jon’s journey with the VIC started because of a personal connection. “As an owner of a 1991 Oldsmobile Trofeo myself, I had my own VIC fail on me many years ago,” he says. “I was backing my car out of the garage and heard a short high-pitched squeal and the VIC had a bright line across the screen.” Researching the problem, he found out this was called a “vertical collapse,” and he set about finding someone to repair the unit.

ADVERTISEMENT

A long search found him a willing helper at a TV repair shop. The gentleman thought he had the problem licked, but wasn’t able to test the repair without the car on hand. Picking up the unit, Jon dropped it back into his car and found it was operating perfectly well once more. Over the years, Jon funneled other Oldsmobile owners towards the same shop, until the man eventually retired some years later.

Rs=w 600,h 300,cg True
“Vertical collapse” is a problem on CRTs where the vertical scan of the screen is non-functional. Instead, the electron beams just get fired in a flat line. If horizontal deflection also fails, you get a dot.
Img 8037
The 6″ Trinitron cathode ray tube serves as the VIC’s display. They’re reliable units with crisp output, but they suffer from various failure modes after 30 years in service. Thankfully, they’re often repairable.

The owner of the repair shop eventually inspired him to take on the work himself. “He told me that ‘if you can become proficient with electronics repair you could do these yourself,'” Jon explains. “The key thing is that you have to be able to test your repairs.” This was impractical for the TV shop to handle, as the only way to test the VIC unit properly was to plug it into the car’s harness.

By this point, Jon knew that failing VICs were a fairly common problem among Toronado and Trofeo owners. He elected to teach himself the basics needed to repair these units and their tiny 6″ Sony Trinitron CRT displays. Resources specific to the VIC weren’t out there, so Jon looked further afield. “I read every Trinitron repair manual I could get my hands on, watched YouTube videos on TV and arcade game repair, visited TV museums local to me,” said Jon.

Img 9021

VIC units suffer from a number of common maladies now that they’re cresting their thirtieth birthdays. Loss of picture, the aforementioned vertical collapse, and a total loss of power are typical symptoms. Often, these units can be fixed, but Jon always seeks to manage expectations for prospective customers.

ADVERTISEMENT

Sometimes, a few failing components can cause problems elsewhere, damaging unobtainable parts. “All of this stuff is considered obsolete,” says Jon. “I have been fortunate to find new old stock components from time to time, but in general parts are very hard to come by.”

Img 8999
A VIC that looks so good it’s like it just came out of the factory. And yes, that is a graphic equalizer. Because that mattered to us in the 1990s, for some reason.

He took on this work without support from the original manufacturers, or even basic documentation. He has no schematics or service manuals. He’s begged Sony for information on the VIC, given it uses a Trinitron-style display, but to no avail. In lieu of documentation, he’s learned to fix these units with his own analytical skills instead.

Thankfully, common passive supporting components like capacitors are readily available and easily replaced. The worst cases involve damage to the CRT tube itself, such as failing electron guns. In this case, a display transplant is the only cure, assuming one can be sourced from another unit.

Img 9003

Img 9016
The VIC controls the air conditioning, the audio system, and the car phone as well, where fitted. If it stops working, it’s not just a minor inconvenience.

A Good Rig

After successfully repairing a handful of VIC units for other owners, Jon realized he really did need a better testing setup. That’s what inspired him to create a benchtop unit that could sit in for the car side of things. With this setup, he’s able to plug in a VIC unit and test all its features, covering every button, every function, and the touch screen to boot. He’s also able to monitor the current draw of the unit, which can help diagnose if something’s wrong internally or if a component is leaning toward imminent failure.

ADVERTISEMENT
Img 9024
Jon built a set of desktop test tools fondly known as as the “Trofeo in a Box.” This allows him to bench test a unit without having to mess around installing it in an actual car.

Jon’s always on the hunt for spare parts to support his work, but he doesn’t sell parts or whole working units himself. For those eager to purchase a working VIC, he strongly recommends the services of his close friend, David North. Not to be confused with the David North who designed the first Toronado, this David North is the man behind TrofeoParts.com. Jon jokes that there’s a common saying around the Trofeo community these days. “If you need parts or want an entire car, call David,” he says. “If he doesn’t have it, he can get it, if he can’t get it, it doesn’t exist.”

He notes that his role comes down largely to economics. “Businesses that do nothing but automotive electronics don’t want to touch anything 30 years old,” he says.” “It’s not a money maker for a large business’s bottom line.” Like so many obscure cars, ongoing support comes down to dedicated community members. “It’s left to Trofeo nuts like myself and David to keep these cars alive for everyone,” he says.

Image140
Failures in old electronics are commonly caused when electrolytic capacitors leak or dry out. Repair (or preventative maintenance) is often as simple as replacing them.

The Digital Dash

The VIC has very basic graphics by today’s standards. However, it perfectly matched the style of the Oldsmobiles of the time, sitting neatly alongside the digital gauge clusters that were so hot in the late 1980s. To that end, Jon doesn’t just spend his time fixing up old VICs. He’s also learned how to repair and maintain the futuristic clusters, too. Much of his work involves repairing damaged traces on circuit boards, swapping out old capacitors, and cleaning scratches off of the cover lenses.

Img 9006

Jon often recommends preventative maintenance to avoid cascade failures that can render a unit unrepairable. This is true for the VIC, as with just about any electronics from the 1980s. But it’s especially relevant to the digital gauge clusters manufactured by Yazaki. “Proactive restoration on these units and replacing those 30-year-old components can stop a cascade failure from occurring,” he says. “Once it happens, you will have a speedometer that is dead and cannot be repaired.”

ADVERTISEMENT

These unique displays were only around for a few years, featured in the refreshed Toronado and Trofeo line. “Only 19 thousand of these [facelift] cars were actually made,” he says. “I would gather that only a third of them had the VIC option, but every single one had a speedometer.” To that end, Jon finds himself repairing a lot more digital dashes these days than VIC units, but it’s all in support of the same cause.Img 8870

He also jokes that perhaps the Toronado took things a little too far forward for the brand’s existing customer base. “It was also so ahead of its time, many generational Oldsmobile buyers were turned off by all of the futuristic technology,” he jokes.

Obscurity

GM killed off the Toronado in 1992, probably after finally admitting they should have called it the Tornado all along. That saw the end of the VIC, though it had a final hurrah as the basis for the TravTek GPS system that was killed off in 1993.

There aren’t a whole lot of Toronados and Trofeos left on the road today. Even fewer have VIC systems in the dash. It’s perhaps the coolest feature of the model, though, and one that previewed the future direction of automotive interior design by over a decade. It’s neat to know that the VIC will live on for some time in fully functional condition, thanks to the efforts of people like Jon Morlan and David North.

“It’s a thrill for me each time I work on just a small part of the car,” says Jon. “Someday long after I’m gone, someone could pull out a VIC or cluster that I’ve restored and see my own signature on it.” It’s a legacy worth celebrating. Hats off to Jon, and all those like him that are keeping rare automotive relics alive.

ADVERTISEMENT

Image credits: Jon Morlan, GM

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on reddit
Reddit
Subscribe
Notify of
47 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ariel E Jones
Ariel E Jones
28 days ago

I don’t think the article mentioned, so I will. I’m pretty sure GM also used the same setup in the 1988-1991 Buick Reatta. Maybe the Riviera too, as they were based on the same platform. So there’s that.

Ophidia
Ophidia
29 days ago

This is the sort of article I come here for. Thank you!

Acid Tonic
Acid Tonic
29 days ago

Really enjoyed this one. Good work. My 2000 Insight has a rather similar looking green futuristic dash and I dread the day something in it fails.

Knowonelse
Knowonelse
1 month ago

On a simpler scale I needed to rewire my beavertail trailer. I do not trust the electrical connection on the truck or can I get the trailer behind the truck without blocking the whole driveway. So, I built a trailer wiring test box. Used a vintage cosmetics case, added a 18v tool battery, trailer interface, power converter, and a multi-switch panel. I can switch on each item individually so I can test the connections, lights, etc. Works great and have offered it to friends with trailers.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
1 month ago

The “Trofeo in a Box” reminds me of the CAN bus simulator in a lab I managed circa 2009. We were developing Linux infotainment systems so the test rig was a box of electronics with the radio and iDrive controller from a 5 Series BMW bolted to the front

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 month ago

Maybe let members know how to ask old electronics or TV repair shops if they have this junk sitting around in old inventory and provide more parts for repairs?

47
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x