Home » The First Parking Sensor Used Parts Nabbed From Polaroid Cameras

The First Parking Sensor Used Parts Nabbed From Polaroid Cameras

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A couple weeks ago, the Autopian’s partner company, Galpin Motors, announced a partnership with the legendary design and customizing firm, bb-Auto. I’ll admit, I wasn’t that familiar with what bb-Auto had done prior to this announcement, but once I looked them up, I was fascinated. In addition to the custom Porsches they’re best known for, they did some remarkable work on more humble cars, like Volkswagen Polos and Golfs, Mercedes-Benzes (okay, maybe not humble), Volvos, even a Cadillac Cimarron, of all things.

I’ve been wanting to write about them for a while now, but there’s a lot of cars and ideas to tell you about, and I found that trying to cram them all into one huge post just proved too, well, easy to procrastinate about. So, to force my ridiculous brain into actually getting something done, I decided to break this up into multiple posts about some individual cars and ideas, because there are many. And I’d like to start with a Volkswagen Rabbit/Golf Cabriolet that features so many forward-thinking electronic enhancements, things we take for granted now but were like impractical magic back in the 1980s. There’s one feature in particular I want to focus on, because it relies on parts from a Polaroid camera.

Vidframe Min Top
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Before we get into that, though, a little bit of bb-Auto history is warranted, I think. Rainer Buchmann started bb-Auto in 1973, with the original goal of modifying Porsches. The company would tailor cars to very specific customer tastes as well as building cars to fill niches that the actual manufacturers didn’t; for example, when Porsche didn’t offer a 911 Targa-bodied Turbo, Buchmann stepped in and took up the challenge that Porsche themselves avoided, and managed to build a 911 Turbo Targa when Porsche didn’t.

Bbauto Group

Buchmann was also fiercely interested in automotive hi-fi systems and car electronics in general, and seemed to have a lot of fun cramming lots of speakers and audio equipment into cars long before high expectations for car audio became common.

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Dash Spkrs

The interest in car electronics lead to a lot of really fascinating innovations, including many that we take for granted today. And one in particular I’m especially fascinated by because it re-purposes a part from Polaroid cameras. bb-Auto and Polaroid seem to have had an interesting relationship; in 1976 bb-Auto converted a 911 coupé into a Targa, and painted it with Polaroid’s trademark rainbow stripes, and exhibited it to promote Polaroid at the Photokina European photography trade show. It’s perhaps the best known bb-Auto car:

 

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A post shared by Beau Boeckmann (@beauboeckmann)

But that’s just aesthetics; bb-Auto went deeper and actually cross-pollinated Polaroid technology and automotive tech when they built a series of Volkswagen Golfs in the early 1980s. Starting with first-generation Golfs and then later moving to Mk2 Golfs and Cabriolets and added all sorts of advanced features, like a digital dashboard and keyless entry systems, which were at least a decade ahead of their time.

Advancedgolf

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But, again, I’m geeked out by the Polaroid tie-in, so let’s get to that. Look at this picture here; see those round things underneath the taillights? Also, try not to get distracted by that woman, who looks absolutely miserable:

Cabrio Ultrasound

Those are the same as the golden round thing you see on this Polaroid camera:

Polaroid 600

That is an ultrasonic sensor, and Polaroid used it for an auto-focus system for its cameras. Essentially, that golden disc is an ultrasonic transducer; it sends out ultrasonic sound wave pulses, then detects when they bounce back to the sensor, and from that can compute distance with remarkable accuracy and speed. This is a great way for a camera to know how far away it is from its subject, and also, it turns out, a great way to know how far your car bumper is from backing into a wall.

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Ultrasonic Kit

What’s especially amazing is that Polaroid used to sell this technology in a kit form for experimenters and designers, and called it the Polaroid Ultrasonic Ranging System Designers Kit, which included the sensor, Polaroid’s proprietary 6V pouch batteries (like the ones that were integrated into their instant film packs), and the circuit boards needed to make it all work, one of which even included a little LED seven-segment numerical display that would show you the distance of whatever object you were pointing the sensor at.

Here’s a video of someone showing one of these kits; they’re fascinating:

I think we tend to forget what a tech powerhouse Polaroid was back in the day, with a status similar to what, say, Apple has today. They were doing interesting, cutting-edge stuff. And while I can’t prove that bb-Auto began their investigation into making an ultasonic parking sensor by using one of these kits, I’d be willing to bet a lot of valuable things I may or may not own that they did.

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bb-Auto’s implementation of the ultrasonic parking sensor included a display on the dash showing, numerically, how far away – in centimeters, I suppose?– you were from hitting something while backing up, along with an audio alarm (which seems to have included actual voice alerts!) if you got too close.

Today, ultrasonic sensors embedded into car bumpers are extremely common; we’ve all seen those little round buttons in bumpers that house the sensors. It’s just fascinating to think that what appears to be the first use of this technology came from a low-volume auto customizer, using parts from an instant camera.

All of this makes me wish early reverse backup camera systems used Polaroid technology as well, with a little slot on the dashboard spitting out one photo every second while you were in reverse gear, which I think is way cooler than some boring old LCD screen.

 

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Phuzz
Phuzz
8 days ago

mmmm, now that’s some quality Torch-topian 🙂

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
15 days ago

That’s awesome about the partnership! What a great place…
I was amazed in the linked article about those special VW’s w/ the iridescent paint, hi-fi systems, and fancy features. Those look so good…and a million buttons! (Someone needs to show these pics to all new car makers) Also, this part was so sad/mysterious that it would be amazing if even 1 of these was found:
“So, what happened to these ten Golfs? Around the time that b+b went bankrupt, they were sold off, one by one, to private owners. Where are they now? Extensive research has turned up nothing… no one knows their ultimate fates and none have appeared on car forums, which does not bode well for these very unique cars.”

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
15 days ago

The gaudiest thing bb had done was customising seven Mercedes-Benz W126 so each car was done in one colour inside and outside (red, orange, yellow, green, light blue, pink, and white) for H.H. Sheikh Hamad Bin Hamdan Al Nahyan, a.k.a. “Rainbow Sheik”.

Banpei
Banpei
16 days ago

That’s a nice piece of history! I did write an article for the Dutch Toyota club a few years ago about the Toyota Corona T140 featuring the first optional parking sensors in September 1982 and the Toyota Carina SG Jeune AA60 being the first factory trim level to feature them one month later. I think they had the same idea but used their own implementation. They also featured a so called Back Sonar on the parcel shelf, which was a display indicating how much space was left.

Nlpnt
Nlpnt
16 days ago

This could all have been saved if VW had based the convertible on the Jetta and sacrificed some of the additional trunk space that would’ve gained to bring the top stack down to a more reasonable height.

UnseenCat
UnseenCat
16 days ago

I remember the Polapulse batteries — they were designed for short-duration, high current loads — like firing off the flash and then driving the motors in an instant camera. They were originally implemented in a low-capacity design fitted into the bottom of the film pack, and stored enough power for the number of photos in the pack and not much more. Then somebody at Polaroid figured out that a higher-capacity battery that could easily slot into a device and be quickly pulled out to swap with a fresh one might be useful in other devices that needed to operate with short bursts of high-current demand; the sort of use that would deplete regular batteries fairly quickly, like professional camera flashes and motor drives.

I used to fly model rockets, and there was an igniter/launch control designed to use these batteries. One Polapulse battery was good for nearly twice as many launches as a set of four AA’s which was a common configuration. And the Polapulse controller had an effective double safety, because not only was there the typical removable metal “key” that had to be inserted to provide continuity in the ignition circuit, but the Polapulse battery itself just slid into a slot in the controller housing. With the battery slipped out, the entire system was completely inert. It was a cool bit of tech in the 80s.

Johnnie Always
Johnnie Always
16 days ago

coolest ‘weird thing on a car’ torch story i’ve ever read.

Where can we find the image of the frustrated woman next to the car? I tried google and i’ve run out of options

Peter d
Peter d
16 days ago

Polaroid always had top-notch engineering. Their film manufacturing capabilities were world-class, they made much of their own chemistry, and their factories were built to withstand the worst weather events. The Land research lab covered a wide range of applications and was way ahead of its time.

The company had such a powerful and profitable product in their instant film, that management got complacent and generally weak. The profitability of the cameras and films and certain specialty industrial products was so high that many, many potential products were killed early because they couldn’t match this core-product profitability, at least not at product introduction or in the early years. The profitability also resulted in bloated staffs and slow-moving management. Management really killed this awesome business.

I guess the good news is that early bio-techs leveraged engineering staff that had previously worked at/for Polaroid to help build the Boston (Cambridge)-centric biotech industry which has become a powerhouse of the world. This is a skill set that helped the bio-tech industry take-off. And today Moderna makes their vaccines in an old Polaroid factory.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
16 days ago

Very neat use of Polaroid tech, but wouldn’t you have backed over the obstacle by the time the image had developed so that you could see it? I mean, you could shake the picture to speed it up, but still …

JC Miller
JC Miller
16 days ago
Reply to  Nick Fortes

I can see the gouge from the heels

Frankencamry
Frankencamry
16 days ago

We used a similar setup in HS physics lab back in the day, although it probably predated Polaroid’s implementation substantially, since most of our equipment was university hand me-downs from the 50s. Interestingly it was sonic rather than ultrasonic, so it sounded like a film projector running the whole time it was in use.

Polaroid’s big innovation would have been making it small and far less power consuming, similar to how Apple and others approached various consumer electronics.

Nick Fortes
Nick Fortes
16 days ago

That’s cool, I’ve only ever seen photos of the bb Porsches, never a VW, Cabriolet, no less

MiniDave
MiniDave
16 days ago

I’m old enough to remember paper maps, especially those books they used in California where the end of one page in the map book directed you to a corresponding page which could be half the book away in page numbers, also the ubiquitous Rand McNally books (I still take one of those along on trips) and I sometimes wonder how in the heck I was able to find a place in a huge city using one of those. So much easier now using Garmin or the phone no doubt, but I liked seeing the “big” picture using a map that covered the whole state or city.

I’m also old enough to remember the first Polaroid Land Cameras and what a cool thing it was to take a picture and see it in a minute instead of waiting to take the film in to be developed.

I did get spoiled on film developing when I started taking mine down to Price Club (predecessor to CostCo) where I could get a roll of 36 color prints done in less than 2 hrs for about $2.

I also remember BB, and Treser and a number of other German tuner companies that really boomed in the 80’s….

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
16 days ago

I just want to say I hate those little round buttons in the middle of a blank bumper, they look like an afterthought and were not integrated into the design of the car at all, which is lazy. I can think of 1 million ways to put them on the back of a car and not have it look like friggin coat buttons.

Hoonicus
Hoonicus
16 days ago

She’s got the, I just got the bb bill blues.

Andreas8088
Andreas8088
16 days ago

Huh, that’s really cool! Much like I grew up taking polaroid and other such things for granted, it’s interesting to see what kids now are completely taking for granted. (I mean, other than the internet, which is the obvious one.) Just being able to call a tow truck, for example. I remember running out of gas on the highway when I was 16, and I had to walk to the nearest overpass, scale my way over the fence and up to the road, then walk to the nearest payphone to get a friend to come bring me a can of gas. (Thankfully I remembered to bring change for the phone.)

Kaiserserserser
Kaiserserserser
16 days ago
Reply to  Andreas8088

As someone who started driving just before navigation became available on phones, it’s wild to think about people finding their way without some of these tools.

Like even at the very minimum, by the time I was driving you could print out some mapquest directions if going somewhere new and that seemed like a huge asset. Now I’ll be like “Hey I could go for some Chipotle, wonder if there’s one around here” and a few taps later I’ve got live step by step navigation.

On a recent vacation to an unfamiliar city I kept having the same thought of how the heck would this trip function pre-internet? Like not even just navigation to desired locations, even the locations I was going to I knew I wanted to go to because of the internet.

Or recently I had an experience like yours, but aided by internet. Car ran out of gas 10 miles from home. Pre-internet me would have had a similar experience to you. Post-internet me tried to call a friend who lived nearby and didn’t pickup, by the time he called back 5 minutes later I was already ubering to the gas station and I was gassed up and on the road again within like 30 minutes.

Data
Data
16 days ago

You pulled out a map from the glove box. If you were lucky, it was printed sometime in the last 20 years and some what current. I went to the state fair in Raleigh, NC way back around 1990. The one way streets threw me through a loop. I’m not sure they were clearly indicated on the map.

I remember using Mapquest; it was a game changer for sure when going somewhere unfamiliar.

Andreas8088
Andreas8088
16 days ago
Reply to  Data

Yeah, it really was. When mapquest came on the scene, I was all over it, and printing out directions. Road trips pre- and post-mapquest were very very different. And of course, as @Kaiserserserser mentioned above, now with the ability to just pull out my phone and LOOK at what’s nearby is crazy awesome.

I remember driving cross country with friends in the paper map days, and The Next Exit was amaaaazing to have on that trip. Especially since we were in a huge RV that wouldn’t fit in some places.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
14 days ago

As others have said you used a paper map. If you had a AAA membership you went to your local branch before your trip and loaded up on every conceivable map you might need. Maps were free to AAA members. Or you bought maps at gas stations along the way. Many gas stations posted copies in their windows for travelers to look at.

If you wanted Chipotle you looked for a local phone booth with a yellow pages and used your map to figure out a route or you asked a local where to go.

It was slow and rife with error but overall it worked.

Harvey Firebirdman
Harvey Firebirdman
16 days ago

*insert Bender neat gif here* damn would fit perfectly too

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