Sometimes I’ll be talking with our contributor, “The Bishop,” about random car minutia, and he’ll mention something that sticks in my brain and won’t leave. This is one of those times, because he told me about a feature of the 1978 Pontiac Grand Prix that’s so peculiar and counter-intuitive that I think it accidentally represents a logical conundrum of sorts. It’s not just bad instrument/dashboard/UX design, it actually transcends that to become something that has an almost Zen-like, one-hand-clapping sort of paradox. If you need something profound to contemplate regarding malaise-era American cars, I think you’re going to be very pleased.
Here’s what you need to know: In 1978, the Grand Prix had just been redesigned for its fifth generation; this meant it had an all-new dashboard. If you weren’t a cheapskate, you could get a trim level of the Grand Prix that had a full set of gauges — a whole panoply of little round ones that gleefully informed you of your coolant temperature, how many volts your alternator is cranking out, your oil pressure, and, of course, your fuel level.
Now, if you weren’t up to getting the SJ trim level or better, the base model Grand Prix still maintained the same dashboard layout and all its little round holes for your gauges, but instead replaces 75% of those gauges with simple idiot lights (this is a common term in the industry; they’re called idiot lights because they’re extremely simple and also not very useful), each of which gets to nest comfortably in the very generous space intended for the gauges:
Now, this is ridiculous, but not especially unusual for this era of car. Idiot lights that replaced actual gauges were certainly a thing, as were blank gauges that still had hashmarks or other meaningless markings. Hell, there were even fake gauges that looked like gauges but worked like on/off idiot lights! It was a wild time.
But what makes these idiot lights special and even paradoxical: They were illuminated, like the other dashboard gauges. Now, in lots of cars the idiot lights are in the main instrument cluster, and the whole is thing is illuminated. That makes sense. But this is different.
You see, here there are individual, separate little pods, each housing a warning lamp. The pods are illuminated at night, to show…what, exactly? That the warning light is off? When the TEMP or GEN or OIL lights illuminate, you see them, redly, precisely because they are no longer dark. This feels pretty fundamental.
And yet here we have lights that have other lights illuminating where they are, so you can, what, confirm that the lamp isn’t on? It starts to hurt my brain. Not only is having an idiot light housing illuminated useless, it’s actually slightly worse because is lessens the contrast of the actual idiot light when it is on, though I hardly think that matters much.
It’s more the very idea of it all that fascinates me: these pods are illuminated so you can see that the light inside is not illuminated? It’s like shining a flashlight at a desk lamp to be sure it’s not on. Or checking to see if something is dry by spraying it with a hose.
Could these be illuminated so you know where to look for your warning lamps? But you’d also know that if the warning light itself came on because you would, you know, see it.
I can’t think of another car off the top of my head that illuminated little pods with only lights in them, likely because the very idea of it is absurd.
These are lights with other lights lighting them up so you can see that there is no light. Until there is light.
My brain hurts.