Home » Why The Pontiac Grand Prix’s ‘Idiot Lights’ Were The Dumbest Of Them All

Why The Pontiac Grand Prix’s ‘Idiot Lights’ Were The Dumbest Of Them All

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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.

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Dashbrochure

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:

Gauges Idiots

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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.

Gp Gauges

 

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.

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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.

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My brain hurts.

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WalmartTech
WalmartTech
9 months ago

Every time I’ve driven my dad’s 2009 Silverado GM actually did something clever in the instrument cluster, whenever the low fuel light comes on, it was actually made to where the gas pump symbol in the fuel gauge would glow, drawing your attention to the gauge itself; I’m surprised that they didn’t do that for all the the gauges in the up level cluster (fuel, temperature, oil, and voltage) to supplement the Driver Information Center messages.

Oldskool
Oldskool
9 months ago

Idiot lights. To me it’s because they’re idiotic in principle. They only illuminate after you’ve got a serious problem. When you’ve got a dead charging system, little to no oil pressure, or are on the verge of overheating.

In my opinion all cars should have full gauges, and whether or not the driver cares to use that information is up to them. I bet it would cut down on warranty claims. Then again it would cut down on parts and new cars sold so who knows.

Every car I get, I swap in a full gauge package if it doesn’t have it already.

Highland Green Miata
Highland Green Miata
9 months ago

What about the little halo of idiot lights around the Pontiac logo in the very center of the dash? Were those lit up too?

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
9 months ago

“a logical conundrum of sorts”?

Like a picket sign, on a cross cut 1×2 driven deep into my front lawn that reads “If removed, please replace.”

Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
9 months ago

“For more information, please reread this poster.”

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
9 months ago
Reply to  Balloondoggle

Written large?

Jerry Thomas
Jerry Thomas
9 months ago

I have a 1986 Pontiac Pariesienne base instruments and the idiot lights are in a circle beside the speedometer and illuminated with everything else. It IS weird to illuminate idiot lights! Wish we could upload pics

Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
9 months ago

> 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

My understanding is that they’re called idiot lights to alert the idiot driver that they need to do something basic, like make sure there’s oil in the car, before driving much further.

Beceen
Beceen
9 months ago

to me they’re idiot lights becasue having them illuminate actually means that, for instance, your car doesn’t have enough oil, so adding it now will not make big difference, as the damage is already done…

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
9 months ago

Well it probably doesn’t happen often but I drove my JH from BHC AZ down to the border to purchase a hardtop. Great trip spent hours talking to a guy who had 8 JH cars and 9 Hardtops. Took me 2 years to get him to sell. Well no problem going down but I don’t get out of town before failure. I called him up he bypassed the electric fuel pump fuse. But yeah 4 hours behind. In the desert at nite you see nothing. It is here I realize I have no dash board lights. So got lost passed the AZ turnoff end up in CA town has 2 businesses a great diner and a guy who has many gas cans for idiots who run low so $5 a gallon. I bought 10 gallons because I don’t know how much gas I have. Well enuf to get to a CA hotel. Next morning fill up and got home. The best I can explain it is what I think was a modern rod Sterling trip where friends breakdown and are held hostage by tweedledee and tweedledum and I think Dan Aykroyd. Excuse me if my experimental pharmaceutical is confusing. If you know the movie please let me know. Acid is a great trip.

Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
9 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

WTF are BHC and JH

Jerry Thomas
Jerry Thomas
9 months ago

I’ll guess Jensen Healy, Bullhead City Arizona

Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
Paint-Drinking Thundercock Harvey Park
9 months ago
Reply to  Jerry Thomas

This confirms my suspicion Mr S is Dave!

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
9 months ago

TT Dave? Nice sleuthing Mr. Park…

Do me next.

I’ll give you a hint you already know.
I was once ”PPS” before that I was “GPS”.

Who am I?

Last edited 9 months ago by Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Jerry Thomas
Jerry Thomas
9 months ago

Googling suggested Juvenile Hormone. Now I really wanna know what jh is lol. I’m bored

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
9 months ago

Jensen Healy, Bullhead City, Arizona duh. But what the fuck is WTF?

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
9 months ago

Had to think twice you got me.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
9 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

“Nothing but Trouble”.
It’s a terrible movie, sober or insane.

Cayde-6
Cayde-6
9 months ago

it actually transcends that to become something that has an almost Zen-like, one-hand-clapping sort of paradox

Anyone who thinks that is a paradox has never been hit with an open palm on the ear. Or read Terry Pratchett’s Soul Music.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
9 months ago

They are illuminated because it looks cool. They need no other reason. My ’66 Thunderbird’s dashboard lights up in green at night and everything that can be illuminated is, and it looks like a spaceship control panel at night because of it. Is it necessary? No. Is it cool? Yes!

As a side note, the Grand Prix’s grille reminds me a lot of the 1950s Packard grilles, to the point where I want to modify one to use a Packard grille, badging, and V8 just to confuse old guys at car shows. Packard would’ve thrived in the 70s.

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