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.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

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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Titillating Bustline
Titillating Bustline
4 months ago

My Father had a ‘78 LeMans with that same dashboard. Replete with the red lights of death.

As a newly licensed driver, I spent an inordinate amount of time pestering people at various dealership parts counters trying to figure out how to upgrade to real gauges.

This was when parts diagrams and catalogues were published in multi-thousand paged tombs. Or sometimes on microfiche.

There was no internet or mainframe database to query from.

In school, we were still using punched cards and a 300 baud modem.

Needless to say that I did not figure it out. But resolved to always factory order my own cars with the optional gauge package.

And BTW, the gauge faces went from aluminum to black for the 1979 model year.

Harvey Park
Harvey Park
4 months ago

> tombs

Tomes?

Tombs are holes where you store dead people. Rhymes with fumes.

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
4 months ago

“The Idiot Light Paradox”

Jason, Jason, Jason…
“Paradox by the Dashboard Light” was right there!!! RIGHT THERE!!!

Delta 88
Delta 88
4 months ago

If this isn’t COTD then there needs to be a mutiny

Harvey Park
Harvey Park
4 months ago

Now you know what Jason won’t do for love

1961ford
1961ford
4 months ago

Stop right there!

SoCoFoMoCo
SoCoFoMoCo
4 months ago

Given that this is the same company that saw no problem with fixed rear windows in sedans and wagons, this should come as no surprise.

Urban Runabout
Urban Runabout
3 months ago
Reply to  SoCoFoMoCo

I just watched a re-run of a 1st season Magnum PI episode where the fixed rear window in a Malibu wagon were apparently removed by the production crew to make it appear that the rear window was rolled down as the front one was – because lighting and dialogue inside the car from the vantage point outside the driver’s door.

Last edited 3 months ago by Urban Runabout
Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
4 months ago

It costs less to just build all the IPs with lights than it does to figure out which individual cars have gauges and which ones have idiot lights.

Bob Boxbody
Bob Boxbody
4 months ago

Growing up, we had a Dodge station wagon which had a spot for an analog clock, but there were no hands because my dad hadn’t gone for that option.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
4 months ago

Somebody in Procurement had a brother-in-law who sold lighted gauge housings.

DialMforMiata
DialMforMiata
4 months ago

But when the light does light up in its illuminated bezel I bet it’s glorious.

Ben
Ben
4 months ago

In this case they were called idiot lights because every time you looked at them you felt like an idiot for not shelling out to get the gorgeous real gauges.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
4 months ago

You should also cover the 60 watt bulb they put in the glove box so you could bake tiny cakes when you were driving.

LTDScott
LTDScott
4 months ago

Hey at least they separated the function of the temp and oil pressure lights. On my ’85 LTD they combined both functions into a single red “engine” warning light.

So when it illuminates you’re left wondering if your car is overheating or losing oil pressure.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
4 months ago
Reply to  LTDScott

It was a Ford, so yes.

Brad Lefton
Brad Lefton
4 months ago

yet another tortured intellectual. Keep funding your HSA plan. Latent tax-free therapy sessions will be welcomed.

Richard Truett
Richard Truett
4 months ago

What’s even more stupid is that by 1978, the generator had been gone for, what. 15 years? So, instead of “GEN” the idiot light should have said “ALT.”
But those aren’t called idiot lights for nothing…

Nycbjr
Nycbjr
4 months ago

We had a ’83 GP, I believe it had full gauges so never noticed this “feature”, but I agree with the rest, prolly just a cost thing, easier to have the illumination for production line

Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
4 months ago

I was always told that it was called an idiot light because it worked for idiots who would never read a proper gauge. Hence the addition of idiot lights to gauges in many cars.
Gauges that act like idiot lights came about because people would bring their new car back to the dealer when the oil pressure gauge dropped when the engine was hot. Virtually all Ford oil pressure gauges from the last 40 years are really idiot lights,

FiveOhNo
FiveOhNo
4 months ago

“My brain hurts.”

Every good Torch article has this effect.

Stacks
Stacks
4 months ago

I mean I guess when it’s dark it’s nice to see what’s not wrong, to the extent that the idiot lights can tell you that.

My actual guess is that the fuel gauge had to be illuminated, and it would’ve been extra trouble in assembly to UNilluminate the others while leaving that one lit up.

05Mil Machine
05Mil Machine
4 months ago
Reply to  Stacks

Yes, they probably used the same gauge housing and printed circuit for all trims. Cheaper and easier that way. It does produce a fun byproduct though.

JDS
JDS
4 months ago

So there was an idiot light light? Suppose it malfunctions. What then? Pontiac should have included an idiot light light idiot light, y’know — just in case.

Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
4 months ago
Reply to  JDS

Old BMW motorcycles used the alternator light circuit to activate (excite) the alternator coil. So, If the alternator not working light burned out, the alternator would not work.

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
4 months ago
Reply to  Mr. Canoehead

Alright now my head actually hurts. You’re describing an idiot light designed for, and by, idiots.

Harvey Park
Harvey Park
4 months ago
Reply to  Mr. Canoehead

Assuming it’s true, that’s hysterical. The kind of thing Joseph Heller would have included in Catch 22.

Paul B
Paul B
4 months ago

I very much like those vents being sized and positioned to align with the gauges.

Spikedlemon
Spikedlemon
4 months ago

I think we’ve all been in a vehicle and looked at a gauge, like an un-labeled ‘engine’ or oil or coolant temp gauge, and wondered what to do with this lack of information.

Beasy Mist
Beasy Mist
4 months ago

My aunt had a 1980 which was functionally the same as a ’78 and I think it was a base model. It definitely had the sea of dash holes with nothing but idiot lights in it. It had a pleasant two-tone paint job, maroon on the bottom and tan on the top – which crazed like a ceramic vase maybe 2 years after she bought the thing. I mean all over the maroon part of the car was a network of spiderweb cracks.

It also had an 8-track player that was accessed by pushing the cartridge in where the radio dial was. The downside to this is that the radio dial was barely ever legible.

Harvey Park
Harvey Park
4 months ago
Reply to  Beasy Mist

I propose “maroon lights” as a synonym for idiot lights.

Scoutdude
Scoutdude
4 months ago

You should be happy that they offered simulated gauges in the first place and that was only possible IF they filled those same holes with the idiot lights on lesser versions.

They are lit up for several reasons. Since they used the same basic pieces for both versions the holes for the lights were there and it would be more time consuming on the assembly line to have to determine which holes on the cluster in front of them right then, which locations needed dummy plugs and which ones needed holders with bulbs in them.

The biggest reason however is that the dash would look horrible at night with the clock lit up and the ones surrounding it be dark. That would lead to a lot of customers complaining that some of the dash lights were burnt out in their brand new car.

So yeah it is one of the best clusters from the era because they did allow you to have gauges, if you were willing to spend the money. A lot of cars didn’t have that option.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
4 months ago

I will say though, materials quality aside, that is a handsome looking gauge cluster, provided it was optioned with actual gauges

JDE
JDE
4 months ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

the real treat there is that the square panel does unbolt from the outside, so adding your own gages seems exceptionally easy, and the light spoken about here, might actually illuminate the aftermarket gages so the crappy ones that come with gages do not have to be hooked up.

JDE
JDE
4 months ago

I would be interested to know if they were truly individually luminated or if perhaps this cluster like many back in the day had 1 or 2 lights placed behind the gauge face and the light we saw was just what flooded over to the gauges?

If so, this was probaby to save a SKU on the gauge box as covering the slots would be a waste as well.

Scoutdude
Scoutdude
4 months ago
Reply to  JDE

Good point, definite possibility that all four a lit by one light bulb in the center.

LTDScott
LTDScott
4 months ago
Reply to  JDE

I bet you’re right.

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
4 months ago

I’m about 99% sure that the “squarebody” GM trucks from ’73-87 (or so) did the exact same thing. In fact, this Grand Prix cluster has an overall very similar design to the C/K trucks.

UnseenCat
UnseenCat
4 months ago
Reply to  Eggsalad

Came here to say exactly this. I distinctly remember this on the squarebody trucks.

I had one with some issues with the oil pressure gauge reading all over the place, but behaving for a while if you smacked the top of the dash housing above the flaky gauge. It also had a couple of intermittent dash lights. One day when I had the time, I pulled the dash apart to see what might be the matter. All of the gauges and lights connect to a big, flexible printed circuit board. behind the dash fascia, which also plugged into a big card-edge style of connector attached to the wiring harness. All I had to do was disconnect things one-by-one and clean the dust and grime out of the contact areas, and the oil pressure gauge and all the lights started working perfectly again.

In a bit of classic GM being, well, classic GM — the instrument panel circuit board was one standardized part. It could be assembled, complete with all the gauge illumination lights, and put into stock as-is. The gauges could be populated on it in a separate operation based on orders or stocking requirements. It kept the base part standardized, and probably made repairs/replacements for faulty gauge or light modules easier and cheaper. Not a bad way to do things from a production economy standpoint. The types of connectors on the panel were actually rather advanced for their time — and GM had been doing it that way since at least the early 70s. I do kind of enjoy wrenching on some of those 70s-80s GM designs. If you get to know them, it’s easy to develop a sort of grudging respect for how they managed to cut cost (And sometimes manage to be extremely cheap!) while building vehicles which achieved cockroach-like levels of durability. As the saying goes, GM cars from that time could “run like crap for longer than other cars would run.)

Drew
Drew
4 months ago

Zen-like, one-hand-clapping sort of paradox

I believe you’ll find the great philosopher Bart Simpson found a perfectly cromulent solution to this “paradox.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6YSfEKMeC8

But, yeah, I don’t know why they’d illuminate the housing for a warning light. That is super counterintuitive. Make it as dark there as possible until the light tells you something is wrong.

Last edited 4 months ago by Drew
AssMatt
AssMatt
4 months ago
Reply to  Drew
Drew
Drew
4 months ago
Reply to  AssMatt

Oh, that’s a good addition here!

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