Home » The Switch To Floor Shifters Led To A Bunch Of Hilariously Bad Car Dashboards

The Switch To Floor Shifters Led To A Bunch Of Hilariously Bad Car Dashboards

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It’s not that often you can see, in a polished, finished product designed for public consumption, evidence of a designer genuinely thrown for a loop — exasperated, and, perhaps even giving up. When this happens, while some may see it as a design failure or flaw, I prefer to think of it as more as a peek behind the cold perfection we’ve come to expect from consumer goods. It’s a glimpse into a thought process and the peculiar set of restrictions that designer was working with, and under. It’s also a sobering reminder that, for reasons I still can’t quite fathom, dashboards caused (especially American) designers of the ’70s and ’80s all kinds of trouble. All kinds.

Am I being a little cruel? A little unfair? Maybe. But then I remember things like the hilarious crappery of 1980s Dodge Ram truck dashboards or what I want to talk about today, which is how when cars that started out with column-shifted automatic transmissions got floor-shifted versions, either manual or automatic, what to do with the little bit of dash space devoted to showing if you’re in P, R, N, D, or L really gave designers fits.

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Let’s just look at some of the solutions they came up with to solve this challenge! And, in case you’re not sure what I mean, here’s what I’m talking about:

Kcar1

When the shifter moves to the floor, again, manual or automatic, it doesn’t matter, the mechanical linkage that moved the pointer over the PRNDL indicator is gone, so that little panel needs to get filled with something.

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Chrysler took advantage of the extra area to helpfully remind you which wheels of your car were doing the work. Well, they just did this on their front wheel drive cars; I can’t think of any RWD cars that got a REAR WHEEL DRIVE panel on the dash.

Maybe this would be handy if you needed a reminder for what wheels to put snow chains on?

Chrysler really leaned into the FWD reminder on this panel, as it shows up on a lot of floor-shifted models, including, in truncated form, on the Dodge Caravan:

Caravan 2

 

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They didn’t have as much room to work with here, but the designers still felt it was important to let you know that the front wheels were doing the work! That’s the kind of information you want ready to go when you look at your instruments!

Let’s see what approaches GM took:

Buick Olds

GM tried a few approaches: blank, silver circles in some Buicks, a reminder of what kind of car you’re in in Pontiacs, and a nice, tidy rectangle in Oldsmobiles. For whatever reason, the Pontiac badge one doesn’t seem too bad, given everything.

Honestly, this is a tricky problem! If you’re stuck with the little panel, what can you do? Ford tried a whole bunch of ideas. Here’s how they dealt with it for the Mercury Maurader with a four-on-the-floor:

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Three Stars

 

Three little sparkles! All inside a nice silver frame! I suppose they could have tried a plug of the same textured black plastic, but they didn’t! Just making it disappear wasn’t an option. But they weren’t done:

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I really love this one, from a 1969 Ford LTD. This whole dashboard is pretty incredible, with this instrument cluster that wraps around the steering wheel, and even incorporates the radio far to the left, insuring that the driver and only the driver gets to decide what music everyone listens to. Music or maybe A Prairie Home Companion  blasted a full volume until everyone is shrieking, howling mess, begging for mercy.

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Oh, and if you were too cheap to spring for a clock, you had, at the far right, a really great example of a Nothing Gauge, calibrated to 12 points of nothingness. But, let’s not forget why we’re here, it’s for the PRNDL replacement panel right there in the center, which proudly wears a crown.

Ford has always enjoyed regal and heraldic imagery for some reason, so I’m not too surprised to see a crown here. This royal motif continued on the floor-shifted Fairmonts and Zephyrs, too:

Fairmont Zephyr

Here we have a whole crest, complete with crown and shield, encircled by a wreath! That’s what you need to see on your dash, front and center, the crest of the Royal House Of Henry, inspiring you to carry on!

Ford didn’t just deal in sparkles and heraldry for their PRNDL-fillers. On ’80s-era F150s they took a more geometric approach:

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F150

Yes, they replaced the PRNDL indicator with a rectangle gauge! Now you can, at a glance, check the status of your rectangle! It was even illuminated, so your rectangle’s condition could be clearly noted even in the dark of night!

Also, there’s another great Nothing Gauge there in that upper image. It definitely feels ecclesiastical, somehow, like a bible entering hyperspace or a wall sculpture on the side of a modernist Lutheran church.

I’m sort of mocking here, but the truth is I’m not sure I’d have really been able to come up with anything better; it’s an awkward space to deal with, and it has to be there, because no one is springing for an entirely new injection-molded instrument cluster here. I’m sort of surprised no company thought to put a FUEL FILLER –> message in there or something else useful. Mail trucks always had a LOOK BEFORE BACKING decal on their dashes; that wouldn’t be a bad message to have, right?

I like the idea of still trying to do the same job as before by saying something like CHECK GEAR LEVER ON FLOOR or if it’s a manual 1-2-3-4- BUT IN AN H or something like that.

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Honestly, now that I think more about this, maybe sparkles or crowns really aren’t so bad?

(Thanks to The Bishop for sourcing images!)

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John Patson
John Patson
1 month ago

Only three stars? If I want to be a general I want at least four… On a more scary note those Ford shields with wreaths are very similar to Nazi party insignia.
And we all know about Ford and the Nazis.

Mark Kress
Mark Kress
1 month ago

Maybe a random uplifting message like “You’re an awesome person” or a timely quote like “Frankie says relax”?

Turbotictac
Turbotictac
1 month ago

More importantly, why does that Caravan have a boost gauge?

Jatkat
Jatkat
1 month ago
Reply to  Turbotictac

‘cuz you could get them with a turbo, during Chryslers “shove a turbo in everything” period.

Turbotictac
Turbotictac
1 month ago
Reply to  Jatkat

Interesting…surprised they added a gauge honestly

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
1 month ago

Our Chevy celebrity wagon I remember from my youth (86 maybe?) was column shift, had proud EFI badging, but also had a painful difficult to operate (for a child) hazard switch. The 93 grand voyager that replaced it was like a spaceship and also column shift, but still had “front drive” badging.

In adult life I purchased a cheap 2000 ranger 3.0 XLT manual. Not sure what XLT involved, since it was manual doors, windows (no rear slider), and cloth seats. It didn’t even have a tachometer, so my favorite upgrade (shout out to the DIYs on therangerstation forum!) was swapping in a gauge cluster with a tach. It was surprisingly easy to swap over the odometer between clusters (pre digital), and calibrate the Speedo gauge needle. I was left with the prndl space to fill and really wanted to put something cool in there, but ended up just tossing in a “ranger” badge.

OCS-BN
OCS-BN
1 month ago

Quiz question: What’s this?

The comments section’s equivalent to a nothing gauge.

Space
Space
1 month ago

Hey Torch, what was the last car to have “unleaded fuel only” on the dash?

SoCoFoMoCo
SoCoFoMoCo
1 month ago

The wraparound dash on the 69 LTD is a work of art. If you have anything bad to say about it, you’re a bad person.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
1 month ago

Modern cars often have PRNDL in the dash for the floor shift. My 2016 Mazda has an electronic display in the speedometer the shows the gear selected and sport mode.

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
1 month ago
Reply to  Slow Joe Crow

My mum’s 2009 Volkswagen Polo has same thing…

Mike B
Mike B
1 month ago
Reply to  Slow Joe Crow

My 2013 4Runner has this too.

Rubbit
Rubbit
1 month ago
Reply to  Slow Joe Crow

Ditto for the 7th Gen Accord. 03-07.

Carlos Ferreira
Carlos Ferreira
1 month ago

I would have enjoyed even more obvious facts about the car, like a badge that says ‘Dashboard’ or ‘Combustion Engine Propulsion’, in the vein of the cult classic Police Squad series where props were labeled.

Adrian Clarke
Adrian Clarke
1 month ago

Oh I don’t know, hang around here long enough and I’d put out money on you seeing a designer genuinely thrown for a loop — exasperated, and, perhaps even giving up.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
1 month ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Why no more discussions on wheel size isnnit then? 😉

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