Transitions : Car Interiors as They Turned Plastic

This thread looks at a period of transition as injection moulding, safety legislation and changing taste in colours acted to markedly alter how car interiors looked. The late 70s was the period when the dashboard became seen as an integrated whole rather than a set of items screwed to a bulkhead. Of course, Citroen´s SM got there in 1971 but did it without injection moulding on the scale possible in 1981.

In this article I examine the change-over from metal and glass to all-plastic interiors that occurred in the mid 70s.

1971 Morris Marina interior. Spacious and simple.
1971 Morris Marina interior. Spacious and simple.

This thread looks at a period of transition as injection moulding, safety legislation and changing taste in colours acted to markedly alter how car interiors looked. The late 70s was the period when the dashboard became seen as an integrated whole rather than a set of items screwed to a bulkhead. Of course, Citroen’s SM got there in 1971 but did it without injection moulding on the scale possible in 1981.

This little corner of DTW shows photos of unusual colour-ways and comparison photos showing the old-school and new school interiors. Car which straddle the period such as the R20/30, R18 and Volvo 300 series (shown in posts below) are of especial interest as the designers had to retrofit a new aesthetic to an old architecture whereas the 1981 Ford Sierra had simultaneously a new body in white and the latest interior concepts (form and production methods).

We’ll start with a car from 1972, the Triumph Dolomite, our reference “old school dashboard”. Note the flat shape of the dashboard and how much of it is made from that familiar black, slightly squashy plastic that was an industry norm for a decade or more. The doors are flat too and cloth and wood seem to predominate.

The construction involved wooden or pulp-board panels which were covered in trim and clipped to the door. It’s worth taking a look at the dashboard of the 1971 Austin Marina. While it can be jeered at for its odd radio placement (facing away from the dashboard), the construction concept is about a decade ahead of most of the competition. Only Citroen were doing anything so different at the time. But we’ll stay with the main thrust of the chronology here and I’ll leave such outliers for another time.

1974 Triumph DolomiteS Sprint.
1974 Triumph Dolomites Sprint.

Next we turn to an Opel interior (the Commodore) which represents the zenith of the pre-injection moulding dashboard concept. Most of the mains parts do use this material, but in service of the older concept of the dash as several distinct entities attached to the bulkhead rather than an as a unified free-form unit of architecture.

1978 Opel Commodore
1978 Opel Commodore:  the old architecture

Then it’s time for a slightly later car. Time has been unkind to the memory of some of Adam Opel AG’s earlier work. In the early 80s CAR rated the 2.5 liter Vauxhall Senator higher than the the BMW 525 and, no surprises, Alfa Six. Georg Kacher considered the 1981 Opel Monza better value than a BMW635.

1983 Opel/Vauxhall Senator
1983 Opel/Vauxhall Senator
1989 Opel Senator interior: finally, it´s the modern idiom.
1989 Opel Senator interior: finally, it’s the modern idiom.

Here is a pair of Ford interiors (a Granada and a Scorpio) and a 1979 Renault 30 TX interior. Of the three 70s cars the Renault is the most obviously loser.

1981 Ford Granada
1981 Ford Granada
1985 Ford Scorpio: the new idiom
1985 Ford Scorpio: the new idiom

My search reveals an an apparently lower survival rate for the Fords than the Opels. The Renaults are even rarer but it has long been my contention that Renault have never built cars to be kept.

1979 Renault 30
1979 Renault 30
This is how Renault brought the 20 and 30 up to date. Thanks to Sam the Eagle for finding this one.
This is how Renault brought the 20 and 30 up to date. Thanks to Sam the Eagle for finding this one.

To put things in perspective, here is a Lancia Gamma dashboard. The design is perhaps from 79. And the eagle-eyed will note the cloth is after-market.

1979 Lancia Gamma
1979 Lancia Gamma

Peugeot unusually retained the large and medium scale forms of the (1976) 604 dashboard when revising it for the second series in c.1980. The black interior shown is the 1976 and the brown one is the 1982 version. One of the sustained criticisms of the car was the layout and overall form of the dashboard and it was odd that Peugeot didn’t bother to revise it more thoroughly.

What they actually did was as little as possible: all they wanted to do was use a different type of plastic in the series 2. But they still had to produce new tools for this. Although superficially similar, the 1982 dashboard is a different moulding. It’s an object lesson that material is as much a design choice as overall form and that the two are inseparable. The material you choose will affect the form and vice versa.

1976 Peugeot 604 interior
1976 Peugeot 604 interior
1983 Peugeot 604 interior
1983 Peugeot 604 interior

Photos in The “Peugeot 604 Of My Father” show a very modern digital dash was briefly considered.

Volvo carried over their 300-series bodies from the 70s to the 80s. So here we get to see their 70s interior design and early 80s interior design in the one body. Notice the whole form has increased in size, filling a bit more of the space between the gear stick and the radio/hvac.  The blue interior is from 1978. The grey one is dated 1986 but was introduced in 1982. You could tell from the colours which was the most recent!

1978 Volvo 343 DL
1978 Volvo 343 DL: not integrated
1982 Volvo 340
1982 Volvo 340: the new idiom on the old underpinnings

The 340/360 is a contender for forgotten cars. I don’t recall seeing one around here for ages, where I imagine they were very popular (I’m in Denmark). Also, there are very, very few images of the interiors of these cars. There is one for sale at the moment in Denmark (listed on-line) and has 21 for sale in its European-wide listing.

1978 Ford Escort
1978 Ford Escort
1978 Ford Escort Rally Pack
1978 Ford Escort Rally Pack

In 1978 Ford were offering two very different trims for their Escort, one a Rally Pack (with the brown leather) and one not. And here is the Granada in full-on Ghia trim from 1979

1979 Ford Granada Ghia
1979 Ford Granada Ghia

You’d have to agree it looks fine but try finding one.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

14 thoughts on “Transitions : Car Interiors as They Turned Plastic”

  1. Someone (Sam the Eagle) suggested that the 1979 Renault 30 interior was a bad example and that in 1980 they got the hang of plastic with a revised interior. But finding an image proved beyond me. This says something about the R30 that it´s such an unloved car that nobody could even be bothered saving an image of the thing for posterity. I can only say that the 1980 interior is actually very neat and professional in a medical technology/industrial design way.
    I hope to edit this strand to put in some kind of order. The original version was more a scrap book than an essay in chronological order.

  2. My father had a 1976 (I think) Renault 20 2 litre which (I think) he actually got on my advice but (I know) turned out to be rather a disappointing car, though spacious and comfortable. I never took a photo of the dashboard but (I remember) it was much like your photo of the 30 and never felt as though anyone had bothered with it much at all, unlike that of the original Renault 5 which seemed very distinctive at the time, although I’m sure it would seem quite ordinary now.

  3. I am struggling with the mess of this posting. I may eventually remove it and remodel it. The underlying concept is to show how car interiors evolved from the bolt-on slab to the elaborated landscape of plastic which is the norm. There are two steps in this. One was the conversion of old-school bodies-in-white to the new idiom during a mid-life face lift (the Volvo 300 is one example) and the other is the introduction of the new idiom along with a new bodyshell. The Opel Senator A (1978) to Senator B (1987) is an example of this.

  4. Hi Richard

    Picture of the 2nd generation R30 dashboard are rare but can be found, for example here:
    and here:

    Now I never said it was a masterpiece but it’s clearly from a different era and include such rare luxuries as controls on the wheel… and not much else.

    As for the rest of your piece, I’m surprised you mention the R25 which to my mind belongs to the 1980’s the same way as the Ford Sierra does. Care to explain your reasoning?

    Finally, sorry it took me so long to come and say hello here, but I’ve been keeping an eye on everyone’s effort here with great interest and enjoyment. Keep up the good work!

  5. Thanks very much for popping by and also for the nice source of images. I have added an R20 interior photo and, gosh, it is very neat and exactly as medico-tech as I thought it was. The radii are the key to this, slightly small and very tidily executed. I meant to write R20 in the introduction and have changed wording now you´ve drawn my attention to. I think the more I work on this post the more I´ll sharpen my understanding of the transitional period.

  6. Laurent. Nice to see you. Those Renault seats are very inviting, just like a 70’s Living Room – the ones on my Dad’s lower spec 20 were not. I was considering the big soft seats of a 70s Cadillac Eldorado the other day – once I would have laughed at them, now they look quite nice. Is that age, or just finally conceding that a lot of my ‘motoring’ time is spent standing still and they make more sense that a set of cut out Recaros?

  7. Hi Sean
    Like a 70’s living room indeed… That comment reminded of the seats in the CX around the same time which were definitely inspired by modern furniture, and not just leather-clad stuff – the cloth covered one also looked very nice:

    Incidentally, the search page for CX interiors shows how many different types they made over the years:

    No doubt Richard will find something to say about the dashboards too…

  8. Laurent. As it happened, after the Renault my Dad then got one of my better recommendations, a Series 1 CX Prestige with very fine leather seats, together with separate footrests for back seat passengers. That was very comfortable though, regrettably, I never travelled in the rear, just sat there in the drive. The Cadillac interior I mentioned above has a comfy World Of Leather sort of look to it, but it wasn’t elegant and well designed in the way you point out the CX was.

  9. I realise now that this topic requires at least a serious pamphlet. The CX is a terrific example of pretty much every point I might want to make. I think I prefer the Mk1 interior which hides its indebtedness to the old idiom so well, while the last version tries too hard. The doorskins set the template for pretty much everything that happened in the late 80s and 90s.

  10. Interesting that there is no mention of the fact that the DS was ground-breaking in its use of plastics for its dashboard? Any reason for that, or is it just ground too well trodden?

    1. Indeed. The oversight is part ignorance and partly because I wanted to see how the rest of the industry did it. The post is a bit of a haphazard mess and ignores Japan and the US entirely. Also, it is ten years too late as the period 1960 to 1970 was more obviously the change over with some UK and Italian firms hanging on until the mid70s. They went bust.

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