Theme : Dashboards – be careful what you wish for

Today a certain homogeneity has swept over automotive design, both inside and out.  For a long time before this it was routine to mock the over-wrought interiors favoured by US luxury makers and below we have an example of what the target of this derision looked like.

1991 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham d'Elegance
1991 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham d’Elegance

These days, while recognising that the 1991 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham d’Elegance is most likeable as an ironic statement, it is true to say one could miss the diversity in automotive design that was available then. For some people this was precisely what they wanted.

1991 Mercedes S-Class: timelessly timeless.
1991 Mercedes S-Class: timelessly timeless.

Looking at the 1991 W126 Mercedes S-class and indeed the very similarly flavoured 1976 W123, the gulf between European and American tastes yawned wide. You can see

1976 Mercedes W123. Colour and trim may vary from model shown. All details were correct at time of press.
1976 Mercedes W123. Colour and trim may vary from model shown. All details were correct at time of press.

the tremendous consistency of Mercedes by comparing their 1976 and 1991 cars (remember they are from different classes). And this too has been called boring and staid. However, their vision of the dashboard won out. The 1989 Lexus LS400, inspired by

1989 Lexus LS400
1989 Lexus LS400

European design values, is as restrained as the Mercedes though it lacks the kind of obvious deep sheen of quality that the Mercedes possessed. In a way, the Lexus is very watery compared to the Cadillac. You might not like either, but they do represent choice.

2013 Mercedes S-class dashboard.
2013 Mercedes S-class dashboard.

To see how things have changed, take a look at the 2013 Mercedes S-Class, the 2015 Cadillac XTS and 2015 Lexus LS.  As a side comment, the Cadillac model range is made

2015 Cadillax XTS interior. Two thirds cheaper than an S-class.
2015 Cadillax XTS interior. Two thirds cheaper than an S-class.

up of a bewildering and meaningless set of three initial names e.g. ATS, CTS, and XTS. And note that these days Cadillac´s top car starts at $33,000 and the Mercedes at $94,000. The LS can be yours for a quite modest $72,520. Another point to note is that Cadillac´s top car is not a car, but an SUV, the ESV, which runs from $73,000. Interesting that.

2014 Lexus LS interior in its woodiest spec. Not as neat as the 1989 car, mind.
2014 Lexus LS interior in its woodiest spec. Not as neat as the 1989 car, mind.

That small point of cost aside, not so much separates the aesthetic sensibility of the cars (or indeed the truck), at least when one views the photographs.  However, the Lexus is now the outlier. If the ’91 Cadillac presented an excess of ornamentation, the Lexus is offering an excess of technology. It also seems to offer an excess of sloppily resolved junctions and joins.

2015 Cadillac Escalade "jet black"interior. It´s not a car.
2015 Cadillac Escalade “jet black”interior. It´s not a car.

Overall, the passage of time has flattened the differences in the approaches to the dashboard. Whether you climb aboard the Lexus, the Cadillac or the Mercedes those things you will not like or will love are not a function of the national characteristics of the companies but the individual values of the design teams involved. Though it is true these dashboards function quantitatively better than their 90s forebears, qualitatively something interesting has been lost. It is like turning up at a resort on another continent and finding nothing to surprise you except the temperature. Having jeered at the Americans and the Japanese and the Germans, commentators and customers now have what they want, seven types of the same. Was it really worth it?

1991 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham d'Elegance exterior. At least it was as big as its S-class peer.
1991 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham d’Elegance exterior. At least it was as big as its S-class peer.

Author: richard herriott

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

21 thoughts on “Theme : Dashboards – be careful what you wish for”

  1. Never mind the Caddy’s dashboard and mock franco-british name, that upholstery is something else altogether.

  2. Also good to see the 1991 S-Class could still be had with cloth seats. I guess that’s no longer an option and hasn’t been for a while.

    1. I’m with you on that one. Many a current car could be improved with seating modelled either on a Chesterfield sofa or velour redolent of a rapper’s tracksuit pants.

    2. Not too long ago, a W124 coupé was for sale here in Germany – and not your run-of-the-mill two-door E-class, but one factory fitted with navy velour upholstery! Someone must’ve been very much into velour to pay the substantial premium at a time when this option was already considered most outdated. It also speaks volumes about Mercedes of yore that they were still offering the option (albeit probably hidden on the second-to-last page of the brochure) at a time when in-car phones weren’t made of bakelite anymore.

  3. It’s funny how much mockery velour attracts. It’s the tension or fit of the material that matters. And I feel leather is over-rated. It’s cheaper than textiles as it’s a waste product of the meat industry. Semantically, cloth now should have a higher status as it requires the owner to have a clean lifestyle/environment or to be rich enough not to care about wear.
    I’d love to trace the influences on the style of the Cadillac. It’s vastly less futuristic than their 60s themes. Victorian furniture?

  4. There is something about the Fleetwood that makes me want to have a drive in it more than abuse it. And I can’t help but think that this is not just the past, but possibly the future. Imagine endless traffic jams. Imagine driverless cars. Wouldn’t you rather be relaxing on a comfy sofa than squeezed into a hard sports seat?

  5. With the benefit of hindsight, the Cadillac does seem inviting. It is American as a Citroen CX is French and Lancia Trevi Italian. Cars are sold on the basis (often, anyway) of imagined wants not needs. A car that catered for comfort will, until something really changes, will seem less desirabe than something themed around dynamism. Sports cars are just tracks-suits for obese people, aren´t they?

    1. ‘ Sports cars are just tracks-suits for obese people, aren´t they?’

      Very droll but, as much as I like a ‘bon mot’, I have to disagree. Track-suits are worn by obese people for comfort, not speed. Instead I’d say sports cars are jet packs for obese people.

    2. It´s a bit of both, isn´t it? Track suits express sportiness and serve to conceal a lack thereof. I would propose they just highlight the discrepancy between what the person is and what they do. Sports cars are often, but not always, intended to project an image of excitement and status by association with speed. Why else are they the preferred car of the young (who can´t afford them) and the middle aged who want to hide from the sagging realities of their stage in life! I´m middle aged as well now, I should say. 43 is middle-aged, right? For some reason saloons have appealed to me ever since I bought my first. I have no idea how I will express my mid-life crisis absent a wish for a sports car. Worrying!

    3. Maybe so, although I doubt the owner of the tracksuit is after anymore than an elasticated waistband in most cases.
      The sports car on the other hand is as much about (not so cheap) thrills as about the projected image, no?

      As for your conundrum, I’m afraid I can’t offer any suggestions at this stage – I have far too much on my plate with my own mid-life crisis.

    4. If an elasticated waist band was the essential requirement we would see fewer track suits. There are lots of elasticated trousers on sale. My own father has several pairs. They don´t have to be M&S cords. I am sure that other materials are available!
      There´s mindless consumerism and pointless affair, acts of destructive excess to choose from. Plenty of variants on that to keep up busy. I don´t suppose blogging counts.

    5. A ‘sports car’ is a prop really. Real sports you do need a degree of fitness to indulge in. Racing cars, at the highest level, demand extreme fitness. However, although you might be svelte and mega-fit and drive a sports car, it’s by no means essential. In reality, ownership does imply a fleetness that your body might lack. I’m aware of this when I park my 1100cc motorbike and my lower back creaks as I haul my leg over the saddle.

    6. It depends on how you define a sports car. A Clio RS isn’t really a sports car, but it is a car you might buy for thrills. A Caterham Seven is a sport car and thrills is the only reason you’d buy it. But between these live a huge swathe of ‘sports cars’ owned by people who lack the skill, time or geography to indulge in thrills, but buy them for other reasons. That’s fine, pootling round London in an MX5 with the top down is pleasant and harmless, but it is the same as wearing lumberjack boots to the design studio.

    7. ‘between these live a huge swathe of ‘sports cars’ owned by people who lack the skill, time or geography to indulge in thrills, but buy them for other reasons. ‘

      But they still get the occasional thrill, even if only from taking off at traffic lights faster than the other guys who are not even trying to race them…

    1. Now that looks like a very sensible dashboard. Is it the cigarette lighter that’s perched high up on the left-hand side?

  6. The American style seems to demand extra lines around borders. In architecture this is done by mouldings with several concave and convex grooves, for example. It looks nice in buildings but quickly becomes oppressive in car interiors.

  7. I’ve a strict preference for plush over leather and, as you can see, I’ve put my Alcantara where my mouth is. The problem, as you might notice, is that it needs more attention. As you’d possibly point out Richard, Bryan Ferry would have his valet iron such seats daily through moist tissue paper.

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