Japanese Delights

Weird wipers, helium gas gyroscope-operated early navigation systems and a horny knob: welcome to Japan.

Image: Nissan Motor Company

For a westerner or gaijin, visiting a big city in Japan for the first time is at first a mildly confusing experience (as well as an often amusing one) filled with sensory delights in many senses of the word. Strolling outside the familiar surroundings of your internationally styled hotel, it doesn’t take long to discover that this is a different world; high tech and traditional values and customs go hand in hand, thereby creating a unique atmosphere.

If your hotel is located centrally, you will inevitably come across earsplittingly noisy(1) halls with row upon row of small vertical pinball machine-like contraptions (which, I learned, are a popular game called ‘pachinko’) played by mostly middle-aged Japanese. Eerily realistic plastic or resin replicas of dishes, including drinks, are displayed in front of restaurants (handy when the printed menu given inside is all in Japanese and bereft of photos) and the toilets often have elaborate control panels on the side, sporting an intimidating selection of buttons with Kanji and mysterious pictograms. Learning what most of them do by trial and error is guaranteed to create some unexpected results.

Traffic is busy, yet not chaotic, and the absence of noise in the shape of horns or sirens – as opposed to New York or Paris for example – radiates a calmness that is aurally at odds with what your eyes register, especially at night. As far as visual noise is concerned however – also best appreciated after sundown – the big Japanese city centres can run with the best of them with huge digital video screens on storefronts and displays everywhere, sometimes even on the side of trucks in traffic.

An environment such as this has at times also produced proprietary features or options on cars, sometimes too advanced for the times, sometimes just too gimmicky and, in one case, even sparking a nationwide controversy.

Images: goo-net-exchange.com and youtube.com

The intent was entirely honorable and neatly fitted the reputation for Japanese politeness, but Honda got itself in a spot of bother with a feature introduced on the Prelude MK2 introduced in late 1982. Cars like the Honda Prelude, the Toyota Celica and Nissan Silvia were popular among young men in Japan since they offered racy looks and a fair bit of performance to hopefully attract the attention of a potential partner, all without breaking the bank. So beloved were they within this segment of the population that they quickly gained the nickname ‘date cars’ in Japan.

The offending feature in question on the Prelude was a lever to flip the back of the passenger side’s seat forward to enable passengers to enter the rear seat which was situated on the driver’s side of said seat. Thus the driver could gallantly make entry and exit easier for his passengers without them having to lift a finger. However, the lever also enabled the seatback to be flipped flat rearward, and this raised suspicions that this possibility would enable those with less chivalrous intentions to flip their unsuspecting date rearwards and throw themselves on the helpless victim in one fell swoop.

The feature even gained a nickname itself too, skebenobu, which roughly translates as ‘horny knob’. Unconfirmed accounts of victims of the skebenobu started to circulate and a TV show even demonstrated how the trick worked so that ladies were made aware of the possible risks of dating a Prelude pilot. All this did not hurt sales of the Prelude in the end and the skebenobu affair went unnoticed outside of Japan. However, in later Prelude generations, a passenger wishing to enter the rear seat had to activate the seat mechanism themselves in the traditional manner again.

Image: theimportguys.com

Asked to name the possible locations for wipers on a car, the tally usually stops at three: windshield wipers, rear window wipers (even on the occasional three-box sedan), and on some cars and in some specific markets, headlamp wipers. In the heady days of late 1980s Japan, however, when there seemed to be no end in sight to the economic prosperity, domestic car makers tried to outdo each other by introducing a raft of optional extras to distinguish their wares from those of the competition. In reality, however, they were for the most part answers to questions nobody had asked and more a gimmick than actually useful. Two cases in point are the rear-view mirror wiper and side window wipers offered by Nissan and Toyota respectively for a brief period.

Nissan was first with the option of rear-view mirror wipers on its high-end Cedric Cima and Leopard models. As the name implies, it consisted of a tiny wiper driven by an electric motor and mechanism inside the rear-view mirror housing. The functional benefits were questionable as the rear-view mirror surface rarely gets very dirty anyway and heated rear view mirrors dispense with condensation almost as quickly. Unsurprisingly, it was rarely ordered and lasted just one year on the options list.

Image: Roadworkuk

Toyota decided to take a different approach and introduced side window wipers, available on the Chaser, Cresta and Mark II. Here too, the mechanism that operated the wiper was contained within the rear-view mirror housing. The wiper when dormant rested horizontally on a small extension where door and window met. It covered a corner about a third of the side window area since Toyota reasoned that having clean side windows was more effective in terms of improving rear mirror vision than just a clean mirror, which sounds vaguely plausible. Interestingly, there was also a nozzle fitted on each rear-view mirror that sprayed liquid onto the area to be cleaned when the system was activated. As with Nissan’s little mirror wiper, Toyota’s entry remained a fringe novelty and did not stay on the accessories list for long.

Image: youtube.com

These days, satellite navigation systems are more or less taken for granted but many – including your author – will recall the days before their arrival: consulting unwieldy and not always up to date maps or road atlases and, if that didn’t work out, stopping somewhere and approach someone who looks like a local to ask for directions. Not totally unexpectedly, the Japanese were first to introduce navigation systems for in-car use in 1981 but, given the technology available at the time, they were far from ideal in terms of accuracy and user-friendliness, and very pricy to boot, but it was a start.

Honda’s navigation system went by the futuristic name ‘Electro Gyrocator’. It was developed in collaboration with Alpine and Stanley Electric. The Electro Gyrocator did not rely on satellite data to determine its position, since GPS not yet fully operational. Instead, it employed a helium gas gyroscope to detect the direction in which the car was moving, while a bespoke servo gear attached to the transmission housing calculated the distance covered by the vehicle. With the information obtained from the direction and driving distance sensors, the Electro Gyrocator was able to calculate the approximate position of the car.

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The system was not able to provide exact turn-by-turn directions, but it was still a clever piece of kit. Tailor-made transparent maps had to be inserted in a slot and were then displayed onto a six-inch cathode-ray tube monochrome illuminated screen. The CRT display provided adjustments for brightness, contrast, position, display scale, and position. The Electro Gyrocator came with a marking pen to allow the users make the necessary indicators on the map, including the starting point.

Tipping the scales at a portly 9 kilograms, the Electro Gyrocator was offered as an option on the second-generation Accord from August 1981. It was very expensive, however, at almost 25 percent of the car’s purchase price, hence rarely ordered and was silently dropped from the options list not much later. Despite its commercial failure, the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) awarded Honda with an IEEE Milestone award in 2017 for the Electro Gyrator, recognising it as the first commercially available map-based car navigation system.

Image: youtube.com

Shortly afterwards, Nissan presented its ‘Drive Guide System’, available as an option on the Silvia and Skyline (the car in the lead photo of this article). A small display in between the speedometer and rev counter indicated in sixteen possible directions where to go and how far the car was from its target. Before setting off, the driver had to enter the direction and distance to the target.

The Drive Guide System used both a directional sensor and a velocity sensor. The velocity sensor was linked to the speedometer and the directional sensor measured the movements compared to the Earth’s magnetic field. Using the combination of these two inputs, a microprocessor continously calculated the distance and the new direction to drive in.

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The directional sensor was a very intricate piece of engineering: its core rotated continuously and used a photo sensor to measure the position of the core in relation to the car. At the same time, a magnetism detection coil was used to detect variations in magnetism: every time the core revolved inside this coil, a phase voltage was created. The difference between two phases could then be used to calculate the directional movement of the car. You might ask why Nissan didn’t simply use a compass: a compass is unsuitable as the car around it is a big chunk of metal that gets electro-magnetically charged while driving. To overcome any interference of the car’s magnetic field the directional sensor was mounted on a retractable ‘antenna’.

The performance envelope of the Drive Guide System, and this was admitted by Nissan’s engineers themselves, was limited and it really only worked well for distances of 10 kilometres or less. As an actual navigation system, it was thus mostly useless, but in large Japanese cities, with their intricate maze of countless narrow (and often nameless) streets and alleys the Drive Guide System made at least some sense.

(1) It’s the pachinko machines themselves that generate all that racket; in contrast, the people playing the game are without exception totally silent.

The author wishes to thank http://www.banpei.net for the technical explanation of the navigation systems.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

28 thoughts on “Japanese Delights”

  1. Good morning, Bruno. What a lovely article. I’m just a few weeks back from Japan and I really miss the country. You do hear emergency vehicles with their sirens, but only rarely. Indeed very different from New York. This type of silence as well as people not talking into their cellphones on public transport is greatly missed by yours truly. Another thing is that people don’t eat on public transport or on the streets. It’s wonderful.

    Back to cars. I was unaware of the horny knob on the Honda. I can very well imagine this feature raised caused some controversy in Japan. The wipers are another oddity, only surpassed by the wipers on the outside and inside of the Lancia Flaminia Berlina. The navigation devices are also new to me. Navigation systems clearly were a thing in Japan: wasn’t the Euros Cosmo the first car to have GPS fitted from the factory?

  2. Wonderful! The seats in the Prelude remind me of late seventies luxury Renaults. However, they didn’t feature a horny knob.

    1. For a very long time all Japanese two door cars had a horny knob.
      The lever for backrest adjustment ws also used for flipping it forward for rear seat access. After every use for getting in the rear seats the backrest had to be adjusted from new, something that was widely criticised in every test.
      The only new feature of the Prelude was that this lever was in the “inside” of the seat, accessible by the driver instead of on the side of the seat facing the door.

    2. Thanks Bruno, very entertaining.

      My 1994 Prelude didn´t have the “horny knob” (or “pervert level”), but frankly, seeing how cramped that ´lude was inside and the position of the handbrake, it would have been useless to me.

      This remembers me a popular ´80s spanish song called “Qué difícil es hacer el amor en un Simca 1000”, where the singer complained about the lack of reclining front seats in his base model 1000.

  3. Good morning Bruno. What an interesting collection of innovations. Mainly bonkers, of course, but I’m sure they were exquisitely engineered. Those wipers on the rear view mirrors are a lovely example of Japanese expertise at miniaturisation. The Drive-Guide system was, I would imagine, pretty much useless, but conceptually very forward-looking.

  4. I once read elsewhere that in Japan the rule was that the rear-view mirrors had to be visible through the wiper field, i.e. the area that the windscreen wipers clean. Hence the position of the rear-view mirrors far forward on the front wings.

    The wipers on the rear-view mirror or on the side window were probably attempts to comply with this regulation.

    Why this technical effort was made on some products is beyond me.

    1. The information on the swept area of the wipers and the rear view mirrors is correct. It was changed around 1986 when mirrors could be put where everybody else had them.
      Up to then there was a lot of peculiar legislation like the ‘kimono gap rule’ stating that there must be no visible gap between bumpers and bodywork to prevent kimono clothing from getting trapped there. That’s why Japanese cars had integral bumpers or rubber gaiters between bumpers and bodywork for a long time. Similar that LHD cars were not allowed to use public parking (because they were mostly US barges preferred by Yakuza members).
      Reminds me of the time in the early Nineties when eighty percent of cars sold in Japan were Kei cars and cars above two litres had negligible market share but US car makers complained that Japan was deliberately putting up trade barriers to keep their superior cars out of the market…

      Japanese car makers loved innovation (or what was perceived as such) for the sake of it. Think all wheel steering, computer controlled drivetrains, adjustable suspension systems.
      Most of the stuff was just a fashion item and disappeared after a couple of years.

    2. ‘I once read elsewhere that in Japan the rule was that the rear-view mirrors had to be visible through the wiper field’

      I read at DTW 😄

  5. Thanks Bruno. So much ingenious technology to such slight advantage. There is some argument in favour of side window wipers and it’s odd what becomes accepted practice and what doesn’t. Having owned a car over 20 years ago with a hugely effective heated front screen, I assumed all cars would be fitted with them in a short time. But, no. On all the vehicles I have access to, I still have to wait for the engine to warm and the fan to wheeze away before I can drive safely.

    I see that skebenobu already has a Dutch language translation, viezemannenhendel. Both words have a nice sound to them. This is where the English language’s reticence to produce portmanteau words lets us down. For understandable reasons, if you are looking for more illustrations of this device, I really don’t encourage Googling horny knob.

    But if that really was the reason for abandoning the central position for dropping the seat, that seems a pity. If you are the driver, bearing in mind the inconvenience of having to enter the rear of a two door car, swinging the seat forwards for rear seat passengers is surely the least the driver can do, and it’s a pain to have to reach over. So preferably one either side.

    1. An ignorant’s question:

      Why are not every DLO’s glasses heated?

  6. I think I remember my Citroen AX having seat back levers on both sides of the front seats so that it was possible to operate from the door or opposite seat. According to Google translate that would be a bouton corne.
    I definitely remember the mechanism failing on the drivers seat so that the backrest fell backwards, it’s not easy to drive like that!

    1. Yes, the backrest failed on my Mark 3 Cortina. I’d start my journey with it up, and it would gradually go to full recline. A friend who dabbled in restoration stripped the seat, repaired the mechanism and rewelded the seat frame, all for a pack of welding rods- bargain!

  7. “Two cases in point are the rear-view mirror wiper and side window wipers offered by Nissan and Toyota respectively for a brief period.” I think this is quite a nice idea. I would appreciate that feature.

  8. ‘Why are not every DLO’s glasses heated?’

    Why are not A pillars thiner, made of high strenght steel?

    Why are carmakers so focused on keeping you alive after a colision, but aparently not so much regarding such simple colision-avoiding measures as providing the driver the best-possible visibility available?

    And of course there are lots of computer-led colision-avoiding systems, all available at a price…

    …but if SAAB could make their skinny A and B pillars to maintain their 90 model shape unscattered when droped upside down from 7 feet height 40 years ago…

    … why are contemporaneous A pilars needed to boost triple that thickness?


    1. Sorry for butchering the english language

      I should write with the help of a translator.

    2. You’re quite right Gustavo. With all the money spent on secondary safety, it would be nice to see some more spent on primary safety, in particular visibility. I don’t know how many accidents are caused by people driving off on a rainy or icy morning looking through a tiny square in front of them, with no view to left or right, but it can’t be negligible. And as for A pillars, looking at the new Prius, with the A pillars so close to the driver’s head, the diagonal view must be awful. And my subjective view of the average Prius taxi driver is that they are already pretty dissociated. Of course all this involves extra cost and, until it becomes an issue, no-one cares.

    3. A-pillars have got thicker because they usually contain airbags.

    4. It’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it: making cars heavier, clumsier and more difficult to see out of, then mandating electronics to compensate for that, which make the car heavier, operation clumsier and occasionally more difficult to see out of (cameras instead of mirrors). Not to mention price. And fuel consumption. And resources wasted. Rare materials for electronics.

      When I read car reviews, I can only surmise that all these electronic nannies equal parts annoy and lull into a false sense of safety (with Tesla’s autopilot as an extreme example of the latter). How many accidents does that cause?

      Am I right in surmising that the horny knob controversy could have been prevented if the seat only folded forward and not backwards? Reminds me of this by the way.

    5. Gustavo, no problem! Your meaning is clear. Translators introduce their own mistakes. I frequent a Japanese site, and sometimes have to compare several translators to get what people mean.

  9. PS, your English is fine! You even translate measurements into English I see!

  10. Exercising my bad temper once more: 40 years ago, on 1982 a.c., W201 graced the world with it’s presence.
    It had a single wiper blade that reached uniformly most of the windscreen (I verified that last week with a neighbour of mine and is 190d)
    As a teenager, I viewed it as the future and thought that was the final answer to the incomplet windscreen sweeping of every such systems known to date.
    And I knew for sure that in the near future all cars would be thus equiped.
    But that was not meant to be.

    Oh Lord,
    won’t buy me
    a Mercedes Benz?

    1. Like its Sebaldsbrück predecessor, the last examples of which left the factory in 1961, the W201 190 was – in so many ways – too good for this world.

    2. And yet strangely Mercedes regressed to a ‘normal’ mechanism.

  11. And now to the bottom:

    Avoiding accidents doesn’t sell cars.
    Avoiding people getting killed on accidents does, because they will live another day…
    …and buy another car

    1. Another way to autononomous driving which according to Walter Röhrl is defined as such “autonomous driving means the passenger has shut up for fear”.

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