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