The rapid progression of sensors in car interiors often evokes comparisons to previous technologies and pre-digital-era experiences. In-cabin sensing applications aiming to increase driver and passenger safety as well as the overall quality of the journey, are today’s common practice. Looking back prior to their fast evolution there are a lot of technical stages that had to be conquered with equally many in-cabin sensations.
It is hard to pick one specific overall example but when I think about car interiors and unforgettable sensations, spontaneously one car comes to mind: the 1960-1969 Chevrolet Corvair—a “compact” car with a rear-mounted, air-cooled, horizontally-opposed six-cylinder engine, rear-wheel drive, and a 108-inch (2,743-mm) wheelbase. It was the only American mainstream car that opted for such an unusual layout, and it became one of the most misunderstood cars of modern history. Related anecdotes are as popular and as many as the Corvairs produced (well over a million), and some of them are even flattering.
One of its uncommon features was a gasoline-powered heater, since in an air-cooled motor there is no hot water to run a heater. Therefore, General Motors added an extra spark plug to burn gasoline and create heat (and furnace odours, and reduced fuel economy). Moreover, there was an air-conditioning option with a condenser crammed over the engine providing cool air for the cabin, while the engine compartment would overheat even more than they already did without the A/C. These rickety HVAC provisions spurred a series of anecdotes related to smoking, cooking, or barbecuing over Corvair’s rear compartment.
The car was extremely light over the front wheels, as all the weight was in the back, so no power steering was needed. Obviously, the price to pay in the case of side winds was driving with both hands on the steering, focused straight ahead. The car was dangerous even by the standards of its time, prone to severe, sudden, tricky handling even with the unusually mismatched front/rear tire pressures—more so with the all-four-same pressures people generally used out of habit or laziness.
Altogether, Chevrolet’s Corvair offered a very unique pre-digital traveling experience counting on some of the most sophisticated sensors, in-cabin thermostats and pressure sensing devices: the buyers and drivers!