1979's Joystick-Controlled Car of the Future Was Pretty Retro Even Then

This automotive concept sketch from 1979 predicted a future where car interiors would resemble an airplane's cockpit. But while this must have looked decidedly cutting-edge at the time, the inspiration, in a way, was pure nostalgia.

Automotive designers began mimicking airplanes as far back as the 1930s, when Chrysler used Orville Wright’s wind tunnel to give aerodynamic styling to its Airflow sedan. But the undeniable heyday of aeronautically inspired automobiles was the 1950s, when jet age designers clapped fins, wings and air scoops on even the most mundane vehicles. That fad had long passed by January 1979, the date stamped on this car interior concept drawing. So what led the artist to sketch a cockpit-style design?

While little is known about this drawing's provenance, we can assume by the LeBaron name that this was a Chrysler design exercise, official or otherwise. In place of a wheel, steering is handled by a gullwing pod that’s cousin to an airplane’s joystick. Shifting and other controls, mounted right on the joystick, fall readily to hand. (One assumes that, in this futuristic car, tight turns wouldn’t require turning the steering pod more than 90 degrees.) On the dashboard, we see a digital speedometer (cutting edge at the time) and a surprisingly GPS-like navigation readout. A plethora of buttons hints at the many functions the driver would control, though the fact that they’re unlabeled tells us the artist may not have known exactly what these functions would be.

What’s absent from this drawing is just as telling as what’s present. The joystick makes no concession for an airbag, newly feasible when this sketch was penned. The two indispensables of modern motoring, cup holders and storage cubbies, are nowhere to be seen. Only two vents for heat or air conditioning are visible, and unless some of those unlabeled buttons control the radio, passenger chit-chat seems like the only in-car entertainment this setup provides. Compare this to today’s cars: Our interiors are overrun with airbags, glove boxes, air conditioning vents and touch screen stereos, but we steer and shift with the same wheels and levers as we did a century ago.

So the artist’s predictions on the future of driving were mostly wrong, or at least incomplete. Still, why the airplane-inspired design?

By 1979, U.S. automakers had endured two oil crises and an onslaught of Japanese competition that’s never really subsided. The cheap fuel and exuberant performance of America’s automotive heyday were far off memories; in 1979, Ford’s most powerful Mustang had barely over a third the horsepower of the 1969 model. Just a few months after this sketch was penned, President Carter delivered his infamous “crisis of courage” speech.

Perhaps the context of the era helps explain why the artist reached back to the old trick of modeling cars after airplanes. It's entirely possible that by lifting a technique from car design’s glory days, the designer sought to restore some of the wide-eyed automotive excitement that had since given way to malaise. As a prediction of our driving future, this sketch got it about as wrong as a drawing could. But as a commentary on the state of the automobile in 1979, the meaning couldn’t be more clear: what we need is a joystick.

Image: Scanned from an archival press illustration