By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Remember that episode of “The Simpsons” in which Homer gets to design his perfect car? It didn’t turn out so well — but that doesn’t mean the new cars we’re getting are perfect, either. Here are a few features most don’t have — but probably ought to:
1) Warning buzzers for important gauges
Most cars have either gauges or warning lights for things like water temperature and oil pressure; few, however, team these important visual shout-outs with auditory ones. Result? It’s pretty easy to not notice a sudden drop in oil pressure or spiking water temperature for a few critical moments — by which time severe damage may already have been done. Wouldn’t it be nice — wouldn’t it be smart — if all important gauges and warning lights were hooked into buzzers that immediately called your attention to a developing problem? That’s how it works in airplanes. It ought to work this way in cars, too.
2) Wider-mouthed fill ports for underhood fluids
Most cars have a large opening on top of the engine someplace for adding oil; many don’t, however, have similarly large openings to feed the car other equally vital fluids, such as automatic transmission fluid. Instead, there’s a leeeetle tube with a diameter of about an inch or so that makes having a funnel on hand essential — unless you want half of each quart you’re trying to add to end up all over the engine instead of in the transmission. Why not make a transmission filler neck with a wider opening that would make it a snap to just pour in fluid?
3) Flow-through vents in the cabin
Cars built before the mid-1970s often came with a system of vents that could be manually opened and closed to allow outside air to flow into the car without any power assist from electric motors. It was a kind of poor man’s AC — and actually quite effective at keeping the car’s interior cool at highway speeds without having to roll down all the windows and enjoy the hurricane-style crosswinds. But they stopped offering this simple, effective system — and replaced it with ever more complicated “climate control” AC systems. Nothing wrong with AC, but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to stay cool without having to use a power-robbing (and gas-sucking) accessory all the time? (And which will still provide some cooling effect in the event the AC system or electric blower motor croaks out on you?)
4) Instant-on supplemental heaters
Decades ago, VW offered a supplemental gas-fired heater to warm up the otherwise frigid (and drafty) passenger compartment of the Old Beetle. It didn’t work especially well — but the concept was interesting. Instead of using a gas heater, though, why not fit a car with an electrical space heater of some kind that would begin to warm up the car’s interior immediately? Wouldn’t that be better than having to sit there with your teeth chattering and your digits going numb for the 5-10 minutes it takes for the engine to warm up enough to provide heat? It’s an option people who have to suffer through harsh winters would probably be very interested in!
5) Consumer-replaceable body panels
The Bricklin SV1 of the ’70s and Pontiac Fiero of the ’80s pioneered two worthwhile ideas that have disappeared down the rabbit hole: Color-impregnated and “pop on/pop off” body panels that almost anyone could replace after a minor fender-bender accident. The SV1’s color impregnated body panels (which were made of composite plastic) never required repainting; if the finish dulled, you just polished the surface — and it looked like new again. The Fiero also had plastic panels that were both flexible and dent-resistant and which could also be easily removed and replaced with basic tools when damaged. In both cases, less work for body shops — which may explain why you can’t buy new cars with such features anymore.
6) Small trash receptacles
Cupholders are commonplace; but how about a place to put the empties? Most cars don’t have a dedicated trash space — so we just toss junk onto the floor, where it rolls around (and sometimes spills). In the ’70s and before, in contrast, many cars offered small (and easily removable) trash cans that were nicely fitted to the lower footwell kick panel or some such place. You could put your junk in their — and later on, easily empty the contents. This system helped keep a car’s interior clean and tidy — and avoided the disgusting hassle of syrupy spills in the console storage space and loose wrappers stuffed into the glovebox or hiding under the seats.
7) Factory-fitted trickle charger hook-up
Batteries are not cheap — and many die prematurely, especially if they’re in cars that sit for days or weeks on end without being driven. They gradually lose their charge — because there is always a slight draw of current even when the vehicle is off. Savvy motorists use a trickle charger to keep their vehicle’s battery fully charged, automatically, at all times — even if the vehicle is left sitting for months. But you still have to buy the charger — and splice in the hook-up to the battery — on your own. Wouldn’t it be nice if the automakers offered new cars with trickle charge hook-up pre-wired? Even better, with a trickle charger system already in place, so all you’d need to do is plug the car in to a household outlet whenever you knew you’d be leaving it unused for more than a couple of days?