In a world of connectivity, infotainment and driver assistance systems, it’s easy to overlook some of the handy gadgets fitted to cars old and new.
Some have proved more useful additions than others, but all of those listed here were dreamt up with the notion of improving the life of car owners. We’ve listed them in chronological order and it’s informative to note how some early hand gadgets have stood the test of time to become accepted parts of driving life.
Rover P5B tool kit tray (1958)
It says something about Rover owners of the period that an easy to reach tool tray was deemed necessary in the stylish P5. With a walnut lid, it doubled as a useful picnic tray, but underneath was a well-stocked tool kit with pliers, spanners and screwdriver. All of this slid from its position under the dash to be within quick reach should the driver need to fettle the handsome saloon or coupe models. As the model developed into the P5B with V8 engine, Rover adjusted the tool kit to suit with an adjustable spanner.
Philips Auto Mignon (1959)
Chrysler was the first to offer an in-car record player, but competition between rival record labels meant you had a limited choice of discs to listen to. Philips caught the wave of popularity in pop music with the launch of its Auto Mignon in 1959 that allowed drivers to listen to their favourite 45rpm records on the move.
It mounted under the centre of the dash, used the radio if fitted as an amplifier and the record was fed into the front in a manner that set the template for cassettes and CDs for decades to come. The desirability of these players was sealed when all of the Beatles had them installed in their car, including George Harrison’s Jaguar E-type, and the company employed a young boxer called Muhammad Ali to help promote them (pictured).
Daimler DS420 sliding glass partition (1968)
Limousines have been fitted with fixed and sliding glass partitions from the earliest days of the breed, but the Daimler DS420 made a neater job of integrating this than most of its stretched saloon counterparts. With its purpose-designed coachwork, the DS could seat up to eight people including the chauffeur, though 903 were supplied in chassis-only form to be made into hearses. From its introduction in 1968, the Daimler proved a steady seller and 5043 were sold by the time production ended in 1992.
It maintained these sales by adapting to the times and the glass partition allowed the rear cabin to be turned into a mobile office and boardroom.
BMW glovebox torch (1976)
Who would have thought something as simple as a small torch would become such an important element of BMW ownership? Yet this handy little light sparks great loyalty among owners, and has done since it first started to be fitted in the mid-1970s in the 6 Series. The original idea was to provide a torch should the unthinkable happen and your BMW needed some attention at night at the roadside, such as suffering a puncture.
Now, classic BMW owners will spend amazingly large sums to acquire the definitive white Accu-Lux torch in working order with BMW roundel if their car’s original is missing.
Mercedes coupe seat belt presenter (1981)
The elegant pillarless styling of Mercedes’ flagship SEC coupe range presented a particular problem when it came to safety: where to fix the seat belts. With no B-post to fix them to, the belts were too far back for the driver or front passenger to reach behind for.
The solution was the seat belt presenter, which extends out from the upper portion of trim behind the doors so the occupants simply take the belt and clip it in. It’s become a trademark function of Mercedes coupes and never fails to impress and delight when seen in operation.
Mitsubishi Shogun lean indicator (1981)
If the chunky tyres, large ground clearance and square-rigged looks of the Mitsubishi Shogun didn’t tell you this was a serious off-roader, you also got a lean indicator built into the dash. It’s been a staple of the Shogun’s cabin ever since, though it’s joined the modern age by going digital in recent years.
Always positioned high on the centre console so it’s in easy sight of the driver, it looks more like an aeroplane’s altitude indicator and functions in a similar manner to warn if the car is nearing the limit of its lean when driving up, down or across a slope.
Alfa Romeo 90 in-dash briefcase (1984)
Legend has it the idea for the 90’s in-dash briefcase came about when a senior Alfa Romeo executive was clumped on the back of the head when his case flew off the rear parcel shelf during heavy braking. True or not, it was another unusual feature in a car that came with diagonally rising speedo and rev counters, and a self-adjusting front spoiler.
The briefcase stashed in the glovebox compartment, which meant forsaking that space, but the case was better built than the rest of the car.
Volvo integrated child booster seat (1990)
The 850 was a turning point for Volvo in so many ways. It took the Swedish firm in to a more rounded style, introduced front-wheel drive to the large car range and, of course, raced in the British Touring Car Championship. Another 850 innovation was the integrated child booster seat that sat where you’d normally expect to find a fold-down armrest in the back seat.
This neat solution allowed older children to use the three-point belt safely without the hassle of carting around a separate booster or child seat. Volvo followed this up with twin integrated boosters on the outer rear seats of the 1995 S40.
Saab 9-5 sliding load floor (1997)
Saab’s left-field approach to car design extended to the boot area of its 9-5 Estate that arrived in 1997. As if the wagon’s load compartment wasn’t already useful enough, Saab offered a sliding load floor so getting heavy items in and out was even easier.
It rolled smoothly on tracks and locked in position when inside the boot, though it did raise the floor height by a small amount to allow for the mechanism. An unusual and appealing feature to look for in any used 9-5 Estate.
Rolls-Royce umbrellas (2003)
A Rolls-Royce’s central role in life is to make its occupants as comfortable as possible and that extends to them getting in and out of the car. This is why there’s an umbrella slotted into each of the front doors in a bespoke holder. It pops out at the touch of a button, ready to be unfurled to keep you or the person being chauffeured dry.
That’s why the brollies are stored in the front doors as it’s where the driver has quick access to pop up the umbrella before opening the door for those enjoying the luxury of the rear seats. And because it’s a Rolls-Royce, you can personalise and match the colour of the umbrella to your car.
Citroen C4 air freshener (2004)
Citroen took the whole air freshener dangling from the rear view mirror idea to a whole new level when it launched the C4 in 2004. In place of the scented cardboard offering, you could choose from a range of perfumes that plugged into a dedicated slot in the dash.
Gently warmed by the ventilation system, the smell would then waft about the cabin to bathe you in your chosen fragrance. Owners could choose from a variety of different whiffs, from mango to Pacific sea breeze.
Honda Element Dog Package (2010)
Dog owners are a largely ignored section of the car-buying public, but not at Honda. It showed off the Element Dog Friendly at the 2009 New York Auto Show and, to many canine lovers’ delight, added it to the options list in 2010. The pack consists of a detachable ramp to help pooches into the boot area, which is lined with a padded, water-resistant crate. It also comes with an electric cooling fan in the boot to blow fresh air on to your hound.
You also got a special bag to hold collar, lead and poop bags. In the main cabin, unique dog bone pattern mats and seat covers were supplied and there were even exterior dog’s paw badges included in the $995 (£750) price.
Skoda ice scraper (2013)
Skoda’s Simply Clever ethos could be dismissed as marketing puff but for the fact there are many touches incorporated into its cars where it works. Prime among these is the transparent green-tinted ice scraper that lives inside the fuel filler flap.
Not only does this make it easy to access on chilly mornings rather than rooting around in the glovebox when you want to clear the windows of ice, it also means the wet scraper has somewhere to go back to that won’t soak the car’s interior. The centre section of the scraper also doubles as a magnifying glass, making it easier to read the tyre pressure sticker placed inside the fuel filler flap. Very clever...
Jaguar Activity Key (2016)
As many modern key fobs have become more like tablets or smartphones, Jaguar came up with the simple idea of doing away with the need to carry one at all. Enter the Activity Key, which looks like a fitness watch and is worn in the same manner. You keep the normal key fob in the centre console storage box and lock the car in the usual keyless manner.
When you return to your car, you just tap the Activity Key on your wrist against the Jaguar badge on the boot to unlock the car.
Citroën C3 ConnectedCAM (2017)
Citroën was first out of the blocks with an integrated dash cam when it launched the ConnectedCAM in the 2017 C3 supermini. Amid the hullabaloo about being able to take snaps and share them with friends via social media, there’s a much more important function to the ConnectedCAM.
It operates as a dashcam to record 30 seconds of footage immediately prior to any collision and the following 60 seconds, so it can be used as vital evidence for any insurance claim. And for the forgetful owner, its GPS connection can also be used to find the car wherever you parked it.