Buttons, switches and levers - Faine 428

By: Jon Faine

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dash buttons dash buttons

While Jon's cool and competent with the basic controls, the myriad knobs and buttons give him the heebie jeebies

I had to buy another car last month.  There was no choice. It simply had to be done, no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’. Not exactly a chore, but this was not another ancient jalopy to gather cobwebs and dust and broken dreams. I had to buy a modern practical car, a "go anywhere, any time" car and I confess I enjoyed the process. Our now twenty-year-old P38 Range Rover was bought with  a mere 140,000ks, all from one owner. The marvellous unstoppable and ludicrously comfortable thing would have cost over $100,000 when new but fifteen years later, virtually orphaned it was bought for a mere $6500. Sadly though, despite sterling and loyal service, our thirsty V8 petrol ageing Rangie was not going to get us to where we wanted to go. You don’t see a lot of old Range Rovers in Arnhem Land.

Anyway, what has this got to do with old cars? While buying the replacement - a 2012 Toyota Prado 150 diesel, I encountered all sorts of buttons and switches I was unfamiliar with. And it got me thinking.

When looking at old cars, there is only a limited number of controls to worry about. My first car – a 1963 Renault 4 – had a switch that turned the  useless lights on or off, a switch that turned the  useless heater fan on or off and a switch that turned the useless wipers on or off. And that was all.

My first Peugeot 404 had the luxury of a radio… More buttons. It was ‘AM’ only, but boasted a ‘tone’ control.  Not that moving it all the way in one direction or the other made any improvement in the aural experience. One way the bass was crackling and distorting. The other way the treble was crackling and distorting.

The Bristol 401, now that was a feast for the senses. My 401 which I had pre-children through the 1980s was one of the last built before a slightly more powerful motor and better gearbox turned the 401 into the 403. Bristol Cars had emerged from the military aeronautical industry. The RAF’s Bristol Blenheim and Beaufort bombers had helped  bomb the German industrial complex to smithereens in WW2. As war spoils, Bristol was rewarded and knocked off BMW plans and blueprints from the vanquished. They immediately started manufacturing cars based on pre-war BMWs to employ workers in their idle factories after the war. The 401/403 has aircraft style tactile controls. The buttons are generously spread across the lavish polished wooden dashboard  and are either smooth or notched, depending on whether they are to be push/pull activated or turned for on/off.  There are flush exterior buttons to open the aerodynamically svelte doors. Pioneering low drag, this car was one of the first to use aero design features for a road car, albeit a luxury gentleman’s express. It was all part of reducing drag and improving top speed – a claimed 100mph although no contemporary road tester could get past about 97mph. Fussy, eh?

The boot release button is hidden inside the supple leather of the rear passenger armrest and I always loved the built in ‘one shot’ chassis lubricating system designed to be activated by giving a boot-full to a big steel button on the floor. It never worked  properly in my ownership.  But ‘my’ car – last seen two years ago listed for sale in Switzerland, all restored and fancy  as is correct for such a luxurious conveyance – was what is now optimistically referred to as in ‘oily rag’ condition. Tatty but driveable.

I had no choice, your honour. It became apparent I could not afford to look after the Bristol in the fashion to which it was entitled when the quote to replace the leather gaiters on the leaf springs was more than several months mortgage payments on our home. Off she went, to greener pastures.

Our first ‘modern’ family car was an early second-hand Subaru Liberty with air conditioning and cruise control. And a lever that I never knew what it did in the entire four years we owned it.

Remember the early Fiat bambino? And early Alfa Spiders? Cable throttle and choke on the transmission tunnel, unlabelled plastic knobs that easily broke off in your hand, located down near your hips, leaving most drivers endlessly confused.

Citroen DS switches are appallingly plain, sensible and practical unlike almost every other engineering feature of the iconic car. They are lined up along the dash in a straight row, clearly labelled and almost never fail, even as these exceptional cars age. The buttons are the opposite of the quirkiness that so endears owners to their Goddesses.

But now I have bought a car that has so many buttons I actually had to consult the owners handbook to find out what they did. Even the man who sold it to me was not sure what some of them do. But I promise to use all of them on this trip… and maybe even get some more added to it before it is over.


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