History of.. Car Features: AC, Airbags, Cruise Control – Enthusiast Motor Insurance

August 2nd, 2022

Look back into automotive history and you will find cars that, in dealer-speak, were known as Poverty Packs. These were the stripped out, utterly basic versions of popular models that enabled manufacturers to claim a price advantage over competitors.

Cars available FROM that eye-catching low price got there not because of what they had but what they were lacking. Basic 1960s Volkswagens, as an example, came with painted bumper bars instead of chrome plate and the 1950s Standard Eight had glass that needed to be pushed up and down. To cut costs there were no window winders.  

Legislative changes dating back 40 or 50 years ensured that all passenger vehicles sold in Australia came with basic safety features and passenger amenities. That encouraged manufacturers to develop a different attitude towards included equipment and they would try charming buyers with included extras rather than bribing them with bargain pricing.

Features once found only in luxury cars began to appear in more modest ones, especially those made by Japanese manufacturers. By the 1990s it was common, even in lightweight cars that didn’t need power-assisted steering, to have it anyway. Dealers when quoting prices would typically include air-conditioning because in Australia it was becoming impossible to sell a car without it.

Today, the bar has been pushed much higher, with heated seats and mirrors, interactive electronics and even decent tyres on a brand’s cheapest products. In the fleet market, included cruise control or a reversing camera on a low-cost model can swing a fleet deal involving many thousands of sales.

 So, what systems once considered high-end luxuries have become commonplace in everyday cars and where did they originate?


When is the last time you rode in a late-model car without an onboard refrigeration system? Automotive air-conditioning seems to have been with us for decades, and indeed it has been.  The first a/c equipped car was a Cadillac, made in 1939, but the equipment was cumbersome and expensive. Serious production would not begin until 1953 yet by the late 1960s almost every US-designed car had ‘air’ as standard equipment or an option.  Australian cars of the time could be fitted with ‘under-dash’ air-con units but it would take us until the late-1970s before local models such as the Holden Statesman Caprice would feature integrated ‘air’.


Buying a new car without airbags seems ludicrous today, yet the airbag was for a very long time ignored as a safety device. In rudimentary form they have existed since the 1920s but only made their automotive debut during the 1970s. However , General Motors’ foray into Passive Occupant Safety (we won’t use the acronym) ended in 1977 due to ‘lack of consumer interest’. Four years later the idea was adopted by Mercedes-Benz, then by Porsche and by the 1990s several European and US manufacturers were offering bags as standard items or options. Japan and Australia followed and by 2010 there was not a car in our market without at least a driver-side airbag as standard.

Anti-Lock Brakes

If you have sat nervously in the back of a jet liner being landed on a soaking wet airstrip you will understand the benefits of ABS braking. Systems to stop aircraft wheels locking have existed since the 1920s but not until the 1960s was attention paid to similar systems for vehicle use. 1966 brought the Jensen FF with all-wheel drive and anti-lock brakes but the technology was daunting and only 320 were built. Not until the 1980s, when Mercedes-Benz in conjunction with electronics manufacturer Bosch, made ABS standard on its W126 S Class was the automotive industry encouraged to more widely adopt this very significant safety feature.    

The Reversing Camera

Tragic accidents involving young children hastened the availability of rearward-facing cameras in motor vehicles. This could have happened much sooner but the technology sat largely unused for decades until picked up by Toyota; more as a gimmick than serious safety enhancement. Other Japanese manufacturers followed, as did the Europeans, America and Australia and today pretty much every passenger vehicle in the market has at least one external camera. More complex systems can link with Park Assist systems or interactive cruise control and some provide a ‘birds eye’ view to help with parking in confined spaces.

Rain Sensing Wipers

Human eyes can still detect rain spots on a vehicle windscreen and human hands will activate the wipers. but why go to all that effort when a complex system of sensors and electrics can do it for you? During the 1950s, General Motors’ Cadillac brand experimented with the automatic wiper, but not until the 1970s did an infra-red detection system – attributed to Australian inventor Raymond Noack – come into use. It compared the amount of light reaching the sensors through a dry windscreen and also a wet one and automatically activated the wipers. Later versions can vary the frequency of blade sweeps according to the amount of water hitting the glass.

Active Cruise Control

Cruise control for motor vehicles was invented by a blind automotive engineer (truly) and appeared in 1958 as an option on North American Chrysler models. Marketed under the name of ‘Auto Pilot’ it may have given buyers an unrealistic impression of its capabilities and lent credence to tales of drivers setting the car to cruise then eating a meal or going to sleep. Recent advances include systems that maintain a set distance between your vehicle and those ahead and provide an audible warning if the system thinks the cars are going to collide. This technology is helping smooth make way for ‘driverless’ vehicles, which will allow us to indeed enjoy morning tea or a nap while on the move.

Seat Heaters

Those who view seat heaters in Australia as a waste of money have never experienced icy leather on a sub-zero morning in Thredbo or Alice Springs. Developed by General Motors and popularised during World War 2 as a way of stopping the crews of armoured vehicles freezing at their post, the idea of electrically heated seats in motor vehicles still took a long time to be commercially accepted. Not surprisingly, it was Swedish-based Saab that in 1972 that pioneered the automotive seat heater, but Australia did take many years to see value in such a system

In Dash Displays

The law forbids (and with good reason) a driver watching television or consulting their mobile phone display while driving. However, no sanctions currently apply to those who scroll through pages of data via their car’s in-dash display. Cadillac (once again) pioneered the ‘trip computer’ which back in the 1950s provided useful information including average speed and fuel consumption. As the 21st century dawned, premium models across the world were bragging about multi-function screens linked to the car’s computer, and within 15 years even basic models were able to display that detail and more via a glittering dash-mounted display.

Whether your car is ancient and devoid of electronic aids or packed to its interactive sunroof with gadgets, there is a place for it with Enthusiast Insurance.

Enthusiast accepts a wide variety of vehicles but reserves its most attractive premiums for those that travel minimal distances. 

Enthusiast Insurance is available online and 24 hours per day, every day and takes just a few minutes to complete. Simply log into www.enthusiast.com.au and select Quick Quote.