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  • The classic American car, big engines, fins on the back, the

  • occasional set of suicide doors and, of course, bench seats.

  • The front bench seat was once a standard feature of automobiles,

  • especially American ones, and for older generations, it brings back

  • memories of being crammed in the front of a car between parents and

  • siblings or cuddling up with someone on a date, perhaps at a drive in

  • movie. But like so many other features of yesterday's cars, front

  • bench seats have been replaced with bucket seats and central consoles

  • with parking brakes, shifters, storage compartments, and cup holders.

  • Bench seats were cheap to make, easy to climb into, and roomy to sit

  • in. But Americans turned away from them over time, and at least

  • mostly they went the way of fancy hood ornaments.

  • While it might not seem the most interesting automotive feature, the

  • shift from bench seats to bucket seats reveals something about

  • shifting American tastes and the changing role of driving in American

  • culture. And there are signs the front bench or something resembling

  • it might be ready for a comeback.

  • Bench seats were once standard in cars, they were cheap to make, a

  • manufacturer only had to make one frame for an entire front seat

  • rather than two or three separate ones.

  • They could accommodate a crowd valuable in time when autos were

  • precious goods available only to those who could afford them.

  • But they most likely ended up in cars because bench seats were

  • standard in horse drawn carriages and buggies.

  • I think you can draw straight lines and carriages to bench seats and a

  • lot of those early cars even produced cars, not just experimental

  • vehicles, literally had bench seats taken right off the carriage

  • production line and put into the vehicle.

  • I think it's just a natural holdover from that.

  • The earliest known car, a steam powered three wheeler built by a

  • Frenchman named Nicholas Cugnot in the late 1700s had a bench seat

  • that would look right at home in a park or at a picnic table.

  • Later, the first Chevrolet ever manufactured the Series C Classic Six

  • of 1911 featured a front bench seat.

  • Automakers also began putting shifters in the steering column as

  • early as the 1910s, which helped keep the bench seat in cars and

  • automotive historians observed bench seats were useful for snuggling

  • up with a loved one, preferably while the vehicle was not in motion.

  • Bench seats were also a useful feature to have during the era of the

  • drive in movie, which began in 1933 and became wildly popular in the

  • decades that followed, especially the 1950s.

  • Over time bench seats began to disappear.

  • One of the primary reasons cited by historians was the increasing

  • preference for sportier bucket seats seen in European sports cars.

  • In the years following World War Two, the American car market began to

  • absorb imports from European countries.

  • These cars were smaller and sportier than the classic large American

  • sedan, and they had become popular with American soldiers who had

  • seen them during their tours in Europe.

  • Bucket seats are really a post-World War Two phenomenon in the US, and

  • I think they can be tied to experiences GIs at overseas, looking at

  • the little British sports cars, the MGs, the Triumphs.

  • And there they had buckets really as a matter of necessity, more than

  • sportiness because the cars were so much smaller than they were in the

  • US. You couldn't comfortably fit three people on a single seat

  • anyway. Faced with this influx of new competition, Americans set

  • about building their own answers to these sportier rides.

  • Those included now classic American sports cars such as the Ford

  • Mustang and the Corvette.

  • The sports cars is a thing really are introduced in the US with first

  • the Corvette in 1953, followed shortly by the Ford Thunderbird, which

  • was never formally called a sports car but certainly went in the same

  • direction with the two bucket seats.

  • And from those people start to adopt bucket seats as an option in

  • their standard family cars, if you will.

  • And if I had to point to one car more than any other that's

  • responsible for the shift, I would say probably the Ford Mustang which

  • was such a phenomenal seller in 1964, 1965.

  • And that was a car that just came standard with the front bucket

  • seats. And people loved the look, the feel, the sportiness, the

  • implied sportiness of those seats.

  • And from that point on I think there was no going back.

  • But there is another reason why bench seats began to disappear safety.

  • Beginning in the 1970s, the automotive industry and its regulators

  • began to push for safety devices in cars known as passive restraints,

  • devices that are automatically activated whenever passengers are in a

  • car. Unlike a conventional seatbelt, for example, which a person has

  • to buckle, these devices include certain types of automatic seatbelts

  • seen in some cars.

  • But perhaps the most common example is airbags.

  • The genesis of demise of the front bench seat can be traced back to

  • passive restraints because in the early 70s, automakers had two ways

  • of meeting safety regulations.

  • They could either put airbags in cars or they could put passive belts

  • in where you wouldn't have to buckle up.

  • Given the technology at the time, with the passive belts they could

  • only do the outboard seating positions in the front seat.

  • So there was no protection for the center passenger.

  • So to prevent somebody sitting in the center part, you had the

  • console, which was really sort of the province of sports cars of the

  • era, migrate into all kinds of cars just to keep somebody from

  • sitting in that middle front seating position.

  • The introduction of bucket seats coincided with the return of the

  • shifter from the steering column to the center of the car and the

  • introduction of the center console where automakers began to place

  • ashtrays, compartments and eventually cup holders.

  • Bucket seats steadily became more popular.

  • But bench seats remained pretty common in US cars until the 1980s,

  • according to some automotive historians.

  • Over time, though, the automobile began to change.

  • Carmakers began cramming more and more stuff into the center of the

  • vehicle, both in the console and on the dashboard.

  • Eight track players gave way to tape decks and then CD players and

  • then infotainment systems.

  • There are climate controls, controls for drive modes such as four

  • wheel drive, seat warmers, and so on.

  • The proliferation of these features coincided with a steady change in

  • the role of the automobile in American culture toward a tool for

  • ordinary commuters who often drove alone.

  • Interest in bench seats declined accordingly.

  • Today, automakers market their cars as practically a home away from

  • home. Customers want interiors decked out with the latest tech

  • features, along with storage for their phones and other items in the

  • center console. And yes, they want plenty of cup holders, too.

  • It reveals a lot about ourselves and our changing lives outside of the

  • car itself. And we've talked about the people spending more time

  • driving, more time moving from place to place.

  • We've talked about mobile work now, and I'm thinking about folks who

  • literally work out of their cars, ride sharing services, that kind of

  • thing, where you have to have a space to keep your paperwork, to keep

  • your devices, whatever that might be to allow you to do that job.

  • Independent contractors who are sometimes going from gig to gig in

  • their car. They're organizing the files and things in those spaces.

  • So we do see those kinds of patterns and they can speak to larger

  • changes that are taking place in society.

  • In 2012, GM announced that it was getting rid of the bench seat

  • configuration on the Chevrolet Impala, the final sedan that GM

  • offered them on.

  • The bench seat option for the Impala cost $195 extra.

  • About 1 in 10 buyers opted for it.

  • Where you will still find bench seats are in the cabins of full size

  • pickups and in a few full size SUVs such as GM's Chevrolet Suburban

  • and GMC Yukon.

  • They may pop up again from time to time in some cars should consumers

  • desire them or designers think they can lure a few buyers with a dose

  • of nostalgia every so often seemingly obsolete or out of fashion

  • features may see a slight resurgence.

  • Automakers catering to enthusiasts have decided to stock some cars

  • with manual transmissions in response to customer demand, as Ford did

  • with a certain variation on the 2021 Bronco.

  • German automaker Audi decided to begin selling the RS6 Avant sport

  • wagon in the United States, despite the fact that wagons have all but

  • completely disappeared from the U.S.

  • market. Few are as keenly aware of how much cars have changed as

  • automotive historians are.

  • They also know that some things have a way of coming back as consumer

  • needs and new technology change vehicles in other ways.

  • Manual transmissions are already disappearing from roads, and cars

  • with automatic transmissions are increasingly controlled by

  • electronic shifters.

  • Companies such as Jaguar and Land Rover have done away with shift

  • sticks entirely, replacing them with small shifter knobs that

  • disappear into the console when not in use.

  • The much anticipated C8 Corvette controls its transmission with a

  • series of buttons mounted on the console.

  • We could be opening the door back to having bench seats with things

  • like the shift levers becoming buttons, you know, because back when

  • you had a front bench seat, typically you had a column mounted shift.

  • And then, you know, when they started putting the center consoles in

  • you started getting a center mounted shift lever and now you've gone

  • to shift by wire so the button can be anywhere.

  • And again, I think you'll see that that will open up that space.

  • And there may be some innovative vehicles to where you'll have three

  • across seating. Two of the most talked about technological shifts in

  • the automotive industry are electric cars and self-driving cars.

  • Both technologies are expected to spur a complete rethinking of how

  • cars are designed and used.

  • Electric cars barely require a shifter at all, so the question of

  • where to place one is moot.

  • Tesla's, for example, are all single speed cars with no engine.

  • There is no need for gears.

  • All a driver needs to do is put the vehicle in park, reverse, drive,

  • or neutral. Autonomous cars can remove the need for a driver at all.

  • And self-driving car designs reimagine cars as small pods where

  • passengers can be seated facing each other, perhaps around a table.

  • When you get into an autonomous car, it's a whole different deal.

  • It can be more like a sofa that more than two people can sit on.

  • And you don't have a steering wheel in the way.

  • You don't have any of that stuff.

  • But, you know, the advancements in airbag technology has made it so

  • that you may not even need a seatbelt.

  • Who knows? Bench seats have already been spotted in some concept

  • cars, including the Genesis Mint Electric vehicle concept.

  • The timeline for self-driving cars is long, but if the technology

  • progresses, your car could once again become a great place to watch a

  • movie with a loved one.

The classic American car, big engines, fins on the back, the

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What Happened To Front Bench Seats In Cars

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    joey joey posted on 2021/05/29
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