Analog gauge dials dying in favor of large screens is one of the great automotive tragedies. Your primary visual interface with the car has changed rapidly in a decade from full analog instruments to hybrid clusters with a multi-function display. Now, a smartphone-style UX is common in new cars. And no matter how cool and colorful a digital dash gets, it’s never going to have the depth and elegance of old-fashioned dials.
On many new-model cars needles and backlit numbers have been shunted down into the cheapest, base-level new cars out there. It’s a shameful death for the once great, circular dial with a needle sweeping across it.
Even worse, is the personality robbery that occurs every time an LCD display is fitted to the once-holy gauge binnacle. I think back to the times I’d get into my Dad’s BMW E39 5-series after dark, close the door, toggle the headlight switch and marvel at the amber back-illumination of the gauges, the center stack, the subtle red driving lights in the ceiling… paradise.
Interiors in cars used to remind me of a bass guitar riff, a carefully measured driving environment, a place to get The Important Work done. Now… everything is a nightclub. Not that it’s bad, because I definitely have my moods, and honestly getting into a newer Mercedes is a whole experience on its own. But generally speaking, my favorite time of day, is the time I can turn my lights on and marvel at how gorgeous gauges and interior lighting is. A needle physically sweeping from left to right, dipping below three o’clock to redline, that’s exciting.
The three-dimensionality of the analog stuff made for something that felt alive, where the final columns of sunlight could reflect, bend within the gauge, or even the subtlety of how the needles themselves move from each manufacturer. For a completely nerdy example: drive an Acura RSX Type-S, whatever is going on with that rev needle is hectic, pulsating and manic. Early Porches do that weird bouncing thing when you shift them hard. Even my old BMW 330i ZHP’s needles had an affirmative, authoritative sweep, reflecting the character of the car itself. Surely, the best gauges of all time are the early Porsche 356 dials, lit from the ring of the gauge, and the very practical power band illustrated in the rev counter.
Digital-versus-analog, when it comes to car gauges, is kind of like “cartoon versus live-action” TV. An analog gauge is physically happening in front of you… it has some realness that gives it depth and significance. A cartoon can be entertaining; a cartoon can be great. But it’s still just an imitation; an interpretation of something else.
Maybe I’m a complete lunatic for caring about those sorts of details, but it helps me make the car a little more human, helps me develop a companionship with the machine I entrust my life to every day. It’s a little bit of life that’s going to be lost in cars, and a little bit of that taproot fascination with driving, fading a bit.
All I know is, the moments I remember with any one of my past twelve cars most is being somewhere in canyons late at night, gauges on, remembering the days I sat in my Dad’s old E39.