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Chevy sends bench seats the way of the ashtray

Handout / Reuters

USCG Lt. Jarrett Parker, left, takes a closer look at a pre-production 2014 Chevrolet Impala with Assembly Plant Manager Doneen McDowell on Sept. 5 at the GM Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant in Detroit. The new Impala will no longer have a front bench seat.

When the newly redesigned Chevrolet Impala goes on sale later this year it will leave one familiar item out of the option list: a front bench seat.

While there may be the odd local brand in some small, third-world market that will still offer this once-standard item, Chevy believes it is the last major automaker to offer a front bench in a passenger car.

It’s just the latest in a long-running list of once-familiar automotive features that have gone to that graveyard in the sky, starting with the crank starter and acetylene headlamps.  Yet some automotive accessories have proved surprisingly resilient, returning after years of absence from the option list. In the years ahead, a number of other common features could vanish while still others make a striking return. 

The bench seat has been around since the very early days of the automobile. Indeed, it was offered on the first-ever Chevrolet, the 1911 Series C Classic Six, the maker notes, soon becoming a favorite with those who might want to cuddle at a drive-in movie.

But times have changed. “A lot of people prefer bucket seats because they’re sporty, even in models that aren’t sports cars,” said GM Director of Design Clay Dean. “Our customers also appreciate having the center console as a convenient place to store their phone and other personal items.”

Like the bench seat, some features go because of changing consumer trends. With fewer Americans smoking, fewer and fewer automakers now offer ashtrays. Other familiar features vanish because of shifts in design direction, like running boards, rumble seats, vent windows and white sidewall tires.  And when’s the last time you saw a “woodie” station wagon?

Detroit was the Silicon Valley of the early 20th century, with manufacturers racing to come up with new, high-tech features that would give them a competitive advantage — such as the electric starter invented by Charles Kettering in 1910 that did away with the often dangerous hand crank.

“Technology has banished from the automobile many once-familiar features and brought with it many now-popular advances,” said automotive historian and author Mike Davis, who suggests that some familiar features of today will soon disappear, as well.

The automotive junkyard is littered with devices like the manual choke, which began to fade away when Chrysler made automatic chokes standard in 1949. Tubeless tires appeared as the big industry feature of 1955, according to Davis. 

The earliest cars had no heaters and some that followed burned gas to warm up the cabin. The big breakthrough came when engineers figured out how to tap heat from the fluid used to cool the engine that normally was wasted through the radiator. Almost all cars sold in the U.S. now add air conditioning to the standard feature list, while automatic “climate control” is rapidly becoming a must-have.

Back in the 1960s, many cars came with the latest breakthrough, called curb feelers, cat-like metal “whiskers” that would close a circuit and sound an alarm when they touched the curb.  Today, more and more cars are equipped with sonar or radar sensors that watch for obstacles while parking, as well as with rearview cameras.

If the bench seat wasn’t sporty enough for American drivers, neither was the column shifter, once known as “Three on the Tree,” in reference to the common three-speed manual transmissions of decades past.

Indeed, the manual gearbox is one of the top items on the endangered list when it comes to current automotive technology, accounting for less than 10% of total U.S. sales last year.  Surprisingly, though, column shifters have made a modest comeback, in more high-tech fashion, on some vehicles, especially luxury models from BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

So has the dashboard-mounted push-button shifter, a familiar feature on many Chrysler products of the 1960s, like the old Dodge Dart. It’s Lincoln bringing the concept back to life on the 2013 MKZ sedan.

Some reborn features have little resemble their original form. Millions of Americans now depend on satellite-based navigation systems, whether built into a car’s dash, or through portable navi devices or smartphones.  But the first system debuted a full century ago and used player piano-style rolls that were linked to the car’s wheels. As you drove, the spinning roll would trigger a toy car mounted on the dash to move, pointing to where you needed to make a turn.

With the invention of the electric starter, many manufacturers installed ignition buttons but soon replaced them with key ignitions to reduce the risk of theft. Seen as sporty, a growing number of cars have begun returning the push button starter to the instrument panel — enabled by wireless keyfobs.

As to what’s likely next to go?

  • Expect to see traditional incandescent lighting replaced by high-tech alternatives such as halogen, xenon and LED lamps.
  • Manual emergency brakes are quickly being replaced by electrically operated parking brakes.
  • Some believe the convertible is an endangered species, though it has survived past threats such as stricter federal safety standards.
  • In the push to trim weight as a way to improve fuel efficiency, the typical, 4-pound CD player might go the way of the cassette and 8-track player. 
  • Makers want to eliminate the spare tire to save space and weight. Many cars now come with so-called runflats; others offer aerosol flat-fixers that can temporarily re-inflate all but the worst blow-outs.

And might the cars of 2025 no longer have sideview mirrors? For decades, manufacturers have rolled out concept cars with lipstick-sized cameras that replace those Dumbo-like mirrors, reducing aero drag and wind noise. The new Honda Accord mounts a camera under the passenger-side mirror and displays an image of what’s in your blind spot on the car’s navigation monitor on the center console. If it proves popular and successful it might convince federal regulators to finally approve the use of cameras instead of mirrors.

Upcoming mileage requirements may yield more big changes in tomorrow’s cars. But to manhandle an old Mark Twain quote, reports of the death of the internal combustion engine have been greatly exaggerated.  Despite proponents who’d like to see the gas engine vanish as quickly as possible, slow sales of electric vehicles suggest it will be around for quite some time. 

Nonetheless, the fate of those big V-8s from the muscle car era that had a renaissance in recent years seems to be less certain. With the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard set at 37.5 mpg in 2016 and a whopping 54.5 mpg by 2025, Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne suggests they may soon become “as rare as white flies.”