There was literally a button to push for everything.
Things were very different in the 1980s. Fuel economy wasn't a serious issue, safety standards were lax and the world wasn’t nearly as globalized as it is today so each country built their own unique models. Just compare 80's Fords sold in the UK and US. But what many luxury cars had in common during the decade of perms, mullets, and far too many mustaches was buttons. Lots and lots of buttons.
Remember, touchscreen infotainment systems, which now control nearly all major vehicular functions, didn’t exist yet. Then-premium features like climate control, stereo systems, and seat functions were all controlled with buttons. Mainstream vehicles didn’t have quite as many buttons because, well, they didn’t have nearly as many features. And when you look at these interior pictures from the biggest names in luxury from all major countries, buttons are the most significant common denominator. Some oddly-shaped steering wheels come second.
Back in 1985, Mercedes-Benz launched the 560 SEC, which was the predecessor to today’s S-Class. In other words, this was the German automaker’s then-flagship, so naturally it came extremely well-equipped. All of Mercedes’ most advanced and premium technologies were packed into this big coupe and sedan, along with a lot of wood trim and fine leather upholstery. And just look at that interior. Simple. Elegant. Relatively straight-forward, and buttons galore.
Mercedes became so reliant on buttons, in fact, that it wasn’t so long ago it was criticized (and rightly so) for still having too many of them. But the 560 SEC, which was sold until 1991, came with dual-zone climate control and high-quality acoustics and stereo.
Before the A8 arrived in 1994 there was the Audi V8. Yes, it had a V8 engine. Launched for 1988, the V8 may have arrived towards the end of the decade, but it still had that whole buttons theme going on. Like the Mercedes 560 SEC, there was a button for nearly every important function. But here was the problem with the Audi: those buttons were sometimes too small. It was often difficult to aim your finger correctly, especially while driving.
The late 80s was also when luxury brands, particularly the Germans, began introducing digital instrument panels. The end of the button era was just beginning, but it would take a number of years until touchscreens became the norm.
The French. They tried ever so hard with that avant-garde theme that they forgot one key thing: simplicity. Style ruled over function. Take the Renault 25 as just one example. Launched for 1983, the Renault 25 was a premium sedan that looked so wonderfully 80s inside and out. But that interior, oh man. It looks straight out of the 1987’s “Robocop”. There were so many buttons we wouldn’t know which ones to press first.
Along with leather upholstery and wood trim, the Renault 25, specifically the top-line Baccara trim, had an interior unlike anything else in the US or even Germany, where design was typically more traditional. But the French took chances, though not always for the best. By the end of the decade, a car phone was even available.
Believe it or not, Buick was the brand GM chose to showcase some pretty wild stuff in the late 80s. One of the best examples was the Reatta, launched for 1988. This coupe was actually pretty good-looking, unlike nearly all other badge-engineered Buicks at the time. The Reatta was a low-volume model with a transverse front engine and front-wheel drive. It did come with V6 power and a convertible arrived for 1990. Production came to an end in 1991, but the Reatta still made an impact, and its interior design was no exception.
The Reatta presented an opportunity for GM to introduce new technologies such as a touchscreen (though a very early one), onboard computer, and climate control. That onboard computer, however, was not without its faults. It was so buggy that GM opted to remove it entirely after only one model year.
Cadillac was still building land yachts in the late 1980s and the Brougham, which arrived in 1987, is no exception. Honestly, it pretty hideous from the outside, especially when compared to other foreign luxury sedans. The Buick Reatta and Brougham had absolutely nothing in common, aside from both being GM products and interior buttons. But honestly, the buttons found in the Brougham were far simpler, controlling basic functions like seat positions and climate control. There was no on-board computer (your grandpa couldn’t handle the tech). But because this was still considered luxury, buttons were required to control everything else.
In 1987 the Alfa Romeo 164 came into this world and it looked great inside and out. The interior looked years ahead of its time. The 164’s dashboard was both simple, elegant, and futuristic-looking. It’s not easy to achieve that combination. Instead of wood trim, Alfa Romeo opted for black plastic which, believe it or not, looked better for this application. As you can see, the 164 featured climate control and digital gauges. Despite that, there were still several buttons to control other relevant functions. Unlike the Audi V8, however, these buttons did not require eye glasses in order see them properly.
Like wedge-shaped automotive design? Look no further than the Aston Martin Lagonda. Its long life span began in 1976 and lasted until 1990, but it was updated throughout. Same for its interior. Although Britain was typically conservative with luxury sedans (or saloons if you happen to speak British), the Lagonda took some wild chances. Of course, because this was a British-built car from the 80s, not everything always worked as it should. But the design effort was certainly there and that’s commendable. In many ways, perhaps, the Lagonda’s interior was too complicated despite its cool design, particularly for the driver who had plenty of buttons at their disposal.
Japan, a country that’s always been at the forefront of advanced automotive technologies. Back in 1987, the seventh-generation Nissan Gloria was launched, a luxury four-door sedan that American never received (though Infiniti was launched a short time later). While this generation Gloria had a fairly traditional though still attractive exterior design, the interior kind of looked like a home stereo system. The steering wheel in particular was interesting for the time because it featured buttons that controlled the radio and volume. It’s standard today on even the cheapest new cars, but this was advanced stuff for the time.