Keeping Alive The Future Of Cars, 1980s Style

Here at Hackaday we’re a varied bunch of writers, some of whom have careers away from this organ, and others whose work also appears on the pages of other publications in different fields. One such is our colleague [Lewin Day], and he’s written a cracking piece for The Autopian about the effort to keep an obscure piece of American automotive electronic history alive. We think of big-screen control panels in cars as a new phenomenon, but General Motors was fitting tiny Sony Trinitron CRTs to some models back in the late 1980s. If you own one of these cars the chances are the CRT is inoperable if you’ve not encountered [Jon Morlan] and his work repairing and restoring them.

Lewin’s piece goes into enough technical detail that we won’t simply rehash it here, but it’s interesting to contrast the approach of painstaking repair with that of replacement or emulation. It would be a relatively straightforward project to replace the CRT with a modern LCD displaying the same video, and even to use a modern single board computer to emulate much of a dead system. But we understand completely that to many motor enthusiasts that’s not the point, indeed it’s the very fact it has a frickin’ CRT in the dash that makes the car.We’ll probably never drive a 1989 Oldsmobile Toronado. But we sure want to if it’s got that particular version of the future fitted.

Lewin’s automotive writing is worth watching out for. He once brought us to a motorcycle chariot.

Nissan 300zx Dash Given A New Language

You don’t have to be a car enthusiast to recognize that the 1984 Nissan 300x dash is a work of art. The graceful swoops and multisegment VFDs evoke an aesthetic that reminds us of a particular era. Rather than replace his dash with something drab and modern, [Evan] modified his dash to accept input from newer devices. Many of the sensors that feed directly into the dash are becoming harder to find as the years wear on, and rather than spoof every old device, [Evan] looked at each gauge.

Temperature and oil pressure are variable resistance sensors, and by removing half the voltage divider, it becomes a variable voltage sensor, as modern temperature sensors can output a voltage from 0 to 5. The tachometer required tracing the signal through the PCB as it expects a pulse every time a cylinder fires. By simulating cylinder pulses with a function generator, [Evan] found the filtering circuit and the microcontroller pin monitoring it. An optoisolator to protect the delicate MCU makes it easy to pipe the signal directly in.

Of course, not everything needed to be modified. A vacuum sensor provides a signal to the dash to indicate how much power the engine produces, which is pretty easy to spoof with a teensy connected to the CAN bus. All these mods are easily reversible and allow [Evan] to keep rocking the iconic dash with a more modern engine.

It’s an incredible hack that offers a view into how to trace, understand, and hack old electronics. Of course, if you’re keeping old built-in car bits, why not keep the carphone but connect it to your smartphone?