No Fixed Abode: A Vestigial Tale

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
no fixed abode a vestigial tale

I woke up yesterday to see that my friend W. Christian “Mental” Ward had taken advantage of me while I was drunk.

My first thought was to make a porn movie in which I played myself, kind of like that nice young lady who recently graduated from Columbia did. (They call her “Mattress Girl”, by the way.) But then I realized that Mental’s violations had been limited to using the column title “No Fixed Abode” for his own opinions. So I calmed down. But then I wondered: what if I just let people use the title for columns of which I particularly approved, either drunk or sober? Eventually I wouldn’t even need to approve them myself. I could use an algorithm, or a Millennial. Perhaps, after fifty or seventy-five years of this, the phrase “no fixed abode” would become brandless, like “kleenex” or “band-aid.”

I can imagine some kid in the year 2210 waxing nostalgic about his steam-powered Kamakiri biosphere-mobile (the first person to get the reference wins the Internet) and saying to his friends, “Man, I’m going to hook up the ‘trodes and bang out a nofixedabode about the time I saw my Daddy mowing the lawn and I was like, ‘Come on Daddy, get in, let’s go!'” At that point, the original reason for the column title, to say nothing of its decidedly nonfamous originator, would be long lost to history.

Which brings us, of course, to the Prius.

But not yet.

Speaking of Mattress Girl and her ilk, maybe the above photo should have a trigger warning preceding it. Only the most traumatized of you will recognize the interior for what it is: the first-generation Toyota “Echo”, known as “Yaris” overseas. I would expect that all of you will recognize that is has a center-dash layout in which the instrument panel is mounted in the middle of the vehicle. Some of you will do better than that and recognize that the two sides of the instrument panel are essentially interchangeable. You could use the same pieces to make a left-hand-drive car or a right-hand-drive car. It’s just a matter of swapping the modules out.

This is a brilliant way to make a cheap car for a truly global market. It simplifies parts inventories, allows you to get some volume-based savings that you wouldn’t have if you had to make two different kinds of dashboards, and it probably makes assembly easier as well. I don’t know just how much money this layout saves, but I’d say that it’s nontrivial. In any event, it’s worth making the driver look over at the center instrument panel. Most of the people who are driving these things barely look at the dashboard anyway, and very few of them are driving quickly enough to need to have the instrument panel right in front of them.

No surprise, then, that the next-generation Yaris that replaced the Echo/Yaris had the same modular layout. You see how it’s still possible to make the same car two different ways here, relatively easily?

And here’s the current car. Better materials, classier design, and (let’s face it) a more flattering photo, but the same concept remains in place. Interchangeable dashes. You can easily see how both sides are identical, right down to the way the glovebox and knee bolster have pretty much the same dimensions on both sides of the console. Toyota’s far from the only company to do this, although most of its competitors don’t do an actual center display but prefer instead to have an instrument panel unit that can live on either side of a symmetrical dashboard.

You get the idea. Let’s look at the first-generation Prius.

The bones of the first Prius probably had a lot to do with the original Echo/Yaris. They were developed around the same time, they shared some dimensions. No wonder that the Prius has the same kind of symmetrical swap-out dashboard. It saves money and it’s part of the Toyota cheap-car DNA at the time. It would have been notable had Toyota not chosen to do this, frankly. Keep in mind that nobody knew how successful the Prius would eventually become. Saving money in design, materials, and production was a nontrivial goal, no matter how much THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT CHIPPED IN ON IT.

I just capitalized the last half of the sentence to give my predecessor at TTAC, Herr Schmitt, heart palpitations. Were he still around, he would no doubt explain to you that Toyota did not need the Japanese government to make the Prius and that he knows more about it than Jim Press does.

Where were we? Oh yes. Cheap car, cheap to make, modular dash. Next photo, please.

And here’s the second Prius we had in this country, the one that made the car famous to people besides Larry David and your local comparative-literature professor. This dashboard is proudly symmetrical and interchangeable. It continues to have a center dash display. Nothing too surprising. Alright, let’s see the last slide in the carousel.

Well, I will be Gosh-damned. This is in no way a cheapo Toyota mirror-image dash, is it? It’s from the current Prius, which is going to replaced in the near future, and which I used to run a few laps around New Jersey Motorsports Park a couple of months back. Looks like the Prius has finally come correct, all the better to match its hugely upscale consumer base and public image. The Tupperware simplicity is gone, replaced by something that looks kind of like what you get in an Avalon.

Except for that center dash display.

This is the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night, by the by. Why does the Prius retain a center display when the reason for it — interchangeability between RHD and LHD variants — is gone? After all, you don’t get a center dash in a Camry, or an Avalon, or an LS600hl. Only cheapo Toyotas get a center dash. The Prius is no longer particularly cheap, and Toyota finally cottoned to the fact that many of its buyers don’t give a fig for its purchase or operating costs, so it has a proper interior. But it still has the center dash?

It took me a while to figure out the answer, but here it is: The consumer cannot sense intent. What I mean by that is this: You, the manufacturer, might have all sorts of reasons for doing something, but unless you state those reasons on the front page of the Huffington Post, Fox News, and Reddit’s “Gone Wild” section every day for a year, as well as paying for “in-game placement” in World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, nobody will know what those reasons are. Instead, the consumers will guess at your reasons, and their guesses will be wrong far more often than they are right.

There are more examples of this in the world than there are atoms with which to electronically transmit their descriptions. The Chevy “ Pro-Tec” plastic optional pickup box that vastly outperformed steel in all but the coldest conditions? Customers thought it was there to save money and rip them off. The three-piece necks on Gibson guitars of the Seventies? The factory did it to prevent warping and reduce warranty claims. Musicians thought the purpose was to save money and ruin their sound. The unbuttoned lower button on the Duke of Windsor’s suit coat? It was because he had a potbelly. Fashionable men around the world with flat stomachs dutifully unbuttoned the moment they saw a picture of their aristocratic better doing it.

It stands to reason, therefore, that the reason the Prius has a center dash is because people think that is part of the “Prius brand DNA”. What makes that funny is that it reinforces the fact that Prius buyers never shopped any other cheap Toyotas, or any cheap cars, period. If they did, they’d quickly realize that center display means “cheap”. But since they only saw the center dash in the Prius, it says “hybrid” to them. Therefore, the Prius must continue to have a center dash forever and ever, Amen, because any other arrangement would be un-Prius-like.

You are now free to imagine a scene in which natives of a desert island worship a Coke bottle. Or something like that. It’s the same idea. Viewed without context, the Prius dash layout takes on a whole new meaning and therefore it must be retained.

And if you think only stupid-ass Prius buyers feel that way, ask yourself why the Corvette had quad round taillights until last year, just like a ’62 Biscayne. Or why the BMW i8 has twin chrome ovals surrounding black glossy plastic. Or, perhaps, why your automatic-transmission car has a console shift.

What’s the moral of the story? Only this: that despite the best efforts of everybody from Joan Claybrook (look it up, kids) to “Mad Men”, people continue to have a genuine and unashamed emotional investment in their vehicles. It’s 2015, and we were supposed to have flying cars by now, but we’re more than happy to settle for what we’ve got. We all want our cars to reinforce our self-images, confirm our prejudices, reassure our pathetic senses of aesthetic sensibility. Even the buyers of the most rational car money can buy want to know that they’re sitting in a real-deal Prius.

So let’s all agree to keep the existence of the Toyota Echo a secret from them, just to be nice. To do anything else would be like buying someone shots of Tito’s all night and asking them if they mind if you write a nofixedabode.

Join the conversation
2 of 81 comments
  • Power6 Power6 on Jul 11, 2015

    Great points, totally flawed premise. Nothing has changed. Those Yaris dahses that you show might look similar but one can easily see that the every single peice has a different molding. Look at the airbag hole. There is not one molding in that dash that is the same between LHD and RHD. Now i dont doubt under the covers money was saved by having shared harnesses, ductwork, dash frame etc. but ALL of that applies to the latest Prius dash as shown, look past the swoop and see the console shape, the vents, radio position, guage cluster all perfectly centered and symmetrical. Nothing has changed, it is just hidden much better. I do agree that the Prius DNA dictates a center gauge cluster, that doesnt change the degree to which your superficial analysis is completely wrong!

  • Slow_Joe_Crow Slow_Joe_Crow on Jul 13, 2015

    Worse, every time I see the center dash I think Saturn Ion, a car that makes the Toyota Echo look good.

  • Carrera The diesels built during the last 10-15 years, if kept stock, don't really stink at all.
  • MaintenanceCosts I keep finding myself drawn to the Fox PLCs, both the Thunderbird and the Mark VII. They really got the design right by 1980s standards. The cars were reasonably sized but didn't look dinky like the 1986 Eldorado, they were comfortable and drove pretty well, and they were available with a 302 (that even got non-asthmatic in the late years).When I bought my first car - a 1987 Taurus - I also thought about Aerobirds, but I decided (probably correctly, given the number of carpools I was part of) that I wanted four doors.
  • SaraJumra Everyone can make money now a days very easily. I am a full time college student and just w0rking for 3 to 4 hrs a day. Everybody must try this home online job now by just useThis Following Website.-------->>
  • SaraJumra hwllo hy
  • MaintenanceCosts Where's a gas inline six, for that torque and nice sound without all the diesel stink? Oh, that's right; GM being GM, they prematurely canceled it.