This Buick Touchscreen Display Was Decades Ahead Of Its Time

Before car infotainment systems existed, Buick was making cars with touchscreens in the '80s, with features that are still quite advanced even decades later. Touchscreens are becoming more commonplace in modern cars, but 40 years ago, there weren't any models that had the tech to implement them... until the Buick Riviera came out in 1986. It was regarded as the first-ever production car to come with a touchscreen, something Buick referred to as the "Graphic Control Center" (via Top Gear). Compared with the more vibrant touchscreens in Teslas, the '86 Buick Riviera had a bulky Cathode Ray Tube monitor that only displayed two colors, black and green.

As if that wasn't retro enough, it also emitted a high-pitched beeping sound every time a digital button was pressed. Its features, on the other hand, were far from outdated as they boasted a whopping 91 functions, some of which are still relevant today. So, how revolutionary was this system? Well, let's just say car touchscreens flew under the radar during the '90s only to resurface in early 2000s BMWs. The thing is, BMW's take on digital displays utilized knobs and physical buttons, whereas the Buick Riviera's used the screen itself as its sole means of control. This was more akin to the Model S that came out over a decade after BMW's iDrive system, making the '86 Buick Riviera the "grandaddy" of the touchscreen infotainment system.

How did the first touchscreen in cars start?

The first-ever in-car touchscreens didn't happen by accident. They are a direct result of Buick's desire to become the industry leader at the time. It all started in 1980, when Buick executives wanted to develop a vehicle with the most cutting-edge technology (via Hagerty). This was established through GM subsidiary Delco Electronics, which came up with a touch-sensitive CRT specifically for automobile use. Unlike modern capacitive touchscreens, this display was embedded with rows of invisible Mylar switches, which performed different functions depending on the page its user was on.

The problem was, it took a while before these dated monitors could display anything, so its engineers cleverly made it heat up once the driver touched the car's door handle. Then-Buick executive Cary Wilson claimed the company "set the stage" for what he believes is the "new generation" of automotive electronics, according to Hagerty. However, Buick only used this system again for the '88 Buick Reatta before eventually discontinuing it in later models. Aside from its incessant beeping noise, among its other notable flaws was its tendency of distracting drivers by drawing their attention off the road, as Top Gear noted. Of course, this wasn't the end of car touch screen monitors, it just took another two decades before such technology would make its return.

Buick's GCC infotainment system had it all

To say that the '86 Buick Riviera was innovative is an understatement considering the number of features it offered at the time. In fact, everything about it was decades ahead. A YouTube video showcase by MotorWeek highlights most of its CRT display's luxurious amenities, which included a five-band audio equalizer, stereo balancing, and one-touch windshield defrost. Its Climate Control system not only showed both internal and external temperatures, it even included animations, portrayed by a mini digital fan that changed rotation speed depending on the air-conditioning level.

It also handled all the essentials such as vehicle diagnostics, trip computer, and fuel economy, as well as a slew of safety features that utilized graphics reminding drivers to keep their eyes on the road or alerting them if their door wasn't fully closed. Another YouTube video that features the GCC on an '88 Buick Reatta shows how robust these features are, which weren't just evident on the CRT monitor but also on its front digital gauge cluster as well. Both screens displayed everything, from a digital tachometer and switchable imperial/metric speedometer, to things like oil pressure, battery and coolant temperature, and halogen light indicators.

A blast from the past that's meant for the future

While the '86 Buick Riviera's brochure already showed just how comprehensive its GCC is, its T-Type variant added even more luxuries into the mix. As seen in another video, it offered electronic seats that adjusted everything from its sides to headrests, steering-wheel mounted cruise control, and key-less entry. If that wasn't enough, it even came with reversible leather and velour seat cushions. That's a crazy amount of features for something that ranged from somewhere between $19,800 to $23,000 — trivial when compared to modern-day equivalents like the Model S, which retailed for over $57,000 in 2009.

It's evident that the '86 Buick Riviera was prepping to be as future-proof as possible, and in some regards, it can probably say it stood the test of time too. After all, it had already built the foundation that many automanufacturers are only starting to implement in recent times. Buick's ingenious infotainment system certainly gave a sneak-peek on what was to come in the distant future. Given how often some car features turn out to be horrible ideas, that was no easy feat. It's a shame it came at a time when the world wasn't ready for the touchscreen revolution.