What it was like to own and drive a 'low-tech' car

Screenshot via KPCC.orgMy old, no-tech Saab.
  • Cars in 2019 are marvels of technology and connectedness.
  • But just a few decades ago, there was very little connected tech in vehicles, prior to the advent of mobile phones and the internet.
  • Everything is easier – and safer! – now. But I miss the old days, when you could hit the road and disappear.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

These days, it’s nearly impossible to get into a car and disconnect from the internet. New vehicles typically have some sort of smartphone interface (Apple CarPlay or Android Auto) or enable a certain degree of smartphone integration with a car’s infotainment system.

Even if all that’s lacking, you can still remain connected via your phone.

That’s just the reality of driving a car in 2019. However, back in the early 2000s, it was still possible to find new and used cars that were pretty much no-tech or at least low-tech. It was particularly easy on the used front, as the mid-to-late 1990s were the period just before infotainment tech started to take off, first with GPS navigation and later with more elaborate systems.

I owned several vehicles from the 1990s – a 1992 Mazda 323 and a 1993 Mazda Miata, as well as a 1998 Saab 900S – and a few cars from the 2000s, including a 2000 Volvo V40. I even had a Volvo 240 from 1987. Prior to all that, I drove a 1989 Honda Accord and a 1983 Buick Regal. Even my 2007 Honda Odyssey was fairly barebones – it was a base model with just a radio and CD player.

If it sounds like torture to lack all 21st-century tech in a vehicle … well, it actually wasn’t. But obviously, if you were to buy a pre-tech car today, it would take some getting used to. Here’s why:

Up front, I should note that “low-tech” doesn’t mean an antique with a carburetor, no airbags, and lap-belt seat belts. I’m talking mainly about cars from the 1990s.

USC/Getty Images

Here I am with the 1998 Saab — my most recent low-tech vehicle.

Screenshot via KPCC.org

I sold it in 2014 and now own a 2011 Toyota Prius, whose tech is outdated but of at least 21st-century calibre.

Matthew DeBord/Business Insider

The Saab was low-tech, but not as low-tech as my first-generation Miata, which sported a five-speed stick shift, crank windows, and a radio with a cassette deck. And that was it!


My Saab had an automatic transmission and … a dedicated weather band on the radio.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Here’s a state-of-the-art, modern infotainment system: Audi’s MMI with “Virtual Cockpit.”


And here’s Tesla’s infotainment system, which runs on a massive central touchscreen.

Tesla Motors

We’ve come a long way from truly zero-tech dashboards, such as the one on this vintage Siata.

Matthew DeBord/BI

Read all about the Siata’s dash.

Of course, even as dashboards advanced, navigation still meant paper maps. Everyone who lived in LA before GPS had a Thomas Guide in their car. Mine was very well used.

Getty/Robert Lachman/ContributorNew tract maps (left) are used to update Thomas Guide map books at the company’s offices in Irvine, California.

Rand McNally continues to sell printed guides. The LA and Orange Country edition is $US35.

Trips in techmobiles tend to be optimised for getting there. But in the inefficient days before GPS, you sometimes wandered down old highways and byways.

Getting lost could also mean asking for directions.

Some folks had car phones — actual phones installed in their cars.

Getty/George Skadding/Contributor

But for everyone else, pre-cell-phone era, making a call meant making a stop. Cost? A quarter.

Daniel Goodman / Business Insider

You could take car radios to an extreme before SiriusXM satellite connections, but the basic setup involved an antenna and an AM/FM tuner.

USC/Getty Images

In the days before onboard diagnostics, you learned to check your oil every so often, using the dipstick and a rag. I still practice the ancient art on my Prius.

Matthew DeBord/BI

In fact, in the pre-tech 1990s, people generally tended to keep better track of maintenance. Now, vehicles will remind you that it’s time for service.

Matt Cardy/Stringer/Getty Images

A flat tire meant either a walk to the nearest service station, flagging down a Good Samaritan, or changing the tire yourself. When mobile phones finally arrived, you could at last call for help.

Not being able to call for help required motorists to maintain a complete emergency kit.

Samantha Lee/Business Insider

On balance, today’s cars last longer than vehicles from previous decades. The tech sometimes needs updating, but your investment in it should pay off.

Joe Raedle/Getty

To be honest, I long for the days of low-tech cars. I won’t argue against safety and having instant communications available for emergencies. But I did love the freedom of disappearing for a day or two.

Michael Cole/Getty Images

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