Cassette Navigation System for 1971 Car

In this excerpt from the BBC television program “Tomorrow’s World” of 1971, a whole bunch of attractive details for me. First of all, this concerns the beautiful British version of the Volkswagen Beetle of 1962, but the real star of this film is the amazingly visionary navigation system that the Beetle is equipped with. It uses advanced technology of that era, but is still quite simple, and seems to work in a limited mode. Let’s look at this wonderful and forgotten technology.

To understand what this is about, you probably should take a look at this passage yourself:

Take a look, this system works just like voice navigation in maps from Google, Apple and other similar ones. The driver receives voice instructions about the following maneuvers – the system tells him where to go or turn, based on the location of the car. This 47-year-old system somehow copes with the task of navigation, without having satellite, cellular or even a computer.

Of course, it is much more limited than modern GPS systems, but within its characteristics, it is really smart. The system works by recording individual instructions on a cassette or, as the host fancifully calls it, a “magnetic tape cassette”. Keep in mind that the cassettes themselves were still fairly new at the time. Cassette players appeared around 1964, and their car versions appeared on sale only in 1968.

Just playing a cassette with instructions would be pretty useless – it’s better to just turn on the music. There must be other components in this system, and here everything becomes really interesting.

The recorded instructions also play sound signals of various lengths. The duration of these sound signals is determined by the electronic unit under the dashboard, and this duration is expressed in how many miles the car must travel until the next instruction sounds.


In order to calculate this distance, the electronic box is connected to the car odometer through a mechanical cable connection, which drives the gear mechanism. This mechanism allows you to calculate the number of miles traveled, and when the number of miles is equal to the value provided by the duration of the tone, the following instruction is played.

This is a pretty smart system, I think that this mechanism can be called a simple analog computer. The real innovation in this system is reading data from a cassette. Perhaps this is one of the first examples of using cassettes to store and read computer data — five or six years before this practice became common in the very first wave of home computers.


It is also interesting how the system calibrates tire sizes. A cartridge is used for this. Components that configure the system to work with a given car tire size (which affects mileage calculations) are placed on a small circuit board that is inserted into the internal connector. You can see this system in the video, there it is called “VW SALOON”.


The idea is this: a cartridge-like printed circuit board does not store a program in the ROM chip, but a set of jumpers or other components designed to change some parameters in the main “program”. A similar technology was applied in the same year in the first Magnavox Odyssey home gaming console.

So, let’s see what this ancestor of modern navigation systems is capable of: he can give step-by-step instructions for driving to the chosen place depending on the distance that you have traveled. This is already good. Of course, if you take a detour or get lost, then you will have problems. It would be nice if the system could stop mileage calculation or return to the last step and recalculate the distance traveled. It seems that these functions could be implemented.

Despite the hardware limitations, this system does a great job. I am impressed. That is why the fact that I still have to find out who did this thing is so crazy. I want to pay tribute to the engineer or company that created this device. The problem is that this device looks like a prototype, there is no marking on it and I did not find any mention of it. Because of this, it is difficult to determine who was the developer of this system. Also, I can’t make out what is recorded on this tape. I will be glad to find out if you know something about this.

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