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Car interiors go high-tech

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A restaurant on the outskirts of Motor City once carved old car bodies into serviceable booths, allowing its patrons to relax on seats reclaimed from old Buicks while waitresses dressed as carhops took their orders.

In that alien environment, the car interiors took on a life of their own, becoming surrealistic exercises in brightly colored sheet metal, chrome, and imitation leather.

It was a sharp contrast to their mundane daily existence. Automotive interiors tend to blend into the background, as unnoticed as the lining of one's coat. Regardless, it is in the interior of an automobile where man meets machine , where he actually touches and controls it - in fact, where he lives with it.

To automotive designers, the interior is a marvel of complexity, from the maze of wiring behind the dash to the instrumentation, seating, interior lining, and lights.

Each piece must meet rigid safety regulations. Drivers demand comfort and ease of operation or they won't buy. Interiors bake in the sun, crack in the cold, and carry dogs with long toenails in the back seat.

Partly because of these design problems, automotive interiors tend to change infrequently. Pleated leather in the 1930s gave way to baroque, painted sheet metal during the '40s, leading to the rolling jukeboxes of the 1950s. Safety regulations in the '60s dictated padded dashboards and a web of seatbelts, ''crush space'' requirements, and head restraints - dominant themes that lasted through the '70s.

Today, car interiors are on the verge of a dramatic change.

''Most of the old stuff has been cast to the winds,'' says George E. Moon, General Motors executive in charge of interior design. ''It's because of the tremendous influx of electronics.''

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