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When Did Cars Get Computerized?

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author photo by Aaron Gold April 2017

Nowadays, we take computerized engine controls for granted, but it wasn't too terribly long ago that vehicle engines were entirely mechanical devices -- everything was done with good old-fashioned moving parts. So when, exactly, did cars start using computers? The answer is a lot more complicated than I expected (which explains why this article is so damn long). Ready? Here we go.

Er, before we begin, I know it'd be easy to call me out on the definition of computer; after all, one could, I suppose, consider the valve body of an automatic transmission to be a fluid-operated computer (and a rather fascinating one at that). So for the sake of this conversation, let's consider a computer to be an electronic number-crunching device with components that cannot be fixed with hand tools.

Let's Start With the Spark

I began my search for the first engine control computer by focusing on the ignition system. Today, most cars have distributorless ignition systems that fire individual coils connected to the plugs. A crankshaft position sensor provides orientation, the computer decides exactly when to fire each plug, and POW! Near as I can tell, it was General Motors that gave the distributorless system its start; they introduced DIS in several cars for the 1987 model year. Before that, the state of the art was the electronically-controlled distributor.

Now, I know there are a few whippersnappers out there who have no idea what could possibly have come before solid-state ignitions, so I'm going to sit back in my rocking chair, pull my afghan up over my lap, grab hold of my tea mug with both hands and tell you about point-breaker ignitions.

Er, What's a Distributor Again?

You're probably familiar with the basics of the distributor, but in case you aren't, it's a round gizmo that has a single wire going to the coil (the device that cranks up the voltage to fire the spark plugs) and separate wires leading to the plugs themselves. Inside the distributor, there's a spinning whirligig called the rotor that literally distributes electricity to each spark plug wire in turn.

In a point-breaker ignition, a little opening-and-closing gizmo riding against a cam on the distributor shaft makes and breaks the connection that causes the coil to fire. The spark is advanced (made to come earlier in the combustion process) by both centrifugal weights on the distributor shaft (which alters the orientation of the spinning rotor as the distributor spins faster) and, in most cases, vacuum from the carburetor. One of the problems of these early point-breaker ignitions is that the points wear out quickly; hence the need for freqent tuneups. Back in the Good Old Days, the points had to be checked, cleaned and/or changed and the ignition system fine-tuned every 10,000 miles or so just to keep the engine running decently.

Electronics to the Rescue

The first big electronic improvement was the breakerless (a.k.a. electronic) ignition, which used a magnetic or optical sensor on the distributor shaft, instead of the points, to trigger the coil. Electronic ignitions increased tuneup times and spark plug life (to 50,000 miles or so) and reduced emissions. (They are said to make engines easier to cold-start, though my old '69 Dodge has a point-breaker ignition and I've never had much of a problem.) Electronic ignitions were initially developed in the late 1940s and were offered as an option on some GM vehicles in the early 1960s. FIAT offered the first standard-fit electronic ignition in the '68 Dino, but that wasn't sold in the US; the 1971 Jaguar XJ, which also had it, was. Chrysler made electronic ignition standard in 1973; GM, Ford and AMC followed in 1975. But, alas, for us this is nothing more than a red herring, because electronic ignitions aren't necessarily computerized -- they simply replace a few moving parts with more reliable and less maintenance-intensive components.

However, tightening emissions standards brought computers into our ignition systems soon after breakerless distributors. Primitive computers determined the optimum spark timing for a given situation, and they applied vacuum to the distributor to advance the ignition timing as needed. Several cars of this era had "feedback" carburetors that allowed on-the-fly adjustment of the fuel mixture based on feedback from the oxygen sensor. (Mercifully, simple throttle-body fuel injection systems came soon after. I owned two cars with feedback carburetors, and they were a nightmare.)

The Dawn of Computerized Ignitions

I figured this was where I would find those first computers, so I started digging in earnest. I found that while GM developed new computerized systems for the 1981 model year and Ford installed its first EEC (Electronic Engine Control) system on the 1978 Lincoln Versailles, it was Chrysler -- which, believe it or not, was once known for technical innovation -- that beat them both by introducing its Electronic Lean-Burn System on select 1976 models. (ELBS turned out to be its own special brand of misery, which is why Chrysler ceased to be known for technical innovation and began to be known for cars that took three or four tries to start.)

So was Electronic Lean Burn the first computerized engine control system for cars?

Nope. Not even close.

Forget Spark; Let's Talk Fuel

I was surprised to learn that the first computerized systems involved not ignition or feedback carburetors, but electronic fuel injection -- and they were available a heck of a lot earlier than I ever would have guessed. Believe it or not, the first commercially available electronic fuel injection system was offered in 1957...or at least that was the plan.

Mechanical fuel injection had been used in aircraft engines almost since the dawn of powered flight, and General Motors offered mechanical injection as an option on the 1957 283 V8 -- a mere coincidence as far as our story is concerned, because that system wasn't electronic.

Bendix's Ill-Fated Electrojector

Around the same time, Bendix developed a fuel injection system with a transistorized electronic control system, which they called Electrojector. It was the first electronic fuel injection system (EFI) designed for a production car, and the it was supposed to make its debut as a $395 option on American Motors Corporation's 1957 Rambler Rebel. AMC did build a few injected Rebels as pre-production models, but the system turned out to be so troublesome that none were installed on customer cars. The option was on the order forms; apparently it was too late to strike it when AMC realized just how lousy the system was. No production Rebels were made with Electrojector.

Chrysler offered Electrojector on a handful of 1958 models, and unlike AMC, they went so far as to build 35 production cars -- except that once they figured out how badly the system worked, all 35 cars were retrofitted with carburetors. Can we count them as the first computerized cars to be sold to the public? I'd say that's open to debate.

Germany to the Rescue!

Nearly a decade later, Bosch perfected their Jetronic electronic fuel injection system, which used date from a pressure sensor as well as engine speed to control the fuel injection rate. Jetronic was indeed a computer-based system, and it worked. Bosch licensed it to several automakers; the first to put it into production was Volkswagen, in the 1968 Type III Fastback and Squareback. VW ran ads saying goodbye to the carburetor and touting the Type III as the first car with its own computer -- a notable attribute in the days when most computers also required their own rooms.

So instead of one clear answer, we have three possibilities: 1957 Rambler, 1958 Chrysler or 1968 Volkswagen. Which car should lay claim to the title of first computer? Or, do you have your own ideas? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

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When Did Cars Get Computerized? - Autotrader