Datsun brings the bench back into focus!

Thought the bench seat up front in cars was long gone? Not so fast says Adil Jal Darukhanawala who thinks that Datsun is all set to reinvent this for its first modern mini for the masses it is developing





The new Datsun hatchback destined for India is all about space with style and innovation. It is also about doing more from well, quite a lot more! - than say any other car in the four-metre segment. Makes me think about the original idea of the Tata Indica, more car per car  was the message then and today it is quite clear that Datsun has taken simple solutions already employed years ago, rethought the idea and applied them in new effective manner to deliver what is the raisin d'être for most Indians: not just how to fill in usable space in an automobile but provide even more practicality without skimping on comfort. Also Read: Datsun teases new hatchback for India

I might be stating this with a certain amount of jest but it is equally true that we have seen Altos packed with 8 to 9 persons in a cinch - adults and not children or pygmies mind you! However, when I mentioned last month about the new Datsun being a paragon of space efficiency, I can take that a bit further and state that it would have a most innovative interior to make it stand out from the pack and be that true clutter breaker in its segment.




Honda Amaze front seat configuration



Now it is fairly well known that good logical design on small hatchbacks with front wheel drive configurations has almost done away with the central transmission tunnel and as has been proved with the newer Hondas, a flat floor means better space and comfort for occupants. Especially the liberation of legroom at the rear to provide comfortable seating in the Jazz and the Brio / Amaze twins has been given a massive thumbs up by users but now Datsun is poised to take things further.


And literally it is further ahead for their packaging engineers have re-applied the design of a bench seat for the front row almost three decades to the day the first Maruti Suzuki 800 sounded the death knell for the likes of the Hindustan Ambassador and the Premier Padmini which came thus equipped! 


Datsun boss Vincent Cobee and project director Ashwani Gupta both have stated in no uncertain terms that the interior would be mighty innovative and even though we did get to see the new Datsun, due for a world reveal here in India on July 15 but we cant speak about it due to an embargo, critically the interior was blanked out! The reason was that it was still under development but more importantly I think the project team didn't want to give the game away.


1969 Datsun 240Z



You may well ask what is this game and it is about a flat floor up front with a bench seat to accommodate three in comfort and with the gear shifter and the parking brake lever both mounted on the dashboard! Some months back I had written about the demise of the bench seat up front in automobiles with finally Chevrolet finally letting go of it in its mass market saloons. A one-piece unit which could seat three in comfort, it was obvious that once cars got sporty and began to have that four-on-the-floor gear shifter instead of three-on-the-tree column units, the move to bucket seats had the venerable bench in trouble.


Seems  Nissan is heralding a renaissance for the bench seat up front and that too for entry level small hatchbacks if one were to go by Its kei-jidosha class cars in Japan. While in Yokohama for the second prong of the Datsun rebirth and initiation, I had some free time and chanced to look up the Nissan Dayz, the latest tall boy it sells in Japan. This small baby has a very simple split bench seat with a proper ergonomic back rest (adjustable of course) so as to have three sit up front and improve the practicality aspect of the vehicle. Of course it helps that the Dayz has an automatic gearbox / CVT which enables the shifter to be positioned on the dashboard leaving the floor area uncluttered for three pairs of legs!




datsun bench seats




For the markets the new Datsun is pegged at, don't expect CVT in a hurry but a dashboard-positioned shifter for a manual is very much a possibility and even though the interior of the Datsun prototype was all but covered up, there were tell tale signs to suggest all what I have surmised. Now if this idea does appear on the new Datsun it would certainly be a major shift back to good old basics long thought lost to many and certainly it could yet again reinvigorate small car practicality. 







American Agony On the Bench!


Bucket seat-equipped cars always caught my imagination from a very early age because of their very sporty connotation but today's generation doesn't know about bench seats up front as also that humble everyday cars for the masses came with rear wheel drive! The present day set have grown up with Maruti Suzuki pioneered front wheel drive and individual bucket seats up front, not just in the small minis but also in the utility vans likes the Omni and the Versa! As such this sporty configuration made dinosaurs like the Ambassador look and even feel like they were from a prehistoric automobile age!


Of course they were because even though the bench seat in the Ambassador and the Padmini had supposed rails to more forward and back depending on how the driver wanted it, in reality and practice the mechanisms hardly delivered as intended. Also seat ergonomics were awful, especially the thought about backrest angles, squab padding and length. The Maruti 800 changed everything, appreciably for the good and that's how we phase been merrily motoring along to this day.


Nowhere has the bench seat though have such an impact in popular automotive psyche as in the US. Unlike in Europe where the sportiest small cars did sport individual form-fitting bucket seats, the mightiest American tarmac shredders kept steadfast with the bench seat. In fact so ingrained was the bench in American automotive folklore and usage that when Ford was contemplating its Mustang in 1963, it did a major nationwide survey on whether it could be brave enough to junk the bench up front for two individual bucket seats!



maruti 800



Given that the nationwide survey showed that a majority of American youth had their first kiss in a car sitting up front, the bench afforded ensure physical affinity with the least bother and this psychographic was very hard to ignore! Thankfully for millions, a brave Lee Iacocca and his team stood firm and delivered the Mustang with bucket seats and the rest as they say is history! However, while I wouldn't suggest that the Mustang caused the bench to fall from grace, critically it wouldn't have been so successful if it had come with a bench up front!


In India though where practical utility more often than not defined motoring mantras, the bench was an indispensable detail which no one gave a second thought to since it was like the holy grail for occupants and even more occupants. The Standard Herald was one of the first Indian automobiles to feature bucket seats but then this was the sportiest two-door saloon made in India in its time and it fitted the bill. 


However, when Standard Motors revised it for the Indian way of life in the form of the four-door Gazel (the first sheet metal revision on any Indian automobile in history), most versions conceded to practical usage and featured bench seats front and rear. The last bastion of the Indian bench fell when even Hindustan Motors junked it in the Ambassador once the Isuzu-engined versions began to roll out of Uttarpara! Surely the bench had been beached until now that Datsun might reveal it in its first new offering. The more things change, the more they remain the same!


Related Datsun stories:

Datsun is ready to roll in India

Datsun reveals new face for entry-level cars in India

Datsun to unveil its first car on July 15

Datsun to launch five models in India


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