I bet most of our regular readers have, at some point, blown the mind of one of their non-gearhead friends by pointing out the little arrow in almost every modern fuel gauge that shows what side the fuel filler is on. It’s a fantastic and simple bit of human-machine interface design, which makes it sort of insane that nobody knows the name of the brilliant designer who first came up with the idea. Well, that’s all changed. We now know the designer’s name, and can finally give them the recognition they deserve.
Well, sort of. I’ll explain. Actually, even better than me just explaining, you can hear the whole thing here on this podcast, Every Little Thing, which had me on as a guest to talk about that little arrow. They were the ones that found the inventor’s name, and while I agree mostly, I do think there is still an earlier version that remains uncredited.
Here, listen to the podcast:
If for some reason you can’t listen to the podcast (you work in a wind tunnel full of howler monkeys who crank AC/DC all day and company rules forbid headphones, for example) then I’ll give you the highlights here.
The unsung hero/inventor of the fuel filler dashboard arrow is a designer named Jim Moylan, who worked for Ford. The idea came to Moylan in April of 1986, who had to fill up a Ford company car in the rain, and was frustrated when he got soaked because he picked the wrong side. He wrote up a memo with the idea, sent it off to his bosses, and that’s pretty much how it happened.
The bosses saw the value in the (pleasingly cheap-to-implement) idea, and in 1989, the Ford Escort and Mercury Tracer became the first cars to have the little fuel filler-location arrow.
Again, sort of.
See, while I’m not disputing Moylan’s story—I 100 percent believe he came up with the idea independently—I do think the fuel filler-location arrow has an earlier genesis, and it’s one that, frustratingly, its parent company doesn’t even acknowledge. I think the first example of the fuel filler-location arrow shows up in 1976, on the dash cluster of the Mercedes-Benz W123.
Now, it’s not exactly the same thing, but, conceptually, it’s very close. The W123 instrument cluster included a little red low fuel warning light, which some still-anonymous designer decided to place next to the fuel gauge, and shaped it like a little triangular arrow pointing to the right, where the fuel filler is.
I don’t think this was just chance; that light is intended to point to where the filler is, especially since there’s earlier versions (like on an R107) where the low fuel warning lamp makes no attempt to do anything other than panic you that you’re almost out of gas:
The change to the little triangular arrow was very intentional, and shows where to put the gas in the car, just like Moylan’s printed arrow.
Unfortunately, the tenacious sleuths over at Every Little Thing found that Mercedes-Benz themselves seems to have totally forgotten about this, and thinks that they started putting the little arrow on their dashes with the 1997 G-Class.
Jeez, Mercedes. Take a look in your museum, sometime.
So, with Mercedes-Benz no help, and Moylan’s story so well documented, I’m more than happy to say Jim Moylan is the unsung hero behind the little fuel gauge arrow. Even if Benz was earlier, it’s a light, not just a little printed thing, and Moylan’s innovation has proven to be far more influential.
So, there you go. All hail Jim Moylan, inventor of that little arrow that tells you where to put your gas!