When it comes to car dashboards and instrument clusters, a certain amount of standardization has sort of organically happened over the years. By some mystical, unspoken decrees, most automakers (there are exceptions, of course) have agreed where most of the common controls can be expected: wipers and indicators on steering-column stalks, radio and HVAC controls in the center, nowadays usually with the infotainment screen above the climate controls, and the rear window defroster in a mathematically-randomized location. But once, we were daring. We were willing to take risks. We were willing to challenge expectations. We were willing to stick a radio on the ceiling.
Yes, yes, you read that right, your car radio, but instead of just being jammed into a slot in your dash, like a chimp jamming their termite-scraping stick-tool into a tree, Panasonic offered more refined car-sounds-listeners the Cockpit, which could be mounted on your car’s headliner, just aft of the rear-view mirror and between the sun visors. All this, way back in 1979.
What I really like about the Cockpit (I mean, other than everything) is that, based on the ad copy, it was well aware of why anyone would even consider such an option: deep down, people sometimes want their cars to feel like spaceships.
The ad copy read:
“It’ll make your car look like the inside of a space ship.”
So, yeah, pretty clear there.
The copy also goes on to say that it’ll sound like a “concert hall” in there, too, and that it’s got an FM tuner and an auto-reverse cassette player with all the Dolby® you could ever want jammed into it, along with the ability to play CrO2 tapes which is something I forgot was A Thing and even though I’m old aigh eff I’m pretty sure I never knew what that was, as all my cars had shitty Sparkomatic (yeah, that was a real brand) tape decks that didn’t have reverse buttons, requiring you to hit the combo FF/eject button and flip over the tape if you wanted to rewind, like an animal.
The Cockpit also had plenty of LEDs on it, too, because Panasonic understood that a huge chunk of the appeal of this thing would be how it looked at night, and a bunch of multicolored blinky LEDs on the roof were just what the space-doctor ordered.
It also looks like the unit incorporated a (seemingly optional) new dome light, perhaps because installation could require removal of your car’s existing dome lamp.
There were three generations of the Cockpit made, and each generation added features and, more importantly, buttons, lights, and, significantly, on the third generation a little joystick for balance was added for some serious spaceship feel.
Here’s a video that gives some nice views of all three:
I gotta admit, part of me really wants to sit in a car and reach up and poke at those buttons and slide those sliders and joy that stick and everything.
Based on ads of the era, it looks like these were selling for about $799 around 1980, which would be over $2,700 today! Holy crap, that’s a lot of money for a radio that would have been a real pain to put your tapes in while driving.
They still seem pretty pricey today; this one is on eBay for a solid grand, which is a lot, objectively, for an FM cassette player for your car.
Of course, I’m not even going to pretend this thing isn’t cool, and I wouldn’t squeal and pee myself a little bit if I saw, say, a mint 280Z with one of these installed.
Overhead switches and buttons are, for whatever reason, always fun in a car. Panasonic knew what was what.