July 1960: the universal automobile simulator

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The so-called universal automobile simulator offered learner drivers everything except a clear view of the road ahead writes Jason Ford

Today, learner drivers in Coventry have the option of paying for a service that puts them in a simulated environment before heading onto the road.

SmartLearner Driving School claims to be the first driving school in England to have its own driving simulator, which comes with eye trackers, motion detectors and an advanced PC system to monitor learners as they get to grips with car controls.

In the broader automotive world, car manufacturers make extensive use of simulators for the purpose of research and testing and the advent of autonomous vehicles is driving a simulator market valued at $4.6bn in 2019 and is expected to expand at a CAGR of 3.4 per cent to 2027 as manufacturers invest in tech that helps them iron out glitches prior to production.

universal automobile simulator
A "Victor" mounted on the simulator: the turntables supporting the front wheels can be seen. On the far side of the bonnet is a stop clock displaying the brake reaction time

By 1960 the use of simulators had gained traction in industries where training at full scale was too expensive or dangerous but in July of that year General Precision Systems, Ltd. of Aylesbury, Bucks was bringing simulators to the masses with Sim-L-Car.

Described by The Engineer as ‘basically a mechanical rather than an electrical analogue’, the Sim-L-Car was designed for learners with no prior motoring knowledge and was not ‘sufficiently refined to deceive the experienced driver’.

“With the simulator it will be possible to ensure that pupils know the functioning of clutch, brake, throttle, gear shift, and steering before entrusting them with a car on a road,” our correspondent said. “It is also possible to use the simulator to develop drills and skills - for instance, releasing the hand-brake before starting, and changing gear without disturbing the course of the car. If the car is driven so as to touch the verge of the "road," an alarm sounds. A device measuring the time taken to apply the brake after a signal is illuminated can be incorporated.”


The driver’s view was created through the projection of a transparent model on to a screen in front of the car. The light source was positioned opposite the driver's eyes and the model landscape, made of transparent plastic, was moved below it by a drive unit.

If the car is driven so as to touch the verge of the "road," an alarm sounds

“The velocity of the model is determined by the driver of the car; the direction of movement is established very simply by linking the turntables carrying the front wheels by mechanical remote control to the drive unit,” The Engineer noted.

Speed of movement was dependent on the position of the throttle pedal and gear ratio - established by friction drive to different sized drums - selected by the instructor on a panel.

“Depression of the clutch lights a lamp on the instructor's panel, reminding him to change "gear" and allowing him to check that the pupil is disengaging the clutch at the appropriate moments,” our correspondent said. “The pedal position pick-offs form a sub-assembly which is individual to a particular car model, and the different assemblies are readily interchangeable, being linked to the instructor's panel and the simulator proper by electric and, for the brake, Bowden cable.”

The basic simulator, which was supplied with pedal assemblies for six popular cars at the time, is said to have cost less than any four-wheeled car in England. It ran off the mains supply electricity supply but could be supplied in a lower cost version that ran off the battery of a 12V car.

In a demonstration carried out in London, our correspondent noted ‘the finite size of the light source in the projector gives a faintly fuzzy image’.

It was further observed that the ‘image of the filament in the far side of the spherical envelope projects a second, fainter, image above the first; at certain attitudes, the columns supporting the model appear as black shadows on the screen. Since the drive unit is turned by the front wheels of the car, the response of the simulator is that of a car with an infinitely short wheelbase, and hence extremely quick.”

A certain type of learner driver may have been disappointed to find that real tyre effects were not reproduced by Sim-L-Car.

“These imperfections are immaterial for the speeds used by pupils making their first acquaintance with a car,” our correspondent concluded.