The history of the automotive heads-up displays from 1950s to 1990s

8 min read

Initial use in aviation

The first heads-up displays were developed in the aviation industry in the 1940s. They were used by the US military to display critical information to pilots during World War II.

The HUD was designed to project information such as altitude, airspeed, and other critical information onto a transparent glass screen in front of the pilot. This allowed the pilot to keep their eyes on the sky while still being able to monitor their instruments.

Aviation heads-up displays served as an example for automobile manufacturers, who saw the prospect of using them to improve road safety — by helping the drivers be distracted less often because key indicators would be right in their field of vision.

The first heads-up displays in cars (concepts and prototypes)

1958 Chevrolet Corvette concept

One of the first automakers to work on the possibility of placing a HUD in a car was General Motors.

In the 1950s, GM had Harley Earl, the car design pioneer and the leading automotive stylist of the 20th-century America, as the vice president of design — and an all-female design team working on automotive interiors.
GM interior design department. From left: Suzanne Vanderbilt, Ruth Glennie, Marjorie Ford Pohlman, Harley Earl, Jeanette Linder, Sandra Logyear, Peggy Sauer.
Image source: General Motors Design Archive & Special Collections.
While working on the Chevrolet Corvette concept in 1958, Ruth Glennie, one of the designers on the team, sketched an instrument cluster that had a reflection on the windshield. Perhaps this sketch is where the history of in-car heads-up displays began.
The drawings of the GM's 1958 Chevrolet Corvette concept with the heads-up display.
Image source: Car Design News.

1965 Mako Shark II (XP-830)

In 1965, developing the Mako Shark II concept, which later became the Chevrolet Corvette C3, GM designers placed a HUD-like projection on the windshield. The interior of the concept does not provide a classic instrument cluster, there is only a heads-up display.
Concept sketches of the Mako Shark II interior, with the the upper right image featuring a HUD.
Image source: General Motors.
1965 Mako Shark II (XP-830) exterior.
Image source: General Motors.

1965-1966 Aero Coupe (XP-856)

The next appearance of the HUD could be seen in mid 60s — in the XP-856 Aero Coupe, a futuristic supercar still inspiring the debates about what model this concept was the prototype of. Some identify it with Chevrolet Corvette, others — with Pontiac Banshee or Oldsmobile Toronado.

We found a whole behind-the-scenes story on this by Dick Ruzzin from Chevrolet Studio, who was the design assistant for the XP-856 Aero Coupe. According to him, it's a Toronado after all.
Aero Coupe (XP-856) interior with HUD.
Image source: General Motors.
Aero Coupe (XP-856) exterior.
Image source: General Motors.

1968 Chevrolet Caprice (prototype)

According to an infographic from GM, another model in which the HUD was tested was the 1968 Chevrolet Caprice Sedan prototype.
HUD tested on prototype sedan.
Image source: General Motors.
1968 Chevrolet Caprice Sedan ad.
Image source: General Motors.
After that, nothing was heard about the HUDs for almost 20 years, until another concept car appeared — this time, from Pontiac.

1986 Pontiac Trans Sport Concept

Both exterior and interior design of Pontiac Trans Sport minivan was away from purely utilitarian and far ahead of its time, reminiscent of a monorail capsule loaded with future-tech. Take a look at the steering wheel with lots of buttons, for example.
1986 Pontiac Trans Sport Concept steering wheel and dashboard.
Image source: General Motors.
The photo of the heads-up display itself, unfortunately, is not freely available. There are only photos of the interior. But since the Pontiac is part of the GM concept, and we also have an idea of what GM HUDs were like before and after, we can assume that the Trans Sport, similar to other models, displayed speed, turn signal indicators, and possibly a selected radio wave.
1986 Pontiac Trans Sport Concept exterior.
Image source: General Motors.

Mass production of cars with built-in HUDs

1988 was the year that heads-up displays in vehicles became available to a wider range of drivers.

This was again not without the help of the aviation industry — namely, after the acquisition of Hughes Aircraft by General Motors in 1985, and a subsequent merger with GM’s in-house electronics division Delco.

1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme

The Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with a heads-up display as an option appeared in 1988. The launch campaign for this model was built around the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, where the Cutlass Supreme Convertible was the pace car.

Its heads-up display had two main functions: it displayed speed and a turn signal indication.
The HUD on the 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, Indy Pace Car Edition.
Image source: General Motors.
This video shows how the HUD looks and works in slightly later versions of the Cutlass Supreme.
1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Convertible Indy Pace Car.
Image source: Mecum Auctions.
An interesting fact about this model is that initially only 50 units were produced, which were used as pace cars and in festival events. Then they were sold to 50 selected Oldsmobile dealers.

After a while, General Motors discovered some issue with the certification of these models. Each dealer was asked to return them to GM (where they were to be destroyed) and receive the full amount of their purchase price.

Most of them were returned for credit, but a few dealers, understanding the collectible value, objected and kept their cars, leaving (by all accounts) less than 10 in the total population.

1988 Nissan 240SX (S13) and Maxima (J30)

The first Japanese manufacturer to introduce heads-up displays was Nissan. In 1988, Nissan launched the 240SX and Maxima, which had the option of displaying the speed on the windshield. It was a green image, very close to that in the Oldsmobile version.

This video shows how it works in the 240SX.
1988 Nissan 240SX on the left, 1988 Nissan Maxima on the right.
Image sources: Bring a Trailer, Reddit, Edmunds, Motorweek.

1989 Pontiac Grand Prix (sixth generation)

The heads-up display in the Grand Prix was almost the same as in the Cutlass Supreme. The speed, turn signal indicators, and a few other indicators were reflected in green on the windshield.

Judging by the photos, it was still quite a massive design that towered over the dashboard. A little later, automakers will start integrating the HUDs into the dash to make their body less visible.
1989 Pontiac Grand Prix interior.
Image source: Autoblog.
In this video, you can see in a few shots how it works.
1989 Pontiac Grand Prix.
Image source: Bring a Trailer.

1991 Toyota Crown Majesta (S140)

In 1991, the second Japanese manufacturer released a car with a projection display. It was Toyota with its luxury sedan for the domestic market, the Crown Majesta.

Its HUD looked neater than that of GM or Nissan, because it was not raised above the dashboard, but was hidden in the depth (almost similar to how modern built-in HUDs look).

In addition, the Crown Majesta display displayed not only the speed, but also the warnings to the driver, such as an open door or an unfastened seat belt — these were indicated with an orange triangle.
1991 Toyota Crown Majesta.
Image source: WheelsAge.

1992 Pontiac Bonneville

The next model from GM to feature a heads-up display was the 1992 Pontiac Bonneville.

Following the Toyota, the GM's HUD would display additional readings: high beam, turn indicators, low fuel and other warnings (low oil pressure, low oil level, high coolant temperature).

The image below shows a page from the owner's manual describing the HUD's functions (read it in full, pages 107 through 110).
Page from the 1992 Pontiac Bonneville owner's manual.
Image source: General Motors.
1992 Pontiac Bonneville Sedan.
Image source: Consumer Guide Automotive.

1997 Chevrolet Corvette C5

The C5 Corvette was introduced in 1997, but the first year the heads-up display was introduced as an option was 1999.

Its HUD is curious because it displayed several car indicators at once and was a bit more customizable.

Besides the speed, it displayed a scale with engine RPM, as well as an additional scale which would inform the driver about the oil pressure, the coolant temperature, and the fuel level

Unnecessary indicators can be turned off — for example, leaving only the tachometer.

Here's a quick video review of the Corvette C5 heads-up display.
The interface of a heads-up display in the Chevrolet Corvette C5.
Image source: The Corvette Story.
Chevrolet Corvette C5.
Image source: Road & Track.

1999 Cadillac DeVille

The real game changer was the Cadillac DeVille, launched in 1999.

Its heads-up display had a night vision assistant function and showed the image from the camera, which was located in the center of the grille. It was a $1,995 option for the DTS and DHS models, based on infrared, heat-sensing technology developed for the military.

After 2004, Cadillac no longer put night vision into the HUD — the feature was moved to the digital instrument cluster (but we still think it was a good idea, so we added night vision camera support to HUDWAY Drive).

20+ years later it still feels cool to watch the commercial or to see this DeVille option in action.
1999 Cadillac DeVille heads-up display in night vision mode.
Image source: GM Authority.
1999 Cadillac DeVille with night vision camera.
Image source: NetCarShow.

We're glad you read it all the way here

Hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed digging the sources, images, and videos.

We do it on a regular basis, in search for inspiration and practices to apply to what we do about heads-up displays. We've been making them since 2013 — and among the HUD fans we're known for:

HUDWAY Drive — a portable, super-customizable heads-up display that will sit well on almost any dashboard.

HUDWAY Go — a navigation app making your phone work as a heads-up display at night mode when you simply place it under your windshield.

Both are neat alternatives to the factory built HUDs. Ask us anything about them at

And stay tuned, coming soon is another post on the heads-up display technologies, this time — on those from the 21st century.