Car Options Showcase — OEM Tents, Dogs, Bars and More

A recent CC post that showcased an AMC AMX with the rare factory hatchback tent option got me thinking about one of my central obsessions related to cars – OEM options. Given that I am less of a gearhead and more a devotee of the automobile as a reflection consumer culture, it probably comes as no surprise that the options that fascinate me are less about propulsion dynamics, gear ratios, cubic inches and such than the various things that car manufacturers have over the years decided that consumers want as matters of personalization, convenience and comfort. Or just as often, as ways to have their vehicles reflect or promote a certain attained or aspired to lifestyle

I suppose that much of my fascination with car options came from my early-in-life absorption with print media. Or maybe more accurately, with the pictures in print media, as I developed the position early on that I’d read nearly anything if it was illustrated. Complicated text was fine, but if there were no pictures or few pictures, I’d give it a pass relative to something that had more pictures. I guess that’s why I would tell people that I wanted to be a physician versus a lawyer (medical texts have GREAT pictures!) back when I was a kid and those two choices seemed to be the only ones possible for the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question…which adults seemed to obsessively ask. In the end of course, I wound up being neither; but I still have that thing about wanting to read with pictures.

As a child, I devoured stuff ranging from encyclopedias (the Golden Book Children’s Encyclopedia was a huge favorite due to the heavy picture to text ratio) to catalogs such as Sears and Montgomery Ward (aka, what I was absolutely convinced for year was the “Monkey Wards” catalog before the correction set in). But what I truly loved more than anything else should one fall into my hands was a new car sales brochure.

Of course it was always the fine print that captured my attention. The pictures, while eye-catching, seldom made much sense to a mind that was (and is) always attempting to decode a narrative behind the composition. Who are those ladies there with the Newport and how did they manage to teleport from what appears to be the late 18th century only to find themselves standing next to this guy with his mod green car. He’s going to absolutely lose his mind once he notices them. And how are they going to choose who’s going to have to ride in the back seat, because they’re definitely not all going to fit in the front.

No, what got me was that the “options list goes on and on and on”! And so turning ahead to page 20 in this 1971 brochure, I discovered the totally fabulous Compact Cassette Stereo with Optional Microphone. There were so many things cool about that. First off, cassettes. Oh, I knew of 8-tracks, having discovered those advertised by the Columbia/RCA Record and Tape club. We never had them in my house (too new-fangled, and therefore obviously intended for richer folk than the Sun Family), but at least I knew what they were. But here Chrysler was offering cassettes; something newer – and therefore presumably “better”…because that’s how things worked back then. Regardless, the microphone was what really drove me crazy.

I had to have one, or more specifically it was my loudly expressed opinion that my parents needed to option their 1971 Town and Country with that particular radio. Of course, readers of my COAL series know about my parents’ general disposition toward displays of automotive excess such as radios so it’s not surprising how that purchase turned out. They miraculously sprung for the car (which they kept for the rest of their lives) but naturally denied me the optional high-grade audio system. Well, no matter. I still had the brochure – soon joined by others that I learned could often be grabbed from showroom displays that as a teen I increasingly had access to. Through sales literature, I found a way to indulge a fantasy where the various cars in my life could be optioned with all of the amazing extras which various manufacturers could offer. In this way, a life-long interest in car options got its start.

There’s a lot to unpack when considering the various options offered on new cars. One could in fact write a book (hummmmmm) about the subject, so I’ll keep this discussion largely focused on lifestyle and convenience options versus mechanical and safety offerings. Likewise, for the most part I’m going to stick to major manufacturers’ commercial offerings. So, no discussion of the on and off again availability of whale penis leather interiors on oligarchs’ SUVs. (OK, in fact there are actually a lot of reasons not to discuss that) I’ll try to provide links to various sites where I found most of these things so that readers can indulge their own reading-with-pictures inclinations.

Let’s start with where this story idea started, which is automotive tents. The tents that most fascinate me are those like the one on the AMX; that is, tents that convert more or less standard vehicles to temporary campers.

Of course, the go-to example for factory option tents is the Pontiac Aztek (2001 – 2005). I’ve seen one of these tent rigs in-person, but they are quite hard to find pictures of in sales literature. Part of that is because Aztek sales literature is hard to find online, but I think it’s also the case that even when tents are offered as an OEM option, they’re usually not well publicized. For example, there’s no mention or image of the tent in AMC’s 1977 brochure (the tent was only offered in 1977).

On the other hand, the 1977 AMC brochure does offer a range of dealer-installed options where the tent would seemingly fit right in. It’s odd to think of a litter container on the hump (fancy!) and a dash-mounted compass as being options. Didn’t most of us just pick those things up at JC Whitney or KMart? The air compressor is cool, and was also a factory-installed option many years later in the Aztek.

The tent as a somewhat elusive factory option continues with Honda, and in particular, everyone’s favorite discontinued active lifestyle utility vehicle, the Element (2003 – 2011).

The Element offered what is called the “Tailgate Cabana”, an option that received minimal mention in the sales literature.

Here, the cabana makes an appearance in the 2003 brochure, but it’s not fully described. Rather it’s just sort of tossed into the blender of “more of the ways” you can customize your Element. Maybe it was an expensive option, since there’s more than one online image of ways that Element owners over time have replicated the cabana/tent option using more home-grown solutions.

This conveys a certain porta-potty/crime scene/changing room vibe.


The Element reminds me a lot of the Altra camper-car, a Renault R4-based camper featured in Jacque Tati’s Trafic. Unfortunately, the Altra did not exist as a real vehicle (beyond the one made for the movie). Which is too bad, both for Renault lovers but also for folks who would like as a factory option a camping grill incorporated into the vehicle’s front end.

Still, the resemblance between the Alta and the Element is striking.

Currently, Honda offers a Honda-branded tent accessory that “fits” present-day Odysseys and Pilots. I’ve seen one of these at the dealer, and frankly they’re little more than dome tents with a Honda logo where you can tack one of the flies to your tailgate.

That doesn’t seem to be as much of an “option” as just something that one might choose to transport in their car. Likewise, Subaru markets little stand-alone tents emblazoned with a Subaru logo. Meh. That seems quite lazy.

One of the Element’s coolest versions was the “Dog Friendly Element”. This was a $1000 package of options that served to make your car more physically accessible and safe for your best friend. The package also included some simply wacky but neat things such as an electric fan (presumably to disperse dog hair uniformly throughout the cabin) and an integrated water dish. Mostly silly stuff, but nevertheless an overall solid effort to offer vehicle options that connected with and proclaimed owners’ lifestyle choices.

Speaking of lifestyle choices, that brings us to one of automotive history’s more “what the heck?” options. This would be the glovebox bar offered on the 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.

1957 was before the time when nearly all manufacturers offered showroom advertising literature, so it’s kind of difficult to figure out how exactly this option was presented or the degree to which it was promoted. Still, there are a number of examples of Cadillac glovebox bars that appear online. It is said that Frank Sinatra’s Brougham had one. You can imagine the Chairman of the Board driving the lonely streets of Los Angeles trying to win back Ava with a glovebox full of booze. Well, at least with a glovebox full of booze. Make it one for my baby, and one more for the road.

Maybe the glovebox bar was a bit of an esoteric or VIP option, but 1957 Cadillacs came with other more well-advertised options. Such was the rear seat perfume dispenser.

Here it seems that the “convenience items” option included those things that Cadillac decided that its customers wanted, or needed. Brougham buyers got a notepad, a pencil, and Arpege Extrait de Lanvin. I’d probably have wanted to substitute a stapler or maybe a really fancy Scotch Tape dispenser for the perfume, but it’s doubtful that was possible.

She seems pretty happy that she got the perfume to go with the note pad and not a stapler.


Whatever this stuff smells like, it’s probably classier than “Black Ice”, although no doubt much more expensive.

Cadillac wasn’t the only manufacturer to explore the sale of in-car aromas. Fiat tried this for a while in association with the 500 (2007 – ?, but pretty much dead in North America by 2020). BMW continues to sell a line of air fresheners that basically work just like a Little Tree, except that you put them in a plastic holder and jam them into your cabin air vents.

Oh, and they cost a whole lot more than Little Trees, but come in flavors scents with new age names. Because, you know, “Natural”.

Maybe scents aren’t your bag and perhaps your cravings for lifestyle identification go more toward things that are perishable. Do you fancy your vehicle as a restaurant or snack bar on wheels? Are you so on the go that you really can’t imagine being in the car without a properly cooled beverage…or….I don’t know, have a need to transport cheese, leftovers, human organs for transplant? Should any of those things be the case, then quite a few automakers offer OEM in-car refrigeration solutions!

The Aztek went pretty old-school in this regard by offering a basic cooler that was engineered to fit in the center console.

Despite the fact that Pontiac felt that the cooler had the potential to kill Aztek occupants, the feature was touted as being quite useful.

But a simple cooler leaves lots of room to step up the OEM car refrigeration options game.

The Ford Flex (2009 – 2019) offered a center console option that not only had actual refrigeration, but was in fact an in-car freezer. It’s not entirely clear why anyone would need to spring for this $900 option (and perhaps not many buyers did), but if you were a buyer who needed to have it, the Ford Flex provided.

Ford was not the first to offer a refrigerator/freezer in its utility-ish vehicle. Toyota offered a “cooler/icemaker” in its vans as early as 1984 (only to discontinue it in US versions of the “Van”, relaunched as the Previa).

Toyota’s device seems to have worked much like a conventional small bar or dorm refrigerator. Coolant circulated in a “freezer” section and that section provided the cooling for the rest of the box. Anything placed in direct contact with the freezer plates would (eventually) freeze; hence Toyota supplied ice cube trays and the thing made ice. From the looks of it that ice wasn’t exactly plentiful, so it would likely be better for just dropping a few cubes into a drink (sadly, glovebox mini-bar not included) than generating enough ice to cool down the results of your 2 day saltwater fishing expedition. It’s also not clear how these devices – Toyota’s or Ford’s – kept working once the vehicle stopped running. Residual cooling probably doesn’t last long once the power goes off, and there’s only so much that insulation can do to maintain the temperature in a cooler sitting in a hot car. So, practically, these expensive options likely have little benefit over carrying a cooler and spending a few bucks on a 10 pound bag of ice. But then that doesn’t account for the bragging rights around having an icemaker built into your car.

Bragging rights were also most likely what was behind the in-car espresso maker offered by Fiat in the 500L. Despite the fact that this option generated considerable buzz (pun intended) at launch, it seems to have been quite rare and does not ever appear in Fiat’s US sales literature. It’s mentioned by option code (6WX) in European brochures. Still, there are a few YouTube videos of Americans demonstrating the device, so it does seem that it was offered here at some point and the machine was available for a few years around 2013.

For what it’s worth, by 2014, Lavazza had shifted its vehicular attention to deploying the first espresso maker in space, and Fiat was having a mighty hard time selling any 500s in the US whether or not they came with a coffee maker.

Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti – the first Italian woman in space – is currently (8/2022) on her second ISS mission, and probably giving the espresso machine originally installed in 2015 a good workout. That should put an end to any jokes about the durability of Italian appliances.


Speaking of space, that brings to mind vacuum, and when I think vacuum I think about in-car central vacuum systems. (well, not really, but some sort of transition was called for here). The Honda Odyssey has been offered with a vacuum since 2014.

Naturally, other vehicles in this family-friendly segment – namely the Chrysler Pacifica and Toyota Sienna have offered in-car vacuums. The Pacifica (2017 to present) has always had a vacuum available. The Sienna vacuum seems to come and go. It’s currently (2022) gone, but may return – along with the ice maker – for 2023.

I’m not sure I’d bust out the vacuum to pick up 12 raspberries. But maybe she doesn’t like touching fruit…


Let’s end this exploration of car options with the devices that got me started on this topic and piqued my interest in automotive options back in the 70s. That would be car audio systems.

That Chrysler built in cassette recorder which was the object of my automotive lust turns out to never have really caught on with the public. A Chrysler-branded Phillips product (Phillips invented and held the patent for 1/8” audio tape cassettes, so it made sense that Chrysler had to license the device from Phillips), those few that still exist are much sought after by collectors. Aside from transcription devices (Dictaphones and the like) in high end “executive” cars, most automakers didn’t really bother with recording devices as audio options. But what nearly every car maker did go for in a big way by the mid-1970s was…

1978 Buick brochure


…the CB radio. Starting in the 1978 model year, all GM brands offered a combination CB/AM/FM radio.

She’s serious…about matching her raincoat to her Alfetta GT as well as the CB radio she operates. Also, Laconia, NH. Just up the road a piece from here, and not a place one would easily associate with the manufacture of anything nowadays. Which says a whole lot about how different the world is in 2021 vs. 1976.


Certainly the makers of after-market CBs made a pitch that “serious” CB enthusiasts would want a unit that was technically superior to something that could be optioned into their car; and frankly, I’ve seen a lot more of these after-market CBs (usually at tag sales at give-away prices) than the factory installed ones. Still, GM, Chrysler, Ford…they all offered CBs as factory options by the mid-70s…knew a viral consumer trend when they saw one and therefore made it easy for buyers to get the official and well-integrated CB unit.

Most were integrated into AM/FM radios.

8-track and CB. This is pretty much peak 1970s culture.


Some came with audio tape – 8-track in most cases – options.

European manufacturers didn’t miss the wave either. Volvo typically devoted five or six pages in its sales brochure to audio options, and one whole page to its CB offering.


My 1976 245 at one point had the Remote Modular unit shown above. I still have all of the wiring in the car and the antenna, but unfortunately the unit itself vanished before the car made its way to me. That’s too bad since these things are extraordinarily rare nowadays. This makes me wonder though just how many car buyers during the CB craze really did spring for the OEM CB option. I’ve hardly ever found one in the wild in all of the mid-70s to mid-80s cars I’ve seen. And as fast as the CB craze exploded – due to one of those perfect-storm confluences of solid-state electronics, geo politics, US government policy, residual 1960s populism, and an advertising stunt from a mid-western bakery – it also collapsed. Lacking any real sales figures about who chose the CB option, I am going to guess that most buyers passed on the special order option and if they really wanted a CB radio, they went for the after-market, under-dash, variety.

Maybe that’s a good place to stop for now, before going down the next/related rabbit hole on car communications (i.e., mobile telephones. Stayed tuned.) and the options those have inspired. Options are all about customization and appealing to the desires of a multitude of consumers. Thus the permutations are many. I’m sure that most CC readers will have something to add about what you recall as popular our unusual in your time, and what stands out to your as a cultural high water mark reflected by car options. Let’s hear it.

All photos came from various places on the web.  In particular, check out Old Car Brochures and Dezo’s Garage for a rich collection of automotive sales literature.

It’s also useful to see a number of CC posts that cover various car options. Barry Koch’s discussion of in-car electric shavers as well as his discussion of Rear Widow Wipers are good places to start.  Tom Halter also offers an excellent history of car air conditioning…a subject I didn’t tackle since Tom already did, and besides, my family history indicates that automotive air conditioning is a bourgeois bridge too far. So what do I know?

Oh, and it turns out that Sinatra’s 1957 Brougham probably only cruised around New Jersey – and not Los Angeles – since it was his East Coast car.  But it’s a much better image thinking of Old Blue Eyes on the mid-century streets of Los Angeles versus the streets of Newark. At least I think so.