It started here...
1954 Cadillac El Camino
Volvo Experimental Safety Car
1955 Lincoln Futura
The Futura's Second Time Around
2001 BMW GINA Light
Toyota FJ Cruiser
One more time...
Stopping the show
1962 Mustang I
1963 Mustang II
1967 Mustang Allegro II
1970 Mustang Milano
Truth is stranger than fiction...
BMW Vision Efficient Dynamics
Porsche Mission E
Volkswagen XL Sport
Nissan Z Concept
2004 Honda SUT
2004 Kia KCV4 Mojave Concept
Hyundai Santa Cruz
1963 Chrysler Turbine
1956 Chrysler Norseman
Some concepts are very big...
...and some are very small
Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion
- It started here...
- 1954 Cadillac El...
- Ford Atlas
- 1955 Lincoln Futura
- The Futura's...
- 2001 BMW GINA Light
- Toyota FJ Cruiser
- Acura NSX
- One more time...
- Stopping the show
- 1962 Mustang I
- 1963 Mustang II
- 1967 Mustang...
- 1970 Mustang Milano
- Truth is stranger...
- BMW Vision...
- Porsche Mission E
- Volkswagen XL Sport
- Volkswagen Bulli
- Nissan Z Concept
- 2004 Honda SUT
- 2004 Kia KCV4...
- Hyundai Santa Cruz
- 1963 Chrysler...
- 1956 Chrysler...
- Some concepts are...
- ...and some are...
- Oooooh yeah...
- Mazda Taiki
- Mercedes-Benz F...
The concept car is an interesting breed. It might run, then again it might have no engine at all; it could be almost production-ready, or so wild that it could never be built for sale. Concept cars may be created for a variety of purposes: to assess styling cues, test new technologies, or just draw attention at auto shows. Come with us as we look at many of the coolest and most historically significant ones ever built.
Automakers had always made prototypes of new models, but it’s believed the 1938 Buick Y-Job was the industry’s first concept car. It was created by GM head stylist Harley Earl and with revolutionary features for its day, including its flush-mounted door handles, hidden convertible top and headlights, power windows, and cooled brake drums. Some of its styling migrated to production models, and Earl drove it as his personal car.
GM, Ford and Chrysler produced the bulk of the early concept cars, including this one, which premiered at the Motorama, a show GM set up in major U.S. cities. It had a fiberglass body and stainless steel top. Several of its styling features showed up on later production vehicles, although its name eventually landed on a very different looking Chevrolet car/truck hybrid five years later.
Ford rolled out the Atlas at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show. Two years and the launch of the all-new F-150 later, it was obvious the Atlas had been its testbed. The show truck included the production F-150’s styling, small turbocharged engine, LED headlights, and its ability to back up a trailer by itself.
Unveiled at the 1972 Geneva Motor Show, the Safety Car would lend some of its styling to the upcoming Volvo 240, but the emphasis was on its technologies, most of which were revolutionary for the day. It included airbags, a reinforced passenger compartment with integrated rollover cage, anti-lock brakes, automatic ride height, backup sensors, headlamp washers and wipers, a rear wiper, and automatic seatbelts. In a crash, its steering wheel moved away from the driver and its fuel supply shut off, and its engine “submarined” downward rather than straight into the cowl.
The Futura was one of the few concepts that became even more famous after its retirement. Unveiled at the 1955 Chicago Auto Show, it was designed by Lincoln-Mercury chief stylist Bill Schmidt, who said he was inspired by sharks he’d seen when scuba-diving, although much of the car’s design followed that of fighter jets. It was built by Ghia in Italy at a cost of $250,000, including paint made iridescent by adding fish scales. But it was old news by 1959, when it was repainted and made an appearance in a long-forgotten Debbie Reynolds film.
Following its film debut, the Futura was parked and left to rot. It had been painted for the movie by car customizer George Barris, who later bought it from Ford, supposedly for $1. With plans for a Batman TV series in the works, Twentieth Century Fox paid Barris to turn the car into the Caped Crusader’s ride. This included cutting the Futura’s steering wheel into a U-shape, but Batman star Adam West disliked it so much that Barris substituted an Edsel wheel. The Futura’s original frame cracked during filming, and a lengthened Ford Galaxie frame was substituted. Barris eventually built five fiberglass replicas of the car for shows, and in 2013 sold the original for $4.2 million.
One of the most beautiful concept cars of all time has to be BMW’s GINA Light Visionary. Short for Geometry and Functions iN Adaptions, the car was created under the leadership of Chris Bangle, the company’s styling chief at the time. The GINA was part of an initiative to give designers more freedom in their work. They stretched a fabric skin over the GINA’s frame, consisting of only four pieces that covered the front end and doors, the two rear quarters, and the trunk. The car’s components move under the skin, which folds or slides away as needed. Obviously more for inspiration than production, the GINA now resides at BMW’s museum in Munich.
While many (if not most) concepts are intended to point the way toward an eventual production car, that was never the intention with the FJ Cruiser. It was strictly a design study by the company’s California studio, drawn from Toyota’s original BJ and FJ models from the 1950s and 1960s, and set on a modified Land Cruiser chassis. It debuted at the 2003 Detroit auto show and received so much response from the public and press that Toyota’s execs gave the green light, and it was in showrooms just three years later.
One of the most highly-anticipated concept cars was the NSX, but it took some doing to get it to centre stage. Plans for a second-generation NSX were initially announced in 2007, but fell victim to the global economic downturn. The concept finally emerged at the 2012 Detroit auto show, but Acura’s engineers weren’t happy with the fact that its naturally-aspirated V6 engine, hooked to a complex hybrid powertrain, wasn’t as powerful as they’d like.
So for 2013, there was a new NSX concept with turbo power, unveiled to just as much interest as the first one. Then, at the 2015 Detroit show, Acura pulled the drapes off the production model. As hotly-anticipated as the car was, Acura’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Some 90 minutes earlier, Ford drove its new GT supercar on stage, a model it had somehow managed to keep a complete secret until then. And then …
Okay, so the GT wheeled out was the production version, not a concept, but let’s finish the story. Ford upstaged Acura and then added insult to injury. While other manufacturers unveil cars in their booths, Ford does so in an adjacent arena and then drives the cars through the show to its display. The route took the GT right past Acura, coincidentally or not, just as the reveal was starting. Many journalists (including me), catching sight of a supercar moving behind them in the dim light, thought it was part of Acura’s event and missed the actual unveiling onstage.
The original Mustang concept car was actually Ford thinking about racing, not production. Built by California coachbuilders Troutman & Barnes in just 100 days, with an aluminum body over a space-frame chassis, the car used a V4 mid-mounted engine. For its debut, Formula One driver Dan Gurney took it on a lap of Watkins Glen, New York at the U.S. Grand Prix, where it met with considerable public approval.
But the Mustang I remained a concept, and Ford wanted to associate the name with the four-seater coupe it planned to sell. The Mustang II was built primarily for the auto show circuit, in conjunction with the production car’s development. It was still far enough off the eventual styling that it didn’t take the shine off the production car’s launch. In this early photo, it wears a Cougar badge, since that name was still under consideration at the time.
Once the Mustang hit the market, Ford couldn’t turn out enough versions of it for the show circuit and to assist the design studios. This one started off from one of the many concepts originally built in 1962 for the design studio’s use, but very little of it eventually transferred over to subsequent production models.
Like the Allegro, the Milano was a wild take-off from the production car. Introduced at the 1970 Chicago Auto Show, its high rear deck and long nose hinted at the styling of the upcoming 1971 Mustang.
By 1990, Ford was working on the fourth-generation Mustang. Designers commonly incorporate a variety of non-automotive themes, and three concepts emerged that were named for celebrities and their most famous roles. One was inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, another by Sylvester Stallone as Rambo. This third one didn’t get very far: named for Bruce Jenner, who was riding a wave of television fame at the time following his Olympic endeavours, it wasn’t considered sufficiently “aggressive” to wear the Mustang badge.
BMW took this car from concept, to concept, to reality. The original car debuted in 2009 and was more about the company’s overall efficiency tactics, which included everything from optimized internal combustion engines, to hybrid and electric drivelines. Two years later, the i8 Concept arrived to tease buyers about how the production model would eventually look. The Efficient Dynamics blanket also included the Megacity Vehicle concept, which would eventually become the all-electric i3.
Not to be outdone in the plug-in department, Porsche presented its stunning Mission E at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2015. Unusually for a sports concept, it has four doors and seats four people. Porsche threw in everything: all-wheel drive, four-wheel steering, zero to 100/km in 3.5 seconds, and an instrument cluster that works by eye-tracking and contains holograms. The company says the 600-horsepower car can go more than 500 kilometres on a full charge. If you’re in a hurry, it can juice up enough in just 15 minutes to travel 400 klicks.
After presenting its ultra-efficient XL1 plug-in hybrid at the Qatar Motor Show in 2011, Volkswagen made it the basis of the XL Sport that it debuted at the Paris Motor Show in 2014. Using a Ducati Superleggera V-Twin motorcycle engine, the 197-horsepower XL can hit a top speed of 270 km/h, mostly due to its power-to-weight ratio and the slippery aerodynamics of its carbon fibre-reinforced polymer body.
And at the other end of the scale is the Bulli, which goes for the cute factor. Paying homage to the original VW Bus, and descended from other concepts such as the Microbus and Space Up!, the Bulli debuted in 2011 at the Geneva Motor Show. It’s powered by an electric motor.
There were actually two Z Concepts. The first one, introduced in 1999, bore more resemblance to the original 240Z and the 300ZX that had retired in 1996, while this second one, debuted at the Detroit Auto Show in 2001, led the way back to a new production version introduced for the 2003 model year. I had a chance to take a short ride in that second Z Concept when it was taken to an outdoor event. The gauges looked real but didn’t actually work, and it got pretty hot out there in the sun, since the windows didn’t open.
With trucks proving to be money-makers for those who sold them, companies that hadn’t traditionally been into them started to pay attention. Honda rolled out the SUT Concept, for Sport Utility Truck, at the 2004 Detroit Auto Show, but everything was already in the works. The SUT Concept, based on a platform from the Honda Pilot, was essentially the production Ridgeline that would be introduced the following year, but with some high-tech trim. Features that didn’t make it to consumers included the SUT’s four-panel skylight, stylized dash, speakers integrated into the truck box, and flashlights built into the door panels.
Kia also unveiled a truck concept in 2004, at the Chicago Auto Show. Saying that it was skipping the small-truck market where Toyota and Nissan started, Kia built the Mojave as a midsize, with Dodge’s Dakota in its sights. It also featured an updated version of the Chevrolet Avalanche’s “midgate” and so could be switched from two to four passengers by moving the front of the bed. It looked promising, but so far, Kia has yet to build a truck.
Kia’s parent company may fulfill the promise, though, having introduced its Santa Cruz Crossover Truck Concept at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show. The company admits it’s not really a pickup truck—towing and payload aren’t even in the equation—but a vehicle for crossover and sedan buyers who want the added cargo convenience, which includes a sliding bed for longer items. The concept includes a 2.0-litre diesel engine and all-wheel drive. While not yet a for-sure, this one does seem to be heading to production.
The Turbine was more prototype than concept, but it’s too cool not to include. Several automakers experimented with turbine engines, but it’s this version that everyone knows. Fifty of the bronze-coloured cars were built, using bodies by Italy’s Ghia, and given to everyday drivers to test in real-world conditions. Turbines used fewer parts and ran on a variety of fuels, but ultimately, were too loud, too thirsty at idle, and had too much lag to be viable. Citing high import tariffs it would have to pay, but more likely to keep them from ending up in public hands, Chrysler destroyed all but nine of them.
The Turbine wasn’t Chrysler’s first collaboration with Ghia; the American automaker had used the Italian coachbuilder for its show cars since 1950. Chrysler commissioned the Norseman to make the rounds of the 1957 auto show circuit. Designed at Chrysler’s U.S. studio, the Norseman had no front windshield pillars and a rear window that retracted into the roof. No one really remembers what colour it was, since the glamour photography would be done once the Norseman arrived in America on the Andrea Doria. But the ship collided with another in thick fog and sank. The Norseman is still at the bottom of the ocean, where divers say there’s very little left of it.
Not all concepts are cars! Introduced to the press in May 2015, the Freightliner Inspiration is a self-driving tractor-trailer. Four have been built, with two remaining in Freightliner’s research facilities, and the other two in real-world testing in Nevada. The Inspiration isn’t completely autonomous, but can follow the road and other vehicles on long, straight highway stretches.
At the 2015 Frankfurt Motor Show, Land Rover debuted its Defender Pedal Car Concept. True to the real thing, the pedal car features an aluminum body, leather seats, storage trunk, parking brake, working horn, and individual chassis number. The cars are intended for production in 2016 and are expected to ring in at around £10,000.
Lamborghini turned 50 in 2013, and of course there had to be something special to mark the occasion. That turned out to be the Egoista. Penned by Walter de Silva, then head of Volkswagen Group Design, the car is based on a Gallardo and features a 600-horsepower 5.2-litre V10 engine. The name translates to “selfish,” and for good reason: the massive sports car seats only a single person, who climbs in and out through the glass canopy. Never intended for sale or production, the Egoista is now part of the Lamborghini Museum.
Introduced at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show, the Taiki was one of four Mazda design studies, along with the Nagare, Ryuga, and Hakaze, to feature organic, windswept lines that would eventually shape the company’s production models. The Taiki, which used Mazda’s next-generation Renesis rotary engine, was tested in a wind tunnel during development to tweak the body around the rear wheels to create downforce.
The name certainly didn’t roll off the tongue, but Mercedes-Benz’s autonomous car grabbed the spotlight at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show. It’s a plug-in hybrid, but once the stored charge runs out, it makes more electricity with its hydrogen fuel cell. The car seats four passengers, who can sit conventionally or face each other, providing they’re not busy with the six front and rear display screens. The car was part of a scenario called “City of the Future 2030+,” although we’re hoping it doesn’t take that long to get our hands on one.