When the Andrea Doria sank near Nantucket, Mass., in 1956, Chrysler lost a prized possession aboard the Italian ocean liner: the Norseman, a one-of-a-kind, prototypical show car.
The Norseman was a concept car, a preproduction automobile used by companies to monitor interest, delight auto show patrons--and attempt to predict the future. Some are not built to go over 30 mph. Some don't run at all. But others actually go into production, although by that time they may bear only a passing resemblance to the sleek, sexy concept versions originally conceived by the designers.
When an automaker plans to build a concept, it will often load the show car with glitzy styling and technology in order to appear modern and fuel interest in the brand and the vehicle that is being previewed. The New York International Auto Show, which will open to the press next week, will feature a number of concept cars, including previews of forthcoming luxury cars from such brands as Toyota's Lexus and Ford Motor's Lincoln subsidiaries.
General Motors, which will show the sleek Buick Velite convertible concept at New York, has played a major role in the history of concept cars. Buick's Y-Job, a product of the legendary Harley Earl's design studio, was the industry's first concept vehicle. Today, GM still uses concept cars to preview its most advanced technology. The company's Hy-wire concept from the 2003 North American International Auto Show in Detroit was the world's first drivable hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.
The 2003 Detroit auto show was particularly big for GM, as the company complemented the intelligent, forward-thinking Hy-wire with a sinister supercar that was an environmentalist's worst nightmare: the Cadillac Sixteen. The Sixteen, which featured a 1,000-horsepower, 16-cylinder engine, is not on our list because it was upstaged at the Detroit show, in terms of outrageousness and decibel level, by Dodge's Viper-powered Tomahawk motorcycle. The Sixteen was an instant classic, but there have been plenty of other stories about it since its introduction, and we wanted to make sure we could include other unforgettable GM concept vehicles that don't get discussed as often, such as the 1988 Oldsmobile Aerotech and the 1954 Firebird 1, which was powered by a gas turbine engine.
Ed Welburn, who is now GM's vice president of design for North America, designed the Olds Aerotech, a racecar that broke speed and endurance records that had been set by Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. Welburn talks with pride about the vehicle's aerodynamics and how it miraculously put out 1,000 horsepower with a four-cylinder engine. But he adds, "Of course, we wanted it to look fantastic.
"It looks like it's fast, and it sits so low to the ground," said Welburn of the Aerotech. "It generates emotions. It's almost like a hydroplane with wheels."
As we looked at the history of concept cars, we sought to find the ones that had the highest emotional impact--and which caused the most buzz. We also sought to provide you with a variety of concept cars: the 1954 Firebird 1, which was styled like a jet, has little in common with the 2001 Toyota Pod. The Pod's front-light cluster would make a smiley face if its owner was driving responsibly.
While concept vehicles like the Firebird 1 are designed to inspire awe, vehicles like the Pod are just for fun. The Tokyo Motor Show, where Toyota introduced the Pod, is famous for having the most quirky, colorful visions of what the automotive future might look like. GM may be the king of concept cars, but Japanese concepts have a singular charm. Just check out a neat car that didn't make our list, Mazda's 1991 HR-X for an idea of what we are talking about. The HR-X was an odd but lovable, bubble-shaped technological showboat: It boasted a rotary engine powered by hydrogen.
Concept cars help make our job more fun. They push the envelope but are often rolled out just for kicks as they check in throughout the year at the major auto shows: Detroit, Chicago, Geneva, New York, Los Angeles and, every other year, Tokyo. The major European auto show is held in September, hosted in odd-numbered years by Frankfurt and in evens by Paris.
A concept car will sometimes go into production or, as you will see in the slide show, will just have features that needle their way into production models. Then there are the concepts that are just too wild to catch on--but those are often the most fun. Just be sure, if you are an automaker, to build a second prototype before you load your priceless show car on an ocean liner.