What is the point of concept cars?
In 1964, General Motors created one of the most outlandish looking cars ever built. The GM-X Stiletto – named more after the knife than the shoe – was perhaps the epitome of an era of radical car design that had begun the previous decade. The Stiletto was low and very long, its fastback roofline uninterrupted for the length of its super sleek body. The front end was reminiscent of the nose of a fighter jet, with engine intakes either side. Inside was much like a fighter jet too - 31 indicator lights, 29 switches, 16 gauges. The Stiletto had well-ahead-of-its-time climate control and ultrasonic obstacle sensors. This car was a vision of tomorrow.
Only, of course, the GM-X Stiletto was never available to buy. It was a concept car, one of those unicorns of the automotive world, progressive in application and aesthetic, yet rarely actually making it into production. The last 70 years have been littered with these often eye-popping, sometimes cartoonish creations - from 1970’s Ferrari 512S Modulo, the first of a series of wedge-shaped cars from various super-car manufacturers, the likes of the 1979’s Aston Martin Bulldog; to the gull-wing Mercedes-Benz C111 of 1969 or 2005’s Maserati Birdcage, certainly a car with a name that wouldn’t get passed by the marketing department.
A cutaway drawing of the Ferrari 512s Modulo concept car.
Every category of car has seen some kind of re-imagining, from Jeep’s Hurricane, the ultimate off-roader, to the Cadillac Sixteen limo and the Spyker D12, launched in 2006 and arguably the first car to propose something akin to a luxury SUV; from the unapologetically futuristic, think 2007’s Mazda Taiki, to the retro, as in 1995’s Deco-inspired Chrysler Atlantic. Some have been so out there as to stray into fantasy. The Batmobile, from the lovingly camp 1966 ‘Batman’ TV series? That was actually a pimped-up 1955 Lincoln Futura. Small wonder such cars inspired many a boyhood dream.
“It was the Lancia Stratos HF 0 in 1970 that was the first car to really interest me. It looked like a spaceship that had just landed and was listed as ‘the car of the future’ in the back of some encyclopaedia I had. It was that moment, when I was about six, that I remember thinking ‘yes, I like cars’,” recalls Adam Hatton, the director of exterior design for Jaguar, whose hybrid-electric C-X75 might be considered a concept car classic, if only by default – meant to go into limited production, economic woes meant it never did.
The GM Firebird I with the Mauri Rose, the racecar driver behind the wheel and Harley Earl, the man who designed it, next to him.
“The fact is that concept cars are really all about offering glimpses of the future,” Hatton adds. “I think that’s why we like them. Of course, we want the customer of the future to buy into that dream too, though it’s just the way the industry works that so many of these cars don’t make it into production.”
To understand why we have to go behind the scenes. Imagine a new designer starting work with a major marque. The designer is all too conscious of the need to make an impression, but also that getting a new design into production might take four years and £500m or more. A concept car, however, can be realised for a few million – not least because concept cars don’t have to be put through the rigorous performance testing required of a production vehicle – and in under a year at that. In other words, a designer looking to stamp his authority may not be able to persuade management to pursue some wild idea to the bottom of their pockets, but they can be persuaded to take a punt on a one-off. Of course, they’re not doing that just to keep the designer happy.
"It looked like a spaceship that had just landed and was listed as ‘the car of the future’..."
“It’s akin to haute couture in fashion,” argues Marek Reichman, chief creative officer for Aston Martin. “You need haute couture to energise the rest of fashion, to feed those ideas down even into the high street, even if only one of each haute couture garment is ever made. It’s the same for cars. But, importantly, a concept car is also a means of gauging reaction - they ask ‘is the market ready for these new ideas?’”
The fighter jet nose cone of the GM-X Stiletto.
At the very top of the market – in which the gap between concept and production car is at its narrowest – there may be enough customers who want whatever you make. Reichman recalls the countless phone-calls Aston Martin received from fans wanting to buy the Bulldog, should it ever go into production. “Even the foam model that I made of it sold to a collector,” he adds.
But even at this level the economics of car manufacturing don’t allow for the satisfaction of every whim. Sure, sometimes, if rarely, the response is so positive that a maker does put the concept into production. The Porsche Boxster, the Jaguar C-X16, the McLaren P1, the Land Rover LRX – all started as concept-only projects. But even a negative reaction can reassure you that the company is heading in the right direction.
The McLaren P1, started life as a concept car and is now the only car to never depreciate in value.
“It can all be very frustrating as a designer. Not one of the concept cars I designed when I was with Lincoln/Mercury ever hit the road,” laments Reichman. It can surely be frustrating for the world’s petrolheads too. There can seem to be a gulf between the sheer chutzpah of many concept cars – you want awesome, check out the likes of the Ford Thunderflite, or the Duesenberg Coupe Simone – and the pedestrian nature of so many production cars now. Check out, if you must, the VW Passat, or the BMW X2. It can seem that this gulf is only widening.
Safety regulations don’t help. Nor, as Peter Brock, the retired designer of the likes of the Corvette Stingray and the Datsun 240Z, has argued, has software – it allows car designers to design without the sensitivity to form that sculpting in clay brings.
The late Sir Stirling Moss testing the Maserati Birdcage in Modena.
“I wouldn’t say it was laziness, more expediency on the part of car companies, but I reckon maybe just five percent of all the cars on the road now are really competent designs. Everything else is a mish-mash of copies,” adds an uncompromising J Mays, ex-chief creative officer of Ford, the driving force behind the retro-futuristic aesthetic that resulted in the likes of the Audi TT and the ‘new’ Beetle and designer, seriously, of many of the vehicles in Disney’s ‘Cars’ franchise.
“Car companies have to work very quickly now but while designs have to be true to the brands, it’s important they still differentiate themselves,” he adds. “It’s a message I daily brow-beat car design students with. Why? Because that’s how cars become meaningful to drivers. They have to have resonance – and resonance to more people than just the designer. Cars that tell a story, that allow us to relate to them, are more and more important now. But it doesn’t work when everyone is doing the same thing.”
Adam Hatton agrees that, while production cars do typically take on ideas first espoused in concept models – touch-screens, ambient lighting, hidden headlights, cameras for rear-view mirrors, certain seating configurations were, for example, all first proposed in concept cars, as have been key industry trends, for sharp angles or lozenge-like curves – perhaps they could now afford to make real some more of that bold and exciting vision.
The angular Jaguar C-X75.
“I do think we’ll start to see more flamboyant cars in the future, precisely because people want a bit of fun and excitement [in the things they buy] now,” he says. “The car industry is a conservative one generally, but we’re all a bit over boring cars.”
Certainly, looking back over the history of concept cars – with the benefit of hindsight – it’s easy to see the many ideas that have been missed. Many of the more outlandish, now forgotten concept cars – often along with their makers – simply couldn’t survive automotive natural selection. Sometimes they were too much products of their time rather that proposals for future times – many concept cars of the 50s in particular, the likes of General Motors’ LeSabre, with its cyclops headlight and beefy haunches, or rocket-like and frankly nuts GM Firebird, echoed the fascination with the jet age and then the space race.
"Cars that tell a story, that allow us to relate to them, are more and more important now. But it doesn’t work when everyone is doing the same thing...”
Others were simply too advanced: after all, the first electric car patent dates to the 1890s. Likewise, in 1946 Albert Gorgoni proposed his car, dubbed Gone With the Wind, with an aerodynamic, seamless body made of synthetic glass. In 1958 Ford proposed the Nucleon, an atomic-powered concept car. Self-driving cars were first proposed in the early 1960s. AMC suggested its super-compact, electronically-powered Amitron in 1967. Naturally, the decades have seen countless proposals of cars, like those in ‘The Jetsons’, that fly. Ridiculous, right?
The GM Firebird I looking at home in front of a fighter jet.
“One thing that I’ve never tried and won’t is to create a flying car, which seems to be a popular idea now. I just don’t see any future in those,” chuckles Frank Rinderknecht, the founder of Swiss company Rinspeed, which likes to go further and actually make the often-crazy cars he designs. The Splash was a vehicle with an in-built hydrofoil, so it could convert into a working speedboat; the sQuba was the world’s first submersible car.
Others from Rinspeed have been not quite so left-field, chiming more with societal shifts: the Presto was an extendable car, big when you needed it, compact otherwise, for that congested city life; the Rone was the first biofuel-powered super-car; the Bamboo ‘lifestyle vehicle’ had an inflatable, detachable roof; the Senso had a detection system that responded to driver mood. Plenty of ideas pioneered by Rinderknecht have been quietly taken up by the automobile industry a few years later too. He did his first car with full connectivity a decade ago. Then there’s the lightweight, polycarbonate windscreens with scratch-proof coatings, plastic composite rust-proof bodies, matt paint, or the clustering of controls onto the steering wheel – the idea that would have made him a fortune if it had been easier to patent.
The Rinspeed sQuba in it's natural environment.
“Concept cars have always been something of a tease, not saying ‘it will be like this’, but more ‘it could be something like this’,” he explains. “Some ideas get lost, of course, and others get taken forward. But the trick, for us at least, is not to think too far forward, perhaps no more than five or 10 years. Suggest a vehicle for much beyond that time frame and I think you start to lose people. For a lot of automotive companies, concept cars are probably just marketing exercises, carefully calibrated for the return they might offer relative to the value created in just placing ads. They’re about who they want to address and the message they want to convey. But that still leaves plenty of concept vehicles that are both incredible and, at heart, serious, exploratory proposals.”For more of those, perhaps we need to tap some of Hatton’s childhood amazement at the likes of the ‘wings’ on the aptly-named Alfa Romeo BAT, or the conservatory on very fast wheels that was the Maserati Boomerang. “With all due respect, I’m not sure the people running the big car companies really understand where cars might be going. Their showcases of the future so often seem to get it wrong,” reckons David Brown, founder of David Brown Automotive, the company behind the bespoke-built, retro-designed Speedback GT. “If you really want to know what the cars of the future will look like, I think you need to ask someone like my grandson.”