What is a concept car? What was its past like and how did its future evolve? Why do we have concept cars at all?
We are late in the automobile era. It is ending as cars become banalities and as the illusion of mass personal transportation dissolves. Consequently, the car’s future might even be over already. In 1971 the future was staggeringly unlike the present. In a properly realised future all signs of the present are gone.
A 1971 concept car shared only wheels with the cars on sale at the time. To judge by the work of designers and students now tasked with imagining the future, the future looks a lot like now. In contrast, the further back we go, the more improbable concept cars seemed to be in comparison with the vehicles customers could buy. Compare the two Buicks (below) for example. If we go even longer into the past, before the year 1938, then it was only necessary for the car to be better than the fore-runner, the horse-and-carriage. There was no need of a future as the present was advanced enough.
Concept cars are designs that exist to be compared to something else. They are as much an element of marketing as expressions of intent about directions in which aesthetics and engineering can go. For this essay I shall consider a concept car to properly be a stylistically or technically experimental design for a vehicle not intended for production. A proper concept car is a one-off.
And since production considerations do not apply with much force, typically a concept car has an unrealistic quality to it. Concepts chiefly explore pure aesthetics whereas the needs of production force upon a car a detailed, often busy appearance, necessitated by sheet metal pressing, plastic moulding, packaging, safety and, finally, the limited tolerance of customers for novelty.
When the automobile first appeared, the car itself was modernity embodied: it made the horse obsolete. All the car had to do was not have a horse in front of it to seem modern. Until the late 30s, the architecture of the car very obviously derived from that of the carriage: separate elements and rectilinear forms which themselves had their origins in the way buildings were conceived (static forces carried downward).
By the 1930s the horse had vanished into history or was at least as evidently archaic as the landline and typewriter are for us today. We still recognise these things but the comparison we make is, for example, among mobile phones and not between mobile phones and landlines. By the same token, when finally the business was not merely to sell the car to those who never had one but to get an existing owner to buy another, it became necessary to sow the seeds of dissatisfaction.
Credit for this goes to Harley Earl, chief stylist at General Motors. His idea was to create a futuristic yardstick by which to compare the cars of the day. Earl forced styling to move in advance of engineering. He moved the points of reference from the horseless carriage and the Tin Lizzie and Buick Specials. The references were now the cars on sale right then and the dream cars his teams drew up. From that moment on until a hazy period we are living in now, cars had a modernistic, startling future of new technology and new forms.
As the rate of change of technological advancement has slowed in some areas and as interest has moved to others, the possibility of a radical and surprising concept car has diminished.
In the interim period, the concept car was a means to signal changes that were coming in packaging, engine and chassis technology and manufacturing methods. They also were a way to prepare the public for new requirements such as aerodynamic efficiency and safety.
During this time – and if viewed uncynically – concept cars provided a glimpse of what was going to happen next, an illusory one in some ways, as every concept car is a product of the times and the times’ wild idea of what the future could be like. In the 50s, 60s and early 70s the future looked rosy and full of promise. General Motors’ Motorama shows made manifest a tremendous optimism, as well as a hugely destructive consumerism too.
It was a time of annual model changes and a repressive insistence that only this years’ car would do. The concept car had a huge actual and conceptual space into which it could explode. In writing this I have realised again what a vast field the study of concept cars is: the sheer number of ideas and the intricate webs of influence. It is possible to write several equally compelling lists of landmark concept cars and for this reason I will avoid going down that path.
Suffice it to say that from the myriad of hopeful monsters and genuinely beautiful proposals, the future was shaped in a dialogue with the present and consumers’ evolving tastes.
The golden years of the petroleum windfall – let’s call it 1945 to 1973 – allowed a large space for concept cars to be quite disconnected from the realities of mass production.
During this time some production cars even looked like concept cars: Citroen naturally comes to mind. LJK Setright correctly identified the 1955 DS as the last modern car. The 1971 SM and 1974 CX were also worthy of being concept cars if they had never actually been commercially realised.
The striking character of these cars is such that today’s designs don’t seem at all modern or futuristic. Let’s say that another way: a car from 1974 is still more futuristic than anything anyone is making today. Thereafter, as Paulo Tumminelli pointed out in Car Design Europe (2011) a dreadful conservatism took hold and fastback cars were re-styled as saloons. There have been some blips: Audis 100 of 1976; 1983 Ford Sierra; the Honda Insight of 1999 is just about futuristic but it recalls a lot of Citroen; the 1998 Fiat Mutipla; the Nissan Leaf has the air of something one might see in a science-fiction film, just.
After the oil crisis years of the 70s, a change in the role of the concept car occurred and the character of the concept car changed with it. To be sure, progress has been made in production methods but the vehicles to which these are applied differ not so much in form from their predecessors as they once did. Is a 2014 Mercedes E-Class that much more “modern” than the 1986 200E?
I would suggest the Ford Probe III of 1981 could be a good contender for the first fraudulent concept car. Uwe Bahnsen’s 1983 Ford Sierra differed markedly from its predecessor, the Ford Cortina (1979-1982), so much so that Ford’s management felt it necessary to warn the public what was coming.
Thus a series of radical concept cars wearing the Probe moniker was hijacked. A dressed-up Sierra was presented in this series as a tentative, exploratory look at the future. In fact, the Sierra design work may have been completed by as much as two or three years before the 1982 concept car was prepared. So, in this case we see that the concept car is both a version of an existing design, a real future, and a pretence of what is to come (which won’t).
Customarily, kudos went to car companies who had the nerve to put a wild concept car into production. And by dint of actually having it in production, Ford could play at presenting a startling concept to the press in 1981 and then seemingly translating much of it into production (miracle!) for launch at the 1982 Birmingham Motor show.
Ever since, more and more concept cars have been thinly veiled production cars. The Mercedes “Vision” series did at one stage represent tentative explorations. The 1993 Vision A served to warn MB customers something small was coming their way. Nothing like it went into production.
By 2004, the Vision-R “concept” patently announced the arrival of something large under way, an all-but identical R-Class. Ford’s 2006 Iosis was a concept car based on the already-signed off 2006 Mondeo. This kind of project really doesn’t deserve the tag “concept” in the sense of being a brave, radical and adventurous proposal.
Those who know about cars know these are just production cars with odd lamps and unfeasibly big wheels. Those who don’t know about cars just see them as new cars not quite on sale yet. In any case we are drowning in concept cars whereas in the 1960s and 70s they were rather unusual departures from the run of new-car launches.
Finally, if we consider how unremarkable the first horseless carriages were compared to their predecessors, it should come as no surprise that the new future of cars, electric ones, should look so very ordinary. Having an electric motor is enough for Tesla to shift product. Their cars look pretty much as you’d expect any high-end 2008 car to look.
When nearly all cars are electric, and the USP become worthless, then perhaps we might see a return of the value of genuinely wild, unhinged designs as we saw in the golden era of 1945-1975. I suspect though that by that time arrives, we probably won’t have so much future left.
Over the month we will take a look at some of the best and worst examples of concept cars and meditate on their meaning and impact today. This essay has been somewhat Eurocentric but in Japan the tradition of truly surprising concept cars carries on. And as well as concept cars by mainstream manufacturers, there have been many presented by suppliers which warrant a second look. We hope you enjoy reading more over the course of October.