by Rex Roy
It could be argued that the 1938 Buick Y-Job stands as the world's first true concept car. Built under the direction of Genera Motors' first design czar, Harley Earl, the Y-Job was never intended for production but instead foreshadowed styling and engineering cues that would pop up on future GM vehicles. The Y-Job's stubby tail fins found their way onto the iconic 1948 Cadillacs, while the grille design still influences Buicks today.
Concepts like the Y-Job became a staple of the American auto show circus in the 1950s. GM led the way with their Motorama, a traveling display of American post-war optimism and engineering leadership. Concepts such as turbine engines and drive-by-wire controls were explored with fully operational vehicles. Ford and Chrysler followed suit, giving auto show visitors eye candy that looked out far beyond next year's model.
Looking back, dozens of concepts could rightfully be considered significant, but ten is a nice round number and gives us a good place to start. (No doubt many of you will have your own favorites, and the rationale to back them up. Feel free to choose your "most significant" over at the blog.)
TheCarConnection.com’s list begins here:
Chrysler Norseman, 1956
1956 Chrysler Norseman concept
During 1955-56, one of Ghia's main projects was to bring the Norseman to life based on sketches and models created by Exner's studio. The body was to be fully functional and placed over a Hemi-powered Chrysler chassis. Working more than a year, the talented Italians handcrafted every element of the exterior and interior, struggling a great deal with the striking cantilevered roof. Nearly all of the roof's mass needed to be supported at the rear so that the leading edge did not to place any stress on the delicate wrap-around windshield. Completing the roof structure was further complicated by the innovative power-retractable sunroof (think Porsche 911 Targa).
On schedule, the completed Norseman was carefully loaded onto the Andrea Doria, a modern and luxurious ocean liner. The Chrysler design team back in
The Norseman never made it. In an accident chalked up to human error, the Andrea Doria collided with a passenger ship, the MV Stockholm, off the coast of
Photo courtesy www.imperialclub.com
Chevrolet Astro II, 1967
1967 Chevrolet Astro II
The Astro II's mid-engine design differentiates the concept from others that came before it. Fitted with a small-block V-8 and practical passenger doors (as opposed to open or fighter-jet style tilt-up canopies), one could see this as a future production Corvette. Many engineers on the Corvette team felt that Chevrolet's performance icon could be pushed farther, and the Astro II stands as a result of their influence. Mid-engine design concepts would remain a reoccurring theme with GM for another 20 years, and the configuration was studied for production several times. What if GM had ever said, "Yes?"
The Astro II is currently part of The GM Historical Collection.
Chevrolet Corvette Four-Rotor, 1972
1972 Chevrolet Corvette Four-Rotor
Into this landscape came the Corvette Four-Rotor. Aggressively styled, the design features radical aerodynamics and gull-wing doors. Horsepower output from the four-rotor Wankel engine was said to be considerable. Many elements of the design were considered for production, but nearly all were deemed too expensive or impractical. Had GM made a different choice, perhaps Chevrolet would have fielded something as arresting as the original Lamborghini Countach LP4000.
In subsequent years in a move that smacks of "what have you done for me lately," GM swapped out the Wankel for a small-block V-8 and renamed the car "AeroVette."
The AeroVette is currently part of The GM Historical Collection.
Chrysler Phaeton, 1997
1997 Chrysler Phaeton
Just as that Viper personified power, the Phaeton simply oozed classic elegance. Inspiration came from the 1940-41 Newport Phaeton, a limited-production classic of which Chrysler built only five. The two-cabin body rides on a whopping 132-inch wheelbase, about what you'd find under a crew cab, long-bed pickup. Wheels measure 22-inches in diameter. A proper V-12 resides under the long tapered hood, a product of melding two then-current Chrysler 2.7-liter V-6 engines.
With what Chrysler learned from its limited production Viper and Prowler product runs, could the Phaeton been a possibility? Might it have helped boost Chrysler's status in the luxury field, just as the Viper did for Dodge? Especially given Chrysler's current predicament, we will most certainly never know.
The Phaeton is on display at the
1999 Pontiac Aztek concept
Putting the two side by side reveals that their proportions are completely different. Most visible, the angular roof design of the concept got totally screwed up on the path to production.
While there are ample arguments that
The 1999 Aztek is currently in storage. Cold storage. Very cold.
Jaguar F-Type, 2000
2000 Jaguar F-type
With great fanfare, Jaguar announced plans for production early in 2001. Cruelly, in May of 2002, those production plans were jettisoned like an unwanted fur ball. Had Jaguar made a different decision, they could likely have had a long running hit on their hands, and managed to create a sports car worthy to follow their legendary E-Type.
The F-Type is currently at the Jaguar-Daimler Heritage Trust, an official company museum located on the
Chevrolet Nomad 1999 and 2003
1999 Chevrolet Nomad
The 1999 version is built on fourth-generation Camaro/Firebird mechanicals. Reminiscent of previous Camaro and Firebird "wagons," the Nomad features a practical tailgate, generous cargo room, and performance an SUV can only dream of. Looked at from the front, more than a hint of first-generation Corvette puts a pure Chevrolet face on the car.
Timing for this Nomad couldn't have been worse, as rumors of the Gen IV F-Bodies (Camaro/Firebird) death were all but confirmed. At the 1999 Detroit Auto Show where the car debuted, the car was virtually ignored by GM's PR staff who didn't want to give the concept too much play as its chance for production was zero.
2004 Chevrolet Nomad concept
With the success of the Solstice and Sky (and their Opel sister vehicle), production of these Kappa-platform vehicles is maxed out. However, if demand wanes, the Nomad would slot right in to Chevrolet's current line up.
The 1999 and 2004 Nomad concepts are occasionally on display at The General Motors Heritage Collection.
2002 Lincoln Continental concept
In the two weeks that separated the
The 2002 Continental is stored at a facility near Ford's World Headquarters in
Cadillac Sixteen, 2003
2003 Cadillac Sixteen concept
Meant to spearhead Cadillac's phoenix-like rise from the abyss, under its gullwing hood purrs a V-16 engine displacing 13.6 liters and producing an incredible 1000 horsepower and 1000 lb-ft of torque. The Sixteen is an evocation of Cadillac's heritage, with 24-inch tires, a super-luxurious cabin that seats four, an all-glass roof, invisible B-pillars, and extensive use of real crystal for both interior and exterior decor.
At this point, production for the Sixteen has been officially ruled out, but even the most myopic can tell that its grille and vertical headlamps have influenced current Cadillac design language. Unlike Volkswagen, with their misguided Phaeton, Cadillac could have pulled off the Sixteen. Cadillac has the history (including a V-16 engine in its past) to pull off such a move with genuine legitimacy. Too bad they didn't give it a try.
The Sixteen is occasionally on display at The General Motors Heritage Collection.
Ford Reflex, 2006
2006 Ford Reflex concept
Most obvious, the coupe's styling looks like nothing else, mercifully achieved without resorting to the cartoonish or weird. The bold, stepped rear fenders give this small car an impressively solid stance. While the butterfly doors would certainly never make production, one can easily envision this shape making production with standard portals.
What's more remarkable than the efficient design (it seats two up front and one in the rear), is the diesel-electric hybrid powertrain. The hybrid combo drives the front wheels, while an electric motor drives the rear axle, giving the little sports car all-wheel drive. Integrated solar panels to top off the on-board lithium-ion battery pack while parked. With the powertrain skewed toward delivering torque, the Reflex promised great off-the-line acceleration. Ford expected fuel economy to reach 65 mpg.
We actually drove the Reflex in the late spring of 2006. The dramatic butterfly doors open only so far, meaning you have to duck while climbing in. Once inside, everything is concept-car phony … for looks only. As a matter of fact, the team responsible for the car didn't even have time to install the working diesel-electric powertrain that Ford engineers developed and tested. The Reflex moves under the power of a golf-car motor. Steering is likewise cobbled together, as the chassis bears no resemblance to anything in Ford's production stable. The result was a less than fanciful drive, but just seeing the car is enough to know what "could be" if the Reflex were brought to market. It's not too late, Ford.
Currently, the Reflex is still making appearances at industry functions and auto shows.
DISCUSS: Which Concept Cars Should Be Built?