Ten Concepts Detroit Should Have Built

July 17, 2007

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

1956 Chrysler Norseman concept

You could think of the striking Norseman as handsome lad who never made it to his prom. Here's the story. Chrysler chief designer Virgil Exner was working overtime in the early 1950s to help transform his company's dowdy product styling. Among the steps taken, Exner began a relationship with the Italian design house, Ghia. The relationship resulted in several concepts and a handful of low-volume production models.


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 inHighland Park, Michigan eagerly awaited the car's arrival. It was July, and the trans-Atlantic trip would deliver the Norseman to the states in plenty of time for the 1957 auto show circuit.


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 Massachusetts . The liner sank within hours, taking all of its cargo to the sea floor. Few Americans ever saw Exner's clean, nearly chrome-free design at full size. Perhaps, if the Norseman had completed its crossing, the design would have positively impacted Chrysler's styling as the company dealt inelegantly with the transition from the "fin" to "no-fin" era.


Photo courtesy www.imperialclub.com


Chevrolet Astro II, 1967

1967 Chevrolet Astro II

1967 Chevrolet Astro II

During the 1960s, there was no shortage of Corvette-inspired concept vehicles. Lead engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov and GM styling chief, Bill Mitchell saw to that. Some were pure fantasy (Mako Shark I, 1961), but others, such as the Astro II were "could have been" concepts.


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.


See an online tour of the National Corvette Museum


Chevrolet Corvette Four-Rotor, 1972

1972 Chevrolet Corvette Four-Rotor

1972 Chevrolet Corvette Four-Rotor

Representing another Corvette, this concept wins a place on the list because of its powertrain choice, a four-rotor Wankel, and its stunning mid-engine styling. The car debuted at the Paris Auto Salon in 1973, during a period where American performance was being stifled by the twin evils of restrictive insurance practices and the first Arab oil embargo. At the time, performance enthusiasts didn't have much to be enthusiastic about as engine compression ratios were coming down and quarter-mile times were going up.


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.


See an iconology of the Corvette


Chrysler Phaeton, 1997

1997 Chrysler Phaeton

1997 Chrysler Phaeton

A company can use its heritage to catapult itself to a higher level. Chrysler's Hemi is a current example. Their 1997 Phaeton is another. With a charge led by product guys Bob Lutz and designer Tom Gale, Chrysler showed a series of stunning concepts in the 1990s, beginning with the original Viper.


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 Walter P. Chrysler Museum.


See the original Viper


Aztek, 1999

1999 Pontiac Aztek concept

1999 Pontiac Aztek concept

We know Pontiac (unfortunately) built the Aztek, so conserve your keystrokes reminding us of this lamentable fact. But they didn't build the Aztek they showed as a concept in 1999. The uglier than Rosie O'Donnell, slab-sided horror that debuted in 2001 shares little with the concept pictured here.


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 Pontiac should have never, ever considered selling an SUV, the fact that they launched such a turd truly sullied the brand's reputation. Had Pontiac built what they showed in 1999, the situation would have been far less bad. Perhaps they would have had a shot at their annual sales goal of 60,000 units. As the facts prove, first and second years sales never exceeded 10,000, and those sales were heavily incentivized.


The 1999 Aztek is currently in storage. Cold storage. Very cold.


Hark back to TheCarConnection.com’s 1999 Aztek coverage

Jaguar F-Type, 2000

2000 Jaguar F-type

2000 Jaguar F-type

For those of you unaware of such things, Ford owns Jaguar. They've imbued the historic brand with money and talent with the expectation that one day this specialty manufacturer will make them loads of money by selling lots of cars. (Anybody else see the confusion in that logic?) Regardless, cat and sports car lovers around the world rejoiced and felt hope when the F-Type debuted in 2000 at the Detroit show and stole everyone's heart. Meant to occupy a niche below the larger XK Coupe and Convertible, the truly sensuous design generated a flood of positive press and choruses of "build it" from sports car enthusiasts the world over.


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

Browns Lane
grounds in Coventry, England.


TheCarConnection.com’s wayback machine hits the 2000 Jaguar F-Type


Chevrolet Nomad 1999 and 2003

1999 Chevrolet Nomad

1999 Chevrolet Nomad

The Nomad is a true two-fer in terms of concepts. The original Nomad that Chevrolet produced between 1955-57 was such a powerful design that it has spawned numerous concepts, two recently.


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

2004 Chevrolet Nomad concept

The second recent Nomad debuted in 2003 alongside the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky. All three were said to be concepts, with the Pontiac hitting the market just ahead of the Saturn. The Nomad carried the day for Chevrolet, and shared many of the same features of the 1999 Nomad and the original.


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.


Revisit the recent Nomad concept



Lincoln Continental, 2002

2002 Lincoln Continental concept

2002 Lincoln Continental concept

Few production designs age as gracefully as the 1961-63 Lincoln Continental. Its clean, restrained lines still stand out as the antithesis of the finned and chromed beasts that preceded it. As the Continental progressed through the decades, it lost its styling edge. But when the Continental concept debuted at the Los Angeles Auto Show in January of 2002, it was clear somebody in Dearborn found what was once lost.


In the two weeks that separated the L.A. show from the Detroit Auto Show, Ford Motor Company announced the results of one of their many restructuring plans. The production Continental was canceled, making the concept a PR nightmare … "Gee, Mr. Ford, you just killed the Continental, what's this concept about?" For the Detroit show, the newly out-of-the-spotlight concept was shunned and parked in a dark corner of the Lincoln display.


Lincoln is still struggling to find its way in terms of design. The MKR that debuted in Detroit this past January, while attractive, looks far more contrived than the 2002 Continental. With the success of Ford's current Mustang, how much better off would Lincoln have been had they taken the historically inspired path with this Continental? With the average Lincoln Mercury dealer selling fewer than half a dozen cars per month, the company probably wouldn't be worse off.


The 2002 Continental is stored at a facility near Ford's World Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan.


More on Lincoln’s 2002 Continental concept



Cadillac Sixteen, 2003

2003 Cadillac Sixteen concept

2003 Cadillac Sixteen concept

It is hard to imagine that ex-GM Design Chief Wayne Cherry was responsible for both the production Aztek and the Cadillac Sixteen luxury-sedan concept. Talk about schizophrenic.


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.


We drive Cadillac’s Sixteen concept



Ford Reflex, 2006

2006 Ford Reflex concept

2006 Ford Reflex concept

Automotive Gnostics from New York (sorry, is that snickering I hear?) have predicted the imminent death of Ford Motor Company (plus GM and Chrysler) more times than we care to remember. Helping demonstrate that FoMoCo has life within is the show-stopping Reflex, introduced at the annual Detroit auto show in 2006.


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.


More on the Ford Reflex concept


DISCUSS: Which Concept Cars Should Be Built?


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