History of Concept Cars

How concept cars reveal what the future of motoring may hold

No international motor show would be complete without concept cars – the fashion models of the automobile catwalk oozing glamour, glitz and a glimpse into the future.

They’re the stars that draw the crowds, the weird and wonderful futuristic cars with the wow factor.
Whether cars of the future or just plain futile, they take centre stage on manufacturers’ show stands, after months of well-planned and orchestrated ‘leaks’ and ‘spy’ shots to taunt, tease and build the tension in the run-up to the big reveal.

But, while they may be presented as a shop window for the shape of things to come, so often it’s a case of the concept not becoming reality with many of them more a flight of fancy, than a dream design, and never intended to go into production and take to the road rather than the rostrum.

What is the point of a concept car?

Concept cars are often the centrepiece and centre of attention of a manufacturer’s show stand.
Many will be styling studies, showing a brand’s latest design thinking and, more importantly, to gauge public reaction to its new design language or brand image. Get the right reaction and it is more likely to make it into the metal and full production.

Other concepts will be much closer to reality and give potential customers a first chance to see a car in the metal, especially important if it is one that is destined to go in production in the near future. It helps create awareness, excitement and even drive early orders to build momentum ahead of the actual launch date.

A sense of movement – Japanese concept cars and the ‘soul of motion’

A stunning concept from an unlikely quarter came in 2010, courtesy of Mazda. Not a brand particularly known for dynamic design, it revealed the Shinari, a four-door, four-seater sports coupe which introduced the Japanese manufacturer’s new design theme, ‘Kodo – Soul of Motion’, aimed at emphasising a sense of movement.

The Japanese word shinari describes the powerful, yet supple, appearance of great resilient force when objects of high-tensile strength, such as steel or bamboo, are twisted or bent. It also refers to the appearance of a person or animal flexing its muscles ready to pounce. Either way, it’s now shaping every new Mazda model.

So, what happens to concept cars?

Once the show is over, and the publicity machine has ground to a halt, a concept car has often served its purpose and they face mixed fortunes.

Some will end up in the crusher, or be dismantled, others will be kept for posterity, becoming part of the manufacturer’s heritage in its private collection or a motor museum.

A Mercedes museum piece?

Meanwhile, at Mercedes-Benz World, at the historic Brooklands motor racing circuit in Weybridge, Surrey, the 1996 F200 Imagination concept car is a big attraction.

Rather than side mirrors, four cameras on the roof pillars, and a fifth in the back bumper, beam images to screens in the cabin, including a display where you’d normally have a rear-view mirror.

And joysticks, dubbed Sidesticks, control the car – push them forward to accelerate, back to brake and left or right to turn. With one on the door panel and another in the centre console, engineering both left and right-hand drive cars was no longer necessary.

A window into the future of Mercedes technologies, the F200 also had active suspension to control body movement, voice recognition, window airbags and bi-xenon headlamp with six modules which adapted their lighting pattern to speed – all later used in production models. Even the ‘butterfly’ doors were adapted for the SLR while the overall design previewed the later S-Class and CL-Class.

One thing that rarely happens is that they are sold and driven on public roads… assuming they can even be driven at all.

What do companies do with concept cars?

Sometimes the final car that actually makes it into production can feature a finished design that has been so diluted for various reasons, such as cost, production time, complexity or over-complicated styling, that it can come as something of a disappointment.

Often the concept car will never make it to the road, well certainly not in any recognisable form but, rest assured, look carefully and future models and the eagle-eyed will pick up design cues and distinctive details from concept car that made big impressions at earlier motor shows for both the right and wrong reasons.

Concept car design through the decades

Here we look at some of the models, from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, which made their respective decades extra eye-catchingly special.

Often the concept car will never make it to the road, well certainly not in any recognisable form but, rest assured, look carefully and future models and the eagle-eyed will pick up design cues and distinctive details from concept car that made big impressions at earlier motor shows for both the right and wrong reasons.

Buick Y Job Concept

1930s – What was the first concept car?

The Buick Y-Job, the vision of famous General Motors designer Harley J Earl and launched in 1938, is generally considered to be first concept car.

All experimental cars were called ‘X’, so either Earl simply went to the next letter in the alphabet to signify his concept was better still or he chose it because it was used extensively in the air industry denoting the most advanced prototype planes.

The Buick Y-Job’s forward-thinking features included an industry-first power-retractable soft top that was stored beneath a metal deck panel, power-operated hidden headlamps, electric windows, a ‘gunsight’ bonnet ornament, wraparound bumpers, flush door handles and the vertical waterfall grille design still used by Buick today.
It never saw production but influenced Detroit style for decades to come.

The 5.2-litre, eight-cylinder car was driven by Earl until he replaced it with a 1951 model car.

1950s – From Jet Age to Space Race

The war-torn Forties saw most auto shows take a bit of a back seat but things literally took off again in the Fifties with a new era of futuristic concepts inspired by the Jet Age and, later that decade, man’s quest to discover what lay beyond our planet in the Space Race.

And in 1951 Earl produced the low, sleek, General Motors LeSabre which was inspired by a jet fighter plane.
It featured hidden headlights, a powered roof and helped introduce a 12-volt electric system to the American market, and is still used by vehicles today.

Meanwhile, in 1953, Oldsmobile created its Starfire concept convertible, a sleek two-seater named after Lockheed’s F94B Starfire fighter.

Its standout features included glass fibre bodywork, a wraparound windshield, combination bumper-grille and bucket seats.

Meanwhile in Europe, a concept highlight of the Fifties was the slippery, low-drag Alfa Romeo BAT (Berlina Aerodinamica Tecnica) cars, a futuristic but realistic joint collaboration with Italian design house Bertone.

Not the forerunner of the Batmobile, three aerodynamic studies, with large back bumpers and curved fins, were created – BAT 5 in 1953, BAT 7 in 1954 and BAT 9 in 1955.

1960 and 70s – From the awesome to the outrageous

The weird and wind-friendly design concepts continued but by the end of the Sixties we started to see a new trend for the weird and wedgy.

Here we turn our attention to Europe, in particular Italy where its world-famous car-makers and design houses created the awesome and outrageous. Take the Lamborghini Marzal revealed in 1967, designed as a true four-seater Lambo to go alongside the 400GT 2+2 and Miura. With its huge glazed gull-wing doors and enormous louvred rear window, it remained a one-off but the general shape and many of the ideas were later used in the Lamborghini Espada.

The Marzal concept was driven by Prince Rainier III, accompanied by his wife, Princess Grace, in the traditional parade lap before the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix. The Marzal’s home was the Bertone Design Study Museum until it sold at auction in 2011 for 1,350,000 euros. It was a look also created by Alfa Romeo with the Carabo – its name is derived from the Carabidae beetles which resulted in the vivid green and orange paintjob.

The Carabo, with its scissor doors, is seen by some as the predecessor of the Lamborghini Countach which was also designed by Marcello Gandini. The Carabo heavily influenced many car designs to follow well into the next decade. The low, sleek wedge-shaped supercar continued into the Seventies and the Lancia Stratos Zero, at the turn of the decade, was designed to be the lowest at just 84cm tall.

How do concept cars make it into production?

A year later, the Maserati Boomerang concept car, designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, was unveiled as a design study. By 1972 it had developed into a commercially-launched Maserati Bora.The Boomerang was registered as a road car, but intended as a one-off show car, and has had several owners. Bonhams sold it at auction in 2015 for 3,335,000 euros.

The sharp angles and wedge shape can be seen in the 1976 Lotus Esprit, 1979 Maserati Quattroporte and 1981 DeLorean as well as family cars from Volkswagen – the original Passat and Golf from 1973 and 74.While many of these concepts developed into production models in their own right, although often bearing different names, they also heralded the shape of things to come with some design elements finding their way into mainstream models and marques.

Looking back to drive ahead

The concept cars paying homage to the past

Concept cars aren’t always about shaping the future.
Some pay homage to an icon by giving a modern interpretation of a classic or iconic blast from the past.

Lamborghini Miura Concept

Lamborghini revealed the Miura Concept in 2006, the 40th anniversary of the first supercar to have a rear mid-engined, two-seat layout which was in production from 1966 until 1973.

The retro-styled Miura Concept used the underpinnings of the more modern Murciélago but was never intended for production. Instead it was a celebration of Lamborghini’s history while the brand itself was about the future.

Audi Quattro Concept

Audi produced a quattro concept for the 30th anniversary of the original car and its renowned, rally-bred all-wheel drive system.

Unveiled in 2010, it was based on the Audi RS5, weighing only 1,300kg and with a 150mm shorter wheelbase, and featured a modified 408PS 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbo petrol engine and sixth-generation quattro transmission.

Volkswagen Bulli Concept and ID Buzz

Having shown the Volkswagen Bulli Concept in 2011, a people-carrier with two rows of three seats and a modern take on its original VW microbus, it now takes the campervan back to the future with its ID Buzz.

But the rebirth is finally set to happen with the all-electric, autonomous driving ID Buzz due to go into production by 2022.

Peugeot e-Legend

Peugeot’s e-Legend, revealed in 2018, is inspired by one of the best-looking Peugeots from five decades ago – the Pininfarina-designed early-1970s 504 coupe.

But while the profile might hark back to a golden era, the e-Legend will help take the French car-maker into the future.

Its bespoke electric platform and all-wheel-drive all-electric powertrain, developing 456bhp and 800Nm of torque, would propel the concept to 62mph from rest in less than four seconds and on to 137mph while being capable of up to 373 miles on a single charge. Peugeot says such figures are a realistic vision.

Mercedes-Benz C111

Concept cars are not just about show, some are designed for go. Mercedes-Benz’s C 111 had a double life as research vehicle and record-setter.

A super sports car with gullwing doors, unveiled in 1969, this research vehicle concept quickly became the dream car of the 1970s but never actually went into production despite speculation Mercedes-Benz was creating a successor to the legendary 300 SL ‘Gullwing’.

But the C 111 went on make its mark testing fuel-efficient diesel engines, driven by the oil crisis of the early Seventies, with a 3.0-litre, five-cylinder turbo diesel in 1973. Three years later it set 16 world records, 13 of them for diesel cars.

In 1978, the successor model, with a 230hp diesel engine, achieved another nine world records. The last version of the car, with a 500hp, 4.8-litre V8 petrol engine, broke the world circuit record at 403.978km/h (251mph) a year later.

Concept cars 1990s and 2000s

1990s

The 1990s produced some memorable concept cars but, sadly, they were pipedreams and so many great designs and ideas did not come to fruition… more’s the pity as they were so desirable and don’t get any less so with the passing of time.
Let’s look at some of the Nineties stars.

Ford GT90

The mid-engined, high-performance Ford GT90, a secret project unveiled in 1995, was a spiritual styling successor to the Ford GT40 and GT70 and predecessor of the Ford GT. It was the first Ford to feature its ‘New Edge’ design which took to the road with the Ka city car.

Sharing Jaguar XJ220 components, it was built around a honeycomb-section aluminium monocoque with moulded carbon fibre body panels. The 720hp, 6.0-litre, 48-valve V12 with four turbochargers was mated to a five-speed manual transmission. The very hot exhaust would damage the body panels so ceramic tiles, like those on the Space Shuttle, were used to prevent the car melting!

It was said to be capable of 0 to 60mph in 3.1 seconds, 0 to 100mph in 6.2 seconds and 253mph flat out. It never actually made it into production but appeared in the several video games and a prototype was tested by Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear.

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Alfa Romeo Nuvola

The Alfa Romeo Nuvola coupe, shown in 1996 with a polyester body, was intended to be the rebirth of coach-built cars. It was based on a modern space frame chassis so independent coachbuilders could add virtually any body style from coupé to roadster to shooting brake.

Nuvola is Italian for ‘cloud’ but also hints at the legendary Italian racing driver Tazio Nuvolari. Power came from a 296hp, 2.5-litre, twin-turbo V6 engine, with six-speed manual transmission and four-wheel drive, making it capable of 0 to 60mph in six seconds and 174mph.

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Volkswagen W12

Another favourite from video games, the 1997 Volkswagen W12 mid-engine concept car used a 414bhp, 5.6-litre, 12-cylinder engine and four-wheel drive.

Designed by Italdesign, the aim was to prove Volkswagen could build a supercar. There was also an open-top roadster.

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Jaguar XK180

The Jaguar XK180 concept car of 1998 celebrated the 50th anniversary of the XK models. This two-seater had a 450bhp, 4.0-litre supercharged V8 engine and could reach 62mph from rest in 4.5 seconds and go on to 180mph.

Drawing on XK-R technology, only two were ever built.

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BMW Nazca

The BMW Nazca C2 concept sports car of 1991 was designed by Italdesign and is an evolution of the Nazca M12. Its carbon fibre body and space frame meant it weighed only 1,100kg. The engine cover and front of the car were made from a single piece of molded carbon fibre with a glass engine cover over the 300hp, 5.0-litre, V12 engine shared with the BMW 850i. Its unique door mechanism comprised conventional doors and windows opening in a gull-wing arrangement.

In 1992 the Nazca C2, with a redesigned front, Alpina-modified engine with an extra 50hp and shedding a claimed 100kg, was unveiled. A total of three cars including the M12 were produced.

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2000s

The new millennium saw some concept cars looking back as much as forward, harking back to past models, anniversaries as well as to the future of personal transport.

Here we look at some of the highlight concepts of the 2000s.

Maserati Birdcage 75th

This 2005 futuristic supercar honoured the classic Maserati Birdcages of the 1960s and Pininfarina’s 75th anniversary. Built on the Maserati MC12 GT1 race car’s carbon fibre chassis, it’s powered by the Ferrari/Maserati F140 V12 engine tuned to deliver around 700bhp.

Two rear spoilers automatically raise at speed, the Perspex windscreen stretches almost front to back and, with no doors, you get in and out by raising the bubble canopy. Its connectivity theme includes a steering wheel centre like a mobile phone and the car had a Motorola Bluetooth headset and cameras so the driver could share the driving experience with others.

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Alfa Romeo BAT 11

It may look futuristic but the Alfa Romeo BAT 11, shown in 2008, arrived more than half a century after the aerodynamic BAT 5, 7 and 9 design studies.

Another collaboration with automotive design house Bertone, the BAT 11 was based on the Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione.

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Mercedes-Benz F400 Carving Concept

Debuting in 2002, the F400 Carving was as much research vehicle as concept car with dynamic systems to enhance active safety, dynamic handling and driving pleasure.

The camber angle on the two-seater sports car’s outer wheels could be varied up to 20 degrees and, along with newly-developed tyres with different treads on the inner and outer areas, provided 30% more lateral stability to improve grip and cornering ability and shorten stopping distances.

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Peugeot Flux

The Peugeot Flux was a 2007 sports car concept, also designed to be capable of light off-roading.

It has an aluminium chassis, plastic body panels, polyurethane seats and runs on hydrogen.

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Toyota PM

Is it a car? No, the Toyota PM, shown in 2003, was a single-seat personal mobility concept designed to communicate with others to encourage meeting up and hanging out together.

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What’s next?

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