Concept cars are often just that, concepts. They’re the playgrounds of engineers and designers; a place for the mad scientist notions to roost. Sometimes pieces and technology employed in concepts make their way to production models, and other times they are just too futuristic for their good. Let’s go back in time and see what the future of automobiles looked like.
Corvair Monza GT
This bad boy came to us in 1962 and was a vision of things to come from GM. The curvy and sleek body-styling would live on in later Corvettes, and the transaxle would go into the Corvair. The most notable feature was the windscreen that wrapped back to meet the b-posts on a front-hinged cockpit style canopy. While the seats were stationary, the pedals adjusted to fit the driver, a feature that is still rare on the market today. The louvers were also adjustable to allow ventilation and better vision out the rear. This concept car was also ready for the track, sporting disc brakes on all four wheels, and magnesium alloy wheels. With so many futuristic features that would become staples of GM, this one was a car of the future.
Pontiac Club de Mer
Like so many of the concepts that came out of the ‘50s, the Club de Mer’s design was heavily inspired by the burgeoning aerospace industry of the time. This jet fighter inspired car debuted in 1956 and certainly turned heads. Sporting a brush aluminum body, individual windscreens and a long sleek body tipped with a single fin on the trunk; this sport concept was pushed by a three hundred horsepower V8. Unfortunately, the original Club de Mer was scrapped by Pontiac in 1958, leaving only the quarter sized scale model in Pontiac’s possession. Luckily, because of dedicated enthusiasts, a full-sized replica, built on a 1959 Pontiac frame does exist. To drive just the replica will cost a pretty penny; it sold at auction for $110,000 in 2009.
Alfa Romeo BAT Series
This series of sleek concepts was the result of a partnership between Alfa Romeo and Carrozzeria Bertone. The goal was to create vehicles with as low a drag coefficient as possible. Using advances from the aerospace industry, these futuristic concepts, unveiled in order from 1953 through ‘55, could reach top speeds of 125 miles per hour from their little four-cylinder engines. The cabin was an enclosed, bubble-domed cockpit and the fins on the rear curled inward to reduce drag. To date, production vehicles have yet to match the ridiculously slick 0.19 drag coefficient of the BAT 7.
General Motors Le Sabre
Not to be confused with the later Le Sabre from Buick, this concept was trotted around car shows in 1951 as General Motors’ peek into the future. This road-ready cruiser inspired many of the concepts that would come out during the decade and sported features that would become luxuries over the next half-century. The Le Sabre was stocked with a whole suite of features including heated seats, a 12 volt electrical system (most vehicles still ran six volts at the time), hidden headlamps behind the jet intake styled nose-cone, water sensors for the electric drop-top and electric lift jacks that would later be appropriated to Formula 1 cars. The Le Sabre was a real concept car that introduced the world to many features that would then become standard.
In 1959, Cadillac released their concept for the Cyclone, a futuristic platform for emerging auto technologies. The Cyclone embodies the aerospace themes and tech that ‘50s car design became known for. The ever-popular cockpit styled dome on top lifted back when the doors were opened to allow passengers in and out, the doors opened on a slide system that predates their use on vans by a half decade, and when you’re done for the day, the canopy tucks itself under the truck deck. The most exciting advancement this car brought to market, however, is the radar sensors in the nose-cones, which worked with an onboard collision detection system to provide the driver with an audible and visual warning when something got in the way of the car.
Aston Martin Atom
This little sedan came out just before World War 2 got going in earnest, and it helped to define Aston Martin’s reputation as a luxury automaker. With elegant lines that flow from the front grille to the rear, large fenders that draw the eye while they ease back into the body, and airline-style seats that provide first-class comfort. The Atom’s production was interrupted by the second world war, though it still managed to gain attention. In 1946, an advert for the sporty sedan caught the eye of David Brown, who then approached Aston looking to invest in the company. After a test drive of the Atom, Brown firmed up on his offer, put in his bid and bought the company. Unfortunately, while the Atom was the catalyst for Aston Martin’s acquisition, Brown decided the first cars off his line should be roadsters instead of sedans, so the Atom was cut. Fortunately for us, the lessons, stylings, and heart of the Atom have informed the DB series since.
Legend has it that Bill Mitchell, the lead designer for this predatory looking sportster, had a stuffed mako on his wall. He told the folks in the paint department to try to match the coloring of the shark. After several failed attempts, the team broke into Mitchell’s office and stole the shark. They then painted it in the colors they had and returned it to the office. When Mitchell saw the paint job on his concept, he complimented the paint team for matching the shark so closely. This legendary concept was uncovered in 1961 as a concept for future Chevrolet Corvette production cars. A second model, the Mako Shark II, was unveiled in 1965. The second generation was very much a prototype of the Corvettes that would come out three years later under another aquatic nameplate - the Stingray. The Mako Shark II featured the telltale high-arching fenders and low pointed nose of future Corvettes and was powered by the same 427 Mark IV engine that would end up in later production models.
This concept was indeed the cat’s meow. Hitting the circuit in 1950, the Debutante was Cadillac’s showstopper special. Designed to be Cadillac’s most luxurious car ever, the Debutante featured 24-karat gold instrument panels with gilded fittings and a leopard print interior. The luxury land-yacht never made it to production though, so the Debutante ended up as a one-off. The single concept in existence, however, seems to be lost out in the world somewhere. Reports of wild Debutante sightings have so far gone unverified.
This pre-WW2 concept is the granddaddy of all the airplane inspired designs that populate this list, and introduced concepts that are still being used on new vehicles today. Featuring a super sleek bullet shape, the Phantom Corsair’s wheels were covered by the completely flush fenders, which both added to the aerodynamics of the car, as well as made the car look like an early prototype for the Batmobile. This initial concept also eschewed door handles for future-friendly electric push buttons, a built-in compass and, in case the aviation influence wasn’t apparent, an altimeter. If you thought this giant black steel beast looks like a rough ride, you’d be mistaken; the Phantom Corsair also came with all-wheel adjustable independent suspension.
General Motors Firebird
When people think of concept cars, the Firebird is quick to come to mind. In its first incarnation in 1953, the Firebird I was little more than a missile on wheels. It was driven by a massive 370 horsepower gas turbine engine, had only room for a single occupant under the bubble dome, and had enough torque to scare its test driver into quitting the test before shifting into second gear at a hundred miles an hour. The second generation, the Firebird II, was more practical if you can ever call a car with a gas turbine in it practical. Now with seating for four, the Firebird II sports disc brakes on all corners, plus an early navigation system using wires embedded in the road. The third generation of Firebird was even more futuristic than its predecessors. It featured cruise control, an “ultra-sonic” remote system for keyless entry, and was controlled by a joystick between the driver and passenger to provide a more aeronautical feel.
The fifties were a nifty time for innovation. With electricity now an established household utility and nuclear powering the nation, it is no surprise that some folks wanted to stick a nuclear reactor in their car. Ford crafted this concept under the impression that nuclear tech would shrink down in the same way most technologies do. Fortunately, the Nucleon never made it to production since radiation shields, and nuclear turbines have yet to scale down enough to be feasible replacements for oil and gas. While this concept never made it out of the ‘50s, it did go on to inspire the vehicles of the Fallout game franchise, and recently the idea of a fission powered car has been revisited using thorium instead of uranium.
The Dymaxion was the brainchild of the American inventor and eccentric Buckminster Fuller. This unusual vehicle is essentially the precursor to the minivan. Designed for the future of taxiing, Fuller had planned for future models to be amphibious and able to fly. Unfortunately Fuller never got that far with the design. The rear wheel steering and awkward three-wheel layout of the drivetrain made this vehicle a considerable risk to drive - it had a habit of rolling over on itself in high wind, during high speeds, and pretty much anytime it was in motion.
This one kind of hurts to put on this list because what was promised would have been amazing. The Astral was supposed to be the car of the future of nuclear age. Never actually produced, this nuclear-powered passenger car sat on a single, gyroscopically balanced wheel, while also having the option to hover at low altitudes over water and land. On top of being a nuclear-powered hovercraft, it was supposed to be near impossible to crash, as it was slated to have a protective energy curtain - also known as a freaking forcefield! The Astral wasn’t just ahead of its time; it was ahead of all time.
The Y-Job gets a special place in the automotive history books. Deemed the first concept vehicle, the Y-Job was developed in 1938 by Buick. It featured power headlamps, electric windows, wrap around bumpers and flush door handles and the iconic waterfall grille that can still be spotted on Buicks today. At that time, all experimental models were given the X designation, so Buick slapped a Y on this puppy to differentiate it from the rest of the pack. You can see from its design how influential this vehicle would be - manufacturers used the styling and lines of the car until the design renaissance of the late 1950s.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that the engineers at Ferrari would build something with more thought put into speed than aesthetics. The Modulo’s super low profile and arrowhead shape allowed this futuristic sports car to reach sixty-two in just 3.1 seconds with a top speed of 220 miles per hour - the massive V12 also helped. The canopy slides forward to allow access to the cockpit for the pilot and passenger. This spaceship looking car managed to take 22 awards in 1970 when it debuted.