Concept cars aren't just a chance for automakers to show us where they're going. In bolder times, they've been a platform for showing where they think the whole world is headed.
These days, the "concept car" is almost nonexistent. What we get are prototypes, close-to-production models. Some of them are very nice indeed. But they're rarely the sort of breathtaking conceptual leaps forward we got in the prosperous, optimistic post-war years, when General Motors would use their Motorama shows to debut future production cars, like the Corvette, on the same stage they used to debut cars from the not-too-distant future. Those were the days. Here's seven noteworthy concepts that tried to tell the future — seven concept cars of future past.
Firebirds I, II, and III
The Firebirds were incredibly striking cars, the very essence of Jet Age design, but their significance as futurist artifacts comes from the fact that they actually worked. The 1953 Firebird I was built, in part, to test the feasibility of gasoline turbine engines in automitive applications and driven, somewhat hesitantly, at Indianapolis. Firebird II, showing three years later, had a less powerful if supposedly more user-friendly engine and a body made of titanium, which was extremely exotic as it was still considered a strategic metal at the time; it also had an autopilot of sorts, a guidance system that would supposedly follow wires embedded into the highways of tomorrow. Firebird III, in 1959, had it all, the turbine, the titanium, the bubble canopies and the fins, as well as being steered, throttled, and braked with a joystick between the seats— as the pamphlet said, it was "An Amazing Experience In Automatic Car Control!"
Of course, none of the Firebird's marquee technologies made it into production, although the research and development probably paid off in countless ways, as R&D always does. What makes the Firebird concepts remarkable is the sheer optimism of the engineers and designers who put them together, who decided that the complexities of 1200° F exhaust temperatures, driver's joysticks, and functional aerodynamic surfaces were going to be part of an increasingly ambitious national landscape someday sooner than we thought.
Photo Credit: Automotive History Online
Chrysler Turbine Car
Once the idea of the turbine got into Detroit's head it didn't seem to want to leave. Chrysler was so in love with their high-rpm, burns-anything motor that they put it in a special Ghia body, which unlike the Firebirds didn't have canopy bubbles or gigantic fins. However, it did feature exhaust-nacelle taillights, which was neat if not particularly outrageous for the time, and was actually given to a few dozen preferred Chrysler customers to drive on the road for a set period of time, which was incredibly daring. A lot of thought was given to solving the problems of putting the car in the hands of everyday drivers, specifically that of the exhaust, which was a potential bumper-melter even back when bumpers were made of steel. It was a first step towards everyone whooshing around in jet-engined cars, a sign the future of driving was almost here, if not next year, then certainly by the 1970s.
Then, as far as most people were concerned, nothing happened. The program was allowed to run its course, during which the cars functioned with remarkable reliability, and the cars were almost all scrapped as per usual with test vehicles. Chrysler kept experimenting with turbines, even dropping one into a LeBaron as late as 1977, but never again took the bold step of putting radical new space-age technology into the hands of potential consumers.
Photo Credit: conceptcarz.com
When people think of the nuclear optimism of the 1950s, the Nucleon is the sort of thing they imagine: A passenger car that would be powered by nuclear fission. While the Firebirds were retro-futuristic in design and the Chrysler Turbine was retro-futuristic in execution (if that's possible), the Ford Nucleon was so far beyond them in pure concept that it's hard to believe it was even considered. Power was to be provided by a lead-shielded uranium fission plant situated well back of the passenger compartment and driving twin steam turbines. After about 5,000 miles, the entire plant would be swapped out at a Ford recharging station.
It's hard to say whether this concept was recklessly optimistic or just reckless, in the context of 1958; the same year the Nucleon design debuted, Las Vegas tourists were taking their martinis up to on the roofs of the casinos to watch nuclear bomb tests just 70 miles away, and the scientists of Project Orion were hard at work on a spaceship that would atomically pogo men to the stars by detonating a series of small nuclear charges behind them. In this atmosphere, the prospect of a couple production Nucleons T-boning each other may have seemed like the sort of thing engineers would worry about in due time. As it stood, despite hundreds of hours of conceptual design time, the Nucleon never got beyond the three-eights-scale model stage. The idea itself survives as a symbol of that time between Hiroshima and the Cuban missile crisis when The Power Of The Atom was going to solve all our problems.
Photo Credit: Automotive History Online
For a long time, there wasn't really a lot of long-range future-think in the automotive world. Emerging safety-consciousness, fuel crises, and the arrival of Japanese practicality and reliability meant that most designers were anchored to the demands of the present, and most designs were mired in those frankly boring contemporary concerns. The Aerotech program of the late 1980s, aimed at aerodynamic research and with the goal of breaking top-speed records, was one exception. There was a strange idea floating around, in the automotive press at least, that there should be some sort of American Autobahn system on which qualified drivers could drive as fast as they wished. Chevrolet had already built the otherwise forgettable 1987 "Express" concept car around the idea, vague though it was. The Aerotech was built with a similar mindset.
Oldsmobile took a two-liter version of GM's Quad-4 four-cylinder, turbocharged it to within an inch of its life, dropped it into the Aerotech along with A. J. Foyt, and drove it 257 miles per hour to break the closed-course record. Oldsmobile was quick to announce that the Aerotech was showing the way forward for Oldsmobile. Sadly, this didn't mean advanced aerodynamics launching us into an unlimited top-speed future; instead, we got the moderately good Aurora sports sedan and the moderately awful Quad-4 production engine. The aerodynamic future has indeed arrived, but as a path to greater fuel economy, and it's taken the shape of the slippery but uninspiring Prius instead of the Aerotech.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
The Pod came about as an early attempt at fusing the car with the Internet, with a bit of electronic pet thrown in. Toyota designed the Pod concept in collaboration with then-unstoppable-giant Sony, whose Aibo robot dog was still an object of fascination. The Pod would wait patiently outside your house, its AI interfacing with your TV-watching and net-surfing habits, thoughtfully downloading music you liked and newscasts related to your interests. When you drove the Pod, it would play your content back for you. It would also change its exterior lighting to match your mood based on your driving, from angry red to cool blue, and wag its antenna when you were being especially relaxed and polite. The Pod was, therefore, a friend you could drive around, albeit a somewhat judgmental and creepily attentive friend.
The networked component of the Pod is of course old hat by now, as today it's hard to prevent any internet-capable hardware from showering you with recommendations. And it's hard to imagine that driving around in a two-seat mood ring would be the least bit appealing. But the Pod is a pretty good example of attitudes towards the Internet from just a few years back. As far as everyday utility of futuristic gadgetry, though, that place in our culture is pretty much taken up by the Roomba.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
If the Pod was the turn-of-the-century Internet interpreted as a car, the iReal is social networking interpreted as, well, a conveyance. The shadow of Wall-E, the Hoveround, and the Segway loom large over what looks like an Apple-designed wheelchair-which, for all vehicular intents and purposes, it is. While puttering about town, you sit upright. When it's time to go all the way to a different shopping district, it reclines, leans into turns, and tops out at not quite 19 miles per hour.
The social networking component is the iReal's ability to locate and communicate with other iReal users in the area in order to exchange information, presumably about iReal related activities, and invite them to meet up, presumably for safety in numbers. The iReal is already in limited release, and a patrol version equipped with portable defibrillators is in use by Japanese airport security. But as interesting as it may be, it's also somehow depressing to imagine a future in which we'll all be wheelchair-bound.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
When Honda introduced this version of their Fuel Cell eXperimental concept, which uses its hydrogen to power three electric motors, they announced that it would soon be available for lease for selected participants in specific areas. They made good on this ambitious promise, and there are currently twenty-some FCX drivers whirring around in Honda's proof-of-concept in a modern version of Chrysler's turbine-car program. This, therefore, is a car of future present.
The idea here is that a network of fueling stations would provide hydrogen just the way they provide gas now, and drivers of tomorrow will live their automotive lives in roughly the same way we do today, certain smells and sounds aside. By all reports, the FCX performance is a perfectly acceptable, if unremarkable, much like its appearance. Which is fair enough; of all the possible futures predicted by these concepts, the FCX's is by far the most probable.
Perhaps that's disappointing, as it's more fun to imagine some sort of 257-mph tail-wagging atomic wheelchair with working tailfins. If that's the case, take heart; as these cars demonstrate, the future we get is hardly ever the future we're preparing for. Who knows? Perhaps the seemingly practical, usable electric car is the first misstep on the road to jet-packs and flying cars after all.
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