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.