Concept cars aren't just wank jobs of empty, aspirational futurism. They're goal posts. They're psychedelic mind-expanding drugs made from carbon-fiber origami and starlight. They stand as public examples of not just where a car company could go, but where—barring a collective public gasp at an engineer's daydream gone overly onanistic—one of the fundaments of American culture will go as soon as technology and manufacturing capability allow.
So as I sit here at the Detroit Auto Show, I wonder this: Why have American car companies stopped dreaming?
There is a heap of praise, doled out with a scoop of platitudinal business-grey gravy, for Apple's refusal to show the world their concept devices. When an Apple executive stands in front of attendant journalists at an keynote and reveals with vaudevillian flourish the company's latest creation, that new phone or tablet is typically already on a boat or winging from China on an airplane, ready to be sold to you within a week or two.
I fear, though, that in the haste to emulate the world's most admonished product company, our too-beloved auto manufacturers—once the pride of America—have misapplied a lesson from Cupertino: if you're going to make a concept car, Detroit, you're going to have to go all the mindblowing way.
Where it began: the Y-Job
When thinking about concept cars, and lamenting the lack of good ones, it makes sense to take some time to think about where it all started: the Buick Y-Job. Buick's image today as the choice of American geriatrics and the growing Chinese middle class doesn't really scream exciting car-of-tomorrow, but that's exactly what the Y-Job was.
The father of the Buick Y-Job was Harley Earl, head of GM's "Art and Color" department and a man who later would order the chrome trim on Oldsmobiles by the pound. Earl saw that styling was increasingly driving consumer's purchases of cars after the depression, and decided to create a "concept car" which would be used to try out new styling ideas and exercises, new technologies, and gauge public reaction. Based on this, he didn't just create a concept car, he created the entire notion of concept cars, and defined their fundamental purpose and goals: Try out something crazy, and see what happens.
The Y-Job (named because most experimental cars were named X-something, so he just went one letter up) was built in 1937, and contained styling elements and ideas that GM would still be pulling from well into the 1950s. It had GM's first horizontal grille, motorized pop-up headlights (though the Cord 810 had hand-cranked ones just a bit earlier), radically long, low proportions, no runningboards and flush door handles for super clean lines, very deco chrome detailing, a motorized, concealed convertible top– this thing was packed full of radical, exciting ideas. Earl drove it around as his own personal car for a while as well, which islets one thing the Y-Job had over most later concept cars, which often have no real working drivetrain at all.
You can go through pictures of cars from the 40s and 50s, and not just GM ones, and pick out many, many features first seen on the Y-Job. This is what a concept car is all about: cram a bunch of radical ideas in a car, show it, and see what revolts or inspires. It's sort of like the relationship between science fiction and actual science and technology. Would we have cell phones like we do if a shirtless Kirk hadn't whipped out his communicator? Would we have flush, shaped headlights, massive, muscular wheelarches and wheels, LED lighting, floating consoles, and any number of accepted automotive design features without concept cars? I doubt it.
– Jason Torchinsky
There was a time, from at least the '30s until well into my childhood in the '80s, when an auto show meant one thing: a chance to walk through a hanger of science-fiction spaceships made real, where engineers annexed from the dolorous task of designing turn signals for mid-range sedans could strut their stuff, exploring ideas that were often wildly, grin-inducingly ambitious. Strange shapes, hyperpowered engines, jet-inspired (and later video-game-inspired) substitutes for boring old steering wheels—nobody expected any of these rockets on wheels to actually make it to market, but we got to see how imaginative a company's engineers and designers could be when money wranglers loosened their reins.
That's why concept cars exist in the first place: to push the margins of what customers will consider as possibilities. We're a fickle bunch, auto buyers. We want our vehicles to look modern, but we don't want to be driving a character-establishing punchline on Breaking Bad, either.
Concepts are a risk, sure—public giggling at your concept car is about as much fun as getting laughed out of a school dance for the moves you've been practicing all summer—but when they work they kill. Plymouth could have continued to stamp out meticulously boring coupes and sedans in the late '80s, but the image that their sliding-cockpit Slingshot concept implied made many of us reconsider the brand as something more than just a bonus badge for Chrysler and instead a marque that took wild risks, messaging they soon underlined with the launch of the wild—but very real—Plymouth Prowler, which despite its retro, rat-rod styling travels the same future-past arc (albeit inverted) as the Slingshot.
That risk of diminished respect, as well as the implication that concepts traduce customers with a promise of a future that can never be fulfilled, is the core of the Apple Doctrine, but it's never served the auto industry well: car models are updated in substantial ways only every four to five years, not every one to two. Plus, electronics have iterated at a pace that has eclipsed the public's ability to anticipate what's next. Apple, in particular, has a unique place in the stuff-people-want industry, in that its ability to lock in exclusive deals with the manufacturers who possess the most cutting-edge technology allows them to take products from research to development in a hair-trimmingly snappy window; auto manufacturers can't (because of more stringent product testing requirements) or haven't (because of they-aren't-trying) found themselves with that luxury. That's why a milquetoast concept serves no one: customers aren't being prepared to accept audacious future styling, let alone profoundly different paradigms like drive-by-wire or—gasp!—electric vehicles.
What we have today in the American auto industry, depressingly, is the worst of both philosophies: auto manufacturers reveal "concept" cars with features so mundane that it's obvious to all that they'll be on dealers' lots in a season, just as soon as the companies get a chance to remove the few actuarially minor novelties that make the damn things interesting. (Golly, the rear-view mirrors on this concept CUV won't be LCD panels connected to cameras when it comes to market? I mean, that would be something actually compelling.)
Modern American concept cars are online dating profile pictures: not so gussied up to be a lie, but just false enough to ensure real-life disappointment. (Maybe dealer showrooms should be illuminated by candlelight.)
Ford is perhaps the least transgressive, ironically not just because their concepts are the closest to production models (they are) but because those production models are themselves clad in the most modern, forward-thinking attire. (We'll see if they can reboot Lincoln with the same excitement. I'm not expecting much.) Meanwhile, GM and Chrysler's timid final design mutates their what little is aesthetically or technically radical into embarrassingly avuncular mix-and-match production vehicles with as much style as a man who insists his leather biker jacket redeems his stain-resistant slacks.
(Admiration must be allowed for Cadillac's rolling architecture, which remains as proud, coherent, and as idiosyncratically American as Gotham City.)
So enough of the persistent dribble of predictable concepts. Especially you, General Motors—your terrible, boring cars of the last decade sold so poorly the American people had to bail you out once; I don't think we can afford to do it again.
Inspire us! Justify that we're taking away money from NASA to bankroll your renaissance. Show us that American auto engineers are capable of out-dreaming, out-making—hell, at least keeping up with—the best of the European and Asian engineers. Give us cars that teenagers—who are quickly losing interest in not just American car culture, but cars in general—to paste up as wallpaper on their smartphones and iPads. Show me something I've never even thought of before so that for at least one week a year I can point to an American car company and say "This is what we can do when we put our minds to it. This is where they're going. This is why we saved them."
For my part, I'll refrain from doing that terrible thing that I (and most American consumers do) when I see concept cars: shrugging my shoulders. Make a concept car worthy of comment and I promise is I'll only love it or hate it—but I will never ignore it.