Welcome to another installment of Cars Of Future Past, a series here at Jalopnik where we flip through the pages of history to explore long-forgotten concepts and how they had a hand in shaping the cars we know today.
The 1986 Lancia ECV rally car featured in last week’s edition was an engineering concept motivated by new technologies on and off the track, rather than a formless design study with no obvious production applications. The 2001 Volvo SCC we’re discussing this time around certainly wasn’t intended to battle for glory in motorsport. Instead, it had a number of safety features and an exterior design language that would come to inform the ensuing generation of the Swedish automaker’s cars.
The Volvo SCC debuted at the 2001 Detroit Auto Show and represented the brink of a transformative era for the company. Remember at this time that Volvos still had their classically restrained, hard-nosed shape. The XC90 SUV still hadn’t hit the market — it’d be unveiled the following year — so the automaker’s range was still limited primarily to sedans and wagons, with the C70 coupe and convertible sprinkling a bit of fun (but not too much) into the roster.
Given that context, the SCC was pretty striking, presented in an impossible-to-miss shade of burnt orange with sporty hatchback proportions and those strange taillights bulging out of the outer edges of the rear deck, previewing what that would become a hallmark of the brand after the new millennium.
SCC stood for Safety Concept Car, and boy was this Concept Car loaded with Safety. It had blind-spot monitoring sensors and cameras built into the side mirrors; adaptive headlights that swiveled when the driver turned the wheel; forward-facing sensors that monitored the car’s position on the road to ensure it was centered; and an “infrared light enhancer” that supposedly boosted “nighttime vision beyond the reach of the headlights.” Volvo’s many press releases don’t explain precisely how the SCC achieved that last feat, though a story from the New York Times stated the infrared data fed a black-and-white night-vision like display.
And that’s not all! The SCC had not one but two different kinds of four-point safety belts. One was a conventional seatbelt that added an additional diagonal belt across the passenger’s chest, while the other was more of a center-latching harness that formed a “V” shape over the passenger’s body.
When entering the SCC, the driver could interact with a fingerprint sensor that would then automatically set the position of the seat, steering wheel, mirrors, pedals and even the slide entire center console for their comfort and convenience. In fact, Volvo said at the time that the SCC could detect the driver’s eye level to deduce the safest seating positioning automatically, though I’m a bit skeptical that the car was any good at it; computer vision wasn’t quite what it is today 20 years ago.
If you couldn’t already tell, much of what Volvo was doing in the SCC previewed driver-assist safety features that would begin trickling down to production cars later in the decade, and have become ubiquitous today. In 2005, Volvo actually estimated that “50% of the safety innovations in the SCC have or will be realized in production models,” which reads back like a conservative prediction.
When you view the SCC as a testbed, it actually composes a pretty accurate picture of how ordinary cars would look 15 years after its unveiling.
Of course, not everything about the SCC made it to your daily driver — the complex seatbelts and sliding center console among the car’s more adventurous features. But what I love about the SCC is that it courted practical solutions to problems worth solving. The following quote from Stephan Rouhana, safety technical specialist at Ford (which owned Volvo at the time) is remarkably down to earth in pinpointing visibility as key to automotive safety:
“More than 90 percent of all important information to the driver comes in the form of visual input through the windows and windscreen of the car. If we improve the quality of this visual information, we will also improve the driver’s ability to make the right decisions in difficult situations, thereby avoiding collisions.”
This idea is best represented in the SCC’s A pillar. That crisscross scaffolding pattern isn’t just for show; it’s a see-through pillar, made from Plexiglas and a rigid box-metal construction. While modern cars have solved rearward blind-spot obscurity with sensors and cameras, forward blind spots have been largely unaddressed and may continue to be because automakers are required to stuff airbags in them today.
Volvo touted that the SCC’s trick A pillar wouldn’t have compromised structural integrity, though the company’s inability to commercialize the design would seem to contradict that claim. Nevertheless, it was a clever thought backed by good intentions, and it made for one of the concept’s standout characteristics.
The SCC ultimately got its production counterpart — though not until many years later and obviously not with every high-tech safety feature Volvo pitched. The concept hatch’s proportions were repeated in the C30 that debuted for the 2006 model year, though the C30 had a different front end to match that of Volvo’s other vehicles, and was sold with only two doors rather than four.
I always found the C30 to be a generally smart-looking compact, though the face of Volvo’s full-size sedans always seemed a bit awkward to me on such a small hatch. A mid-cycle facelift for 2010 perhaps drew it closer to the original design, but overall, the SCC still looked more cohesive. Fortunately, the company didn’t tweak the design of the concept’s distinctive tailgate and tail-light arrangement in the transition to production.
The larger question is why it took Volvo so long to produce the C30 at all. Consider that the ACC concept, which previewed the XC90, debuted the same year as the SCC and started rolling out of the factory merely a year later. Volvo was certainly right to prioritize the development of its first SUV — this was the early 2000s, after all. But the fact the company needed five years to get around to building the C30 is odd. Even more tragic, the C30 only survived for one generation and was canceled after 2013. At least they built a 250-horsepower Polestar version right before the goodbye.
The SCC wouldn’t have made for a thrilling drive — performance obviously wasn’t the car’s objective. Still, the concept has always been nice enough to look at, and would have been neat to experience digitally in some form.
Unfortunately, it never happened. The SCC was never immortalized in a video game, though the Volvo C30 appeared in many, according to the Internet Game Car Database. That includes Gran Turismo 5 and 6, Forza Motorsport 3 and 4, the original Grid, Real Racing 3 and SimBin’s WTCC series on the PC.