From branded street artists to 14th-century cobblers, style takes a turn for both the new and old
WHEELS OF FORTUNE
How the concept car went from show stopper to highway staple
by David Page
The 1938 Chicago Auto Show was a grand affair. On display were 220 vehicles from 25 different manufacturers showcasing the latest advances in conditioned air, aero-hydraulic shock absorption and automatic gear shifting. With one notable exception, every car on display had running boards, wing-style fenders, bug-eye headlights and the boxy, carriage-style rear that had been the norm since the first Model Ts.
The exception was a futuristic two-seater convertible called the Buick Y-Job. Designed by Harley J. Earl, head of the nascent Styling Section at General Motors (formerly the Art and Color Section), the Y-Job was low and wide and nearly 20 feet long, with integrated fenders, a gun-sight hood ornament, a power-operated convertible top and concealed headlights.
“It was the first pure concept car,” says Larry Edsall, author of Concept Cars: From the 1930s to the Present. “It was designed to show the public at large one company’s ideas of how we all might be traveling in the future.”
The Y-Job, as with all concept cars, represented a form of fanciful conjecture. Nobody really expected it to go into production, and it never did. Certain elements of its design, however, determined the look and feel of a whole generation of vehicles. Indeed, in the 75 years since the Y-Job wowed Chicago, so-called dream cars have become a constant at auto shows, and their most obvious function—to unhinge the jaws of car enthusiasts—has consistently been matched by their potential to influence mass-market design.
Few people grasped the potential of concept cars as well as Earl. In the early 1950s, as GM’s first vice president of design, he oversaw the development of a U.S. version of the sporty British roadsters then speeding around Europe—MGs and Triumphs and Jaguars. Using a new wonder material called fiberglass, Earl and his team built a concept car that made its debut at the Motorama at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 1953. They called it the Corvette.
Not every concept has the immediate and dramatic effect of GM’s legendary muscle car, of course, even the most fantastical creations leave their mark to a far higher degree than people imagine. Take the 1958 Ford Nucleon, which was to be powered by a small nuclear reactor. Sound a little nuts? But the Nucleon did presage a future in which carmakers would look seriously at replacing the internal combustion engine with, for example, hydrogen fuel cells.
One of the most influential concepts of the last two decades, argues Edsall, was the Volkswagen Concept One, which VW unveiled in 1994 as a way to showcase its new battery-electric powertrain. That innovation was quickly overshadowed by the car’s retro-mod appearance—a design element that ushered in the age of the New Beetle.
On the whole, concept cars are not created to familiarize the public with a product so much as an idea. In fact, says Chris Brown, a former car designer who now works as marketing director for the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, without concept cars, many of the auto ideas we now take for granted may have been rejected out of hand.
“People tend to like things they’re familiar with,” Brown says.