At the 1955 Chicago motor show, US manufacturer Lincoln whipped the covers from an extravagant car. The pearlescent Futura was – as its name suggested – a vision of the future. It was defined by its two fluted wings, large chevrons for the air conditioning system and its most impractical feature: two Plexiglas canopies that encased the driver and passenger and were said to have been inspired by the designer’s fondness for scuba diving.
It was an instant success and represented some of the excesses of the day. Yet the “laboratory on wheels” – more commonly known as a concept car – was destined never to hit the open road, or even reverse park at the mall. In fact, the Futura was destined to be confined to a coffin of concepts, along with other outlandish design brainwaves like atomic engines, colour co-ordinated hovercraft and shape-shifting chassis.
It is a familiar tale that plays out from Detroit to Frankfurt every year, as car manufacturers introduce alluring visions of the future. In Geneva this March, for example, expect to see everything from extreme electric vehicles such as the BMW i8 to radical 3-seaters like the Croatian DOK-ING XD, which are supposed to represent the future of city transport. Time will tell if they make it out of the exhibition hall and on to the open road.
These cars are teasers, offering a glimpse of imagined futures and in the coming weeks in this column I’ll be exploring some of these ideas. And I won’t be limiting my search to just cars: planes, trains and automobiles will all be covered here. Expect everything from hydrogen cells and robot cars to silent aircraft and levitating trains.
I want to offer a critical and honest look at some of these developments, but that does not mean that I will not also be looking into some of the cooler, more futuristic concepts. After all, these science fiction fantasies ideas serve an important function.
“Another word for concept is idea. When companies are experimenting with ideas they’ll develop a concept car,” says Mark West, who teaches transportation design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan – the home of the US car industry.
He has led research and development for production and concept vehicles for major North American and Asian manufacturers, including Ford, Lincoln, Dodge, Jeep, and General Motors’ joint venture with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp of China.
Concept cars are unveiled at motor shows, or these days online, to gauge our reaction, he says.
“What they’re doing is testing that concept on consumers, seeing how people react to it, but also testing their ability to actually deliver that concept.”
Of course, the odd wing mirror or door handle ends up on production models, but rarely does the whole car roll off a production line. Instead, concepts allow car-makers to push the boundaries, perhaps beyond what is practically or financially possible. They are a test bed for engineers and designers, allowing them to develop ideas by thinking “outside the box” – or in car design terms to think outside the three boxes that constitute most cars: bonnet, body and boot.
Take the BMW Gina for example. The shape-shifting roadster, designed in 2001 but not shown off for six years, dispensed with the heavy and cumbersome metal bodywork found on most cars. Instead it replaced it with a Spandex fabric skin. Doors did not need hinges in this view of the future, as they just folded out of the way. Spoilers and wheel arches could be added at will, whilst practicalities – like taking a look at the engine bay – were as easy as peering through a laser-straight slit in the fabric of the bonnet.
The Gina – like the Futura – was drivable. Whether either was roadworthy is another matter – a common feature of concepts. But traditionally these kinds of practicalities rarely bother the designer. Some will not have an engine. Some will have a fully-designed interior, but little under the bonnet. Others will be pure imagination with little concern for how someone may drive at 70mph (110km/h) with a joystick.
But that is steadily changing.
“What we’ve seen more recently is that the concept car world has separated into two halves,” says West.
“One of them is extreme concepts, where they are looking about 30years ahead and thinking about what mobility might be like in the future. Then there are what can being called ‘concept cars’, but they are really production cars where they have massaged the exterior a bit, to hint at a future production car.”
These new toned-down visions do away with science fiction in favour of offering the mum-of-three an idea of how easy it will be to cart her offspring to and from the football field. They are often a new concept body built on an existing drivetrain or chassis.
“Rarely are they true, blue sky concepts where designers get to do whatever they want,” suggests West.
Although less cool, this type of concept car can still be packed with hundreds of fascinating advances of the kind I hope to cover in the coming weeks. And, unlike the Futura, they may offer a more realistic insight into what we could be driving tomorrow.
The Futura itself is now remembered for very different reasons than becoming the car of choice in the 50s. Given a lick of black paint, some red trim and a few well-placed logos, the bubble-topped car went on to be the famous runaround for a caped Adam West. To the Batmobile, Robin!
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You can hear Jon discuss the latest advances in science in Science in Action, every week on the BBC World Service.