Concept cars represent much more than flights of fancy from the minds of ambitious auto designers. They’re great ways to test public reaction to a new look before committing to production; they build carefully crafted buzz around factors marketers want you to associate with their brands; they can drum up investment and, at a minimum, they’ll drive foot traffic to an automaker’s stand at autoshows.
Most importantly, concept cars represent a way for automakers to take risks without putting the future of their companies on the line. And from such risk comes both wildly ambitious breakthroughs and spectacular, disastrous flops. Here we’ve assembled ten of the most important concept cars that run the full gamut of conceptual successes and failures.
Consider this a companion piece to the futuristic concepts we’ve envisioned as part of this month’s Future of the Car issue. Based on current real-world concepts and interviews with some of the industry’s leading designers and engineers, our three vehicles represent ambitious future vehicle archetypes, much like the famous—and infamous—concepts we’ve selected here.
Launch the gallery above for the full list.
Like opening a portal into a future where WWII German technology hadn’t been bombed into smithereens, the Audi Avus wowed the world when it was unveiled at the 1991 Tokyo Motor Show. Despite huge success in rally racing during the previous decade, Audi wasn’t a brand people thought capable of making such a slick supercar. After all, it was just coming out of its own unintended acceleration crisis. Fifteen years later, with the Best of What’s New award-winning R8, Audi rose to the forefront of the German luxury brands, adapting the Avus’s styling archetype not only to the supercar, but to its full range of passenger cars too.
If the Futura’s double bubble canopy looks familiar, that’s because you probably saw it being piloted by Adam West in the original Batman series. Before being adapted into the first on-screen Batmobile by George Barris, the Futura ushered in a new era of space age auto styling when it was unveiled in 1955. It also heralded a new age of concept car excess: Lincoln had the Future assembled by hand in Italy at the cost of $250,000 (in 1955 dollars) before shipping it back to America for the auto show circuit. The Futura wouldn’t be the last concept car to be used in film in television—turns out they’re the perfect vehicles for futuristic TV shows and movies, and automakers are only too happy to recoup some of their original investment while getting some free exposure.
Did you know that there are more Mazdas raced in America than any other brand? Don’t worry, no one else did either, which is a good enough reason to roll out this futuristic Le Mans-style prototype not only to put a point on the brand’s racing heritage, but to push its design language forward. Check out the organic lines of the grille and air intakes—those are already defining a bold new look for formerly hum-drum economy cars. The Furai also highlights a concept car Catch 22: its whacky lines work well on a dramatic racecar, but when interpreted into production cars, something’s not quite right. On the MazdaSpeed3 they create a crazed Pokemon smile, and the new Mazda5 minivan looks like it’s waist deep in a pond, thanks to similarly fluid accent lines along its flanks.
Imagine driving a thrusting supercar that looks like an Ikea-designed jet fighter safe in the knowledge that you’re not polluting like a military aircraft; the Aero-X was designed to hit 155 MPH while running on pure ethanol. Now compare that to the Swedish brand’s reality: uncompetitive sedans that have been using the same cheap General Motors platforms and engines for over a decade. The Saab Aero-X got the auto world all hot and bothered back in 2006, but there was no connection between it and the brand’s lackluster products, which goes a long way to explain why GM decided to sell Saab last year. Hindsight is 20/20.
BMW Vision EfficientDynamics
After years languishing under the maniacal direction of head designer Chris Bangle, BMW is finally establishing a post-flame surfacing design direction with the Vision EfficientDynamics. The concept is more significant than its layered, multi-colored panels; along with ugly cars, BMW is also leaving behind the big V8 and V12 engines it has become famous for. That doesn’t mean the Vision isn’t powerful, just that it makes its 265 HP and 590 Lb-Ft of torque using a turbo diesel/electric hybrid powertrain that’s capable of stunning fuel economy too: 62.5 MPG. BMW sees future luxury customers being as motivated by eco-consciousness as they are by speed, the Vision concept is the embodiment of that, er, vision.
BMW GINA Light Visionary Model
On the other side of the BMW coin, you kind of get the feeling that the GINA was a parting joke from controversial designer Chris Bangle. “GINA” stands for Geometry and functions In “N” Adaptations, a forced acronym if we’ve ever heard one. You don’t necessarily have a dirty mind if the name reminds you of female anatomy, and the car’s party trick is an orifice on the hood that opens to reveal a shape reminiscent of, well, you guessed it. Jokes aside, the roadster is skinned in a metallic textile fabric stretched over a skeleton of wires. Those wires can move and the fabric can stretch, altering the shape of the car and revealing mechanical details as it becomes taught or slides aside. Wild stuff.
Aurora Safety Car
Built by a Catholic priest and partially funded by his congregation, the Aurora is considered the ugliest car ever made. Its hideous lines had a purpose though: the large front bumper was filled with foam designed to absorb the energy of impacts and shaped like a scoop so pedestrians could be lifted up over the car, supposedly without injury. The windscreen, too, had purpose in its bubbly shape, intended to eliminate the possibility of occupant’s heads colliding with it, a major problem before airbags. Despite those innovations, the priest was unable to find adequate investment to produce the Aurora, personally going bankrupt and facing accusations of funds misappropriation from the Catholic church in the process.
In 1958, the car industry saw nothing but potential in its bright future. After all, it had succeeded in fundamentally altering not only the country’s landscape with suburbs and highways, but creating a culture of consumerism that spread throughout the economy as a whole. So why wouldn’t a car powered by a nuclear fission reactor be possible? The Nucleon looks the way it does because a pickup bed would be necessary to accommodate the heavy reactor, and the cab needed to be as far forward as possible in order to shield its occupants from harmful radiation (!!). On second thought, maybe a nuclear reactor doesn’t belong in every driveway.
Lancia Stratos Zero
The original wedge. Despite its extraordinarily impractical design — you enter through the hinged windscreen and have to lay almost flat to fit underneath it with zero rear or sidewards vision — the Stratos Zero inspired decades of sports cars with its door stop shape. While successors like the Lamborghini Countach were a little more human friendly, the shape has virtually no benefits beyond dramatic looks. Michael Jackson had the Zero reproduced, featuring it in his movie “Moonwalker” and the music video for “Smooth Criminal.”
The concept car most often preceded by aWhy didn’t they build the…a, the Sixteen was supposed to be the Cadillac of Cadillacs, returning that phrase to relevance after decades in the crappy car wilderness. A sleek sedan with a hood proportionate to its enormous 13.6-liter sixteen-cylinder engine, the Sixteen would have been among the fastest and most expensive cars in the world had it reached production. Which it almost did–killed only by the declining financial health of GM soon after its debut in 2003. The engine was said to produce 1,000 HP, yet return 20 MPG thanks to its ability to shut down 12 of its cylinders during normal driving. Even though they didn’t make it, the Sixteen did herald a new era of exciting Cadillacs with its aArt and Sciencea design language. For more, check out our own futuristic concepts here