It could be argued that the 1938 Buick Y-Job stands as the world's first true concept car. Built under the direction of Genera Motors' first design czar, Harley Earl, the Y-Job was never intended for production but instead foreshadowed styling and engineering cues that would pop up on future GM vehicles. The Y-Job's stubby tail fins found their way onto the iconic 1948 Cadillacs, while the grille design still influences Buicks today.
Concepts like the Y-Job became a staple of the American auto show circus in the 1950s. GM led the way with its Motorama, a traveling display of American postwar optimism and engineering leadership. Concepts such as turbine engines and drive-by-wire controls were explored with fully operational vehicles. Ford and Chrysler followed suit, giving auto show visitors eye candy that looked out far beyond next year's model.
Looking back, dozens of concepts could rightfully be considered significant, but 10 is a nice round number and gives us a good place to start.
1: Chrysler Norseman, 1956
You could think of the striking Norseman as a handsome lad who never made it to his prom. Here's the story. Chrysler chief designer Virgil Exner was working overtime in the early 1950s to help transform his company's dowdy product styling. Among the steps taken, Exner began a relationship with the Italian design house, Ghia. The relationship resulted in several concepts and a handful of low-volume production models.
During 1955-56, one of Ghia's main projects was to bring the Norseman to life based on sketches and models created by Exner's studio. The body was to be fully functional and placed over a Hemi-powered Chrysler chassis. Working more than a year, the talented Italians handcrafted every element of the exterior and interior, struggling a great deal with the striking cantilevered roof. Nearly all of the roof's mass needed to be supported at the rear so that the leading edge did not to place any stress on the delicate wraparound windshield. Completing the roof structure was further complicated by the innovative power-retractable sunroof (think Porsche 911 Targa).
On schedule, the completed Norseman was carefully loaded onto the Andrea Doria, a modern and luxurious ocean liner. The Chrysler design team back in Highland Park, Mich., eagerly awaited the car's arrival. It was July, and the transatlantic trip would deliver the Norseman to the states in plenty of time for the 1957 auto show circuit.
The Norseman never made it. In an accident chalked up to human error, the Andrea Doria collided with a passenger ship, the MV Stockholm, off the coast of Massachusetts. The liner sank within hours, taking all of its cargo to the sea floor. Few Americans ever saw Exner's clean, nearly chrome-free design at full size. Perhaps, if the Norseman had completed its crossing, the design would have positively impacted Chrysler's styling as the company dealt inelegantly with the transition from the "fin" to "no-fin" era.
2: Chevrolet Astro II, 1967
During the 1960s, there was no shortage of Corvette-inspired concept vehicles. Lead engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov and GM styling chief, Bill Mitchell saw to that. Some were pure fantasy (Mako Shark I, 1961), but others, such as the Astro II were "could have been" concepts.
The Astro II's mid-engine design differentiates the concept from others that came before it. Fitted with a small-block V-8 and practical passenger doors (as opposed to open or fighter-jet style tilt-up canopies), one could see this as a future production Corvette. Many engineers on the Corvette team felt that Chevrolet's performance icon could be pushed farther, and the Astro II stands as a result of their influence. Mid-engine design concepts would remain a reoccurring theme with GM for another 20 years, and the configuration was studied for production several times. What if GM had ever said, "Yes?"
The Astro II is currently part of The GM Historical Collection.
3: Chevrolet Corvette Four-Rotor, 1972
Representing another Corvette, this concept wins a place on the list because of its powertrain choice, a four-rotor Wankel, and its stunning mid-engine styling. The car debuted at the Paris Auto Salon in 1973, during a period where American performance was being stifled by the twin evils of restrictive insurance practices and the first Arab oil embargo. At the time, performance enthusiasts didn't have much to be enthusiastic about as engine compression ratios were coming down and quarter-mile times were going up.
Into this landscape came the Corvette Four-Rotor. Aggressively styled, the design features radical aerodynamics and gull-wing doors. Horsepower output from the four-rotor Wankel engine was said to be considerable. Many elements of the design were considered for production, but nearly all were deemed too expensive or impractical. Had GM made a different choice, perhaps Chevrolet would have fielded something as arresting as the original Lamborghini Countach LP4000.
In subsequent years in a move that smacks of "what have you done for me lately," GM swapped out the Wankel for a small-block V-8 and renamed the car "AeroVette."
The AeroVette is currently part of The GM Historical Collection.
4: Chrysler Phaeton, 1997
A company can use its heritage to catapult itself to a higher level. Chrysler's Hemi is a current example. Its 1997 Phaeton is another. With a charge led by product guys Bob Lutz and designer Tom Gale, Chrysler showed a series of stunning concepts in the 1990s, beginning with the original Viper.
Just as that Viper personified power, the Phaeton simply oozed classic elegance. Inspiration came from the 1940-41 Newport Phaeton, a limited-production classic of which Chrysler built only five. The two-cabin body rides on a whopping 132-inch wheelbase, about what you'd find under a crew cab, long-bed pickup. Wheels measure 22-inches in diameter. A proper V-12 resides under the long tapered hood, a product of melding two then-current Chrysler 2.7-liter V-6 engines.
With what Chrysler learned from its limited production Viper and Prowler product runs, could the Phaeton been a possibility? Might it have helped boost Chrysler's status in the luxury field, just as the Viper did for Dodge? Especially given Chrysler's current predicament, we will most certainly never know.
The Phaeton is on display at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum.
5: Pontiac Aztek, 1999
We know Pontiac (unfortunately) built the Aztek, so conserve your keystrokes reminding us of this lamentable fact. But it didn't build the Aztek it showed as a concept in 1999. The uglier than Rosie O'Donnell, slab-sided horror that debuted in 2001 shares little with the concept pictured here.
Putting the two side by side reveals that their proportions are completely different. Most visible, the angular roof design of the concept got totally screwed up on the path to production.
While there are ample arguments that Pontiac should have never, ever considered selling an SUV, the fact that it launched such a turd truly sullied the brand's reputation. Had Pontiac built what it showed in 1999, the situation would have been far less bad. Perhaps it would have had a shot at its annual sales goal of 60,000 units. As the facts prove, first and second years sales never exceeded 10,000 and those sales were heavily incentivized.
The 1999 Aztek is currently in storage ... cold storage ... very cold.