• Jan 7th 2010 at 7:46PM
  • 19
Honda P-NUT – click above for high-res image gallery

Remember the Honda P-NUT? The unusual vehicle (pictured above, full details here) was unveiled at the 2009 LA Auto Show and ... well, now it's gone. Who knows if we'll ever see it again. Each automaker has their own graveyard museum of old concept vehicles. We visited the General Motors Heritage Center a few years ago, and discovered vehicles like the Electrovair II, a battery-powered 1966 Corvair Monza sedan, and the ElectroVan, the world's first hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle. Why do automakers build these concept vehicles if they're just going to collect dust? What's the point of making one-off contraptions that don't work and could never be used on the road? Look at the P-NUT again. Where are the side mirrors? How would you put a windshield wiper on that thing? Aside from the auto show floor, it seems like concept vehicles just don't have much purpose.

Turns out, there is a reason for these exercises in automotive silliness. We explore the role of concept cars in full after the jump.

There are a lot of factors that push automakers to build concept vehicles. Tradition is a big one, as is allowing engineers and stylists to think in creative ways. Of course, more than a few show concepts and production cars have been born in the process of letting engineers blow off some creative steam (see: SHO). But there are three main reasons we see continued craziness at auto shows:

1958 Ford Nucleon

To Explore Technological Concepts

First and foremost, concept cars are, well, concepts. That means they can explore ideas, technologies and styles – new concepts – that either aren't technically feasible for the marketplace yet or are a little too out there to be widely accepted. Designers don't have to meet crash test qualifications or miles per gallon standards with a concept vehicle, they can just go wild. Don't like wide B-pillars? Go with rear suicide doors and use a thin one. Don't like the way bumpers mess with a vehicle's lines? Wipe them away. These cars won't ever get into wrecks, after all.

What's under the hood or available in the cabin can be just as wild as the exterior shell. One of the most famous concept cars is the Ford Nucleon, which was to use a radioactive core powertrain and could go a theoretical 5,000 miles before needing a recharge. The concept was never explored for production at any great length, but when we're talking about reasons to make a concept car, the Nucleon stands as a great example of what's possible.

Chevy Volt Concept – click above for high-res image gallery

To Give Product Previews

Let's take the case of the Chevrolet Volt. At the 2007 Detroit Auto Show, this was the car of the show, green or otherwise. Heck, it's one of only two recent concept vehicles on Wikipedia's list of "Notable Concept Cars" (the other is the Holden Efijy). The Volt concept was muscular, aggressive and had this amazing thing called a plug-in hybrid drivetrain. The PHEV powerplant wasn't unique to the Volt, but it wasn't available in any production vehicle at the time (still isn't). Since General Motors announced soon after showing off the car that it would go into production, the preview that people saw at the show (above) needed to somehow morph into a vehicle that could actually go into production (below). Many, many changes were made, but there are vital clues in the production version that were carried over from the concept model. The thin side mirrors got a bit taller, but they still have a skinny yellow light on them. The blades on the wheels remained, mostly, intact. And the powertrain, of course, is still there. Not everyone liked the way the production model turned out – it was the concept that got people excited, after all – but production versions are almost always toned down from their concept forefathers.

2011 Chevy Volt – click above for high-res image gallery

To Get Attention (and See What The Response Is)

What happened with the Volt is a good example of perhaps the most important reason auto companies build concepts: to grab our eye and to find out what we think of the cars. Whether used as an icebreaker for new technologies or as marketing halos, concept cars give the thousands of journalists descending on auto shows something to talk about and report. Then the general public arrives and shares their own thoughts. By the end of the show, the auto companies can tell if they've got a hit or a dud (Peugeot BB1, anyone?) on their hands and can make product decision based on the responses.

The production vehicles that evolve out of concept cars sometimes don't change much at all and are sometimes entirely different animals. Toyota's first hybrid, for example, was a concept called the Toyota Sports 800 GT Hybrid that was shown off at the 1977 Tokyo Motor Show. That car didn't go into production, but less than 20 years later, in 1995 Toyota unveiled the Prius concept at the Tokyo Motor Show. We all know how that turned out.

We know we'll get a slew of new concept cars to pour our cameras over at the Detroit Auto Show that's right around the corner. Until then, here are a few concept vehicle galleries from recent auto show circuits to entertain you.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      I love showcars, but hate when they are misused. Concepts that show new styling directions combined with future powertrains, new control ideas, new materials - they make a lot of sense.

      Its cars like the Chrysler ME412 that make zero sense. Chrysler as a supercar maker? Seriously? That money should've been spent on Chrysler sedans that challenge whats possible, or on well thought-through explorations of the future direction of the mundane minivan.

      Why did they do a supercar when the Minivan is what got them here? Opportunity squandered on pointless ego projects is perhaps the most egregious abuse.

      We need concept cars, as a challenge to designers and engineers as well as giving the public a taste of the beauty thats possible to find in the most mundane objects. We don't need ego projects that have limited relevance to a company's core values, or the direction it will seriously take in 2, 5 or 10 years down the road.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I guess the main use of concept cars is to asses how the public reacts to it. Only parts of it will make it to reality.

      This helps Manufacturers to put new lines to the designs, bring new power trains, bring a new segment all together, etc. With much less risk.
      • 5 Years Ago
      All Glitz. And Not much else .
      Chrome, flames , plastic lanscapes and squeaky clean cars are all b o r i n g.
      Back to basics , steel and bolts and industrial auto motiveness is what is exciting.
      Thats why the TATA Nano is a leader and got it right. They are truly pioneers and bring change to social migration through a product. Ford and GM should team up with those guys to reset.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Wait, did someone say Tata Nano being pioneers? lmfao!... If flashy cars is boring, then the Tata Nano is a lame joke that no one understood. Let's not forget the big flop of the Smart Cars. Tata's look just like it, not to mention that while the vehicle may withstand crash impacts, the driver will still be killed by the force of the impact because the frame has no crush zone to absorb the impact, if it did, I guess that would be a microsecond of excitement but you definately won't live to tell the tale. If you like the Tata's so much, you can go move to India and then I promise you that your "Excitement" will dissapate faster then you thought. Tata's being exciting... pffttt hahaa, that's the best joke I've heard in a long time.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Concepts are sculptures that always put form over function. It's the equivalent of some model walking down the runway in a saran wrap dress with a bird's nest hat. The sign of a quality industrial designer is being able to balance form and function, and that should be instilled right at the start rather than encouraging this sort of nonsense.

        • 5 Years Ago
        With concepts the designer doesn't need to worry about production costs or whether the 45 YO buyer who is 140% of his ideal weight can get in and out of it.

        I do wish that the saran wrap dress made it to the street.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Which is why it's nonsense. We need more effort being put into making GREEN cars (you know, autoblogGREEN) and not glorified movie props.

      • 5 Years Ago
      I also believe that whats currently happening is that automakers are showing concept vehicles that more closely resemble production vehicles. In order words the cars you see in concept form are close to what you'll see in production form. The same goes for drive trains and tech, if an automaker shows off a new dual clutch transmission or a certain type of turbo charged engine in their concept, chances are you'll be seeing it available in the production version of that car as well. Same goes for things such as on board computers, nav systems, and multimedia units. But this of course only applies when automakers are showing a concept of a vehicle that is already in production, meaning they're just previewing the new model of a existing car that is due to be replaced. Well there you go, just thought I'd point out the obvious, and claim to know what I'm talking about. But all in all I agree concept car's are awesome, they do allow designers and engineers to create the cars that we all would like to drive, but can't because of some important reasons and because of some stupid reasons.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Yea, just imagine if GM didn't let Harley Earl go nuts we wouldn't have had wings on cars.
      Same with that Russian designer that designed the first Corvettes. Then theirs the Edsel which should have been left a concept.

      Corvette stumbled out of the gate. Expectations were largely unfulfilled, reviews were mixed, and sales fell far short of expectations throught the car's early years. The project was nearly canceled. The Chevrolet division was GM's entry-level marque. GM was seriously considering shelving the project, leaving the Corvette to be little more than a footnote in automotive history, but Chevrolet would ultimately stay the course and Harley Earl and company would transform the 'Vette into a true world-class sports car.

      Zora Arkus-Duntov improved the car's positioning and image and helped the car compete with the new Ford Thunderbird (which came only with a V8) and turned the Corvette from decidedly "lackluster" into a "credible performer". In 1956 he became the director of high-performance vehicle design and development for Chevrolet helping him earn the nickname "Father of the Corvette.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Zora Arkus Duntov was not Russian. He was Jewish. Born in Belgium, raised in Leningrad and educated in Berlin. He got out of France just ahead of the invading Germans.

        While the auto industry is not generally associated with Jewish businesspeople and technologists, a number of important automotive personages have been Jews, going back to Siegfried Marcus, who invented a carburettor and was the first person to power a vehicle with a gasoline engine in 1870. Gasoline, well, naptha, was first extracted from crude oil by a Jew as well.

        Some of this history was suppressed. The Third Reich ordered publishers of encyclopedias to remove references to Marcus as the originator of the automobile and replace his name with those of Daimler and Benz.

        Notable Jews in Automotive History:

        Industrialists and Entrepreneurs

        Teddy Mayer - team manager and director, McLaren
        Mark Fields - President of the Americas, Ford Motor Company
        Eric Schloss - VP/Treasurer Ford
        Meyer Prentis - Treasurer of General Motors
        Gerald Greenwald, vice chairman of the Chrysler Corporation
        Adolf Rosenberger - German businessman and racing car driver. Helped finance Porsche's engineering firm in 1931, and was instrumental in the famous Auto-Union racing cars from the 1930s, raced Benz Tropfenwagen which was based on Rumpler's patents.
        Malcolm Bricklin - first importer of Subarus to the US, later produced Bricklin sports/safety car, and founded Yugo enterprise.
        André Citroën - engineer and industrialist, founder of the Citroen car company
        Emil Jellinek - entrepreneur and Daimler board member who had a seminal role in the development of the Mercedes 35hp, considered by many to be the first "modern" car. The "Mercedes" Benz was named after his daughter.
        Max Rose - Karl Benz work for his bicycle shop and he was a partner in Benz & Cie.

        Engineers & Designers

        Josef Ganz - automotive pioneer, developer of BMW's first car, the AM1, consultant on the landmark Mercedes-Benz 170, and probably originator of the Volkswagen Beetle.
        Siegfried Marcus - in the 1870s designed the first gasoline powered car, invented the carburetor and was an early developer of magneto ignition.
        Albert Kahn - architect, developer of the modern automobile assembly plant, designed Henry Ford's Highland Park Model T plant and Rouge Complex, as well as the giant Packard plant.
        Zora Arkus Duntov - engineer, 'father' of the Corvette and force behind Corvette racing.
        Jerry Hirshberg - Designer, artist, founder of Nissan Design International
        Abraham Schreiner - Inventor of naptha/gasoline - first successful cracker of petroleum
        M. Davidson - electric car darmstadt 1850s
        Edmund Rumpler - aerodynamic pioneer Tropfen-Auto cd .28 , inventor of swing axle, transaxle
        Victor Wouk - Hybrid car pioneer

        Race Car Drivers

        René Dreyfus - racer, restauranteur & raconteur
        Peter Revson - racer
        Mauri Rose - winner of the Indy 500
        Kenny Bernstein - champion drag racer
        Jody Sheckter - Formula One champion
        François Cevert - racer


        L.K.J. Setright
        Bill Carroll
        Zoltan Glass (photographer)
      • 3 Years Ago
      Still, after reading this, I think it's stupid to make concept cars, if people don't get to enjoy them. I rather get angry with the car company, that does that, than get impressed of a car. If I can't drive it - there is no point in teasing me, period. Not to mention, when they "morph" the car to something else. Uuuu, it was a concept, and we made it available, yeah, right. It was a neat Chevy Volt, it became Chevy upmythroat. Seriously, quit teasing us, idiots.
      • 5 Years Ago
      All I have to say is this: What's the point in saying you CAN do something, if you WON"T do it? (or water it down until it's a completely different car by the time it hits the market)
      • 5 Years Ago
      Anyone who makes a comment about a person's ethnic background pro or con, are in fact a bigeot and a racist themselves. Thus they are in the same group as any other nazi or skinhead. So Please keep your comments to the Automobile article at hand.

      Thank You.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Wow! Look how the bean counters have sucked the soul out of the volt. The concept have sex appeal, and a real presence.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I find the original Volt fugly. The production one is ordinary and bland.

        The large tires on the original would have been a major detriment to efficiency. The tiny windows with high beltline would have felt claustrophobic. The thing was a brick. The first thought I had when I saw it was -- why the heck didn't they just restyle the EV1 and sell that? (The EV1 was very sleek, but it had clunky styling.)

        Concept cars are frustrating -- they either turn you off, or they are exciting; but you know that the production model will be watered down... The new Honda Insight is an example of this.

        Sincerely, Neil
        • 5 Years Ago
        The main problem is that they have styled the production model to appeal the the lowest common denominator which I think is a mistake when you consider the speculated sale price of the car. The high belt line is subjective I'll grant, but maybe you also don't like the high waisted Audi TT also which originally sold on it's looks alone and is a marketing and style icon now. People didn't have a problem parting with $40,000 - $50,000 because it made them feel special and stylish, and it's a special event to drive. I think the wind tunnel is an excuse. Should have tried harder.
        • 5 Years Ago
        @Throwback - you think so? When comparing the two, I think it was the impracticality of the translucent door sections, that required a more pedestrian approach to the final design.

        But I have to agree with tegdesign, that the original concept was far better than the current production model...and what's worse, because we've been seeing it for the past 2 1/2 years, it'll look dated by the time this comes out late this year / early next year. When it gets into the fulll swing of production, it'll need a redesign.
        • 5 Years Ago
        But terrible drag numbers. That is why more than anything, the Volt design had to change. If you are doing an EV (or any high mpg car) aerodynamics are critical. That's why the Insight and Pruis look they way they do, minimal drag, better mileage.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I still don't see why some car companies make certain concept cars in which not only are they not made into production models, but nothing about them is made into a production model. Still seems like a waste of money to me.
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