It is a good thing that auto engineers have ignored many of the "innovations" found in concept cars over the last half-century. Our lives just wouldn't be the same if even a fraction of the great miscalculations of the past ever had made it into our vehicles.
In the worst-case scenario, your car today could be a bubble-topped, six-wheeled freeway cruiser, complete with zebra skin and lion fur upholstery, with two rifles tucked between the front seats and a nuclear power plant at your rear.
The concept car phenomenon began far more innocently than that. In 1938, legendary GM designer Harley Earl incorporated power windows and a power-driven convertible top into his Buick "Y-Job." Considered the first concept car , it was a straightforward demonstration of new technologies, not a new production model.
But once they no longer had to design real cars all the time, big three designers felt a new freedom to indulge their creativity with concept cars. As a result, the 1950s and early 1960s became the heyday of wacky concept cars. Imaginations soared as high as the newly built jet fighters roaring overhead.
With that inspiration, it's no surprise that aerodynamic motifs, including outlandish fins, would reach perfection on concept cars before gracing production cars later in the decade. They remind us how even a silly, overly ostentatious treatment can be carried along in the slipstream of a new design, if only for a few years.
At one point, Ford's fascination with new technologies found expression in a streamlined, two-wheeled concept car shaped like a flattened cigar, the Gyron. Designers thought the Gyron's two-wheel stance and its built-in gyroscope would improve its cornering.
In their headlong pursuit of gadgetry, they offered an infrared "snooperscope" as an accessory that would help the driver see in bad weather. According to a Ford news release of the time, the 1961 Gyron concept car was also equipped with a microphone at its rear, presumably so the "oohs" and "aahs" of passers-by could be easily heard inside.
The propulsion would have to come from a fuel cell system, since no internal combustion engine known at the time would fit into it.
Jet cockpits inspired concept car designers as well, fueling their obsession with developing a whole new body style rivaling the convertible. Plexiglas, introduced in the 1930s, gave them the perfect material for the job. Assorted canopies, bubbles and clear roof cutouts soon appeared on concept cars at auto shows, and a few modest versions even appeared on production vehicles.
No one seemed too worried about the structural integrity of the new body style. "If you have a Plexiglas roof panel above you, it's not going to be as strong as a solid roof panel," says Bob Casey, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich. Lives were no doubt saved when a more robust substitute, the sunroof, took hold a few years later.
The budding nuclear age provided its own brand of inspiration, without leaving much fallout in its wake, fortunately. In 1958, Ford produced a mock-up of the Ford Nucleon, envisioning a nuclear energy source as its power plant and a range of up to 5,000 miles without recharging.
A 1962 Ford concept car, the six-wheeled Seattle-ite, was likewise supposed to be nuclear-powered. Designers only produced it as a three-eighths model, and left the actual nuclear power to the imagination (it has thankfully remained there).
Concept car designers also loved cantilevers, pushing the limit on how far a roof, steering column or structural component could extend without a direct means of support. The 1956 Chrysler Norseman, was perhaps the pre-eminent example. It was designed to offer panoramic views from the interior, ostensibly making it the perfect vehicle for traveling the nation's new freeways.
Its cantilevered roof dispensed with both the A-pillar at the front of the passenger compartment and the B-pillar at its center. It rested lightly on the windshield upfront. "I can't think of a hardtop production vehicle that got rid of the A-pillar," said Barry Dressler, manager of the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, Mich.
"You have to wonder about the structure," he said. "If you were riding over a rough road, any forces on the roof structure would have caused you to crack the glass in the windows."
That never happened to the Norseman. It sank with the ill-fated S.S. Andrea Doria ocean liner on July 25, 1956, on its maiden trip to the U.S. from the Ghia studios in Italy, where Chrysler had many of its concept cars built.
The Mercury XM Turnpike Cruiser was also designed for the new sensation of freeway driving. This concept car incorporated glass cut-out roofs, with just a single solid band of metal extending over the middle of the passenger compartment to provide at least the appearance of support. The cut-outs supposedly created the illusion that the roof was floating on air.
While not necessarily ill-advised, some concept cars simply never panned out. On Ford's 1967 Allegro concept car, the steering column jutted out from the very center of the interior compartment, half way between the driver and passenger, and then took a sharp left over to the driver.
A forerunner, the 1956 Ford Mystère, had "a steering wheel that can be positioned in front of either front-seat occupant," according to an auto writer at the time. With just a few more contortions, it might have reached all the way to the backseat drivers (who probably wanted it most of all).
Through much of the 1950s, concept car designers seemed absolutely intent on making entering and exiting a vehicle easier. For example, the 1956 Buick Centurion featured seats that automatically slid backwards when the driver climbed aboard.
A number of concept cars offered swivel seats that swung out toward the occupant or a roof panel that retreated when the door was opened. Their structural integrity in a crash was just as dubious as the new Plexiglas roofs.
In 1956, the Packard Predictor concept car had rooftop doors "that rolled up like the cover of a rolltop desk," as one automotive writer that year put it. That same year, the Oldsmobile Golden Rocket boasted a hinged version of a bubble-top canopy for the same purpose.
The 1950s were breathtakingly politically incorrect by today's standards. At the Chicago Auto Show in 1951, the now-defunct Kaiser company displayed a Safari four-door sedan with black and white zebra fur and lion pelts in its interior.
If there were an award for an "over-the-top" auto show presentation, it would go to TV cowboy Dale Robertson, who starred in the "Tales of Wells Fargo" during the 1950s. In 1958, GM went on the auto show circuit with its "Wells Fargo" concept car.
More show car than concept car, it perfectly captured the decade's glorious excesses. It had cowhide carpeting "fur-side up," a built-in gun rack holding two Winchester 94s between driver and passenger, and pistol holders in the interior door panels.