Automotive design has long served as a bridge between science fiction and reality. Car designers have historically displayed a panache for packaging new and potentially influential technologies into shapes that embody our preconceptions of what the future will look like, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of our collective imagination. Two avenues have principally afforded these designers the means to communicate their more radical ideas. The first, cinema, with its ability to tell stories that transport the viewer into a possible reality, offers car designers an ideal vehicle to showcase their vision of an automotive future.
Car designers have historically displayed a panache for packaging new and potentially influential technologies into shapes that embody our preconceptions of what the future will look like, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of our collective imagination.
The second, more significant, avenue is the corporately sponsored concept car in which the designer’s imagination is given free rein to experiment and dream. Usually purely frivolous from an economic standpoint, the concept car is that rare industrial project that incurs significant cost and time to create but is rooted solely in imagination and will probably never be approved for mass production. The concept car is unique among industrial design projects in this regard; there are no concept buildings, concept trains or concept ships. Usually displayed at auto shows and exhibitions, concept cars give automakers a chance to show off innovations in technology while encouraging the public to imagine a more technologically realized future. And, occasionally, they even get green-lighted for production.
The following vehicles demonstrate a continuum of automotive design attempts to foresee, and embark, into the future. This survey is by no means a complete view of the wondrous imagination that car designers have displayed over the past 100 years, but it does illustrate the central thrust of their thinking, as well as provides a compelling glimpse of various concepts of the future.
1938 Phantom Corsair
The by product of an imaginative decade and a millionaire with perhaps too much time on his hands, the Phantom Corsair is a one-off designed by Rust Heinz, heir to the Heinz food empire and fortune. Heinz enlisted the help of the then-famed but now-defunct coach building company Bohman & Schwartz to realize his idea, which resembles the rockets of the Flash Gordon comic strip that debuted earlier in the decade. In addition to its unique exterior shape, a wind tunnel-tested, streamlined design that was certainly out of step with the gargantuan, pontooned cars of its era, the Corsair featured a number of innovative mechanical and ergonomic design elements. Based on the chassis of the popular Cord 810, the Corsair utilized the Cord’s 289 cubic inch V-8, which was capable of 190 horsepower and a top speed of 115 mph, not bad for 1938. The V-8 was mated to a 4-speed, electronically controlled transmission that powered a then-highly unusual front wheel drive. The Corsair also included unheard-of safety measures like hydraulic impact bumpers and interior crash padding highlighted by a padded dashboard, as well as comfort items such as sound deadening and a thermostatic climate control system. The car’s flowing lines featured covered headlights and the absence of running boards or door handles (access was granted via electronic push-buttons). Though the original prototype cost Heinz $24,000 to build, he planned to mass-produce a version that would retail for half that amount. Unfortunately, his death shortly after the car’s completion put any production plans on permanent hold. Owned today by the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, the Corsair will make a rare public appearance this March at the annual Amelia Island Concours D’ Elegance, one of the nation’s most significant automotive events, now in its 14th year.
American cars of the 1950s were a principal forum for the decade’s onslaught of advertising and marketing that was characterized by postwar optimism and the underlying Red Scare. General Motors’ Motorama events, a series of annual exhibitions, were the pinnacle of such automotive efforts. Every year, GM would roll out a traveling show that would proceed from city to city and set up in local convention centers or baseball parks. The shows focused on technological innovations that would purportedly soon change the lives of average consumers. Though primarily centered on automobiles, the Motorama shows also featured houseware displays intended to inspire families to dream of the home of the future.
Perhaps the most visually arresting of the Motorama cars were the Firebirds conceived by GM’s Vice President of Styling Harley Earl. Most people today associate the Firebird with the Pontiac muscle car born in the late 1960s. GM used the name a decade earlier, however, for a series of concept cars that resembled rocket ships more than anything else. Appearing at the 1954 Motorama, the Firebird XP-21 (retrospectively referred to as Firebird I) claimed to be the first gas turbine car ever built and tested in the United States. It wore a fiberglass reinforced plastic body and featured a bubble top canopy, delta wings and a large rear vertical tailpiece. The car’s design was aerodynamically tested in wind tunnel experiments conducted by the California Institute of Technology. Its gas turbine “Whirlfire” engine, which produced 370 horsepower at 26,000 rpm, actually ran on kerosene. The car also boasted a completely new suspension design called a double wishbone, now a standard element in many production cars. The steering wheel featured electronic controls for airbrakes located on the car’s wings.
Firebird II, which debuted at the 1956 Motorama, was built on its predecessor’s technology with the aim of being an advanced family car. Featuring an updated version of the Firebird gas turbine engine that could run on gasoline, kerosene or fuel oil, it was capable of 200 horsepower. Firebird II claimed to reduce engine noise and recycle exhaust heat for better efficiency, much like turbochargers do now. It featured a new suspension system termed the Delco-Matic Air-Oil Suspension System that created a cushion of air for shock absorption similar to the air bag suspensions common on today’s customized cars. The car was also the first, and to this day the only, titanium-bodied automobile ever made by a major manufacturer. Other futuristic features included a magnetic key card, a pair of control handles rather than a wheel for steering, and a two- screen dashboard that displayed vehicle information (such as fuel gauge and engine temperature) and could receive standard broadcasting or serve as a two-way telecommunications device. Monitors also relayed a back-up camera, one of the few features of the car that eventually graduated to common implementation. Perhaps the greatest of Firebird II’s conceptual innovations, and clearly the least realized in execution, was its theoretical ability to tune in to a central control tower that could drive cars via radio waves and create a standardized automatic highway where all vehicles would be perfectly synchronized by a single broadcast source, leaving the driver to relax as a passenger.
With its double bubble-canopied cockpit, Firebird III was the most garish of its line when it made its debut at the Motorama of 1959. The car updated the features of its forebears with a refined 225 horsepower gas turbine engine and a supposed ability to autopilot in synchronized traffic with the guidance of a radio tower. Other than its extreme exterior styling, Firebird III’s great design innovation lay in its Unicontrol, a centrally located control arm that administered every driving need, including steering, acceleration, braking and gearing. Only the starry-eyed optimism of the 1950s could make such an idea seem plausible. The car’s promotional pamphlet bragged that the Unicontrol’s location meant that the passenger could operate the vehicle, unconcerned about the negative safety ramifications of such a layout. Firebird III was not without its technical merits, though; it featured an early version of one safety idea that would eventually become standard in all cars of the future, anti-lock brakes.
1958 Studebaker-Packard Astral
By 1958 the once proud and storied Studebaker and Packard companies had merged and were on their last legs, soon to pass forever into automotive history. One of their final gasps, however, was a glimpse into the future, a design exercise led by Studebaker interior design director Edward E. Herrmann. The project was produced specifically for the 1958 exhibition at the Art Center in South Bend, Indiana and aimed to imagine a vehicle that would address the needs of the commuter in 25 years. The “car” they envisioned, a visual combination of a spaceship and a boat, bore little resemblance to the cars that eventually dominated roads in 1983. Known now as the Astral, but then dubbed the Aeronaut Explorer or the S-P-nik (a combination of Studebaker-Packard and the recently launched Soviet Sputnik spacecraft) the car’s impact relied much more on imagination than on realized technologies. Conceived to run on a nuclear power unit and one central wheel, the Astral was imagined as a hovercraft that could travel on land and water, with the additional capability of limited altitude flight. Herrmann and his team borrowed some ideas from the Motorama cars, envisioning the Astral as capable of autopilot provided by a central broadcasting source that could synchronize traffic in congested areas. Another GM cue was the use of a single control unit, in this case termed a “navigation pod,” as well as TV screens that could communicate information and receive standard television signals. The Studebaker stylists also added a few unique ideas that proved to be extremely forward thinking. Their television screen featured a map that could display the car’s location and be used to program the car’s destination, a precursor of today’s standard navigation systems. Less realistic was a proposed energy field that would prevent collisions and an atomically adjustable clear canopy that could darken to opaqueness to block out radiation during space travel. Sadly, after being displayed only once at the Art Center exhibition, the Astral was relegated to a warehouse for 30 years until being rediscovered by the Studebaker National Museum and restored in the early 1990s. Now a permanent part of the South Bend museum’s collection, the Astral is on indefinite display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
2054 Lexus Minority Report Off-System Sports Car (2002)
Fans of the films Minority Report and The Island will recognize this sleek concept car that Lexus produced in 2002. Projected to be a 2054 model, this Lexus was imagined to feature a smart recharging electric engine and a carbon fiber-titanium composite monocoque body with dent-resistant memory. Presumably, the body could fix itself following a minor collision. The car was designed to include some features that have already become realities, such as back-up camera, parking assist, and an accident avoidance system with pre-collision warning. After tipping their hand to their own technical developments, Lexus eventually unveiled these last two features in current production models such as the LS 600h hybrid flagship. Less realized features of the Minority Report concept include retractable solar panels to recharge the engine, a Voice Activated Concierge Service that schedules service appointments and makes hotel and restaurant reservations, and most impressively, an Auto Valet that automatically parks the car and remotely returns it to a specified location after the driver has exited the vehicle. The car also boasts a Weather Sensitive Response System that automatically attenuates window tint levels based on the amount of sunlight and adjusts tire traction depending on road conditions.
Reflecting how much the American economy has changed over the last eight years, in 2000, General Motors earned $5 billion on sales of $183.3 billion. Annually claiming the prize as the world’s top auto seller, GM certainly had enough spare cash then to experiment and lead the industry’s supposedly inevitable charge into alternative fuel technologies. In 2002, GM unveiled a concept car that challenged pre-existing notions about fuel, technology and design. The resulting AUTOnomy was the first vehicle designed from the ground up around a hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system. Proposing that hydrogen would lie at the center of the fuel economy of the future, GM predicated its design on the hydrogen fuel cell, a power supply whose sole exhaust component consists of water vapor and heat. In creating AUTOnomy, GM sought to break away from traditional designs centered on the front engine compartment architecture made necessary by the internal combustion engine. Reasoning that the use of the fuel cell freed them from considerations of air intake or a traditional engine compartment, GM engineered the fuel cell and all of the car’s electrical components into a low, six-inch-thick chassis that they dubbed the skateboard. The idea of the AUTOnomy was that one uniformly designed skateboard could serve as the chassis for dozens, if not hundreds, of different body styles. Each would connect similarly to one electrical interface on the skateboard. The AUTOnomy would perform all of its functions, from engine performance and braking to windshield wipers and heating, via an electrical command system known as drive-by- wire, so that no function of the car would be linked to mechanical implementation. As such, the attachable bodies needed only to have computer operated controls that would hook into the skateboard’s systems. GM envisioned that the flexibility of this design could allow consumers to swap out the bodies of their car for another on a regular basis. Though the concept model was made with a sleek, futuristic body design courtesy of Italian styling house Bertone, GM imagined the skateboard could just as easily carry a coupe, SUV or pick-up. The company even projected a leasing program that would allow owners to lease a different body as often as every week. Since all functions would be electrical, GM imagined a flexibility of interior design allowed by the lack of pedals or a fixed steering wheel.
A discussion of automotive design would be incomplete without a mention of Pininfarina, Italy’s most famous independent coachbuilder. The designers at Pininfarina have penned some of the most significant cars of the past sixty years and they are almost exclusively responsible for the shapes of Ferraris, having a strong and storied relationship with the prancing horse. So in 2005, when it came time to celebrate the company’s 75th anniversary, the designers at Pininfarina knew they had to create something extra special, even by their standards. The result was the spectacular Maserati Birdcage 75th. Pininfarina had designed the original Maserati Birdcage Tipo 63 of the early 60s, a groundbreaking race car so named for its radically triangulated tubular space frame chassis. That car became a benchmark for aesthetically beautiful race car design. Though the Birdcage 75th generally resembles the shape of its namesake, it is much more of an attempt to look into the future, as Pininfarina has reinterpreted everything from a car’s basic shape to how a driver and passenger actually enter the vehicle. The car was conceived as a cross section of the highest performance and technology, using Maserati’s race engineering to supply the power. Based on the chassis of the successful Maserati MC12 race car, the Birdcage 75th features Maserati’s 700 horsepower, six liter V-12 engine. Its low, streamlined, carbon fiber body encapsulates a floating central cell that contains the passenger cabin and all mechanical components. Several technology partners were retained for the project, most notably Motorola, which supplied all of the car’s mobile technology applications. Evolved far beyond mere cellular phone technology, the applications include projection screens to accommodate payment systems, an iPen and a mobile router. The car’s distinctive LED headlights, designed by OSRAM Opto Semiconductors, are the first of their kind, and their appearance is matched by the car’s interior lighting and console read- outs. The vehicle’s futuristic appearance is completed by a canopy-top that slides upward to allow entry.
2008 Pininfarina Sintesi
Unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in 2008, Pinin- farina’s Sintesi – Italian for synthesis – embodies one of the company’s rare attempts to design, develop and construct a vehicle in their own plant under their own name. With the Sintesi, Pininfarina explored and com- bined many of the ideas already discussed. As is often the case with cars like this, the designers coined several catch phrases to describe their design, in this case Liq- uid Packaging and Transparent Mobility. The former re- fers to the idea of designing the car around the needs of the passenger rather than vice versa. Like AUTOnomy, the Sintesi has done away with the concept of a tradi- tional, frontally located internal combustion engine, and derives its power from four hydrogen fuel cells located in the wheels. The so-called Quadrivium Drive, courtesy of a company called Nuvera, is also capable of operating on traditional gasoline or biofuel. This new placement for the vehicle’s power source allows for greater cabin space and a low volume front end, resulting in a sporty appearance that doesn’t compro- mise interior comfort. Transparent Mobility evokes the ideas of the Motorama Firebirds and the Astral to em- ploy a broadcast system that aligns cars in a synergistic network of controlled traffic. Sintesi, however, discards the notion of all vehicles controlled by a central broad- casting source. Rather, it allows the driver and computer to merge in a synchronized effort to plot the car’s course based on a wireless network of feedback from other vehicles and road conditions so that, essentially, all cars are talking to one another in the interest of ideal traffic flow and safety. As in the Birdcage 75th, Pininfarina has addressed ergonomic concerns of entry and exit, this time by creating mirrored scissor front and rear doors that open to create one large, pillarless entryway. Former Pininfarina CEO and Chairman Andrea Pininfarina, who was killed last summer in a traffic accident, stated that Sintesi “represents a courageous exploration of the future of the car.”