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The 9 Finest Concept Cars Ever

by George Mensah
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For more than a century, automakers have used a variety of methods to develop and build cars, as well as the systems that power them and the processes that allow them to be sold. In the beginning, trial and error reigned supreme, and designers and engineers had to rely on intuition and gut instinct to determine what would work and what people would buy. This process produced some strange creations, but it also produced the highly successful machines we drive today.

Automakers now have incredible computing power to layout every inch and part of a car long before the manufacturing process even begins. We are more efficient and foresighted than at any other time in history. Manufacturers eventually discovered the concept car as a means of communicating with the public and testing new ideas. Since their inception, concept cars have wowed the public and served as a source of pride for manufacturers to demonstrate their car-building abilities. Fortunately, some have been pretty amazing cars, distilling all of the beauty, design, and technology possible into hunks of fiberglass and steel. Here are fifteen of the most innovative ideas of all time.

1938 Buick Y-Job

Companies use concept cars to show the public what they are thinking about future designs. They reveal hints about upcoming developments and technologies to the public before they are ready for mass production. But there was a time before concept cars, and Buick pioneered the trend with their 1938 Y-Job.

The legendary GM designer Harley Earl created the Y-Job, which featured several cutting-edge features and progressive styling. It was based on the Buick Series 50 Super and featured, among other things, concealed running boards, obscured headlights, recessed door handles, and an electrohydraulic power convertible top. It was not only intended to be an experimental model, but it was also Harley Earl’s personal daily driver for many years.

The Y-Job appears conservative in comparison to today’s cars, but it was highly progressive in the late 1930s because it combined contemporary and novel features. Furthermore, the positive response demonstrated that the concept car was an effective tool for brand promotion. The coolest aspect of the car is that it set the stage for GM and others to dream big and present their wildest ideas at various auto shows and public events.

1980 Briggs & Stratton Hybrid

The company that makes the engine for your lawnmower is unlikely to be the first on your list of great companies to create a concept vehicle. But Briggs & Stratton created one, and it’s both cool and odd. The concept’s origins can be traced back to the Arab Oil Embargo and the subsequent shift to fuel-efficient vehicles in the United States. While buyers flocked to small car manufacturers such as Honda and Toyota, American automakers worked to develop their own alternatives.

Briggs and Stratton, a name synonymous with lawnmowing, embarked on a project to develop a fuel-efficient car using a small displacement engine pulled from its current production facilities. The Briggs and Stratton Hybrid combined a 694cc Vanguard V-twin air-cooled engine with an electric motor and manual transmission. Six-volt lead-acid batteries mounted behind the rear axle power the electric motor. The presence of six wheels is the car’s most distinguishing feature.

The third set of wheels is on an axle connected to the frame by a swingarm and serves only to support the extreme weight of the batteries, allowing the weight to ride on the wheels independently of the body and chassis. It’s a crazy piece of forward-thinking engineering from a company known for producing engines that don’t change much from decade to decade. Unsurprisingly, it was never mass-produced, with only one example built.

2006 Saab Aero-X

The Swedish automaker Saab, known for producing quirky and innovative cars on a shoestring budget, succumbed to the evils of capitalism and ceased production in the early part of the last decade. Saab had a devoted fan base, and the closure of Saab meant the loss of the potential that could have sprung from their last concert car, the Aero-X.

The Aero-X pushed Saab’s design forward and expanded on its possibilities while continuing the brand’s established design language rather than being a vehicle to introduce a new one. The method of ingress and egress is the most fascinating aspect. The entire midsection of the car lifts like the canopy of a jet fighter cockpit or sci-fi space patrol vehicle, instead of the traditional side opening door or the popular supercar-like scissor doors.

The car was made with a lot of carbon fiber, a twin-turbo ethanol-fueled V6 with 400 horsepower, and a lot of electronics and LED panels and lights to fill out the interior. While it retains the recognizable Saab front fascia, the rear styling is reminiscent of legendary sports cars such as a C3 Corvette or Jaguar XKE roadster, and the wheels are reminiscent of jet turbine impellers. Clearly a nod to the company’s aviation roots.

1995 Ford GT90

The 1990s gave birth to some of the most incredible supercars of the twentieth century. The most extreme of these, both then and now, come from Europe, but Ford snuck in with the 1995 Ford GT90. Ford demonstrated to Ferrari that it knew how to build a fast car 30 years before when its GT40 demonstrated that Americans could compete and win by taking the checkered flag at four Le Mans races. The GT90 was a spiritual successor to the GT40, and it benefited from the Ford Motor Company’s broad scope at the time, which included not only Ford but also Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Mazda.

Using the Jaguar XJ220 as a foundation, engineers crammed a 5.9L V12 engine with four turbochargers producing 720 horsepower between the wheels (via Driving Line). Ford claimed a top speed of 250 mph and a quarter-mile time of 10.9 seconds standing. Ford built a fully functional car and made it available to the press, but official performance figures are difficult to come by. It’s unlikely that the car was ever pushed to its limits, as management stated as soon as it was released that there would be no production versions.

Using the Jaguar XJ220 as a foundation, engineers crammed a 5.9L V12 engine with four turbochargers producing 720 horsepower between the wheels (via Driving Line). Ford claimed a top speed of 250 mph and a quarter-mile time of 10.9 seconds standing. Ford built a fully functional car and made it available to the press, but official performance figures are difficult to come by. It’s unlikely that the car was ever pushed to its limits, as management stated as soon as it was released that there would be no production versions.

The exterior’s angular design, as well as the interior’s lines, angles, and blue color, are wild and obviously a product of their time — but still impressive. This project may have inspired Ford’s iconic Ford GT a decade later.

1973 Aerovette XP-882

The all-new 2020 Corvette lit up the automotive industry and turned everything we thought we knew about American muscle on its head. The C8 Corvette was introduced by GM, with the engine moved from the front to the middle (via Car and Driver). It was considered sacrilege by some. Others thought it was about damn time. If Zora Arkus-Duntov, the “Father of the Corvette,” had his way in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Corvette would have had an Italian configuration decades ago. While it was not the first mid-engined Corvette concept, the 1976 XP-882 is the most interesting and coolest. The 1970s were a time when automakers had to adopt a “innovate or die” mantra, so new ideas swirled in the engineering and design departments.

In one of the more intriguing examples, GM began work on Wankel rotary engines. The rotary engine had been used in an earlier corvette prototype by Arkus-Duntov, but the Aerovette would be powered by a four-rotor monster. The final design is sleek, especially the gullwing doors. At the time, it appeared to be the future.

However, issues arose quickly. Because GM discontinued the Wankel, Arkus-Duntov substituted the 400-cubic-inch small-block V8 (via Motor Trend). It was shown at auto shows and eventually became the basis for the facelifted C3 produced near the end of the 1970s. The mid-engine approach proved too radical, and production cars reverted to the standard front-engine design we know today.

1997 Volkswagen W12

Volkswagen has produced some eye-catching automobiles since the end of WWII, and its vehicles are known for being nimble and enjoyable to drive. The narrow-angle V6, which allowed VW to fit a six-cylinder engine in a space normally reserved for a four-cylinder, is considered revolutionary by most automotive standards. The VR6, as VW dubbed it, went on to power dozens of VW vehicles, and the design is still used today. The VR6’s development sparked the development of larger engines with more cylinders. VW chose to demonstrate its engineering prowess in the late 1990s with the VW W12, a sleek and alluring 5.9-liter mid-engine track-focused beast.

The W12 concept, designed by Italdesign with some of the smoothest lines of any ’90s supercar, was introduced in 1997 with four turbochargers and 414 horsepower. A few years later, VW released a revised concept, the W12 Nardo, with 591 horsepower and bright orange paint. No official numbers are available, but VW claims the car can reach 62 mph (100 km/h) in 3.5 seconds and has a top speed of 221.8 mph (via Motor1). This is plausible given that the same W12 engine powered a Volkswagen through 24 hours of Le Mans at an average speed of 200.1 mph. Would the public accept a VW supercar and pay a premium for a Wolfsburg-made exclusive?

1970 Ferrari Modulo

The wedge-shaped concept car was popular in the 1970s. The 1970 Ferrari 512 Modulo may have set the trend for wedge-shaped cars to follow, including the illustrious Lamborghini Countach. The Modulo was an exercise in Italian styling, designed by Pininfarina, a long-time styling house for Ferrari.

Its avant-garde design resembles a space-bound galactic commuter from a futuristic sci-fi film rather than a road-going automobile. However, a Ferrari 512 chassis with galactic styling keeps it firmly planted on solid ground. The space-age theme continues with the glass wrap-around canopy, which slides up and forward to allow passengers and pilots to board. As with most concept cars, function appears to come before form in this case, as ergonomics do not appear to have been a consideration for Pininfarina on this project. With semi-obscure wheels, centrally mounted pop-up headlights, 24 holes allowing glimpses into the engine bay, and massively wide tires visible only from behind, the form is mesmerizing.

The 512 chassis is powered by a 550 horsepower, 5.0L V12 engine, which did not run when it was first shown at the 1970 Turin Motor Show (via Auto Evolution). The car has since passed into private hands, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is currently owned by James Glickenhaus, a well-known movie producer and collector of fine automobiles. The Modulo has been restored and is used on occasion, making appearances on the car show circuit.

1980 Aston Martin Bulldog

Aston Martin is responsible for some of the finest British automobiles, which is a source of pride for discerning British petrolheads. Years of involvement in motorsport provided the company with extensive experience in designing cars with a single goal in mind — to drive fast. So it was no surprise that, in the era of wedge-shaped supercar concepts, Aston Martin would throw its hat in the ring and design a car that would not only compete, but also win.

The Bulldog is the result of these efforts, a luxury car of the future powered by an engine that is competitive with today’s technology, a 5.3L twin-turbo V8 producing 650 horsepower. That is a lot of power for a car today, but it was out of this world in 1980. AM claimed the car could reach top speeds of more than 200 mph, but it only managed 192 on the test track.

The Bulldog impressed with both its appearance and performance. While the wedge was designed in a straightforward manner with conservative styling cues, the motorized gullwing doors are a novel addition. The doorsill is still part of the raised door, leaving a huge opening right up to the edge of the seat, leading to a decidedly tasteful British luxury interior trimmed in the finest leather and wood — just as an Aston Martin should be.

2006 Lamborghini Miura Concept

At the turn of the millennium, there was a revival of classic car design reinterpreted for the modern era. Cars like the VW Beetle, PT Cruiser, Ford Thunderbird, and Plymouth Prowler sold well. During this revival, Lamborghini celebrated the Miura’s 40th anniversary by releasing a teaser of the beloved classic with a concept inspired by the original supercar itself. This concept had all the right curves and didn’t so much interpret the car as it did recreate it, only slightly changing the original designs to appeal to modern sensibilities.

When it first appeared, the Miura sent shockwaves through the high-end car world, particularly among fans of Italian steel. The Miura has long been regarded as one of the most appealing automobiles ever produced, and it established the era as the first production supercar with a proper mid-engine layout and high output engine.

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Unfortunately, this was a one-time anniversary promotion that Lamborghini had no intention of ever putting into production. According to Autoblog at the time, CEO Stephan Winkleman stated, “We are not interested in retro design. As a result, even as a limited edition, we will not produce the Miura.” There is no drivetrain, and the windows are so darkly tinted that it’s difficult to tell if an interior exists. It was a clever design exercise with a nice touch of nostalgia for those who wished for a modern rendition of such an iconic car.

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