They have been called many things over the years of automobile design. The Dream Car, The Concept Car, The Prototype, they are all different names for the same thing. Call it what you will, Prototype cars are a necessity to car makers to test the receptivity and feasibility of their latest design. Sometimes the design changes are subtle, sometimes they are extreme. Not all models have to be functionally working. In fact, many are just rolling displays without engine components or safety equipment. All Concept Cars are rare, most are destroyed after display. Very few have been smuggled into private collections or kept for historic significance.
General Motors designer Harley Earl, yes, the same name as on the present day Daytona 500 trophy, is credited as being the father of the Concept Car. The first model, the Buick Y-Job, debuted in 1938. In the late 1940’s and early ‘50’s, Earl pitched the idea of Motorama shows that revealed GM’s working projects to the public. They could then test out how much attention certain models were receiving or what styling elementsdrew the public's attention.
Sometimes designers push the envelope of ingenuity by experimenting with alternative power sources. Some of the first Concept Cars tested out the practicality of electricity, steam, and even nuclear energy as in the 1958 Ford Nucleon.
Besides the toying with the function of the car, designers test the visual components as well. Here, artists can play with the shape of the body, or be inspired by cultural elements. A lot of these radical visual Concept Cars fell flat on their faces like the sharp, flat 1968 Ferrari Modulo or the Ford SYNus whose name is as repugnant as it looks. Some were a projection of the future like the GM Firebird Prototypes that were on display at the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962.
Concept Cars can be head-scratchers like the 2001 BMW GINA. Touted as ‘a shape-shifting’ car, the body is made out of spandex-coated fabric that is resistant to the elements. Supposedlythe driver can change the structural components of the car under the skin on command thus altering its aerodynamics. The engine can be accessed through a slit down the center of the hood.
No matter what the style or power plant, Concept Cars are just that: a concept. They test the waters for every new innovation from safety to style. They can be made to look like or do almost anything. They are creations that we cannot fathom in our wildest dreams made real from the imaginations of automotive engineers and designers.