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Top 18 Concept Cars Of The Automotive World

Vukasin Herbez November 25, 2018

For decades, concept cars represented each car manufacturer’s vision of the automotive future. They leverage upcoming design languages and glimpses of things to come. Even though concept cars are often non-functional sculptures, they still have an important place in every brand’s lineup as attention-getters. Concept cars still prove the company is dedicated to progress and the future.

Concept cars as we know them today date back to the late ’30s with the legendary Buick Y Job. During the ’50s and the ’60s, they became popular and influential, and remain relevant and interesting today. However, concept cars were exclusively an American thing for a long time until the European and Japanese manufacturers started presenting their creations on a smaller scale.

The American fascination with concept cars was immortalized in the famous GM’s Motorama, a traveling car show that promoted crazy concept vehicles and future trends. Running between 1949 and 1961, over 10 million people visited the Motorama, so it had an immense impact on the car industry. And for that reason, here is a list of 18 best American concept cars of all time.

These are the cars that have captivated the imagination of generations of car lovers, influencing the industry beyond everyone’s expectations. Some of those cars even became part of popular culture, transcending the limits of the car design world.

  1. Buick Y Job

Arguably, the first concept car in the world was the 1939 Buick Y Job. It was the brainchild of the famous GM designer, Harley Earl. He designed the car for the show circuit. His goal was to demonstrate future trends and design solutions.

The Y Job was famous for its hidden headlights, smooth lines and elegant appearance. Although they built it on a regular production chassis with a standard drivetrain, it featured a special interior. Unlike other concept cars purely for show purposes, the Y Job was a fully functional vehicle.

In fact, Harley Earl used it for many years. If you look at the design of those early ’50 Buick models, you will notice the resemblance to the Y Job concept. Today, this important piece of American car history and culture is a permanent piece of the GM Heritage collection.

  1. Buick LeSabre Concept

The early ’50 were times of recovery after the Second World War, so the car industry started to introduce new shapes and designs. And when the 1951 LeSabre Concept Car arrived, it changed everything with its exquisite elegance and perfect stance. And its advanced styling details would influence the industry for the next 10 years. From the chrome bumpers to the oversized tail fins, the next decade of Detroit was visible on this car.

The Jet-Age design finally arrived, so they showcased it on this model. The LeSabre proved to be extremely influential, not just for Buick, but for the rest of Detroit’s manufacturers. Also, the immense success of this concept car showed the way for other creations. Soon, every car brand in America had a concept car on the show circuit.

  1. Chevrolet Corvette Nomad

The early ’50s were the glory days of the American concept car. Each year, the car manufacturers competed with different designs, all of which became car styling and pop culture icons. So, in 1954, Chevrolet presented the Corvette Nomad. They named it the “Waldorf Nomad” since they unveiled it at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

Interestingly, it was practically a Corvette station wagon. The design proved to be influential, so Chevrolet presented the Nomad as a three-door station wagon. And it was a part of the mainline Chevrolet model lineup just a year later. Also, the Corvette Nomad was one of the most popular concept cars from the Motorama period. After a short life on the show circuits around America, most concept cars were destined for the crusher.

However, some managed to survive, and this is where the Corvette Nomad case gets strange. Since it was a fully functional vehicle, they may have sold it to an employee or dealer. There are no records to prove Chevy either crushed or sold it. It just vanished in the mid-50s and Chevy fans have been searching for it ever since.

  1. GM Firebird Concepts

Although they introduced the first Pontiac Firebird in 1967, General Motors already used the name on four popular concept cars in the late ’50s. They called them the GM Firebird I to IV, and they were purely show cars with rocket inspired styling, big fins and advanced equipment. The first Firebird had a jet engine, so it was basically an airplane on wheels.

Later, the cars were a bit more conventional but still crazy. They marketed all Firebird concepts as cars of the future with numerous insane features. Some even had a TV on the dashboard and outboard drum brakes. Many car historians claim those concepts were fantasy cars they never intended for production. They only served as attention getters for the car show crowds.

  1. Oldsmobile F-88

One of the most memorable ’50s concepts was the Oldsmobile F-88. It was a model they managed to produce that found their way to a few customers. In those days, manufacturers produced concepts solely for promotional purposes. So, after their life on the show circuit, they destroyed them. But, somehow the Olds F-88 found a way to survive.

Oldsmobile made two cars using a stretched Corvette chassis and its own 324 V8 engine with a specially-designed lightweight roadster body. Back in the day, Corvette only used six-cylinder motors, so a roadster with a V8 was a big deal. Out of two models, most people believe only one example exists, which is safely parked in a special display at the Gateway Colorado Automobile Museum.

The second example is still unaccounted for, but there is a rumor that it caught fire in the late ’50s and burned beyond repair. However, Oldsmobile produced several chassis and bodies, so some car historians claim there are several more F-88s out there, but no one has confirmed that. So, until there is evidence of a few more, there is one confirmed example of the great looking F-88.

  1. GM Futurliner

One of the craziest but still roadworthy concept cars was the famous GM’s Futurliner bus. GM designed it in 1939 as a part of the Parade of Progress, the predecessor to the Motorama traveling show. Futurliners were custom-made buses that used a regular GM Truck Division drivetrain.

With a redesign for the ’50s, Futurliners gained a recognizable shape. GM designed each one of them to show specific a technology or achievement. The interior featured an information desk and could accommodate visitors. GM produced 12 of those vehicles and nine of them survived.

  1. Cadillac Cyclone

Cadillac introduced many interesting cars during the ’50s, but the most memorable and influential is the 1959 Cyclone. They built it on a shortened chassis with an advanced independent suspension all around. And with a 390 V8 engine, the Cyclone was a functional car with a performance much better than the regular model.

Allegedly, they fitted the Cyclone with a radar they mounted in the front cones, which they designed to detect vehicles in front to help drivers avoid crashing. Today, 70 years later, this technology is common in almost all new vehicles. But back in the late ’50s, it was science fiction.

  1. Chevrolet Stingray Concept XP-87

The story of the 1959 Stingray Concept is interesting since this car was much more than just another styling exercise. In fact, this car not only presented the ’63 Corvette design, but they also based it on the 1957 Corvette SS experimental race car. And it even won the 1960 SCCA championship.

Using a lightweight plastic body, race chassis and aluminum, the Chevrolet engineers managed to keep the weigh down to only 2,200 pounds. With fuel injected 283 V8 engine and 315 HP, the Stingray Concept delivered a fantastic performance that helped it become successful at racing. The car was even featured in the Elvis Presley movie, Clambake, which they painted red.

  1. Ford Mustang I

The Mustang I concept was a big deal when Ford introduced it in late 1962 as a fully functional concept vehicle. This was the first time they used the Mustang name and from the start, it was clear the public loved the name. In fact, its connection to the Wild West mythology was a great marketing gimmick.

The Mustang I was a little two-seater roadster with a rear-mounted V4 engine from Ford Europe and a modern wedge-shaped aluminum body. The original idea behind the concept was to develop a small sports car to compete with European imports like the Triumph TR3 or MG A. However, despite the favorable reaction from car enthusiasts, Ford decided to go the other way.

  1. Plymouth XNR

The 1960 XNR concept car was an interesting piece of machinery. Not only it was the idea of the Plymouth Corvette fighter, it was also the pet project of the famous Chrysler designer, Virgil Exner. If you compared the name of the car and the designer’s last name, XNR and Exner, you get the idea.

The XNR was a rare car that utilized the idea of asymmetric design with a heavy emphasis on the driver’s side. But the most notable feature was the big fin behind the driver that Plymouth claimed helped the aerodynamics.

  1. Chevrolet Corvair Spyder Concept

Back in the early ’60s, the Corvair was a hot car due to its unique mechanical layout, turbocharged boxer engine and cool looks. Despite the fact it didn’t have a performance that could threaten some sports cars, the Corvair still had potential. So, Chevrolet decided to introduce a Super Spider Concept to further explore the Corvair concept.

The Super Spider had a shortened Corvair chassis, a different design, two seats and a slightly upgraded engine. It also had racing wheels, a special paint job and a race-style windshield. It looked cool and attracted a lot of comments from motor show visitors, but Chevrolet never put it into serial production.

  1. Chevrolet Astro II XP-880

Despite the fact they didn’t call this concept the Corvette, everybody at the 1968 New York Auto Show knew it was a study of the next generation of America’s favorite sports car. In those days, Zora Arkus Duntov, the Chevrolet engineer and Bill Mitchell, the head of GM design lobbied hard for Corvette to go mid-engine to achieve better weight distribution, balance and performance.

The Astro II was one of the first in a long line of mid-engine Corvette concepts and for a while, it looked like Chevrolet would produce it. The concept was a fully functional prototype with a 390 HP big block V8 engine behind the passengers, powering the rear wheels, giving the Astro II its convincing performance.

  1. Dodge Charger III

The success of the Charger-inspired the Chrysler designers to develop a Dodge performance model. The original Charger had power, performance and countless racing wins, but it was still a big, heavy and not aerodynamic muscle machine. However, the 1968 Charger III concept was something different.

The Charger III was no longer a muscle car, but a pure two-seater sports machine. It had compact dimensions, a low profile, a light weight and several unusual features. There were no conventional doors, but the whole top of the car opened to allow access to the interior. The steering column tilted, along with the steering wheel to make the entry more comfortable.

On the back of the car, there were massive airbrakes similar to the ones on airplanes that deploy under heavy braking. The whole car was extremely futuristic, but that doomed it from any real production.

  1. Chevrolet Aerovette Wankel Concept

The mid-engine layout has been the obsession of Corvette engineers for decades. So, between 1960 and 1977, there were around 10 fully functional Corvette prototypes with this drivetrain layout. But, there is one, in particular, that is a little bit more interesting than the others. And that is the 1973 Aerovette Wankel concept.

The most important feature of this car was the engine. It was an advanced four-rotor Wankel unit with more than 400 HP from 390 CID. In the early ’70s, all manufacturers experimented with Wankel rotary engines.

They wanted to find an affordable, more powerful and more efficient alternative to standard piston-type engines. Chevrolet realized that its car retained the power level of those big-block V8 engines with Wankel units, but in a much lighter, higher revving package.

  1. Dodge Viper Concept

In 1989, they revealed the Dodge Viper Concept at the Detroit Motor Show. And the crowd went crazy over the aggressive but still elegant lines of this monster of a car. Better yet, it was powered by the prototype V10 engine. The reaction of the public was so overwhelming, Lee Iacocca, Chrysler chairman, ordered the start of production.

Nobody expected something like this from Chrysler. So when the news broke about a new sports car, everyone rushed to the Chrysler booth to witness the birth of a legend.

  1. Pontiac GTO Concept

Pontiac spent decades producing Firebirds and Trans Ams, leaving the GTO to the history books. Although the market was gone for such a specific muscle car like the original GTO, Pontiac fans never forgot the timeless style and performance of this original muscle car. So, at the 1999 Detroit Auto Show, Pontiac surprised everybody with a fantastic concept they called the GTO.

It was a modern-looking and aggressive muscle car that drew a lot of attention from the crowd. Also, it showed Pontiac that many people still wanted to see the GTO back. Even though the GTO Concept was a pure styling exercise, General Motors realized they had a market niche to fill.

  1. Cadillac Sixteen Concept

Each concept car on this list has survived the test of time. They have proven themselves as showstoppers as well as influential pieces of modern art. However, in the case of the Cadillac Sixteen Concept car, GM should put this car into a museum of modern art. They could exhibit it as one of the most elegant creations of the early 21st century.

Cadillac unveiled the Sixteen Concept in 2003 as a super luxury sedan with a V16 engine under the butterfly-opening hood. Although the car was thoroughly modern, it felt classic and more in sync with those legendary Cadillacs of the ’20s and ’30s than with contemporary models. The initial response was so promising, Cadillac considered full-scale production, but unfortunately, nothing happened.

  1. Ford Shelby GR-1

In the early 2000s, the Ford design department was on a retro-futuristic trip with many successful concepts that drew their inspiration from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. However, the most appealing was the 2005 GR-1. It was modern day recreation of a classic sports coupe similar to the legendary Shelby Daytona Coupe.

With its bullet-shaped body of polished aluminum and 6.4-liter V10 engine in front, the GR-1 was a functional concept with a fantastic performance. However, Ford never had plans for production so the Shelby GR-1 just remained a study.

These are the 18 most incredible concept cars of all time. While some led to future models, others just faded away in car history. But they all share one thing: they are unforgettable cars that shook the industry up in a big way.

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