Historic Concept Cars, Part I: Yesteryear’s Cars of Tomorrow
Over the years, automakers have used concept cars to prototype styling innovations, new technology and futuristic safety features. With a new lineup of concept vehicles about to take the stage at auto shows around the world, now’s a great time to look back at some of history’s more memorable dream cars and prototypes. Check out the first installment of this two-part series.
1938 Buick Y-Job
The granddaddy of concept cars, the 1938 Buick Y-Job was the brainchild of GM Design Chief Harley Earl. Earl sought to build a dream car that would test the boundaries of consumer taste.
The car was named the Y-Job because “Y” follows “X” in the alphabet and “X” was used to identify experimental vehicles. The two-seat convertible was built over a stretched version of the standard Buick chassis. It was the first Buick to use the “bombsight” hood and featured electric doors, windows and convertible top. A straight-eight, 320-cid/141-hp engine propelled the car and an innovative bladder-brake system made it stop.
The Y-Job was driven by Earl until 1951 and now resides in the GM Heritage Collection.
1955 Lincoln Futura (Bubbletop)
A must-have for any list of concept cars, the Futura was a star of the auto show circuit well before it shot to fame as the Batmobile. Lincoln-Mercury Chief Stylist William Schmidt drafted the design and three months later, Ghia delivered the car.
The two-seat fiberglass body sat atop a special Lincoln experimental chassis and featured dual-canopy domes covering the cockpit, hooded headlights, front and rear tail fins and Pearlescent Frost Blue paint. A center steering wheel binnacle held a few display instruments while the rest were meticulously packed into the compartmentalized dash.
GM Firebird Series
Jet aircraft has served as an inspiration for many automobiles, but the XP-21 Firebird I may be the closest any manufacturer has come to a jet fighter on wheels. The GM prototype was built to evaluate the usefulness of gas turbine engines. It was the first gas-turbine car built and tested in the U.S.
The Firebird II was launched at the 1956 GM Motorama in New York City. The new model looked more like a production car than its predecessor. The aerodynamic titanium body (a second body was made of fiberglass) had room enough for four passengers. Mechanical features included disc brakes, a fully independent four-wheel suspension and an improved turbine engine that lowered the exhaust temperature by nearly 1,000˚F.
Built in 1958, the Firebird III combined elements of the previous designs. The two-seat titanium body had a wide tapered nose with a stovepipe inlet, double bubble canopies, cruise control, anti-lock brakes and stick steering control similar to that of an actual aircraft.
Alfa Romeo BAT
The Alfa Romeo Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica, more commonly known as BAT, was created when Alfa Romeo commissioned Carrozzeria Bertone to build a series of aerodynamically advanced cars. Designer Franco Scaglione penned nine designs and the first of three built on the Alfa Romeo 1900 Sprint chassis was BAT 5. The voluptuous and futuristic shape was intended to eliminate drag and resistance.
BAT 7 debuted in 1954 and showcased Bertone’s knowledge of aeronautical engineering. The rear tailfins that became a staple of 1950s style are rolled in like the wings of a bat at the crest of its flapping motion. It is arguably the most visually stunning of Scaglione’s designs.
Bertone’s goal with BAT 9 was a practical, production-possible concept. The bat-like tailfins were straightened and the air scoops and extractors stripped away in favor of a more streamlined design. The car achieved a remarkable 0.19 drag coefficient.
A new BAT concept emerged in 2008. BAT 11dk was commissioned by Dr. Gary Kaberle, an enthusiast and former owner of BAT 9. The latest concept blended styling from the 1950s concepts with modern design language. Top Gear recognized the BAT 11dk as one of their Top 10 Favorite Alfa Concepts.
In the post-WWII atomic age, nuclear energy seemed to be a reasonable alternative to petroleum fuel. Under the belief that reactors would be condensed into a safer and more manageable form, Ford engineers built a concept car to test the feasibility of a nuclear-powered automobile.
The 1958 Ford Nucleon positioned a small, uranium-fission reactor in the rear of a pickup-style car. Ford estimated that the car would be able to travel 5,000 miles or more without recharging. The passenger compartment had a cab-forward design with safety shielding in the rear, and a power capsule housed the engine’s radioactive core.