Concept cars are the automobile version of haute-couture; where models strut the catwalk wearing warped creations of PVC and live nutria. No one is ever going to drive them, but the designers want the world to see what they’re capable of. Below are 10 of the cleverest, most ambitious, and in some cases totally horrifying concept cars in automobile history.
1. The Rocket Car
Firebird XP-21, 1954
Awesome Because: Turbine-Powered Rocket Car
You know what was old and busted by 1954? Piston engines. It was gas-powered turbine engines; the great spinning propellers of power that helped us win WWII, which held the future. GM designed the Firebird XP-21, a little rocket on wheels, to test this idea. It didn’t go great. They were able to get the extremely impractical and unsteady Firebird up to 100mph before the wheels lost all traction and even the most experienced drivers had to slow down to prevent certain death. Still, rocket-car. Suicide-mobile or not, who wouldn’t have bought this???
Ford Nucleon, 1958
Awesome Because: Ran on Nuclear Fission
The Nucleon never grew to full proportions, and that’s probably for the best. Instead of an internal combustion engine, the car was designed to carry a little nuclear cell in its rear, which would use uranium fission to propel the car. The car even had special air intakes on the roof to work as little versions of cooling towers. All that the designers needed was to wait until nuclear cells became small enough to fit! And wait for the human race to evolve a sentient grace that would enable them to never, ever hit anything. A car crash with a portable nuclear reactor might be…dicey. And atom-splitty. And…an incineration so powerful your senses don’t have time to register pain. The idea fell away with the rest of the Atomic Age.
3. The Ancient Hybrid Monster Car
Lohner-Porsche Hybrid, 1889
No one is too surprised to learn hybrid cars aren’t new. If people were designing nuclear cars mid-century, they certainly would have experimented with electric ones. A bright young man named Ferdinand Porsche, just 18 years old, was the designer of the very first hybrid. He built it in 1889. Oh, it was a beautiful monster. It ran on 4,000 pounds of lead-acid batteries, charged by a gasoline engine. The batteries fed power to four separate electric motors, one for each wheel. It was entered in a few early endurance races, and in one it managed to make a whole seven miles. Porsche had to let the hybrid idea go, but he apparently came up with a few more good ideas later in life. And he worked for Hitler. But I once accidently stole some travel-size Kleenex I forgot were in my purse so we all have regrets.
Phantom Corsair, 1938
Awesome Because: Unparalleled Beauty in Design
If they could take sex; good, classy, Katherine Hepburn type sex, and make it into a car, it would be the Phantom Corsair. The car was designed by Rust Heinz (apparently without the help of his family’s ketchup money). The front seat held four people, including one sitting on the driver’s left. The backseat held only two, along with a beverage cooler. There were no door handles; the car opened with electronic pushbuttons. It was the longest, the heaviest, and the most beautiful car of the era. Unfortunately, Heinz died in a car crash before he could properly promote the Phantom, and it was regulated to being a sleek side note in automobile history.
Volvo YCC, 2004
Awesome Because: First Car Designed Entirely by Women for Women
Ok. Listen to the stuff this car, which was designed entirely by women, does. The tires are made flat, so that if you get a puncture you can still drive to a service station. The display will tell you if you have enough room to parallel park and help you turn the wheel correctly to do so. You can stick your purse right next to you instead of having it go all octopus on the feet of whoever is in the passenger seat. The cushion upholstery can be changed when you get tired of looking at it. The pedals extend to meet your foot. The gas tank is accessible by gently pushing a panel on the side of the car. The hood doesn’t come off! When it’s time for an oil change the car calls the garage (presumably a special future-garage that can remove the whole front of the car to work on it) to tell them! Finally the most unbelievable thing about this car is that people found it offensive. Apparently, it furthers vicious stereotypes; such as women carry purses, don’t like to change their oil, and enjoy lots of storage space.
Cadillac Cyclone, 1959
Awesome Because: Atomic Age Design for Automated Highways
Cadillac was anticipating the most awesome of futures when they designed the Cyclone. They didn’t just give it cruise-control, they gave it autopilot. (This was for the highways of tomorrow, which would also be automated, allowing passengers plenty of time to relax, and contemplate new hobbies, like Atomic Prospecting.) If you chose to put up the roof, you would find yourself encased in a perfect Plexiglas bubble. There no windows that opened, so they built little holes in the doors that would slide open. That way you could open to pass your money to service-bots, or except your government ordained memory pills. And the shape was something between a shark and a deck of cards. I’d drive this baby to the moon and back. Except I won’t need to, because there will be special rockets for that.
The Ford SYNus, 2005
Awesome Because: Small, Fully Armored Survivalist Car
At some point in life, we all wonder the same thing. “How can I find a comfortable yet attractive, high performance vehicle in which to wait out the coming apocalypse?” The Ford SYNus, (which is meant to be pronounced “sin-you-ehs” but never will be) is the car you’d turn to. The Sinus is actually rather small, only 5 feet tall, and is described as an urban sanctuary. It is fully armored and bulletproof, complete with steel shutters that cover windows when in “lockdown mode.” Inside, “Ford Knox” goes for a clean-lined serenity, with the seats that maneuver to face the rear, where there is a large mounted flat screen. You can enjoy movies, wireless, or just watch the mutants fight for dominance from any of the car’s several mounted surveillance cameras.
Fiat Eye, 2010
Awesome Because: Single Person Voice-Commanded Urban Vehicle
Ok, the Segway never took off, but this car, designed using similar technology, just might stand a chance. The Fiat Eye is a tiny, one-person electronic propulsion transport that responds to voice commands. It is designed to be an expedient urban vehicle. Particularly in Europe, where roads often still bear the narrow complexity they had 2000 years ago, when they were traveled by chariot and goat. Fast, light, and single-seated, the Eye would be a supreme advancement in not having to share stuff.
Volvo ESC, 1972
Awesome Because: Loaded with Safety Features 30 Years Ahead of Their Time
The 70s were a fast and crazy time, what with Margaret Thatcher and the isolation of monoclonal antibodies. People didn’t have time for three-point safety belts and crumple zones. Except the good folks at Volvo. They produced a concept car with the stuff that is now considered standard but was groundbreaking (and kind of uncool) at the time. Rollover protection, receding steering wheels, automatic seatbelts, anti-lock brakes, and even little head-light wipers. All of this in a car, that Volvo proudly claims, “deviated only slightly from what the cars of the early 1970s looked like.” Volvo planned to start making these safety features more mainstream in their cars, but the gas crisis made safety innovation less of a priority.
Volkswagen Aqua, 2011
Awesome Because: All-Terrain Hovercraft
Finally, the future we were promised. Though only one of many potential realizations of the hover craft dream, the Aqua is somehow the coolest. Fueled by a hydrogen cell, the Aqua is designed to drive/float on roads, water, snow, sand, and, we assume, moon dust. Unfortunately very little information has been released on the Aqua, created by 21 year old Chinese designer Yuhan Zhang. That’s ok; it gives our imaginations more room to frolic, with the help of these cool photos. And even if it turns out the Aqua was nothing but a fever-dream, it allows us to have hope that someday, somehow, everything we saw in The Fifth Element with be real.