Long before the engineers add adaptive dampers, safety specialists outfit pre-collision warning systems, and the EPA gets around to sniffing tailpipes, an artist sits alone at a desk, sketching away with wild abandon, the future spewing forth from their stylus, like automotive demigods, hellbent on changing the face of transportation. As a freelance illustrator, I have always been intrigued by the notion that cars aren’t just a form of transportation, but fully-functional, utilitarian pieces of four-wheeled artwork. No one ever really looks at a base-born automobile and immediately wonders what it looked like as a rough sketch, because when it comes to economy compact cars the word “art” is the last thing people consider.
But regardless of whether you like a particular vehicle’s lines or not, all cars remain based upon an artistic idea, a sketch that morphs into a proposal, and eventually comes to gestation as an automaker’s latest brainchild, a concept car of awe-inspiring ingenuity. Months later, upon reveal at an auto show or event of the automaker’s choosing, that concept is used as a means to highlight the direction it’s going. In a perfect world, the concept is the perfect summary of the automaker’s concepts and technologies, one that will potentially help form the future of transportation.
Now, according to recent report by Bloomberg, because of the overabundance of electric and autonomous concept cars at the Tokyo, Frankfurt, and Los Angeles auto shows, the very idea of a concept car has changed, and a multitude of these projects are now being prepared for production. Long gone is the notion that this is merely a rough sketch built for nothing more than media and consumer attention. With increasing frequency, conceptual mock-ups are becoming real-world servings of ingenuity.
Traditionally, concept cars had very little hope of reaching production status, but that trend that has seen an about-face in recent years, with advances in technology making it easier for automakers to make impossible dream cars a reality like never before. The Tokyo Motor Show for example, with its alien-like tech advancements and clever practicality encouraging Japanese automakers like Mazda, Nissan, Toyota, and Honda to showcase what their designers and engineers see coming to fruition in forthcoming years.
So what classifies a concept car as successful? That’s a tough thing to categorize. According to Bloomberg, it’s a combination of “generating hype, demonstrating close-to-realistic technology, and being either feasible enough to produce or revolutionary enough to inspire.” Take Porsche’s electric Mission E for example. Here’s a vehicle that’s powered by two magnet synchronous motors, putting down 590 horsepower in the process, and can hit 60 miles-per hour in around 3.5 seconds. Hell, even its range crests over 300 miles, something that Porsche says will likely increase by the time it sees production in 2020.
OK, so most modern concept cars probably won’t be as fortunate and reach the assembly line, so while we patiently wait on cars like the Nissan BladeGlider to drop into our laps, let’s look back at what started this whole showstopping, over-the-top concept craze, because while the future may be uncertain, the past remains well-documented.
Concept cars made their first appearance in the late 1930s, when vehicles like the Buick Y-Job convertible first emerged. Decades later, in the 1950s, General Motors mastermind Harley Earl changed the face of conceptualized transportation forever by taking his creations across America in a series of “traveling Motorama shows,” where adults and youth alike could drool over the future of automobiles. Sixty years later we’re still salivating, as automakers tempt drivers and investors alike with fresh spins on technology, design, efficiency, and speed.
It’s an incredibly risky, painstakingly detailed process that involves dozens of designers and engineers, consistently costing millions of dollars, regardless of whether the car reaches production or not. According to information Bloomberg was able to obtain from Kelley Blue Book, “concept and prototype cars generally cost from $5 million to $10 million to develop as one-offs, and even more for those earmarked for later production,” a choice that’s difficult to quantify if the concept alone remains so staggeringly expensive. For instance, there’s Jaguar-Land Rover, who allowed me to drive their diesel Ranger Rover Td6 recently. This British luxury brand is reportedly preparing an automotive offensive that it hopes will take America by storm in 2016, with 12 new products set to launch within short spans of one another.
“We will spend more than £3 billion ($4.5 billion) this year on new product creation and capital expenditure [alone],” says Nathan Hoyt of Jaguar-Land Rover, and if you think that’s a lot, look at what other automakers like Lexus are up to, as they continue to roll out F Sport versions of damn near everything. The V8-powered RC F Coupe I got to thrash on last spring was just a conceptual what-if a few years ago, now look at it!
This exuberance is only amplified by the fact that nowadays many concepts are practically ready to roll onto the showroom floor, with cars like the Subaru BRZ STI being held back by nothing more than emissions restrictions and a fear of someone damaging all that expensive race gear. This car in particular holds a soft spot in my heart, as for years enthusiasts (like myself) have begged for a full-blown STI model, only to hear that Subaru is playing it safe, forcing us to either build our own version out of aftermarket parts, or in video games like Forza. Hey, speaking of millennial males and video games, let’s not forget the role that these two crucial factors have in influencing automotive design. Both affect companies from Bugatti to Hyundai, who unveiled their Vision Gran Turismo Concept and N 2025 Vision Gran Turismo respectively this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show to great fanfare.
“We are going through good times right now, so we do have concepts rooted in reality, but the Gran Turismos are filling the void of those old outrageous concepts that have fallen off,” says Matt DeLorenzo, managing editor at Kelley Blue Book. “We get mixed signals about millennials, that they’re not interested in cars. Maybe some of the passion has cooled. But my answer to that is all these Gran Turismo concepts—they are still saying what if.”