In my younger days, which was a long time ago, I really loved seeing in Popular Mechanics and Motor Trend magazines photos of the automakers dream cars, now called concept cars. Wow, were they cool. All of the then-Big Three created them, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Automakers, both domestic and foreign, have created concept cars for public consumption for decades. Back in the early days these ahead-of-their-time vehicles were predictive of what was to come in automotive styling.
Pretty much everyone agrees that the first dream/concept car was General Motor’s Buick Y-Job creation that top designer Harley Earl oversaw and introduced in 1938. It, like all the concepts that were to follow, was created to showcase new GM styling trends and reveal new technology. Earl was hired in the late 1920s and he created the Art and Color Section at GM, the first in the industry, that would give the company a sales edge in the decades to come.
In the early 1920s GM garnered only 12 percent of the auto market. After the 1930s years, with Harley Earl as product design chief, GM dominated the U.S. market with 52 percent market share. Earl (called “Misterl” by his underlings) and the newly stylish cars created under his management helped GM car sales soar and this new emphasis on design made a noticeable impact on the industry. It was obvious that good design mattered. It took some time, but by the late 1940s and early ’50s both Ford and Chrysler took notice of GM’s success and had styling/design studios of their own. Both Ford and Chrysler would have their share of noticeable design studio heads like Misterl. However, Chrysler was the automaker to come up with a superhero to equal the stature of and the success of GM’s top design man. That designer was Virgil Exner Sr. Exner was hired by Chrysler in late 1940s from Studebaker. Over a 10-year period the Michigan-raised designer would lead engineering-savvy Chrysler Corporation from an automaker famous as builders of fine but boxy sedans to an industry style leader with vehicles so striking and modern that it forced long-time styling leader GM’s design staff to stop in its tracks in late 1956 and start all over again on their 1959 models. More on that a little later.
When Exner was hired he was given the assignment to change the company’s image from a maker of dowdy cars that people bought because of a solid engineering reputation, to one with solid engineering AND sporting attractive, want-to-have styling. Exner accomplished this assignment by 1955 when the first models totally designed under his tutelage were introduced. Sales of “Forward Look” 1955 Chrysler cars increased noticeably, but Exner’s reputation was sealed when his all-new-all-over-again 1957 spectacular finned models hit showrooms and not only sold like crazy, but also put Chrysler styling on the map. Shocked GM designers, when they saw the newly assembled finned Plymouths and Dodges in storage lots in late summer 1956, begged their bosses to cancel their intended 1959 bloated and dated efforts and start all over again.
Exner, like Misterl, used concept cars to build public interest in his company’s cars. He couldn’t make many changes in Chrysler cars already in the pipeline when he took over (1950-54), and the boxy look prevailed through 1954. Important to know is that he took a page from Misterl at GM and started creating concept cars as early as 1950. Without the deep pockets of GM – which designed and built its concept cars in-house – Exner discovered that he could have one of his designs fabricated (using Chrysler underbody and powertrain) by coach-building shops in Italy like Carrozzeria Ghia (and maybe Pininfarina and Italdesign Giugiaro today) for a fraction of the cost to do it in the U.S. As a result, throughout the 1950s dozens of gorgeous, stylish concept vehicles commissioned by Chrysler were built in Italy and then received exposure at auto shows and in the press. One of Exner’s best examples using his clean, Euro-inspired design philosophy were found in such concepts as the 1952 Chrysler K-310 and the 1955 Chrysler Falcon. One of the more newsworthy of these Italian concepts was the fastback Norseman, which sank with the Italian ocean liner Andria Doria when it capsized in 1956 off the Massachuettes’ shore after being rammed by the Swedish ocean liner Stockholm.
The automakers purpose for spending a great deal of money to create spectacular looking concept cars was, and is, to gauge customer reaction to often radical styling. Early on the favorite place to reveal concepts were at motor shows. GM created a myriad of fabulous concepts in the 1950s (1951 Buick Le Sabre, 1953 Corvette, 1956 Buick Centurion, to name a few) to garner public interest in their traveling Motorama shows. Ford did likewise with such interesting efforts as the 1955 Lincoln Futura and the 1955 Mercury XM-Turnpike Cruiser.
There are still a plethora of concept cars being introduced for our enjoyment today. What seems to be changing is the lower number being introduced, and whether there is really an environment that nurtures their existence anymore. I’m sure the question asked all the time by the beancounters at automakers is, “Are concept cars worth the money?” I’m not sure of the answer to that question today, but certainly back in the ’50s it would seem that the efforts of Harley Earl and Virgil Exner’s concepts didn’t hinder mighty GM from garnering more than 50 percent of the auto market, or the revival of Chrysler’s well-being briefly in the mid- to late 1950s.
Today the whole premise of showing advanced design concepts has taken a hit. Major car shows are struggling. All of the major international auto shows (Frankfort, Geneva, Detroit, Tokyo) are trying to find ways to stay viable, as many of the major automakers are no longer using the international auto show venues to introduce new models and/or concepts. I’m thinking the question asked by industry leaders today is, “Why spend big bucks at these venues when for less money we attract more eyeballs by using social media?” I don’t have the answer, for sure. Everything is changing nowadays and those traditions of the past that old guys like me used to enjoy immensely are disappearing. No more fall introductions. Dealers don’t paper over the show windows the week before a big introduction. No more giant search-lights at dealerships on opening week filling the evening skies to attract lookers. Young readers, see what you missed?
Granted, the concepts shown today can be extremely advanced in styling and are true “dream” cars. But many are just near-production ready vehicles being shown early with tweaks by the design staff (remove door handles, larger wheels, special paint, elaborate upgrade to interior) to make them extra special. It seems to me that foreign automakers are more likely to feature dream cars, compared to those presented by the Detroit Three. Perhaps this is true because most of the U.S. automakers are now really truck-makers, and it’s not often you see a truck concept vehicle. That omission certainly may change in the years to come. The last U.S. truck concept I recall was the fascinating 1955 GMC L’Universelle, a Motorama exercise that predicted the looks of a number of GM vehicles. If readers don’t recall what it looks like, I suggest you Google it. It’s a looker.
Concept cars won’t go away. They still serve a purpose for automakers to showcase styling trends and to introduce new technology, but in my opinion they aren’t as exciting as they used to be. I really miss the good ol’ days!
• Trivia answer: 1953 Chevrolet Corvette
Dar Davis founded the Lake Bluff Concours and chaired the event for many years. He has been writing this column since 1999. He can be reached at email@example.com.