Where's my flying car? Didn't they promise that by the year 2000?
Car companies make concept cars to show off new styling, new technology, or to gauge customer reaction to new ideas. A look back through the decades at these prototypes reveals a lot about the times in which they were introduced, and some remarkable forward thinking. Electric cars, self-driving cars, cars with periscopes, and shape-shifting cars, many of these were -- or may be even now -- a window onto the future.
Concept cars are often cutting-edge ideas with exciting features, but lack economic viability or practical application. But a lot of them are just darn cool looking, and it sure would be nice to see some of these made today.
Here are a few concept cars from the past that we'd like to see at the dealership.
The Dymaxion three-wheeled car was designed by inventor Buckminster Fuller during the Great Depression and featured at Chicago's 1933-34 World's Fair. Fuller built three experimental prototypes in hopes of developing something that might one day be designed to fly, land and drive. Who doesn't want that? The rear wheels steered like a rudder on a ship, and the vehicle could pivot 90 degrees. It had a periscope instead of a rear window. There's a Dymaxion on display at the National Automobile Museum in Reno.
Photo: Starysatyr Wikipedia
Stout Scarab, 1936
This beetle-motif vehicle, manufactured by Stout Engineering Laboratories and later by Stout Motor Car Company of Detroit, was the world's first production minivan. Passengers entered through a single, large common door. The Scarab had a flexible seating system, wicker interior, and a V8 engine. The rear compartment opened up like beetle wings.
Phantom Corsair, 1938
This futuristic-looking car was so wide it could hold four people in the front row seat, including one person to the left of the driver.
The doors opened electronically using buttons located on the exterior and the instrument panel -- it didn't have door handles. The instrument panel also featured a compass and altimeter. Alas, the car did not fly, but it had indicators for when a door was ajar or if the lights or radio were left on. We can at least be glad those features eventually caught on.
Photo: Alden Jewell/Wikipedia
Alfa Romeo BAT, 1950s
Three of these concepts were built in the 1950s and designed by Franco Scaglione in a joint collaboration between Alfa Romeo and the Italian design house Bertone. The goal was a car that was basically aerodynamically-efficient eye candy. Although they look like Batmobiles, the name was actually an acronym for "Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica."
Photo: Simon Davison/Wikipedia
General Motors LeSabre, 1951
Did someone say Batmobile? This jet-airplane-inspired design featured a wrap-around windshield and impressive tail fins. It had a 12-volt electrical system, heated seats, electric headlights concealed behind the center oval "jet intake," pointy cones on the chrome front bumper, a rain sensor to activate the power convertible top, and electric lifting jacks for changing a tire. GM's Buick later used the name LeSabre for another car in 1959.
Photo: edvvc /Wikipedia
Fiat Turbina, 1954
After the war, when planes no longer needed propellers, gas turbine engines were all the rage. The Fiat Turbina was a gas turbine-powered concept built by the Italian car maker. The concept was shelved due to high fuel usage and problems with overheating. You can see it today at the Automobile Museum of Turin.
Firebird I, 1954
The 1954 XP-21 Firebird 1 was another gas turbine concept, the first to be built and tested in the U.S., according to the GM Heritage Center. Made strictly as an engineering and styling exercise, the Firebird I was intended to determine whether the gas turbine could be used efficiently and economically for future cars. Things didn't work out. During the 50s, they made two more Firebird concepts.
Photo: GM Heritage Center
Renault Étoile Filante, 1956
At this point, everyone was making turbine concepts, but Renault's attempt at a gas turbine-powered car was the turbine car that left all the others in the dust. Renault took the 'Shooting Star' to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah for speed tests. The Étoile Filante reached an average speed of 191 mph, a world record for turbine-engine cars.
Photo: Deep silence/Wikipedia
The Citroën Prototype C, 1956
The Citroën Prototype C was a series of concepts created from 1955-56 to produce a waterdrop-shaped, lightweight vehicle which would be more modern and smaller than France's popular 2CV, and had the same 425cc engine as the 2CV. The car was nicknamed Citroën Coccinelle (French for 'ladybug'.)
Oldsmobile Golden Rocket, 1956
This two-seater was built by Oldsmobile specifically for the 1956 General Motors Motorama. The radically-styled fiberglass concept was designed to resemble a rocket on wheels. It had a wrap-around windshield and button-controlled tilt steering wheel.
Photo: General Motors
Ford Nucleon, 1958
This was not a full-size car, but a 3/8-scale model, that, if made, would have been powered by a rear-mounted self-contained nuclear reactor. Yes, folks, you could have had your own nuclear reactor in your garage, if only Ford had pursued this idea. According to the Henry Ford Museum, this atomic automobile idea assumed, of course, that issues with nuclear safety and the size and weight of nuclear reactors would eventually be resolved. The Nucleon was never produced.
Photo: Henry Ford Museum
Cadillac Cyclone, 1959
Another concept inspired by the aviation and rocket design of the era, the Cyclone was silver coated for UV protection, had a bubble-top canopy that could be opened automatically, and sliding electric doors.
Photo: Yahya S./Wikipedia
SAAB 'Monster,' 1959
The 'Toreador Red' Monster was a Saab 93 with all its excess weight removed, including the bonnet, which was replaced by a plastic one. It had a two-stroke engine. The car's combination of immense power and poor handling is how it came to be known as 'Monster.'
Plymouth XNR, 1960
The asymmetrical Plymouth XNR concept was developed by Chrysler as a two-seater sports roadster, likely as an effort to compete with the Ford Falcon and the Chevrolet Corvette. The one and only prototype was later owned by the Shah of Iran. It sold at RM Sotheby's for $935,000 in 2012.
Ford Gyron, 1961
A futuristic two-wheeled gyrocar shown at the Detroit Motor Show in 1961, the Ford Gyron was stabilized by gyroscopes. One wheel in front, one in back, it held two occupants who sat side by side and, when the vehicle was stationary, two small legs appeared from the sides to support it.
Chrysler Turbine Car, 1963
Powered by a turbine engine and with a body made by the Italian design studio Ghia, this concept could operate on many different fuels, required less maintenance, and lasted longer than conventional piston engines, although they were much more expensive to produce. Jay Leno owns one of only three that are still operational.
Ghia G230S, 1963
This was one of the first cars to be completed entirely by Ghia. It was a fastback coupe powered by a Fiat engine. It had a dark brown interior and bright green paint. Two coupes and two convertibles were made.
Photo: Thomas Doerfer/Wikipedia
Dodge Deora, 1965
This pickup didn't have doors, but, according to TopGear, "the front of the cab opens like a venus flytrap -- allowing the driver to bundle in arse-first." It later became one of the original "Hot Wheels" cars. It was sold by RM Sotheby's for $324,500 in 2009.
Photo: Darin Schnabel/RM Sotheby's
AMC Amitron, 1967
The AMC Amitron was an experimental electric hatchback that had canopy doors and a range of 150 miles on a single charge. In 1967. Yes, you read that right. Twenty-five years before "Wayne's World." AMC didn't develop the car because of technology issues and the expensive batteries.
Alfa Romeo Carabo, 1968
The wedge-shaped Carabo was first shown at the 1968 Paris Motor Show. It had scissor doors and was designed by Marcello Gandini, for the Bertone design studio. It can be seen at the Alfa Romeo museum in Milan.
Photo: Matthias v.d. Elbe/Wikipedia
Buick Century Cruiser, 1969
This self-driving concept by Buick was conceived for the automated highways of the future, where steering wheels would be unnecessary. The vehicle had swiveling contour seats, a refrigerator, and a TV set. The idea was, when you pulled onto the freeway, a punched card with programmed routes would take over, piloting the car to your destination by information transmitted from electronic highway centers. The car's progress would be shown on a map projected on a radar-like screen. Yes, please.
Ferrari 512S Modulo, 1970
The Modulo had an extremely low body with a canopy-style roof that slid forward for entering the cabin of the car, and no other doors. Because of the covered wheels, it was difficult to turn, kind of a flaw in a fast car. The engine cover had 24 holes to show off the V12 engine. The Modulo was designed by Paolo Martin of Pininfarina and shown at the 1970 Geneva Motor Show.
Lancia Stratos Zero, 1970
Zero what? The car might have been named for having zero limits. It did have zero doors, to get in, you flipped up the windshield. The orange, wedge-shaped Zero was first shown to the public in 1970, but hasn't been shy since: it appeared in Michael Jackson's 1988 film "Moonwalker" and has been part of several museum exhibits. It was auctioned for over $1 million in 2011.
Maserati Boomerang, 1971
The Boomerang's angular style made a strong statement when first revealed at the Turin Motor Show in 1971 as a non-functional model, but Maserati may have re-thought the name; by 1972 the company had developed it into the commercially-launched Maserati Bora. Bonhams sold this one specimen in 2015 for $4 million.
1973 Chevrolet Aerovette
Not the Corvette, but the Aerovette, this concept was designed to show off GM's newly acquired rotary engine technology. The design team gave the car a bold almond shape, bi-fold gullwing doors and a large rear window over the engine compartment to show off the experimental four-rotor engine. It was exhibited as the Four-Rotor Corvette with sterling silver paint and a silver leather interior, according to the GM Heritage Center.
Photo: GM Heritage Center
Citroën Karin, 1980
The pyramid-shaped Citroën Karin was presented at the Paris Motor Show in 1980. The one seat fit three, with the driver and steering wheel in the center. Because of the pyramid shape, the roof was only about 12 x 16 inches, possibly making it easy to wash.
Plymouth Voyager III, 1989
If you think this looks like a minivan swallowing another minivan, it's because that's pretty much what it was. The front was a three-passenger detachable microcar that could be attached to the larger, five-passenger van. It ran on alternative power sources and had a rear-mounted video camera for "docking" the two parts together. The brochure describes it as a socially responsible vehicle addressing air quality, global warming, traffic congestion and alternative power sources.
Mazda Nagare, 2006
Designer Laurens van den Acker, Mazda's global design director at the time was tasked to design first and engineer later. The Nagare was introduced at the 2006 Los Angeles Auto Show. The driver sat front and center under the roof's highest point.
BMW Spicup, 2011
According to Bonhams, which sold one of these in 2011 for about $549,000, the Spicup's main talking point was its novel roof, which consisted of stainless steel panels that retracted into the hefty roll bar. Italian design studio Bertone produced only one, ready-to-drive model.
Photo: Buch-t Wikipedia
BMW GINA, 2012
BMW's GINA Light Visionary Model is a fabric-skinned shape-shifting sports car. The flexible, stretchable, water-resistant, translucent Spandex skin resists extreme temperatures, does not swell or shrink and is not damaged by movement. The body changes its shape according to exterior conditions and speeds, and it also allows the driver to change its shape at will. We're still waiting for this one.