Concept cars that changed the automotive industry and started the design race
In the early stages of the auto industry, bodybuilders used chassis with existing powertrains, and they mounted custom bodies on top of them.
After World War I, automakers began to present production-ready vehicles, and these were also available to customers. Yet bodybuilders needed something more to express their creativity. As most car manufacturers offered rolling chassis to their customers, designers took advantage and made prototypes for sale.
There were a lot of them at every auto show, but they were considered unique constructions. In addition, since they were based on existing chassis and powertrains transferred from car manufacturers, they were also sold. It was the era of luxury vehicles with Spohn or Carozzeria Touring bodywork.
But the first concept car, built solely to showcase the capabilities of the automaker, is considered the Buick Y-Job. It was unveiled in 1938 and featured technology not available on other cars. For example, it featured flush door handles, wrap-around bumpers, and concealed headlights.
While the car was still based on a production chassis taken over from Buick Super, the rest was a one-time project. When Harley Earl designed the body, she outfitted it with power windows that caught the eye of those looking for luxury equipment. Its lines are found on Buicks of the 1950s, after World War II.
After that spark, automakers decided that a concept car could attract people to their booth at auto shows. The Motorama events hosted by GM between 1949 and 1961 led to famous production vehicles such as the Corvette.
Between the 1950s and the mid-1970s, the auto industry flourished. In addition, he began to make a noticeable distinction between dream cars and concept cars. While the former concerned only the design language, the latter envisioned future production models.
Japanese industry started to gain more attention and Toyota stunned the world with the EX-7 concept shown at the Tokyo Motor Show in 1970. It was a high-performance mid-engined supercar based on a car. Group 7. Another important concept was the Toyota RV-2 concept, which was fully functional but never intended to go into production.
On the European side of the pond, car manufacturers began to present their ideas with the help of various designers. Yet the most important names in the automotive design sector came from Italy. Bertone, Ghia, Giugiaro and Pininfarina were just a few of them, and they left an important legacy.
In Italy, Lamborghini hired Carrozzeria Bertone to design a car for it. Marcello Gandini, who worked for Bertone, designed the Marzal concept car. It was a four-seater sports car, and Lamborghini unveiled it in 1967. Some of its lines were later implemented on the production version of Lamborghini Espada.
Even though it was a fully functional vehicle, Ferruccio Lamborghini never intended to sell it. He was a businessman and he understood that the vehicle attracted more attention than any other advertising method. A year later, in 1968, Marcello Gandini presented the Alfa Romeo Carabo concept car at the Paris Motor Show. This time, the concept was born thanks to one of the most famous supercars of all time: the Countach.
Bertone was also a smart businessman, not just a designer. He asked Gandini to create a vehicle based on a Lancia platform which he bought from a friend. And that’s how the Stratos Zero was born, and you can see it at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles. Legend has it that when Bertone drove the car to Lancia HQ to show them what his studio could do, he drove it under the lowered barrier at the main entrance. As a result, Lancia signed the agreement with Bertone. Thus, the automaker introduced one of the greatest legends in the history of motorsport: the Stratos.
Mercedes-Benz was already on its feet at the end of the 1960s and presented the dream car C111. Although it was never intended for production, it served as a laboratory and tested a few engine options. It was at this point that the German automaker tried and decided not to use a Wankel engine, and turned to turbo-diesel engines. Customers hoped that the car would be followed by a production model, which could continue the 300SL “Gullwing” saga. Unfortunately, that never happened, and the C111 only remained as a rolling test bench.
This was just the start of the dream car arena. More and more automakers have realized that a vehicle built for a show can attract more media attention. In the end, the free publicity earned was much more valuable than paying for that print or broadcast space.