New technologies were everywhere in the 1950s and 1960s. The Atomic Age had hit full stride, jet engines and interstate highways had revolutionized travel and televisions had become common in most homes. People talked excitedly about emerging technologies, when they could heat food in seconds in space-age microwave ovens, or buy a $5,000 home computer … why, some experts predicted that people would one day use portable telephones. Auto manufacturers found themselves enamored with the future as well, building or designing sleek concept cars that included some options we now take for granted — cruise control, anti-lock brakes — along with some features that seem laughable in retrospect, such as cars powered by jet turbine or nuclear-powered (!) engines. Here’s a look back at 10 concept cars from that golden era.
10. Ford Seattle-ite XXI (1962)
The 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle served as the debut for the Space Needle, which created quite a buzz. Another star of that world’s fair: the Ford Seattle-ite XXI, a remarkably odd-looking concept car. The most striking feature of the Seattle-ite is its six-wheel design, featuring four front steering wheels that moved in tandem. While that design has never caught on in mass production cars, it certainly has merits — a six-wheeled car won an F1 event in the 1970s, and some F1 powerhouse teams considered adopting the design. In some ways, however, the Seattle-ite featured concepts years ahead of their time, such as interchangeable fuel cells and a “travel programming computer” with features that sound just like a modern GPS system. A working model of the car was never created.
9. Lincoln Futura (1955)
Built at a cost of a quarter-million dollars, this concept car never saw production, but its design earned a lasting legacy, after it inspired the futuristic-looking Batmobile used in the 1960s Batman TV series. Built on a Lincoln Mark II chassis, the car featured exaggerated styling and a powerful 368 cubic inch engine, and unlike several other cars on this list, actually worked as a street vehicle. But the plastic canopy tops and exaggerated fin styling that looked so cool for Adam West and Burt Ward’s Batman and Robin were completely impractical for street use.
8. Dodge Deora (1967)
This is what Dodge designers in the mid-1960s envisioned as the future of pickup trucks — or the first “surf truck,” a moniker applied to the design for obvious reasons. Engineers created the relatively flat front end by moving the engine into the truck’s bed. Also, note the lack of doors; to enter, you lifted the truck’s hood and windshield and backed into one of the seats (yes, it sounds incredibly awkward — there are good reasons many concept cars never saw the production line). The Deora created a stir when it was unveiled at the 1967 Detroit Autorama, winning many accolades, including the Best in Show Award. Although the Deora never reached production status, it became immortalized as one of the original models in Mattel’s inaugural Hot Wheels series.
7. Ford Gyron (1961)
The Gyron looks like something out of the retrofuture envisioned in The Jetsons, the cartoon that began airing a year later. Featuring two wheels, the vehicle was stabilized by gyroscopes; at rest, legs would appear on either side to support the car. Ford built the two-seater for the 1961 Detroit Motor Show; it was never intended for production.
6. Vauxhall SRV (1970)
English-based Vauxhall Motors, a subsidiary of General Motors since 1925, built this “Styling Research Vehicle” to study aerodynamics and engine and suspension designs. The nose and the wedge-shaped body — which was constructed of glass-reinforced plastic — could be adjusted to make the car more aerodynamic. A working engine and transmission were never developed for the car.
5. Chevrolet Camaro/Pontiac Firebird Kammback (1970)
Chevrolet introduced its Camaro muscle car as a response to Ford’s popular Mustang, and the Camaro and its Pontiac Firebird/Trans Am stylistic partner thrilled a generation of American males with horsepower, styling and performance. Now imagine the car restyled as a sports wagon resembling a family station wagon. It almost happened. Concepts for both a Chevrolet and Pontiac sports wagon were introduced using the new second-generation F-body styles unveiled in 1970. The wagons were identical to the Camaro and Firebird models from the doors forward, but featured a plunging rear end with a hatchback. The project nearly got the go-ahead, but executives eventually deemed it too costly.
4. Dymaxion (1933)
Buckminster Fuller is one of the most notable futurists and theorists in U.S. history, patenting the complicated mathematics behind the design of the geodesic dome and coining such phrases as synergetic and SpaceShip Earth. So it should be no surprise that his Dymaxion seemed many years ahead of its time in 1933. The Dymaxion predates the other cars on this list by at least 20 years, but is so noteworthy it deserves a mention here. Measuring more than 20 feet in length, the car featured three wheels, with the rear wheel used for steering. The Dymaxion met a favorable if puzzled reception, but public sentiment turned after one of the three prototypes was involved in a fatal crash in 1933. Yet 80 years later, the car and the inventor retain a mystique — a film titled Dymaxion: Buckminster Fuller’s Dream Restored, is set for the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
3. Nissan 126X (1970)
American manufacturers weren’t the only automakers building concept cars in the 1950s and 1960s. As the Japanese auto industry began its rise in the ’60s, most manufacturers there produced popular auto show and concept cars. Except for Nissan. That changed in 1970 when the manufacturer rolled out the wedge-shaped Nissan 126X, with two odd features. First, rather than conventional doors, the car’s roof, windshield and side panels lifted up in one piece to allow entry. More bizarrely, the car featured a series of 10 lights running in a strip down the hood. The lights would flash green as the car accelerated, yellow as it maintained speed, and then turn red during braking.
2. Ford Nucleon (1958)
Americans fell in love with the new concept of atomic energy during the 1950s. The first nuclear power plants were built in that decade, and it didn’t take long before auto engineers pondered putting the technology under the hood of a car. In hindsight, this sounds ridiculous, producing nuclear-powered cars that might turn fender benders into Three Mile Island incidents. Ford certainly wasn’t the only car company considering such nuclear-powered cars, but it seemed more serious than most, building a scale-model concept car known as the Ford Nucleon. The Nucleon’s design called for a tiny nuclear reactor to power a steam-turbine engine, much like a nuclear submarine. Perhaps even the engineers who brainstormed this scale model realized this was not the best idea — note how the passenger area is located far forward, putting an extra couple of feet between passengers and the fission process. Thankfully, neither Ford nor any other manufacturer built a working nuclear-powered model, as the potential dangers of such cars quickly became apparent.
1. General Motors Firebirds (1950s)
Some concept cars are produced with the possibility of becoming production models. Three General Motors Firebird models produced during the 1950s were certainly never intended for the production line, as they were in effect jet cars. Firebird I, produced in 1953, featured a single seat with a bubble canopy, fiberglass body and a 370-horsepower gas turbine engine. In addition to drum brakes, the car’s wings featured flaps, much like those on an airplane, enabling braking. Firebird II, built in 1956 boasted some more practical options, such as four seats, along with totally impractical features (a titanium body). The final concept car in the series, Firebird III, made its public debut in 1959, and included some futuristic options that have since become standard on cars, including keyless entry, cruise control and anti-lock brakes. Instead of a steering wheel, the car included a joystick, which when pushed forward accelerated the car, and when pulled back applied the brakes. All three Firebird models created a stir at the GM Motorama in the era and remain popular attractions at car shows around the U.S. to this day. Here’s a link to the GM Heritage Center to read more about these fascinating cars.
One More: Chrysler Diablo (1957)
Diablo is the Spanish word for Devil, which explains the clever pitchfork-and-horns symbol on this concept car’s hood. The red color provided the finishing touch. Chrysler built this concept car on its Dart frame, adding many aerodynamic changes and a 375-horsepower V8 Hemi under the hood. The car has spent the past half-century on display at auto museums around the United States; up for auction in 2008, the high bid of $1.2 million did not meet the reserve price.