Detroit 2014: How To Look At Concept Cars

As originally published on

Auto shows are huge events in major cities all over the world. They attract big crowds of local residents but are not popular with city fathers because they really don’t generate much attraction for tourists. Nor do they increase hotel and restaurant and entertainment receipts. Thus, they are often staged at times when the exposition hall rental is cheap because no one wants to visit a city then anyway. Detroit’s North American International Auto Show is perhaps the most important of all such shows to industry leaders and the world press, attracting more than 5,000 international journalists despite the dubious attractions of a ruined and bankrupt city in the dead of winter. The NAIAS used to be held the first week in January until the world press rebelled, most members preferring to stay home with their families over the holidays, so now it has moved to the second full week in the month.

One of the key reasons for non-specialist people to attend is not to see the new cars that you’ll be able to buy at a neighborhood dealership a day, week, or month after the show. Those are pretty much irrelevant to most of us. Manufacturers flood media with publicity about them. What appeals is to get a look at some of the dazzling “concept cars” that manufacturers confect for these events, unveiled at the very last instant. Those concepts are secret and—if you know how to look at them—significant. They can portend much about the future of specific companies and even the economies of entire countries.

The automobile-related economy—manufacturing, selling, and servicing the cars themselves, plus the petroleum industry that is symbiotically tied to cars—is staggeringly gigantic, involving the investment and circulation trillions of dollars. And pounds and euros and renminbi and yen, of course. So a car that resonates with the public—as the first Ford Mustang did fifty years ago—can mean the fortunes of a massive enterprise can rise overnight. And one that doesn’t—Cadillac’s Cimarron, for example, or its botched diesel engine—can besmirch a firm’s reputation so badly that billions of dollars and dozens of years are needed to erase bad memories.

The currently popular term for very special cars that are made by serious people with vast industry backing, i.e., mainstream manufacturers, may be “concept” cars, but other terms have been used in the past. At the absolute peak of American prosperity in the 1950s, such vehicles were known as “dream cars,” and they reflected an optimism and willingness to try anything so long as it could be seen as “progress.” General Motors became famous for its Motorama shows, staged in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel ballroom. In low-rent-rate January, of course. Its multiple dreams, never fewer than one for each of the company’s five car divisions, were not really cars. For the most part, they didn’t even run, simply being Hollywood-style stage props, enormously heavy objects that had to be pushed or tugged into place.

That still happens, of course, but most manufacturers now take pride in bringing vehicles to shows that do have real engines and can move—slowly and carefully, please—under their own power. Since cars, like birds and wild animals, can not really be fully assessed aesthetically until you see them in motion, wonderful films are made to be displayed on giant video screens behind the cars at shows. BMW went further at last fall’s Frankfurt Motor Show, with an indoor circuit encompassing hills and curves, allowing its new electric and hybrid cars to circulate all day long, taking chosen clients for exhilarating rides inside its pavilion.

Whenever you see someone’s new baby one of the first things you look for is visual signs of the parents.

“Oh, he looks just like his father!” is a common cry, unless it’s “She’s the image of her mother.” This is a natural tendency that really applies to cars as well. Is there a perceptible family linkage? Can you see something of the object’s genetic heritage? You should, however subtle the traces, because one of the many functions of a one-of-a-kind show car is to lead to acceptance of change. Sometimes a company will have a clear plan to change a popular model, and to make that palatable for its clientele, a transitional “concept” model is actually made after the real car has been completely tooled and slated for introduction in a year or two. What it amounts to is having that future model face-lifted back to the past.

Sixty-two years ago, General Motors decided to make a new sports car, the Chevrolet Corvette, with a revolutionary fiberglass-reinforced plastic body.

It was shown at the Waldorf in January, and the first of 200 or so 1953 production models was sold in June. Public relations people—and careless historians—like to say that the “concept” was so popular that it was decided to produce the car. That’s always a possibility, but never in just six months. Take Chrysler Corporation’s Viper, like the initial Corvette an almost Spartan two-seat sports model. Shown at the NAIAS in 1989, it was so popular that a decision to produce it was made after the show, and by 1992 it was available in the marketplace. That concept has now evolved through three generations (compared with the Corvette’s seven successive iterations). That same pattern of evolution obtained for Volkswagen’s New Beetle, first shown in 1994 at Detroit as the clearly labeled Concept One. Four years later it was in production, and it is now in its second generation.

Last year Toyota showed a “concept” in Detroit, the Furia that was simply a teaser for the forthcoming Corolla.

Whether it accustomed buyers to a new look is debatable. Basically the preceding Corolla was an undistinguished assemblage of uninteresting details, the Furia was a mess, and the current Corolla is blah again.

Far more interesting and very much more significant was the Toyota Fun-vii, presented at Tokyo in 2011, then slightly revised as the diji for Detroit 2012 and revised yet again as the iiMo for the Geneva and Sao Paulo shows that year. Akio Toyoda, head of the firm his grandfather started long ago, said it should be considered as a sort of giant smartphone. Indeed, the entire external surface of the body is a display screen, so the car can change colors, patterns, visual textures, and I suppose that you could project the profile of an ancient MG on the sides and have a virtual electric sports car.

When one sees a car with as much imaginative advanced technology as that Toyota has, you start to wonder about what it might mean to you.

Since it was always first presented with a solid black exterior, you would think it impossible to see out, and wonder if the car is meant to drive itself. And this gives you the central point in how to observe a concept car: make your observations absolutely personal. Ask yourself how a particular execution of the Platonic Ideal of an automobile relates to your interests and concerns. Thousand horsepower, 200-plus miles per hour performance may excite teenage boys and andropausal men having mid-life crises, but does it mean anything at all to you?

Think about practicalities, like washing the car you’re looking at.

Would its surface asperities caress your hands or threaten to tear your skin? Is there just enough surface decoration, or is there too much? Does the glass area seem adequate? How well will you be able to see out the back? If visibility seems poor, how did the designers deal with the problem? Many cars today have cameras that give you a nice view behind when you put the transmission in reverse. That’s an idea Buick proposed on a dream car half a century ago, and it has taken a long, long time to become accessible. Are there imaginative features on the car you’re examining that you’d like to have for yourself? Or are some of the features so complex that even thinking about using them makes you nervous?

Sometimes concepts are presented, generate great interest, are put into production… and fail miserably in the marketplace. Isuzu showed a concept of the vehiCross, a high-style SUV, in 1993, put it into production in 1997, and cancelled it in 2001 after selling fewer than 6,000 units worldwide.

In 2011, Ford showed a B-Max SUV concept in Geneva and put it into production pretty much as shown. With no central pillar, the whole side can be opened, and entry is particularly easy. But the sliding rear doors are very heavy with their incorporated side impact protection, almost impossible to shut if the car is facing uphill. It’s a great concept—I bought one (shown here) and love it—but Ford had to pause production for a few weeks last year because it is far less practical than it seemed and sales stalled. So that’s another thing to consider: Can you put children in the concept easily, and if so, can they manipulate the doors?

Parents of small children know that car interiors are going to take a beating from feet on the seats, spills of sticky liquids, pet hair shedding, and other aspects of daily life. Look at any concept with a critical eye for those aspects of living with a car. Many concept cars have elaborate, complex doors, even the entire side of the car lifting up, gullwing style. They are there not because there is any intention of producing them, but to allow you to see the interior clearly. Think about how you would use the car were it equipped with normal doors.

Every concept car is a source of valuable information for the firm presenting it.

There will be people in the crowd listening carefully to the comments made by visitors talking among themselves, and you might even be asked to respond to a questionnaire by a charming young person from the company, so your thoughts really are likely to be carefully considered, perhaps even implemented. So really paying attention to concept cars and thinking about what they might mean to you personally could very well alter the future.