Orphaned Concept Cars

If we buy into the cliché, the sleek, glitzy concept vehicles sitting on revolving turntables at auto shows across the globe are supposed to be the cars and trucks of tomorrow. What happens, then, if the company that sunk millions of dollars into the project turns insolvent shortly thereafter?

For the most part, absolutely nothing. But looking back on some orphaned show cars, we see that some manage to predict the automotive future with surprising accuracy — which is more than a little ironic, given that their creators were often criticized for lacking a grasp of shifting trends or the big picture.

1990 Oldsmobile Expression
Ransom E.’s brand had just begun selling its first minivan, the Silhouette, a few months before, but Olds designers nonetheless decided to cook up this interesting family hauler for the 1990 Chicago auto show. It sported three rows of seats, room for seven, and a bevy of electronic devices (including a VCR!) designed to keep the little ones occupied during longer stretches.

Hotness then (1-10): 5
Arguably, the production Silhouette, which sported a drooping nose, “dust buster” profile, and advanced space frame construction, was more radical looking than the Expression. Of course, it didn’t help that the concept was born during Olds’ quest to find its new look — the front fascia was a little like a Trofeo, but apart from the rocket emblems, nothing about this car screamed “Olds!”

Hotness now (1-10): 8
We’re not talking about sheer looks — this is, after all, more generic and ovoid than a second-generation Ford Taurus — but designers had in effect created a crossover long before marketers invented the buzzword. Interestingly, once Oldsmobile’s designers decided to flirt with the idea of a crossover a decade later, their concepts, including the 2000 Profile, looked a lot like the Expression.

Could it have saved the brand?
Perhaps not single-handedly, but it could have bolstered Oldsmobile’s sales around the turn of the new millennium, possibly prolonging the brand’s life. Sales of GM’s Lambda crossovers, which have a similar three-row, seven-seat configuration, have proven strong. Oldsmobile could have benefited from this trend, although sharing the same vehicle across several product lines (GM had as many as four Lambda variants on the market) may have hampered sales.

2008 Hummer HX
X may be the Roman numeral for ten, but in this instance, it almost stands for “four.” Had this small, two-door Hummer concept been built, it would have reached production as the H4, and it would have directly competed against the Jeep Wrangler (which, ironically, shares a sizable portion of its lineage with the Hummer brand) and the Toyota FJ Cruiser.

Hotness then (1-10): 9
The HX was everything we wanted a new Hummer to be: small, stylish, muscular, and capable of tackling the most challenging backwoods trails.

Hotness now (1-10): 9
It’s still everything we still want a new Hummer to be: small, stylish, muscular, et cetera. The H3 and H3T proved capable of holding their own off-road (especially when compared to the bloated H2), but the HX/H4 would have been even easier to thread between trees, boulders, sherpas, and other off-road obstacles.

Could it have saved the brand?
The jury’s still out on this one. Although a sizable core of Hummer loyalists purchased the vehicles for their off-road prowess, the advent of the H2 and H3 helped shift that demographic to suburbanite soccer moms. True off-roader may pine for a smaller Hummer that can tackle the Rubicon as well as any Wrangler, but we doubt the HX would have resonated with those looking for a station wagon with a stratospherically high seating position.

1980 Mercury Anster
Angular compact cars of the future were all the rage in the years following the OPEC oil embargo, but Mercury’s Antser, unveiled at the Chicago auto show, was unique. Underneath that plastic skin lurked a series hybrid powertrain: batteries powered electric motors in all four wheels, and when they were depleted, a small generator extended the vehicle’s range. An all-digital dash was a novelty: along with providing estimated braking distances, it allowed drivers to calculate routes via an on-screen map and pre-programmed data cartridges.

Hotness then (1-10): 3
It would be more than generous to call the Antser’s exterior design uninspired; in fact, the wedge-shaped profile looks like a horrid remix of a Sebring-Vanguard Commutacar and a Pinto.

Hotness now (1-10): 7
What goes around, it seems, certainly does comes around. We can’t help but notice that nearly twenty-four years after the Antser was trotted around the auto show circuit, automakers are finally ready to install similar (albeit much more advanced) series hybrid propulsion systems into small compact cars. And that digital dash? Very prescient, as Ford’s new My Ford Touch system, featured in the new 2011 Edge, is somewhat similar.

Could it have saved the brand?
Although it seems to have predicted several trends that are just now coming to market, trying to push any of these features into production at the time was almost certainly beyond the abilities of Ford Motor Company. That said, it was refreshing to see designers toying with a small Mercury that wasn’t merely a rebadged Ford product.

1956 Packard Predictor
Shortly after purchasing Studebaker, Packard’s corporate brass envisioned a bright future for the brand and commissioned a concept car to showcase that talking point. The Predictor, styled by Richard Teague (later of AMC fame) and built by Ghia, was everything a whiz-bang Packard of the future should be. Scalloped fenders and a long, flat hood put Chrysler’s Flite-Sweep concepts to shame, while fins, taillights, and grille were slightly modified forms of what designers were pitching for an all-new 1957 sedan.

Hotness then (1-10): 10
This was nothing short of a show stopper in its heyday, and considering it was the brainchild of Packard’s styling department-which was normally resigned to producing dowdy luxury sedans and the occasional Caribbean-it was a revelation indeed.

Hotness now (1-10): 4
Like many gizmo-centric concept cars of the jet age, the Predictor didn’t age very well. The styling is lanky, awkward, and carries none of the subtle grace of production Packards. Even some of the “futuristic” features-like self-retracting T-top panels, hidden headlamps, and a reversed rear window-aren’t exactly things to write home about today.

Could it have saved the brand?
No. In fact, it may have helped kill it. Packard chose to buy Studebaker virtually sight unseen, and only discovered after the fact just how badly the company was hemorrhaging cash. Things were so bad, in fact, that Packard found it more expensive to build its own wares in Detroit than it was to retrofit Studebaker Hawks with awkward fiberglass noses and Packard badging. By 1959, the brand was dead. Seven years later, so was Studebaker.

1998 Plymouth Pronto Spyder
The same year Plymouth trotted out the Pronto Cruiser show car-a tall hatchback that would eventually morph into the production PT Cruiser-Plymouth used the Pronto name on a concept convertible. The two couldn’t have been more different: the Cruiser was a front-engine, front-wheel-drive hatch, while the Spyder was a low-slung, slender mid-engine roadster designed with affordability in mind.

Hotness then (1-10): 10
An affordable, modern 550 Spyder? What’s not to like? Chrysler equipped the car with a turbocharged 2.4-liter I-4 (later used in the Neon SRT-4) good for roughly 225 horsepower. Production (and sales) costs would have been kept low due do the inexpensive materials; the body, for instance, is constructed from recycled polyethylene terephtalate, the same plastic used in soda pop bottles.

Hotness now (1-10): 9
We’ve had the opportunity to view the Pronto Spyder in Chrysler’s historical collection not that long ago-and it still makes us swoon. The idea of an inexpensive, eco-friendly, mid-engine roadster is still hot, apparently-witness the Volkswagen Concept BlueSport, unveiled in 2009; VW is reportedly working on putting that car into production.

Could it have saved the brand?
Not in the least. Plymouth had already discovered with its pseudo-hot rod Prowler that stylish roadsters are a great way to draw attention to your brand, but they don’t necessarily translate into sales successes. Now if the PT Cruiser had been sold as a Plymouth and not a Chrysler, the brand might have had a chance.

1986 Pontiac Trans Sport
When it launched in 1990, Pontiac’s Trans Sport minivan-along with GM’s other “dust buster” minivans-were noted for unusual styling and for utilizing a space-frame structure. Unique, perhaps, but the finished product was nowhere as wild as the concept van of the same name shown four years prior.

The Trans Sport concept featured a composite body with expansive panes of glass, and it eschewed the conventional sliding side door in favor of a gullwing design. Power-235 horsepower, to be precise-was supplied by a prototype all-aluminum, 2.9-liter, turbocharged V-6, which was also contemplated for the Fiero GT.

Hotness then (1-10): 9
Up until this point, minivans were largely the homely, box-like appliances churned out by the Chrysler Corporation. Pontiac injected lots of style and some edge into the concept and created a show car that was as avant-garde as it was family-friendly.

Hotness now (1-10): 6
The novelty of minivans, in-car computers, and steering wheels laden with a million push-button controls has faded over the past twenty years, but the Trans Sport still is interesting to look at-especially in contrast with the bastardized version that ultimately rolled off the assembly lines.

Could it have saved the brand?
Minivans bolstered the Pontiac organization for several years, but the Trans Sport offered to consumers was virtually no different than the Lumina APV or the Silhouette offered across the street at Chevrolet and Oldsmobile dealers, respectively. In later years, GM tried to shed the van’s mom-mobile image by adding cladding, a new Montana nameplate, and an ungainly nose. Few consumers were fooled, and the van lineup was ultimately killed in the U.S. in 2006.

1968 American Motors AMX/GT
American Motors’ top brass new they needed a new compact offering to replace the aging Rambler, but as was often the case at the independent automaker, money was tight. Designers, however, had an idea: take the all-new two-seat AMX, lop off the seductive fastback and flying buttresses, and add both a rear seat and a stubby Kamm tail. Voila-the AMX was transformed from a muscle-bound coupe into a lumpy four-seat compact car.

Hotness then (1-10): 6
The AMX (along with its larger Javelin sibling) was one of the cleanest-looking muscle cars around, but its aesthetics were no match for the concept’s tall, angular rear end.

Hotness now (1-10): 7
We’ll bump the score up only because hindsight is 20/20. Yes, that roofline is still ungainly, but it was executed in a much cleaner fashion than it would be on the Gremlin, which launched two years later. The sliding rear cargo drawer was also more useful than the Gremlin’s cargo hold, which was accessed by flipping up the small rear window.

Could it have saved the brand?
In this form, it’s anyone’s guess, but the idea did help sustain AMC during the ’70s. A similar rear end grafted onto the 1970 Hornet coupe created the Gremlin, which allowed the company to compete, for a while at least, in the burgeoning small car market.

2001 Cunningham C7
What did America need in 2001? According to Bob Lutz, the answer was a proper grand touring car and the Cunningham C7 was the solution. Although it was initially launched by individuals located in the Pacific Northwest, the reborn Cunningham marque was co-owned by both Lutz (then CEO at battery maker Exide) and Briggs Cunningham III. Briggs III was the son of Briggs II, who designed, built, and raced the original Cunningham sports cars fifty years prior.

Both men envisioned a long, low-slung GT car powered by a V-12 engine. Design was turned over to Stewart Reed, and a fiberglass mockup (built by Special Projects of Livonia, Michigan) turned up at the 2001 Detroit auto show. The engine was reportedly being sourced from General Motors, and production of the $250,000 vehicles was to be handled by Roush Industries.

Hotness then (1-10): 11
Yes, we said 11. Although it wasn’t a runner and it was an absolute moon shot for production, it did manage to captivate our attention at Detroit. We can’t remember the last time a fledgling firm managed to distract us at a domestic auto show.

Hotness now (1-10): 9
By avoiding excessive retro cures, Reed’s C7 remains amazingly modern to this day. From some angles, it does look like Chrysler’s Atlantic and Chronos concepts, but the flared wheel wells and chiseled shoulders give it an identity of its own.

Could it have saved (or revived) the brand?
Maybe, if only things on the corporate end were a little more sorted. Cunningham’s top brass had hoped to outsource a number of components and manufacturing processes to keep costs low, but such an approach ultimately left the brand without a consistent supply base. By 2003, the company reportedly needed $85 million to push the C7 into production. That money never came, and Lutz was off to a new assignment at GM. The fiberglass mockups — both exterior and interior — remain part of Jack Roush’s private car collection to this day.