Day 281: Concepting The Car

originally published October 7, 2012

I am totally not a car guy.

I don’t know how many horsepower I have under the hood, I have no clue what a limited-slip differential is, and I haven’t the faintest idea how car manufacturers and enthusiasts calculate a vehicle’s torque, or even what that is. I suspect it has something to do with this guy:

That said, I enjoy seeing those cars that will never make it into mass production, the concept cars whose only purpose is to show off at car shows that a manufacturer has an imagination, and that society isn’t quite ready to handle it. For me it’s more about the aesthetics of these vehicles; until they get around to making one fly I really don’t care what these things can do.

The Buick Y-Job, which sounds like an activity I’d like to try in the back seat of a Skylark, was the first concept car in the auto world, debuting in 1938. Designed by Harley J. Earl, the guy who would eventually begin the project that unleashed the Corvette onto the world, this looks like what Batman would have driven during the Roosevelt administration.

A concept car often inspires quality feedback from the gawking masses, and some of their more appealing features and designs then get woven into the company’s ensuing evolution of their product line. No one bought a Buick Y-Job, but after it was a hit in car shows around the country, several elements of its design found their way into Buick models up through the 50’s. In fact, the ‘waterfall’ design of the grille up front still shows up on Buicks to this day.

Harley J. Earl hung on to this concept car, and drove it himself for years. Now it’s a museum showpiece. If the lottery gods shine upon me, someday maybe I’ll have one built. Then I’ll have it turned into a Batmobile. The plan is all falling into place.

The Audi Snook hasn’t actually been built yet, so we’re leaning a lot heavier on the ‘concept’ part of the concept car experience here. The one wheel is actually a sphere, which would allow the driver to move in any direction and completely take away any worry of a turning radius.

This thing originally spurted from the mind of Wolfgang Mueller-Pietralla and Dr. Martin Weiser (who possesses my first name and my favorite brand of rye whiskey as his last name – could simply be a pseudonym for me, but I won’t tell). Tilmann Schlootz is the design genius who gave it the sci-fi look. I’d love one of these things, though I suspect it would be rather useless if you needed to pick up your new chaise lounge or even make a moderate run to Costco.

That’s okay, we’re all about style over functionality today. With that in mind, this is the Jaguar C-X75, originally shown as a plug-in hybrid car with an impressive 778 horsepower kick – even I know that’s a lot of horses – coming from four electric motors.

To me, four motors sounds like a lot more parts that might need repair at some point. That’s okay, driving something that looks this sexy and can go this fast without being solely reliant on wallet-wringing gas prices makes for an attractive automobile. And that’s great, because this one is actually coming to life. Jaguar plans on producing a limited number of C-X75s over the next few years, starting at the low, low price of only £700,000. For that money, I might just build my own zeppelin instead. Which would be awesome.

I don’t want to completely shirk functionality today. The Infiniti Essence is a snappy-looking beast, and also another electric hybrid. But what sells this baby for me is the trunk, which was demonstrated at the 2009 Geneva Motor Show as being able to fit a three-piece Louis Vuitton luggage set. When the trunk is opened, the floor slides out, offering its contents up like a tasty dessert cart.

When a vehicle makes me think of dessert, I’m sold.

Alright, I want to find some weirder stuff. I want another car that makes me question its practicality as anything other than a display piece.

Ah, here we go. The Zagato Raptor, designed by the Zagato company and Alain Wicki, who works for Lamborghini. The entire middle section of the car lifts up and away – that’s the door. Seriously, they may as well paint “Not For Fat Guys” on the side of this car. I may not be outright spherical, but there’s a notable trophy of my dedication to consumption around my mid-section, and I cannot envision getting in and out of that thing without hurting myself.

When the Raptor debuted in 1996, it was believed to be the ideal transition vehicle between the Lamborghini Diablo and the upcoming Canto, but that never happened. The only prototype was sold to a private collector in 2000. No doubt a skinny and svelte private collector.

In 1993, the Clinton administration introduced the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) program, in which the government worked with GM, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler to try to develop incredibly fuel-efficient cars to bring to market by 2003. A number of concepts were brought forward from this program, including the General Motors Precept.

The Precept was introduced in 2000, and it handily met the 80mpg target set out by the PNGV program.

80 miles per gallon. A Hummer H2 gets somewhere between 9 and 11mpg; even my Toyota is rated only at about 22. Why the hell didn’t they mass-produce this car?

According to Wikipedia, GM nixed the project because they thought nobody would be interested in a high fuel economy vehicle. I don’t buy that. That would be like Pringles developing a magnificent new flavor (probably involving bacon), then not releasing it because they don’t think anyone would want snacks that taste too good. I’m thinking there was something prohibitive to mass production in the technology, or – for the conspiracy theorists out there – the oil companies offered a whale-bladder full of cash to the GM executives to put this thing back on the shelf.

Either way, the Bush administration tanked the PNGV project, and chances are your car might be lucky enough to have a third the fuel efficiency of one of these Precepts.

I enjoyed this topic. Having grown up with my dream car being a stretch limousine in which I could play Nintendo while someone else does the driving, I am still tickled by the concept cars.

Even if I do secretly wonder if each of them could be made into a Batmobile.

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