originally published September 9, 2013

In an effort to make this weekend’s topic of automobiles more relatable to a lifelong non-car-guy like myself, I’m going to draw a simplistic parallel to the world of movies. The majority of what the big auto-makers put out are akin to the majority of big-studio movies that populate our theatres. The boring sedan is the formula rom-com, the minivan is a cliché-ridden kids’ movie, the SUV is your typical political thriller, and the jacked-up pickup truck is the brawn-heavy, brains-light action flick. Oh and your Hummer? That’s a soulless Michael Bay CGI piece of crap.

But concept cars are the one-off studio epiphanies – the brilliant films unlike anything that had come before. These are the Inceptions, the Dr. Strangeloves of the auto world. The difference being that we can all experience those movies, while concept cars are out of reach to everyone, apart from inviting puddles of drool at auto shows. Hey, even a half-decent metaphor can only be stretched so far.

But I’m not interested in the big-studio one-offs; I wrote about those yesterday. A movie fan has to keep one eye on the independents, just as a car-lover should keep track of what folks outside the corporate sphere are cooking up. Today I’m throwing the spotlight on those innovative forward-thinkers who don’t have corporate backing fuelling their fingers.

The Rinspeed Presto, which is really fun to say, emerged from Switzerland in 2002. With the push of a button, this two-seater stretches its innards (and its outards) and becomes a four-seater. It boots around like a roadster, but as with most concept vehicles from this century, the focus is on fuel efficiency. The Presto makes the most of this with an unusual 60/40 diesel / natural gas power system.

I don’t want to get overly technical (and thus reveal myself to have no idea what I’m talking about), but the natural gas is injected into the engine’s intake air system. If the natural gas system breaks down, the engine will revert to a standard diesel operation. If that breaks down, there is room inside each wheel for a ferret (sold separately) to be inserted in order to help get you home. The good people at Rinspeed think of everything.

The Beech Aircraft Company cemented its spot in the industry by building a number of planes for the American war effort during WWII. When the war ended, they took a shot at a concept car with the Beechcraft Plainsman. The car was spacious, with a remarkably high roof to accommodate passengers with abnormally large heads.

There was plans to incorporate an economy meter in the dash, showing the current mpg reading, which is impressively forward-thinking for a 1946 car. There were no seatbelts, but they slapped some rubber pads around the inside, which I guess they felt was just as good. This unit was powered by an aircraft engine, which in turn powered four electric motors, one for each wheel. Only two were built, but luckily the good people at Beech were able to maintain a living in the aircraft business.

That’s the spectacularly-named Gaylord Gladiator, designed in the mid-1950s by brothers James and Ed Gaylord, two wealthy Chicagoans who wanted to combine the luxuriousness of a Rolls Royce with the midlife-crisis appeal of a sportscar. The production prototype was built by the German Zeppelin corporation and weighed over 4000 pounds. There were lights in the wheel wells, which is handy if you are compulsively proud of your tires.

The Gaylords needed twenty-five orders to proceed with production, but with a price tag that was more than double that of the snazziest Cadillac on the market, the orders didn’t materialize.

‘Eliica’ stands for ‘Electric Lithium-Ion Car’. The Eliica was designed by Professor Hiroshi Shimizu and his team at Keio University in Tokyo. It runs on a battery and accelerates from 0 to 100 km/h in four seconds. Four freaking seconds – in 2002 that was quicker than the Porsche 911 Turbo.

I should be clear – the Eliica doesn’t run on a battery, it runs on four banks of 80 batteries, which accounts for roughly a third of the vehicle’s quarter-million dollar cost. I think the performance and efficiency of the Eliica easily makes up for the weirdness of its eight wheels.

Of all the cars I’ve looked at over these two days, the Pac-Car would make the most cuddly stuffed toy. It’s also the world’s most fuel efficient car, developed as a student project. It uses a specially-formulated hydrogen fuel cell, and emits nothing but water into the atmosphere. Of course, the safe bet is that we will never see anything even remotely like this on the market in my lifetime.

In 2005, the Pac-Car II set a world record for fuel economy, chalking up a whopping 5385 km/l efficiency. For those of us who are a tetch more familiar with miles-per-gallon, that’s 15,200 mpg. Take that number out to your garage and scowl for a few minutes at the crappy double-digit fuel economy you’re stuck with.

Don’t be silly, the Soybean Car is not actually made from soybeans. No wait… it was totally made from soybeans. Soybeans and hemp. And it’s not technically an independent because it was made by Ford.

Henry Ford allegedly invested millions of dollars into a car that ‘could be grown from the soil’, but when WWII showed up, research into a natural plastic car was put on the shelf. Ford had over 12,000 acres of soybeans growing for experimentation, and the Soybean Car was apparently the end result, earning a brief showing at the Dearborn Days festival in Dearborn, Michigan in 1941. Some say the car was never really made from soybeans at all but instead from phenolic plastic, a derivative of coal tar. We’ll never know, as the lone prototype was destroyed.

Ford thought plastic would be safer than steel. He wanted to meld his industry with agriculture. To be honest, he probably wanted his patent on the material to become the industry standard for the automotive world. There’s no reason to assume Henry wasn’t motivated by dollars here.

But a vehicle made from soybeans? Really? Or from hemp? Who would even dream up such a thing?

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