Feature Story

EDUCATION: NEW CONCEPTS

by Bob Hagin

April 24, 1998

The concept of the Concept Car have been around a long time. In years gone by, they were called "Cars of the Future" or "Dream Cars" and almost all of the American auto makers showed them off at their own automotive extravaganzas and in big-time national auto shows. They would often be centerpieces of American technology displays at international world fairs and on occasion they'd even show up on the showroom floors of prestigious dealerships. In many cases these "futuristic" vehicles would eventually show up on those showroom floors is a somewhat modified but recognizable form. The Corvette is one example that comes to mind as does the very new resurrected Volkswagen Beetle.

In the superheated automotive battle for the minds, hearts and signed sales contracts of American car buyers, Concept Cars have come into their own. Their designers are corporate glamour boys and fiercely compete with each other to have their designs chosen for execution. These are some of the major auto makers have produced and exhibited their esoteric wonderwagons in recent months:

CHRYSLER - Who says that nostalgia isn't what it used to be? Chrysler is into updating the old days and its current crop of Concept Cars reflect that tendency. Its retro-rod, the Prowler, emulated the homemade hot-rods that prowled the streets of Southern California in the '50 and was so popular that it went into production. Its current bright yellow concept offering, the Pronto Cruizer, is styled to simulate the '36 and '37 Ford chopped-and-channeled coupes that cruised Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena 'way back when.

MITSUBISHI - The Mitsubishi SST is a space-age sports car from one of the few companies that still produces no-kidding high performance two-seaters (Eclipse, 3000 GT, etc.). Its SST has a "geo-mechanical" look according to factory literature, and the press release waxes loquacious as it describes the machine. It was "...inspired by classic literature, high-speed trains, and even the flexed human biceps.." says Mitsubishi. And the car is multi-faceted. So far it has appeared at three different shows in three different forms. It was a Targa in Chicago, a coupe in Detroit and a roadster in New York.

HYUNDAI - Hyundai's financial problems at home in Korea haven't dampened its fervor for the sports car revival that is sweeping the Concept Car world. While its earlier show cars were developed and produced in that company's California automotive think-tank (located in the southern part of the state, of course), it's newest two-seater open car was the product of its European Design Center in Germany. Swoopy and impractical, the Euro 1 has just a hint of Alfa-Romeo in its lines and its seats that are in fact just padded section of its composite body. The factory information on it states that it isn't planned for production but that's what Chrysler said about the Prowler, too.

VOLKSWAGEN - So you thought that VW would rest on its laurels after putting its retro Beetle into production? How about its W12 Roadster that appeared at the Geneva, Switzerland show? This progeny of the cute little "People's Car" mounts a 5.6 liter W12 (three banks of four cylinders each) behind the plush two-place cockpit and was developed by Italdesign in (where else?) Italy. According to the press corp at the Geneva show (we weren't there ourselves), the president of Volkswagen dropped the casual comment that the company is toying with the idea of making 300 or so copies of the car at $175,000 each. The only disturbing thing about the car is the VW logo on the nose of this exotic machine. It's almost like those fancy kit cars that are mounted on a shortened Bug chassis and powered by an aircooled four-banger.

FORD - Not to be outdone by its sports car opposition, Ford introduced its Libre at the Chicago show, but it one-upped its competition by making it a phaeton. If you're too young to remember such classics as the open "fair-weather" Fords of the '30s, a phaeton is a roadster but with two back doors for rear seat entrance. The Libre was built on a stretched European front-drive Ford "everyman's car" platform with a massive center wishbone reinforcement to make sure it doesn't do the twist over the slightest irregularity in the road. There's no plans to produce it any more than to produce the original Mustang Concept Car. That Number One Ford pony was also a miniature, open cockpit four seater (built in the mid-60s) and we're all aware of the rebodied Falcon the name was finally applied to.

PONTIAC - Pontiac got into the Concept Car bullring last year too but it strayed as far from the low-slung sports car theme as possible. The Pontiac dream car is a Trans Sport Montana minivan that was fed steroids and LSD. Its wheel tread is stretched eight inches, its nose was given a Darth Vader grimace and its multi-hued paint makes it look like a displaced Starfighter. Power comes from a 4.0 liter V6 engine hopped up to put out around 230 horses. A great car for cruisin' the drive-ins but not too suitable for taking the family to Grandma's house for Sunday dinner. Concept Cars have been around a long time - ever since styling became an important part of building cars. It will be interesting to see how many of these show cars get into production by the beginning of the New Millennia.

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