Car designers dream of the opportunity to create a concept car. The design process allows them to completely unbridle their best creative instincts – a car designed for production is a slave to dozens of ‘hard points,’ regulations ruling everything from how high headlights and tail lights can be, to how much rake a windscreen can have. Not so with a concept car. If the designer wants to ditch rear-view mirrors, do away with door handles and create an all-glass canopy, it’s game on.
The result can be a sensational boundary-pushing creation, which generates hundreds of news and feature stories for the car company unveiling it. It’s also a way for designers to publicly trial design elements before incorporating them into existing model lines.
But it can be a tricky proposition. When the concept car that heralded the Porsche Boxter was revealed, the car press went wild. It was a delicately-wrought roadster that called to mind the classic Porsche Spyder 550 of the 1950s and it looked sensational. But by the time the Boxster reached production in regulation form, its styling had swollen and distorted. The press reaction was predictably bad.
There are, though, plenty of concept cars that remained faithful to their concept forbears. This usually occurs when a car company genuinely believes a given concept has commercial viability but needs the public and press reaction to cement that belief. One of the best examples of this was the Dodge Viper concept, which was met with rave reviews and went into production virtually unchanged. Here are examples of concepts that also promised production-line glory, but reality and ‘hard points’ got in the way.
25 1968 Chevrolet Astrovette
The Astrovette was a brave, forward-looking concept from Chevrolet’s designers. It featured a stretched nose, longer rear-end, a Spyder-style windscreen and wheel-spats over the rear wheels openings. Based on a 1968 Corvette, the interior was stock and the engine was a 400hp V8. Engineers used the Astrovette as a way of judging how aerodynamically slippery the Corvette shape could be made. A more slippery Corvette would bring speed advantages, but more importantly, fuel consumption reduction.
In the end, Corvettes remained thirsty, so nothing significant was carried over from the Astrovette concept. That said, in 1974 production Corvettes did gain polyurethane bumpers similar to those on the Astrovette.
24 2008 Hummer HX
This really was the car that Hummer should have produced. One look at it brings the small boy out in any observer – it profiles like a toy truck made real, and unlike its monster-sized Hummer siblings, it would probably be a riot to drive. Indeed, it was much smaller than the H2 and H3 production Hummers, more of a Jeep Wrangler sized car. The HX featured removable doors, and even the dramatic fenders could be unhitched for serious offroad work. The rear seats were also removable if more cargo space was needed.
Instead, Hummer fans were left with the H3, the smallest in the range. Like its larger siblings, this was still a car more about intimidating size than pure fun.
23 1956 Pontiac Club De Mer
For the first time in the 1950s, dramatically styled concept cars became a staple of American motor shows. And many of Detroit’s most imaginative designers were inspired by futuristic aircraft, hence the proliferation of aircraft-like tail fins as the decade wore on.
Indeed, the Pontiac Club De Mer featured a dorsal fin on its trunk lid, along with a smooth, aerodynamic stainless steel body. Under the hood, the Pontiac featured a 300hp V8, which was very powerful for the era. The nearest thing in GM’s stable to this brave concept was Chevrolet’s 1957 Corvette. Clad in fiberglass and powered by a much less powerful engine, the ‘Vette wasn’t nearly as adventurous as the Pontiac concept.
22 1988 Pontiac Banshee IV
The Banshee IV was Pontiac’s breathtaking preview of what its upcoming new Firebird would look like. The Banshee’s long and low fiberglass body had the look of a supercar, and many observers assumed it had a mid-engine layout. In fact, its fuel-injected V8 was front mounted, powering the rear wheels. It also featured some forward-looking technology, including a head-up display that projected info about engine rpm, speed, and fuel level onto the windscreen. And in a nod to Formula One, the Banshee also featured adjustable dual rear wings.
Sadly, the production Firebird that eventually arrived used only a handful of the Banshee’s design cues, leaving us with a clumsy, oddly proportioned car that has not aged well.
21 2004 Buick Velite
The 2004 Buick Velite was a stunning concept, a four-seater convertible with rear-wheel drive and a powerful 400hp 3.6-liter twin-turbo V6. Its gorgeously appointed interior was as prestigious and upmarket as any European competitor. But as well received as the Velite was, it didn’t make production.
Instead, those enthusiasts looking for a great looking four-seat convertible from Buick had to wait nearly a decade for the Cascada. Yes, the Cascada is similar to the Velite in appearance, albeit without that car’s strong, graceful looks. But it’s a heavy, front-wheel-drive car with just 200hp, so nowhere near as sporting – or as desirable – as the Velite concept was. 2003
20 Cadillac Sixteen
When it broke cover in 2003, observers reckoned this was a Cadillac celebrating its true roots. It was named for its mammoth engine, a 13.6-liter, 1,000bhp V16 (Caddy produced a V16 in the 1930s). And while it was enormous, its looks were proportionate. For a car that was nearly 18 and a half feet long, it wore its size well, rather like a Rolls Royce Phantom.
It also had a fully functional powertrain. I drove it (gently) at Goodwood circuit in the UK – it had been created at GM’s Midlands design studio. Cadillac should have made it, but they didn’t. So for much of that decade, the biggest, grandest Cadillac remained the Escalade SUV. Not. Even. Close.
19 2008 GMC Denali XT
The GMC Denali XT managed to look like a California custom hotrod while honoring its roots as a proper, functional pickup truck. With that low roofline, oversized wheels and chunky wheel arches, the XT was that rarest of things – a pickup truck that looked genuinely exciting. This concept wasn’t just about a great aesthetic, it also featured forward-thinking technology. The engine, for example, was a super frugal 4.9-liter V8 that GMC claimed was 50% more frugal than comparable small pickups. The XT also featured a ‘mid-gate’, which dropped the rear seats and bulkhead to accommodate much longer loads.
Virtually none of the XT’s design innovations found their way into subsequent GMC pickups, which continued to look like large, characterless boxes on wheels.
18 1954 Buick Wildcat II
By the mid-1950s, Buicks were evolving into bloated leviathans with all the sporting allure of a Chris Craft Corsair. So the 1954 Buick Wildcat II was, perhaps, the wildest ever Buick concept car – it was low, svelte, two inches shorter than the newly revealed Corvette and powered by a strong V8. Those dramatically scalloped front fenders gave the Wildcat its unique profile. The car also featured hubcaps that remained stationary even as the wheels turned. Rolls Royce uses the same approach on its latest Phantom sedan.
But Buick didn’t commit to the Wildcat, instead reverting to type with massive, lumbering convertibles for the balance of the decade. The Wildcat name would, though, grace a number of Buick models in the 1960s.
17 2002 Cadillac Cien
The 2002 Cien concept was perhaps the most exciting Cadillac concept of all time. Created to celebrate Cadillac’s 100th anniversary, designer Simon Cox was inspired by the F-22 Raptor jet. The Cien backed up its supercar profile with a mid-mounted 7.5-liter V12 producing 750hp. That think-big-or-stay-home engine was a gentle nod to 1930s era V12 Caddies.
Many enthusiast observers hoped that the Cien would hold clues to the XLR roadster that broke cover in 2004. While the two-seater V8 XLR presented the most sporting profile in Cadillac in history, it had nowhere near the drama, power, and excitement contained in the Cien concept.
16 2010 GMC Granite
The GMC Granite concept was a brave move by GM’s truck making arm, GMC. It would have been the smallest vehicle ever launched by the company, although it had tremendous presence and a rough, but subtly urban stance. It also featured rear-hinged ‘suicide’ doors.
“We think of the Granite as the automotive equivalent of an urban loft apartment,” said Dave Lyon, then executive director of North American Interior. “The exterior has an unmistakable industrial look, but the interior is warm and personalized.”
GMC didn’t end up producing the Granite, but the concept lives on in the Vauxhall Meriva – it, too, has rear-hinged rear doors, but its styling is much weaker and overwhelmingly bland compared to the Granite.
15 2016 Buick Avista
The Avista is quite possibly the most beautiful two-door coupe ever built by Buick. While the company currently produces only sedans and crossovers, it has a proud heritage of building gorgeous coupes, going all the way back to the 1963 Riviera. The Avista concept was unveiled at the Detroit Motor Show in 2016 to generally positive reviews.
Buick also hinted at production possibilities by installing a working motor, and many exterior details look unusually production ready. Another clue toward the Avista’s viability was the fact that it shared an identical wheelbase with sister company Chevrolet’s Camaro. Buick hasn’t announced any plans to produce the Avista, but I would bet any subsequent production version would be faithful to the concept.
14 1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special
Famous GM design boss Harley Earl fully embraced America’s enthusiasm for the jet age – he pioneered jet-like tail fins, culminating in the largest ever deployed on a production car, the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado. So space-age cues abound on the 1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special concept, from the aircraft-like plexiglass canopy with gullwing doors and the rear-end spare tire recess flanked by vertical tailfins. That gave the Special the look of a rocket-powered car. Even the body was shaped in part by a wind tunnel.
The Special’s lasting legacy is the nameplate that would grace Pontiac models for decades. The first, in 1958, was a limited production convertible, as huge and ungainly as the Special was lithe and lightweight.
13 2013 Cadillac Elmiraj
Here was a Cadillac concept that harked back to a time when the brand was all about brash styling and massive presence. The Elmiraj concept packed a 500hp twin-turbo V8 wrapped in an exquisitely sculpted body – with a big 4000lb weigh-in, the Caddy would need all of those horses. Massive wheels and a deceptively low roofline give the Elmiraj, named for the El Mirage dry lakebed in California, a real custom look.
As with so many concept cars, the Elmiraj was meant as a pointer to upcoming style updates for existing models, including the Cadillac XTS. Press reviews for the XTS, both for its styling and driving experience, have tended to be drawn-out yawns. A worthy relative of the Elmiraj, it is not.
12 2001 GMC Terracross
Looking to capitalize on the SUV craze, GMC unveiled the Terracross, which sought to broaden the segment’s appeal with clever innovations. The body’s design managed to be sleek and sophisticated without giving up a tough, uncompromising profile. With rear doors that slide back as with an MPV, and no B-pillar, the Terracross was especially easy to get in and out of. The front passenger seat could also swivel to face the back. With three sliding roof panels, the big GMC could even play at being a convertible. Another clever feature was the ‘mid-gate’ that created a separate cargo area in the back.
Alas, the GMC Envoy that gained some of these features was a design disaster, not even remotely as handsome as the Terracross.
11 2003 Chevrolet Cheyenne
When Chevrolet unveiled the Cheyenne pickup concept at the 2003 Detroit Motor Show, it was an instant hit. The handsome pickup also garnered a brace of awards from the show’s Eyes On Design competition, including the Most Significant Design Concept, Best Concept Interior Design, Best Concept Exterior Design, and Best of Show. Its butch exterior was radically stylish, and the featured side-gates gave its cargo bed terrific practicality. Topping everything off, its beautifully executed interior wouldn’t look out of place on a Range Rover.
If you were waiting for these features to turn up on subsequent GMC pickups, well, you’d still be waiting. Radically stylish, they are not.
10 2001 Buick Blackhawk
The Blackhawk concept was created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Buick. It is a stunning thing to behold, very retro with a grille that nods to the famous Buick Y Job concept car of the 1950s. Otherwise, the concept is a homage to styling elements from the 1930s through to the 1980s. It was powered by a 455c.i. Buick GS stage III V8 from 1970 generating a huge 463 horsepower. The Blackhawk also featured a steel-folding roof.
The car never made it to production, but it’s a fair bet that GM was thinking of it when they pulled the wraps off the truly awful and equally retro-styled Chevrolet SSR, a folding hardtop pickup truck that, unsurprisingly, lasted less than three years.
9 2004 Saturn Curve
This is one of those ‘if only’ stories – the Saturn Curve was a gorgeously crafted coupe modeled on the then-new Kappa platform that underpinned the Saturn Solstice convertible. One of its principal design features was the impression of a ‘floating roof’ thanks to roof pillars obscured by a wrap-around canopy of glass. The effect, coupled with the aggressively flared fender arches, was of a car that looked like a junior supercar in the mold of a Mercedes-AMG GT.
Its closest relation, the Pontiac Solstice, had none of the Curve’s aggressive and exciting styling, and nor did it have that car’s performance potential.
8 1962 Chevrolet Corvair Monza GT
Absolutely gorgeous out of the box, the Corvair Monza GT concept was wildly successful on the motor show tour. Unlike the production Corvair that it was based on, the Monza GT was properly mid-engined. It featured the standard Corvair air-cooled flat-six with dual carburetors. The GT’s bodywork also inspired later generation Corvettes – the gullwing doors would later become a supercar standard item.
The standard production Corvair was nowhere near as beautiful to behold as the Monza GT, and while there had been serious thoughts of putting the GT into production, the fate of the Corvair range was decided when consumer campaigner Ralph Nader labeled the car unsafe.
7 2007 Chevrolet Volt
The Chevrolet Volt was one of the most exciting concept cars of 2007. Here was a car that could deliver up to 40 miles of electric-only city driving, and yet could offer virtually unlimited range thanks to a small gas engine that would help the batteries hold a charge to get you home. Along with offering unheard of potential for mega-mile range on a tank of fuel, the two-door Volt concept looked gorgeous, with its rakishly low roofline, long hood, aggressively flared wheel arches, and short front-and-rear overhangs.
The production Volt? Not so much. Compared with its cousin, the Volt is a dumpy looking, conventional three-box sedan with none of the excitement promised by its concept forbear.
6 1951 General Motors Le Sabre
The 1951 GM Le Sabre was a truly landmark concept car. It was one of the first to begin showcasing the jet-aircraft inspired design features – namely tailfins and wrap around windshields – that would come to dominate America's car design for the rest of the decade. The Le Sabre was also remarkably ahead of its time, with a body constructed of aluminum, magnesium, and fiberglass. Another feature was the water sensor that would automatically raise the hood if it began to rain. It also featured a supercharged V8.
While it lent some styling cues to contemporary siblings, the Le Sabre was lower, lighter and considerably more agile than any of the Buicks it inspired.
5 1963 Mako Shark
This is the dreamboat concept car, every 1960s enthusiast’s fantasy of how a fast, low, powerful sportscar should look. Styled by the legendary Larry Shinoda under the watchful eye of GM design boss Bill Mitchell, the Mako Shark was meant to resemble a shortfin mako shark, right down to the color scheme of a white belly and blue-gray topsides. It was a motor show sensation and helped to seal the Corvette’s reputation as America’s sportscar king.
The production Corvette that followed was a good effort, but couldn’t hope to match the visual drama of the Mako Shark – just another example of the freedom to create that concept car designers enjoyed.
4 1992 General Motors Ultralite
In what is an otherwise fast-moving industry, it’s slightly surprising that the GM Ultralite is 26 years old. The concept will be very familiar to modern observers – GM set out to create a car with extremely low emissions and one capable of returning at least 100mpg. It succeeded with the Ultralite. Other features of the car that are cutting edge even by current standards are its carbon-fiber body shell that gave the Ultralite (the name’s a giveaway) its amazingly light 1,400lb all-in weight, and its gullwing doors.
Its spiritual successor is the 2018 Chevrolet Volt, a gas-hybrid that in Car and Drivers hands returned 59mpg(e). Seriously? Twenty-six years?
3 2007 Chevrolet Groove
Jawook Koo, the designer of the Chevrolet Groove, was motivated by a desire to create a very small car that wouldn’t project a ‘cute’ and wimpish character. Instead, Koo strove for a muscular stance with real attitude, and with the Groove, he succeeded. With its bluff, very upright nose – a signature design element of large luxury cars – and large 17-inch wheels pushed out to the corners, the Groove has amazing presence for a car with such diminutive dimensions.
The Groove inspired the design of cars like the Chevrolet Sonic and Orlando. Unfortunately, the journey to production robbed those cars of the muscular presence that the Groove’s designer was so keen to project.
2 1976 Chevrolet Aerovette
In an effort to give the Chevrolet Corvette more credibility as a rival to European sports cars, the man responsible for conceiving the ‘Vette – Zora Arkus-Duntov – built an experimental prototype called XP-882. It was truly revolutionary and would have been Chevrolet’s first mid-engine car. The idea was to take the fight to the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Porsche (good luck with that). Early versions even featured a rotary engine, which was eventually swapped out for a V8 for the car’s 1976 motor show debut.
It looked fabulous and generated huge public interest, but the plan was dropped, mainly due to cost issues. So the Corvette remains a blue-collar hero without a hope of seriously challenging Porsche and Ferrari.
1 2011 Chevrolet Miray
The Miray is a classic concept car, an example of designers going for a ‘no limits’ approach. Even its name is a cheeky reference to its mission – Miray is Korean for ‘future.’ Chevrolet touted the Miray as a ‘mid-electric’ roadster. In keeping with its futuristic approach, the Miray’s propulsion system consisted of electric motors driving the front wheels for zero-emission city driving, and a 1.5-liter mid-mounted gas engine driving the rear wheels for when performance is a priority.
Chevrolet has yet to launch a high-performance EV roadster, and the nearest approximation to the Miray’s low emissions performance mission is the Chevrolet Volt, a pure electric hatch that’ll get to 60mph in 6.5 seconds. Sure, that’s quick but the rest of the car is really dull.
Sources: automobilemag, caranddriver, motortrend, carmagazine