Pebble Beach Concept Cars Are the Latest in a Long Tradition

Concept models aren't just for display; many have influenced the vehicles we drive.
By Melinda Grenier and Marisa Gertz
August 10, 2019, 1:08 AM GMT+5:30   Updated   on August 15, 2019, 8:55 PM GMT+5:30

A Mercedes-Benz EQ Silver Arrow and a Hennessey Venom F5 at Pebble Beach in 2018. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

When auto companies want to show off innovative technologies and designs - or just show off - they create concept cars. These models provide a testbed for future transportation and often incorporate features that eventually appear in consumer versions. There's a long tradition of displaying these sometimes strange-looking vehicles at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance near Monterey, California, one of the world's most prestigious automotive events. Here's a peek at some of the cars that will be on its Concept Lawn this weekend, then a look at concepts that attracted attention in the past.

Pebble Beach Concours Concept Lawn (2019)
Automakers have introduced new creations at Pebble Beach since the 1980s, and this year's display promotes a number of high-performance cars, including the Acura Type S Concept and BMW 600 horsepower Vision M Next hybrid. McLaren is showing its GT by MSO with design "drawing inspiration from British architecture." Karma Automotive's electric SC1 Vision Concept has an eye-track system that senses if the driver is fatigued or distracted. One model is coming full circle: Richland, Washington-based SSC North America will deliver a production version of its mid-engine Tuatara during Monterey Car Week; it introduced the hypercar -- named for a New Zealand reptile with rapidly evolving DNA -- at last year's Concours.

From left to right: Karma SC1 Vision Concept, BMW Vision M Next, Acura Type S, McLaren GT by MSO, SSC North America Tuatara.
Source: Karma; SSC North America; McLaren; Acura; BMW
Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost (1907)
Many cars developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s were "concept" models, as builders of horse-drawn coaches and intrepid engineers experimented with gas-, steam- and electric-powered vehicles. Henry Royce, partnering with motoring pioneer and aviator Charles Rolls, produced several models from 1904 to 1907, including the six-cylinder 40/50. After the 12th 40/50 - chassis number 60551 - completed a nonstop run of 14,371 miles in 1907 without any problems, it was proclaimed "the best car in the world." Its silver paint and silver fittings sparked the "Silver Ghost" name, which Rolls-Royce kept until 1926 and then revived in 2018 for 35 special-edition sedans that had design touches and materials harking back to their illustrious ancestor.

Clockwise from left: People riding in an open carriage in England c1901-1910, the original 1907 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and a car from the 2018 Silver Ghost Collection.
Source: Getty Images (2); Roll-Royce Motor Cars
General Motors Y Job (1938)
For people weary of the Great Depression, this "dream car" by GM design chief Harley Earl was a peek into better days ahead. The Y Job's aerodynamic styling and low profile were very different from the era's taller, boxier models. And its retractable headlights, power windows, push-button convertible top and other cutting-edge features were years ahead of those that would show up eventually in production vehicles. Widely considered the first concept car, the Y Job was displayed at the 1940 New York Auto Show. It then became Earl's personal vehicle. He drove it through the 1940s - and his staff continued to tweak it during the decade.

Clockwise from bottom left: The 1938 Y Job, back and front, and a Canadian parking lot in 1934 showing the typical boxy cars of the era.
Source: Getty Images (2); Buick
Firebird I, II, III (1954, 1956, 1958)
Earl himself designed the first Firebird's fiberglass-reinforced plastic body, and two more variations would follow. The 1954 XP-21, a single-seater, tested the practicality of gas-turbine automotive engines. The four-passenger Firebird II had a titanium body, less engine noise and lower exhaust heat than Firebird I, along with other mechanical improvements. It also promoted GM's vision of autonomous driving: A special highway lane with a metallic conductor would send electronic signals to motors controlling speed, braking and steering. Echos of a few Firebird design elements showed up in production models, and Pontiac's sporty compact inherited the Firebird name.

Clockwise from top left: Firebird I on a desert test track in 1956, Firebird II, the 1959 Cadillac Sedan Deville, a 1967 Pontiac Firebird and overhead and side views of the Firebird III.
Source: Getty Images (4); General Motors (2)
Lincoln Futura (1955)
Ford Motor Co. revealed its "spotlight on tomorrow" at the 1955 Chicago Auto Show. Italian coachbuilder Ghia in Turin, Italy, assembled the Lincoln Futura at a cost of $250,000 (more than $2 million in today's dollars). It was fully functional, with a double-canopy roof, push-button transmission controls and a 300-horsepower V-8 engine. Futura gained lasting fame as TV's Batmobile after customizer George Barris bought the concept car. Futura also lived on in the styling of some Thunderbirds and Lincolns in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Clockwise from bottom left: Rear and front views of the Lincoln Futura in the 1950s, Adam West at the wheel of the Batmobile c1966 and side and rear views of the 1957 Ford Thunderbird.
Source: Getty Images (4); Ford Motor Co.
Simca Fulgur (1958) and Ford Nucleon (1958)
After World War II, interest in nuclear energy expanded from weapons to peaceful uses - including in concept cars like the Fulgur (Latin for lightning). French manufacturer Simca displayed a "styling mockup" at auto shows, including in New York, as a preview of 2000 model-year vehicles. Fulgur's gyroscopic system would allow it to balance on two of its four wheels, and drivers would give instructions to its electronic brain. Fulgur never became a reality, but it bears a striking resemblance to the Jetsons' flying car in the 1962-1963 cartoon. Ford's Nucleon didn't go beyond a 3/8th scale model with a representation of a rear power capsule containing a radioactive core. "Cars like the Nucleon might be able to travel 5,000 miles or more" before recharging, according to a Ford information leaflet, which noted feasibility was based on the assumption that "the present bulkiness and weight of nuclear reactors and attendant shielding will some day be reduced."

Clockwise from top left: A press release for the Simca "Idea" Car at the New York International Auto Show in 1958, a scale model of the Ford Nucleon, The Jetsons and a nuclear power station in 1956.
Source: Getty Images (3); Simca news release/Wikimedia Commons
Ford Gyron (1961)
The Gyron was a two-wheel futuristic model developed as "something memorable to create the impression that Ford was on the cutting edge," says Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Never intended as a production car, the wedge-shaped two-seater was displayed at an auto show and then at Ford's Rotunda visitor center in 1961. Sadly, both were destroyed in fire the following year, but the Gyron did inspire a Chinese engineer. Zhu Lingyun saw a picture of it on the internet and created his own gyrocar , which he was testing last year. The 1703 prototype can drive autonomously or be controlled with a computer mouse and 24-inch screen.

The top two pictures show the Ford Gyron in 1961. The bottom two show a prototype of Beijing Lingyun Intelligent Technology Co.'s 1703 autonomous two-wheeled electric gyrocar in 2018.
Source: Getty Images (2); Bloomberg (2)
Ford Mustang (1962)
The Mustang began as two completely separate projects conceived, designed and built independently, according to The Henry Ford's Matt Anderson. The concept car was a mid-engine V-4 two-seater Ford took to race tracks and auto shows; it debuted at the 1962 U.S. Grand Prix in Watkins Glen, New York. It then toured colleges and universities to attract future engineers and designers. The four-seater production Mustang was a big hit when it came out in April 1964 and spawned a "pony car" craze for sporty coupes and convertibles. It gained even more fame as the star of the chase scene in the 1968 movie "Bullitt." Mustang has proven to be one of Ford's most popular cars, with more than 10 million built.

The photos on the left show the 1962 Mustang I. Pictured on the right are (top to bottom) the 2020 Ford Mustang, 1964 Mustang and Steve McQueen in "Bullitt," 1968.
Source: Ford Motor Co. (3); Getty Images (1); Everett Collection
Dodge Deora (1965/1967)
The Dodge Deora didn't have the typical birth - or afterlife - of a concept car. Based on a 1965 Dodge A100 compact pickup truck, Deoro was built by two brothers who ran a custom-car shop in Detroit. They displayed it at the city's 1967 Autorama, where it won the top award. Then Chrysler leased it for two years to exhibit at new-car shows around the U.S. The Deora never made it into production as a full-size vehicle, but a scale model was in the first line of die-cast cars toymaker Hot Wheels began selling in 1968. And Sotheby's auctioned the real thing in 2009 for $324,500.

Clockwise from left: A 1967 Dodge Deora press release, the 1967 Deora and the original Hot Wheels Deora.
Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (2); Hot Wheels
Mercedes-Benz C 111 (1969)
The German automaker unveiled this experimental car at the 1969 International Motor Show in Frankfurt. The first C 111 had gullwing doors and was painted a metallic orange called Weissherbst, after a type of German wine with a similar color. It was designed to test aerodynamic efficiency, the use of fiberglass-reinforced plastic bodies and the new Wankel rotary engine. But the engine didn't meet the company's reliability and durability standards. It also would have difficulty meeting tightening fuel consumption and emissions requirements, so later versions of the C 111 had diesel powerplants. These helped Mercedes-Benz develop the turbodiesel technology it used in its passenger models, and work on the C 111s also influenced the more aerodynamic body design of the S-Class cars Mercedes-Benz sold from 1979 to 1991.

On top, the gullwing doors on the C111-I and II and, below, the I and II with the original prototype car in the background. On the bottom right is a Mercedes-Benz W 126 series S-Class coupe.
Source: Daimler (4)
Volvo VESC (1972)
Volvo developed its Experimental Safety Car, or VESC , to test features that now are standard equipment on most vehicles. These included airbags for the front and back seats, anti-locking brakes, a steering column that pulled away from the driver in a head-on collision, extended bumpers, extra-sturdy body, a backup warning signal and even a rearview camera provided by Mitsubishi Electric that sent images to a dashboard screen. (It wasn't until last year that such cameras were required on almost all new vehicles.) Volvo incorporated many VESC features in its 240, which debuted in 1974 and became the Swedish company's longest-running model, with sales of more than 2.8 million during its 19-year run.

The photos on the left and center show the VESC Volvo Experimental Safety Car; the Volvo 240 is on the right.
Source: Volvo Cars (5); Volvo Museum
Dodge Viper (1989)
It took just one car show to persuade Chrysler that consumers wanted the Dodge Viper. The idea originated in the company's Advanced Design Studios. Chrysler President Bob Lutz had also suggested developing a sports car to rival the legendary Cobra. By January 1989, the Viper Concept was on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It was hugely popular, and Chrysler decided to green-light production. The consumer version looked very similar to the concept when it went on sale in January 1992. Its 8.0-liter aluminum-block V10 engine produced 400 horsepower and accelerated from zero to 60 miles per hour in 4.4 seconds. Chrysler retired the sports car in 2017.

Clockwise from lower left: Interior and side views of the 1989 Dodge Viper concept car, the 1992 Viper and 25th anniversary limited-edition Dodge Viper models that commemorate the final year of production in 2017.
Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (4)
Nissan Pivo (2005)
Nissan first displayed its Pivo urban commuter concept at the 2005 Tokyo Motor Show. A hit with attendees, the environmentally friendly electric three-seater had a cabin that could rotate 360 degrees, so no more backing blind out of a driveway. For the 2007 Pivo 2, Nissan moved the door to the front of the cabin and gave each wheel its own motor, allowing the car to drive sideways as well as forward. It also added a "Robotic Agent" on the dashboard with a little swiveling head, "engendering feelings of affection and trust," according to the company. Its interactive interface allowed drivers to communicate in Japanese or English about basic vehicle functions and other helpful information. In 2010, Nissan introduced the electric production-model LEAF, which has become the best-selling battery-powered car in the world.

Nissan's Pivo 2 with its robotic assistant on the top left and the 2005 Pivo below it, with front and rear views of the Nissan Leaf on the left.
Source: Getty Images (2); Bloomberg (2)
(Updated to add cars from Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance)