in Profiles | 01 JAN 98
Featured in
Issue 38

Nowhere Fast

Concept cars

in Profiles | 01 JAN 98

The tilting that occurred was barely noticeable, yet it was the upward and downward motion that propelled the machine down the track. Each three wheeled vehicle was outfitted with four sensors, in the place of the old style headlights. Crashes rarely transpired and when they did, they were minor causes for celebration, where upon each driver would ceremonially leave their cockpit to exchange pleasantries.

? Clyde T. Martin, Rain on the Right Day (1963)

Besides the leggy display models, concept cars are the big draw at automobile shows. Curvaceous and dewy, virgin leatherette and fast engines that may or may not turn over, they pump a sense of Utopian possibility into the air. If you can touch it, it must be real. Safely docked on carpeted platforms, these wondrous machines make the coming year's street-ready versions look a little shinier, a little faster, a little bit more than they really are. Beefed up tires, embossed treads, doors like wings and escalators - each whets an appetite, like the girls on the spinning dais, that can only be satisfied in sleep.

Officially, the first concept car was the Y-Job, designed by the legendary Harley Earl and introduced by Buick (GM) in the late 30s. Earl's landmark convertible symbolised General Motors' heady innovation and was followed in the 50s and 60s by a travelling road show tagged the Motorama which exhibited cars that the company never planned to build. The drive to create expensive fantasies dried up in the mid-60s and early 70s as GM's dominance of the market meant they felt little need to compete.

The concept of the concept car, the marriage of art and industry, was resurrected in the late 80s by the dead-in-the-water Chrysler. Forever third in Detroit's Big Three, Chrysler's fleet of American four doors with padded vinyl roofs and opera windows had little to lose. Under the design direction of Thomas Gale, they upped the ante on automotive fantasies with the 1989 Dodge Viper. While never intended for production, such was its popularity that the car was on the streets soon after and even spun off a TV show. With its V10 415hp (currently up to 450hp) Ram engine, Gales' bright red Viper summoned the ghost of the classic Cobra AC muscle car and with it changed Europe's perception of American road-ready design.

'Concept car' is used in the industry as an umbrella term, and can account for a manufacturing breakthrough, such as a new fuel technology, as much as a body design. Often these advances, unlike the fantasies of the past, are already signed off for manufacture. An unusual case was the Concept 1, a modern day re-invention of the Beetle exhibited by Volkswagen in 1994. Designed by J. Mays (now head of world-wide design at Ford) and Freeman Thomas, the vehicle was meant only to garner a little press for a company that didn't have anything particularly exciting to display. However, as with the Viper, audiences went wild for the re-tooled, nostalgic, triple arch car, leading to its debut as a production model - the New Beetle - this spring.

The ideal concept car should make people a little uncomfortable. It should be advanced enough to impress while still identifiable as a potential element in the consumer's life. Focus groups can be misleading, as Chevrolet found out with the Caprice: the groups loved the design, but by the time the car was produced a few years later it was out of date, appealing to only taxi companies and police departments. The car was American in the worst sense, looking more like a domestic appliance than an expression of the driver's identity.

A particularly heinous breed of concept car is the one paraded as a precursor to a street model when in fact bearing little resemblance to what will one day be on the lot. Pontiac's The Rageous was one such car, a hyper-aggressive sport coupé with flip up doors soon to be renamed The Dickulous by a derisive journalist. By contrast, the breakthrough technology of Mercedes-Benz's A Class, most notably a sandwich design that allows the engine to sit partially underneath the driver's feet, has made the company's MC Micro electric car (a collaboration with the company that make Swatch watches) both a safe and economic option.

If our traditional vision of bubble-topped cars is outdated, then what will the car of the future look like? Perhaps, as Howard Walker of Car magazine suggests, there is no such thing as a 'car' anymore. The last five years have seen the enormous popularity of minivans, illustrating the need for multi-functional machines. Four-wheel drive Sport Utility Vehicles are the next growth area. The introduction of two-seater electric city vehicles, and the suggestion they could be owned as time shares, opens the door for a system of shared SUVs, luxury sedans, Hot Rods and even crashable Derby cars. Surely the term 'car' will become outdated if Mercedes brings to fruition its idea of a vehicle with exchangeable sections: somewhat like the Japanese Transformer toys, these could be modifiable from two to six seaters or to vans, depending on which components you attach to the back and front. The future may then see the car's relationship to transportation and entertainment shift off the map.

At the other end of the concept spectrum is industry veteran designer Jerry Hirshberg, author of the forthcoming The Creative Priority. Formerly at General Motors, Hirshberg now runs Nissan International Design. Under his rein Nissan automotive designers have made golf clubs, kindergarten furniture and vacuum cleaners, all in an effect to keep functionality and beauty on an equal par, and their designers off balance.

Why are concept cars important to a company?

One of my provisos on joining Nissan was that we would not merely be a concept car studio. For me, one of the great dangers of concept cars is that the corporation tends to safely distance itself - that is, its executives - from having to deal with creative and therefore uncomfortable ideas. To me, there is no such thing as future thought. Regardless of the fact that that's how the public likes to think of creative people, and in spite of the fact that many designers have accepted this absurdity, to think in the future, is for me a meaningless notion. If you have the idea, it's a current thought. For me, the whole challenge is how to invest real world products with our most imaginative thinking, now. The biggest danger is that we reserve the creativity for the concept cars and what we come out with for the real world is the mundane, safe evolution that everybody's comfortable with and over time, kid ourselves that those concept cars will happen in some unspecified future. The fact is, they never do. In rare instances, a company will deliberately set about to use a concept car to kind of whet the appetite and begin to expose people to an uncomfortable design or vocabulary, and in that case, I think it's wonderful. Ford has done that, as have some of the Europeans.

Are there different departments for sci-fi special effect cars and for forerunners of a real brand?

There are all kinds of sub-categories - show cars, entertainment vehicles, sexmobiles - and I don't think the automobile industry has sorted them out.

What's a sexmobile?

A car that is exaggerated, like a six-foot long fender. I call it design pornography.

Like Long Dong Silver?

Yeah, it's like the violence and the special effects that are happening in Hollywood today. There's really nothing new in it, and it's very different from a fresh concept which can be quite quiet and unnerving, since there's a genuine departure from the norm.

What is that the Japanese hate about American cars?

One car that did very well here was the Infinity J30, and it bombed in Japan. It was simply too radical a departure. This a culture that places honouring of tradition as arguably its pre-eminent priority, and the Infinity J30 threw out the box entirely. It had a falling deck and a falling hood, very organic and soft.

Was one of the problems that a luxury car has to be recognisable, because you've paid so much for the status?

Distinctiveness and distinction are critical, but it's arguable that it has to be familiar distinctiveness. We found that Americans saw in that car a certain historical resonance to some very early Delahayes, Porsches, Jaguars and Mercedes, from way back in the 20s and 30s. The Europeans also found a sense of historicism with this car. The Japanese simply saw a weird thing. We were told that some secretaries when they first saw the clay model were made physically ill at the sight of it. I am told that it's starting to be liked now, but years and years after it was introduced.

Are Concept cars geared towards men?

Unfortunately so. We did a little concept vehicle called the Goby in 1990. That was as explosively successful a car as Nissan never built. It had a very powerful impact - we were told - on automobile design around the world. It was a sporty two-passenger car with a little box on the back. Many people said it looked like a grasshopper. This car had a smily countenance - it kind of winked at you and to many people it was outrageous because here was a truck that wasn't trucky. Trucks are traditionally seen as things that have deer strapped to the hood, for guys carrying heavy stuff. We looked at the Goby as a friendly little egg shaped cocoon with a carrying case on it. About five years earlier the Chrysler Neon winked in a very similar way, and I think cars like the Goby and the Neon have begun to open up the palette and move away from the imagery of race tracks and the smell of gasoline and things that go fast. There is a whole world of expressive range that we've barely begun to tap into. It might not be intentional, but we've noted that the attractors to our cars have been split about 50-50 between men and women every time we do a new car. The Altima, The Quest mini-van, the J30... I suppose in some way we strive for an androgynous statement, or something that appeals to multiple points of view.

Besides stylistic innovations, what are some of the less evident concepts you are working on?

Obviously I can't tell you to specifically about some of the stuff. Anyway, innovation is hard to categorise. In terms of technology, people are sick and tired of adjusting to gadgetry which is being done because it can be done. Clearly Sony has learned some cruel lessons. There is a limit to how many ways you can do video recordings and people just aren't going to change because you can do it - you better have a reason for it. We could do digital dashboards but it doesn't mean that people want talking cars and numbers all over the place. I think what has happened now is that the human being has returned to priority, which means comprehensible products that seem to express how they do what they do - remotes that actually look like you could intuit, without reading an instruction book, where to push to change a station.

For the next generation Quest we were told by drivers that they love the fact that the Quest is a little smaller and therefore more manoeuvrable and easily parkable, but at the same time, after thinking about it, they all said that we should make this car six inches longer, because there's not enough room behind the third row seats to throw stuff in. Marketing then went out and did their study and said increase the car three inches - they'd just averaged zero and six. Bruce Campbell, the head of our interior design studio, simply designed a very elegant and inexpensive little shelf system behind the rear seat. These shelves are modular, and if you store them vertically, you get about three feet of extended space, and you can stack grocery bags one on top of the other without breaking the eggs. This also meant you could have an area of privacy in the wide open space of the mini-van, and that if you have something shiny in the back, it doesn't have to reflect onto the rear window since a shelf on top eliminates the reflection. Of course as we begin to explore fuel cells or alternative kinds of power, we will begin to see radically new forms.

Is there an Interior Designer and Exterior Designer for each car?

When I came from General Motors, exterior designers did exteriors and so on. There were people who were specialists in all kinds of regions of the car. We've broken all those rules at Nissan Design International. We throw everybody into the same pot. By blurring all the boundaries we have found that our cars are much more of a piece. People can claim for years that the interiors don't look like the exteriors. Well, you go to the design company and realise that the designers are in different rooms, different departments, they don't talk to each other, and what a surprise, that they look like they were done in different worlds. To me the answer is quite simple. If you want to integrate the product, integrate the process.