In their day, the jaw-dropping looks of concept cars such as the Dodge Copperhead, Chrysler Atlantic and Plymouth Howler merited rock-star treatment at auto shows.
Concepts have traditionally been car designers' fantasies, loosely aimed at pointing to the future of motoring, but mostly intended to fire up buyer emotions for the brand at the shows.
For maximum impact, they typically burst onto stage through clouds of fake fog to the whump-whump of blasting music. Photographers mob them. "Swishers" -- attendants with cleaning gear -- keep them free of even a speck of dust or a fingerprint. Style mavens fixate on every curve.
Then, faster then you can say Fabio, they slip from the show circuit and auto magazine covers, displaced by newer, more cutting-edge concepts.
Today, however, in a more cynical age of downsized dreams and tight development budgets, the wild concept car -- auto show eye candy -- is becoming rarer.
At the big auto shows so far this year, here in Detroit last month and now in Chicago through Sunday, there still are "concepts" being unveiled, but few multimillion-dollar flights of fancy. Today's "concepts" are more likely to be mere flashier interpretations of the showroom versions of models already green-lighted for production.
"We don't have the disposable cash to vent some of these out," laments Ralph Gilles, chief designer for Chrysler Group. "A lot of us on the design committee sort of miss the crazy days."
Examples of just how crazy those days could be can be found in a nondescript warehouse that Chrysler Group maintains in a rundown neighborhood here. Living out their old age inside are some of the best -- and worst -- concepts from an era when auto designers were free to let their imaginations go pedal-to-the-metal.
Today, however, designers for Chrysler and other automakers find themselves pushed to create concept cars that whisper -- or shout -- at the coming look of actual production vehicles, and fewer pure design exercises. As concepts, they may lack conventional door handles, have lower roofs held up by skinnier pillars than would pass crash testing and be fitted with fancier and more fanciful interiors, but they outline the basic car headed for production.
No wasted work
Designers say that while they miss the fun of outlandish concepts, at least they know their efforts these days won't disappear into a warehouse. More than ever, the ideas behind concept cars are headed soon to dealer showrooms.
"We always design these (concept) cars with the idea we want to use them in the future," said Kevin Hunter, president of Calty Design Research, Toyota's styling lab in Newport Beach, Calif.
His shop's latest creation, the Lexus LF-LC, made its debut last month at the Detroit show, officially the North American International Auto Show. LF-LC is a sleek luxury sports car with a long hood and low profile that looks relatively close to a car that would not be out of place as a midprice offering at a Lexus dealer. Among the concept touches were electronic doors that open without traditional handles, which could detract from the car's lines.
"Is there going to be a door handle? Yeah," said Calty designer Ian Cartabiano. But if it goes to production, "We're going to do our best to get it out looking like this."
His was a common refrain. Honda showed at the Detroit show an Accord concept and two Acura concepts, including its new NSX supercar concept -- all "near production."
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