The Road Ahead: Yesterday's Concept Cars

Weren't we supposed to have hoverboards by now?

Written by Carly Hallman

When we look back at the past generations’ views of tomorrow, people generally end up having the same conversation: “We were supposed to have hoverboards by now.”

But the zany, fictional hoverboard in 1989’s Back to the Future doesn’t compare to the real vehicles clunking around in the imaginations of car producers in the 1940s and ’50s. Concept cars of yesteryear were exciting, zooming, on-land space vehicles that were meant to propel us, wild dreams and all, into a happier, more regulated, more consistent, more resourceful future than the current one. While some of these ready-for-the-2000s concept vehicles might seem gaudy today, they held in their sleek interiors a vision of the next big thing: engines running on nuclear energy, front-swinging doors, radio-propelled cars, spacey vehicles pulled on highway tracks, and two-wheeled cars that wobbled on showroom floors. And unlike the quirky techno-babble of The Jetsons, which was full of wild ideas (even though some of them became reality), many of these were created by engineers and meant to be taken somewhat seriously.

Yesteryear's cars of today InfographicYesterday’s Concept Cars infographic

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The Road Ahead: Yesterday’s Concept Cars

A Retro Look at a Vision of the Future

Let’s look back at the gaudy, the wonderful, and the innovative visions of what cars could have looked like by 2000. WARNING: This may be upsetting because we didn’t live up to expectations.

Car Model Year Produced Description
GM Firebird II 1956 Envisioned as one of the first self-driving vehicles, this gas-turbine four-seater’s entire body was made of titanium. (It was supposed to be ready by 1976!)
Paul Arzens L’Oeuf Electrique 1942 The name of this little, three-wheeled electric car literally translates to “the electric egg.”
Ford Nucleon 1958 Could you imagine running a car on nuclear energy? This 3/8-scale mock-up demonstrated the potential. The cars in the Fallout video game series were based on the Nucleon.
Citroen Karin 1979 The strange, trapezoidal shape of the three-seated Karin stared in the 1980 Paris Motor Show and featured a centered driver.
Lincoln Futura 1955 Recognize it? That’s because this model was used as the Batmobile in the 1960s TV show.
Ford Gyron 1961 The wobbling, two-wheeled car was stabilized by gyroscopes.
ALFA 40-60 HP Aerodinamica 1914 The ambitiously spacious Aerodinamica had a cylinder head made of cast iron.
Ferrari 512 S Modulo 1970 Though you need to practically lie down in this UFO-like concept car, you can climb in with the sliding canopy door. Then, you’ll have a V12 engine to get you going.
The “Linrrican Wonder” 1925 This was a self-driving car directed via radio by another car. Harry Houdini impacted the already mixed success of the Houdina Radio Control Company by smashing up their offices because he didn’t like them using his name unlawfully (even though the lead engineer was named Houdina).
Dodge Deora 1965 This model with a weird shape and swing-style door had only one physical car made, but Mattel made thousands of the Hot Wheels version.
Fuller Dymaxion 1933 A dirigible for land, this three-wheeled disaster still provided a lasting impression due to its revolutionary rear-engine design.
Ford X-2000 1958 A 1950s dream of a far-flung future, this is what people thought cars (or space vehicles) would look like by the year 2000.
Dynasphere 1930 Inspired by a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, the electric version clocked in at 2.5 horsepower.
Bertone Lancia Stratos Zero 1970 Michael Jackson famously turned himself into this very low-riding car in the film Moonwalker.
GM Runabout 1964 This three-wheeled car starred in the World’s Fair. It impressed people, but they probably should have laid off the sexism in their promotional materials: “The three-wheeled Runabout will appeal especially to women because it was designed for shopping and other daily errands.”
Honda Fuya-Jo 1999 Built for the Japanese market, you were meant to be able to stand and dance in a club-like interior as you traveled to your next party.
Buick Century Cruiser 1969 This dream car was designed for automated highways. You’d slip in punch cards with predetermined routes, and the car would take you there. It also had an interior refrigerator and TV set.
Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion 2015 This concept car is completely autonomous, with a touchscreen interior and hybrid engine. It’s envisioned for the 2030s.

Are modern dreams really that different from older ones?


What’s notable isn’t that the designers of America’s past dreamed big (though they did dream big) but that their dreams weren’t that different from the dreams of today.

The fact that the car industry hasn’t changed much from 1956 to 2015 might be a bit disappointing.

Some retro-future dreams are only now becoming a reality, like the electric, self-driving car.

As early as the 1940s, an ugly little electric car was bopping around Paris. While it might not have been as safe or efficient as today’s Nissan Leaf or Tesla, it was still more than 60 years ahead of the game.

So was the GM Firebird series, envisioned as self-driving well before the Google car. Dreams of a self-driving car started as early as 1925, with the “Linrrican Wonder,” which operated via radio control from another vehicle. It was never a success (though we may have Harry Houdini to thank for that). Most visions of the self-driving dream had to do with creating highways with rails or magnetic mechanisms. Car companies and futurists dreamed of amazing highway designs that never quite got into production.

Other dreams of the future of the car industry were honestly really weird and never caught on.

With futurism, there’s always a quest to make things appear as cool as possible, but based on what that decade’s idea of cool is. Car companies always want to be able to say, “We’re so cool that literally no one else is doing what we’re doing.” The problem is that sometimes, no one else ever would or would even want to, a case in point being this horrible pyramid thing called the Karin.

The quest to be at the forefront led 1950s concept cars to look like spaceships and 1930s concept cars to look like dirigibles. There were obviously some misses in getting people interested and excited. (Watch this Fuya-jo ad and try not to laugh.)

Some gaudy missteps had a popular theme: Why not build a car that has three wheels, two wheels, or even one wheel? Vehicles on three or two wheels were often envisioned for women, for some reason. That being said, the Dynaspheres were awesome, and we need them today.

But other visions, while they might not have caught on, still are considered to be cool and interesting by car enthusiasts. For instance, bubble-tops never became common, but you’d be a fool to say that no one is obsessed with the Batmobile. Canopy doors are a terrible idea, but the Ferrari 512 S Modulo has had a profound impact on many designers’ imaginations. What worked versus what didn’t is only really subject to time and taste.

It’s easy to judge now, isn’t it?

But that’s probably because we don’t dare to dream very much today. Recent concept cars, even the most daring ones, aren’t that far off from reality. The Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion car, for instance, is sleek, fashionable, futuristic, and inspiring. But once you compare it to the GM Firebird, you realize how much we haven’t moved forward.

At that point, it still wasa great, big, beautiful tomorrow.” What has stunted our dreams?

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