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.
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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 was “a great, big, beautiful tomorrow.” What has stunted our dreams?