For decades, the entire automotive industry sat up and listened carefully when a friend or a foe announced a new concept car. They were wild, stylized machines built with a steady eye on the future. Design studies previewed forward-thinking design trends, upcoming tech, or a high-performance engine developed to leave the competition in the dust.
Automakers have recently become lazy in that regard, and these days concept cars are often little more than an upcoming production model decked out with cameras in lieu of door mirrors, big wheels, and shaved door handles. It’s unfortunate, but thankfully some brands still know which strings to pull to mesmerize us as we walk the floors of the world’s largest auto shows. Read on to learn more about some of the best concept cars of all time.
Volvo Venus Bilo (1933)
The 1938 Buick Y-Job is often credited as being the automotive industry’s first-ever concept car. That’s inaccurate; the honor goes to the Volvo Venus Bilo, which was built in 1933 to test the public’s reaction to a more aerodynamic look. Design elements like a full-width body, headlights integrated into the front fenders, and a curved grille helped it stand out from anything else on Swedish roads at the time. The Venus Bilo never reached production, but it influenced the PV36 Carioca launched in 1935.
You won’t find it in the company’s official museum. It somehow ended up in the hands of a scrapyard owner in Denmark who converted it into a pickup and used it as a work vehicle. Most historians agree it was destroyed before the end of the 1950s.
BMW Turbo (1972)
BMW’s hometown of Munich, Germany, hosted the 1972 Olympic Games. It was the ideal event to promote the company’s burgeoning lineup of sporty, driver-oriented coupes and sedans. The Turbo was built specifically to turn heads during the summer games.
While it looked like a German Ferrari, this sleek-looking BMW coupe shared quite a few components with the company’s 2002. It rode on a 2002 chassis modified to use a mid-mounted engine, and it received an evolution of the 2002’s four-cylinder. Performance was high enough to worry the Italians across the Alps, but BMW never approved the Turbo for production, and it remained a simple design study. The 1978 M1 put a different, straight-six spin on the idea of a BMW supercar while channeling many of the Turbo’s design cues.
Chevrolet AeroVette (1976)
Odds are you’ve heard the rumors that claim the next-generation Chevrolet Corvette will be mid-engined. They’re most likely accurate, but that’s a different story for a different time. We’re here to talk about how Chevrolet has toyed around with the idea of a mid-engined Corvette several times over the past few decades.
The 1973 Corvette 4-Rotor was a highly experimental coupe powered by a mid-mounted, double-rotary Wankel engine. Chevrolet engineers ran into the same issues with rotary technology as numerous other companies: the engine burned a jaw-dropping amount of fuel, and it wasn’t exactly reliable. The car was fitted with a V8 engine and renamed AeroVette in 1976, but the idea of a mid-engined Corvette was dropped altogether before the end of the 1980s.
Volvo Tundra (1979)
Before Volvo embarked on a design renaissance, it was known for building safe, reliable, and solid cars with a design best described as unadventurous. It tried changing that in 1979 when it asked Italian design house Bertone to draw a shapely family car aimed at a larger target audience. The sketches morphed into the Tundra concept, a two-door sedan with a fastback-like rear end. Volvo decided not to move forward with the project, but the Tundra inspired the Citroën BX introduced in 1982. The nameplate laid dormant until Toyota secured it in 1999.
Subaru F-624 Estremo (1987)
The family sedan of the year 2000 came to life through the Subaru F-624 Estremo concept. Under the outer space-esque design hid a continuously variable transmission (CVT), a four-wheel drive system with front/rear torque split, four-wheel steering, and a rear-view camera. The long, wide engine compartment was home to a twin-turbocharged flat-six engine. The F-624 Estremo didn’t progress beyond the concept stage, but a lot of its tech features trickled down to the Subaru lineup during the 1990s.
Chrysler Atlantic (1995)
The Chrysler Atlantic took the public by surprise when it broke cover in 1995. At the time, Chrysler was churning out LH platform-based sedans with a cab-forward design, so no one saw the enthusiast-baiting Atlantic coming. It took the form of an elegant, retro-inspired coupe that paid tribute to the Bugatti Atlantique. It used a 360-horsepower V8 engine. It never made it past the concept stage, but it became Chrysler’s halo car for a few years during the 1990s.
Bentley Hunaudières (1999)
When the Volkswagen Group purchased Bentley in 1998, executives from both companies made it clear they had big changes in store for the British brand. The Hunaudières concept illustrated one of the directions the company could take. It was a dramatic, low-slung coupe powered by an 8.0-liter 16-cylinder engine tuned to deliver 623 horsepower.
The Hunaudières’ never made the jump from the show floor to the showroom floor because it was deemed too extreme. Its exterior design loosely inspired the first-generation Continental GT, and the idea of a W16-powered supercar returned to the Volkswagen Group when Bugatti introduced the Veyron, one of the fastest cars in the world.
Lincoln Continental (2002)
Lincoln previewed what could have been a spectacular return to form with the 2002 Continental Concept. With long, flat fenders, a tall belt line, and suicide rear doors, it captured the essence of the 1960s Continental and put a modern twist on it. From a design standpoint, it had nothing to envy Germany’s usual suspects in the luxury sedan segment. The Continental Concept never reached production, and RM Auctions sold it in 2002.
Volkswagen Golf GTI W12-650 (2007)
The Volkswagen GTI has used a front-wheel drive, front-engine layout since its inception. The GTI W12-650 concept deviated from that formula by adopting a 650-horsepower W12 engine mounted in the space normally occupied by the rear seats. It was lower, lighter, and much wider than the standard GTI it started life as. Enthusiasts believed it would spawn a production model — likely an expensive, limited-edition car — but it remained a one-off. It’s often displayed in Volkswagen’s Zeithaus museum.
Toyota Kikai (2015)
The segment-defying Toyota Kikai broke cover at the 2015 Tokyo auto show. It exists at the intersection of hot rods, dune buggies, and wild concept cars, which is certainly a strange, unexpected place to be. And yet, it somehow works. Toyota presented the design study as a way to encourage motorists to embrace the mechanical complexity of a car, which explains why the Kikai puts a major emphasis on displaying drivetrain parts normally hidden in a car. Power comes from a gasoline-electric hybrid system, and the intricately designed interior offers space for three passengers.
Honda Urban EV (2017)
Honda’s Urban EV is the newest concept on this list. Introduced just a few weeks ago at the Frankfurt Auto Show, it’s a compact, city-friendly electric car with a retro-inspired design. Honda promises it will spawn a production model in 2019, though whether it will be sold in North America is up in the air. We hope so; we like the idea of a sporty electric car with sharp looks. Of course, we’d like it just as much if it received a Honda motorcycle engine with an 11,000-rpm redline.
Lamborghini Terzo Millennio (2017)
You would expect the combination of Lamborghini and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to produce a killer supercar, and the Lamborghini Terzo Millenio concept doesn’t disappoint. The aggressive, science fiction-esque design is just the tip of the iceberg here. The Terzo Millennio (a name that means “third millennium” in Italian) is powered by four electric motors that source electricity from supercapacitators, which store and dispense electricity faster than a conventional battery. The body is made out of a special type of carbon fiber that stores electricity and heals itself if it detects small cracks are forming.
Genesis Essentia (2018)
Entirely electric, the Genesis Essentia concept is a coupe that shows this luxury newcomer is capable of building desirable cars. It looks like nothing else Genesis currently makes. The standout design is more than skin-deep, too. The South Korean firm built the Essentia out of carbon fiber in order to keep weight in check. Multiple electric motors draw electricity from a lithium-ion battery pack to send the coupe from zero to 60 mph in three seconds flat. It’s unlikely that the Genesis Essentia concept will enter production, but we might see elements of it in future cars.