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Concept cars have long history at Pebble Beach

Volkswagen Peanut: Concept Car at 2012 LA Auro Show.

Concept vehicles, sometimes with variant names like show cars, prototypes and dream cars, are made by manufacturers for two related reasons.

Car enthusiasts thrive on viewing new cars, the more outrageous the better. Carmakers also rely on concept cars to gauge the public interest in a new vehicle. Can it potentially advance from the bright lights of auto shows to dealership showrooms to public driveways?

General Motors designer Harley Earl is generally credited with inventing the first concept, the Buick Y-Job, in the late 1930s. Earl took his increasingly popular concept on the road in the 1950s in Motorama shows across the country.

The Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance was part of the early concept scene, too. When the event debuted in 1950 only new and concept cars where showcased. Fast-forward 64 years and concepts will again among the most popular areas of the show.

Smart concept car at LA Auto Show.
Smart concept car at LA Auto Show. Image by James Raia © 2012

“The Concours started in the early 1900s to celebrate the latest models, so the display of concept cars brings us full circle with our heritage in that respect,” said Sharon Button, Chairman of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. “The concepts bring our celebration from past to present to future.”

“We are not only honoring our automotive heritage, we are making automotive history today. I think concepts emphasize the design ideals and the technological advances that we honor on the Concours show field.”

The concept car idea can also include car designers’ visions so radical, they’re never actually made into a vehicle. If the design is outrageous or impractical, the concept might only be a drawing or a scaled model in clay. Some concepts are functional, but at speeds less than 10 mph or restricted in other ways.

This year, about 20 concept cars will be showcased at the Concours d’Elegance and related events. Organizers don’t reveal what cars will be shown, but if similar to the historical debut of other concepts at auto shows, spectators will gushingly approve.

“Designers and manufacturers spend years working to bring new models to market,” said Button. “When it’s time to share their creation with the public, they want to enjoy that wonderful moment when they finally get to unveil their creation.

“I think it must be a time of great excitement and joy for them. And we hope it is for the audience too. It is their opportunity to be part of history.”

Button recalled how Mercedes-Benz showcased its vintage cars and concepts a few years during Pebble Beach Auto Week. The carmaker celebrated its 125th anniversary with a retrospective of its vehicles. The display provided an ideal visual timeline.

“You could see how certain cars influenced others, how certain themes were emphasized, how the marque had built on its history over the years, bringing past into the present in new and wonderful ways,” said Button.

Two years ago, no concept car at the LA Auto Show attracted more attention than the wing-sprouting Smart Car created by controversial apparel designer Jeremy Scott. The wild little machine was nothing short of a fiberglass mythological creature on wheels.

“Concepts provide a glimpse into the future for vehicle design,” said Miles Johnson, a Hyundai spokesman. “They allow us to gauge customer and media reaction to future designs and design cues. Concepts allow us to introduce new ideas like eye-tracking technology and 3-D Gesture Recognition.”

Through the years, the Aston Martin Atom (the precursor to the DB1); the General Motors Le Sabre (it became a production car); the Ford Nucleon (nuclear-powered) and the Porsche 989 (a four-door sports car that became the current Panamera), are among the most noted concepts.

Some concepts remain legendary, some are forgotten and some evolve into vastly popular consumer cars.

“If they (the public) is like me, they want to see what is coming down the road—and they want to drive it,” said Button. “It’s great fun to see the cars that designers are dreaming up for our future, and to anticipate getting behind the wheel.”

Perhaps the most frustrating concept of concept cars is that most concept cars are destroyed. The concepts that remain are often sequestered in museums or storage. One exception was the 1954 Lincoln Futura. The unused but operational concept created by George Barris was stored for a decade in Hollywood.

Its “life” returned in 1966 when it became the Batmobile in Batman television series that debut in 1966 on ABC.

“You know, ever since we first began showing concept cars in the late 1980s, I don’t think there’s been a year when I haven’t been surprised by something on our concept lawn,” said Button. “Every year brings something new, and every year I find myself in awe of many designs by many different manufacturers. I’m always excited to see what designers have in store for our future driving pleasure.”

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