The idea of concept cars can be traced back to the 1930s and General Motors design chief Harley Earl. While some of these failed to make the transition from drawing board to road, others, such as the hybrids seen on the roads today, were more than just a futuristic fantasy.

WORDS Richard Webb

Nearly 60 years ago, Ford presented its ‘atomic reactor powered car’, the Nucleon. It would, theoretically, travel 8047 kilometres per charge of uranium. The concept wasn’t functional and was created only to showcase current and future thinking around mobility. Forty years ago, however, Toyota demonstrated its first hybrid car concept and we now see hybrid-powered vehicles on our roads in increasing numbers. So concept cars are important, whether to test the feasibility of new technologies or to provide useful feedback on public interest in new features.

Only one or two copies of each concept may ever be made. Even so, they often provide vital DNA for future cars. Many concept cars are not fully functional and those that are often make use of the drivetrains from existing production cars to keep costs down. Before the concept car goes into actual production, a fully working ‘production intent’ vehicle is built. Interestingly, 3D printing has helped to speed up and reduce the cost of these techniques.

Most concepts will never reach a local dealership, so I was curious about the main reasons carmakers decide to put concepts into production. I met Jaguar’s director of design in Paris, Ian Callum, and asked him about the company’s ‘performance crossover’ concept, the C-X17. “We received such an overwhelmingly positive response to the concept car last year that we just had to make it a reality. We need to show things we know we can deliver.” The British brand’s first production SUV – now named the Jaguar F-Pace – will go on sale in early 2016.

Thanks to concept cars, the motor vehicle is growing beyond its role as a means of transport and will ultimately become a mobile living space. The Mercedes-Benz F 015 ‘Luxury in Motion’, for example, suggests in the future customers will have the option to not drive at all. This self-driving car transforms the cabin into a personal retreat and could well be a forerunner of a coming mobility revolution, which could bring about major social changes. “Anyone who focuses solely on the technology has not yet grasped how autonomous driving will change our society,” says Dr Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes-Benz Cars.

The public’s fascination with concept cars endures. Since 1929, carmakers and wealthy enthusiasts from around the world attend the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este – a stately hotel on the shores of Lake Como in Cernobbio, Italy. This is the world’s finest automotive beauty pageant, but it also has a firm eye on the future. I attend the event regularly for South to review a few of the concepts and prototypes on show.

BMW’s tradition of unveiling concepts at the Concorso took another leap forward with its Hommage concept. Inspired by the 1970s BMW 3.0 CSL, this stunning coupe adds to BMW’s enviable back catalogue of concept cars. “Our Hommage cars demonstrate how proud we are of our heritage, but they also show how the past can help determine our future,” senior vice president BMW Design, Adrian van Hooydonk, told me. The Hommage uses carbon fibre-reinforced plastic, and power comes from a six-cylinder in-line engine with eBoost, which means it’s a hybrid. The chances of seeing the 3.0 CSL Hommage entering production are high, and I believe we’ll see many of those design features in future BMW Coupes.

The Mini Superleggera caused a bit of a stir at last year’s Concorso – challenging what people think a Mini should be. Mini designer Anders Warming said the interest was tremendous. “We are now working hard to get it on the street. It’s an economically challenging project and there is no firm decision, but we have a lot of people here who are fighting for it. I think it would be extremely good for the brand,” he explained.

If it does reach production, expect a front-wheel drive with the option of all-wheel-drive and possibly a plug-in-hybrid option using a turbo 1.5-litre four-cylinder driving the front wheels and an electric motor driving the rear wheels. I spent time in the Superleggera factory in Milan with CEO Piero Mancardi. “We are delighted that Mini wanted to stimulate an independent initiative, and particularly Italian design, for the first time,” he says. It’s no coincidence the concept Mini Superleggera was electric, because Mini is readying an EV (think baby BMW i8) for production.

At the opposite end of the scale, the Design Award for Concept Cars and Prototypes at the Concorso went to Bentley design director Luc Donkerwolke for the EXP 10 Speed 6. The concept shows the future direction of luxury and performance for the brand and is the most talked-about concept car in recent times. Gauging from the reaction by dealers, customers and the media, it may well go into production.

Ford is determined to keep company with the world’s most exotic supercars and its latest concept, the GT, is going into limited production to enable it to compete at Le Mans in 2016. It packs 447kW and utilises full carbon fibre construction. Active aerodynamic elements include a multi position rear wing similar to the McLaren P1 and LaFerrari to help keep Ford’s mid-engine supercar planted at speed. Power comes from a twin-turbocharged 3.5-litre EcoBoost V-6 engine. It’s an unmistakable shot across the bows of the big guns from Europe, like the twin turbocharged Ferrari 458 and second-generation Audi R8.

While these concepts have helped to significantly move the car business forward, it hasn’t always been this way. Take Franco Sbarro’s 1978 ‘Function Car’, for example. This six-wheeled rolling traffic violation was based on a stretched Cadillac Eldorado. Weighing in at more than three tons, it needed an 8.2 litre V8 to get the thing rolling. Happily, only one car was made before the project was abandoned.

Twenty-one years later, Rinspeed decided the world needed an amphibious car. So they gave us a bright yellow hovercraft carrier called ‘X-Trem Concept’. A crane located on the back loaded and unloaded its small hovercraft. Powered by a 5.5-litre V8 Mercedes-Benz engine, it was based on the first M-Class but had no doors or windows and had room for only two people.

Goofy concepts aside, powerful visions for a green, and shared, transportation future are being developed. The cars of the future will redefine ‘community’ as we know it.