Vintage Transportation | The Concept Car

The concept car

Project Y – Pinterest

During this series we’ve uncovered some fun moments in transportation history. From the groundbreaking cable cars to the voyages of the first hot air balloons,  mankind continually seeks new ways to convey itself. Typically the focus is on production and bringing these visions to life, but there is one creation that ignores all of these rules. The concept car is that drool-worthy achievement that ends up on a poster, it is the darling of the auto industry that promises futuristic performance and styling. From the moment Carl Benz’s motor car took its first spin on New Year’s Eve in 1879, engineers and designers sought a playground. They envisioned a creative space where ideas would be welcomed and imaginations would run free, unfettered from the harsh realities of industry and profit. Decades later, such a place would take shape…

Harley Earl was the original steward of this free-thinking community when he introduced the first concept car in 1939. This initial offering was technically a Buick, but it wasn’t even given a proper name. The car was part of a collaboration among the engineering and design departments and code-named Project Y. During a grueling 18 month period, these teams pushed the envelope of automotive technology. Harley, as the executive sponsor, took a personal interest in the endeavor. He was relentless in his pursuit of morphing high-end design with mechanical innovation. The number of trips the teams went back to the drawing board seemed endless, but after a flurry of dedicated effort the car rolled out of the warehouse and into the warm sun. The cost of this project was a cool $50,000 (nearly $1 million in today’s money) and while I can’t find data points to understand how material this investment was to the overall profit margin of the company, I think it’s fair to say the investment was significant!

The concept car

Chevy concept from 1963 – Pinterest

Putting the best and the brightest in one room meant Buick laid claim to many industry firsts. The list includes: power windows, power-operated soft top convertible, and retractable headlights. To a consumer in the 1930s these inventions must have felt like science fiction come to life. Introducing the public to Project Y was another part of Harley’s brilliant plan. Showcasing these conceptual vehicles at national auto conventions was the perfect testing ground, allowing the marketing department to gauge customer appetite for new features and looks.

Project Y took on the name “Buick Y-Job” for the 1939 New York Auto Show and the entire General Motors PR engine paved the way for its glittering debut. They created a 30 page booklet called Modes and Motors, which connected the creation of the Y-Job to other monumental human achievements such as the pyramids or the first cave paintings. Suddenly the consumer wasn’t just looking at a concept car, they were participating in an historical event! This heady narrative was adopted by other manufacturers who were keen to piggyback on Buick’s process. The formula worked and concept cars continue to inspire and “drive” the auto industry in new directions.

Check out this amazing database of concept car history!

Reviewing concept car pictures reveals another aspect to Harley’s original vision – the concept car was about so much more than just the automobile itself and its technological innovations or style advancements, it represented the hopes of that era. Looking at the 1961 Ford Gyron or the Seattle-Ite XXI from the following year, it’s easy to see the space age influence. The introduction of new materials and power sources capture the optimistic feeling of that time. Eight years later man would be on the moon and these cars reflect that race for scientific discovery. A decade later and you see that everything is sleek, almost razor-thin. It became all about power slicing through the air as society was becoming increasingly city-centric. Concept cars offer us a window into our cultural state of mind and serve as a catalyst for shifts in the industry. Not too shabby for what is essentially a one-off creation – proving that one idea can truly make a difference. Would the Tesla be as popular as it is today without the concept cars of yesteryear paving the way? Let us know your thoughts in the comments…


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