Concept cars point to a manufacturer’s vision of the future; sometimes a different future can emerge than imagined, but they remain fascinating artifacts nonetheless
Concept cars are often the unattainable supermodels of the automotive world. Manufacturers create them to gauge interest in a new technology or design idea, and they often have outlandish styling.
While some models are almost ready for production, others hastily cobbled together pieces of fiberglass and plastic are held together with tape and prayer. The best are usually somewhere in between these extremes, offering a glimpse into a potential future with enough working technology to give us hope that they will actually go into production.
Our list of the best concept cars of all time features an eclectic mix of vehicles, all of which have left an indelible mark on the automotive industry. Some because of the advanced technology they pioneered, others because of the crazy and daring designs that shaped the cars we see on the road today.
Our pick of the best prototype cars ever made are:
- Audi Le Mans concept (2003)
- BMW Nazca C2 (1991)
- Buick Y-track (1938)
- Cadillac Sixteen (2003)
- Ferrari Mythos (1989)
- Ford Nucleon (1957)
- Jaguar C-X75 (2010)
- Lamborghini Terzo Millennio (2017)
- Mercedes Vision CLS (2003)
- Renault Espace F1 (1995)
Audi Le Mans concept (2003)
Audi’s dominance of the Le Mans 24 Hours in the early 2000s led them to create a sports concept car to celebrate this fact – and gauge customer interest in a mid-engine sports car. The Audi Le Mans Quattro concept featured a 5.0-litre V10 engine and two turbochargers, delivering 602 horsepower to all four wheels. It seemed like nothing else Audi had produced until then.
Needless to say, the public loved it and in 2007 the Audi R8 was born. The road version had hardly changed from the concept, although it had a 4.2-litre naturally aspirated V8, with a V10 arriving a few years later. Now in its second generation, the Audi R8 produces up to 612 horsepower from its non-turbocharged 5.2-litre V10 engine and offers supercar performance for sports car money.
2. BMW Nazca M12 (1991)
The BMW Nazca M12 is what happens when German engineering and Italian design meet. The Nazca M12 was designed by Fabrizio Giugiaro (then only 26) of Italdesign and its stunning lines are inspired by Group C and Formula 1 race cars.
It featured a carbon fiber body, side windows with wing wings and a glass roof. BMW’s 295 hp 5.0-liter V12 engine was center-mounted. The prototypes of the Nazca C2 and C2 Spider arrived the following year and offered more power and performance. Unfortunately, this concept never made the leap to series production.
3. Buick Y Job (1938)
The grandfather of concept cars, the Buick Y-Job was arguably the first car built to showcase future technology and styling ideas. GM designer Harley Earl introduced radical concepts such as aerodynamic bodywork, hidden headlights and power windows.
The Y-Job was fully operational and Earl used it as his personal transport for years. It ushered in the concept car era and many of its features and ideas were incorporated into future GM models.
4. Cadillac Sixteen (2003)
Cadillac today may be all about luxury SUVs, but it has a rich history of creating opulent and decadent sedans, especially from the 1930s to the early 1970s. The Cadillac Sixteen was a futuristic concept car inspired by the lavish Cadillac V-16 of the 1930s.
The simply gargantuan 13.6-litre 1,000-horsepower 16-cylinder engine under the hood never made it into a street car, but many of the Cadillac Sixteen’s design ideas did.
5. Ferrari Mythos (1989)
The Mythos was a design study by styling house Pininfarina, built to evoke memories of classic Ferraris from the 1960s, but with a futuristic twist.
It borrowed the oily bits from the Ferrari Testarossa, which meant tucked a 390-horsepower 4.9-litre flat-12 behind the driver. This also meant it was fully drivable, the lightweight construction must have made it quite fast too. The original prototype was sold to a Japanese collector and the Sultan of Brunei commissioned two more cars to add to his rapidly growing collection.
6. Ford Nucleon (1957)
If you wanted a vision of the future in 1957, the Ford Nucleon wasn’t it. But you can’t blame Ford for toying with the idea that a car is powered by a uranium-powered nuclear reactor: after all, this was an era of huge scientific discoveries, and it saw automakers like Ford, Studebaker Packard, and Simcal toy with the idea of nuclear cars.
Chrysler assumed that, aside from the safety implications, a nuclear power plant that could power a car would weigh 36 tons, so the company took a different route and designed the jet engine Turbine car — 55 of which were actually built, 50 of which were built. lent to the public.
7. Jaguar C-X75 (2010)
The Jaguar C-X75 was to be a high-tech sports car, heralding the introduction of a hybrid-electric powerplant that would deliver stunning performance and impressive fuel economy. The concept car had four electric motors at each wheel, with two diesel-powered gas turbines charging the battery pack. Power was a claimed 778 horsepower.
Despite plans to build a limited number of road-going C-X75s (albeit with a less ambitious petrol-hybrid layout), only five development cars were built to these simpler specifications. While this mid-engine concept never made it into Jaguar showrooms, it did influence the design of models like the F-Type and I-Pace.
8. Lamborghini Terzo Millennio (2017)
The concept of Terzo Millenio (which means third millennium in Italian) was a collaboration between Lamborghini and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It featured a number of advanced concepts such as nanomaterial technology that could use the vehicle’s body panels as electrical storage devices and supercapacitors instead of batteries to power the four electric motors.
Now this is more of a purely futuristic concept than a functioning car, but some of these ideas are in development. Supercapacitor technology has actually been used in the very limited run Lamborghini Sian, and future Lambos are sure to benefit from the aerodynamics and electrical architecture showcased in the Terzo Millenio.
9. Mercedes Vision CLS (2003)
Some concept cars are more of a statement of intent than a whimsical glimpse into the distant future, the Mercedes Vision CLS was one such car. Fitted with the brand’s existing diesel engine and automatic gearbox, the Vision CLS had a sloping rear roofline that gave it a coupe-like silhouette.
This swoopy look turned what would otherwise be a traditional-looking E-Class sedan into an all-sports vehicle, and so the CLS was born. The CLS was not only a huge success, but also ushered in a new era of luxury fastback saloons with coupé profiling, such as the BMW 8 Series Gran Coupe and Audi A7.
10. Renault Espace F1 (1995)
Sometimes a concept car is nothing more than a crazy marketing exercise. The Renault Espace F1 is an example of this. When the family-friendly Espace MPV celebrated its first decade of production in 1994, Renault thought it appropriate to celebrate the occasion by installing its 1993 3.5-litre V10 Formula 1 engine in one. Top speed was increased from about 100 mph to a slightly faster 193 mph.
It was clear that some minor changes needed to be made, so the Espace got a completely new carbon fiber body and a thoroughly redesigned interior, as the engine was now mounted where the kids usually sat. With about 800 horsepower on tap, the use of racing seats with six-point seat belts and helmets for school rides was required. Unfortunately, Renault never produced a street-legal version.
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