Before we cared about trees and not causing the earth to become a fiery, uninhabitable mass, the automotive world was fixated on creating concepts that pushed the limits of what’s possible on four wheels. Some companies still throw caution to the wind, such as Bugatti, Ferrari and Lamborghini, but most of the time you have to look back to see some of the most iconic machines ever designed.
We’ve rounded up 30 of our favourite experimental cars, from the very first concept car ever to 21st century automotive pin-ups – and just about everything in between. So – in no particular order – let’s get on with the show.
Built to achieve better aerodynamics than a jet fighter, named to sound like an uncomfortable medical procedure. Seriously, though, the Probe was a four-seater with a lower drag coefficient than any production car today. It also looked like it was hovering, from a certain angle.
alfa romeo caimano
A sportier version of the small Alfasud saloon, the Caimano offered great views of the sky and trees if you were inside it, and if you were outside it you got a great view of some people feeling uncomfortably hot inside their airless fishbowl of a car. It did look rather cool, but best driven at night.
ferrari 512 s modulo
In 1970, after a decade of increasingly bizarre concept designs, Ferrari decided to make a car that was almost completely flat – and as a result, almost completely impossible to drive. It is beauitfully aerodynamic, but very few people would actually be able to get inside the Modulo, let alone pilot it. Still, it’d look nice in the drive, until you accidentally parked on top of it.
Sculpted from carbon fibre, Kevlar, aluminium and pure, distilled madness, the Aztec is the height of ’80s automotive lunacy. The driver and passenger sit in separate cockpits, so if you want to have a conversation you need to use an intercom. Under the hood is a more conventional 250bhp Audi five-cyliner engine.
ItalDesign never intended to build the Aztec, but a Japanese multi-millionaire decided it was his kind of crazy and ordered 50 (they stopped after 18).
Leaving aside that dated background, it’s hard to tell the space-age Ford GT90 was first revealed to the world more than 17 years ago. Pumping out 720bhp from a quad-turbocharged V12, it could accelerate to 60mph in 3.1 seconds and up to 100mph in 6.2 seconds, before going onto a lightning top speed of 235mph. We’re talking Bugatti Veyron performance, but way before it even existed.
Because of the heat spewed out from the V12, the spiritual successor to the GT40 was said to use Space Shuttle ceramic tiles to keep the exhaust from melting body panels.
The BMW GINA – a rather torturous acronym for "Geometry and functions In ‘N’ Adaptations" – does away with traditional rigid body materials in favour of a man-made fabric skin that is durable, resilient and able to cope with high and low temperatures. The result is a car that can change shape thanks to a moveable frame.
Besides looking revolutionary, that spandex (we kid you not) exterior means the GINA can ‘grow’ itself a spoiler for high-speed cruising, and its headlights are revealed via a mechanism that looks like the opening of an eyelid.
Driving into the sea or a lake doesn’t have to be ruin your day. On the contrary, with the Volkswagen Aqua and its hovercraft-style air cushion, you can cruise across water, ice and snow and move seamlessly between any surfaces at up to 62mph.
The Aqua is even good for the environment because of its two hydrogen-powered motors – and that mahoosive front window ensures you won’t accidentally squish any family pets as you leave for work in the morning.
The Fiat Eye is definitely not the choice to go for if you are trying to attract the attentions of the opposite sex – partly because it only has one seat, but mainly because it looks like something from Tron. But this gyroscopically-balanced vehicle is actually quite sophisticated. Not only does it stay upright in the same way a Segway does, you control the Fiat Eye and all of its functions with your voice. Siri, eat your heart out.
We know you’ve always secretly dreamed about a car that looks reminiscent of a garden honey bee. What, you haven’t? Oh, this is awkward. Well this is what we’ve been waiting for, anyway – the Peugeot Honey-B.
This bizarre SUV-type vehicle is powered by hydrogen fuel cells, has four-wheel drive and steering and sports full panoramic windows so everyone can see just how cool you are as you drop your kids off at the hive. Sorry, school.
Buick Centurion Concept
Some cars just command attention and the Buick Centurion from 1956 is one eye-catching example. Taking design cues from the cockpit of an aeroplane, this bubble-top concept cuts through the air with ease, and its two-tone paintjob allows it to do so in style.
Although it probably has the turning circle of a P&O ferry, its 325bhp V8 engine meant it would be no slouch when pulling away from the lights, even if it did weigh nearly two tons.
Lamborghini Gallardo Concept S
Most twin-seaters like the Caterham R500s and Ultimas GTRs of this world tend to look a bit, well, nerdy. Not the Lamborghini Concept S. This 5-litre V10-powered concept, of which there are only two in existence, looks just as gutsy and inspiring as its Gallardo production brother.
At one point the tractor and supercar manufacturer decided to make 100 cars for the richest motoring enthusiasts, but later decided to keep the Gallardo Concept S as a style exercise only.
Audi Quattro Concept
Combining four-wheel drive with a turbocharged engine for the first time ever in motoring history, the original Audi Quattro inevitably became a bit of an icon, not to mention a rally king. Plus it looks tougher than Jason Statham.
Audi rightfully decided to celebrate the original Quattro’s 30th anniversary with the Audi Quattro concept, and was planning on selling between 200 and 500 cars. Sadly the concept – and its 2.5-litre turbocharged engine – were canned in 2012.
Lamborghini and family car are not words you would expect to see nestled together, but at one point the Italian manufacturer considered the idea. The Estoque, unveiled in 2008 at the Paris Motor Show, was a 4-door sedan powered by a 5.2-litre V10 engine.
Naturally, a car that could get your kids to school faster than just about everything on the road wasn’t going to come cheap, especially with that legendary raging bull adorning the front. If Lamborghini ever releases this car, which it probably won’t, expect a price tag of around $230,000.
The Scion brand was manufactured by Toyota – which decided to create something sporty with the help of ex-rival Subaru. The result was the Scion FR-S – a rear-wheel-drive gaze-magnet that looks cooler than Steve McQueen.
While the FR-S concept isn’t for sale, it did result in two almost identical cars with different badges, the Toyota GT 86 and the Subaru BRZ. You can get your paws on either for under £30,000. Send in the differences between the two cars on a postcard.
Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG E-Cell
Some concepts actually make it to production, and one example is the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG E-Cell. Based on the current fire-breathing SLS model, the E-Cell uses four electric motors instead of a gravity-defying V8.
The result is a more eco-friendly car that can get to 60mph in 4 seconds and then on to 155mph. Best of all, all those 525 ponies and 650lb/ft of torque are available from 4,000 revs. We’re less sure about the colour, though, which looks like the aftermath of beer and kebab night.
Mazda discontinued the oil-thirsty, twin-rotary RX-8 in 2011 (boo!) but the spirit will live on in the Mazda RX-9 (applause). This attractive, almost Jaguar-like concept, set to become a production car in 2013, packs a 300bhp twin-turbo, erm, diesel. Not quite as high-revving as its predecessor, then, but it’s still going to be rapid and a hell of a lot more eco-friendly than its predecessor.
Lotus Hot Wheels
Haters say that those who appreciate a good car never really grew up. If that’s the case, then we’re going to absolutely love the Lotus Hot Wheels concept from 2007. As a 1:5 scale model designed by Lotus for the toy car maker, unless you are incredibly short, you won’t be getting in it. Bit of a shame, that – the open-top two-seater missile wouldn’t look out of place with Tony Stark behind the wheel.
Turkey isn’t known for its car design, but maybe it should be with design talent on tap like Ugur Sahin, the chap who created the stunning Audi Locus. This mesmerising set of wheels is curvier than Kim Kardashian and has a behind that would shame Jennifer Lopez. Nature is meant to be the design theme, which is probably why those flowing lines are so easy on the eye. The car’s, not Kim’s.
Lamborghini Miura concept
Creating a modern version of what many petrolheads would say is one of the prettiest cars of all time was never going to be easy, but the Muira Concept – created to mark the original car’s 40th birthday – sure gets our pulse racing. Conceived by Lamborghini design chief Walter de Silva, the concept Muira body sits on top of the Murcielago supercar, making it as beautiful as it is deadly.
General Motors Firebird 1
Is it a plane? Is it a car? Actually it’s both rolled into one bizarre creation. The General Motors Firebird 1 comprises wheels strapped to what looks incredibly like a jet fighter with stubby wings. Don’t laugh back there – this was cutting edge back in 1953.
As what can only be described as a Thunderbirds toy, the Firebird 1 was actually created to see whether a gas turbine engine would be viable in the cars of the future. Obviously it wasn’t, but the 370hp experiment certainly raises a smile, even though it never took off.
It sounds like a nuclear experiment, and funnily enough, that’s exactly what the Ford Nucleon was. Although it was just a scale model, Ford wanted to show that you could in theory, based on scientific knowledge at the time, power a car with steam and uranium fission.
Ignoring the safety issues of crashing in a mobile nuclear bomb, the Ford Nucleon wasn’t such a mad idea given that nuclear power is relatively clean – well, except for the glowing green waste. Probably why Bethesda designers decided to include the car in the nuclear-scarred landscapes of Fallout 3.
What list of the best concept cars ever would be complete without the first? The Buick Y-Job – which sounds a bit sordid if you ask us – was unveiled in 1938, complete with electric windows and headlamps that could hide away. We’re talking revolutionary stuff at the time.
Because experimental cars were called ‘X’, designer Harley J. Earl decided to go one letter along in the alphabet, partly because he could do what he wanted but mainly because the term ‘Y’ pops up in the most advanced aviation prototypes, technically making it more badass.
Holden Monaro Coupe 60
While most car companies strive for efficiency, Aussie manufacturer Holden (known as Vauxhall in the UK, folks) likes to adopt the American Mantra of big engine, big smiles. Continuing the trend is the Holden Monaro Coupe 60. Built to celebrate sixty years of production, the Monaro Coupe 60 comes equipped with a monstrous V8, brutish looks and the ability to spend all of its time going sideways, thanks to all that rear-wheel drive torque. What’s not to like – except the tyre replacement costs?
Peugeot often makes supercar concepts, but we’ve never seen the French manufacturer actually make one we could all buy. But our hopes are high the Onyx makes it to the production phases – because it looks so sharp it could cut you in half.
A carbon fibre shell with a split paintjob surrounds a 3.7-litre V8 hybrid. Ignoring how dull the word hybrid sounds, this French missile developers 600bhp and it only weighs 1,100kg. That works out at 2kg of weight for every horse power. Imagine a horse dragging two bags of sugar. As you can imagine, it should leave your mate’s Citroen Saxo behind in a cloud of, erm, hybrid smoke.
Aston Martin AMV 10
Aston Martin doesn’t have a V10 engine to strap to its much-desired cars, but if it did, we are ever hopeful the AMV 10 would be the first car to showcase it. Because, let’s face it, it’s clearly a work of art. Whereas most offerings from the prestigious brand have indicate sophistication and power, the AMV 10 looks positively terrifying – like it would laugh as it wrapped you around a tree at 180mph.
Aston Martin’s One-77, so-called that because it’s only making 77 of the $1million car, may offer the same rear lights and a roaring V12, but it looks much less tame. Not that we would turn one down.
Corvette Stingray Concept
Remember Sideswipe from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen? Well, this is what the character transformed into – the Corvette Stingray Concept, built to celebrate 50 years of the Stingray model.
Combining style cues from the original car with modern elements such as scissor-style doors, a rear-view camera with night-vision and a hybrid engine, it sounds a little too refined to be the successor of an unruly 1950s V8. But then you see it has four large exhausts at the back and the most sinister rear lights a car has ever known, so equilibrium is restored.
Koenigsegg and Zonda, eat your hearts out. Mazda’s Furai race concept is incredibly striking, fast enough to leave your face behind and you could actually go and drive it – if you can persuade the Japanese manufacturer to let you.
It’s a fully-functional concept, which alone makes it special, but it’s the blue LED lighting that looks like a menacing smile we found ourselves most captivated by. Like a modern-day Knight Rider, only without the Hoff and a talking dashboard.
The 60s and 70s lay claim to some of the maddest concept cars ever, with more angles between them than a GCSE maths textbook. But what these wheels lacked in style, they more than made up with sheer power.
Mercedes-Benz and its C111 managed to take a 230bhp diesel up to 200mph in 1978, while averaging 14.7mpg at just under that speed over 12 hours. Not concent with breaking multiple speed records, a 500bhp V8 variant hit 250mph in 1979.
Enzo Ferrari, founder of Ferrari, said the Jaguar E-Type was the most beautiful car ever made, and that’s saying something when his name is attached to some magnificent Italian automotive finery. So naturally the idea of a remake induced a few sleepless nights.
Thankfully the E-Type ‘Growler’ (no, not that sort of growler) concept, now known as the Lyonheart K, is available to buy, if you can somehow get yourself on the waiting list. Honestly, you’d have more luck growing a third arm than becoming the owner of one. Still, we can dare to dream about owning what could easily be the second most beautiful car ever made.
Everything a concept car should be: mad, expensive, ludicrous and completely desirable.