Cars on the catwalk

January 12, 2011

Every year at New York’s Fashion Week, models strut in dresses that are flamboyant, expensive and wildly impractical. The concept cars on display annually at the North American International Auto Show are the same, only made of metal rather than fabric.

Hardly anyone ever wears the dresses flashed during Fashion Week, except perhaps on television shows. Hardly anyone ever drives concept cars. Marketability is not the point. The point is to generate excitement about product lines, drawing buyers to department stores, or automobile showrooms, to purchase the sensible wares.

That the models standing next to the concept cars at the auto show are in some cases wearing attire from Fashion Week completes the circle nicely.

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There’s a fairly good chance, for instance, that you will never drive anything like the Nissan R.D/B.X concept car. If you do, wear red. (See above, and click on the image to view the slideshow of concept cars).

The Toyota RIN will not be parking in your neighborhood anytime soon. Probably you don’t even want “a steering wheel that senses the driver’s mood.”

The Renault Twizy? Square wheels went out with cave men.

And check the tires on the BMW Vision Efficient Dynamics concept car — they’d go flat at the first pothole. That’s assuming, of course, someone helped the driver get in to begin with.

Most concept cars are displayed at auto shows and then go straight to a company museum, if not into the shop to be dismantled. But crazy as many concept cars seem, sometimes they are trial runs for ideas that later prove practical.

The distinction of first concept car generally is granted to the 1938 Buick Y-Job, whose streamlining suggested the rockets that then existed only in the movies. World War II caused Detroit to convert almost entirely to war production. When the war ended, the styling lines of the Y-Job showed up, first, in the lamented 1948 Tucker, and then in mainstream Buick products of the 1950s.

Probably you’ve never heard of the 1978 Lancia Megagamma, an Italian concept car. It inspired the 1984 Dodge Caravan, which triggered the minivan craze. Half the vehicles that roar past in today’s suburbs owe a debt to the Megagamma.

Chevrolet’s Corvette was, in the 1950s, something of a loss leader for General Motors. The Corvette would draw men to showrooms. There they would gaze at the car and dream of driving one with a glamorous woman in the passenger seat. They would sigh wistfully and, if all worked as planned, buy an Impala.

Then along came the 1961 Mako Shark concept car, among the first “holy cow!” car designs. The Mako Shark drew substantial public interest, and helped start the spyzine tradition of car-buff magazines — blurry photographs of new models under testing, with tarps draped over some features. When the Mako Shark concept car came to market as the 1963 Stingray, it made the Corvette a commercial success.

My favorite concept car is the 1958 Ford Nucleon, announced as a nuclear-powered car. This was during the period when President Dwight Eisenhower advocated “atoms for peace” — using nuclear bombs to dig reservoirs for dams, or to blast through mountains for tunnels. That idea, well, let’s just say lacked traction.

The Nucleon was displayed by Ford at auto shows, but with a key component — the nuclear reactor — missing. Ford Motors still has the prototype in its corporate museum, if designing the appropriate miniature reactor interests you. Just try not to get into a collision, okay?

It will be five years before we know which of the concept cars at this year’s auto show prove to reflect practical ideas. But here’s some auto-show news that is already good: Ford says it will hire 7,000 people in 2011, mostly factory workers. Unlike General Motors and Chrysler, Ford took no federal bailout money. Its hiring initiative is strictly a free-market decision.

Rising factory employment sure puts me in a good mood. Hey baby, want to go for a spin in my Twizy?

Photo: Nissan’s concept car R.D/B.X.  REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

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