10 Amazing Concept Cars of the 1950s and 1960s

There’s a lot of daydreaming going on these days. Dreams that the pandemic will quickly be quashed. Dreams that the nation, and the world, will quickly return to normal and we can start hanging around in restaurants and bars again, with no threat to our health or that of our neighbors’.

Whenever these dreams become reality again, we’ll get in our cars and SUVs, maybe go for a cruise, and top it off with a big feast with family and friends. Until then, let’s dream of driving a dream car (the ’50s and ’60s name for what are better-known as “concept cars”) on some dreamy outing. These are some the cars we want to drive to get us through, and out of, the pandemic…

  1. 1959-60 XP-74 Cadillac Cyclone

Built on a ’59 Cadillac chassis cut down to two-seat size and powered by a 325-hp, 429-cubic-inch V-8 pulled right off the assembly line, this late Motorama-era model drives like a real car (I was fortunate to drive it for a Motor Trend Classic story). The Cadillac Cyclone was designed at the end of Harley Earl’s tenure as General Motors’ first design chief, and introduced at the first Daytona 500 in 1960 by his replacement, Bill Mitchell, who later had the ’59 Cadillac high tailfins cut down. It features an early self-driving system, radar-sensing crash-avoidance, and a Jetson’s-style bubble top that seals driver, passenger, and the sliding doors in, with small openings on each door to pay tolls and the like-perfect for modern social distancing.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel like driving a powerful long-nose roadster with the top down, everywhere, making it a sort of devil-may-car antithesis of the Cadillac Cyclone. It was easily Chrysler Corporation design chief Virgil Exner’s cleanest design, and one of several Mopar dream cars of the period built by Italian carrozzeria Ghia, powered by a 170-horsepower, 276 cubic-inch Hemi V-8. The thing about this car is that car magazines of the time were anticipating series production as a sports car with Corvette-challenging performance and Ford Thunderbird-like luxury. Now part of the Bortz Auto Collection, I wrote for the Summer 2010 issue of Motor Trend Classic: “Its look suggests the sports car for the kind of guy who appreciates his dry martinis while relaxing in an Eames chair. The Mickey Spillane of ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ drove a Corvette; Peter Gunn would’ve bought a Falcon.”

Unveiled at the 2001 Tokyo Motor Show, where you could “race” it on the Playstations set up just outside the main halls of the Makumari Messe, the ugly little car was probably 25 years ahead of its time with its Sony-designed artificial intelligence software. It was capable of setting up shopping lists and running music videos. Its stool-like seats could spin, and the driver could change the color of its supplementary exterior LED lights, front and rear, to let other drivers know his or her mood. Red was for anger, yellow for happiness, and blue for sadness. The metal “tail” just below the rear window wagged a “thank you” at cars it passed. With a few software updates, perhaps the Toyota Pod could check your body temperature, and order food for limited-contact carryout at your favorite local restaurant.  

It’s reassuring to see Citroen, long relegated mostly to badge-engineered Peugeots for decades, breaking new automotive ground again. The company that gave us the Traction Avant, 2CV, and DS designed the 19_19 with full autonomy for “mental detox,” and a 100-kWh battery rated for 497 miles range on the always-optimistic European test cycle. With an electric motor rated at 590 pound-feet, 0-62 mph requires a reported 5 seconds, and there’s an electric drivetrain and suspension, a fully-glazed maximum aero cabin, and 30-inch wheels. As a sign of the times, the 19_19 premiered not at the Fall 2018 Paris Motor Show, but at the green technology show VivaTech in Paris last May.

Mazda “hopes” to produce this new RX-7-like rotary-powered sports car in 2020. Perhaps sooner, if you believe some automotive publications. If you believe the PR department, this concept was only a concept, and at best the obviously rear-wheel-drive RX-Vision would influence future front-wheel-drive Mazda6 designs. Mazda said the concept was powered by its new Skyactiv-R rotary engine, though the automaker never gave any specs on what that new Wankel was. Mazda has since hinted about an upcoming electric vehicle using a rotary engine as a range extender, but that too is likely proving too expensive for the small independent automaker. Best to dream of what could have been; a sleek sports car with this sheetmetal and whatever future Wankel your dream-engineer could cook up for under the long hood.

Collector Joe Bortz (see Chrysler Falcon, above) bought three concepts out of the Ford Motor Company collection recently, and a good case could be made for either of his other two new cars, the 2003 Mercury Messenger, which would have been a RWD replacement for the late-’90s Cougar, and the 2001 Lincoln Mk 9, a big, Gerry McGovern-designed RWD two-door luxury coupe. I picked the Libre, which was unveiled at the 1998 Chicago Auto Show just as the automaker was hitting its small-car stride, especially in Europe. The 2+2 Fiesta-based convertible featured two rear-hinged access doors, and an appealing red-and-crème leather and suede interior.

  1. 1954 Alfa Romeo Bertone BAT 7

Franco Scaglione and Nuccio Bertone began their exercise in developing pure aerodynamic designs with the Alfa Romeo BAT5 of 1953, which achieved a drag coefficient of 0.23 according to Hemmings. For me, the 1954 Alfa Romeo Bertone BAT 7 was the purest design, retaining the hidden headlamps, but through an extended nose for an even better aero number, 0.19. Built as a runner (typical of the time, which makes the Dream Cars of the ’50s and ’60s more desirable to me than later cars) with a 115-horsepower, 2.0-liter double-overhead cam four, the BAT 7 weighed just 2,200 pounds (200 pounds lighter than the 5) and reportedly could reach a top speed of 124 mph. The 1955 Alfa BAT 9 was the most production-ready of the three, with fixed headlamps and toned-down tailfins, but the 7 is the one I most want to drive. It is stark-raving gorgeous.

Okay, so this list is heavy on GM iron … er, iron and fiberglass, anyway. It’s tough to deny the primacy of the Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell studios, and three of 10 is still far short of The General’s U.S. market share up through the ’70s. Mitchell paid GM $1 for a test mule built for Chevy’s blunted 24 Hours of Le Mans attempt, and used it as the basis for the car that would predict the 1963-67 C2 Corvette, designed by Peter Brock and Larry Shinoda. Dick Thompson missed out on a podium finish in the Stingray Racer, powered by a 311-horsepower 283 cubic-inch Small Block, at Maryland Marlboro Raceway. Mitchell had a new fiberglass body built, with a passenger seat and Corvette badging. For those of us who find the all-too short-lived C2 the most desirable of front-engine Corvettes, this example, built four years earlier, is like a dream.

Of the many early ’50s GM Motorama concepts, only one became a production model: the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette. But Chevy was not the only GM car division to tinker with sports cars. There was the 1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special (with an Inline-8, as GM required divisions to use current production engines in most Motorama cars), the ’54 Oldsmobile F-88 and the 1953 Buick Wildcat I. Joe Bortz owns the Bonneville and Wildcat I, and yes, I’ve driven both, but my pick is the Wildcat II. The Wildcat I was a relaxed car, with a single bench seat and rear fender skirts, while the 1954 Buick Wildcat II was lower, smaller, and tighter, with a more C1 Corvette-like fiberglass body design and impossibly deep front fenders. The Wildcat II’s engine was a 220-horsepower version of Buick’s “nailhead” 322 cubic-inch V-8. You’d have to wait another year to get a small block V-8 in a C1 instead of the Stovebolt six.

From a design team led by Luc Donckerwolke and Sungyup Lee comes this 2018 New York International Auto Show electric sports car with a classic long hood, short deck, tight and sleek bubble top, and striking side-surfacing. It’s a front-engine, rear-drive sports car that looks like it could have a Jaguar or BMW inline six-cylinder up front—and it was also our Automobile Concept of the Year in 2019. The good news is that the Essentia is more than a design icon meant to elevate Genesis’ prestige. It’s also slated for production, perhaps as early as next year.

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