Concept cars point to a manufacturer’s vision of the future; sometimes a different future to the one imagined may transpire, but they remain fascinating artefacts nonetheless
Concept cars are often the unattainable supermodels of the motoring world. Manufacturers create them to gauge interest in a new technology or design idea, and they often featuring outlandish styling.
While some are near production-ready models, others are hastily cobbled together bits of fibreglass and plastic held together with tape and prayer. The best ones are usually somewhere between these extremes, offering a glimpse into a potential future with enough functioning tech to give us hope that they may actually go into production.
Our list of the best concept cars of all time features an eclectic mix of vehicles, all have left an indelible mark on the motor industry. Some for the advanced technology they pioneered, others for outrageous and daring designs that shaped the cars we see on the roads today.
Our pick of the best prototype cars ever made are:
- Audi Le Mans Concept (2003)
- BMW Nazca C2 (1991)
- Buick Y-Job (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 24 Hours of Le Mans in the early 2000s prompted them to create a sporty concept car to celebrate this fact – and to gauge customer interest in a mid-engined sports car. The Audi Le Mans Quattro concept featured a 5.0-litre V10 engine and two turbos, delivering 602hp to all four wheels it looked like nothing else Audi had produced up until that point.
Needless to say, the public loved it, and in 2007 the Audi R8 was born. The road-going version was hardly changed from the concept, although it featured a 4.2-litre naturally aspirated V8, with a V10 arriving a few years later. Now on its second generation, the Audi R8 produces up to 612hp 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 meets Italian design. The Nazca M12 was designed by Fabrizio Giugiaro (then just 26) of Italdesign and its stunning lines were inspired by Group C and Formula 1 race cars.
It featured a carbon fibre body, gullwing side windows and a glass roof. BMW’s 295hp 5.0-litre V12 engine was mounted in the middle. The Nazca C2 and C2 Spider prototypes arrived the following year, offering more power and performance. Unfortunately, this concept never made the leap to series production.
3. Buick Y-Job (1938)
The granddaddy of concept cars, the Buick Y-Job was arguably the first car built just to showcase future technology and styling ideas. GM designer Harley Earl introduced radical concepts like aerodynamic bodywork, concealed headlights and electric windows.
The Y-Job was fully operational, and Earl used it as his personal transport for years. It ushered in the age of the concept car, and many of its features and ideas were incorporated into future GM models.
4. Cadillac Sixteen (2003)
Cadillac may be all about luxurious SUVs these days, but it has a rich history creating opulent and decadent saloon cars, especially from the ‘30s to the early 1970s. The Cadillac Sixteen was a futuristic concept car drawing inspiration from the lavish Cadillac V-16 of the 1930s.
The simply gigantic 1,000hp 13.6-litre 16-cylinder engine under its bonnet never made it into any road-going cars, 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 touch.
It borrowed the oily bits from the Ferrari Testarossa, which meant that a 390hp 4.9-litre flat-12 was tucked away behind the driver. This also meant that it was fully driveable, its lightweight construction must have made it rather quick, too. The original prototype was sold to a Japanese collector, and the Sultan of Brunei commissioned two further cars to add to his burgeoning 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 of a car being powered by an uranium-fuelled nuclear reactor: this was, after all, an age of tremendous scientific discovery, and it saw car makers including Ford, Studebaker Packard and Simcal toy with the idea of nuclear cars.
Chrysler reckoned that aside from the safety implications, a nuclear power station capable of driving a car would weigh 36 tonnes, so that firm took a different route, designing the jet powered Turbine car – of which 55 were actually built, with 50 being 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 which would deliver shattering 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 output was a claimed 778hp.
Despite plans to build a limited number of road-legal C-X75’s (albeit with a less ambitious petrol-hybrid layout), just five development cars were built to these simpler specifications. While this mid-engined concept never made it to Jaguar showrooms, it influenced the design of models like the F-Type and I-Pace.
8. Lamborghini Terzo Millennio (2017)
The Terzo Millenio (meaning third millennium in Italian) concept was a joint collaboration between Lamborghini and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It incorporated some advanced concepts like 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 a pure futuristic concept than a functioning car, but some of these ideas are in development. Supercapacitor tech has actually been used in the very limited run Lamborghini Sian, and future Lambos will surely benefit from the aerodynamics and electric architecture showcased in the Terzo Millenio.
9. Mercedes Vision CLS (2003)
Some concept cars are more a statement of intent than a whimsical look into the far future, the Mercedes Vision CLS was one such car. Fitted with the marque’s existing diesel engine and automatic gearbox, the Vision CLS had a sloped rear roofline that gave it a coupe-like silhouette.
This swoopy look turned what would otherwise be a traditional looking E-Class saloon into an altogether sportier vehicle, and that is how the CLS was born. Not only was the CLS a great success, but it ushered in a new age of coupe-profiled luxury fastback saloons like 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 a case in point. With the family-friendly Espace MPV having celebrated its first decade of production in 1994, Renault thought it appropriate to mark the occasion by installing its 1993 3.5-litre V10 Formula 1 engine into one. Top speed was increased from around 100mph to a slightly swifter 193mph.
Clearly, some minor changes needed to be made, so the Espace got a completely new carbon fibre bodyshell and a thoroughly reengineered interior as the engine was now mounted where the kids usually sat. With around 800hp on tap, school runs required the use of racing seats with six-point harnesses, and helmets. Sadly, Renault never did produce a road-legal version.
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