Concept cars have always had a magnetic presence at auto shows as both a taste of what manufacturers are cooking up and a teaser of what might come to be. These hypothetical metal sculptures showcase sci-fi levels of technology, act as canvases for a designer’s dreams to come to life and allow engineers to find wild solutions to problems we didn’t even know we had. In some cases concept cars can be so ahead of their time that what they showcase doesn’t hit the road until years later, if at all.
That said, it’s sad to see a concept car steal the show only to never see it come to production. Sometimes it’s even more depressing when a show-stopper does hit the road — as a bastardization of the original idea. By the time many concept cars hit the road, their design has been watered down, or everything that was great about it has been picked apart by one committee after another.
Nowhere else in history is this truer than the “Malaise Era” of US-bound cars. Following the optimistic concepts and exotic, borderline pornographic sports cars of the ’60s, what eventually hit the road in the ’70s and ’80s didn’t stack up. The fuel crisis and tightening safety regulations certainly didn’t help. Like an automotive version of Where Are They Now? here are five concepts that showed so much promise but, once they hit the road, tanked harder than Jimmy Carter’s approval rating.
Sacrifice For Safety
1970 Firebird Concept – 1974 Pontiac Firebird
The 1970 Firebird Concept looked like it was going to usher in an era where you could actually tell the difference between Pontiac’s muscle car and the Camaro. And, with the Firebird nearing 400 horsepower in 1973, the relationship between design and performance looked promising as well. Instead, in 1974 safety regulations and the gas shortage meant the Firebird inflated to nearly two tons and was neutered with a 100 horsepower 4.1-liter inline-six base engine and a 5.7-liter V8 with only 215 horsepower. The mandatory “5 mph bumper” meant nothing resembling the Speed Racer Mach 5-esque front end would ever see the light of day, either. Photo: Alex Zagatoff
Watered Down Design
1981 Mazda MX-81 Aria by Bertone – 1988 Mazda 323 GTX
This is most certainly a case where the production car’s eventual looks let down the performance. The original concept by Bertone is a classic Italian design, which would have paired fantastically with the performance of the GTX, a turbocharged, AWD rally homologation special. Instead, what eventually hit the road was just another milquetoast-looking Japanese econobox (though it does get points for being a sleeper).
Bet Against The Market
1975 AMC Pacer Concept – 1979 AMC Pacer
The AMC Pacer attempted to introduce America to the small car, but failed miserably. America was still obsessed with large cars, so AMC promoted the Pacer as “the first wide small car,” pointing out that it was just as wide as every other full-size American car, just shorter. What went to production looked like nothing else on US roads — just for all the wrong reasons. The original concept’s massive greenhouse and cab-forward design was reminiscent of European concepts, but by the time it hit the road, the Pacer had become an eyesore. Had it stayed true to the original concept, it might have had a longer lifespan than just five years.
It Looked Great On Paper
1986 Pontiac Trans Sport Concept – 1994 Pontiac Trans Sport
Not all concept cars are low-slung, wedge-shaped exotics — regular people need sensible cars too. A wrap-around windshield, a nearly 360-degree greenhouse and an intriguing dash layout seemed to promise a different kind of motoring future for the suburban family — It even featured gullwing doors. The only thing the production Trans Sport shared with the concept was the silhouette — if you squint.
Very Lofty Ambitions
1983 Ford Probe IV Concept – 1991 Ford Probe GL
The Probe was destined for disaster the moment it was conceived. Which is a shame, because the original concept’s design didn’t deserve to be betrayed by Ford’s marketing team. Ford’s new sport compact was originally tasked with replacing the Mustang in America, armed with FWD and based on Mazda architecture. Unsurprisingly, the Probe immediately caught flak. Ford changed tunes about the Probe’s mission statement but still went ahead with production. Had Ford not sent the Probe out on a suicide mission or kept a little bit of that DeLorean look, maybe, just maybe Probe GL would be going for more than $750 nowadays.