Great Concept Cars That Never Were and Some That Were

For decades, auto makers have turned the creative bent of their engineers and designers loose to dream up, and then build, the most advanced concept cars imaginable. Amazingly, some of the oldest ones are some of the best, and some of the newest are some of the dullest ... it all depends on how you look at it. Here's just a few ...

Let's start with the first one. The 1938 Buick Y Car, designed by the infamous Harley Earl who went on the design other historic GM car models. Wondering what to call the concept car, in the midst of some experimental vehicles (as they were called at the time), General Motors wanted it to be named something different. "Y" was (alphabetically anyway) after "X", so the Y Car is what it became. Hidden headlights, and a convertible top that recessed under a metal cover when the top was down, were two features that went on to be built decades later in cars of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries. Harley Earl was so enthralled with the car (even though the GM engineers went on to even better designs in subsequent years) that he continued to drive the Y Car around Detroit streets for years. Eventually it ended up in a warehouse where it was ignored for decades before being restored to its former glory.

Another 1939 concept car, the Aston Martin Atom body included aluminum panels that gave it a look of silver. The prototype spent time in French design museums before returning to England in 1985, decades later. It then took ten years to restore the Atom to the condition seen here.

In some ways the 1948 Gatso Roadster looked similar to the Aston Martin Atom built before the war, but was powered by a V-8 engine and a 6 speed gearbox. The odd third headlight in the center above the grill, the car eventually was built on a Ford chassis. At one point the model was called the Gatford, until Ford balked because in France it sold vehicles under the Matford name so the company changed the name to Gatso. Still, the look was unique.

Harley Earl's designer team gave Harley another concept car that he loved so much that he drove it around Detroit for years, much like he did the 1938 Buick Y. This one was the 1951 Buick LeSabre, modeled after the jet fighter plane and equipped with a gas and alcohol fuel system. Wilder yet, the convertible car was equpped with a rain sensor device that would raise the top if it started raining and the owner was away from the car. There was nothing else like it and Harley liked it that way. From time to time the car has reappeared at special auto shows and displays. A remarkable car.

And then there was the first Firebird, the 1954 Firebird I. It didn't even look like a car. More like a jet with wheels. It even had a canopy and wings! You have to figure that some GM design engineer took a ride in a jet and came back, downed a bottle of whiskey, and designed the car totally drunk! Not to be outdone, though, the advertising department then put together a great looking brochure too.
It was followed in the late 50's by the Firebird II and the Firebird III.

The first Firebird debuted at the 1953 Autorama show, and the II and III models followed in subsequent shows. Millions of people saw the designs and styling cues made their way into the late 50's and early 60's GM street cars. The Firebird's story, including details on its turbine engines, can be found here.

The 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt was intended to be an aluminum sportscar with a fully retractable hardtop that an electric motor retracted into the trunk when you pushed the "down" dashboard button. Unusual features included power windows and concealed headlamps (remember this was 1941). The Thunderbolt is believed to be the first concept car ever displayed to the public at large and six of them were actually built. Amazingly, they were all sold in 1941 and all six of them still survive. Subsequent concept cars usually lasted a year or so and were destroyed as a matter of routine.

The 1953 Alfa Bat 3 actually started out a year or so before when Italian designers started to work on what would end up as 3 vehicles that were actually built. The rear tapering design looked like its namesake. The 90 horsepower engine and five speed transmission could shoot the light bodied car up to 125 mph in short order and the front end design actually reduced airflow problems at high speed, just as it was designed to do.

No, it's not a Corvette. In 1955 Harley Earl's team did it again.
This time introducing a remarkable design for the time which was met with public ridicule, as just too "Buck Rogers." The Cadillac La Salle II was a four door hardtop sedan. Two hardtops and one convertible were built for the GM Motorama tour. Its unibody construction forecast a construction style that would not be mainstream for years to come. The "open" rear wheel design, however, was a flash in the pan. The two hardtops were destroyed but the convertible was found in a junkyard in the 1990s and restored.

You just never know what you might find in that back lot. Hundreds of prototype and concept cars have literally disappeared over the years, most thought to have been scrapped.

For a list of the prototype, concept and show cars that have appeared at auto shows over the years, click here. The history of concept cars shows the remarkable designs that the best engineers and designers have dreamed up over the years. Most concept cars never get beyond the drawing board. Some get to the clay stage. A few actually get built and appear at auto shows. Still, many of their novel "bells and whistles" end up on the cars you and I buy every year.

For more concept cars, like the Mercedes Bionic, click here.


There's a New Sheriff in Town

Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Magistrate Judge Nadine Ballard has been picked by newly elected Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann to head the state's Consumer Protection Section. There could not have been a better choice made for this critically important position.

Magistrate Judge Ballard has a remarkable record of public service and, quite frankly, she knows more about Consumer Law than probably anyone in the whole state. Better yet, she has a strong history of working to protect Ohio consumers. She has spent nearly 15 years as a Magistrate Judge for Montgomery County Common Pleas Court, handling thousands of cases, so her "real life" experience is one thing no one can doubt.

She has seen the best of business practices and the victims of the worst of business practices. She knows how to handle this job better than anyone else. She is both a perfect choice and a logical choice.

She graduated in 1977 from Michigan State University with a Public Affairs Management degree, concentrating in Consumerism. She then started law school and graduated in 1980 and went to work as an Assistant Attorney General in Bill Brown's Consumer Protection office, what was known as one of the more consumer protectionist administrations ever to sit in the AG's office. She then spent 7 years for the UAW Legal Services Plan, again concentrating on Consumer Law litigation before going on the Montgomery County bench.

A frequent trial practice teacher at University of Dayton's School of Law, she currently teaches Consumer Law at Sinclair community College part time and is the co-author of Ohio Consumer Law, the "Bible" of Consumer Law for Ohio attorneys. In spite of a busy professional and personal life, she remained active in professional organizations too.

Magistrate Judge Ballard will bring a breath of fresh air to Consumer Protection in Ohio, one that hasn't been seen in Columbus for over a decade. Her local influence and professional reputation was built from her years of experience and hard work on behalf of the legal system, consumers and businesses alike.

The bad news for Montgomery County? She won't be there. The good news for the new Attorney General of Ohio? She'll be there. We are confident that no better person exists for the job to be done. Some great appointments have been made by Marc Dann, but this appointment of Nadine Ballard is terrific!

To top it off, she starts her new job on February 5, the start of National Consumer Protection Week. Perfect timing!

Hilarious New Car Review

There are honest new car reviews and then there are really honest new car reviews. Leave it to the British to know the difference.

While in an airport lounge recently, desperate for something to read for the two hours between flights, I picked up a copy of the London Sunday Times (December 31st) and found Jeremy Clarkson's review of the new BMW Z4-M. Now here's a guy who knows how to be honest. The article was informative, sure, but he peppered it with pithy one liners that were hilariously frank. Refreshingly so, too. We're not talking Car and Driver here, folks.

Clarkson heaps praise where it's deserved, contrasting California test drives of the BMW with the Viper and Corvette (and other sportscars) with the Beemer succinctly: "Out there in the desert, it was a sniper's rifle in a field of howitzers and mortars." Or when he compares braking, "Lots of cars, for instance, are fitted with antilock brakes, but the system fitted to a BMW is just better."

Clarkson praises BMW brand for the driving machine it is, but then he turns his attention to the 3-series model and he really gets fun with his words. "The last one I drove was more dreary than shopping for bathroom cleaning products."

Styling? " still looks dull. You'd only really want to get inside it if you were being chased by an armed gang..." "And then, when you did get inside, you'd want to get right back out again."

And the interior? "It's as dull and as featurelss as the inside of a Cheeky Girl's head."

But it's not all poking fun at the misnomered 335 model, like when he turns to comment on the engine with "This engine is little short of a masterpiece," followed by a a paragraph of praise for its acceleration abilities. This guy knows what he likes. And what he does not. He makes it clear that as much as he loves the Beemer, "I still wouldn't buy one. You need to think of it as a painting by the world's greatest artist. Yes, the brush strokes are magnificent. Yes, the texture is superb. Yes, the perspective is world class and the detailing is better than you'd get from Leonardo."

Then Clarkson delivers his best line in the entire article. "But what he's actually painted in this case is a big dog turd." Now that's a candid remark the likes of which you won't see in any American new car review anywhere. And it harkens right back to the title of the entire article, which caused me to start reading it: "It's damn clever, for a dog."

One thing is clear from Clarkson's BMW review. He's torn between all the reasons he doesn't like some Beemers and all the reasons he just loves most of them. Still, Clarkson's writing style is sure to keep you interested and entertained. You can read more of his reviews at

Not all of the cars that he writes about are even available in the US, but when you read a Clarkson review, that's not important. I get the feeling that if Clarkson test drove a lemon, he'd call it that no matter who built it and no matter how highly polished it looked. And if you ever got him started on secret car warranties, look out!


Hot & Wild Cars at the Detroit Auto Show 2007

The Chevrolet Volt, the electric car that'll go 640 miles on a battery charge, was unveiled at the auto show this year. With "wow" looks and a terrific range, this is one car that I'd love to have in my garage!

Jaguar's $82k XK convertible. The only thing that hold this car back is the electronics that are programmed to keep the max speed to 155 mph. If you want to go faster than that, you really should be sitting in an airplane anyway.

With a v-10 engine and all wheel drive, the Acura Advanced Sports Car replaces the NSX in the Acura lineup. The hoodline seems to come from Corvette, but there's no doubt about the engine and performance being all Acura, lock stock and barrel.

The Changfeng Rhombus is, to put it mildly, unusual in every way --- design, wheel placement and color too. Yes, that is orange, one wheel in front, two in the middle, and one wheel in the back. Oh yeah, and it seats 5. From China, they have big plans and certainly an unusual product too.

And then there's Ford's Airstream, proclaimed by many as the most futuristic looking vehicle in the building. The prototype is Ford's idea of what an SUV or minivan (or maybe a combination of the two?) could look like in the future. A lounge-looking interior hides the electric propulsion system, which uses a hydrogen fuel cell to recharge its batteries. That that's a wild Rv.

Another gas or ethanol one from the wild bunch, Mazda's Ryuga has a wierd name to go with its gull wing doors and "floating" roofline. I don't know whether to say "something's up" or just "zoom zoom"...

If you haven'Align Centert been there yet, the North American International Auto Show in Detroit runs from January 13 to 21, 2007. For $12 you get to see several million dollars worth of the best looking iron on the planet. It's a great deal. After all, where else can you see georgous cars and trucks from the best car brains around.

Let's just hope what they build out of this show, energizes the Detroit economy, the auto industry, and the quality that goes in avoids the Lemon Law coming out.