Concept cars made cars cool and marketable.

They were rolling advertisements for Detroit’s styling and engineering cues—cues that often made it to the showroom floors.

Concept cars were outlandish experiments that pushed the envelope, so they were people magnets at car shows.

Jerry Sutherland

The concept car debuted in the 1930s with the 1938 Buick Y-job. This car rocked the automotive world thanks to legendary designer Harley Earl.

Earl was so proud of this 322-cubic-inch straight-8 powered, hidden headlight exercise in design, he made it his daily driver.

World War Two put passenger cars on the back burner at Detroit, but the Cadillac Interceptor started a new chapter of concept cars.

Harley Earl was not a fan—the Interceptor didn’t rock his world, but at least the concept car was back on the table at Detroit.

The 1953 Buick Wildcat was another big player in the concept car world—it was also a star at the GM Motorama road shows.

Corvette guys will recognize the taillights on the Wildcat, plus they’ll recognize the lines and the use of fiberglass on this spectacular Buick. Buick guys will recognize how much this car represented future styling cues on production cars.

Ford had its classic concept cars, but few would match the notoriety of the 1954 Lincoln Futura.

Batman fans will instantly spot the bones of TV’s Batmobile because George Barris had a short window to build a custom for the show–essentially Ford did 90% of the work on the car over ten years before the TV series debuted in 1966.

The Futura was already a 50s star on the big screen because it was in 1959’s movie ‘It started with a Kiss’ plus it made an appearance on TV’s ‘The Today Show’ in 1955.

Packard was on its way out in 1956, but it exited with one of the classiest concept cars ever built. The Packard Predictor represented the swan song for the company because Packard was absorbed by Studebaker.

Nevertheless, the Predictor set the tone for 50s space age style. It drew massive crowds wherever it went, so Packard exited in a blaze of glory.   

Virgil Exner was another legendary designer. He built another space age concept car—the 1957 Chrysler Diablo.

Exner had already introduced the spectacular Forward Look era at Chrysler, but the Diablo was another home run. The Diablo was enhanced and upgraded over the years, but by 1957 this car combined Italian style with the American space age.

Ford built an incredible concept car in 1962 called the Ford Seattle-lite XXI.  The car was built to 3/8 scale and displayed at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

This model was a mock-up of every hi-tech innovation on the horizon—up to and including nuclear fusion power. Some of them came true—like GPS and pushbutton electronic controls.

The 1964 Pontiac Banshee was another legendary concept car. John DeLorean was the man behind this incredible sports car prototype.

He was a visionary at GM, but GM thought this ‘Mustang fighter’ was more of threat to the Corvette, so the Banshee but the dust.

C3 Vette is written all over this Poncho, but the only thing Pontiac got out of the Banshee was the Gen 1 Firebird taillights. This car left hundreds of “What If?” questions in its wake.

That’s why concept cars were the rock stars at Detroit–they looked good, lived fast, and died young.          

Jerry Sutherland

BY: Jim Sutherland

Jim Sutherland is a veteran automotive writer whose work has been published by many major print and online publications. The list includes Calgary Herald, The Truth About Cars, Red Deer Advocate, RPM Magazine, Edmonton Journal, Montreal Gazette, Windsor Star, Vancouver Province, and Post Media Wheels Section.