They’re born on sketchpads, computer screens, and even on restaurant napkins. And only a few of those inspired renderings become actual concept cars. But those that manage to evolve from paper to 3-D virtual reality to clay modeling, eventually emerge — like social debutantes — as the shining stars of international auto shows.
Concept cars are the automotive version of museum-quality sculpture or couture fashion on the runway. Their designers — artists trained in the process of guiding ideas from abstract to metal — are responsible for creating visions that can determine auto executives’ billion-dollar decisions.
They also serve as vehicles for other purposes. Some concept cars are creative-license showcases with little practical constraint. Others are technology test beds that wrap jaw-dropping shapes around far-down-the-road engineering technology. Today, given the limited resources and budgets facing even the luxury automakers, concept cars serve the more practical role of testing media and public reaction to ideas and production vehicles that are not so far down the road.
Whether created for purposes practical or inspirational, the concept car is rooted in a kind of aesthetic purity that’s almost foreign to the production-line process that produces our personal transportation. “The shape of a vehicle is art,” says Edward Welburn Jr., General Motors Global Design vice president. “The challenge there is taking textures — some hard, some soft — and placing them next to each other in harmony. It has a strong influence on how you feel about it.”
Following are four concept cars — the production-intent Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln, and Buick, and a high-tech type from Chrysler — accompanied by perspectives from their design leaders that underscore Welburn’s words.
TECH TALK //
Car designers speak a language all their own.
Here’s a quick vocabulary lesson.
A design that mimics animal or human forms with muscle-like definition.
Proportions that command attention and suggest success and social distinction.
Forms that appear to have grown biologically, with surfaces that blend seamlessly.
Aggressive, intimidating, playful shapes with personality.
Lines and shapes that imply motion, a vehicle looking as if it’s ready to leap, for example.
When lines and surfaces suggest direction, like a fighter jet or an archer with a drawn bow.
Mercedes-Benz uses concepts to preview soon-to-come production cars. But only the striking new front and side designs on this creation forecast the 2009 mid-range E-Class that’s set to debut at the Detroit show this month.
“We wanted to illustrate the future face of Mercedes-Benz with this elegant and sporty study of a ‘shooting brake,’ ” says Steffen Kohl, M-B’s global head of advanced design. “Shooting brake” is ‘Euronese’ for station wagon, a body style that will not appear here for now.
It leads with an ultra-modern interpretation of the “four eyes” design that has graced E-Class Benzes since 1995. “We translated our current four-eyes face into the next generation’s design language,” Kohl says. “The grille is our traditional design from the SL reinterpreted in a new and very sporty way. The result is a unique front theme with sharp, crisp contours.”
Kohl says the side sports typical Mercedes-Benz proportions with a long hood and wide, stretched top. It’s a look he terms “athletic” and “forward.”
“All lines indicate extreme tension, typical of Mercedes-Benz coupes ever since the CLS,” he says. “And we have created a totally new and unique signature with a new rear fender that wraps around the side into the rear, creating a strong shoulder and a powerful stance.”
Kohl says Mercedes designers need the hand of an artist combined with an ability to work for industrial purposes. “All our work starts with pen on paper. Before our designers go into the computer, they take the paperwork and scan it, then start coloring and matching on-screen.”
The designers also need to think beyond the expected. And the results need to be competitive, able to take on rivals in-house and then internationally. Several designers from several studios compete. “We have both series and advanced design in Germany and studios in Tokyo, Italy, and California,” Kohl says. “The system of car design means that maybe 30 designers start on a project and, as in a tennis tournament, just one will get the prize in the end.”
Kohl says the Fascination’s swooping coupe-like roof will not be seen on a U.S. E-Class model, at least for now. “The roofline and the rear are very much related, and they are not so close to the upcoming car. We try everything out in conception, but that is not something we will show up with next year.”
“It started as a tiny sketch, a little bigger than two postage stamps,” says Greg Howell, Chrysler exterior design manager. “All my art starts that small, then grows into something larger, then into a clay sculpture.
“When the assignment came to do a car for 2020, we were given free rein, which doesn’t happen often. I tried to take the most simplistic and beautiful silhouette I possibly could, went through page after page of 8-1/2-by-11 paper, until I landed on a design I had done about seven years ago, a very simple one-box silhouette, like half of a football. What if I could draw that again but with a more modern, 2020 take on it?”
The result was aerodynamically clean, simple and elegant. “I started to imagine a truly blended form that would carry the air over it instead of plowing through it.”
Chrysler Design Vice President Ralph Gilles says if an auto design can stop you in your tracks and get you to walk around it, then it qualifies as art. “The thing about ecoVoyager,” he says, “is that the shape is beautiful, kind of sub-aquatic, because it’s so designed around the wind, and everywhere you look are these scrumptious details.” He says the taillamps, with their chrome surrounds, have a sculptural feel. And he cites other proud details: the dual-pane sunroof, the way the wipers park on the A-pillars and disappear.
“I’ll never forget at the [2008 Detroit] show, all these journalists taking it in,” Gilles says. “Usually they come up close and stare at everything, but some were standing back trying to behold it. It’s so different from anything we’ve done.”
While Chrysler’s other three examples preview soon-to-come production-car design, ecoVoyager is a technology concept, a pure electric car powered by a fuel cell. And one misconception about electric vehicles, Howell says, is that they don’t need cooling. “They do,” he says, “though not quite as much as a gas-engine vehicle.” For that purpose, they created a modern grille with a more efficient take on Chrysler’s egg-crate pattern, one designed to admit just the right amount of air while letting the rest go over the top.
This concept’s overall look is one that’s likely to appear on some future Chrysler models. “Let’s just say it’s a big hint … rethinking the automobile and what is a premium vehicle,” Gilles says. “It’s where we want to head.”
The Buick brand’s long-overdue design renaissance began with last year’s Enclave crossover, continued with last year’s gull-winged Riviera concept out of the company’s Shanghai studio, and matured with this mid-size sedan concept. It’s essentially the next production Buick LaCrosse, which will be featured at the Detroit Auto Show and will appear in showrooms soon afterward.
“In side view, it has this long, dominant line that comes off the styled headlamp, crosses over the front wheel, drops down toward the rear wheel, then hops back up and makes its way around the tail to continue along the other side,” says Dave Lyon, GM’s executive director of interior design for North America. “That line, the Buick ‘sweep spear,’ adds a ton of tension. It’s the right combination of straight and curved lines in tension with each other, like a crossbow drawn and ready to fire.”
Lyon says that even utility features can be styled. “You have to let air in to cool the car,” he says. “But the grille on this car is a beautiful piece of sculpture. The designers agonized over the sectioning of each blade, how it resolves itself at the top and bottom, and how the Buick logo sits comfortably within it.”
At the rear of the Invicta, the exhaust tips are integrated into the fascia, like jeweled portholes. “There’s chrome around the taillights, but it doesn’t look like extruded metal. Everything has a kind of thick-to-thin brush-stroke look,” he says. “All of the chrome looks like it was done with calligraphy, not with an extrusion machine.”
Inside, Lyon says, “the main gestural form of the interior starts with the door handles, sweeps up into the instrument panel, past the instrument cluster, and back down on the other side. There’s a beautiful piece of inlaid wood and a piece of chrome that tracks the same line. We’re using ambient light to do that same brush-strokes trick and at night, there’s ice-blue ambient light that tracks that same gestural line.”
Peter Horbury, executive director of design for Ford of the Americas, says the job of his team is to “sculpt forms into beautiful three-dimensional pieces.”
Often, they incorporate history into the design. In producing the Lincoln MKT concept, which debuted last year in Detroit, he says they picked elements from Lincoln’s heritage and presented them in a modern way. “The grille from the ’41 Continental translated into a double wing,” he says. “The completely clean side, apart from the badge, with this chamfered shoulder running down the side and over the rear wheel, is looking back to the beautiful Lincolns of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, where there was nothing there but a pure surface.”
Horbury says the C-pillar that cantilevers into the roof is another distinct Lincoln feature from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s through to the ’80s and ’90s. “The bustle back harks back to historic limousines from Rolls-Royce and others, very much the limo look presented in a modern way,” he says. “With the graceful, elegant line going down and back, it’s also rather like a beautiful sailing yacht of the past. The side-to-side taillamps are another strong Lincoln feature from decades ago that continued for many decades. The object is not to create a retro design out of these historic elements, but to bring them up to date.”
There are other sumptuous details befitting a high-end nameplate. “The interior door handle, and the engraving on it, is a work of art in itself,” Horbury says. “It doesn’t represent a driver-only design. Everyone travels first-class in this car. The executive jet is an icon for luxury, and we feel this car is almost that, and in some cases very much a substitute for that. It’s a long-distance tourer that could be used by business executives on the move. It’s fully equipped for mobile video conferencing, as well as families packing up and going to the beach.”
Along with flaunting design, Horbury says concepts offer great opportunities to test the market, to experiment in public with ideas that designers are thinking of pursuing into production. During the unveiling, Horbury says, they listen carefully to what people say — both the press and the public. “We get enormous feedback,” he says. “It’s expensive, but worth every dollar.”