Today, auto shows are filled with fancy concept cars; at this week's Geneva motor show, we found enough to pack an entire slideshow -- and still had plenty leftover that didn't make the cut. It's a way for designers to express themselves and engineers to showcase future technology. But perhaps more importantly, it's a way for automakers to test the water; gauge public (and media) interest and, if sufficient, put together a viable plan for the company's bean-counters to consider for actual production.
The history of the concept car stems back to 1938, when Buick revealed the Y-Job, shown here courtesy of bluto2000. Designed by Harley J. Earl, the concept was responsible for offering styling cues that graced Buicks well into the 1950s; even today the vertical waterfall grille can still be seen on current models.
Earl was in charge of a department called "The Art and Color Section," created in 1927 by Alfred Sloan. The idea was to "prepare consumers by measured steps for more radical changes in styling." But as the years rolled by, the emphasis turned to dazzling the public in one fell swoop, rather than progressively altering perception. Earl decided a "concept car," not designed for consumer production, might just be the answer.
Unlike today, in 1938 auto shows wouldn't display a "concept car" on its floors, leading Earl to use the Y-Job as his personal vehicle in order to gain the mass attention -- something he did until 1951. The design featured power-operated hidden headlamps, electric windows, flush door handles, a "bombsight" hood ornament and an electrically-operated convertible top. Many of its attributes inspired not only GM vehicles, but other manufacturers too.
In 1993, after undergoing restoration at the Henry Ford Museum, the car returned to the GM Design Center, where we can thank it for the outrageous concept cars it's since inspired, ensuring today's auto shows, like Geneva, remain wild, wacky and above all — memorable.