Concept cars have always given us a glimpse of the future. Some of them might even make it to a showroom near you, says Richard Dredge

For more than half a century the dream makers have been hard at work, churning out dreams on wheels in an attempt to connect with that most fickle group of people - car buyers. The world of fashion comes and goes, and concept cars are merely another branch of fashion - one year it's huge wheels while the next it's suicide rear doors. But there's one thing that doesn't change, and that's the importance of the concept car.

For more than half a century the dream makers have been hard at work, churning out dreams on wheels in an attempt to connect with that most fickle group of people - car buyers. The world of fashion comes and goes, and concept cars are merely another branch of fashion - one year it's huge wheels while the next it's suicide rear doors. But there's one thing that doesn't change, and that's the importance of the concept car.

Few concepts ever make it into production, although elements of all of them eventually reach the showrooms - so the concept car is the perfect way of whipping the marketing departments up into a frenzy, in an attempt to oversell the vehicle. They can promise virtually anything - everybody knows they won't have to deliver because it's just an ideas car. Nobody will ever be able to buy it in the form shown. With that being the case you're probably wondering what the point is - but again, like any branch of the fashion world, it's all about pushing the boundaries. It's not until you've gone too far that you know just how far you can go, and while many concepts are hardly what you could call adventurous, there are some that are pretty challenging.

Paul Horrell summed it up very well when writing for Car magazine, when he declared that there are five reasons for concept cars, the first being to promote an Italian design house. And while concept cars are not exclusively an Italian preserve, they do account for more than most. The next reason is to soften the public for an impending production car while the third reason is just to create a distraction while churning out dull cars that do nothing for the company's image. Rejected design proposals and major shifts in a company's design direction are the final two reasons for a company producing a concept car - think about this and you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a concept that doesn't fit into one or other of these categories, and in some cases, more than one.

That was the case with what is generally acknowledged to be the first true concept car - the Buick Y Job of 1938 . Designed by Harley Earl of General Motors, this was a car which owed nothing to what had gone before - it was smooth, sleek, aerodynamic and impossibly stylish. Yet half a decade before Buick's creation was first seen, a test-bed from Volvo was shown. And although the company didn't officially appear as the creator, Volvo was instrumental in its creation. This concept was created by an independent coachbuilder using a Volvo PV653 chassis, and was known as the Venus Bilo. When it was unveiled in November 1933, Volvo claimed to have no involvement in the project, but it was later disclosed that the car had been built to test reactions to its advanced styling. As well as showing inspiration from contemporary aircraft design, interior space utilisation was also experimented with. Finished in bright blue with beige stripes, the Venus Bilo also examined the idea of removable panels which could be replaced in the event of an accident. Once on display the Venus Bilo drew a mixed reaction, and although the term concept car may not have been around then, that's exactly what the Venus Bilo was.

Throughout the 1950s there were various concepts produced in Europe, but whereas the cars on show at the American auto shows were pie-in-the-sky that were far removed from reality, the European cars were generally used as the basis for research. The 1970s marked the turning of the tables in terms of where the important concepts were being produced. European coachbuilders (almost exclusively Italian, such as Bertone, Zagato and Pininfarina) continued to rebody production cars as well as produce bespoke designs.

Concepts that gave a strong hint of an impending production model wasn't something that arrived until the 1980s, but it did become more common. Perhaps the most significant change of emphasis that occurred in the 1980s was the arrival of Japanese concept cars en masse from makers such as Mazda and Toyota. As Japanese companies developed electronics to the point where hugely complex equipment could reliably be installed in cars, concepts suddenly leapt forward. Now it was possible to fit liquid crystal displays and computer- controlled systems.

The good news is that it looks as though the concept car is here to stay. Each year there are as many motor shows around the world as there have ever been. Some that used to be less prominent - such as Detroit - are now some of the biggest in the calendar. That means they get their fair share of concepts both mild and wild, and many of those concepts are American once more. Although the US got back into the habit of building more concepts in the 1990s, many of them weren't especially ground-breaking, and it was the Japanese and Europeans that did the most interesting examples.

After more than 70 years since the introduction of the first concept car, things have certainly advanced. Not only did Volvo not even admit to being involved in that initial project, but the whole concept idea revolved around nothing more than an exterior design and a little bit of alternative packaging. Now we routinely see concepts with new methods of propulsion, new body styles, innovative transmissions and mind-bending levels of equipment. And long may it continue.

Extracted from Concept Cars by Richard Dredge, published by Silverdale Books at £19.99

PEUGEOT FELINE

Something that looked as radical as the Peugeot Feline of 2000 would never stand any chance of making it into even limited production, which was a tragedy as it was amazing looking. It could be transformed from a closed coupe into a fully open roadster and the roof removed altogether. It could even be driven with the doors open. Huge alloy wheels followed racing practice, retained by a single bolt. A vast bonnet disguised a relatively small (three-litre) engine

MERCEDES LIFEJET

The Mercedes-Benz F300 Lifejet was unveiled in 1997. It was essentially a three-wheeled motorbike with two seats set in tandem and a tilt control system and it drove much more like a conventional four-wheeled car, and was safer than a typical motorcycle. The 1.6 litre engine was borrowed form a mercedes-Benz A class and gave the trike a top speed of 132 mph. For a firm renowned for its conservative image, Mercedes pulled out all the stops with the F300 to produce a design as gloriously irrelevant as possible.

AUDI AVUS

Aluminium construction was a technique that few other makers were even considering when the Audi Avus was first seen in 1991. It was the British designer, Martin Smith, who was responsible for the look of the Avus, which was heavily inspired by the Auto Union racers of the 1930s. Avus was a famous Berlin race track of that time.

NISSAN YANYA

The Nissan Yanya was shown at Geneva two years ago and crossed the characteristics of an SUV with those of a city car, a pick-up and even a convertible. It sat very high on the road, helping to increase visibility, but it was also short, allowing it to be parked easily. An internet connection was provided for each of its occupants and was powered by a petrol engine/electric motor hybrid powerplant with a four- wheel-drive transmission. The interior was cleverly flexible and could be converted into a mobile living room

FORD INDIGO

At the 1996 Detroit show, Ford announced a design that was about performance above all else. Its mid-mounted V12 6 litre engine was two V6s stitched together and formed the basis for the later Aston Martin V12 unit; all aluminium with 48 valves and four overhead camshafts. Housing the headlamps on such a concept proved a bit of a nightmare - the solution was to make use of the wing mirrors and front aerofoil

PONTIAC STINGER

The Pontiac Stinger of 1989 was effectively an update of the beach buggies of the 1960s and 1970s. It featured all-wheel drive, carbon fibre body panels and, with the exception of the windscreen, removeable glass panels. The distinctive aerodynamic grey-and-green body could be transformed from two-door enclosed transportation to an open-air vehicle

RANGE STORMER

The Range Stormer was first shown at Detroit earlier this year. Whereas the original Range Rover had been a tough workhorse, this new car was about on-road driving pleasure. That is why it was fitted with 22inch low-profile tyres. The thin roof and narrow glass lends it a very tough look

CADILLAC SIXTEEN

One of the most outrageous concept cars ever produced, the Cadillac Sixteen was so-called because of its 13.6 litre V16 engine. Although the Cadillac Sixteen was big, its weight was well below that of many smaller production cars. It hid its bulk very well, with smooth lines and subtle curves.

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