DETROIT -- In their day, the jaw-dropping looks of concept cars such as the Dodge Copperhead, Chrysler Atlantic and Plymouth Howler merited rock-star treatment at auto shows.
Concepts have traditionally been car designers' fantasies, loosely aimed at pointing to the future of motoring, but mostly intended to fire up buyer emotions for the brand at the shows.
For maximum impact, they typically burst onto stage through clouds of fake fog to the whump-whump of blasting music. Photographers mob them. "Swishers" -- attendants with cleaning gear -- keep them free of even a speck of dust or a fingerprint. Style mavens fixate on every curve.
Then, faster then you can say Fabio, they slip from the show circuit and auto magazine covers, displaced by newer, more cutting-edge concepts.
Today, however, in a more cynical age of downsized dreams and tight development budgets, the wild concept car -- auto show eye candy -- is becoming rarer.
At the big auto shows so far this year, here in Detroit last month and now in Chicago through Sunday, there still are "concepts" being unveiled, but few multimillion-dollar flights of fancy.
Today's "concepts" are more likely to be mere flashier interpretations of the showroom versions of models already green-lighted for production.
"We don't have the disposable cash to vent some of these out," laments Ralph Gilles, chief designer for Chrysler Group. "A lot of us on the design committee sort of miss the crazy days."
Examples of just how crazy those days could be can be found in a nondescript warehouse that Chrysler Group maintains in a rundown neighborhood here. Living out their old age inside are some of the best -- and worst -- concepts from an era when auto designers were free to let their imaginations go pedal-to-the-metal.
Today, however, designers for Chrysler and other automakers find themselves pushed to create concept cars that whisper -- or shout -- at the coming look of actual production vehicles, and fewer pure design exercises. As concepts, they may lack conventional door handles, have lower roofs held up by skinnier pillars than would pass crash testing and be fitted with fancier and more fanciful interiors, but they outline the basic car headed for production.
No wasted work
Designers say that while they miss the fun of outlandish concepts, at least they know their efforts these days won't disappear into a warehouse. More than ever, the ideas behind concept cars are headed soon to dealer showrooms.
"We always design these (concept) cars with the idea we want to use them in the future," said Kevin Hunter, president of Calty Design Research, Toyota's styling lab in Newport Beach, Calif.
His shop's latest creation, the Lexus LF-LC, made its debut last month at the Detroit show, officially the North American International Auto Show. LF-LC is a sleek luxury sports car with a long hood and low profile that looks relatively close to a car that would not be out of place as a midprice offering at a Lexus dealer. Among the concept touches were electronic doors that open without traditional handles, which could detract from the car's lines.
"Is there going to be a door handle? Yeah," said Calty designer Ian Cartabiano. But it if goes to production, "We're going to do our best to get it out looking like this."
His was a common refrain. Honda showed at the Detroit show an Accord concept and two Acura concepts, including its new NSX supercar concept -- all "near production."
General Motors had two entry-level sports car concepts that could easily go into a showroom. Ford is trying to revive its Lincoln division with an MKZ concept that's considered extremely close to the production 2013 model likely to appear at the New York Auto Show in April.
About the wildest car in the cavernous convention center was an off-road electric pickup concept from Smart, the minicar arm of Germany's Daimler, but even that idea wasn't terribly far-fetched.
Now concepts come second
In the past, designers put a crazy concept on the floor to gauge public reaction. If people liked it, a toned-down version could go into production.
Today's "concepts" frequently reverse that sequence. Automakers design the real car, then do a concept version. The concept is unveiled first to build excitement for the new model; then the less sexy, but more practical production car shows up.
The point now is to serve specific purposes. While some are simply precursors to actual cars, others showcase a new technology, such as a diesel or electric powerplant. And the crazier ones aim to build buzz for the brand or model. "Every concept has a strategic mission," says Ed Welburn, vice president of design for General Motors.
For the show here, GM created two rival practical but very different Chevrolet concepts of cars that would appeal to the youth market, with the intention of eventually putting one of them into production.
One concept was a traditional red-blooded Detroit rear-wheel drive compact. The other was an import-style, curvy front-wheel-drive small car. "We're gauging public reaction," Welburn says.
Ford global design chief J Mays^@ says he prefers concepts that eventually amount to a production car.
"When I got to Ford I was doing concepts that never saw the light of day," Mays says. "Inevitably, when you do a wild concept, but don't deliver on it, everyone is disappointed."
Example: He points to a brawny, Hummer-like concept for a Ford Bronco off-road SUV that generated buzz a few years ago but never went to production.
Now, he says, concepts rarely are done unless Ford can "make sure they are in line with the production plan."
Honda has become known lately for concept cars that are virtually identical to the production cars. They are even referred to as a "production bridge." The strategy runs the risk that rivals might try to copy a design, but the production versions tend to follow quickly, says Dave Marek, division director for auto design at Honda's research center in Pasadena, Calif.
Occasionally, Honda still will do a crazy concept, like the P-Nut of 2009, a bullet-shaped minicar with a glassed-in cockpit. Marek says it was worthwhile because of what was learned, and he liked the cool factor. "The (front roof) pillars came in like a jet fighter," Marek says.
Concepts' wild roots
Marek insists that such fun concepts won't go away entirely, having becoming such an ingrained part of the auto industry. "Harley Earl 101," he calls it, referring to the legendary General Motors design chief from the 1930s through 1950s.
More than anyone else, Earl made concept cars part of the automotive landscape. He drew inspiration from things such as early jet aircraft and rockets in creating a series of concepts with scoops, jet-nozzle exhausts and tail fins that captured America's optimism of the 1950s.
Others tried to raise the extremes: Ford came up with the Nucleon in 1958, a concept designed to be powered by a nuclear reactor. Chrysler conceived of a car propelled by a gas turbine engine, like those found in a jet aircraft, and built a few of them. One is in Chrysler's collection in the Detroit warehouse -- workers still routinely fire it up. Among others is one in Jay Leno's car collection.
Over the years, the mantle of having the hottest design house switched among automakers. By the 1990s, it had squarely landed at Chrysler, where chief designer Tom Gale unleashed a series of concepts that moved styling in a new direction.
Some were so wild that they were destined to be only design studies, like the sleek Atlantic. Others actually made it to production, like the retro hot-rod Prowler. The Howler is a Prowler knockoff concept that looks similar from the front, but had a pickup-style box in back.
Old concepts still inspire
Pride in the concept collection -- and a profit streak -- led to creation of the secret warehouse to house them. All of the famous 1990s concepts are jammed in, together with other significant models from Chrysler's history, such as Indianapolis 500 pace cars and old Jeeps and Ramblers from before it got the brands in the acquisition of American Motors.
Some concepts still live fairly active lives, trucked out for occasional display at the Walter P. Chrysler
Museum, which sits next to the company's headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., owners events or even an occasional movie placement. Others just sit collecting dust in dark corners. "There's some stuff that hasn't moved in years," says Brandt Rosenbusch, the manager of historical services who oversees the collection.
History is everywhere. The concepts that preceded Prowler, Dodge Charger, Chrysler Crossfire and the LX sedans of the 1990s all are here. "Concepts do make it to production. We have living examples of that," says Rosenbusch as he vigorously pulls back tarps to reveal the shining beauties underneath.
Chrysler design chief Gilles says he visits the warehouse for inspiration. The Jeep Jeepster concept, which he had a hand in designing, inspired a current model, the Jeep Liberty.
"In one place, you can see the heritage of the company," Gilles says. "I encourage my designers to go down there when they are stuck" for ideas.
Gilles, like other designers, says he never counts out a concept. Chrysler, for instance, tried out a more polarizing design concept for its famous minivan at the Detroit show this year, just to see how people would react.
GM's Welburn also says don't assume that just because a particular design seems wild that it won't get built. "Because we haven't done it in the past doesn't mean we wouldn't do it in the future."
By Chris Woodyard