Most supercars don’t give you the impression that any ‘holding back’ has taken place on part of the manufacturer. And yet, like all cars, they have to adhere to certain rules and regulations in car manufacturing, dictating proportions, design features, emissions and noise. Yes, a selection of government suits from around the world have decided, or will decide, that the way the Aston Martin Valkyrie looks, sounds and goes is perfectly legal for road use. Yet there are supercars that either didn’t make it to production, or just weren’t ever intended for it. Supercars unbound by the shackles of homologation: pure expressions of a designer’s artistic vision, an engineer’s fancy and a manufacturer’s hubris. We’re of course talking about supercar concepts. Let’s count down some of the very best.
The 12 best supercar concepts ever
We’re going to go chronologically because for as long as supercars have existed, there have been the flights of fancy that never made it to production. Starting with the Lamborghini Marzal. At its core, it’s sort of a sensible proposition. Take the V12 from the Miura, chop six cylinders off and the resulting 2.0-litre straight-six should be the perfect powerplant for a more affordable four-seater, right?
Wrong. The Marzal was born to be a concept and no more. A car to dominate the front pages of magazines come motorshow time, a four-wheeled advertising campaign. That’s almost exactly what Ferruccio Lamborghini described it as, saying its development as a one-off would cost a tenth of the kind of advertising and marketing costs he was facing but garner even more attention. The general silhouette lived on in the Espada, but the full glass doors, silver upholstery and honeycomb rear lid died with the Marzal. Or did they? After all, Ferruccio Lamborghini’s “throwaway car” is one of the all-time best-loved concepts yet made. As a PR stunt, mission accomplished...
Love Lamborghinis? Read our list: the eight best Lamborghini concepts
If it’s out of this world design you’re here for, we might be peaking too early with the Ferrari Modulo. This was a car to capture the atmosphere of the ‘70s. That was, one of defying convention. Pininfarina itself says it “breaks the fetters of the traditional stylistic language”. No arguments here. A full sliding canopy instead of doors, a padded cabin instead of seats, closed-in wheels – you could tell me it’s a car designed for interstellar travel and I’d believe you.
This thing could pack a two-stroke Vespa motor and still be the craziest supercar concept on this list. As it happens, it’s based on the platform of a 512S sports prototype and as such, comes with its 550PS (405kW) twelve-cylinder engine. In combination with the Modulo’s slippery shape, it’s claimed this thing could have hit 220mph – in 1970! This incredible one-off was recently sold by Pininfarina to Jim Glickenhaus who has since restored it to full working order. Good gracious...
If Ferraris tickle your pickle, have a read of our list of the seven best Ferrari concept cars
Aston Martin Bulldog
The Valkyrie wasn’t the first time Aston decided to set aside its tweed-jacketed loafer-wearing GT cars in favour of a supercar to put the company at risk and break records. Meet the Aston Martin Bulldog, built to flex the muscles of Aston’s newly-opened (in 1980) engineering facility in Newport Pagnell. There was a 25-car run planned, would you believe it, and it was intended to be the fastest, most advanced supercar in the world. The cost of such a project along with Aston’s familiar precarious financial situation lead incoming boss Victor Gauntlet to put the kibosh on that.
Wedge-shaped with gullwing doors, it should come as no surprise that this was a William Towns design. Still, with a twin-turbo 5.3-litre V8 good for 608PS (447kW) sat amidships, claims of a 237mph top speed are believable. The one Bulldog concept made was a demonstrator and did indeed manage 192mph in testing at MIRA. Following an extensive restoration recently, it’s just gone 162mph again in testing. Still, it’s definitely an example of why many of these cars never escaped the halls of international motor shows.
Read our list of the seven best Aston Martin concepts ever here.
Think the bods at Chevrolet just woke up one day and thought “yep, let’s make a mid-engined Corvette”? No, they’ve been vacillating over this for 60 years, with this incredible concept, the Corvette Indy, being just one of the past propositions for such a model. Far from the people’s supercar that today’s C8 is, the hypercar-esque Indy smacks of a 1980s Speedtail.
Why the Indy name? Well, it implies a great emphasis on speed but perhaps more directly pertinent is the fact it used an IndyCar engine. Yes really, a 2.65-litre twin-turbo IndyCar V8 sat amidships producing over 600PS (441kW). That svelte pebble-like bodywork is made of kevlar and carbon fibre, lacing a composite monocoque chassis. Crikey, this is sophisticated bleeding-edge hypercar stuff for the mid-1980s… Packing active suspension, all-wheel-drive and all-wheel-steering, Lotus were hired to develop and calibrate the advanced handling systems on the Indy. On the inside, it packed a rear-view camera, a navigation system and an advanced CRT monitor with which to display it. So impressed with the Indy were the GM suits that development continued with the more production-representative CERV III of 1990 – no less the eighth concept to explore the idea of a mid-engined Corvette. Come crunch time, the projected $300,000 showroom price scared the suits and the carefully curated curves of the Indy and CERV were relegated to the Corvette museum.
You might be tempted to hand the title of ultimate symbol of late 1980s excess to the Porsche 959 and Ferrari F40. Don’t. That goes to Peugeot of all companies, for the audacity of even considering building what would be the most advanced supercar in the world in 1989. Yes, Peugeot. It’s not so weird though, given the influence of Peugeot designer and hair-brained racer at the time, Gerard Welter, who penned this. Meet the Peugeot Oxia, named after the area on Mars where latitude and longitude meet at zero.
The Oxia borrowed its sophisticated twin-turbo 2.8-litre V6 from the P88 racer, fresh from its 253mph Le Mans speed record. In this installation, the engine was good for over 650PS (478kW) – mad numbers for 1989. That power was deployed and controlled via all-wheel-drive, four-wheel-steering and a sophisticated on-board computer. The cabin was fully realised, with high build quality, a luxurious design and material appointment and a generous level of technology, including the best air conditioning system at the time and a top-end hi-fi system. It even had sat-nav!
Development advanced to the point of two fully-functioning examples being created, costing the marque 8 million Francs at the time. The Oxia was tested up to a 216mph top speed, which had it gone into production, would have made it the world’s fastest car, at least until the McLaren F1 fully proved itself. Sadly, Peugeot didn’t fancy ‘pulling a Jaguar’ by putting its incredibly sophisticated and no doubt expensive hypercar into production right on the eve of a financial crash. Regardless, it remains one of the great supercar concepts.
Some of the very best supercar concepts come from design houses creating something and then straight-up propositioning a marque to see if they want to ‘take ownership’ of it. The mysterious BMW Nazca isn’t far off. Based on an earlier Bugatti concept by Italdesign, the Nazca went on to be shaped and aerodynamically tested in BMW wind tunnels for an impressive 0.26 coefficient of drag. The Nazca was the breakout design of one Fabrizio Giugiaro, just 26 years old at the time of its creation. He was responsible for the design of another concept supercar on this list and indeed, the production model it inspired.
So beloved was the Nazca that after some concept iterations, a teeny tiny production run of three cars was put out. Yes, three. Needless to say, some wealthy Middle Eastern benefactors are behind this astonishing car’s unlikely life beyond posters and motor shows. It packed an unfettered 5.0-litre V12 from the BMW 7 Series producing 300PS (221kW), making it a far cry from the units of a similar era that found their way into the McLaren F1.
A BMW fan? Read another one of our marvellous lists: the eight best BMW concept cars
That other concept supercar Fabrizio Giugiaro designed? Yup, the Lamborghini Cala and indeed, the Gallardo that would go into production eight years later. The Cala was as you can probably tell from looking at it, the 1995 Gallardo that never was, but was nevertheless not the first attempt Lamborghini made at a replacement model for the Jalpa. The Cala’s underpinning was shared closely with the P140 prototypes of the late 1980s, which also included the 4.0-litre 400PS (294kW) V10. Stylistically, they couldn’t be any more different, with the P140 presenting as a classic Gandini wedge (though with influences that did indeed carry through to the Gallardo) and the Cala an at-the-time alien curvaceous carbon form. Bold of Fabrizio to defy over 20 years of Gandini styling convention? Yes, but the Cala remains today one of the most distinctive Lamborghini concepts and indeed, one we’re sad didn’t see production.
Alas, both attempts at a Gallardo predecessor fell victim to the wisdom of incoming owners, Chrysler and latterly Volkswagen group. The swelling oil crisis of the early 1990s – a reason a good few of these cars never made it to production – killed the P140, while general financial concerns and the need to prioritise a Diablo replacement killed the Cala. No matter, as economies recovered and boomed in the mid-2000s and with the Murcielago on sale, the time was right in 2003 for a second-tier model in the spirit of the Cala and P140. As the Gallardo’s enormous success proves, they were the right cars at the wrong time.
Have a listen to the seven best sounding V10s of all time
Another tangential chapter in the history of the mid-engined Corvette is… a Cadillac? Not really. The absolutely jaw-dropped Cien was sort of its own thing, at the time part of the marque’s centenary celebrations. Fighter-inspired, it had the power to go toe to toe with a jet, packing a 7.5-litre V12 with 750PS (552kW). Designed and built in England, the Cien was brought to near production-representative life by legendary engineers and racers Prodrive. Sadly, GM never had any intention of producing the Cien, with its fate sealed from the beginning as a carbon-clad 100th birthday present and nothing more.
Would you believe this design came from the same mind that gave us the Isuzu Vehicross? Those straight edges entirely betrayed the doughy curves of the contemporary Corvette and indeed the Indy and CERV III mid-engined prototypes of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Rather, it gave a hint as to where Cadillac styling sensibilities would go in the future. What came were rule-edged four-door saloons but none carried the raw appeal of this styling ethos quite like the Cien.
Volkswagen W12 Nardo
We’ve spoken at length of the gratuitousness and lack of purpose of supercars, all the more exaggerated in these stillborn concepts, but as the Lamborghini we opened with proved few are totally without purpose. See, for the millennial generation of car enthusiasts, the Volkswagen W12 was proof that life isn’t always fair and that we don’t always get what we want. For Volkswagen at the time, it was a testbed and a poster car for what would become a very important engine. An engine that would go on to power most Bentleys ever made. An engine that would rival V12s from Mercedes and BMW in the flagship saloons of the Volkswagen Group. An engine that serves still, to this day, near-on 30 years on from its conceptualisation. The clue is in the name: W12. Yes, the Italdesign Giugiaro Sr-penned supercar concept of 1997 in which this engine was encased captured the hearts and minds of many but this car’s destiny was always to be a relatively unimportant vessel for a very important component.
For 2002, the W12 was developed into the endurance record-chasing fully-functioning 600PS-plus (441kW) Nardo supercar, breaking all speed class records covering 7,740km at an average speed of 200mph at the Nardo Ring. Again, all in service of that engine, proving its reliability. The big GTs and uber saloons got the engine a year later, the Bugatti Veyron moved forward as Volkswagen’s supercar flagship and with their duty done, the W12 concepts were confined to the annals of history and videogame and dream garages of a generation.
Chrysler ME Four-Twelve
Quite unlike the W12, which was never really considered for production, this thing came unbelievably close. Following Cadillac with the Cien (we like to think this was something of a response), the next American marque to develop delusions of European-esque supercar grandeur was Chrysler. For the most part, the story of this car very much betrays the usual tale of corporate reluctance.
A flex of Chrysler’s muscles following the Daimler merger, the styling model of 2003 was almost immediately ordered to be developed into a fully running prototype that the media would be allowed to drive. Develop it they did and the result was an 850PS-plus (625kW) supercar within a shout of a new production car speed record, courtesy of an AMG V12 with four turbochargers bolted on – hence the Four-Twelve name. The handling reportedly needed work but for a car that was turned from a motor show stand buck into a bristling supercar test bed inside a year, it was fast.
Yes, ultimately corporate quibbles killed it but the significant costs of getting it to production aren’t the whole story. See, with AMG power and a corporate tie with Mercedes, the Germans weren’t overly comfortable with a supercar coming from across the pond to best their own newly-revealed SLR by 220PS (162kW) and a further 40mph. Alas yes, the rumour is that the ME Four-Twelve died at the hands of a ‘can you not’ memo from Mercedes-Benz. We could have had a holy trinity of Mercedes-powered mid-2000s hypercars. Oh well.
Some concepts are PR stunts, some are test beds and some, like the Audi RSQ, are pure sci-fi fantasy and showbusiness fluff, with the slightest whiff of what was to come. ‘I, Robot’ is a fantastic movie, in which Will Smith is a first-class leading man. In among the stand-out supporting cast however, was the RSQ, made especially for this movie. Autonomous, with suicide doors and balls for wheels running on an incredible futuristic high-speed highway, the RSQ in I, Robot did exactly what any sci-fi car scene should do: make us as excited for the future as we are terrified of it.
Of course, a bespoke supercar for a sci-fi movie set in the 2030s won’t have been too much trouble for Audi in 2003. The marque was in the throws of bringing a real supercar to life, having previewed it with the Le Mans concept. Mingle a few thrown-out drawings with some high-concept stuff from the I, Robot writers room and hey presto, you have one of the great 2000s movie hero cars and an ample teaser of the sexy new supercar that would follow in just a couple of years. The dream.
Watch our video of the ten best Audi concept cars here
Porsche 919 Street
Top level endurance racing is these days just as implausible a place from which to derive a road car as the mood board for a sci-fi movie set in the distant future. Still, Porsche saw potential for the 919 LMP1 car to shed its racecar shackles and become a road-going hypercar. In terms of design, oh lord, it had us weak at the knees when they revealed it last year.
What Porsche were very quick to note upon the reveal of the 919 Street, was that this was a 2017 project that was canned long ago. Why? Getting the 919’s 900PS (662kW) powertrain – consisting of a highly-strung flat-four turbocharged engine and a hybrid system – reliable and clean enough for road use would have been a tall order. As would adapting the racer’s carbon tub. Reality is a tough pill to swallow, especially when the styling concept looks this good.
Watch why Porsche didn’t build the 919 Street here
Which concept supercar is your favourite?
Join our motorsport community
Get closer to motorsport at Goodwood! Join the GRRC Fellowship to be first in the queue for event tickets, to attend the GRRC-only Members' Meeting and to enjoy year-round, exclusive benefits.
Sign up for Motorsport news
Stay in the know with our newsletters that contain all the latest news, stories and event information.