GRR

The 14 best American concept cars

06th July 2022
Seán Ward

There have been some truly magnificent American concept cars over the years, so we decided to look back at a handful of the very best. Some had incredible powertrains, others were way ahead of their time while a few looked downright unbelievable. Here, then, are the best American concept cars.

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Chevrolet XP-122 – 1952

Now doesn’t this look familiar? Yes, the Chevrolet XP-122 is where the Corvette story began. One of the many concepts and prototypes that Chevrolet was working on in the hope of building a sportscar, the XP-122 was debuted at the General Motors Motorama of 1953, with the company boasting of the car’s “special 160 horsepower Chevrolet engine with three carburetors and a Powerglide Automatic transmission”. Once its show duties were over and Corvette C1 production was in full swing, it was retired from the frontline, returned to the engineering department, refurbished, painted red and then used as a company courtesy car. In 1956 and after 5,000 miles it was sold, and three years later it was sold again to a new owner for just $1,000. In the hands of its third owner, in 2003 it was restored back to its original 1953 show car condition. It’s hard to put into words just how significant this car is.

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Lincoln Futura – 1955

If you’re looking at this and wondering whether it would be suitable or not for a superhero, then the answer is an emphatic yes from us. Why? Because the Lincoln Futura was so cool that with only a few modifications and a new paint job it became the original Batmobile, a car that was splashed across TV screens globally with Adam West at the wheel in the TV series Batman in 1966. The Lincoln Futura was penned by leading Ford designers Bill Schmidt and John Najjar and was, essentially, a one-off Lincoln promotional car with a 368 V8 (6.0-litre) and a three-speed ‘Turbo Drive’ automatic gearbox. It debuted at the 1955 Chicago Auto Show, and elements of its form went on to be incorporated into future Lincoln and Ford models.

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Oldsmobile Golden Rocket – 1956

If you hadn’t already seen the car, and if you were somehow listening to these words rather then reading them, we could say ‘golden rocket’ to you and you’d get a pretty decent idea of what this car looks like. The Oldsmobile Golden Rocket is a two-seat, 324 V8 (5.3-litre) fibreglass-bodied concept built by Oldsmobile for the 1956 General Motors Motorama, and it was such a hit the company was still wheeling it out nearly two years later for the 1957 Paris Motor Show. With a design heavily inspired by rockets, at a time when the Space Race was picking up the pace, the vibrant paintwork of the rocket-shaped machine was paired with a vibrant blue and gold interior. It’s unbelievably cool, but sadly it has seemingly disappeared without a trace, with no documentation to show it still exists, but nothing within General Motors to prove it was crushed.

GM Firebird III – 1959

Yet another car to be launched at the General Motors Motorama show, this time in 1959, the Firebird III was the third of three concept cars inspired by the then relatively new world of fighter jets. It’s a wild-looking car, with some fantastically extravagant wings and a separate glass canopy for both the driver and passenger, presumably to make sure you’d be cooked all the way through when you made it to your destination. But if you think that’s all the Firebird III has in common with a fighter jet you’d be mistaken, as hidden under the bodywork was a ‘Whirlfire’ GT-305 gas turbine engine which, unlike the Firebird I, recirculated the exhaust gasses, meaning the exhaust itself produced 500 degrees centigrade less heat. There was even a dinky two-cylinder petrol engine to power the car’s hydraulics and other systems. It looks futuristic, even today, and one final fun fact for you: the Firebird cars would have been called Thunderbirds, were it not for Ford getting there first…

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GM Runabout – 1964

Another car from GM, but this is on a different scale… Paint it yellow and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the submarine Thunderbird 4 from the 1960s TV series, but no, this was a three-wheeled concept designed to make city life as simple as possible. The front wheel, for example, could turn through 180-degrees, making even the tightest of parking spaces a piece of cake. With seating for four, a sleek composite body and a front grille that looks like the mouth of a Hammerhead shark, the GM Runabout didn’t have a steering wheel, the driver operating the car with a pair of dials in a small control panel – at the time General Motors said that the “disappearing steering wheel is one likely future development”. It looks weird and the marketing behind it at reveal was poor to say the least, but the quite practical approach to making the most of a small car with that impressive front wheel steering system is something we rather like.

The ’60s were bonkers. Make sure you read our list of the best 1960s concept cars.

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Dodge Deora – 1967

Depending on how you look at it, this could be a front-engined, V8 Cheetah-esque sportscar with a huge bonnet, or a low-slung pick-up with a huge bed an no front-impact protection. Given which way the seats are pointing, it’s the latter. This is the Dodge Deora, and while every other concept car on this list was designed by a manufacturer, the Deora was created by brothers Mike and Larry Alexander for the 1967 Detroit Autorama. Based on the Dodge A100 pick-up, the brothers used a design from friend Harry Bentley Bradley, the designer of the very earliest Hot Wheels (the Deora was one of the first 16 Hot Wheels itself), to create the car you see here. While it might be badged Dodge, interestingly there are a number of Ford parts dotted around. The rear screen, for example, came from Ford, while the exhausts tips on the car’s flanks are the rear lights from a Mustang. The engine was from Mopar, a 2.8-litre straight-six mounted at the very front of the bed, making the Deora mid-engined. What a car.

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Chevrolet Aerovette – 1970

The first mid-engined Corvette, the C8, was unveiled in July 2019, a huge departure from the norm for Chevrolet who had kept the front-engined, rear-wheel-drive recipe the same for seven generations of one of the world’s most famous sportscars. But to say Chevrolet hadn’t considered a mid-engined 'Vette before then wouldn’t be entirely accurate, because back in the late 1960s the company came up with this, the Chevrolet Aerovette. John DeLorean, founder of DeLorean (shock) and the then Chevrolet General Manager, had asked engineers what a Corvette with a motor in the middle would look like, and so the XP-882 was born, with a 6.6-litre V8 sat just behind the driver and passenger, gullwing doors and an aluminium body. Sadly the project was scrapped (as was development of a rotary-engined version), but at least the C8 has reignited the Aerovette’s torch.

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Pontiac Trans Sport – 1986

You thought this list was all about sportscars, didn’t you? Well, you were wrong, because just look at this. Yes, it’s an MPV, yes, it has a spoiler, and yes, those are gullwing doors. This is the Pontiac Trans Sport Concept, and as you can see it’s unlike any other MPV. Quite apart from the fact it had huge, Tesla Model-X-style gullwing doors for passengers in the rear, the front doors were centre-hinged like those of a helicopter. On the inside there was a cathode ray tube instrument cluster, a head-up display, controls on the steering wheel and a computer, while the front passenger had a roll-out screen and keyboard. The 2.9-litre, 235PS (173kW) V6 engine was nothing special, but who cares when the car looks the way it does? And while General Motors used to destroy its old concept cars, that all ended in the early 1980s, so this car is tucked away safe and sound in the company’s heritage collection.

Love ‘80s concepts? Read our list of the best 1980s concept cars.

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Plymouth Voyager III – 1989

One minivan wasn’t enough. Well, if you can even call this a minivan anymore… Meet the Plymouth Voyager III, a machine that is both utterly stupid and completely brilliant at the same time. It is essentially two cars in one, with a dinky, 1.5-litre, three-seat hatchback at the front that connects up to a huge great cab with two rows of seats and its own 2.2-litre engine at the rear. You might wonder how the city car up front could possibly drive without its bum dragging along the ground when separated from the rear? Well actually it does have another set of wheels, hidden away when the two sections were docked, which would lower electronically when the vehicle separated. Does it make sense at all? Well the idea of not bringing an eight-seater into a city when you didn’t need to makes sense, so it is a nice idea, but maybe a mid-sized car would do for most people? As a concept though, we rather like it.

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Cadillac Sixteen – 2003

What you’re looking at is far from the most sophisticated car in the world, but wow is it impressive. This is the Cadillac Sixteen, and under that long, elegant, centre-hinged bonnet is a 13.6-litre W16 engine, an engine that could switch off either four or eight cylinders to improve fuel economy… to 19mpg. A nod to the Cadillac V-16 that launched in 1930, this road-going luxury yacht had 1,014PS (746kW), 1,356Nm (1,000lb ft) of torque and weighed a not insignificant 2,270kg. It also had a four-speed-automatic gearbox, which we can only imagine wasn’t very good, and with just two valves per cylinder it wasn’t exactly the most advanced engine. But still, a four-door waftmobile with a V16? It’s American extravagance at its very finest.

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Mercury Messenger – 2003

Mercury was the middle child of the Ford portfolio for more than 70 years, created to bridge the gap between Ford and Lincoln. Its plug was pulled in January 2011, and one of the last concept cars it created was the Mercury Messenger, a V8-powered sportscar. Revealed at the 2003 NAIAS in Detroit, Mercury designers went for a name that inspired the company name itself, as Mercury was the Roman god of messengers, translators and interpreters, the same god as Hermes in Greek mythology. The Messenger used a six-speed automatic gearbox (boo) and a 4.6-litre V8 (yay), with power going to the rear wheels, while the engine’s roar could be heard from some delightful stacked exhausts. The car was sold in 2010 for a very reasonable $52,250, or £36,486, not a lot for a one-off, manufacturer-constructed concept car.

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Chrysler ME Four-Twelve - 2004

Can you imagine if Chrysler had made this? If the project hadn’t been cancelled and the car went on sale, up against the likes of the Bugatti Veyron at the very top of the supercar pecking order? The ME Four-Twelve is one of the most impressive vehicles ever devised by Chrysler, so named because it had was mid-engined (ME) and used a quad-turbocharged V12 engine. With a carbon-fibre and aluminium honeycomb chassis, the ME Four-Twelve used a seven-speed double-clutch gearbox, was rear-wheel-drive and its 6.0-litre M120 engine from Mercedes produced a mighty 862PS (634kW). Two cars were built, one a show car and the other a fully-functioning prototype, with claimed performance of 0-62mph in 2.8 seconds and a top speed of 248mph. Incredible.

The ME Four-Twelve was wild. The other 11 cars on our list of the 12 best supercar concepts ever are pretty insane, too.

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Ford Shelby GR-1 – 2004

Carroll Shelby was a legend, so when Ford tried to reincarnate the Shelby Daytona it had to come up with something impressive. To our eyes it did, creating this, the Ford Shelby GR-1. Revealed to the world at the 2004 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, it had a 6.4-litre, 605PS (451kW) V10 up front, a six-speed manual gearbox in the middle and rear-wheel-drive at the back. Ford didn’t release any performance figures, but we’d be willing to bet the GR-1 wouldn’t have struggled to reach 190mph or more, the same as the original Daytona. Whether you love or hate the chrome bodywork, it covers what looks like a very pretty, very saleable performance car, but sadly the project came to nothing. Having said that, Superformance, based in Florida, announced in 2020 that a partnership had been made between it, Shelby American and Ford to build the car in extremely low production numbers. Legislation remains a hurdle, but with deposits taken the GR-1 might not be down and out just yet…

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Chrysler Firepower – 2005

If you’ve ever wondered what an American Jaguar F-Type would be like, look no further than the Chrysler Firepower from 2005. With underpinnings pinched from the Dodge Viper, the Firepower’s beautiful blue bodywork was draped over a 6.1-litre V8 with 425PS (317kW) going to the rear wheels via a five-speed automatic ‘box, enough to send it to 62mph in 4.5 seconds and on to a top speed of 174mph. The exterior design was taken on by Brian Nielander, the same man who crafted the ME Four-Twelve, which explains why this is so good looking. Sadly, despite Chrysler execs saying it was absolutely going into production, the Firepower didn’t make it. The world’s financial markets started to show signs of unrest, and those same executives were worried the Firepower would tread on the toes of other brands under the Chrysler umbrella.  

  • List

  • American

  • Concept cars

  • Lincoln

  • Plymouth

  • Ford

  • Dodge

  • Mercury

  • Shelby

  • Chrysler

  • General Motors

  • Cadillac

  • Pontiac

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