All bold ideas, relaunches and announcements for the car industry are previewed at an International Auto Show. The venues in Chicago, Tokyo, Geneva and Abu Dhabi get the biggest reveals and spark the imagination of millions through visits and reports. The concept cars are always a big draw. Some of the concept cars are outlandish. Sometimes having no noticeable door, windows or even wheels. Those cars are a way for a team of designers to come up with a glimpse into the far future. Where cars no longer run on fossil fuels but instead some sort of compact power source yet to be invented. Then there are the more practical concept designs. The cars that would more likely than not end up in production a few years down the line. They might be the ones that use LEDs in the displays, headlights and taillights rather than bulbs. Or they might offer some new shifting setup or wireless integration a decade before wifi catches on in homes. In some cases there are cars that split the idea between practical and pie-in-the-sky. Maybe someday these cars would come to pass and maybe they wouldn't, there was an even chance depending on the market and consumer trends.
The Viper was a fairly radical design for the early '90s but those that saw it had an immediate reaction. They could tell that there was tremendous potential with an actual production sports car. Dodge took the favorable public reaction and press coverage to heart and began unveiling their other concepts. The Viper as the star but it would have siblings that were more grounded. A less outlandish, and less powerful V6 version known as the Venom would appeal to budget minded speed junkies. A convertible roadster named the Copperhead also with a V6 but a bolder body shape would round out the trio. Favorable showings for these concept cars meant that they might actually make it to the street with just a few changes, mostly due to safety or emissions. The Venom and Copperhead were popular but Chrysler wanted to focus their budget on one supercar for Dodge and one radical design for Plymouth. The hot rod inspired Prowler was what Plymouth offered their richer customers. The Venom and Copperhead were wheeled back to one of the company warehouses once the go-ahead for the Viper and Prowler was given.
Visitors of the auto shows would show their approval, make comments to marketing teams and provide general feedback for the company. Car dealers, especially those that owned a fleet of dealerships would set up meetings with management and ask what the possibilities were of the cars actually getting produced. Every now and then millionaires and billionaires would touch base with the company executives and actually leave a blank check with them, letting them know that they were dead serious about buying the cars right off the assembly line and even buying the concept car for their own private collection. When the company was on the fence about a radical redesign they might invite the automotive press to a private unveiling before showing anything publicly. The receptions were often catered and featured the dignitaries that one would expect from a Formula-1 world championship. Sometimes they were held in an airport hangar or other venue far from competitor spies. By the end of the '90s the Dodge Viper was a certifiable hit and clearly showed that there was a strong interest in bringing the muscle cars back to the US consumer. Pontiac was considered the godfather of the movement and was eager to show that they too were developing something that would blow the minds of car fans as well. They invited a group of senior editors to the 1999 Detroit Auto Show for the unveiling of the GTO concept car. The reaction was less than stellar.
Aside from the "Orbit Orange" paint job from the classic 1969 GTO "Judge" there was little that made it look anything like a traditional GTO. The lines on the car, the stance, body style and overall shape were not legacy inspired at all. It certainly looked futuristic but not innovative like the Viper. The editors mentioned that the designer looked like the stereotypical nerd. Skinny and awkward with oversized glasses, somebody that you would expect to work at Microsoft rather than Plymouth. He wore a large racing jacket that seemed to hang on his lanky frame. When the car was unveiled the invited press could not wrap their heads around what they were looking at. They gathered that the designer did not know much about the history of cars but was an exceptional 3D modeler. They managed to get all of one question to the lead designer, to paraphrase they asked him what the connection was to the original GTO. He looked puzzled at the question. He responded that he wasn't aware that there was a GTO before his. The room fell dead silent and they say you could hear the eyes of the press roll to the back of their heads. An executive took the microphone and called off the press conference. The '99 concept GTO did the car show circuit as a radical design but not one planned for production after that day.
The difference between what Dodge did right and what Pontiac did wrong came down with who was leading the project. Carroll Shelby lent his insight as a race car driver, team owner and car designer. He knew production cars and super cars from around the world, what made most of them unique and what audiences were looking for. He may not have been a great illustrator but he certainly knew what worked. Pontiac went with an art school graduate, possibly from the top of his class. It did not matter that he seemed to know next to nothing about cars when asked to redesign an icon. Being a good designer had more to do than just being a good artist, knowing your subject and having insight also counted for a lot. Many artists outside of the industry have created modern interpretations of the GTO that would have undoubtedly won over the press more than the unveiled concept car.
There is a lot of give and take with concept cars. There can be a fine line between getting the concept right and missing the goal. In the next blog we will look at some other concept cars that made the cut and others that didn't.