Why Concept Cars Matter, Even if They Don’t Reach Production

The night before the Detroit Autoshow, DriverMod was invited to an industry event, creatively called “Main Event 2016”. At the time, this meant two things; we would get a chance to wear suit jackets and sell DriverMod to accomplished media folk, and we’d get to splurge on free food and Corona. What the night ended up being, was an education in the wild world of automotive design and concept cars. Important looking world renowned designers paced the room holding expensive glasses of wine, while design students listened attentively to their every word.

The night was a celebration of automotive design – the process of concept design and its slow, purposeful progression through to dealership floors. For the extremely talented engineering students and industry professionals we shared the space with, it was an opportunity to make connections and feast on free food and alcohol. For us, it was an opportunity to develop an understanding of the process that gives birth to jaw-dropping creations like the 2017 Ford GT as well as not-so-wonderful creations such as the Pontiac Aztec.

This starts with a concept car. Concept cars have never sat well with me because they almost never reach production, and those which do usually end up looking like watered down versions of the original vision So what’s the point if a concept never reaches production?

Essentially, it comes down to design language. Every automobile manufacture has their own “design language”. Imagine an Audi in your rearview mirror - its distinctive headlights, rounded shoulders and long grill; whether it’s a humble A4 or the ferocious R8, every Audi is distinctively Audi.  Good brands develop a design language that is as consistent as much as it is striking, but every decade or so a brand’s design language comes up for renewal.

Source: Audi

Concepts allow designers to flex their muscles; try new lines and ideas that completely conflict with the brand’s current identity. Concepts become the driving force behind evolutions in the brand. Think about the Ford Evos concept that dropped at the 2011 Frankfurt Autoshow. It was ridiculous. It was chunky, with gullwing doors integrated into the roof and nothing resembling it ended up hitting production, but design elements ended up in nearly every Ford from 2013 on. The “Aston Martin”-esque front end, squinty headlights, sculpted side panels, this single, wild concept car completely redesigned the entire Ford line up.

This might seem obvious, but I walked in to this festival of design with the attitude that engineers who designed the drivetrain and suspension geometry were the most important part of production, and designers were just the cherry on top. Truth be told, design might be the most important part of a car, because it’s tough sell a car if it looks awful even with stellar lap times.

2011 Ford Evos Concept. Source: TopSpeed.com

Where do these ideas come from? Literally anywhere. Animals, architecture, other cars; these designs are works of art. It starts with light sketches, which slowly begin to look like an actual car. Wheels and head lights are added over time, and eventually these sketches are formed into clay, and eventually built into a proper car. From there, the concept either makes its way towards production, like the BMW i8, or it gets chopped up and its ideas get used in other production cars, like the Ford Evos. Surprisingly, concepts like aerodynamics, wheel weights, engine height, or most importantly cost aren’t usually considered in the design process, which explains why so many concepts are slammed on 21” wheels. That explains why so many concepts become significantly less interesting once they hit production.

Next time you see a wild and outrageous concept like the Ford Evos concept, don’t chock it up as the work of doped up designers with no grasp on reality. Maybe it’ll hit production as some hyper-futuristic thing like the BMW i8 did, or maybe it’ll define the face of a brand for the next decade.