Concept cars: What’s the point? What happens to them?

Image of Neil Thomason
Author: | Updated: 28 Jun 2019 15:56

It’s safe to say concept cars are some of the things we enjoy the most whenever an automotive event rolls around (Exhibit A and Exhibit B), but for every Honda e where the company states the production car will look exactly like the concept, others are changed beyond belief while others disappear into faint memory.

Why? Let’s dive into the crazy world of the concept car…

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What’s the point of a concept car?

The automotive industry runs on fine margins. With this in mind you might think that conservatism reigns supreme, but when ideas are first being formulated innovation is always the driving factor behind a new vehicle.

Designed to showcase a new vision or direction for a manufacturer, research are tasked with analysing market trends and envisioning what will dominate the market in the coming years. From there, they have to think big and make a case for the concept cars viability.

Once the numbers have been added up and it’s deemed viable, the process begins to flesh out the idea into the specifics of the car. This will see the concept car planned and sketched out before being modelled on computer and built to scale using clay. This early demo created, the manufacturer may then hold a variety of workshops with consumers who will provide feedback and from there it could potentially be redesigned or adjusted.

BMW VISION M NEXT

BMW Vision M Next offers a glimpse into the concept car process

All in, it’s a process that involves years of market research, technological development, assembly line retooling and constant refining of the design until it hits the sweet spot where everyone – from the accountants and the regulators to the workforce – is in agreement the concept is viable for mass-market production.

When this is all done, the concept car proper will be built to the extent that the exterior and possibly the interior can be shown off at the likes of the Geneva Motor Show. This lets everyone in the industry know where the manufacturer is heading and is often a line in the sand, a challenge for others to step up their game. It also provides the perfect opportunity to gauge public reaction and you can only do that when the masses can see the car up close.

Simply put, the concept is there to grab the headlines, capture the industry’s imagination, hopefully wow the public, and convey a statement of intent about a brand’s future.

Or as DS design director Thierry Metroz says: “A concept car is a development accelerator … to test the new technologies that we imagine for the future, and accelerate their development.”

The evolution of the concept car to production

With the concept wowing the crowds at the automotive event and leaving competitors with a pang of jealousy, work begins on turning it into a production car. This is when the aforementioned conservatism comes into play as often it will lose any unique flair or touches that made the concept unique in the first place.

Honda Urban EV concept

There are exceptions to that rule though. The Honda e, first shown at the 2017 Frankfurt Motor Show as the Honda Urban EV, has pretty much made it through from concept to production ahead of its 2020 release unchanged.

At the time of its reveal Takahiro Hachigo, president and CEO of Honda, said: “This is not some vision of the distant future; a production version of this car will be here in Europe in 2019.” . He lived up to his word (well, apart from the release date) with the retro-futuristic design capturing the imagination like few other cars.

Ford_iasisX_(front)_-_Flickr_-_Cha_già_José

Others differ drastically from the car first shown off to the one sold in showrooms.  The Ford Iosis X (shown above), was an audaciously styled concept revealed at the 2006 Paris Motor Show and aimed to take advantage of the growing interest in crossovers.

Unfortunately by the time it made it into production as the Ford Kuga in 2008, the rather out there design of the concept had been drastically diluted. The eye-catching rear and beefy supermini looks of the concept were nowhere to be seen.

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Others don’t even get to see the light of day at all, as is the case with the Toyota A-Bat shown above. With the aim of producing a small pick-up that didn’t compromise too much on performance and capability, it was slightly shorter than a saloon at 181 inches and used the same hybrid drive system as the Prius.

This lightweight, compact truck also featured a decent hauling capacity thanks to the deep pick-up-style box and a midgate that opened a clear passageway between the cab's interior and the exterior bed. Coming a decade too early, it’s certainly a concept Toyota should revisit in our opinion.

What happens to concept cars?

With some exceptions, when a concept has played it part it will retire into a meet and greet role for the manufacturer, often being displayed at the manufacturer’s head office or closed storage facility. Take Citroen as an example.

Hidden away in a not-so-glamorous suburb of Paris, you’ll find its Conservatoire. Alongside pretty much every production vehicle they’ve ever made, you’ll also find a vast array of the company’s more outlandish prototypes from over the years here. They’re all kept in a climate controlled environment and maintained alongside Citroen’s heritage fleet so they’re ready to be called into action should the need arise.

Citroen Conervatoire

Other times they could be scrapped or donated for teaching or training purposes. On very rare occasions, concepts may even be sold. That’s what General Motors opted to do when the financial crisis hit in 2008.

1200px-Scottsdale_2018_-_Lot_3008_-_1988_Chevrolet_Corvette_35th_Anniversary_Edition

It sold hundreds of classics, concepts and pre-production vehicles at Barret-Jackson, the world’s biggest classic car auction, in order to raise some much needed capital. Items sold included the Buick Blackhawk convertible built to celebrate the company's 100-year anniversary.

Buick Blackhawk

It’s important to note that many vehicles offloaded in this manner are sold as display pieces with “scrap titles” so the manufacturer can’t be held liable if the buyer tries to then drive them. It’s nonetheless a cool piece of history to own.

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