Dream Designs that Shaped What You Drive Today.
In today’s digital world, it’s hard to imagine designing anything as complex as an automobile with just a pencil and pad and block of clay. But in fact, in the auto industry’s early days, automakers treated their cars’ design and shape almost as an afterthought, leaving it to draftsmen and engineers to come up with a body and interior after they had done what was considered the more important work of the vehicle’s engineering and mechanics.
That all changed in 1926, when GM turned to a designer named Harley Earl (who had been customizing cars for Hollywood stars) to design its new LaSalle model from the ground up. GM then hired Earl, who is still widely considered the father automotive design, to create the industry’s first full-time, in-house design staff.
General Motors pushed the envelope of both technological innovation and design when it introduced the world’s first concept car, the Buick Y Job, in 1938. The idea was to demonstrate new designs and technical features and gauge public reaction to them, with the car itself never going into production. Most concept cars have been shown only at auto shows throughout the world, as they are today. While most still never go into production, hundreds of design cues and technological innovations that were first applied to concept cars have ended up in production vehicles.
General Motors has developed more concept vehicles — often called dream cars — than any other manufacturer. The following “Top 10” list is just a sampling of the dozens of milestone GM concept cars that went on to influence the production vehicles sold in dealers’ showrooms.
This list was initially developed by GM archivists and historians and then reviewed by GM senior leaders. The list of the vehicles is in chronological order.
2007 Chevrolet Volt.
The Chevy Volt, with its bold styling and revolutionary E-Flex propulsion system, was an immediate star when it was unveiled at the 2007 North American International Auto Show. Capitalizing on many technologies and innovations developed in the earlier EV1 electric car, it represented the most radical departure from the internal combustion engine in more than a century. With gasoline prices reaching $4 a gallon in the spring of 2008, GM CEO Rick Wagoner confirmed that a plug-in version of the Chevy Volt will go into production and be in Chevrolet dealerships by the end of 2010. The plug-in Volt is designed to use a common 110-volt household plug for charging the battery. For drivers traveling less than 40 miles a day, it will use zero gasoline and produce zero emissions. For longer trips, its range-extending power source, fueled by either gasoline or E85, recharges the battery as the car travels, extending its driving range to around 360 miles before “plugging in” again. Unlike other hybrid vehicles, its small gasoline or E85-fueled internal combustion engine motor is used only to maintain the battery’s charge rather than drive the vehicle.
2002 GM AUTOnomy.
The GM AUTOnomy concept vehicle, unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, demonstrated the first combination of fuel cell propulsion with “by-wire” technology to allow steering, braking, and other vehicle systems to be controlled electronically rather than mechanically. Its sister vehicle, HY-WIRE, was introduced at the Paris Auto Show the same year. All of these vehicles' working parts were sandwiched into a six-inch thick skateboard-shaped chassis. There were no foot pedals, steering wheel, or instrument panel: all controls were located on a hand-operated steering guide similar to that found in airplanes.
1990 GM Impact.
The GM Impact made headlines around the world when it made its debut at the 1990 Los Angeles Auto Show. The modern industry’s first fully electric car, it marked the beginning of an industry-wide effort to augment traditional automotive propulsion to further reduce emissions and reduce reliance on petroleum-based fuel. The Impact weighed just 2,200 pounds but its batteries alone weighed 843 pounds. It could accelerate from zero-to-sixty miles per hour in 7.9 4 seconds and had a highway driving range of 124 miles at speed of 55 miles per hour. Its core technology and design became the basis of the 1996 EV1, the first modern-day electric production car.
1987 GM Sunraycer.
The GM Sunraycer solar-powered vehicle was a radical step in aerodynamic design and won the world’s first solar-powered vehicle competition, the 1,950-mile World Solar Challenge Race. Powered by 7,200 solar cells that covered an area of 90 square feet, it could reach a top speed of 45 miles per hour on a sunny day using solar power alone. In cloudy conditions, it used a battery for extra power and acceleration, giving it a top speed of 60 miles per hour. It measured 19.7 feet long, 6.6 feet wide and only 3.3 feet high. Total weight was only 360 pounds. Many of its technological and design innovations later influenced the development of GM’s EV1 electric car and the Chevrolet Volt E-Flex concept.
1970 Vauxhall SRV.
The Vauxhall Styling Research Vehicle (SRV) was a four-door, four-seat rolling laboratory for advances in aerodynamics, suspension, and engine design. Unveiled at the London Auto Show, the body was made of glass reinforced plastic and the engine was mounted transversely between the front and rear wheels. It also featured an electric leveling system and an adjustable aerofoil nose to make it more aerodynamic at different speeds.
1965 Experimental Opel GT.
This was Opel’s first concept car and also the first European concept car ever to go into production. Built off the Kadett platform but with radically sleek and sporty styling, it was unveiled at the 1965 Frankfurt Auto Show and proved so popular that it was put into production three years later, with 60 percent of its volume exported to America and sold through Buick dealerships. Featuring a 1.9-liter, 90 horsepower engine, it delivered a top speed of 185 kilometers per hour.
1961 Chevrolet XP-755 Mako Shark.
Legend has it that Bill Mitchell, Harley Earl’s successor as head of GM Styling, took the inspiration for this classic design from a Mako shark he caught while deep-sea fishing. The fish’s sleek, streamlined body was the perfect role model for the next generation of Corvettes. Mitchell directed his team to replicate the shark’s form in every way possible, including the color. The resulting Mako Shark indeed looked like the real shark, with pointed nose, gills on the sides of the grill, a clear glass canopy, and a paint scheme that graduated from blue/gray at the top to silver/white along the rocker panels. Powered by a 427 cubic inch aluminum block V-8 engine that delivered 425 horsepower, it was a progenitor of the classic 1963 Corvette Sting Ray.
1954, 1956, and 1958 Firebird series.
Fascinated with the sleek profile of jet aircraft, Harley Earl and his team developed a series of 3 concept cars inspired by jet aircraft and powered by gas turbine engines. The 1954 Firebird I held only one person and was distinguished by its needle nose, delta wings, and vertical tail fin. The 1956 Firebird II featured an improved gas turbine (with an exhaust temperature of 225 degrees Fahrenheit vs. Firebird I’s scorching 1,250 degrees) and held 4 people. It was also the first car to feature disc brakes and fully independent four-wheel suspension. The last of the series, the 1958 Firebird III, was the most streamlined of all, with a wide tapered nose and separate bubble canopies for driver and passenger. It also featured a single-stick control handle, like jet fighters — a feature that was resurrected with the 2002 AUTOnomy concept car. While few of the series’ other design features were carried over into other cars, the Firebirds’ gas turbine power plant laid the groundwork for other advances in propulsion technology. And, of course, the Firebird name was carried on with another Firebird for the 1964 World’s fair and with the popular Pontiac Firebird production car.
1951 GM LeSabre.
GM’s follow up to the iconic T Job was the fabulous 1951 LeSabre. This “dream car” drew its design inspiration from the F86 jet fighter aircraft (note the narrow and rounded front and rear scoops) and was billed as an “experimental laboratory on wheels,” powered by a 215 cubic inch supercharged V-8 engine with two carburetors and fuel tanks. One carburetor drew premium gasoline from the first tank when the car traveled at low or constant speed. When the driver accelerated, the second carburetor drew from the second tank, which was filled with methanol fuel. The LeSabre also featured air brakes and a convertible roof that would automatically close when activated by a rain sensor.
1938 Buick Y Job.
The world’s first manufacture’s concept car, the 1938 Buick Y Job was developed and introduced by Harley Earl, GM’s legendary head of design, to display latest developments and trends in engineering and styling. The first car developed with an eye less on commercial production than on gauging public reaction to new technologies and designs, it stole the show wherever it was displayed. Apart from its futuristic styling, highlighted by bold curves, it featured concealed headlamps and a convertible roof that folded under a metal cover when closed. Today, the Buick Y Job still turns heads when displayed to the public and is universally considered a classic.
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