For every pile of concept cars that never get built (often for the common good), there’s one that changes everything. Whether or not they went into production, these six concepts, from 1938 to today, did more than turn heads: They shifted how drivers and auto companies think about cars.
(Pictured above.) Designed on the eve of the Second World War, Harley J. Earl’s Y-Job is widely considered to be the first concept car. Featuring hidden headlights and electric windows, the two-door coupe had a 5.2 liter engine and was actually driven by Earl himself. It stretched nearly 20 feet long and was less than five feet high at the top of its windshield. The Y-Job exerted its influence for more than a decade, serving as the model for Buicks until the 1950s; it also set the gold standard for what a concept car could accomplish.
Revealed the same year as the Y-Job, the Phantom Corsair was the work of Rust Heinz, the heir to the beans (and later ketchup) fortune. Like the Y-Job, the Corsair had a long, low profile that set it apart from just about everything on the road at the time and prefigured the look of cars to come. The Batmobile-esque concept featured electrically opened doors and inconveniently tiny windows; today it can be found in the National Automobile Museum in Reno.
If the Mako Shark makes you think of a Corvette, that’s because it’s the paterfamilias of the whole line. Designed for General Motors by Larry Shinoda, the Mako was shark-like, with its sharp angles and streamlined body. Just two years after the debut of the Mako, GM revealed the Corvette Sting Ray, one of the best sports cars of all time, and the lineage is crystal clear. For the next decade, GM would continue to crank out Corvettes that harked back to their common ancestor, the Mako.
The Megagamma is an unfortunate departure from the eye-catching beauty of the first three cars on this list, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong here. The work of Italdesign (owned by Fiat), it was introduced at the 1978 Turin Motor Show as a new kind of family-oriented vehicle: the minivan. Over the next thirty years, minivans would get bigger, rounder, and fancier, but they all owed their existence to this oddly-named forerunner.
In an industry dominated by men, the Volvo YCC (“Your Concept Car”) was designed entirely by women, for women. The Swedish team added all sorts of features that would make driving a more comfortable experience for the ladies: a split headrest to accommodate ponytails, changeable seat pads to facilitate cleaning and color matching, and special compartments for an umbrella, keys and coins.
The team went with a hood that could be opened only by a professional mechanic. The YCC was designed to need as little as maintenance as possible, but it’s too bad that the design suggested that women drivers wouldn’t- or shouldn’t- get involved in the details of the thing. Despite that, it was a step by the automotive industry toward catering to a more varied demographic of drivers.
In 2009, BMW declared its movement in a new direction: fuel-efficiency. The messenger was the Vision EfficientDynamics concept, a striking departure from the V8 and V12 engines that had so long been the hallmark of BMWs. The Vision featured a turbo diesel /electric hybrid powertrain to produce 265 horsepower and 590 ft-lb of torque, along with an amazing 62.5 miles per gallon. The idea that luxury cars could be fuel-efficient was hammered home, and now it’s taking over the higher end of the automotive industry.