What Will Happen to Concept Cars After COVID-19?

The COVID-19 crisis is lifting digital design of concept cars above the classic showroom debut.
Brad Bergan

The COVID-19 crisis has wrought an economic toll on the auto industry comparable to the 2008 financial crisis. Experts agree that as 2020 comes to a close, "[w]e shouldn't be too optimistic and expect that in 2021 everything is going to go back to normal," said Chief Executive Ola Källenius of Daimler, during a conference call.

Indeed, the pandemic "will probably have a huge effect on the economy," added Källenius. "[A]nd we have to prepare." While social distancing transforms assembly lines and public spaces across the country, not all markers of the auto industry are joined at the hip to the economy.

Concept cars lift the engineering burdens of cost, feasibility, and even physical reality itself to bring the best of all virtual worlds — from performance and raw power to other-worldly body designs from the pages of science fiction — into a singular expression of the future of mobility, debuting in auto showrooms around the world.

However, in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, designers are working remotely, which makes the idea of showing up in automotive showrooms — the site of countless successful debuts — less likely. What will happen, then, to concept cars after COVID-19?


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The 1995 Ford Taurus display at the New York Auto Show moved in vivid colors and visceral rhythm. Source: Ford Motor Company

Concept cars and the auto showroom amid COVID-19

Most people typically think of auto showrooms as a car-centric environment, and while they're not wrong — it's also a nexus of community, where new ideas about how we travel are fused into deeper insights about where we're going. Even and perhaps especially during the COVID-19 crisis, everyone has thought about how a vehicle can, at any time, take us toward or away from our lives.

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Even Sesame Street's Big Bird (now retired) showed up at the 1997 Ford New York Auto Show. Source: Ford Motor Company

"Take the North American International Auto Show — back in the heydey, you were getting 5,000 to 10,000 lifestyle auto journalists attending," Digital Design Chief Greg Hutting of Ford told Interesting Engineering (IE). 

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The 1979 Ford Probe I concept car, with a model. Source: Ford Motor Company

Concept cars bring style, image, and technology together into one product. "They're part concept, part hoodwinking your competition," said Steve Parissien — a cultural historian and author of "The Life of the Automobile" who holds a doctorate in architectural history from Oxford University — to IE. "The original idea was to stay ahead of the competition."

However, it's hard to stay in the race when you're falling behind. And to Parissien, the history of the auto industry is "littered with companies that didn't plan ahead." But where the U.K. ran into issues in taking the pulse of the future of cars, U.S. companies did not.

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GM's Motorama took the motor show on the road with space-age concepts. Source: Tino Rossini / Wikimedia

GM's Motorama, traveling auto show

Concept cars from the 1950s and 1960s represent a golden age of the auto industry. More than a way to inform future models, this era of concept cars was about building a work of art. "The 1950s and 1960s were definitely the heydey," said Hutting to IE. "GM had a traveling concept car show called Motorama. Those cars were super-inspired by [the] space age, with bubble tops and much more," he said.

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The Firebird III was part of GM's traveling Motorama of concept cars. Source: Karrman / Wikimedia

Encapsulating this moment, the auto industry responded with concept cars that appealed to the "aspiration of the purchaser," putting "a marker in the sand for manufacturers.," Parissien told me at one point. "They can say 'here's what we believe in for the future.'"

Indeed, it was a "romantic time for the auto industry; post-war, inspiring a lot of thinking in the production world," said Hutting.

"In the 1950s we had an afterglow effect, a sort of: 'We need to unleash our great designers,'" added Parissien. The idea of concept cars became a work of art almost totally divided from performance — where the latter was implied through the vision of designers. "The idea of functionality in the 1950s and 1960s was not a very important criterion," Parissien explained.

Space-age inspired concept cars place 'style over content'

However, while space-age cars achieved "the complete triumph of style over content," much of the drive behind concept cars reflected real-world events, both political and scientific, Parissien explained. Concept cars of the time were "[n]ot just space-age motifs in design, but the idea of speed, which also [means] supersonic flight — that's very much the car as fast [as] jet aircraft or indeed into deep space," remarked Parissien.

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Rather than a practical, mass-produced product, they "became quite abstract," said Parissien. This was the era of the space race, after all — when limitless optimism often trumped worries of mutually-assured destruction from atomic weapons; when crack-shot pilots broke the sound barrier, and the space race was won.

Newton's first law, the 'dark side' of optimism

However, there was a dark side to this optimism — while concept car designers could say they were thinking ahead, the perpetually-raised bar of excellence was also kinematic. "Ultimately when the big three [automakers] raise the stakes, they can't stop it." Like Newton's first law of motion, once it starts, it goes on until an opposing force interferes.

Learning from hubris: the Ford Pinto

In the 1960s, "not much thought was given to the economy of the market," Parissien told IE. At the time, "the emphasis was on the luster, the concept car as the flagship." But in engineering, luster just isn't enough.

In 1970, the Ford Pinto was released to the public with a major design flaw — it could explode if the gas tank was ruptured from a collision, according to the Tort Museum. More than a wake-up call to industry leaders, it was "a disaster, which brought the compact to a full stop," said Parissien.

"The sudden [sense of] loss of the 1970s, the loss of confidence in the political future — Nixon and Vietnam — it was when we realized this wasn't the sci-fi future we thought it was," said Parissien.

Auto industry aspiration collides with reality

Following the U.S. military's pull-out from South-East Asia and growing stagflation at home, perpetual growth started to feel like a pipe dream. "Sci-fi itself wasn't even revived until the end of the 1970s — we're not moving boldly forwards!"

As the pivotal decade rolled on, the auto industry saw a collision of aspiration with reality. It was the industry thinking "we're not getting better and better — we're actually going backward, and thanks to the oil crisis we have to rethink what the car is," said Parissien.

Trend forecasting in troubled times

Suddenly, designers found that "the assumptions you made for next year's models are going to be wrong," Parissien told me. "Then the pulse of the future becomes something different, where we can't rely on the certainties of the past."

"From 1974 onward people don't just ask how it looks — they ask how many miles per gallon, and whether the concept car was a waste of money." This meant designers had to justify their design based on what the average customer needs on more practical levels.

With the shift from style to economy-appropriate design, the "Earls" of GM backrooms became the flagship designers, explained Parissien. "They are promoted to the front," and by the 1970s people were driving compact cars.

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The 1979 Ford Probe I concept car mixed aspiration with a more practical and compact idea of mobility. Source: Ford Motor Company

1980s rebirth, Ford's Probe Series

In the 1980s, Ford returned to the limelight committed to making a better impression. "We had a whole series of concept cars called the Probe series one through five," said Hutting — who started his career when the series went vogue.

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The 1983 Ford Probe IV concept car emphasized visual range, with a sleek, marine-like appeal. Source: Ford Motor Company

In the 1980s, a new set of criteria of the concept car began to take hold, focusing less on style than "what's going to be produced down the line," Parissien said, referring to mass production. Concept cars moved away from the idealistic sci-fi future we might want as the reality-check sank in.

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The 1983 Ford Probe IV concept car interior. Source: Ford Motor Company

This pragmatic shift accelerated with the rise of EU- and Japan-based manufacturers, which emphasized economy. "The big dreaming was a western approach, especially the big three auto manufacturers in the [United] States. The hubris of the designer — that didn't mean anything in Japan. No one cares who designed the Toyota Corolla — it was about room, drivability, gas consumption," Parissien said.

Now we live in the world of corporate focus-groups, where instead of where cars could be in the future, major companies take care to include media reception as an integral part of concept car design. "It's important to think about how this is going to go down," said Parissien.

And as the new millennium came and went, designers understood that while practical concerns took precedence for the market, car buyers still felt an affinity for the 1960s golden age of concept car design. So they brought them back to life, but adapted for a more pragmatic age.

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The 2001 Ford Forty-Nine concept car in nostalgic '50s gas station. Source: Ford Motor Company

Nostalgia for glory: retrofuturism and concept cars

In the 1990s and early 2000s, "there was a kind of trend we tend to refer to as retrofuturism," a term inspired by J Mays, Ford's top designer of the time, Hutting told me. "When J [Mays] and Freeman Thomas were at [Volkswagen], they developed the new VW concept 1, which spawned the new Beetle."

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The 2001 Ford Forty-Nine concept car, from the side and top. Source: Ford Motor Company

"We did thunderbird, we did the Ford GT, we did some other retro concepts like the Forty-Nine concepts," said Hutting.

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The 2001 Forty-Nine was lavished with a roomy, high-end luxury interior. Source: Ford Motor Company

Mays, Hutting, and the Ford team's contribution to retrofuturism continued with the 2002 Mustang and 2005 Shelby Cobra concept cars.

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J Mays, Carroll Shelby, and William Clay Ford Jr. unveiling the 2004 Ford Shelby Cobra concept car. Source: Ford Motor Company

However, if concept cars are inherently about moving into the future, retrofuturistic designs that are oriented to the past can only appeal to drivers until reality breaks with expectations. Intuiting this, designers moved the conversation of mobility to focus on the idea of motion itself.

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The Ford Evos — part of a kinetic aesthetic in concept cars. Source: Ford Motor Company

2010s, kinetic design, motion in stillness

If the Ford Evos above appears to be in motion, then the concept behind it is already clear. Called kinetic design, the philosophy behind the Evos placed the idea of speed into the design itself — in a new aesthetic "intended to portray motion while standing still," Hutting explained to IE.

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The Ford Evos was a great example of the new kinetic design language. Source: Ford Motor Company

"The Evos concept was a very good example of signaling a new design and language, previewing what was coming with kinetic design language," Hutting told IE.

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The Ford Evos concept interior shows a visual expression of acceleration. Source: Ford Motor Company

"It was a language that was very successful for us, at Ford. We applied it across our entire product line, so I think it was just creating energy in motion" — while in reality standing still, according to Hutting.

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The Ford Evos' doors, when ajar, feel like wings. Source: Ford Motor Company

But as social media ran its frenzied tour through every sector of modern life in the 2010s, the possibility arose for another take on concept cars. Instead of trying to move faster than the information age, the rise of Marie Kondo's minimalism opened another door.

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The Lincoln Continental concept car embodies a "quiet flight" design. Source: Lincoln Media Center

Quiet Flight, the minimalist answer to the 2010s

Quiet flight contrasted with kinetic design like an inverse equation — instead of making stillness look like motion, it makes competitors' fixation on speed and perpetual motion look like they're really standing still.

"When you're thinking about quiet flight, you're thinking of a confident vehicle," said Hutting to IE. "The Lincoln design is built to be perceived as a sculpture — with S highlights in the body sides, and very little noise — it creates a very confident feeling."

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The Lincoln Continental re-examines the notion of a modern profile. Source: Lincoln Media Center

For quiet flight, the idea is living without needing to say so. A luxury brand through and through, it's about finally achieving success — without having to scream it.

"We have so much digital overload through social media — we're trying to calm down that noise when you get in your car, so it becomes a bit of a sanctuary," said Hutting. "[Y]our car is a place for you to go and have some quiet."

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Rear-seat amenities are designed to offer a first-class travel experience. Source: Lincoln Media Center

However, as we move further into the time of the coronavirus crisis, the idea of community — especially when it comes to the damage many believe the auto industry can do to the Earth's ability to sustain human life — feels less viable.

Mercedes-Benz VISION AVTR: eco-friendly concept car

Unveiled at CES 2020, the Mercedes-Benz VISION AVTR concept car wrapped the height of style inside an ambitious message about the future. Taking inspiration from James Cameron's film "Avatar," the VISION AVTR — short for Advanced Vehicle Transformation — represents a marriage of high-tech engineering with an eco-friendly design.

"The world of Avatar is a cosmos full of new shapes and colors," said Chief Design Officer Gorden Wagener of Daimler Group, reports Slash Gear. "Just think of all the extraordinary environments, life forms, and also the culture of the indigenous Na'vi inhabitants of the world of Pandora; everything is so closely related to our design philosophy and the bipolarity of our brands of intelligence and emotion."

Concept cars, climate change, and paradigm shifts

The post-war heydey of aspirational designers doing art for art's sake may be over, but the appeal of cars as a way to mitigate buyers' relationship to the world is alive and well. For the VISION AVTR, the idea is less ecology and conscience than it is a supposition that we may already possess an organic oneness with the world.

Whether or not this idea is a material reality, it doesn't have to go into mass production for competitors to get the message: "It's convincing everyone they're not going to bust — particularly for the luxury end of the market," Parissien explained to IE. But to understand where we're going amid the coronavirus crisis — we have to look at where we are now.

Remote concept car design, global collaboration

There's nothing new about remote work. But despite the drag in other industrial sectors, concept car design is accelerating at breakneck speeds. "What we're finding is that [...] we've stayed very productive and are in some ways even more productive," Hutting told me.

Lincoln Navigator Concept
The Lincoln Navigator concept brings quiet luxury to SUVs. Source: Lincoln Media Center

"All [concept car] directors and design chiefs set up at home using digital tools and virtual reality — they can bring data in and conduct virtual space," said Hutting to IE. "Some of these initiatives have been accelerated due to [the] coronavirus."

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The 2004 Ford Bronco concept car. Source: Ford Motor Company

"With the coronavirus crisis," the minds behind concept cars are confronted directly with the technology of the future — and the future of concept cars themselves, Hutting explained. "We've had to jump into the deep end with a lot of these technologies."

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Concept car designers are embracing new virtual design technology. Source: Ford Motor Company

Now design can happen without clocking-in — in fact, it's happening more, and faster, according to Hutting

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Designers are finding new ways to work from home, even in an industry that’s very hands-on. Source: Ford Motor Company

Amid the coronavirus crisis, designers of every industry have had to adapt to the home-based work environment. "If we're designing cars virtually we can have the exterior of the car designed in North America while the interior of the car is going on in Australia, or Europe," Hutting told IE. "That's going to allow us to get more global input in concept cars [for] collaboration."

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Home-based work is pooling global talent like never before. Source: Ford Motor Company

Fordzilla, virtual debut, human community after COVID-19

In the time of the coronavirus crisis, the punchcard has given way to a diffuse equalization of the workplace environment. But instead of bringing their dreams for the concept car — and with it a notion of where the auto industry is going — to the office, the conceptual process has come home, where it can fully-integrate with and pull inspiration from each team member's life in different yet still deeply personal ways.

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Arturo Ariño's concept car makes its debut on Fordzilla. Source: Arturo Ariño / Ford Motor Company / Instagram

"I think in the future we may not actually have to build physical concept cars," Hutting surmised.

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In the future, more concept cars will debut digitally, even in video games. Source: Ford Motor Company

While auto shows won't necessarily go the way of the dinosaurs, projects like Fordzilla — an esports team competing in virtual races — allow designers an opportunity to flaunt new designs to players, influencers, and potential buyers without even mentioning the words "assembly line."

The concept car "is the history of the post-war western world. It's [a] belief in the future, but also that technology will make life better — the idea that cars will improve," Parissien explained to me. As we continue to move through the COVID-19 crisis, designers are only a screen-share away from drivers and industry experts. In this reduced virtual space, perhaps concept cars will come to reflect not only new possibilities for community, but also how we humans, too, will improve.

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