Concept cars: the all-time greatest designs

Concept cars are what happens when the car industry lets its imagination run wild. We pick out the greatest ever concepts...

Concept cars. They’re not for sale, and a lot of them aren’t even able to move under their own power. Yet the concept car is a vital asset to the car makers that build them. They can showcase a new design direction for a company, or reveal future technology that will reach production in later years. Either way, the reveal of a concept car can be just as exciting as the announcement of a brand-new production model. So here we’ve highlighted some of greatest concept car designs that have gone down in history as the cars that shaped our motoring world.

But what makes a good concept car? Well, there are a variety of factors. Innovation is one of the key elements that makes a new concept car stand out on the international motor show circuit. For starters, the concept car has to look good. Now, style can be a subjective thing, but there’s no doubt that the concept cars which stand the test of time are the ones with show-stopping looks, and can go on to determine the design themes of a manufacturer’s production cars for a long time in the future.

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There have been a number of concepts over the years that have also also showcased major innovations in technology, both in terms of motive power and the kind of tech you’ll find on board. While autonomous production cars are closer to reality than ever, self-driving cars is a concept that car makers have toyed with for decades, while electric, hydrogen and even nuclear energy have all been considered worthy of inclusion on a concept car or two down the ages.

The Auto Express team raided the archives and our own collective memories of the concept cars that have made an impact in the past decades. Our list isn’t definitive, rather a snapshot of what’s happened in the concept car world from the 1930s right through to the present day.

Greatest concept cars ever

Below is our pick of the greatest concept cars of all time. Be sure to tell us about your favourite concept cars in the comments section.

The cars are listed in alphabetical order. Just click the links to jump to different sections of the story...

A-B  C-F  G-J  K-L  M  N-R  S-Z

Alfa Romeo BAT 5/7/9 (1953-55)

The name BAT stands for Berlinetta Aerodinamica Tecnica, but it also describes the look of this trio of winged Alfas pretty well, too. All three cars were designed by Nuccio Bertone to study the effects of aerodynamics, and were revealed in 1953, 1954 and 1955 respectively. Under the skin they’re based on the modest Alfa 1900, with 90hp engines.

The distinctive rounded nose and prominent rear fins meant they were bat-like in appearance, while BAT 7 had a drag coefficient of 0.19, which still impresses today. All three cars still exist, and are part of a collection based in the US, although they are often seen together at classic car shows such as the Pebble Beach Concours.

Aston Martin DB10 (2014)

When James Bond needs a car, he’s going to turn to Aston Martin. But with a new V12 model still a couple of years away, and the rest of the range feeling its age, Bond would need something special for the movie Spectre. So the film’s producers commissioned Aston to build an all-new model, called the DB10

Under the skin, there’s the modified running gear of the V8 Vantage, and the DB10 is good for a top speed of 193mph. To make it even more exclusive, Aston only built 10 DB10s, making it a rarity even in the exclusive world of Aston Martins.

Audi Avus quattro (1991)

Back in the 1990s, Audi was on a crusade for lightness, which it displayed in its concept cars. One such model was the Avus quattro, a mid-engined supercar study that featured aluminium bodywork over an aluminium frame. Designer J Mays took inspiration from the Auto Union land speed record cars for the supercar’s low-slung body, while the polished panels made a highlight of the car’s aluminium construction.

Power was supposed to come from a 6.0-litre W12 engine, but the show car had to make do with a wooden mock-up, so nobody really knows whether the Avus would have supercar potential. Its design cues, as well as its aluminium construction made production in 1994, with the arrival of the first Audi A8 limo

Audi Nuvolari quattro (2003)

Named after Auto Union’s famous grand prix driver Tazio Nuvolari, this coupe concept will look familiar because it was the precursor to the original Audi A5 Coupe. And when comparing the Audi Nuvolari to the production A5 Coupe, it’s easy to define where concept car ideas fail to meet production reality.

The Nuvolari’s low roof and small glass area was ditched for the A5, while the headlights increased in size and the grille was toned down. Also dropped was the show car’s 591bhp 5.0-litre V10 - the closest the A5 got was 444bhp for the RS 5, although quattro four-wheel drive did carry over.

Bentley EXP 10 Speed 6 (2015)

With the current SUV arms race in full swing, it was good to see Bentley counter the controversy of its Bentayga SUV with this stunning two-seater coupe concept. The EXP 10 wowed crowds in 2015, so much so that Bentley is on schedule to put it into production.

Unlike most concepts, the EXP 10 is likely to get through to production without many changes, seeing as it already looks like a variation on the Continental GT which it shares a platform with. That road car is due to be revealed in 2019/2020.

BMW E1 (1991)

More than 20 years before the BMW i3 hit showrooms, BMW’s first attempt at an electric city car was the E1 concept. This Fiat 500-sized machine featured the design cues of other BMWs of the era - including a comically large window area - and had light weight built into it to boost its driving range as much as possible. 

Claimed range for the 900kg machine was 155 miles, which is quite something when the i3 claims a similar distance today with higher tech batteries on board. In some ways the E1 was a teaser for the i3 and the 1 Series hatchback, too, as both have styling and tech that can easily be traced back to this compact ancestor.

BMW GINA (2008)

When designers are given free rein, they can come up with some weird stuff, including names. GINA stands for Geometry and functions In 'N' Adaptations, and to understand what that means, you probably need to step inside the brain of BMW’s then-design chief Chris Bangle.

When it comes down to it, the GINA is unique thanks to its fabric ‘skin’ stretched over a metal frame. That skin was made from waterproof Spandex, a fabric more commonly associated with big-haired heavy metal bands from the 1980s. Of more concern was the slightly risque way in which the bonnet opened, with the two sides of the bonnet separating to reveal the engine...

Bugatti 16C Galibier (2009)

With the Veyron in production, it was time for Bugatti to think about a second model. And as it had gained a reputation for luxury with cars like the Royale, it seemed fitting that this car should be a luxury machine to compete with Rolls-Royce.

Cue the 16C Galibier, named after an earlier Bugatti, which in turn was named after an Alpine pass. Power was planned to come from the same quad-turbo W12 as the Veyron, and a 235mph top speed was mooted. Production numbers for this luxury five-seater would have been far higher than the Veyron or Chiron, but the model has still yet to appear in showrooms.

Buick Y-Job (1938)

Widely regarded as the first concept car, the Y-Job was the creation of General Motors design boss Harley Earl, and went on to dictate the design of Buick’s cars throughout the 1950s. It featured smooth bodywork with hidden headlights, electric windows, wraparound bodywork and flush door handles.

What’s more amazing is that Earl used the Y-Job as his daily driver for over a decade, because it was based on existing Buick running gear. Earl later went on to introduce tail fins to US production cars, as well as create the Chevrolet Corvette.

Click on to page 2 for more great concept cars or click the links below to jump to different sections of the story...

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