The cars of tomorrow, from yesterday
The 1950s and 1960s were all about optimism, excitement and fun, and nowhere was this more evident than in the cars of the era. We’ve rounded up some of the most extreme concept models from America’s big auto manufacturers, which reflected the era’s obsession with rockets, jet fighters and even nuclear power. Strap yourself in for a gas turbine-propelled trip back in time – and be prepared to be surprised at just how many of today’s ‘hi-tech’ features were first conceived way back when.
Buick Le Sabre (1951)
After it had finished the show circuit, this early concept was used as the daily driver of its designer, GM styling chief Harley Earl. Its futuristic looks belied excellent practicality; the hard-top automatically raised itself in the rain, and the doors and windows were electric.
Ford XL500 (1953)
Air-conditioning was useful under this huge glass dome, but the XL500’s practicality went even further. Its built-in jacks were handy if you got a puncture and there was a telephone in the cabin, too.
Buick Wildcat II (1954)
The fibreglass-constructed Wildcat II shares certain styling features with its sister brand Chevrolet’s Corvette, which arrived the same year. What is unique, though, is the ‘flying wing’ front end.
De Soto Adventurer II Coupé (1954)
Chrysler-owned De Soto’s aerodynamic concept looks fairly sedate for a Yank. However, those fancy tail-lights hinted at things to come from Chrysler, which became renowned for its exuberant rear ends.
Ford FX Atmos (1954)
Three could fit under the canopy of this jet-inspired model. The aircraft rear fins were teamed with unusual aerial spears at the front. They wouldn’t pass today’s pedestrian-safety tests!
GM Firebird I (1954)
Another jet-inspired machine, the Firebird I was powered by a gas turbine that could power your house when you weren’t driving it. You drove it via an aeroplane-like centrally placed single stick control, instead of a wheel, throttle and brakes. Sounds like a piece of cake…
Ford Mystere (1955)
The Mystere, too, was powered by a gas turbine. The car’s huge glasshouse tilted up like a canopy to allow access to the cabin.
Lincoln Futura (1955)
This 300bhp V8-powered concept with its twin Plexiglass domes cost Lincoln $250k to build – a lot of money in 1955. The Futura went on to become the star of the first Batman series on television.
Buick Centurion (1956)
Rear-facing cameras are nothing new; the jet fighter-inspired Centurion concept had one instead of rear mirrors way back in 1956.
GM Firebird II (1956)
An early forebear of the autonomous car, the titanium-built Firebird II was built to run on guided roadways.
GM XP-500 (1956)
Meanwhile, the XP-500 predicted future oil and environmental crisis with its powerplant that could be run on oils from animal, vegetable or minerals. Unfortunately it was extremely noisy to drive, too; ear defenders were required.
Pontiac Club de Mer (1956)
Aluminium-bodied concept shows off a shark influence in its nose and tail design, while the aero screens were aeronautical. Its nose pods swiveled to reveal headlights.
Ford X-1000 (1957)
The ‘which way is it going?’ X-1000 could have its engine in either the front or the back, and the two-seat cabin featured a TV and music system. The canopy was retractable, too.
Ford La Galaxie (1958)
Featured an innovative cabin layout, with three individual front chairs as well as a more conventional rear bench. A huge single door on each side and a roof that hinged up butterfly-style allowed easy access.
Ford Nucleon (1958)
The Nucleon’s rear-mounted nuclear reactor would have allowed a 5000-mile range – and Lord knows what else. Thank goodness the idea never progressed beyond this 3/8th-scale model.
Ford X-2000 (1958)
The X-2000 never went beyond the 3/8th-scale model stage, and it certainly isn’t what we were driving by the year 2000 – which is what Ford had predicted. If only…
GM Firebird III (1958)
With the Space Race in full flow, this moon-rocket-inspired car was a real reflection of the times. The third Firebird, it had a 225bhp turbine, climate-controlled cabin, auto lighting and auto guidance.
XP-700 Corvette (1958)
Not the prettiest rebodied Corvette. It also replaced its rear-view mirrors with a periscope. Handy.
Cadillac Cyclone (1959)
Those distinctive frontal torpedo tubes contained radar to guide the driver – incredible for 1959. A vapourised silver coating on the canopy helped deflect the sun’s heating rays.
Chrysler Turboflite (1961)
The Turboflite’s regenerative turbine engine weighed just half as much as an equivalent V8. An air brake popped up when the pedal was pressed, and its canopy rose automatically when one of the doors was opened.
Ford Gyron (1961)
This two-wheeler was kept concept upright by stabilisers either side when stationary and at low speed.
GM Runabout (1964)
A super-slippery aerodynamic shape gave this three-wheeled city car a futuristic look. Two people could travel in the front and three in the rear, and the boot boasted two integral shopping trolleys.
Ford Seattle-ite XXI (1967)
How’s this for bonkers? Not only did the Seattle-ite XXI have four front wheels, turned via a fingertip-controlled dial on the centre console, but it could also be powered by turbine, electric motor or a ‘compact nuclear propulsion device’!
Buick Century Cruiser (1969)
This autonomous living room on wheels featured reclining, swiveling seats as well as a built-in television, table and fridge. Another car that was well ahead of its time.