Cars of Future Passed
The Car Of The Future of those days was usually a two-seater, most likely mid-engined, and probably powered by something wild like a turbine or a Wankel rotary or (for all I knew) a dilithium fusion reactor. It was low-slung, with a sharply-pointed nose and crisp aerodynamic lines and a dashboard straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Often as not, it did not have conventional doors; it would have gullwings or flip-up doors or maybe even the whole top half of the car would slide off like the canopy of a fighter plane.
You saw these futuremobiles at car shows, on the cover of magazines like Popular Mechanics, in a few SF movies and TV shows, and of course in the Hot Wheels catalog. (My personal favorite Hot Wheels toy was an open-top roadster interpretation of the future-car look.) Most of the full-sized ones were show cars, but a few were put into production. Those were all high-priced exotics--but it was only a matter of time before the design concepts and engineering from those Cars Of The Future trickled down and everything on the road looked like that. I just knew it was going to work out that way. In fact, I couldn't wait to grow up so I could drive one of these magnificent roadgoing spaceships.
With your indulgence, I'd like to set the WABAC machine to sometime around 1970 and take a closer look at some of those Cars Of The Future--and at the future that didn't quite happen.
The first car to have what I think of as "Car Of The Future" styling seems to have been the one pictured at left: the Lamborghini Marzal of 1967.
Yes, that's right, I said 1967.
Sure doesn't look much like 1967, does it? You could be forgiven for thinking that it's a Lockheed-Martin Skunk Works prototype for a four-passenger suborbital hypersonic midlife crisis rocket plane ("The perfect gift for the man who has everything") and not a car that's now old enough to be having a midlife crisis of its own.
The Marzal was designed by Marcello Gandini and built by Bertone. It was based on a Miura chassis and powered by a straight six that was more or less half of a Lamborghini V-12. It has six--count 'em, six!--headlights and probably the best outward visibility of any car made in the last fifty years. The glass roof and nice wide windsield are supported by slender A-pillars. The gullwing doors were mostly glass--right down to the door sills! The only drawback to all this glass is the "greenhouse effect" it produces on a sunny day. There doesn't appear to be any way to roll down or flip open any of those windows, so one hopes the Marzal has really good, really high-capacity air conditioning.
Believe it or not, the Marzal wasn't built as a show car or a styling exercise--Lamborghini intended it to be a production model. Sadly, that that did not come to pass. The one and only Marzal was exhibited at car shows and used as the pace car for the 1967 running of the Grand Prix of Monaco (where it was driven by Princess Grace and Prince Rainier), then squirreled away from public view for almost thirty years. It reappeared in 1996 and now resides in the Lamborghini museum.
The next year, Alfa Romeo rolled out the mid-engined Carabo ("Beetle") show car, also designed by Mancello Gandini. They may have named it "Beetle," but this boy sure ain't no Volkswagen. Low and angular and faintly menacing, with tinted windows and an aggressive air scoop and rear louvers that resemble the exhaust nozzles on a Klingon battlecruiser, the Carabo looks more like something aliens would drive to the grocery store--assuming, of course, that the little green men have grocery stores on their planet in the first place.
The Carabo is also notable for being the first car (or at least one of the first cars) to use doors that open by swinging up in a vertical plane, an arrangement later made famous by the Lamborghini Countach. Sr. Gandini also designed the Countach, so it's no surprise that there's a certain family resemblance between it and the Carabo. In fact, it might not be too far off to think of the Carabo as the first draft of the Countach.
That same year, the mighty Giorgetto Giugiaro unveiled one of the first of his sharp-edged "folded paper" designs, the Bizzarrini Manta show car. A re-bodied Le Mans endurance racer, it's within a couple inches of the Ford GT40 in all its major dimensions. The Manta is powered by a 400-horsepower Chevy V-8, which means it can go at least as fast as that radically raked front end makes it look.
I particularly like the little details on this one; the spaceship-girder trim on the rocker panel, the sculpted louvers over the engine room, and the wraparound rear bumper really set it off. The Manta was repainted in sea foam green while it was still on the show car circuit in the 1960s, but I prefer it in the original silver-gray you see here. Even today, and even in sea foam green, it still looks more like 2068 than 1968.
Something like the Manta would be the high point of many a stylist's career, but Sr. Guigiaro was just getting warmed up. In the next six years, he designed the equally futuristic Abarth 1600, Alfa Romeo Iguana and Caimano, the Bora, Merak, Boomerang, Coupe 2+2, and Medici for Maserati, the Lotus Esprit, and this lovable little shuttlepod, the Porsche Tapiro from 1970. The Tapiro was an exciting one-off show car built on the platform of the rather un-exciting Porsche 914. It had gullwing passenger doors and gullwing engine bay doors--and both sets of doors had dramatic large windows that wrapped around into the roof to make it even cooler.
The Tapiro also had a rather unique fate for a show car. Unlike the ones built only for display which lack small mechanical details like, say, an engine, the Tapiro was a fully-functional street-legal vehicle. After completing its time on the car show circuit, it was sold to a Spanish executive who used it for his daily driver. With the less-than-ferocious stock 914 drivetrain under the exotic sheetmetal, one suspects it was nowhere near as fast as it looked (though the handling would have been pretty sweet), but the owner seems to have been satisfied with it. Unfortunately, the Tapiro's attention-getting looks proved a little too attention-getting for its own good: the car was firebombed by protestors angry at the owner's company! The remains are in the possession of an Italian museum, awaiting restoration.
In case you were wondering, this Car Of The Future stuff wasn't just an Italian thing. GM built two mid-engined Corvette prototypes, and came pretty close to putting one of them into production. Still more futuristic concept cars appeared from Mercedes-Benz, Opel, Renault, Holden, and Citroen. Even AMC (yes, that AMC) got into the act with the lovely mid-engined AMX-2 and -3 prototypes.
Toyota's contribution to the genre was the EX-III.
The EX-III was said to have been designed for long distance high speed cruising, and it's obvious Toyota's engineers and designers spared no effort in getting the drag coefficient as low as possible. (They even went so far as to streamline the underbody.) It also came out extraordinarily pretty, and it wouldn't look out of place next to some of today's low-drag concept cars.
Mazda also had a futuristic concept car, the rotary-engined (of course!) RX-500. The overall styling theme was more Corvette than Carabo, but in terms of trick doors the RX-500 is the undisputed champion. Mazda gave it both Lamborghini-style passenger doors and gull-winged engine compartment hatches.
Back in 1970, Mazda circulated publicity photos of the RX-500 in three different colors: the understated silver gray shown at right, a bolder screaming baby duckling yellow, and that '70s favorite, rich avocado green. Everybody naturally assumed that at least three RX-500s had been built. When the "sole survivor" was taken in hand for restoration a few years ago, the restorers discovered three layers of paint on the body panels: silver, yellow, and avocado. In reality, there was only one car, but it had been painted different colors for different photo shoots. Restored to its original glory by some of the men who built it, it's now on display in the Hiroshima City Transportation Museum.
You don't normally think of GM's British subsidiary Vauxhall as the place to go for daring and original thinking, but their Styling Research Vehicle built in 1970 is pretty daring and original. It may look like a two-seater, but it actually has four seats and four doors. The rear seats are accessed through well-disguised "suicide" half-doors that have no external handle and can only open if the front door is opened first--the arrangement you see today on the MINI Clubman, Mazda RX-8, Honda Element, Toyota FJ Cruiser, and certain Saturns. It's said that the SRV has sufficient room for four full-sized adults to fit comfortably, even though it's only 41 inches high. Those small side windows might make the rear passengers might feel a little closed in, though.
All of the cars we've looked at so far were about 40-45 inches high. That's about as low as you can push the roofline and still have a driveable car.
Or is it?
This is the Lancia Stratos Zero, which stands a mere 31 inches high. See those dark rectangular things just aft of the front wheel? Those are the side windows. You can just make out the steering wheel through the windshield. That should give you some idea of how the driver squeezes in there. Oh, and doors? There are no doors. You enter by flipping the windshield up and climbing over the front bumper.
As radical as it is, even the Stratos Zero is not the wildest Car Of The Future from this era. That distinction belongs to our next guest, the Ferarri Modulo:
Where cars like the Marzal and Tapiro and EX-III embrace the clean, sharp-edged, optimistic high-tech look of 2001, the Modulo is more like something out of A Clockwork Orange. This streamlined spacefaring go-kart stands only 36 inches above the road surface--and yet it has a V-12 engine, making it probably the baddest go-kart ever to roll on asphalt. Access to the bench seat (!) in the passenger compartment is by means of a canopy that pops up and shifts forward, as our two lovely product representatives will now demonstrate:
It's now the future, or rather, what was "the future" to us back then, and things have turned out very different from what my 10-year old self was led to expect. It's true that you can get a low-slung gull-winged spaceship on wheels of the sort I was car-lusting for back in the day, but they're expensive and not terribly common. What's common is not all that futuristic.
Where's the shiny hi-tech future they were promising me, the one with cities on the moon and robot butlers and high-speed monorails and a Tapiro in every driveway? What went wrong? Why didn't the cars of 2001 end up looking like cars from 2001?
I can think of a few reasons. For one thing, the Cars Of The Future we've been looking at are rather impractical vehicles. They were designed to attract attention, not to serve as a suburban mom's "family taxi." Even the largest of them, the four-seaters such as the Marzal and SRV, don't have a lot of space for luggage or groceries. Gullwings can be practical and liveable if they're designed right, but Lambo-style flip-up doors are probably a little tricky to open when you're carrying two shopping bags and a toddler. As for the cars with a slide-off canopy or flip-up windshield, well ... imagine that you're running out to your Modulo in the middle of a summer thunderstorm. You pop the canopy open, and it rains all over the carpet and the dashboard and the hand-woven sisal floor mats and the rich Corinthian leather upholstery, and then you get to sit on a wet seat in the rain while you fold up your umbrella so you can finally get the @#$%^& canopy closed, and--well, I think you get my point.
Manufacturers need to build cars that people actually want and can afford if they're going to sell enough of them to earn the money with which to keep the business in business. These cars may have drawn crowds at the auto shows and gotten the design majors all excited, but at the end of the day there's only so much demand out there for high-dollar two-seat mid-engined four-wheeled spaceships useful only for joyrides on sunny summer afternoons--usually not enough demand to justify the tooling and production costs.
Even if the demand was there, a lot of the truly exotic design elements would probably violate 21st-century safety standards. Take the Marzal, for example. The all-glass gullwing doors are uber-cool, as the kids like to say, but where in that all-glass door can you put the side impact beams? There's no room in those delicate A-pillars for the curtain airbags, either. And let's not even think about what it's going to take to bring that front bumper into compliance with the new EU pedestrian safety rule.
For another thing, this was also the time when the "personal luxury" coupe was reaching its peak popularity. Like the cars we've been looking at here, personal luxury coupes were flashy and extroverted, but a 1970 Monte Carlo was worlds away from the Tapiro in terms of style. Instead of looking to the future, personal luxury coupes embraced the past, adopting styling cues that were references to the high-end luxury cars of the '20s and '30s, "radiator" grilles, "formal" (vertical) back windows, (simulated) wire wheels, carriage lights, "woodgrain" interior trim, and so on. Even the ubiquitous vinyl roof was a reference; it was originally meant to mimic a convertable with the top up.
I've never been a fan of the personal luxury look, but it was very much in tune with mainstream tastes. Most non-enthusiast car buyers, circa 1972 or so, would have preferred to park a Cutlass Supreme in their driveway instead of a four-wheeled UFO like the Vauxhall SRV. The Cutlass may have lacked artistic merit, it may have been crassly blinged-out and unforgivably baroque, but at least it looked normal.
Finally, there was a little something called the 1973 oil price shock. The cars we've been looking at were high-performance sports cars, or, at least, cars (like the Tapiro) that wanted to make you think they were high-performance sports cars--and most had high-performance fuel consumption to go with the horsepower. With the price of gas spiking upward (and, in the USA at least, insurance rates on high-powered cars going up just as fast), there was soon a lot less interest in fuel-guzzling exotics.
Still, the Cars Of The Future did have some lasting influence on automotive design. Giorgetto Giugiaro's "folded paper" look, first seen on exotics like the Manta, carried over onto his more down-to-earth designs like the Sirocco and Golf (Rabbit). By the end of the 1970s, the Guigiaro look became something of a trend in itself. Other stylists followed his lead toward cleaner, sharper, simpler lines. They didn't always take the concept as far as Guigiaro did, but if you look at any manufacturer's model-year catalog from about the mid-1980s on, much of what you see will have at least a touch of Guigiaro about it. To give just one example, my beloved '85 CRX was not styled by ItalDesign, but it looks like it could have been.
The aerodynamic lessons learned in building things like the SRV certainly came in handy as drag reduction became a bigger part of the quest for fuel economy. There's a little of the EX-III in the wind-cheating shape of today's Camry and Prius--and, truth be told, a little more of that futuristic EX-III vibe might take some of the boredom out of the Camry.
Designers of the twenty-first century, take heed! Many more of your 2011s could use some of that 2001 feeling, but it's never too late to embrace the future. I see no good reason why todays minivans can't have gullwing doors and Bizzarrini Manta bumpers.
(And when you're done with that, we need to get cracking on those monorails.)
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The image of the cover of Irwin Stambler's Automobiles of the Future, published in 1966, comes from the delightful Paleo-Future blog. The vintage publicity photos of the Marzal, Carabo, Manta, Tapiro, EX-III, RX-500, SRV, and Stratos Zero came from the excellent collection at LotusEspritTurbo.com. The pictures of the Modulo came from the design blog Genomicon, whose proprietor, Nick Taylor, also got that Clockwork Orange feeling. The vintage beauty shot of the CRX came from the image gallery at The CRX Page.