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Feature: Back to the Future

Fluto Shinzawa

This past year, BMW 7 Series owners were introduced to iDrive, which, by means of a dial on the center console and a monitor on the dashboard, seemingly controls every one of the car’s functions while eliminating most of the buttons and switches that line the interiors of other luxury sedans. Though groundbreaking, the system isn’t new. Three years ago, well before the 745i went on sale, another car featured the iDrive system.

In 1999, BMW released the Z9 Gran Turismo, a sporty two-door concept car created by BMW designer Adrian van Hooydonk that included the do-all mechanism. The Z9’s iDrive system was even more efficient than the current version—the 7 Series still includes several dashboard buttons to control cabin temperature, and its iDrive monitor is permanently displayed. In contrast, the Z9’s dashboard is nearly devoid of any devices, and the monitor can be concealed when it is not in use. “We have not achieved the ideal world of the show car, but we made some steps in that direction,” van Hooydonk says of the 7 Series.

Such are the limitations of a reality-checked production model compared to a concept car whose design is limited only by the imagination. For designers and carmakers, concept cars represent the opportunity to cast practicality aside and build a machine that looks into the future while still embracing a company’s heritage, allowing a Mercedes-Benz enthusiast, for example, to view the Vision SLR concept car and instantly recognize it as his or her favorite marque.

For drivers, a concept car can indicate the direction in which a carmaker is aiming, provide a platform for critique, and sometimes cause anguish because it is not for sale as a production car. And while marketing, research, and public-ity are the primary goals behind the building of concept cars, these vehicles also represent the vision of the designers, such as Ian Callum, Jaguar’s design director. Callum worked on the R Coupe, a two-door, pewter-colored concept car introduced last year. “Looking at the R Coupe, the biggest thrill for me is that I know it could be real,” Callum says.

Although the R Coupe’s interior is adorned with a wildly impractical veneer of ebony macassar wood that sweeps around the entire cabin, one can still imagine the powerful V-8 machine barreling down an interstate. It’s just as easy to picture the Z9, with its lightweight aluminum and carbon fiber body propelled by a 3.9-liter diesel engine, slicing through the tightest corners of a canyon road.

Then there’s Harald Belker’s concept car. Belker, a California designer, created a vehicle for Minority Report, the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise film set in the year 2054. To fit Spielberg’s vision for the fu-ture, Belker sketched a sleek, cab-forward, bubble-shaped red sports car that could slash through crowded streets at 100 mph with no concerns for traffic or pedestrians, thanks to a laser-guided cruise control system.

Lexus agreed to stamp its badge on the futuristic model, and CTEK, a design and development firm, constructed the 2,300-pound car. “With concepts, people usually associate them with other cars they’ve seen before,” Belker says. “I tried to have a car with proportions that didn’t look like anything.”

Rather than looking 50 years into the future as Belker did, van Hooydonk and other designers typically think five years ahead, melding ideas of never-before-seen stylings with their brands’ traditions. When they release their concept cars, potential buyers can view the machines and voice their likes and dislikes to the carmakers, thereby influencing the design of upcoming production models.

“We’re pulling thoughts from the future and showing them,” says van Hooydonk, the president of Designworks/USA, BMW’s California design studio. “All of a sudden, the consumer can make a judgment. That’s the real aim of concept cars. If we don’t show these things, the future may not even happen. But as soon as you show something, it becomes part of today’s reality. We manipulate the future.”

The Mercedes Vision SLR, a two-seat concept car introduced in 1999, prompted the rear fenders, extended hood, and sweeping lines of the 2003 Mercedes-Benz SL500. The CS1, BMW’s most recent concept car, will serve as the foundation for the company’s upcoming 1 Series vehicles, which will be available in 2004. The Jaguar R Coupe might be the inspiration for a future top-of-the-line car. “It’s not perfect. No car ever is,” Callum says of the R Coupe. “But it’s important as a template. What this car indicates are the values and philosophy of where our future cars are going.”

Although sometimes admirers literally don’t know where concept cars are going—it’s unclear which end of the Minority Report car is the front—many are certain of where these show vehicles should be: in their own garages. The complaint that designers hear most is that the cars are not for sale. With the R Coupe parked outside the hall, Callum was speaking at a conference in London when one of the guests asked how soon the car would be available for sale. When Callum replied that it was a one-off concept car, the guest said he would have paid 100,000 pounds for the vehicle, or almost $150,000.

Perhaps the viewing public’s second-most-frequent lament is that they can’t style the cars themselves. Designing space-age cars seems more like a pleasure than a task, a pastime that elicits memories of doodling in elementary-school notebooks. Van Hooydonk calls the process exciting and fantastic, and he should know: BMW selected his long-bonnet, short-overhang blueprint of the Z9 over 20 other designers’ sketches.

Belker, who had only three weeks to design the Minority Report car using sketches and 3-D modeling, was uncertain whether the vehicle would turn out like the machine he imagined. He spent several hours sketching a section of the car, then Spielberg suggested changes, and Belker went to work on revising his design. When Belker finally saw the Lexus car up close for the first time, he was overjoyed—and overwhelmed. “Oh my God,” he cried, “what have I done?”

Ultimately, concept cars should prompt such worshipful adoration. They involve the pinnacle of imagination, inspiration, and technology, bundling the best of yesterday and tomorrow into picture-perfect machines that even the divine would want to drive.

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