As intriguing as current concept cars are, past models can be even more compelling, especially those that never came to fruition. These cars, while now an easy target for derision, also offer a glimpse of how car design might have unfolded—if DOT regulations in some instances and good taste in others had not prevailed. From 1990 through 1993, Robb Report’s May issues covered the speculative designs unveiled at the annual North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Some of the models that were included eventually rolled off the production lines appearing just as they did in the pages of the magazine. Among them were the Porsche Boxster and the Plymouth Prowler from the May 1993 issue.
Unlike the Boxster and Prowler, however, our 1990 cover car, the Cadillac Aurora, was a concept car in the truest sense. It incorporated several possible design elements for future metal-and-glass Cadillacs, with the understanding that just some, or perhaps none, of these features would survive and proceed to the mass market. The production vehicle that appears to have descended from the Aurora was the dismal Catera, which represented a desperate attempt by Cadillac to attract younger drivers to replace brand loyalists who were steadily dying off.
The machine that ultimately led Cadillac out of the wilderness, the Escalade luxury sport-utility vehicle, was not even on automotive designers’ radar screens in the early 1990s. When it debuted in the fall of 1998, the Escalade bore a suspiciously strong resemblance to the Chevy Tahoe. It was redesigned in 2001 and soon after was drawing the younger drivers Cadillac had long sought. With the SRX, a crossover that Robb Report named this year’s Best of the Best SUV, Cadillac has reclaimed its status as a luxury marque. Although the concept of crossover SUVs—vehicles that are smaller and lighter than traditional truck-bodied SUVs and drive like luxury sedans—would not arrive for several years, the Jeep Wagoneer 2000, discussed in the May 1991 issue, sported design lines that might now remind some of the Porsche Cayenne. And the May 1990 issue included the Oldsmobile Expression, a station wagon that handled like a sport sedan and entertained like a home theater. The rear seat included a video screen connected to a VCR and a Nintendo game console, amenities that, in updated forms, are virtually de rigueur on modern family vehicles.
Among all of those featured in the four articles, the one automobile that explicitly wore the SUV label, the Jeep ECCO, in the May 1993 issue, was positioned as environmentally friendly. The ECCO was powered by a two-stroke engine designed to meet new, lower emissions standards that would go into effect the following year. It was also constructed almost entirely of recyclable materials and could be disassembled with relative ease when its automotive career came to an end. Chrysler’s design chief at the time, Tom Gale, said that putting the ECCO into production was a simple matter, provided the public wanted something like it.
Evidently, there was little call for an environmentally friendly SUV a decade ago, but that is not to dismiss the ECCO as a failure. For the purpose of these cars is not to reflect what the public wants; it is to anticipate what the public will demand. In this respect, the ECCO might yet prove to be quite a concept.