The 20 Greatest Concept Cars of All Time, and We Mean All Time

The 20 Greatest Concept Cars of All Time, and We Mean All Time

What makes a great concept car? Most concept cars are pretty dreamy, but the truly great ones generate excitement and give us a glimpse of our motoring future. And if they look good, well, that’s an added bonus. Here are our picks for the twenty greatest concept cars of all time.

1938 Buick Y-Job

The Buick Y-Job of 1938 is regarded as the industry’s first concept car. Created at a time when cars still had running boards, giant spoke wheels, and headlights strapped to stand-up radiators, the Y-Job gave America a glimpse of how cars would look in the 1940s and 1950s (advances that might have arrived sooner were it not for that pesky war). Among its radical new features: concealed headlights built into the fenders, power windows, and a set of tiny-for-the-day 13-inch wheels with wide-white-wall tires. The Y-Job was based on a Buick Super chassis and was fully functional. General Motors design chief Harley Earl drove it regularly, and oh, how it must have turned heads.

1951 General Motors LeSabre

Our boys came home from World War II with flying on their minds, and GM’s 1951 LeSabre gave us our first glimpse of the styling trends that would soon dominate car design. The LeSabre was the first car to exhibit a curved windshield and tailfins, which would become mainstays of 1950s design. The oval at the center, which looks like a jet intake, retracts and spins to reveal two side-by-side headlights, while out back a giant central brake light glows like a jet fighter’s afterburner. Nifty details you can’t see? A rain sensor that closes the power top, electric jacks on the chassis for tire changes, and a rear-mounted transmission. Like the Y-Job, the LeSabre was a Harley Earl creation, and he used it as his daily driver.

1953-1955 Alfa Romeo Alfa BAT cars

Alfa Romeo’s Berlina Aerodynamica Technica (BAT) showcased a series of cars designed by Bertone. Each was an experiment in aerodynamics and they showed the world that cheating the wind could be a beautiful thing. The gray BAT 5 was introduced at the Turin Auto Show in 1953, with the blue BAT 7 appearing in 1954 and the silver BAT 9 following in 1955. Fifty-plus years later, in 2008, Alfa Romeo brought out a new BAT 11. The original three cars sold at auction in 2020 for just shy of $15 million.

1955 Lincoln Futura

1956 General Motors Firebird II

Car designers were obsessed with aviation cues, and the Firebird II—the second of four Firebird concepts from the 50s and 60s—showed just how far they could push the metaphor. This time, with a four-seat family sedan. The Firebird II not only looked like a jet plane, but it was also actually powered by a jet engine—a Whirlfire GT-304 gas turbine that produced 200 hp at 35,000 rpm. The body was made of titanium, and among the Firebird II’s futuristic features were a four-wheel independent suspension with disc brakes all around, a rearview camera, and four-zone climate control. The Firebird II even had an autonomous driving mode, in which the car followed metal strips embedded in the pavement. GM envisioned a two-way communications system that occupants could use to get directions or make motel reservations, a prediction of the OnStar system that would debut precisely forty years later.

1957 Ford Nucleon

The fifties were all about nukes, and the Nucleon was Ford’s idea for an atoms-for-peace-powered car. Ford envisioned a world where gasoline was obsolete—sound familiar? The Ford Nucleon had a small reactor that would power the car for 5,000 miles without needing to refuel, after which you’d pop down to the service station and have it exchanged for another reactor, not unlike Tesla’s battery-exchange scheme. The design of the Nucleon disguises some of the potential issues, such as the need to keep passengers as far from the hot zone as possible, not to mention wheels positioned in such a way so as to carry the load of the car’s heavy lead shielding. The Nucleon wasn’t an actual rolling car but rather a mock-up, because really, who wants to spend time around a nuclear reactor made by the same people who would later give us the Pinto?

1963 Chrysler Turbine Car

Chrysler began experimenting with gas-turbine cars in the early 1960s. Perhaps it’s not fair to label the ’63 Turbine as a concept car. After all, these were real, drivable vehicles; 50 in total, which 200 families used as daily drivers over a three-year period to evaluate the feasibility of jet-engine power. The Turbines proved very reliable, and their styling predicted the direction Chrysler cars would take in the mid-to-late 1960s. But it turned out they were not quite the cars of the future, as fuel economy was a problem even by 1960s standards. Chrysler continued experimenting with gas turbines until the late 1970s, by which time back-to-back energy crises and a growing ecological movement made it clear the powertrain’s meager fuel economy and high emissions made it impractical for use in cars.

1964 Pontiac Banshee

John DeLorean made a name as a rebel inside GM. While heading up Pontiac he oversaw the creation of the XP-833, a two-seat sports car that would later be known as the Banshee. Several styling mockups were built, as well as two fully-functional Banshee concept cars: a six-cylinder coupe and a V-8-powered convertible. The Banshee bears a passing resemblance to a certain other two-seat halo product from GM, and as it was a quarter-ton lighter, it probably would have outperformed said car, which is why the top-brass at GM ordered DeLorean to kill it. The prototypes were supposed to be destroyed, but DeLorean hid them away. They were later sold and even still exist today. If the styling looks familiar, that’s because the Banshee concept was a major influence on the third-generation Corvette, and if you watch this video you’ll see lots of cues from the upcoming ’67 Firebird.

1965 Corvette Mako Shark II

It’s not often that GM gives an early peek at a future product, but that’s precisely what happened when the company revealed the Mako Shark II, one of two Corvette concept cars to bear the Mako Shark name, in 1965. The second Shark gave the public a nearly undisguised view of the new-for-1968 Corvette more than two years before it went on sale. How did that happen? Originally the C3 was supposed to debut in 1966 as a ’67 model, but last-minute design delays pushed the C3’s introduction to the summer of 1967 as a ’68 model. All that aside, the Mako Shark II is a beautiful concept car, its tall fenders and bulging hood showing us a slightly-different direction the third-gen Corvette’s design could have taken.

1981 Ford Probe III

This was the third of a series of concepts Ford called Probe, a name those of us who have never been abducted by aliens find impossible to say with a straight face. Designed by Ford of Europe to prepare its buyers for the radical new Sierra, the Probe (snicker) III also showed Americans what was in their not-too-distant future. This included features such as flush glass, “Euro-style” aerodynamic headlights, doors that cut into the roofline, and a refreshing dearth of chrome, all styling features that became highlights of the paradigm-shifting 1986 Ford Taurus. Also note the Probe’s (snort) louvered taillights, which would be copied for the Fox-based 1987 Ford Mustang GT.

1986 Chevrolet Corvette Indy

We’ve seen lots of Corvette concepts over the years, and many more still with mid-mounted engines, but the most striking of these has got to be the 1986 Chevrolet Corvette Indy. Bear in mind this concept car came out at a time when most cars were still upright and squared-off, and even the 1986 Ford Taurus, a car that seems boxy to modern eyes, looked as smooth as a bar of soap. The body was made of carbon-fiber and the small-displacement twin-turbo V-8 was said to put down more than 600 hp. The Indy led to the fully-functional CERV III. You can also see its influence in today’s mid-engine C8 Corvette. What really strikes us, though, is that even though we lived through GM’s bland blobby-mobile era, the smooth lines of the Corvette Indy still look good—and, dare we say it, futuristic?

1989 Dodge Viper RT/10

One of the jobs of a concept car is to create a desire in auto show attendees. Perhaps no concept in modern history nailed the mark better than the 1989 Dodge Viper RT/10. Remember that this car came at a time when Chrysler showrooms were stocked with various iterations of the boxy K-car—the Neon, LH, Peterbilt-like Ram, and oval-shaped minivans were still years in the future. With sinewy lines and a ridiculously oversized V-10 under its hood, this modern-day Cobra had everyone’s attention—and Chrysler responded by putting it into production. Thirty years later, the Viper, both in concept and production form, is still regarded as the embodiment of automotive awesomeness.

1993 Plymouth Prowler

The early ’90s were a time of big changes in street-rodding. Did that influence Chrysler’s decision to make their Viper follow-up a retro-themed street rod? Hard to say, but we know the Prowler show car was every bit as much a jaw-dropper as the Viper. Like the Viper, the Prowler had ulterior motives: It was a test-bed for new assembly methods that Chrysler hoped to apply to its mainstream cars. But it was also a hit with the public, and Chrysler put the Plymouth Prowler into production for the 1997 model year, because that’s how Chrysler did things back then. It even out-lived the Plymouth brand, becoming the Chrysler Prowler in 2001 after Plymouth was wound down.

1994 Volkswagen Concept One

If the Viper and Prowler won the hearts and minds of hot-rodders, the Volkswagen Concept One stole the hearts and minds of everyone else. This adorable homage to the air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle was a world-wide hit, and Volkswagen soon put the car into production, dashboard-mounted-bud-vase and all. The New Beetle was an instant hit, despite a few gripes that the engine was located in the wrong place. Although Volkswagen struggled to attract male buyers (in automakers’ eyes, “chick car” is an insult), it stayed in production for more than a decade with only minor design changes, a feat that is itself a rather nice homage to the original Beetle.

1995 Chrysler Atlantic

How do you follow up epic concept cars such as the Dodge Viper RT/10 and the Plymouth Prowler? Chrysler did it with the Atlantic in 1995, a truly breathtaking homage to 1930s classics such as the Bugatti Type 57S Atlantic. Some complained that the Prowler had an ordinary V-6 engine, so Chrysler bolted together two four-pots to make a four-liter straight-eight engine that produced 360 hp. The giant wheels, though commonplace today, were a novelty in ’95. Unfortunately, unlike the Viper and the Prowler, this one never made it to production.

1998 Lexus Street Rod

If anyone thinks Toyota and Lexus lack a sense of humor, we present the little deuce coupe you see here. In order to promote its new-for-1998 VVTi V-8 engine, Lexus installed the big bent-eight in an honest-to-goodness ’32 Ford street rod. Toyota Racing Development bored the 4.0-liter engine out to 4.2 liters, fitted a hotter cam, and borrowed the intake manifold from the 4.7-liter V-8 in Ivan Stewart’s Toyota trophy truck, bringing the engine from its native 300 horse to 430 ponies. The transmission was the six-speed stick from a Supra. Rod Millen’s shop did the chassis and suspension and the car was assembled at California Street Rods in Huntington Beach, California. Not only did the Street Rod drive, but it also drove really well—and seeing as it has a Lexus engine, we bet it’s still driving well today.

2003 Cadillac Sixteen

Cadillac’s V-16 of 1930 was one of the American automaker’s finest achievements, and in 2003 the brand rolled out a modern-day version of that engine. Unveiled at the 2003 New York Auto Show, this 19-foot-long monster had a 13.6-liter sixteen-cylinder engine said to produce 1,000 hp and 1,000 lb-ft of torque. MotorTrend got to drive the car, and it was truly magnificent—not quiet and subdued like a Bentley, but loud and proud as an American car ought to be. That the Sixteen gave us a glimpse of where Cadillac styling was headed was almost entirely beside the point. Rumor has it that GM was considering a production version of the Sixteen, but those plans were obliterated by the 2008 bankruptcy.

2007 Dodge Demon

2010 Jaguar C-X75

Why do we love the Jaguar C-X75? Let us count the ways. First, there’s the styling, which truly is the stuff dream cars are made of. Second, is the dreamy powertrain, which is made up of four electric motors (totaling 780 hp), fed energy from a battery charged from—man, do we love this part—two micro-turbine engines. A jet-powered electric car! Throw in a fission reactor or two, and it’s like we’re back in the 1950s. The craziest thing is that Jaguar actually planned to put the C-X75 into production (with a small-displacement gas engine as an alternative to the jets), but the project was canceled once Jaguar realized it’d cost too much to make. Damn.

2017 Volkswagen I.D. Buzz

Twenty-odd years after the world fell in love with the Volkswagen Concept One, VW repeated the magic with the I.D. Buzz concept, an electric version of the venerable Volkswagen Type 2, known largely as the Bus. Despite the fact that many of the hippies who drove VW vans are now grumpy old Boomers with “Trump 2024” flags, younger motorists are, apparently, eager to see the Bus come back. And it will come back, as Volkswagen plans to launch a production version in 2022.