By on November 26, 2011

Back in junior high in the late 1960s, we had an assignment to write about “the good life in the year 2000″. Since I regularly read magazines like Popular Science and Mechanics Illustrated, it wasn’t too hard to put something together about edible silverware (didn’t happen) and microwave ovens (did). Perhaps that’s why I like the site Retro Future so much. There’s something meta about looking back into the past at how people looked forward into the future. While researching the Brooks Stevens Studebaker concepts I came across this 1963 clipping from the Milwaukee Journal. Stevens was based in Milwaukee and his hometown paper reported on a panel at the SAE congress in Detroit which featured Stevens and Richard Teague, who was by then the head of styling for American Motors after stints at Chrysler, GM and Packard. Stevens worked as a contract designer for a variety of non-automotive companies in addition to his work for Studebaker. The topic of the SAE panel was the car of the future. Stevens had a grandiose plan for a rolling living room. Teague, no stranger to cutting edge designs himself (cf. Packard Predictor) suggested a more evolutionary process. The interesting thing is that they both sort of turned out to be right, if not on the exact time frame.

Stevens predicted that by the 1970s air-conditioning would become commonplace, that there’d be rear seat television, pullout tables for playing games or eating, places to store your clothes, and seats that converted into sofas. Stevens also prophesied that powertrains would shrink to the size of a breadbox and that most cars would be either front wheel drive, or like the Corvair and VW, rear engined. He also predicted that turbines would be used, turbines being a big thing in Detroit in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and he suggested that electric four wheel drive could be powered by fuel cells. By then Chrysler had already shown a concept that proposed a fuel cell power source and GM was working on the fuel cell powered Electrovan. The auto industry was deeply involved in the space effort so it’s likely Stevens learned of fuel cells via that connection.

Teague, who is generally considered to have been a bit of a maverick, surprisingly made the conservative suggestion that  that cars would stay conventional and pooh-poohed Stevens’ predictions. Right off he said that nobody was working on such a small powerplant. Cars ten years hence would have evolutionary improvements to their engines but they would run on gasoline. Cars of the future, he predicted, would have greater variety of style now that glass could be shaped, and better suspension systems.

Teague was at least partly correct about the Stevens’ pipe dreams, but not entirely. Some of Stevens’ more outlandish suggestions have obviously not come to pass, and certainly didn’t by the 1970s, but many of his predictions have indeed come true. Front wheel drive is ubiquitous. A number of companies today are working on EVs with wheel hubs or other individual motors for each wheel which allow sophisticated four wheel drive. Air-conditioning is standard equipment in most cars sold in America, perhaps the world, today, and there are indeed rear seat televisions, only they play a far wider variety of content and games and have access to more information than Stevens could ever have imagined. Minivans and SUVs are filled with nooks and crannies and bins and all sorts of places to stow things, though there aren’t any clothes closets. In 1963, only Rambler offered seats that fully reclined. Stevens prediction about sofas and davenports briefly came true during the van conversion era, but even today most front seats fully recline and minivan and crossover seats can be set up in a variety of configurations.

For his part, Teague was accurate about the slow pace of change. We’re still using gasoline engines, much improved as Teague predicted. Stylists have fewer limitations and materials science have improved to the point that cars can be made into shapes that designers like Teague and Stevens could have only dreamed about manufacturing. And cars today most definitely have better suspensions and braking systems than they did in 1963. A typical family sedan today handles and corners literally rings around the high performance sports cars did of years ago.

It would be interesting to hear what today’s designers think about what will be 10, 20 and 50 years from now, and then to look back and see just how accurate they were.

Two automotive stylists clashed Thursday on whether the car of the future will be a home on wheels or merely similar to the present family car.

Brooks Stevens, a Milwaukee designer who has worked on Studebaker car, described the family auto of the 1970′s as a rolling livng room.

But Richard A. Teague, styling chief for American Motors, said Stevens’ dream car could not be produced in even the next 20 years and predicted the car of 1970 still will be built to provide basic transportation.They appeared on a session ofthe Society of Automotive Engineers congress in Detroit.

Stevens called his car “Auto Familia” – an auto for the family. It would be an air conditioned vehicle equipped with rear seat television, pullout tables for gaming or dining, vanity table and clothes storage compartment and seats that convert into luxuriously upholstered davenports.

The drive line and power plant would be simplified to one of three processes: a front engine front drive, a rear engine rear drive, or a turbine or fuel cell all-wheel drive.

The design, which might eliminate suspension systems, would be on, say, a 112 inch wheelbase with 165 inches overall length, Stevens said.

“A pipe dream,” Teague said in effect. He said the main concept behind Stevens’car is a power plant “the size of a breadbox” and no such engiine is even in the advanced planning stage. Even without a breadbox size engine, Teague addes, such a vehicle is impractical.

Teague said the car of the next decade would have an improved version of the present gasoline engine, greater finesse of style, new bendable glass, and better suspension system.

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21 Comments on “Forward Into the Past Into the Future – Brooks Stevens & Dick Teague Predict the 1970s from 1963...”


  • avatar
    V572625694

    Teague’s last hurrah. Asymmetrical doors ahead of their time!

    • 0 avatar
      VanillaDude

      The future looked brighter when these gentlemen did their forecast. Today’s futurists are far more pessimistic. Teague and Stevens believed in overcoming the obstacles ahead. Today’s futurists do not have the same level of confidence.

      Their generation went to the Moon and began work to reach it without knowing all the details. Reaching the Moon was not viewed as an ignoble goal. Today’s living generations would not be as believing or willing to reach for that goal.

      So when we take a look at what their prophesied, we need to also be aware how they believed that the best was yet to come and how this attitude was precedent in delivering the awesome present we enjoy today.

  • avatar

    Great story. I was also a disciple of those same magazines during an era when anything seemed possible on their pages.Both guys were more right than wrong in retrospect.

  • avatar
    SilverHawk

    Brooks saw a family vehicle that was minivan-sized, with the small engine compartment that you mentioned. He also envisioned premium compacts and personal luxury coupes as later shown in the Ford Granada and Chevy Monte Carlo.
    Stevens and Teague were both students of doing more for less, and they were unusually good at it, so they had a unique perspective on the industry. As in the 60s, today’s designers would have difficulty seeing the future because we are still sorting out the power trains of the future. So much depends on that issue. In 1963, I was sure that turbines would be a big part of our automotive future. So much for that insight.

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    Interesting post. These predictions are typical — you can be at least partially right by going in either the conservative or radical direction.

    Stevens’ radical predictions are ironic given that his Studebaker styling exercises were much more mainstream than Loewy’s. For example, compare Loewy’s proposed Avanti-esque Lark replacement (early versions had a fastback and no grille) with Stevens’ rather baroque Sceptre show car.

    Didn’t Teague draw upon Stevens in the development of the AMC Hornet?

    Teague rose to his level of incompetence as AMC’s head designer. AMC’s demise as an independent was largely a product of bad styling decisions for the 1971 Javelin, 1974 Matador and, of course, the ill-fated Pacer. Teague’s basic philosophy — that snazzy styling was the key to AMC’s success — proved to be wrong. Chrysler made a fortune on its dowdy compacts — heirs to Rambler’s old market — while AMC’s fortunes sank with remarkable speed in the 1970s.

    • 0 avatar

      The Loewy Avanti styled sedans were not, I believe, intended to replace the Lark. I was just at the Studebaker museum a few weeks ago and the two Loewy concepts are on display right across from Steven’s Sceptre. In the basement are Steven’s concept for a new Cruiser and a station wagon. It seemed to me that the Loewy concepts were bigger cars than the Stevens prototypes and could possibly have been meant to sit at the top of the Studebaker line up. The Sceptre is a sporty two door hardtop.

      I just finished a series over at Cars In Depth on a hypothetical all-new 1967 Studebaker showroom. There were have been the two Loewy concepts at the top of the line, in fastback and more formal rooflines, the Avanti sports car in both two door and four door body styles, a new Cruiser and the Skyview station wagon for the heart of the market, and the Sceptre, a “personal luxury car” like the Riviera, Monte Carlo, Grand Prix etc. They even had a cheap pickup truck designed and developed for Westinghouse to use for appliance delivery.

      Studebaker had no shortage of ideas, at least on the part of the creative staff and Sherwood Egbert. They had an inefficient factory and a stupid board of directors.

      AMC’s demise as an independent was more of a product of Roy Abernethy’s decision in the mid ’60s to take on the Big 3 with a full lineup of cars in all segments, than it was Teague’s styling. By the time Roy Chapin Jr. took over, the company had gone from profitability and money in the bank to hemorrhaging cash. It was Abernethy’s fault why AMC was so late to the muscle and pony car wars and why AMC (which had a bit of a racing history via Hudson) didn’t go racing.

      Charles Hyde’s history of Nash, Hudson and AMC, Storied Independent Automakers, puts a lot of blame on Abernethy after George Romney left AMC and on A.E. Barit, who ran Hudson before the merger with Nash.

      I think that both Teague and Stevens were intrigued by the idea of interchangeable body panels. The early concepts that became the AMC Hornet had diagonally interchangeable doors and fenders, if I’m not mistaken.

      • 0 avatar
        SilverHawk

        Ronnie, maybe later you could do a feature on the actual 67 prototype that Bob Marcks had planned before S-W pulled the plug.
        He was continuing the move upmarket with very little funding.
        Oh, and may I say that in 1963, Studes had reclining front seats just like Ramblers. My old 61 Lark Regal coup had them as well.

      • 0 avatar
        mdensch

        Ronnie,
        You are not mistaken. In the mid-1960s Teague worked up a number of designs for possible future products. One, the Cavalier, presaged styling cues that ended up on the Hornet but it featured not only diagonally interchangeable doors and fender but interchangeable hood and trunk lid, as well. The Studebaker Cruiser concept must have served as inspiration for the Cavalier concept.

      • 0 avatar
        Dr Lemming

        Ronnie, I haven’t seen dimensions for the the Loewy sedan but it does look like it is on a stretched Lark chassis — perhaps of roughly the same size as the old Champions. If the Loewy sedan had made it to production I imagine that Studebaker would have soon discontinued the previous-generation sedans, since they were getting pretty old even with the 1964 restyling and retirement of the Lark name. Like so many other brands during that time period, Studebaker seemed to be shifting its focus from the compact to the mid-sized field.

        The historical literature I’ve read suggests that the Loewy sedan was far more advanced in its development than Stevens’ show cars. In addition, Loewy’s design would have been less expensive to tool up for because it appears to have carried over the Avanti’s tall cowl. In contrast, Stevens’ designs had a completely new body.

        Is there an AMC historian out there who doesn’t blame Abernathy for AMC’s demise? He did almost kill the company. However, Chapin for some strange reason has largely escaped blame for a remarkably long string of bad decisions. I’ve picked on Teague for AMC’s styling mistakes but Chapin is the guy who gave those cars the go ahead.

        For example, Chapin was really big on the ill-fated Matador coupe. He saw it as AMC’s ticket to finally becoming competitive in NASCAR racing. One small problem: The mid-sized coupe market had long since shifted from muscle to luxury. GM might have been able to afford a “halo” coupe that didn’t sell but not tiny AMC.

      • 0 avatar

        The historical literature I’ve read suggests that the Loewy sedan was far more advanced in its development than Stevens’ show cars.

        That isn’t my impression. The Loewy sedan concepts were done by Pichon-Parat in France, I think in fiberglass. The Stevens concepts were done in metal by Sibona-Bassano in Turin.

        You can’t tell much from prototypes and even less from 40 year old prototypes, but the Stevens cars look more finished to me. That’s based on having seen them just a few weeks ago. The Sceptre sits just a few feet from the Loewy studio’s concepts.

        [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gLagIjexEY&w=500&h=284]

        Start the YouTube 3D video player. Click on the red 3D icon that will appear in the menu bar to turn off 3D or select your choice of stereo 3D formats.

      • 0 avatar
        Dr Lemming

        Ronnie, the reason I thought that the Loewy prototypes were more advanced was that Studebaker had some test mules running around South Bend. From what I’ve read, the Stevens’ concepts were one-offs. Were they shown on the auto show circuit?

        Now, if Studebaker had survived the board would presumably have been more likely to go in Stevens’ direction because the Avanti had been such a sales flop. But it sounded like Egbert was pretty invested in the Avanti look.

      • 0 avatar
        Monty

        Ronnie:

        First of all, thanks for posting the photos from the Studebaker National Museum. I went for my first visit this past October, and I spent a day enthralled by the collection. I’ve managed to visit some museums in the past few years, and I am wondering if you have some favourites of your own to recommend. I’ve been to the Harrah’s collection and the Studebaker, and when I was a child the Ford Museum, so I would like to add to the list.

        Back to Studebaker. The sad fact is that as soon as Egbert got sick, along with the Avanti sales flop, the Studebaker BoD was determined to discontinue car manufacturing – the company had several other irons in the fire, which were a lot more profitable. Even if Studebaker had survived into the next decade, meeting the new EPA standards would have put the final nail into the coffin anyway.

        For Studebaker to have survived, let alone prospered, the BoD would’ve had to have charted an almost perfect course through the decades after the war, but, as we know, each mis-step begat an accumulation of further mistakes, culminating in the moon shot that was the Avanti.

        Personally, I love the orphan brands – Studebaker, Packard, Nash, Hudson, Willys and Kaiser, and were I able to afford it, I would have at least one example of each make in my garage. Each marque created vehicles, that to me, are works of art.

      • 0 avatar
        Monty

        Shoot, I can’t edit my post.

        I just wanted to add that I thought the Stevens Sceptre concept was visually stunning – much more so than the Loewy concepts.

  • avatar
    jimmyy

    In hindsight, the corret answer would have been:

    The future Detroit vehicle will be a desperate attempt to stay relevant by copying Japanese products. This will occur because Detroit will be undermined by UAW wages and benefits that will leave their research and development underfunded. Detroit will never innovate again.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Glass bent into unique shapes? Yeah, aside from the kinked rear windows of the downsized Chevy Impala coupe of 1977 and the Cadillac El Dorado, glass has gotten flatter, just look at any windshield, because it is just too expensive and OEMs are going to go the least-expensive route possible.

    I wish the automotive designers would be more innovative, but I suppose it’s easier just to put as many creases in sheetmetal as possible and call it “style” with little regard for desirability.

    Real change only comes about slowly because of the “you first” philosophy, as the price of failure is too high.

  • avatar
    dolorean

    Having driven several ancient behemoths of the 70′s era, Stevens got it more right for the time period. Each of them was so softly sprung and so lightly steered it felt like driving my couch to the mall.

  • avatar
    KrisT

    They could just have said thats it already been and gone and was called the traction avant.

  • avatar
    mirth

    What Brooks Stevens accurately predicted was the Dodge Caravan – it is exactly how they are used. But he got some implementation details wrong. “… a front engine front drive.. a 112 inch wheelbase with 165 inches overall length”.

    The 1st generation Dodge Caravan, was indeed F-F, 112 inch wheelbase, but 176 inches long, not 165. He forgot to predict cicra 1984 bumper regulations. What a dummy.


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