By on October 26, 2017


Automotive trade shows serve as a wonderful opportunity for manufacturers and suppliers to showcase upcoming products to the people most interested in them. However, carmakers understand that you have to take time to feed the global hype machine, which usually means tossing a few concept vehicles into the mix. While some of these designs serve as tantalizing preludes to real-deal automobiles, others are fantastical fabrications — representing little more than an interesting idea that will never reach production.

This year’s Tokyo Motor Show saw plenty of vehicles straddling the line between faintly tangible and utterly incorporeal in terms of future production. Sure, we know not every prototype will accurately represent subsequent real-world models. Subaru’s Viziv may not be a dead ringer for the next WRX, but it at least gives us a sense of where the design team is heading. The same is true for Honda’s Sports EV or Mazda’s incredible-looking Vision Coupe and Kai concepts.

However, for every concept car earnestly trying to convey a new design language or highlight upcoming features there is also something so implausible that it leaves you wondering why the manufacturer wheeled it out in the first place. Which brings us to today’s question: are these over-the-top automotive prototypes meaningful or a complete waste of resources?

If you can’t make up your mind, or are grappling with the concept of what qualifies as “over-the-top,” allow me to clarify.

In 1957, Studebaker-Packard unveiled a nuclear-powered concept vehicle called the Astral. It drove around balanced on a single massive wheel and featured the ability to hover over water. It also utilized energy fields that protected occupants from wind, radiation, and collisions. The Astral was so unapologetically futuristic that it served as a blueprint for the cartoon car the Jetsons owned.


It was followed by other dead-end atomic vehicles like the Ford Nucleon and Seattle-ite XXI, the latter of which was so ridiculous that Ford didn’t even bother to build a full-sized version. These are the primer examples that spring to mind when it comes to over-the-top concepts — designs so impossibly advanced, extravagant, impractical, implausible, or unmarketable, that you know they’ll never be built the second you see them. Do they have any merit?

Allow me to make this more difficult for you. Consider the Mercedes-Benz Bionic — a minivan based upon the physical attributes of a tropical sea creature from 2005, built exclusively to garner publicity. However, the Bionic actually worked. It had a drag coefficient of 0.19 and proved to be incredibly fuel efficient.

Today’s big trade show promises don’t revolve around atomic power or phenomenal fish-based drag coefficients though. Our atomic renaissance is “mobility.” In addition to being a magic word for investors, its a word that encompasses all aspects of electrification, self-driving technologies, and automobiles connected to the internet.

With that I give you the Toyota i-Ride — an implausibly small vehicle featured at this year’s Tokyo Motor Show with the sole purpose of serving as a mobility companion to those needing help moving around. It’s a terrific idea but Toyota decided to make it talk, predict emotions, and possess a level of autonomy well in excess of what is realistically possible. The execution lets you know immediately that this is not a real car, nor will it ever be.


Perhaps vehicles like these aren’t supposed to be anything more than aspirational. Toyota came up with a concept, built a mockup, and made a video. But there’s no sense of seriousness and no pathway for the i-Ride to take in the long-term.

Maybe it’s okay for cars like these to just be ideas — allowing automaker to experiment and imagine, while sharing a concept. Is that what’s happening here, or do these wacky prototypes not serve any practical purpose beyond allowing an automaker to drum up some attention for itself?

[Image: Toyota]

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17 Comments on “QOTD: Are Wacky Trade Show Prototypes Important or Just Plain Stupid?...”

  • avatar

    Sure. They’re the equivalent of a good work out for the design and engineering departments. You only improve your game by stretching your limits. People whose perimeters have been extended by doing these (admittedly unworkable) exercises are the people who will be designing/building your next car, using new tools they have developed in show cars. It’s post-graduate study for the automotivly gifted.

    • 0 avatar


      Concepts and prototypes apply to many other industries too. Fashion (clothing, runway models) pushes to the absurd, but eventually becomes toned down for normal customers. Musicians push their boundaries with experimental music, but perhaps to a limited audience at first. To not worry about being practical, if just for a little while, liberates the imagination. The ideas will then go on the back burner, and perhaps one day, when the technology is available and if cultural sensitivities allow, will see the light of day.

    • 0 avatar

      Not a bad way to describe it. Good insight, ham.

      We always view concept work as a way to “taffy” our current portfolio ( I do design work for a custom product business). Whatever we stretch a foot to build for concepts, we gain an inch for our production stuff.

      We learn a lot by jumping in pools vs. merely dipping toes. Sometimes the water’s freezing, sometimes it’s wonderfully warm, occasionally the pool’s empty, heh.

      But we always glean from successes and failures, and so do concept cars for their mfgs.

  • avatar

    They are marketing for non-car people. A way to get people to talk about the brand, just like any other marketing pitch.

    It also helps them gauge interest in features and functions

    But as a car guy, I ignore them. They are pie-in-the-sky, often non-functioning, clearly not designed for any purpose other than to try things out and to exercise design muscles. I’d rather worry about “real” things.

    • 0 avatar

      I tend to agree with you. At the NYIAS I usually walk right by this stuff. But they have their place, whether that be for marking or just letting the designers have a field day. That can be good for business and good for your employees.

  • avatar

    Auto show prototypes are nice to look at, but so many times in the recent past have let me down.

    For example, the Chevy Bel Air concept vehicle: so much promise and not a thing to show for it.

    More recently, the Challenger and Camaro: Both car show prototypes appeared as pillarless hardtops. What did we get? Thick B pillars and tiny, almost useless rear fixed quarter glass.

    Other prototypes are just models that have all the safety and practicality of a golf cart.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I really wanted Chrysler’s ecoVoyager concept to gain traction:

    But mostly,I ignore the wacky concepts.

  • avatar
    Shortest Circuit

    Recommended reading: “A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design”
    In short: yes they are necessary. Elwood Engel and Harley Earl were both firm believers that these projects not only shape the possible future, but also let the designers blow off some steam. Who wants to design headlamp bezels one after the another?
    One of my favorites, the Olds Toronado was such design. Nobody thought it would be ever built, much less that it would successfully scale up to the E-body platform.

    • 0 avatar

      GREAT book. Highly recommended.

      This was the era that produced the “rockstar designer.” Earl, Exner, Mitchell; pushing boundaries and producing some of the most lustworthy vehicles ever made.

      You just reminded me to go get my copy back!

    • 0 avatar
      el scotto

      I’ll be the blasphemer here. Decades of yearly reveals of the Hot New Model! For decades, very little changed mechanically. The Toronado being an exception. BOF, floaty ride, vague steering, and rear drum brakes were the rule. The Big 3 executives, driving their company maintained vehicles, said “it just doesn’t get any better than this”. GM was the worst offender. Then the 80s came; people learned to like Japanese quality and Mercedes became the serious, aspirational car. GM now gets by on Crossovers and Trucks. They’re playing catch-up with their sedan styling; hell they gave small car design to the Koreans. Those care were beautiful designs and mechanical junk. IN 20, 30 years tops no one will be buying them at Barret-Jackson. In fairness, I shudder to think what Barret-Jackson what will be selling in 30-40 years.

      • 0 avatar

        Oh, they’ll find SOMETHING to sell. Probably ’63 Rivieras, mid-’60s Imperials, early fastback Valiants and Chargers, 1960’s Toronados and Eldorados, 1970s Cadillac Talismans, low production AMC models (Pacer! Matador!), and even the first downsized 1977 Impalas! Many are already available at auction, but the prices will go up.

        There will always be the exchange via auction of 1930s classics too, and the spots held by 1960s cars today will be replaced by 1980s cars in the low-price classic field. Shed no tears for Barrett-Jackson, they’ll get by as long as there are millionaires who think classic cars are an investment.

  • avatar

    Both. They’re important in pushing the envelope of design and also fun and wacky to see.

  • avatar

    I think they’re a good thing. Pushing limits, even with no foreseeable purpose, is what leads to innovation for more practical applications.

    We’ve all been taken aback by concept cars, only to be left hanging on our desires when no production is granted. Its frustrating, yes, but I still think that we (and the industry) are better off with them than without. I loved the Kia GT4 Stinger (not the production sedan with the Stinger name, the minimalist sporty RWD coupe concept) and the Nissan IDx (or whatever it was, the concept that mimicked the iconic 510). But, alas, it was not to be. It did show me that both companies could theoretically produce cars that get my heart rate up, when previously nothing they had did so. Yes, its disappointing that they didn’t happen, but I don’t blame them. The Toyobaru hasn’t exactly set the world on fire with sales, so I understand why they didn’t reach the showroom. Still, I loved them and would have loved to see them in production.

    The crazier concepts, like Isuzu’s toaster/honeycomb delivery truck concept at Tokyo this year, do inspire and ask questions previously never thought of. Will we see it pounding the pavement anytime soon? No. But, some of the innovation it pioneers may be coming to a loading dock near you at some point. I especially liked the central driver’s area. Seems ideal for maximum visibility, and a great way to market the truck in both right- and left-hand drive countries without the modifications normally required.

  • avatar

    My only problem is they claim these are “design studies” which will be used gauge feedback. With modern social media the feedback is immediate and obvious, yet they ignore it. So when the car finally arrives everyone screams that they softened or changed things from the prototype too much. We got way too much pie-in-the-sky hype building going on here. If you going to show something amazing don’t sell out later and back down on your vision. The huge wheels and tiny mirrors along with the minimal interior aside you should be able to see the main body and key design elements carry over to production. Especially the proportions, so don’t show me huge fender aches if you can’t pull them off. Don’t show me impossibly tiny headlights if they don’t really work.

    Honesty I like Apple’s approach here. And Ford copied it perfectly for the GT. Don’t show or talk about anything… then – BOOM showcase it with a real version of the “future” I can buy today. When the GT launched it stole the show because it wasn’t a concept car, it was a functional vehicle you could have driven off the turntable that day. Granted you had to order it, but nothing on the car was fake. The opposite approach can be seen with how GM birthed the new Camaro. Months of protypes, the Transformer movie, constant design showcases under the bright lights. Then almost boredom when the car finally arrived because we had seen it so much already.

  • avatar

    We had a new boss come in and told us to come up with new ideas, no matter how crazy “we need to inovate” So I came up with this idea that we could glue a part together. I even talked with our adhesive guy about and he thought it was possible. When I presented the idea, I was shot down out of hand. Didn’t bother much with him after that, and in a few years he was gone.

    My point being allow your engineers and designers to come up with ideas no matter how wacky. There just might be something you can use.

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