By Raymond McKee (The Southern Gent)
Every year when the auto show season comes around, it seems most of the attention is focused on the concept cars. Most of these never see production, but they usually provide clues to what may be in the show rooms in the not-too-distant future. But what makes the concept cars most fascinating is they show what the top designers can turn out when they don't have to meet a price point and they can let their imaginations take over. Whether they are re-working a familiar vehicle or starting completely from scratch, they present the automobile as not just a means of transportation, but as a thing of art. Ever since Harley Earl first produced the Buick Y-Job, the concept cars have made automotive history by predicting the future. Now Michael J. Frumpkin and Phil Hall have collected that history in one volume.
The book, American Dream Cars, devotes a chapter to each of the big three auto makers, plus a chapter for the independent manufacturers. Within each chapter are sub-chapters for each of the different companies' divisions. Each divisions' show cars are described in chronological order, giving statistics for each vehicle and other notes of features that made each car unique. Unfortunately, most of the photos are in black and white, although there is a color photo section at the back of the book featuring some of the better known, and more recent concept vehicles. The text is an auto factoid junkie's delight, full of all sorts of details and trivia which can be pulled out to win the occasional bar bet. And the book gives rise to all sorts of speculation of what could have been. For instance,, what if Dodge had mass-produced a Corvette fighter based on it's 1954 concept called the Fire Arrow? And just how many times has GM used the name Banshee for a show car?
Many of the show cars pictured here showcase what was playing in the mind of America when they were made; hence the rocket ship designs of the Fifties and the eco-conscious vehicles of the Nineties. With modern eyes, it's easy to see why a lot of these just didn't catch on. We can see where companies tried to repackage boring platforms in gaudy wrappings and we can see instances where the designers plain guessed wrong. The results were often silly, or ugly, or both, but they're all here.
And what does this book hold for the diecast collector? Well many a short-lived concept car has gone on to have a long and happy career in 1:64 scale. Here is a chance to put pictures of the original vehicles together with some of the cars we've collected for years. From Hot Wheels, here is the AMX 2, the Pontiac Salsa, the Cadillac Cien, and many others. From Matchbox here is the Dodge Charger Mk III. And from Johnny Lightning, here is the 1955 Lincoln Futura along with the car's history and a picture of the vigilante anti-crime roadster it was converted into, and which no one can get the license to make today. And along with photos of models we've seen in the past, there are models we can dream about seeing in the future. In particular, I'm thinking about the 1970 Dodge Super Charger Concept, a two seat roadster that looks like it was based on the Dodge Charger Daytona. Playing Mantis, are you listening?
Concept cars have always been on the cutting edge of automotive design, and they've always fascinated. After all, what gearhead wouldn't want to be able to create his own Hot Wheels in 1:1 scale. Since we can't all do that, here's hoping a book like this will inspire the right people to make the best of these a little bit smaller. And I do hope Frumpkin and Hall will give consideration to a companion volume of concept cars from Europe and Asia.
American Dream Cars: 60 Years of the Best Concept Vehicles, by Michael J. Frumpkin and Phil Hall, isbn 08734511, is published by Krause Publications and retails for $24.95.