Seventeen concept cars from the early 1930s to the 21st century are brought together in a new exhibition at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. We take a lap of the show that celebrates progressive automobile design.

Until 7 September 2014
High Museum of Art, Atlanta


Norman Timbs Special, 1947
Norman Timbs (American, 1917-1993), designer
Attributed to Emil Diedt, fabricator
Courtesy of Gary and Diane Cerveny, Malibu, California

Mechanical engineer Norman Timbs created the Timbs Special for his personal use. A visually arresting automobile that epitomized grace and speed, the car articulated the ideas of streamlining and wind resistance with its elongated, curvilinear forms and seemingly single-piece body. It had no doors and was composed of two hand-formed aluminum shapes. To create this form, Timbs started with drawings, followed by quarter-scale clay models, and then a full-scale body buck (wooden frame) over which the aluminum panels were shaped and then welded together. This car graced the October 1949 cover of Motor Trend magazine, accompanied by a short article, "Home-Made Streamliner," a title that implied that anyone could make this car. The article included images, and referred to this stunning vehicle as "a little workbench project." However, it went on to say that it took Timbs more than two and a half years to complete the car, and it cost him around $10,000 – far from the simple home-hobbyist project indicated by the article's title.


Tasco, 1948
Gordon M. Buehrig (American, 1904-1990), designer
Derham Body Company, American, 1887-1971, fabricator
Courtesy of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum, Auburn, Indiana

Designer and engineer Gordon Buehrig, famed for designing the Cord 810 and Duesenberg Model J in the 1930s, independently developed the design for the automobile known as the Tasco in 1948. The acronym stands for The American Sports Car Company (the car and company shared the same name). One interesting but ultimately unsuccessful design element in the Tasco was its front fenders, which turned with the wheels; Buehrig experimented with molded fiberglass to form the mobile fenders. He also used the relatively new vacuum-forming process to create small 3-D models from a then new material, ABS plastic, an innovation that saved both time and money and later was adopted industry-wide. The Tasco’s clever T-top roof design with removable panels was the first of its kind and, decades later, influenced the 1968 Corvette. Visibility above and to both sides was excellent, much like sitting in a two-seater airplane. The instrument panel resembled an aircraft cockpit and was positioned high in front of the driver, with the steering wheel mounted close to it. Although Buehrig viewed the Tasco as a failure because it never reached production, the innovations born through its development contributed greatly to the future of car design.


Stout Scarab, 1936
William Stout (American, 1880-1956), designer
Stout Motor Car Company, American, 1934-1942, fabricator
Courtesy of Larry Smith, Pontiac, Michigan

Designed by aviation and automotive pioneer William Bushnell Stout and hand-produced in single-digit numbers by Stout Motor Car Company, the Scarab was one man’s singular vision to move car design dramatically into the future. The Scarab was inspired by nature, in particular the shape of the scarab beetle. Stout's goal was to create a virtual living room on wheels. It could seat up to seven passengers and used innovative modern materials, including an aluminum body, a tubular steel frame, and lace-wood interior sidewalls that were easy to clean. Stout lowered the floor pan to provide more head room and placed the engine in the rear for more usable front storage space (a rear-mounted engine and rear-drive was an unusual configuration for its day). This car was in essence a precursor to the minivan of today, but with convertible furniture. The front passenger seat could rotate fully, the back seat became a couch, and a table folded out for playing cards or holding drinks. Many of the car's features eventually were adopted on production cars. The legacy of the Scarab is the success of Stout's innovative ideas rather than the car itself.


Edsel Ford Model 40 Special Speedster, 1934
Edsel Ford (American, 1893-1943), designer
Eugene T. "Bob" Gregorie (American, 1908-2002), designer
Ford Aircraft Division, American, 1924-1936, fabricator
Courtesy of the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan

In 1934 Edsel Ford, president of Ford Motor Company and son of Henry Ford, desired a sleek "Continental" car based on European styles he had seen during his travels abroad. He asked Ford Motor Company’s styling chief Eugene "Bob" Gregorie to help design what he envisioned. Gregorie sketched a few alternatives and built a model, which he tested in a small wind tunnel. The bodywork followed the best aircraft practice, being light and very strong. Custom touches included a shapely alligator-style hood with louvered side panels, the angle of which subtly matches that of the radiator grille; low-mounted headlights molded into the fenders; an enclosed radiator with a concealed cap; a starter button on the instrument panel; no running boards; and long, low proportions. These features would not appear on any Ford Motor Company cars for many years, as both Ford and Gregorie considered them too radical for production. Edsel Ford drove it as his personal Continental speedster, representing the new, sleek, streamlined look of the 1930s.


Voisin C-25 Aérodyne, 1934
Gabriel Voisin (French, 1880-1973), designer
Avions Voisin, French, 1905-1946, fabricator
Courtesy of Merle and Peter Mullin, Brentwood, California

Pioneering French aeronautical engineer and automobile designer and maker Gabriel Voisin introduced his C-25 Aérodyne at the 1934 Paris Salon de l'Automobile car exposition. His early success had come from designing cars with long, angular French, Moderne-inspired lines in the 1920s. Voisin's cars epitomized modernism and luxury. He was not interested in bowing to popular aesthetics, particularly the American streamlined look of the late 1920s and early 1930s. However, as the French automotive industry declined after the 1929 stock market crash and Voisin's own business struggled with bankruptcy, he decided to develop a new look. The C-25 Aérodyne was his concept. Gone were the extended, angular lines of his earlier designs, now replaced by elongated, curvilinear, double-arching forms and aerodynamic teardrop-shaped fenders. The remnants of Voisin's earlier aesthetic are apparent only in the hood ornament and the jazzy, geometric-patterned interior upholstery fabric.


Chrysler Thunderbolt, 1941
Ralph Roberts (American, life dates unknown), designer
Alex Tremulis (American, 1914-1991), designer
Briggs Body Works, American, 1909-1954, fabricator
Chrysler Corporation, American, founded 1925, manufacturer
Courtesy of Roger Willbanks, Denver, Colorado

After rushing its production to be ready for a grand debut at the October 1940 New York Auto Show, Chrysler confidently touted the Thunderbolt as "The Car of the Future," built to educate the public about aerodynamics and streamlining as "the source of modern, so-called functional styling." It was heavily promoted as having been tested in a wind tunnel, which provided scientific studies of how the car's shape dealt with continuous airflow and led to refinements that minimized resistance. Sporting a smooth, aerodynamic body shell, the car was devoid of superfluous ornamentation, with only a single jagged chrome lightning bolt on each door. It was the first American car to feature an electrically operated, retractable hardtop and disappearing headlights, which were controlled by push buttons on a leather-covered dashboard. Its modern materials included a predominantly aluminum body with a steel hood and deck lid, while a chromium band encircled the entire base of the car to enhance the appearance of speed. Eight Thunderbolts were planned but only five were built, of which four survive. The Thunderbolts were publicized in part by a 1940-1941 promotional tour around the United States, after which the five concept cars produced were sold to wealthy consumers.


Chrysler (Ghia) Streamline X "Gilda," 1955
Giovanni Savonuzzi (Italian, 1911-1987), designer
Virgil M. Exner, Sr. (American, 1909-1973), designer
Carrozzeria Ghia S.p.A., Italian, founded 1915, fabricator
Collaboration with Chrysler Corporation, American, founded 1925
Courtesy of Scott Grundfor and Kathleen Redmond, Arroyo Grande, California

Chrysler partnered with the renowned Italian firm Carrozzeria Ghia to design a streamlined, wedged-shape automobile inspired by a small sculpture created by styling chief Virgil Exner, Sr. (on view nearby). The result was the 1955 Streamline "X," or – as its designer, Ghia technical director Giovanni Savonuzzi, nicknamed it – "Gilda" (after Rita Hayworth's sleek title character in the film noir of the same name). Automotive styling was heavily influenced by jet aircraft and rocketry in the exuberant postwar era, and Exner wanted to prove that scientific, aerodynamic design was viable in the American marketplace. A one-fifth-scale plasticine model of the "Gilda" was made by Savonuzzi for wind tunnel testing at the Polytechnic University of Turin. His studies determined that the tapered tail fins improved directional stability in crosswinds at high speeds. The completed "Gilda" illustrated the marriage of scientific aerodynamics with the aesthetics and styling of streamlining. The "Gilda" debuted at the 1955 Salone dell'automobile di Torino (the Turin automobile show), where it was hailed as "shaped by the wind" and caused a sensation with its "experimental body." The car went on to tour the European show circuit to great acclaim before it was shipped to the United States that October for permanent display at the Henry Ford Museum.


Paul Arzens L'Œuf électrique, 1942
Paul Arzens (French, 1903-1990), designer and fabricator
Courtesy of Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris

The three-wheeled L'Œuf électrique ("electric egg") was created by French artist, industrial designer, and engineer Paul Arzens in 1942 as a unique car for his personal use during World War II. As its name suggests, the car was shaped like an egg, and it served as a convenient urban mini-car in Paris. Designed under the duress of the German occupation of the city, L'Œuf électrique creatively responded to the period's shortages and rationing of petrol and other materials. Equipped with only a single pedal and a steering wheel, L'Œuf was a simple device that had a tremendous impact, including the distinction of being the world's first bubble car with its three-quarters Plexiglas dome enclosure. It also signified the beginning of France's industry dominance in mini-cars following the war. L'Œuf was streamlined, highly functional, and, due to its aluminum body, very lightweight. It could travel more than sixty miles on one charge, at speeds up to 37 mph. With the exception of crash safety considerations, by today's standards L'Œuf was a clever approach to low-cost, lightweight, fuel-efficient transportation, and was in many ways the precursor to the electric Smart Car of today.


General Motors Le Sabre XP-8, 1951
Harley J. Earl (American, 1893-1969) and GM Styling Section staff, designers
General Motors Corporation, American, founded 1908, manufacturer
Courtesy of General Motors Heritage Center, Warren, Michigan

After the close of World War II, General Motors needed a new head-turning car. Sketches began in 1946, and by 1951 the result was the Le Sabre XP-8, a dazzling, high-tech concept two-seater that looked unlike anything else on the road. GM hailed the car as "a mobile experiment, a flexible project" in its promotional material, Experimental Laboratory On Wheels. The Le Sabre's radically low-slung body was made of then exotic materials: sheet and honeycomb aluminum, several large magnesium castings, and fiberglass. The car's hidden headlights were concealed behind an oval grille that resembled a jet air intake. The fashionable tinted wraparound windshield became a distinctive GM feature in later production cars. Other advanced features included a rain sensor, which could activate the disappearing power top; electric jacks in all four corners; gullwing bumpers with protruding front bumper extensions (called "Dagmars" after a popular buxom Hollywood starlet); a panel full of aircraft-style instruments; electrically heated seats; and 12-volt electrics. The Le Sabre XP-8 became Earl's new personal car as an appropriately visionary vehicle for the nation's leading automotive design chief.


Buick Centurion XP-301, 1956
Harley J. Earl (American, 1893-1969), designer
Charles "Chuck" Jordan (American, 1927-2010), designer
General Motors Corporation, American, founded 1908, manufacturer
Courtesy of Sloan Museum, Flint, Michigan

The Buick Centurion XP-301 debuted at the 1956 Motorama (General Motors' famed mid-century automobile expositions). Perhaps its most visionary feature was a rear-mounted camera with a wide-angle lens and a 4 x 6-inch view screen embedded in the dashboard (a seemingly impossible feature for its day). The camera, paired with the car's transparent bubble top and panoramic wraparound windshield, meant that no rearview mirror was necessary. The Centurion's aerodynamic body matched its stunning interior, which was upholstered in aircraft-inspired Elektron Red and included four individual bucket seats with wide, horizontal pleats; individual headrests; and retractable seatbelts. The steering wheel was mounted aircraft-style on the wide, flat arm of a chromed column that cantilevered out of the dash. The Centurion's sweeping front fenders enclosed its deeply recessed headlights before dipping distinctively downward. A chrome-plated strip that began above the front wheel, curved down just before the rear wheel, and then curved back to the taillight – the "Sweepspear" – would become a Buick trademark. Twin airscoops directed outside air to passengers. The tapered tail resembled the exhaust outlet of a jet aircraft. Many of the Centurion's advanced features found their way onto production Chevrolets and Buicks as early as 1969; the pointed tail became a hallmark of Buick's third-generation 1971 Riviera coupe. Other features did not appear for decades. Buick ultimately used the Centurion nameplate on production cars from 1971 to 1973.


Cadillac Cyclone XP-74, 1959
Harley J. Earl (American, 1893-1969), designer
Carl Renner (American, 1923-2001), designer
General Motors Corporation, American, founded 1908, manufacturer
Courtesy of General Motors Heritage Center, Warren, Michigan

Harley J. Earl's visionary concept cars for General Motors culminated with the Cadillac Cyclone XP-74, which was introduced at the inaugural Daytona 500 NASCAR race just as Earl retired. With its soaring bubble canopy, sweeping fenders, dramatic fins, and afterburner-style taillight housings – all jet aircraft styling cues – Earl's last concept car before retiring reflects both his and the public's ongoing interest in aircraft styling. The futuristic, visually stunning Cyclone XP-74 featured proximity-sensing radar units (housed in the Dagmars) for safety that scanned the road electronically and warned the driver both audibly and visually of objects in its path. The Cyclone was equipped with other fantastic gadgets among its many innovations, including a panoramic bubble top that retracted fully when the doors opened or closed. An intercom system allowed passengers to speak to those outside of the car without having to open the full canopy. The Cyclone is considered somewhat unfinished, as Earl retired during its production. The tailfins were drastically cut down and other features were refined when a new head of design, Bill Mitchell, succeeded Earl.


Carl Renner
American, 1923-2001
Cadillac Convertible Concept Car, 1951
Water-based media on black paper
Collection of Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf

This extremely rare rendering celebrates the 250th anniversary of the founding of Detroit by the French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. Carl Renner, a General Motors stylist for thirty-five years, caught the eye of Harley J. Earl, who in 1954 hired him for a special styling division to work on top secret concept cars for GM's Motorama. Here Renner depicts a full-scale Cadillac convertible concept car racing through the city at night, with Detroit visible in the background. The car resembles a 1950s version of Earl's legendary 1938 Y-Job with elements of the Centurion XP-301 and General Motors Le Sabre XP-8. The dramatic image shows a cone-shaped red traffic light mirroring the shape of the Dagmars on the front bumper. Each GM design studio had an area where larger scale drawings, usually done on black canson paper like this one, could be mounted. The wall moved up and down, allowing the drawings to be seen and studied at various angles.


Syd Mead
American, born 1933
Untitled (Gyroscopically Stabilized Two-wheel Car), ca. 1960
Gouache enhanced by chalk, colored pencil, and ink wash
Brett Snyder Collection

"There are more people in the world who make things than there are people who think of things to make."
—Syd Mead

Famed designer and self-described "visual futurist" Syd Mead started in the industry in 1959 at Ford Motor Company's Advanced Styling studio. In the early 1960s, he created a series of conceptual illustrations of futuristic automobiles for US Steel that was meant to inspire designers and engineers to think of new ways to use steel. This wedge-shaped vehicle is complete with a futuristic background dramatically colored for maximum impact. Known today primarily for his work on science fiction films, Mead's relatively brief time as a designer of concept cars was a product of his deep engagement with visions of the future.


Porsche 918 Spyder Concept Car, 2010
Michael Mauer (German, born 1962) and Porsche Design Studio, designers
Porsche Automobil Holding SE, German, founded 1931, manufacturer
Courtesy of Porsche Museum, Stuttgart

Porsche developed the 918 Spyder Concept Car in 2010 as part of its experiments with how their luxury brand could address consumer interest in green technology, environmental impact, and high performance. The car combines high-tech racing features with electric mobility options selected by a push-button control on the steering wheel. The performance hybrid features four new driving modes for the driver to use: E-Drive, Hybrid, Sport Hybrid, and Race Hybrid. The driver chooses between the four options, from the most green (E-Drive, fully electric) to the maximum, which uses all systems for optimum performance (Race Hybrid). The styling studio implemented the latest technology as well as more tested methods – clay models, scale drawings, and aerodynamic studies for increased efficiency and downforce while at top speeds – to create the forward-thinking hybrid sports car. The car has recently come on the market for consumer purchase.


Pininfarina (Ferrari) Modulo, 1970
Pininfarina S.p.A., Italian, founded 1930, designer & fabricator
Collaboration with Ferrari S.p.A., Italian, founded 1947
Courtesy of Collezione Pininfarina, Cambiano, Turin

In the late 1960s Ferrari approached Carrozzeria Pininfarina to design the astounding 512 S Modulo concept car, which debuted at the 1970 Salon international de l'automobile Genève (Geneva) at just thirty-seven inches high. At the time, automobile designers and makers were engaged in an ongoing battle to produce the ultimate wedge. This aerodynamic, extreme shape was featured in several earlier concept cars of this era, and soon a competitive race to produce the car with the lowest height ensued. Using a Ferrari 512 S chassis as the starting point, the Modulo's innovations included its two overlapping body shells joined by a waistline band that encircled its width, and its low-slung, trapezoidal shape that positioned the two seats in the center of the car. The futuristic console featuring bowling ball-inspired orbs in line with the wheels resembled no other car interior. Access to the passenger compartment was gained by sliding the entire cupola, including the windshield, along special guides (as shown in the original 1967 Paolo Martin sketch on view nearby). Aerodynamic front skirts limited front wheel travel and were flared out rearward so that the wheels could turn in a small radius.


Lancia (Bertone) Stratos HF Zero, 1970
Marcello Gandini (Italian, born 1938), designer
Gruppo Bertone, Italian, founded 1912, fabricator
Lancia Automobiles S.p.A., Italian, founded 1906, producer
Collection of XJ Wang, New York

At the 1970 Salone dell'automobile di Torino (Turin), Carrozzeria Bertone unveiled a very low, sharply chiseled coupe a few short months after the Ferrari (Pininfarina) 512 S Modulo debuted in Geneva. Designed by Marcello Gandini under the direction of Nuccio Bertone, the Zero was the firm's contribution to the era's battle for the ultimate wedge. The Zero is astonishingly low to the ground and appears to slice through the air. While the Modulo was a low 36 13/16 inches high, the Zero was a mere 33 inches and trumped the competition by inches. Complimenting the Zero's dramatically low stance and aiding its unconventional nature, the cockpit is positioned far forward, with twin seats located between the front wheels. The steering column moves forward to provide accessibility to the cabin. Simultaneously, a hydraulic mechanism opened the wide Perspex windshield, which was the car's only entry point, as there are no doors. Inside, occupants could see directly ahead and above – and little else. Due to these extreme design features, the Zero still appears as otherworldly today as it did in 1970.


Bugatti Type 57S Compétition Coupé Aerolithe, 1935 (2007 re-creation)
Jean Bugatti (French, born Italy, 1909-1939), designer
Joseph Walter, designer
The Guild of Automotive Restorers, Canadian, founded 1990, fabricator
Courtesy of Christopher Ohrstrom, The Plains, Virginia

The Bugatti Type 57S Compétition Coupé Aerolithe (French for "meteor") was unveiled at the 1935 Paris Salon de l'Automobile under its original name, Type 57 Coupé Spécial. It shocked visitors to both the London and Paris automobile shows that year with its sleekly styled body – a sharp contrast to the boxy cars of its era. The Aerolithe's sensuous body was fabricated in Elektron magnesium alloy, a material that was very difficult to weld. The rivets along its spine and front fenders were structurally necessary but also added a visually striking design feature. Its low-slung body and teardrop-shaped fenders made the car appear to be moving at great speeds. Like many concept cars, the Type 57S Compétition Coupé Aerolithe no longer exists. However, the car was so engulfed in legend that it recently was faithfully re-created based only on a few historic photographs, known specifications, factory records, and an oil painting (illustrated here) by a Bugatti designer. The original Aerolithe was considered the precursor to the better-known Bugatti Atlantic. Conjecture is that it was stripped for parts, which were then used in the four production Atlantics.


General Motors Firebird XP-21, 1953
Harley J. Earl (American, 1893-1969), designer
Robert F. “Bob” McLean (American, life dates unknown) and GM Styling Section staff, designers
General Motors Corporation, American, founded 1908, manufacturer
Courtesy of General Motors Heritage Center, Warren, Michigan

The Firebird XP-21 was the first gas turbine-powered car built and tested in the United States. At the 1954 Motorama, General Motors made it clear this was a design study created to determine the practicality of the gas turbine for use in future vehicles. Harley Earl, GM's styling chief, made the decision to initiate the development of the Firebird I in the styling department rather than the engineering department. He took styling cues from the Douglas F4D Skyray jet, and the car's "needle" nose, swept-back wings, vertical tailfin, and plastic bubble top cockpit reflected this inspiration. As it was described in the press at the time, "the first impression one gets of the Firebird is that it is a jet fighter on four wheels – an impression that prevails even while the car is standing still." Although the Firebird I's lofty power output was intriguing, the gas turbine engine could not provide economical performance. Besides its impractical single-seater design, its jet engine was too loud, its exhaust temperature at the tailpipe was 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and its low fuel economy was unacceptable. But it was a Motorama sensation, and two successors followed at later Motoramas: the Firebird II in 1956 and the Firebird III in 1959. The Firebird series symbolized the era's obsession with outer space and air travel.