Design and desire; concept cars take to the podium, showing fine form and an environmentally driven conscience.

Since the outside the automobile has inspired passion and dreams; today's concept cars are a stunning display of craftsmanship and creativity that drives both the dream and the reality.

Automotive innovation is the latest area to come under scrutiny – concept cars, to be precise. Since the first car rolled off the production line, the frisson of excitement that surrounds each new model has captivated many a car enthusiast. Manufacturers are only too willing to fuel this excitement each year, as prototypes stand proudly on podiums, or are sometimes shrouded in secrecy under drapes, whipping up a frenzy of rock star proportions. While many models may never make it to the highway, top carriage builders are only too eager to invest in these fantasy dream machines.

Historically, many concept models have been reserved for the privileged few – namely journalists and trade – until now. Exploiting the curious nature of the growing breed of automobile aficionados, there has been a rise in dedicated shows, such as last year's Tokyo Motor Show and the recent Festival Automobile International, which this year paid homage to pre-production models. Although in its 23rd year, this is the first year that the International Auto Show has focused solely on concept models. "Our target is to create special events for design. Paris is the home of haute couture, so we wanted to create the same thing for cars and their designers," says Rémi Depoix, president and founder of the Paris-based show. "Concept cars are like haute couture; it's more for the prestige," he adds.

While early models, such as Ford's 1955 La Tosca, were firmly focused on futuristic forms, such as elongated bodies, rounded forms and rocket-inspired styling, today's manufacturers are taking a more low-key approach, creating more viable visions of reality, rather than the selling of dreams. "The '50s postwar era was when car companies began to wow buyers with show cars which were exaggerated, unrealistic extrapolations of cars that they were going to create. But the interesting thing today is that the more successful companies are the ones that pride themselves on staying faithful to concept cars. A couple of companies, such as BMW or Nissan, are trying to make their concept cars become real cars very quickly. Concept cars are becoming more practical, while practical cars are becoming more conceptual," notes Dan Ross, editor of Intersection magazine.

It is no longer just the cars that take center stage, creations by designers such as Pininfarina, Luigi Colani, J. Mays and Chris Bangle have long been revered for their fine, fluid lines and sexy silhouettes, after all, what's the point of a good engine without the allure of a fine body?

What is it about these horse-powered beauties that inspires motoring trends? "At the moment, there is a trend for sporty models with fluid lines and ecological benefits, such as electric-powered automobiles. There's also a real return to beautiful form. It's the most beautiful cars that are selling – it's all about emotion," explains Depoix. From the well-rounded voluptuousness of the Bugatti Chiron to the elongated elegance of the BMW Concept CS – winner of the Most Beautiful Concept Car category at this year's festival – the body beautiful has always been a source of inspiration, and these four-wheeled works of art are no exception.

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