Yeah. Aliens were supposed to have been in charge by now, according to the 1950s. Bug-eyed little green people who supposedly make George Osborne appear normal. And we were meant to be surviving on one tablet a day to compensate for square meals, be kitted-out in all-in-one Boots the Chemist-spec attire and sport severe bobs, while cars were meant to float around in the sky and/or bubble-wrap cells like the Jetsons’ family run-around. Or at the very least, gliding around on monorails constructed in the clouds.
If I were to say to you Babylon Zoo, Bacofoil-covered robots and Button Moon, apart from twat, what would you be thinking right now? That’s correct; space exploration. But rather than the ether and far-reaching parts of the galaxy that Ridley Scott is yet to discover in film, we’re talking about that space directly above your head (but conversely NOT between your ears). Where cars live. Or indeed, the exact grid coordinates where cars were meant to live by 2017. It just didn’t really happen, did it?
We all remember the 1950s (courtesy of 1980s movies) which predicted that everyone would be driving/flying cars roughly 40 feet above terra firma by now, whilst wives who looked like Don Draper’s would be perched next to us in the passenger seat knitting us a new child or something. IT’S WHAT WAS MEANT TO HAPPEN, YOU BASTARDS (Didn’t you read the manual?!) But it didn’t ever materialise. Fast forward some 60-odd years and some folk are still piloting Ford Sierra’s FFS. This was never supposed to be the case. Our ancestors were promised UFO-aping automobiles which hovered effortlessly and were equipped with VSTOL technology. Or at the very least, Amstrad. We’ve been cheated out of our automotive inheritance!
Espace. The Final Frontera….
To try and discover just why, you must first journey back in time, down a highway which was anything but information-led or super in any way, shape or form. Essentially, a metaphysical one to help us construct a mental image. You see, while your average Americans were still living in fear of an imminent sea-born attack from either Godzilla or airborne assault from ET (before he was known as cute and cuddly, cross-dressing ET and was still very much green with a huge head perched on its weedy shoulders) during the 1950s, America’s car builders were instead busying themselves with designing cars inspired by jet planes. And boy did they come up with some corkers. Only problem was, the world (as they recognised it then) just wasn’t ready. Or maybe it was, but the automobile-makers couldn’t really afford the production run. I don’t actually know for sure. We don’t really do research here at Drivl. More a case of presenting my skewed version of events complete with lots of blank gaps to fill in yourselves.
So, essentially, none of the cars I’m about to list went on to become best-selling production types and were eventually consigned to the vaults of vehicular history shortly after debuting at US Motoramas; purely as concepts. Thus ensuring that some six decades later there’s still no sign of us driving our Hyundai Sonata’s on sky wires. A tragedy, we’re sure you’ll all concur. Having said that, there were however rare occasions when these dream cars would become reality. Yet that reality was only ever the preserve of the wealthy who benefitted from these incredibly small-run examples, such as the Ghia 1953 Chrysler Sports Coupe for instance. But all was not lost, as more often than not the concept car’s very presence inadvertently served as design language pointers for (immediate) future production cars, which would ultimately sport the odd fin here or tail lamps there. Just not transpire into a fully-fledged, aerial-capacitating hover car (think Marty McFly’s DeLorean in the Back to the Future trilogy for visual reference points). Sadly, and after a short-lived heyday in the mid-1950s, cars of the future future (rather than the day after tomorrow) quickly passed from the public conscience back into the realms of fantasy, and represented little more than an outdated marker of yesterday’s logic.
Science and Mechanics: The Future is Closer Than We Think!
Like in the aftermath of a particularly gruesome zombie apocalypse though, there were survivors. Survivors which went on to become priceless treasures that remind Americans of the most daring, exciting and auto-evolutionary moments of the 1950s. Despite the excited crowds they once drew, those that were crushed are often forgotten (like victims of the government’s current Scrappage Scheme – albeit with less fins and jet thrusting styling nods) and are only found by the most dedicated researchers leafing through dusty book pages. Or the internet, in my case. As well as looking for all their worth like jet-engined aerial attack vehicles and/or largely unidentified objects which might or might not have been piloted by creepy-looking, discoloured small people, these future cars of tomorrow, today were also afforded inspirational names. Inspirational and butch, by all accounts. Such cars brandished monikers like Firebird, Futura, Starfire X-P Rocket, Mystere, Golden Rocket and La Galaxie, rather than Cedric, Carisma, Esteem, Citation, Festiva and our personal favourite, Dictator. The former names conjured up mental images of extra-terrestrial and inter planetary discoveries and comic book adventures, while the latter reminded us of school exams and pervy uncles. And that’s without mentioning the Renault Espace; which I just have. Although in fairness to the French car-maker, the spacey reference here had more to do with interior capaciousness, as opposed to ground control conversing with Major Tom.
Below I take a peek at what we refer to as the cars that they should have built.
The Cars They Should Have Built.....
1. 1955 Ford Mystere
While subsequent generations of us have marvelled at the Probe, Orion and Sierra Sapphire, our ancestors were bewitched by the automotive onset of Uncle Henry’s Mystere back in the 1950s; which was as much spaceship a driver could (potentially) get without needing to acclimatise themselves with zero gravity and Barbarella. A product very much of the atomic era, the Mystere’s multitude of antennae, twin jet plane rear exhausts and out-of-this-world air scoops ensured that Ford was at the vanguard of this future car movement. The big idea was that by being equipped with these stylish, forward-thing design signatures the Mystere would be prepared for whatever whiz-bang inventions man had dreamed in the future.
And if you thought the exterior was pretty rad, wait until you find out what the Mystere was packing indoors. Long before the term ‘fully loaded’ was happened upon, the jam-packed Ford listed a telephone, TV and button and lever controls, at a time when the manufacturer’s nearest rivals were still experimenting with the Dog Sack (Google it, we beg you). A vision which would clearly excite George Jetson himself, the Mystere debuted at various motor shows in 1954, however its history thereafter remains something of, well, a Mystere.
2. 1956 XM-Turnpike Cruiser
During the 1950s car design was as much about excess as it was forecasting future styling languages. Only it probably wasn’t called styling language back then, as very few people sported rollnecks and Apple was still not set to arrive for another decade. Apple the record company that is. Don De LaRossa had very much been invented though, and it was he who possessed the foresight to create the XM-Turnpike Cruiser. Ludicrously-proportioned tail lamps, freakishly indulgent exhaust pipes, stupifyingly OTT front fender cooling vents and simply preposterous jet pods on the front bumpers were the creative calling card left by LaRossa.
Having said that, all these flourishes were positively conservative by comparison to the manner in which this concept car was publicly showcased, which saw it presented in its own bespoke windowed trailer, which itself was towed by a matching semi-cab. In fairness the XM-Turnpike Cruiser did leave something of a legacy unlike some of its equally outlandish alumnis, with its bold design being later cited as the inspiration behind the 1959 Mercury model; the Turnpike-Cruiser’s near 360-degree visibility and flip-up transparent roof panels notwithstanding on the consequent production package. Incidentally, the original car is rumoured to still exist under the sun in a warm climate, awaiting a timely restoration.
3. 1956 Oldsmobile Golden Rocket
As the manufacturer’s name implies, Oldsmobile are cars designed very much with an ageing Floridian population in mind, yet it wasn’t always this way. Way back when in 1956 the American auto-maker unveiled its Golden Rocket model, which to the non-cataracts eye is, seemingly a rocket lifted directly from beneath the wing of an F-94 jet fighter; and afforded said plane’s cockpit cover for added measure. Were it not for those wheels and tyres. To many onlookers at the time, no other ‘50s dream car took the jet-age theme more seriously than the Golden Rocket did. What with its three-point nose, rocket-tip rear bumper caps and rounded side panels to fuse the front and back together, the Golden Rocket look like, well, a rocket with wheels. There was even a lateral fin populating the rear boot for an added touch of the intergalactics.
The Gotham City-spec metallic gold Golden Rocket was promoted as a “glittering new experimental car by Oldsmobile,” but the shine soon wore off not long after the 1956 Motorama season, the concept going the way that so many others did at the time. Which is a crying shame in my book as the Golden Rocket must surely have fulfilled every schoolboys fantastical car criteria back then; not least on account of its projectile-tipped pointed front fenders, an abundance of cockpit controls shoe-horned into the centre of the steering wheel assembly and removable roof panels for entry and exit purposes. Bummer.
4. 1958 Ford La Galaxie
In a galaxy far, far away, in a time before David Beckham and association football soccer AND Obi-Wan Kenobe, there was another LA Galaxy you may never have heard of. Spelt, ‘Galaxie’, yet with the self-same French word referring to the female gender prefixing it, the 1958 La Galaxie was in fact a car made by Ford Motor Company. Who if you recall, were also responsible for the slightly less futuristic-looking Fusion and S-Max we know and today. Coinciding with America’s love affair with the jet age cooling off, the La Galaxie was more shuttle-like than jet-propelled in automotive appearance. Despite it being the rudimentary long and low rider, it was a heavy looking jalopy which brandished huge rear bumper loops mimicking exhaust afterburners and hubcap-size chrome pods for headlamp housings.
A typically gizmo-packed, pod-bedecked concept car, the La Galaxie arrived just a little too late to gatecrash a future car party which was showing signs of publicly waning. That is, in terms of space-age styling. Advanced technology was still generating a deal of interest with car buyers, and in that respect the La Galaxie could more than hold its own, courtesy of on-board proximity warning screens and radar navigation systems; two adaptations which we’ve only recently become familiarised with in 2015 in the event. Only from jet-age, be-winged and afterburner-obsessed aesthetics and ergonomics, Ford began seamlessly streamlining its potential future range into road-going craft which resembled the Jetsons’ preferred mode of passenger transportation as they entered the following decade. Which resulted in the La Galaxie slipping out of the party woithout anyone noticing.
5. 1956 Packard Predictor
One of the less romanticised names for a concept car of the age, the Packard Predictor sounded more like it should have been a lotto ball-choosing machine/randomnator rather than what turned out to be a rather splendid (and very future-y) car. Also it did very little to actually predict the future of automotive design beyond a couple of years. Built by Turin’s iconic styling house, Ghia, the Predictor was designed by former Ford chief design bod, Bill Schmidt and incorporated a raft of fascinating and seemingly futureproof features including reverse slant retractable backlights, rolltop roof panels, a reversed rear window and swivelling bucket seat configurations. And also an Edsel-style front bumper if you were into that sort of swag).
Yet despite the approximation of these user-friendly features the Predictor failed to live up to the manufacturer’s expectations, and the public’s demand for such a vehicle just didn’t deliver in the wake of its show appearances in concept car form. Which is a shame, as I can’t help but think what Packard’s future might have held had the Predictor made it into a full production model, and ergo survive as an auto-maker. In hindsight, it might have been down to some of Ghia’s sub-hallmark finishes, like the botched electrical system which usually resulted in short circuiting and large plumes of smoke when the driver activated any of the fancy servo assembly.
6. 1955 Lincoln Futura
Designed by Ford stylist, Bill Schmidt and John Najjar Ferzely, the Lincoln Futura from 1955 adopted a bubble-topped canopy in which to accommodate the witless occupants, while the advertising for this supposed future car deployed the use of blur effect photography to instil a sense of urgency and utter disbelief. Still, the very same car went on to achieve dramatic effect as the very first Batmobile incarnation in the 1960s; albeit with a little tweaking here and there.
7. 1951 GM LeSabre
General Motors were all over future cars like, you know, a Thing back in the early 1950s, with visions of the LeSabre Concept. Coinciding with the advent of the iconic tailfin era of automotive design, GM’s 1951 LeSabre Concept borrowed a selection of both engineering and exterior styling elements from the propeller plane-usurping, jet plane, which was all the rage back then. It even had heated seats, affording it an uber futuristic edge over its rivals.
8. 1953 GM Firebird I
GM didn’t just stop there though, as a few years down the road they unveiled their Firebird I concept car, which even today resembles something of a road-going missile from just about every perspective. The first of a triumvirate of concept cars designed by Harley Earl, the Firebird I would almost certainly have caused a riot amongst placard-bearing Greenham Common protesters if it had ever appeared on the streets of nearby Newbury a few decades later. Which of course it didn’t. Although not nuclear-powered, the Firebird I relied heavily on a gas turbine to propel it, which was seen as pretty unorthodox and space-y at the time.
9. 1956 GM Firebird II
In 1956 along came its successor, the imaginatively named Firebird II, which again aped the outside appearance of a fighter jet as opposed to a family run-about of the era. Boasting a more capacious cabin – complete with a bubble-like glass viewing platform (or canopy as they’re more colloquially referred to) – the coolest aspect of the car’s design was the strides it made towards self-driving technology, otherwise unheard of then and there. Returning to that exterior though, and the Firebird II flaunted dual air intakes at the front and a vertical tail fin to the rear.
10. 1964 GM Roundabout Concept
Surprising nobody, General Motors could also get automotive things hopelessly wrong during this same period. Take for example their Roundabout Concept. For a start, the name conjures up mental images of Milton Keynes before Milton Keynes was even Milton Keynes, while the accompanying sales brochure was so utterly sexist it might have well been co-written by Richard Keys and Andy Gray. ‘The three-wheeled Roundabout will appeal especially to women because it was designed for shopping and other daily errands’. Having said that, men might also find the Roundabout ‘well-suited for commuting purposes and comprises adequate load space for golf clubs and other recreational drugs equipment’ the same blurb adds.