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Wow, What a Concept

Those futuristic cars at the auto show look wild. But they're impractical, right? Well, actually, they have a big influence.

January 08, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were our '50s dream cars, wheels we couldn't buy because they were visions from designers' imaginations gone amok. But, went the general message of those times and auto shows, see yourself driving this finned thing with clipped wings, and know you are dealing with a company reaching for the future. Meanwhile, how about $500 down on this 1957 Bel-Air?

Today they are called concept cars. The Isuzu Zaccar and the Jeep Tabasco are less outlandish, more realistic. Most concept cars have engines, they move, have pulled back from being way out there, and no longer are fiberglass art forms. See them as today's advanced adventures in tomorrow's styling--and test beds for maturing technology in search of mass appeal.

Including a 25-horsepower sedan that looks like a Quonset hut and is made from recycled pop bottles.

And know that almost all of the dozen concept cars currently strutting their twinkling stuff at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show could see production in a year or three. Which means the annual extravaganza of automotive gleamings and Turtle Wax is a 760,000-square-foot sales clinic, a 10-day test kitchen and a 750,000-consumer focus group.

"I would say much less than 10% of the mechanicals and styling of the early dream cars transferred to production cars," says John Moss, director of concept designs for Chevrolet--although he admits that curved windshields, tail fins, concealed headlights, power windows and the death of running boards were in that percentage.

"Today, at least with our cars, we're saying: 'Here's what you can do to your car, and here's what we can sell to you if you approve.' "

So, if the public approves, there well might be a Chevrolet Malibu Sport or a Cavalier Technic in its future.

"We're hoping the public will make a good business case for the production of both cars," says Carl Sheffer of Chevrolet. "Odds are good for the Malibu because we already know there's interest out there for a sportier version with a 238-horsepower engine, a five-speed and styling accents in the image of the Impala SS of the '60s and '70s."

Appeal of the Cavalier Technic veers into quite a different direction, toward today's junior and mostly Asian hot rod hobbyists, who squeeze quarts of startling performance from pint pot Honda Accords and Acura Integras.

Hair on the chest of the Technic will come from a huge exhaust pipe, Corvette disc brakes, a lowered and tightened suspension, and a 258-horsepower engine. Authenticity is taken to the last exposed rivet on a fully functional, bare aluminum air scoop in the hood.

*

Modern concept cars pointing at the next generation, and not at some far frontier, have an enviable track record. Dodge Viper, originally an experiment sniffing for any interest in over-muscled sports cars, was a 1992 concept car. Plymouth Prowler, currently in production as a retrospective hot rod, was unveiled as a concept car at the 1993 North American Auto Show in Detroit.

"It has done everything we wanted to do to elevate the Plymouth name, and for far less money than 10 years of advertising and marketing," says Craig Love, executive engineer for Team Prowler.

Chrysler's long-bodied Phaeton is another exploration in progress. It is powered by a 425-horsepower V-12 engine, rides on 22-inch wheels, displays Art Deco lines and instruments and breathes Bugatti and the Touring '30s from every hand-rubbed pore. See Phaeton traces in this year's full-size sedans from Chrysler: the Concorde, Dodge Intrepid, Eagle Vision and luxury Chrysler LHS. "You'll see nothing specific," comments Chrysler's Kari St. Antoine. "Just that long, elegant, visionary stance."

As did Plymouth with the Prowler, so Lexus is seeing how deep the hot rod waters run with a replica 1932 Ford coupe, surrounding a 300-horsepower V-8 from the GS400 sedan. Mercedes-Benz is playing with a Life Jet three-wheeler and researching the geometry of a suspension tilting into turns for improved cornering agility and stability. Jeep is wondering if customers of its GI-basic Wrangler would be interested in the Dakar, a stretched, leather-lined, wood-paneled Ritz-Carlton limited edition.

Want brute force? There's the Ford Mustang Super Stallion, which has a 545-horsepower engine and a top speed of 175 mph.

Want green? The hybrid Honda J-VX concept coupe has electric motors assisted by a three-cylinder gasoline engine.

Want nonsense? Chrysler is displaying a two-cylinder, bare-bones bubble car that looks as comfortable as burlap underwear. It should sell for $19.95 through Wal-Mart stores. It has a rollback canvas lid, slide-up windows and a manual transmission with a push-pull-twist shift pattern.

Sound and look remarkably like a remake of the infamous Deux Cheveaux, the notorious Poubelle, the Citroen 2CV? Could be that's why Chrysler calls it CCV.

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