There are thousands of classic car shows around the US each year and they range from the most stuffy and refined, such as Pebble Beach Concours, down to the lowliest, most impromptu meet-up between a few friends at the local burger spot. What sets the Art Center Car Classic apart is Art Center College of Design’s ability to curate and attract some of the most important cars that were ever built. Additionally, it would be challenging to name one other classic car show that draws so many auto design legends.
In spite of all their achievements, designers like Chris Bangle, Henrik Fisker, Syd Mead, Chuck Pelly, and Ed Welburn stroll and react to the cars with awe just as regular gearheads and Art Center’s greenest students do. Celebrities like Jay Leno are there too, but the real stars are a handful of featured cars.
This year the Car Classic’s theme was “Visions of the Future” and it focused on a few very important classic concepts that represent the idea of futurism through different eras. But right next to the classics were a couple of brand new concepts that are just as noteworthy, not because they’re new, but rather because they’ll prove equally timeless.
Arguably the most important concept car ever, Buick’s Y-Job sat proudly on the lawn under a tent. In all honesty, the Y-job could’ve looked like a soapbox derby car built from orange crates and it would still be important today. That it doesn’t, and furthermore includes design cues still in use today, is a testament to GM’s first design boss, Harley Earl.
Misterl, as he was known, intended the car to whet the public’s appetite for new cars by showcasing some potential technologies as well as future styling directions. To some younger readers it may look very similar to a 1941 Cadillac, but in reality it’s miles apart. And of course, remember that the Y-Job debuted in 1938 and was clearly developed some time before.
Besides the Y-job’s obvious dramatic styling cues and future technology like hidden headlamps, electric windows, and flush door handles, it pointed the way forward with its wrap-around bumpers and waterfall grille that emphasized the car’s width rather than hood height, as all other contemporary cars did. It also helped give Buick a stronger brand identity—so strong in fact that the waterfall grille is still in use on new Buicks.
Another GM concept sat next to the Y-Job showing concept cars’ more practical side, the Oldsmobile Aerotech Aurora Longtail. While some might argue that this Aerotech helped develop the Aurora’s form (it didn’t), it was really created to showcase, and test, Oldsmobile’s new 4.0L V8 engine. The Aerotech program began in the mid-‘80s and finally debuted in front of the public in1987 with the Aerotech I, which was fitted with Oldsmobile’s Quad 4 engine. It was a sort of labor of love for a few Oldsmobile engineers and bosses who kept it quiet initially. Eventually styling was involved, and the manager picked then-Oldsmobile Assistant Design Chief Welburn’s first sketch, inspired by Le Mans endurance prototypes.
It went through three iterations and set speed records multiple times, piloted by greats like A.J. Foyt. The Aerotech shown at Art Center is different due to its V8 drivetrain. No slouch either, this Longtail broke 47 speed endurance records including the 10,000- and 25,000-kilometers speed records.
In the Aerotech’s form we see the US space program’s influence on design and how we viewed the future. Gone were the afterburner taillights of the ‘50s and ‘60s. In their place was a holistic aeronautical approach that dictated the slipperiest, slickest form possible to achieve maximum speed and carbon fiber to lower weight as much as possible.
But the Aerotech project began nearly 30 years ago. How we view the future today has obviously evolved and the Chevrolet Chaparral 2X VGT and Divergent’s Blade are examples of “what’s next”. Much like the Y-Job and Aerotech, the Chaparral and Blade are cars with an extreme focus on the driver.
The Chaparral is a non-functional racing concept developed for a video game (Gran Turismo 6). It does not predict next year’s Malibu in any way. It does however highlight potential future sports car styling directions and it speaks volumes about what sports car fans dream about—adding lightness, as Colin Chapman would say, and power.
Rather than adding complexity by stuffing a hybrid system into a two seater, the Chaparral does away with complexity altogether by forcing the driver to focus completely on the task at hand—racing. The car is basically an engine, suspension, brakes, and steering. Do you really need anything else for racing?
The Blade is perhaps more intriguing, not for its shape, although it is modern too, but because of how it’s made. You see the Blade is the world’s first 3D printed supercar. And it is completely functional. The chassis is made of carbon fiber tubes that connect 3D printed “nodes” (read: componentry such as mounting points and mechanical bits, almost like Lincoln Logs but a bit sturdier) that allow you to build your ultimate hot rod. Or sports car. Or pick-up truck.
You can put any engine you like in it, put any kind of skin over it, and drive it away. Best of all, as the connections and nodes are standardized a person with some mechanical ability can assemble a chassis in minutes! It is expensive, but so were the Y-Job and Aerotech.
Since the Y-Job debuted the concept car idea, concepts have always focused on the personal experience. How we view the future in the present, whether big or sleek or homebuilt might have progressed, but really nothing has changed in the last 80 years: today’s most futuristic concepts still speak to personal freedom and fun. And out of all the multitudes of classic car shows, Art Center College of Design’s Car Classic is the one that most speaks to what matters: past, present, and future.