The Future That Wasn’t

Four iconic automobiles that we just weren’t ready for

“The future,” the late Yogi Berra once said, “isn’t what it used to be.” It’s a phrase with special resonance for anyone who’s been to a car show lately. There was a time when cars looked like fighter planes, not appliances. When did we stop thinking of cars as an adventure? Why are we suddenly afraid of the future instead of leaping forward to greet it?

This sentiment isn’t entirely fair — every car show has at least one example of soaring ambition — but honestly, the future is as hard to sell as it is to tell. There were times automakers put the future right in front of us, and we said no thanks.

One of the best examples bowed at the 1934 New York Auto Show. There among the two-box Lincolns and Buicks was a complexly curved shape that flowed from its waterfall grille to its sloping rear deck. The Chysler Airflow was a huge hit with show attendees.

Designed by Carl Breer, a man obsessed with the nascent science of aerodynamics, the Airflow had a unitized frame when most cars still used wood frames and separate body panels. He built one of the first automotive wind tunnels, famously discovering that many cars managed wind better running in reverse.

And his prescient Airflow, in addition to being a stylistic leap forward, was a good car. It had smooth flathead-six or straight-eight power and a silky ride due to its centrally located passenger compartment, and it was relatively inexpensive to operate.

The problem was that stylistic leap forward. Buyers applauded Breer’s efforts and politely declined his car. Sales were disappointing, and while Chrysler only actually lost money in 1934, the tepid response was embarrassing. In the end, the Airflow just looked too different for the risk-averse Depression-era driver. In 1937, Chrysler threw in the streamlined towel.

They’re striking cars today; one comparison that always comes up is how much the Airflow looks like a muscular American VW Beetle — a car that, 20 years later, had no problem selling. The Airflow had made everyone ready.

One man who was born ready was Preston Tucker, one of the most famous failed entrepreneurs in American history. A man who got things done, he wanted to build an automobile. The big automakers were just getting started after the war, Tucker reasoned; he wouldn’t be too far behind them. And he was convinced he could do it better by doing it differently.

The Tucker 48 did so much so differently that it’s almost hard to believe Tucker was able to do it at all: Power came from a rear-mounted aircraft-derived 334-cid flat-six; the car was big but low for the time; to ease access, the doors cut into the roof, and the passenger compartment was a “stepdown” design; there was a third, central headlight that swiveled with the front wheels; front and rear seats could be swapped to even out wear; the glove boxes went in the doors to make room for a crash compartment into which the front seat passenger could dive to escape accidents. The whole list of the Tucker’s features would fill this magazine. And Tucker wanted to do more still; he was not afraid to think big.

Which was a problem for two reasons. First, the car was still in development while production models were being built. Design changed while cars were on the production line, and as a result, no two Tuckers were alike. And second, Tucker’s marketing and sales techniques were big, too. He sold accessories to people before their cars were ready and claimed that a car for which he had no working prototype had been in development for years, prompting an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. (Was he also targeted by big automakers? Perhaps, but would the huge manufacturers attack the 5 percent of the market they didn’t control? On the other hand, did they corner 95 percent of the market by being passive?) Production halted. In the end, the SEC dropped all charges against company executives. But the damage had been done. Tucker’s Chicago factory only made 51 intriguing cars.

At least Tucker made it to production, unlike Chrysler’s most intriguing machine, the Turbine Car. Conceived by engineer George Heubner Jr. and dressed in Ghia-produced bodywork by Thunderbird stylist Elwood Engel, it is one of history’s great missed opportunities.

It debuted at the near-mythical ’64 World’s Fair, a Jet Age showcase for a nation beginning to think that breaking the sound barrier during the daily commute was the birthright of every citizen. And the Turbine Car seemed like the path to supersonic car ownership.

Chrysler built 50 Turbines by hand and made them available to select West Coast families, who got daily use of a technical marvel for a few weeks apiece. By all accounts, they performed well, and the futuristic glow never quite wore off. The engine may have looked more like an air-horn-equipped metal basketball than a turbojet, and the exhaust was more Hoover than Starfighter (the aural cost of cooling the exhaust down to normal temperatures), but the car looked the part, with Turbine vane wheel covers, space-age styling and a 2,000-degree electroluminescent Inlet Temp gauge! And it worked. It wasn’t fast, as the turbine put out 130 horsepower and 425 pound-feet of torque, with speeds comparable to a standard Chrysler V-8 sedan. But it accelerated with a smooth, uninterrupted whoosh that felt like the future.

It wasn’t. It ran best on diesel, a dirty and downmarket fuel back then, and struggled to get 20 mpg. And price was a problem; while it performed like a V-8 sedan, Chrysler projected it would cost four times as much. In the end, Chrysler scrapped all the Turbine Cars except for the ones that were archived and, in the fullness of time, wound up in private hands.

Eventually the Jet Age gave way to the Green Age, but carmakers didn’t stop thinking about possible tomorrows. In 1990, when GM realized that stricter environmental laws would require them to sell cleaner vehicles in California, the company put its unexpectedly popular Impact electric show car into production and leased it to interested customers. The EV1 gave the West Coast a smattering of the first electric cars by a major manufacturer since the dawn of the automobile era.

The zero-emissions EV1 was a technical tour de force. Aerodynamically, its 0.19 drag coefficient was a marvel. Range was about 40 to 70 miles on a full charge — not too far off what a Nissan Leaf does now. Like many electrical vehicles, it felt quick due to full torque available from zero rpm. And it could be driven like a regular car.

But range anxiety, then as now, was the big concern. It was a fine commuter car, but 40 miles didn’t seem like a lot to the average driver, and the first EV1s needed to charge their old-tech lead-acid batteries for a good 16 hours. The two-seater configuration scared off some, while tales of bad handling (in reality, merely odd) turned away others. Everyone seemed to agree that it was nice to have electric vehicles on the road, but only rabid fans wanted an EV1.

As a result, and despite GM switching to more modern nickel metal-hydride batteries, the all-electric EV1 never achieved the popularity the hybrid Prius would just a couple years later. The last EV1 made, just as GM gave up the project and the Prius caught on big in 1999, was a 60 mpg gas turbine/electric series hybrid with a 390-mile range. But by then, the EV1 was done and all cars returned to GM.

The EV1’s failure spawned a wealth of conspiracy theories and at least one investigative documentary. But it seems that GM’s vision was generally correct if the public’s current appetite for hybrids is any indication. As it sits, GM let the Prius get the drop on it; by the time Chevy was ready with the Volt, no one remembered the pioneering EV1.

“Too futuristic too soon” seems to be a theme. It’s tempting to say that daring to dream big makes for better stories than it does cars, but — commercial concerns aside — every car here was actually a fantastic automobile. For carmakers, being just futuristic enough seems to be the key. For car buffs? Perhaps the trick in spotting the next Airflow, Turbine, Tucker or EV1 is keeping faith when everyone else decides it will never sell.

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