6 Obscure Concept Cars from the 1980s


We love talking about obscure cars—not an auction goes by that we don’t look for the weirdest, most off-beat vehicles. We also love the cars that never made it, the wild ideas that, even if they made it past sketch to clay model and to the floor of an international auto show, never made production. Such concept cars are not just a window into the creative minds at the companies that build them: They often witness to the unique constraints and attitudes of their time.

Today we take a trip back into the 1980s—the era of shoulder pads, the Cold War, and MTV—to see what we can learn from six vehicles that never made production.

1981 Globe-Union Maxima

1980 globe-union maxima concept ev battery
Flickr/Alden Jewell

The first oil shock of the 1970s may get most of our attention—and for good reason. The embargo put in place by Arab producers in 1973 diminished the supply of oil in America and sent prices skyrocketing. It wasn’t the only disruption to the global supply of oil in the ’70s, though: A second shock hit in 1978, in the wake of the Iranian Revolution. Once again, fuel efficiency was the name of the game in the U.S. automotive industry.

Globe-Union sensed an opportunity. Since the ’50s, it manufactured lead oxide batteries and sold them to the auto industry. How hard would it be to make a car that ran exclusively on its own batteries? In 1978 It built the Endura, which featured a rack of batteries mounted to a subframe that integrated a set of rollers, enabling the batteries to slide out from the front of the car. A few years later, Globe-Union built the car above, starting with a Ford Fairmont station wagon and using the same driveline as the Endura: 20 12V lead-acid car batteries powering a 20-hp rear-mounted motor made by General Electric. Foreshadowing today’s design trends, the EV got a row of lights all the way across its front.

1981 Ford Probe III Concept Car

1981 Ford Probe III Concept Car
Flickr/Alden Jewell

Ford didn’t go quite as far afield as Globe-Union in its pursuit of efficiency. The Probe III concept, introduced in 1981, stuck with a gas powertrain and focused instead on increasing efficiency by minimizing aerodynamic drag. The final cD figure was .22, which puts it among the slipperiest production cars of the modern age. Many of the strategies used by Ford you’ll find on today’s EVs, which minimize aero drag in search of more range: A smooth underbody pan, wheel covers, a rear spoiler paired with a lip on the rear bumper, and side-view mirrors mounted close to the body. More exotic tricks include a section of the bellypan that can electronically lower at speed to create ground effect, and rain gutters inside rather than above the doors.

The third in a series of five Probe concepts between 1979 and 1985, the Probe III made its mark on production reality in the Ford Sierra / Merkur XR4Ti. Both had wild spoilers, too!

1988 Chrysler Portofino Concept Car

Chrysler Portofino Concept Vehicle

When the Chrysler group came to the rescue of a financially ailing Lamborghini in 1987, Sant’Agata got money to replace the Countach with the Diablo, and Chrysler got a company to transform its iron-block V-8 into an aluminum V-10 that was a fitting heart for the Viper. But Lambo also had to let Chrysler use its name on a very un-Lamborghini concept car, the Portofino, introduced at the 1987 auto show in Frankfurt.

Can you imagine the wedgy, wild Coutach sharing a showroom with this snub-nosed sedan? Not only does rumor hold that Chrysler started by recycling a concept from the year before, but the Portofino looks more like something from Oldsmobile than from Lamborghini. Okay, the engine was in the middle, which was an out-there choice, and the naturally aspirated V-8 engine and five-speed transmission were of Lamborghini design (Chrysler used a lengthened Jalpa chassis), and the rear-hinged butterfly doors were pretty cool … but it looked like what it was: Chrysler taking over Lamborghini. The influence of the Portofino lives on in the cab-forward design of Chrysler’s front-wheel-drive, LH-platform cars: The Dodge Intrepid, the Eagle Vision, and the Chrysler 300M.

1989 Chevrolet-PPG XT-2 Pace Truck

1989 Chevrolet-PPG XT-2 Pace Truck
Flickr/Alden Jewell

Intended as a pace vehicle for the 1989 CART PPG Indy Car World Series, Chevrolet’s XT-2 Pace truck was an awkward effort to pursue performance amidst an energy crisis. It draped ultra-curvy, fourth-gen-Camaro-esque body lines atop a 4.5-liter, 360hp V-6 that GM never offered in the third-gen Camaro but which it plucked from the contemporary Trans Am racing series. The front glass dropped so low that it doubled as a hood. It was also a ute—a serious tease for fans of the El Camino, which Chevrolet had taken out of production just two years before.

The XT-2 is so awkward that we kinda love it. Plus, in this original iteration, the bed floor lifts up to provide access to the rear drivetrain. How cool is that? However, a renaissance of the utes was not to be: At the end of the next decade, America’s love for SUVs was firmly established.

1989 BMW M3 Pickup

1986 BMW M3 Pickup Concept

Despite its outrageous profile, this one-off E30 M3 pickup had a practical raison d’etre: Provide an opportunity for green employees to practice their fabrication skills, and haul parts around what is now BMW’s M Division, in Garching. The first powerplant it received was from the “Italian M3,” a 2.0-liter engine with 192 hp. Eventually, it got the 2.3-liter, 200-hp mill. It served BMW’s M division for more than 26 years and was only retired in 2012. As Jakob Polschak, the head of vehicle prototype building and workshops at M said in 2016, the division happened to have an E30 convertible lying around, and its additional bracing made it “the ideal choice for a pickup conversion.”

Isn’t that exactly what you would do if you were in Polschak’s shoes?

1989 Cadillac Solitaire Concept Car

1989 Cadillac Solitaire Concept
Flickr/Alden Jewell

Like the Chevy XT-2, the Cadillac Solitaire is a strange combination of efficiency and performance. Cadillac touted the aerodynamic efficiency of the design—it had a drag coefficient of .28 and cameras instead of side-view mirrors—but under its remarkably flat hood sat a 60-degree, 6.6-liter DOHC V-12 developed in collaboration with Lotus. (GM was already working with Lotus on the LT5 for the C4 Corvette ZR-1, which would debut soon after.)The goal of the Solitaire was high-speed travel in utmost comfort: The glass roof automatically darkened in sunlight. The seats were both heated and cooled. The interior was bedazzled with digital displays.

Sadly, when it comes to GM-Lotus tie-ups, we have to content ourselves with the (quite excellent) ZR-1; the Solitaire would remain just that—one of a kind, never put into production.


Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters.

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: Barn Find Hunter Explores the Shelby Cobra Herbie Hancock Has Owned Since New


    That Cadillac Solitaire starred in the movie, Demolition Man, years ago. There were several other GM concepts in that movie also.

    I can see why they are obscure they are all so ugly who would want to see any of them! Totally ugly.

    Considering what designers of the ’80s produced for production cars it makes sense that their concept cars would look awful.

    I would absolutely love to own the Chevy Pace Truck. Since they don’t make it and no longer make an El Camino, I have to just drive a plain Chevy SSR. The stupidest comment I have so far received = That is a useless pickup truck. ** I can’t imagine anyone would buy a unique SSR if they wanted a pickup.

    That is really funny. I remember when Ford first came out with the Probe, I was terrified of being rear ended by one.

    I was rear ended by a first generation Mazda RX7. The sloped front end of the Mazda lifted the rear end of my ’86 Acura Integra off the pavement, so that the left rear wheel was at the Mazda’s windshield.

    Back to the Probe. My secretary said she couldn’t imagine why a woman would buy one.

    I can only imagine the short battery life of the 1981 Globe-Union Maxima with that row of headlights!

    The BMW looks like it was done in a High School shop class or somebody’s garage as a practical joke. Not sure how anyone can claim that unit came out of Bavaria’s best engineering department.

    I remember a few of these from back in the day. But one that didn’t make the cut was a black on black on black Buick Regal concept from 1981 or 82. It was lowered, had a small spoiler, and side skirts. It looked a bit like the Grand National that appeared in the second half of the decade.

    Indeed ugly cars! And in the same time period (1980″s) the Italians made Ferrari 308’s, Fiat 124 Spider, Fiat X 1/9, Alfa Romeo Spider (Graduate), Lamborghini Countach, Diablo, a.s.o.

    Yes, the GM Camino for sure, I had a 1979 Caballero and loved it until a guy pulled out in front of me and I T boned him and totalled it. Wish they still made them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *