Hold on to your mullet because American concept cars in the 1980s were awesome.
While the rest of the automotive world was still thinking in triangles for their concept cars, the American concepts from the 1980s tended to be sleek affairs looking towards the future. The American car industry did did have a lot to look forward to as well, mainly because oil prices had dropped by the mid-80s and The Big Three were investing heavily in manufacturing and car companies outside of North America. Technical innovations were coming thick and fast as well in both safety and performance as things like electronic ignition, fuel injection, disc brakes, electronic engine control units became mainstream.
The 1980s also brought front-wheel drive as a common platform and gave birth to the minivan. But then, the 1980s also saw the height of popularity of the perm, stonewashed jeans, and leg warmers, so not everything is worth remembering. We’ve got 9 American concept cars that set some great trends that reverberated through the following decades though.
Buick wasn’t the only old-school company letting its designers run wild. Oldsmobile ended up building three concept cars called the Aerotech through the 1980s and into the 1990s. The Aerotech 1 actually set endurance speed records and was piloted by Indy 500 winner A. J. Foyt to reach a closed-course world speed record of 257.123 mph. Ultimately, it was the test-bed for developing Oldsmobile’s 4.0-liter, 32-valve DOHC V-8 which did go into production in the Aurora sedan.
Buick wasn’t known for being either groundbreaking or for making sports cars, yet the Questor concept was a custom built wonder full of tech that was way, way, ahead of its time in 1983. The dashboard had no gauges or instruments at all and all the controls were mounted on the steering wheel. That’s not the real mind blower though. In the center of the dashboard was a monitor that showed the image for a backup camera and GPS system. Furthermore, the laser operated keyless entry system remembered the settings of the seats and steering wheel for the occupants. Then when the car reached certain speeds, the suspension would alter itself to aid the cars aerodynamics.
The Maya was a collaboration between Ford and Italdesign that time seems to have forgotten. Back in the early 1980s, Ford wanted to test the idea of a two-seater open topped Targa car for the US market. The fact it looks so good in a BMW M1 or Lotus Etna concept kind of way and had a mid-rear mounted 250-horsepower V6 engine on tap really has us wishing Ford had taken the Maya all the way to production.
If the Questor wasn’t a stunning enough concept for Buick in the 1980s, the Wildcat was presented as a show car for racing events with a 360-horsepower McLaren V6 engine powering all four wheels. Buick was still experimenting with the far-reaching technology with the Wildcat, and it featured both a head-up display and center-mounted digital display. Buick also showed off a single-piece canopy that tilted forward for the driver rather than making them use something as old-school as doors.
General Motors was king of the concept vehicles in the 1980s, and the Indy Concept was the vehicle that has helped keep the speculation of a mid-engined production Corvette fueled and fed ever since. Those that remember their Corvette history will know Lotus had a heavy hand in the original ZR1 Corvette engine and the Indy concept had a Lotus-based 2.6-liter V8 mounted in the middle. One that is claimed to have made 600 horsepower.
The express name was later used for Chevy’s line of vans, but in the mid-1980s GM was in talks with the government about high-speed commuter roads for specialized vehicles. The headline for the Express was a turbine engine capable of pushing it to 150 mph, which would have made for some exciting travel to and from work. Although the high-speed commuter roads concept never became real, the Chevrolet Express did have a use in the end though. In the movie Back to the Future II, it's the vehicle that nearly runs Marty McFly over when he visits his home town in 2015.
Lamborghini is not an American company, but Chrysler designer Kevin Verduyn originally sculpted the original design for the Portofino in clay and called it the Chrysler Navajo. After Chrysler purchased Lamborghini it was shown at the Frankfurt Auto Show built on a Lamborghini Jalpa chassis with a V8 engine and a Lamborghini badge. The Portofino never made it as a four-door, four-seater, mid-engined, and rear-wheel drive Lamborghini though. Instead, it formed the beginning of the Chrysler LH-platform and, ultimately, that’s the reason it looks suspiciously like a Dodge Intrepid.
Wedge-shaped bodies and lifestyle-oriented vehicles aimed at the youth market became quite a thing in the 1980s. Our favorite is the Plymouth Slingshot and its carbon-fiber chassis. Aircraft style front opening canopies and digital displays are still cool, but the design of an exposed engine bay at the rear, adjustable four-wheel suspension and dual tires on the wheels suggest this was aimed at being the beach buggy of the future.
When it comes to concept cars, the original Viper is legendary. The Viper RT/10 Concept was built using a Lamborghini developed V10 rather than the originally intended V8, and it was a V10 that ended up in the final production car. The concept is gorgeous, off the hook fast, and its still amazing to this day how few changes were made to get to the Viper built as a long lived production halo car that was manufactured for 26 years through 5 generations.