As incredible as they are, most never made it to production.
Concept cars are an important part of the automotive industry. They can express goals and provide guidelines for a generation of models, bring a new design language to life, or make a statement as to where the car company is heading. They can also gauge the public reaction to an idea, test out the feasibility of new technology, or even just give designers a blank canvas to try out and develop new ideas.
The 1990s balanced on the cusp of a technological revolution and as a result, we got quite a range of concept cars unveiled at car shows. Some were too far beyond their time to come into production, some were never intended to be more than a concept, some surprised so much they entered production quickly with few changes. And occasionally, as you'll see, there were cars that made it into production that really shouldn't have.
The Plymouth Voyager 3 raised eyebrows at the1990 Chicago Auto Show as a concept for the future minivan. Made up of two sections that could be split apart, each had their own 4-cylinder engine. When connected to make a single vehicle, the rear wheels of the cab section retracted and aerodynamic skirts covered the empty wheel wells. As a bonus, the engines worked together to make the Voyager 3 all-wheel drive. It was a big, bold and complicated concept and after the1990 auto show circuit finished, the Voyager 3 disappeared without a trace.
The Mach III concept was partly an attempt to find a new design for the Mustang and partly to throw a little shade over the Camaro and Firebird's big launches in 1993. A production two-seater Mustang with a low-cut windshield and a 450-horsepower 4.6-liter supercharged V8 never happened, but some visual features found their way into the big 4th-generation redesign.
Back in 1994, Keanu Reeves was stuck on a bus that would explode if it went under 50 mph and if that wasn't hard enough to believe, the Dodge Neon was so popular some dealers were selling it over list price. The Aviat was based on the popular Neon as an exercise in aerodynamic efficiency. It was reported at the time that the Aviat had a remarkably low coefficient drag rating, was very light, who's engine was in the front while the cooling system was in the rear fenders. It’s possible that Chrysler was thinking about racing as there was a rumor of a supercharged version in the wilds of Detroit.
Surprisingly, as much as the original Beetle was German, the concept for the New Beetle was all American. It was designed in California by J Mays, who went on to be Ford’s worldwide head of design, and Freeman Thomas, who would go on to carve his own places at Ford and Chrysler. The story goes that Volkswagen’s US division was looking for a concept to help showcase its new electric drivetrain and Mays and Thomas produced a concept so good that everyone forgot about electric propulsion and just made the car with normal internal combustions engines straight away.
Ten years before the Ford GT existed, Ford showed the world this concept. It was the first example of Ford's New Edge design language that defined all models until the Kinetic Design started being phased in from 2006. At the time, Ford didn’t have a halo car in the vein of Dodge’s Viper or Chevrolet’s Corvette and wanted a huge level up on the Mustang. At the time Ford’s concept was designed for supercar territory and based around a 720 horsepower quad-turbocharged V12.
Retro styling was all the rage at Chrysler at the turn of the century, and the Atlantic was an absolute hit. Even today, it gets pulled out occasionally so it can be admired as piece of rolling art. You can see influences from Bugatti beyond the name, as well as the Talbot T150 SS Coupe from 1938, in the trunk and the side windows as well as the long hood covering another throwback to the 1930s: the straight 8-cylinder engine. That 8-cylinder engine was actually a pair of 4-cylinder Dodge Neon engines stuck together.
If the Atlantic really looks familiar but you can’t quite think where you've seen it before, the image of the car has been used on labels and in advertising for car-care products over the years.
While Ford was thinking about imposing dominance on the supercar world, Lincoln was thinking about cruising in power and style. And possibly about building a car for a Mafia boss that admired Batman. It was a concept that had presence and power, and that power was backed up with Ford’s 6.0-liter V12.
Chrysler appears to have been looking back to its 1955 concept cars while also looking to the future with the Chronos concept. Elements clearly made it through into the next millennium, particularly with the grill on the Chrysler 300D. At the time, Chrysler was looking to get back into the game with an icon that could take on Lincoln and Cadillac but it was probably the cost that sank any hope of the elegant V10-powered Chronos making it to production.
It was rare for American car companies to pull off a style that competed with the higher end European brands at the time, but Plymouth managed exactly that. The Pronto wasn’t intended to make it into production and was more of an exercise in using recyclable materials. That was a success in that the Pronto only weighed 2,700 pounds with a 225 horsepower turbocharged 2.4-liter engine in the middle. The concept died with Plymouth as a brand, but elements of the styling lived on in later Chrysler products.
Yes, you are looking at the concept car that led to the much maligned PT Cruiser. Originally, Plymouth wanted a modern and practical design, and the Pronto was tall, roomy, and stacked with bold 1930s styling and 1950s and 60s hot rod elements. It looked gorgeous, it was practical even as a 2-door, and then Plymouth was put to rest and we ended up with the watered down and cheaply built Chrysler PT Cruiser.
The Cielo is one of the oddest concepts to come from the 1990s and a 4-door convertible is something you rarely see that's not a Jeep these days. Buick's thinking was to entice people that haven’t considered a convertible car before and carve out a new niche for Buick with them. To that end, the Cielo (Spanish for sky) was seriously considered for production. Although it apparently did work on the concept, we doubt the rood would slide back into the trunk from a voice command on a production model back then.