“I'd rather try crossing a river on a path of bobbing soap cakes than make predictions about the car of tomorrow. The footing would be far safer.” So said Harley Earl, head of General Motor’s famous ‘Art and Colour’ section and the man who created the first futuristic concept car, the sensational Buick Y-job of 1938. Earl had his ideas in an office called ‘the hatchery’ which had no windows or telephone and a fake name on the door so he wouldn’t be disturbed. He worked there for over twenty years and did more than anyone else to stimulate our obsession with the car of the future.
But by the time he retired he plainly didn’t think much of his – or anyone else’s – ability to predict how cars would look or function in ten or twenty years’ time. He was right: the history of the future of the car is littered with hopeless or plain embarrassing predictions. We can have a chuckle at Ford’s mad fifties plans for a nuclear-powered runabout, but with the car currently undergoing its most radical transformation as we search for a replacement for the internal combustion engine, we’d be wise to be neither too sceptical nor too credulous about what we might be driving in a decade’s time.
Predictions about the future of transport are usually wildly optimistic, but one early belief went the other way. In the 1820s the speed of steam locomotives such as Stephenson’s Rocket started to exceed that of a galloping horse, the fastest speed sustained by man by that time. Many believed that travelling any faster would cause us to turn to mush, and that trains would never be able exceed around 40mph. In Britain, of course, this prediction turned out to be largely accurate, but for very different reasons.
And what is it about flying cars? Half of the predictions about the future of transport seem to involve them. Over 30 patents for flying cars have been filed in the United States alone; the first was the Curtiss Autoplane of 1917. The most credible was probably the Convaircar of 1947, a lightweight, streamlined coupe with a detachable wing and propeller unit that could be left at the landing strip, allowing the car to be driven as normal. Built by an established aviation firm and the work of Henry Dreyfuss, one of America’s greatest industrial designers, the Convaircar completed several long test flights but later crashed. The bad publicity and high price - around $1500, plus wings - killed the project.
That radioactive Ford was called the Nucleon: revealed in 1958 it had its own on-board nuclear reactor and was good for 5000 miles between uranium fill-ups. Quite what would happen in the event of a heavy shunt was never really examined. Other examples of future-gazing Ford silliness include the ’61 Gyron, a two-wheel car balanced by a gyroscope, and the Leva Car, which was effectively a 500mph hovercraft with no brakes. Needless to say, neither actually functioned. The best-known Ford concept of the period is the ’55 Lincoln Futura. Built by Italian coachbuilder Ghia and fully driveable, it was sold to Californian ‘kustom-kar’ builder George Barris and rotted in his yard for years before he painted it black and turned it into the Batmobile in ’66.
But despite his self-deprecation, Harley Earl regularly almost got it right. His greatest concepts were the three Firebirds, shown between 1954 and ’58. Like other designers of the jet-age Earl was obsessed with aircraft. Unlike the Convaircar the Firebirds couldn’t actually fly, but they looked like they might; all had jet-style fuselages, gas turbine engines and Firebird III had seven fins and separate bubble canopies for driver and passenger. But in some respects these concepts really did predict the cars we drive today, with lightweight titanium bodies, keyless entry, rear reversing cameras and features that bear a remarkable similarity to modern sat-nav, I-drive and collision-avoidance systems.
The latest attempt to predict the future is the Government-commissioned Foresight report on transport in 2055. It sets out a series of different scenarios, which include everything from self-driving mobile offices to driverless buses we summon by PDA. Its gloomier predictions see a dystopian world in which journeys are rationed by carbon credits, and ‘tribal’ communities compete for energy resources after oil runs out, the banking system fails and society collapses. Maybe you ought to switch off your computer and go out for a drive, while you still can.
But we’d rather look to the future with a little of that fifties optimism. There’s no question that the car will be forced to change quickly and radically, whether through excess carbon dioxide or insufficient oil. The race to find a replacement for petrol and diesel engines is being run right now, but it’s a marathon rather than a sprint, and the new technologies that seem to be in front now might not even make the finishing line.
But we have been able to test all these competing new technologies, if only in prototype form in some cases, and they’re mostly exciting. Take the Tesla Roadster, the all-electric supercar you can actually go out and buy now, albeit at an eye-watering six-figure price tag. It will out-drag some Ferraris and Lamborghinis to 60mph, its absurd, instant, warp-drive acceleration made to feel all the more Star-Trek by the silence in which it’s produced.
Or there’s the Honda FCX Clarity, the world’s first ‘commercially-available’ hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. It’s a sexy, streamlined four-seat hatchback with a decent boot and a useful 270-mile range. 200 lucky customers will get to lease them, though at a very heavily subsidized rate: the tech is still too expensive to go on sale.
But the cost is steadily declining, and when it comes down far enough for Honda to sell them alongside – or maybe instead of – its regular line-up by around 2020, we’ll all get to experience the entirely new kind of driving pleasure it offers. It doesn’t rely on noise or speed or image: it simply marries the same unconstrained mobility we enjoy now with the utterly guilt-free conscience that comes from emitting nothing but water from the tailpipe. And it’s as silent as the Tesla; inner and outer peace combined.
Will hydrogen be the fuel of the future? We’ll heed Harley’s words, and won’t make that prediction. But we’ve been to the future, and can report back that it might not be as bad as some think.