Future Shock?

“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.

The Buick Y Job of 1938 not only had a silly name, but encapsulated an American vision of the future that was postponed only by the Nazis

The Buick Y Job of 1938 not only had a silly name, but encapsulated an American vision of the future that was postponed only by the Nazis

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.

The availability of Uranium refuelling proved to be a sticking point for the Ford Nucleon. Combined of course with the possibility of multiple=

The availability of Uranium refuelling proved to be a sticking point for the Ford Nucleon. Combined of course with the possibility of multiple roadside apocalypses

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.

Harley Earl's explorations at GM were hugely influential

Harley Earl's explorations at GM were hugely influential

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.

Mr Barris may have known how to pen a cool car, but his jackets rocked too

Mr Barris may have known how to pen a cool car, but his jackets rocked too

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.

Is the Tesla Roadster an exciting glimpse of a potentially sustainable automotive future – or little more than a rich man's trifle?

Is the Tesla Roadster an exciting glimpse of a potentially sustainable automotive future – or little more than a rich man's trifle?

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.

1958- Harley Earl with  GM Firebirds I-II-III

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.

The future of motoring – or an ultra expensive dead-end?

The future of motoring – or an ultra expensive dead-end?

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.

Star Trek's colourful imaginary inspired many an American vision of the automotive future

Star Trek's colourful imaginary inspired many an American vision of the automotive future

The Ten New Cars We’ll Lust After in 2010

Stare into the crystal ball. The motoring industry tugs us in two directions. On the one hand it fuses the heights of driving passion, design discernment and technological exactitude to produce the most dizzying hypercars of which we could ever have dreamed.

On the other meanwhile, that same passion and techno-savvy explores new ways of powering, driving and being on the road.

Somewhere in the middle lay the worse of marketing-led product launches and misguided nods to trend. Meet our heroes and villains of the next 12 months.

The Future: Formula 1

There were seismic changes to Formula 1 in 2009.

Bickering over the sport’s financial arrangements and governance led to FOTA (the Formula One Teams Association) announcing a breakaway championship at the British GP at Silverstone in June, then back-tracking once it became evident that Max Mosley’s reign as FISA/FIA president was truly over and that he would not stand for re-election in October’s election.


Despite the FOTA U-turn the fact is that in the last 12 months Formula 1 has witnessed the withdrawal of manufacturer entries from Honda, BMW and Toyota. And, at the time of writing, Renault is considering bids for its Enstone-based operation that was taken over from Benetton at the start of the decade.

Whether the desertions are purely the result of a catastrophic economic situation for the motor industry or more deeply entrenched dissatisfaction over the sport’s governance, is a moot point. Mosley certainly believed that Formula 1 was unviable in the current climate if it basically amounted to a spending contest.

Max argued that manufacturers have always used F1 for their own promotional purposes while it suited, but always follow their own agendas. To safeguard the sport, he said, it needed to be viable for commercially-funded private entrants. Events of the past few months seem to have vindicated his assessment. We have returned to a position of multiple private entrant ‘purist’ racing teams, plus Ferrari and Mercedes.


Back in the seventies, eighties and early nineties, that was basically the sport’s composition. Largely British private teams such as Lotus, Tyrrell, Brabham, McLaren and then Williams dominated with off-the-shelf Cosworth engines. Opposition came from Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Matra, then came Renault, BMW, TAG-Porsche and Honda as the turbo era dawned.

As Bernie Ecclestone’s vision developed Formula 1 into a world class global sport with unsurpassed reach – the Olympics and the soccer World Cup generate bigger audiences but only once every four years – it became an irresistible promotional platform for the world’s motor manufacturers. Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, Ferrari, Honda, Toyota, Renault were all there at the same time – unprecedented for the sport.


For some, participation was enough to increase brand awareness but, for others, winning was essential. And they couldn’t all win. Team staffing levels approached four figures and budgets went through the roof. Collectively, the manufacturers were spending a billion dollars a year on engine development alone. Mosley, a man who witnessed the off-the-shelf Cosworth era first hand with his March company, thought it was both bonkers and unsustainable.

Suddenly the independents, including top class outfits like Williams, were struggling to be viable businesses without major manufacturer backing. And, whereas Max and Bernie had been able to control the privateers, often by divide and rule tactics, the presence of heavily backed corporate players threatened to take the sport out of their control. Politics started to dominate sport.

On the plus side, interest grew and competition became closer than ever. In 2009 we enjoyed entire grids covered by little more than one second -- unthinkable just a decade ago.

On paper, all the factors that made F1 so attractive to the manufacturers still remain, albeit that as things stand you can’t go out and beat six or seven of your major rivals. The interesting time will come when the economy turns. We will see how many return. The regulatory path followed by new FIA president Jean Todt will also be influential, along with his success or failure in implementing a planned glide path of reduced expenditure aimed at reaching early nineties levels. Many have serious doubts about the viability of such a target.

The immediate future gives rise to some mouth-watering match-ups on track. None is quite so compelling as the prospect of Britain’s back-to-back champions, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, lining up as team mates in identical McLarens.

Button’s talks with McLaren were initially viewed as expedient for both parties – McLaren was surely turning the screw on Kimi Raikkonen’s negotiating team and Button was trying to eke out a bigger pay day from Brawn and Mercedes. Nobody quite believed it when the deal went through.

Some suspect that Button, with the pressure finally off, took temporary leave of his senses. To head into a McLaren environment where Lewis has been king for three years and take him on – is a big ask. Fernando Alonso couldn’t do it when Lewis was a rookie never mind a world champion.

While it’s fair to say that many don’t rate Jenson’s chances too highly, it’s not as simple as all that. Button started ’09 with an undoubted car advantage due to Brawn’s double diffuser and long development lead time. By the end of the season the team had been caught and arguably overtaken. McLaren initially didn’t cope with the new aero regulations but once it solved its problems became a potent force.


Jean Todt' puckish of genius when running the Scuderia will be applied to the FIA

Next year with refuelling banned, it will become vitally important to look after your tyres, the rears particularly, over a race distance. That may play right into the hands of Button’s super-smooth style which is likely to take less out of the rubber that Hamilton’s more flamboyant oversteer-pronounced technique. On the other side of the coin, the change in handling characteristics over a race distance is more likely to favour the more adaptable driver, which is likely to be Hamilton. It will be fascinating to see how it pans out, not to mention whether or not McLaren can keep a lid on the potential tensions of two star drivers again – something it patently failed to do with Senna/Prost and Alonso/Hamilton.

The other great plus is that the future of the British Grand Prix seems assured after Bernie Ecclestone signed a recent 17-year deal with Silverstone following the collapse of Donington’s ambitious plan – another victim of the economic situation.

With potential EU competition issues clouding F1 rights ownership issues at the start of the decade, it was no surprise that F1’s new super-venues: Sepang, Shanghai, Istanbul, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and, next year, South Korea, were all outside Europe. Now though, with those issues apparently resolved by the FIA divesting itself of the commercial rights, we’ve had Valencia and the new deal for Silverstone. That at least, is a blessing. While the new locations are spectacular – witness Yas Marina in particular – they must always be balanced with F1’s traditional core events.

The Electric TT: The Answer or a Chancer?

The 2010 eGrandPrix race season has been announced. It will now culminate with a championship race organized by the European Motorcycle Union at Spain's Albacete circuit. The date has yet to be announced, but the addition of this championship gives the fledgling electric motorcycle racing organization not only four-race national series in the UK and Italy and three races in North America, but also a headline event at the Isle of Man TT – and now an officially sanctioned European Championship event. It looks, then, that Electric bike racing is a huge element of at least the immediate future. Who knows where it will end up.

Whatever the future hold for the formula: covering the world's first Grand Prix race event for electric bikes at the 2009 TT did my head in. I learned everything I know about electric motorcycles over three solid days of back to back interviews. The words 'Lithium Ion' were never further from my lips than the end of my nose until I boarded the ferry back to Heysham.

Stood on the wall on Glencrutchery Road, as the marshal walked down the line of bikes with the two minute board above his head, it truly felt as if history was being made. Somehow, and very few people really know how, the worlds' most venerable motorcycle race had squeezed the schedule of its most important day to allow 13 electric bikes to compete in a unique race of their own.

National TV cameras and media from four continents buzzed around the bikes. The procedure was identical to that of the real Senior TT that would line up in the exact same place two hours later.

It was like the Grand National pausing to allow a Donkey Derby.

Competitors ranged from Michael Czysz's truly astonishing E1PC (top) to Team Tork's Pune – an Indian University's project. The latter was a machine so ugly, as one onlooker pointed out, "that you wouldn't ride to the pastie shop".


The winner (above) was an anglo-Indian effort from Agni Motors - A GSX 750 with its ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) ripped out and two Agni DC motors, a bunch of Lithium Ion cells, a motor controller and a battery controller motherboard jammed in. The Agni was about as pretty as a toenail, but lapped at 87 MPH.

OK, so 50cc racers lapped the mountain course at 86 MPH as far back as 1966, but it's still shifting – more than fast enough to kill you at various parts of the 37.73 mile course.

The Indian ambassador to London was even there to see the historic win, helping to give the event a feeling that a shift in power was happening - a shift from ICE to electricity, from Japan to other, emerging economies.

Then, someone plucked the sun out of my new dawn.

The TTXGP was supposed to be about finding an answer to the problems caused by fossil fuel-burning vehicles. As well as electric power, there are after all many different ways of improving on our beloved Internal Combustion. But with the winner's leathers still sticky with champagne I began to get the feeling that someone had forgotten the point of the race.

When Azhar Hussain, founder of TTXGP, stood up in front of press, teams, locals and politicians and said, "The TTXGP will accept electric vehicles only, so it is easier for spectators and the media to understand the concept," it felt like a veil had been lifted – or rather a curtain had fallen.

I looked around. Few people had even noticed what he had said. "The people are electro-Nazis", I thought. They're not exactly looking for the optimum solution for sustainable motorcycling _ they're looking to develop a saleable 45 minute race package for Sunday afternoon, with highlights repeated on Monday.

Hussein spoke about animosity from 'those invested in the status quo', whilst establishing and investing heavily in a new status quo.

The TTXGP is said to be 'visionary', 'exciting' and 'challenging'. But how far does it get us toward an answer to the question: how do we ride bikes fast without producing emissions?

Future Classic: The Lotus Evora

Consensus seems that the ride and the dynamics are perfect: but if anything the chassis could handle another hundred horses. There have been a few gripes about interior trim and ergonomics, but that doesn't alter the success of the design. Think about it: it's a bold format – a genuine 2+2 squeezed into the frame that recalls clearly Lotus's track day stars.

It's about time the company made cars for people with a modicum of responsibility in their lives. All in all we think that the combination of audacious styling, clever interior design and the spectacular handling amounts to something that sets the tone for the second decade of the 21st century. And it doesn't get more classic than that.

Evora Fact File:
Mid-engine, transverse-mounted, V-6 with 276HP @ 6400 rpm and 252 lb. ft. @ 4700 rpm
0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) Sub 5 seconds
Top Speed Approx. 160 mph
Coefficient of Drag 0.33
Modular lightweight bonded aluminium structure. Overall vehicle curb weight just 2976 lbs.
Gear Box
6-speed manual or paddle-shiftable automatic available shortly after launch
2+2 adjustable Recaro Leather sport seats (front)
Leather seats with ISOFIX (rear)
Hydraulically assisted power steering
Integrated Central Electronics
Alpine Multi media system, 7” touch screen Sat Nav, DVD, Blue Tooth, Ipod Connectivity
5.7 cubic foot trunk, remote release glove box, storage bins and integrated cup holders
Suspension System
Forged aluminium wishbone suspension and Bilstein high performance dampers
18” Alloys Front [225/40 ZR18]
19” Alloys Back [225/35 ZR19]
6 Speed Manual
<225 g/km
Fuel Economy >30 mpg (combined cycle)


Agni: Is This the future of Bike Racing?

The Lowdown
Anglo-Indian company Agni manufactures DC motors in India that are used mainly to power go-karts for indoor tracks. "We entered the race to promote the motors," designer Cedric Lynch says. The TTX organizers put Agni in touch with the rider Robert Barber, who recommended converting a Suzuki GSX-R750 to electric power. "He arranged for us to buy this one without its engine. But fitting everything into the space occupied by the internal combustion engine was the biggest challenge."

The bike runs two DC electric motors. It had to use two because the company doesn't make a single motor durable enough to take all the power this bike can create. Lynch says, "The two motors are simply coupled with a shaft and then drive the rear wheel with a fixed ratio. It's a twist-and-go machine." The false fuel tank covers the bike's battery-management system.


What's Next?
During the TTX, Cedric Lynch became the cult figurehead. After all, Agni won the race. Lynch says, "It is possible we could collaborate with a manufacturer to develop electric motorcycles for sale."

Why It Matters
It won the very first electric TT, by 3 minutes 7 seconds, lapping 10 mph faster than its competitors. In terms of performance, this bike set the standard by which all future electric race motorcycles will be judged.


The 1939-1940 New York World's Fair – which took place of course just as the world teetered on the brink of apocalypse – made the expansive promise to show visitors 'the world of tomorrow.'

At the fair's heart was the General Motors Pavilion and a ride called the Futurama.

According to many reports lines were endless. There was a real hunger amongst the public to experience what life would be like in the the year 1960.

Hover cars, anti-gravity machines and highways in the sky: all traceable to 1939's Futurama

In a very real sense, the American modernist ideal articulated at the Futurama with those of Europe in the ashes of the second world war – and a world that approximated the Geddes-designed utopia grew out of the devastation.

city of 1960_'39

Rather than featuring actual General Motors concept cars, visitors to Futurama were introduced to prescient visions of a real urban future of : like proximity control devices and sat nav.

Squint critically at the dream encapsulated in the Futurama vision: you can see that what this all about was the promotion of a tax funded road system that would motor the postwar economy of both North America and Europe – thereby furthering the rise and rise of the biggest corporation in American history.

And though it's ironic to think that the corporation who summoned this sort of world into existence is now all but bankrupt, it's obvious that the exhibition has huge influence on popular culture in general. Post war architecture and urban planning, science fiction movies and would be unrecognisable had Futurama not been created.

Designer Norman Geddes pre-empted gridlock by a few decades

Though it's easy to dismiss the somewhat quaint trappings of an exhibit like Futurama, think for a moment: the world might be a better place if the establishment had followed the designs of the exhibition to the letter.

Norman Bel Geddes, the designer of the Futurama carried out extensive research into potential traffic problems and how to overcome them with technology – decades before the problems even manifested themselves.

But nobody paid much attention to the problems Geddes anticipated. We ended up with the motorways and the towering urban residencies and workplaces – but the roads are approaching gridlock and the workers in the glass towers are bringing the downfall of captialism, and the tower blocks are the manifestation of a popular modernist folk devil.

Perhaps if we lived the Futurama way, there would be no oil shortage, no climate change and there's be no need for all this post millennial angst that's making us look at electric cars for inspiration.

But then again, perhaps not.

Affordable Electric Cars?

Car manufacturers the world over are finally waking up to the almost indisputable fact that to make their business futures sustainable, they will be forced to explore not only hybrid technology, but also full plug-in electric solutions.

It has been estimated that global sales of electric cars will reach 50,000 by the end of next year, with half of that figure being sold in the US. Nevertheless, the amount of infrastructure needed to facilitate a huge car corporation's investment in an all-electirc car gives corporate execs what is called 'range anxiety'. Supposing for instance, that the plug-in power stations envisaged by some fail to materialise on our city's streets after billions of dollars investment in a car with limited range? Financial metldown. Masses of pointless emissions. Electric cars filling landfill sites.

Of course, there's the cringe-makingly expensive Tesla and a few other existing electric options that exist at time of writing, but each of these at the moment is so stratospheric in price that their viability as an ongoing everyman motoring option is called seriously into question.


It is this problem that the folks at Swiss design company Stauffacher-Benz have addressed with their electric concept car the E'mo. Despite its name's unfortunate anglophone pop-cultural connotations, the car is designed to be built from recycled scrappage and lightwieight composite panels which are relatively cheap to develop. The project was originally the brainchild of Markus Henne, a professor of Materials Science at Switzerland's Technical University in Rapperswil, the car is the fuition of an interesting vision of an affordable electric car that can be built in small, cottage-industry' type workshops without the need for power hungry robotics and other expensive manufacturing processes.


" Instead of investing billions, we only need a few million Francs to begin manufacturing, " Henne told Monocle Magazine recently."

This sort of design and manufacturing ingenuity is surely one of the most viable and sustainable ways to invisage a city of the future filled with affordable electric cars.

Stick some flames and alloys on it, and might not look so much like a golf cart.


George Barris: Imagineer of America’s Future

George Barris was one of the original individuals who created the Kustom car and hot rod revolution in postwar America. Born in Chicago in 1928, it was in California that the Barris flair for futuristic tweaks and the unbounded imagination that saw him go on to create some of the most famous hot rods, kooky customs and TV star-cars known to man.


As well as creating the Batmobile, Grease Lightning, General Lee and the Hof's Kitt car, he was an early harbinger of American Futurism as manifest in these three spectacular silly vehicles. So by way of tribute, here are our three favourite Barris-built kooky kustoms that encapsulated a boyhood dream of the Future – with beautifully distinctive annotations by the great man himself.

Moonscope (1966)


"After many hours of research and development, George designed and built this first concept of an all terrain moon mobile unit. The Moonscope is a moon crawler that will enable astronauts to maneuver around the moon surface. 

Since the moon surface is dusty and soft, craters deep and some hollow, the moon crawler is equipped with special shocks from Carrera to enable it to adapt itself to maneuvering like a spider. Since the moon has no air, gas combustion engines can¹t be used so Cushman engineered and provided a basic electric platform and chassis with General Electric motors. Drive gears are in forward and reverse movement with foot pedals controls and speeds up to 45 mph. NASA requested detailed background information on the design of the vehicle. Barris gave NASA permission to utilize any of the advanced designs for the Mars missions."

Cosma Ray (1968)


"Underneath the immaculate exterior of Cosma Ray lies a fully chromed undercarriage and a 327 cubic inch Corvette engine which gleams with chrome and polished alloys. The body, although extensively reworked, retains more than a hint of its original Stingray styling. To provide clearance for larger tires, the wheels are radiused and a flange added to their outer edges. The nose was drawn to a sharp peak and the retractable headlights relocated behind translucent panels in the grille opening. Engine cooling air is inducted through aluminum mesh covered openings just under the hood peak, while carburetor air enters the engine compartment through a wide hood scoop extending rear-ward into the cowl area and conforms with the center crease, then follow through into a double streamline plastic bubble push-button operated top."

Xpac 400 (1963)


"This car is a ground effects machine and rides on a five inch cushion of air and can run on land or water, has no wheels, transmission or rear end. Plus, no frictional moving parts. All electronics are on circuit breakers, racheted relays and solanoids engineered by Earl Wilson. 

Body paint consists of nitro cellulose lacquer and 35 coats of imported swedish pearl of essence which is made of crushed fish scales and added to crushed diamond dust, then colored in Kandy translucent red, white and blue. This car was designed and built to be demonstrated for the public showing how an air operates and is mounted on a guide rail for safety. All exterior trim has been gold plated for added attraction. "