The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
THE LOOK OF THE FUTURE - FLYING CARS
The visuals we keep in our heads of the Consensus Future are too consistent to be random memories. Either they come from a handful of iconic images that transcend time or else they are built up from a style that was applied over and over again until it left us no other way to think. Those representative styles were often from artists borrowing from one another, taking items that screamed Future to contemporary eyes and incorporating them into their own designs. From the end of WWII through the end of the 1950s that style combined the two most iconic avatars of modernistic speed - the jet plane and the rocket. The type of craft didn't matter much - you'll find proposed flying cars, regular cars, hover cars, and aircraft below - but all are some variation on twin nacelles (a tubelike casing for a rocket engine), a clear bubbletop for the passengers, tail fins, and Dagmars (conical breastlike extrusions).
Sarah Schleuning notes in Dream Cars that when GM surveyed consumers it found that "it was the appearance of speed that mattered most to the consumer rather than actual speed performance." These machines looked fast while sitting still. Nothing else matters.
1947 GM Rocatomic
A concept hovercraft attributed, perhaps fancifully, to General Motors may be the seminal image. This is the cover of the December 1947 issue of the French magazine Sciences et Techniques Pour Tous. With atomic energy still a magic word implying unlimited power and the rocket ship a representation of exploration beyond the scope of mere Earth, the very name Rocatomic contained two pulse-quickening symbols of a new tomorrow. Later artists and designers would steal every inch of this image, from the giant nacelles to the gianter tail fins to the bubble canopy and of course the speed lines. A uniformed driver is in front, though whether this is a taxi, luxury car, or so complicated that only specially-trained chauffeurs could pilot it is not clear.
1953 Chevrolet Concept
Carl Renner looked like he had just gotten his license and was about to take his bobby-soxed date down to the malt shop, but by 1950 he was Senior Designer at GM, pumping out concepts for the entire Chevrolet line. All the Big Three copied one another during the 1950s, determined to make the biggest splash - or at least not be left behind - at each year's auto shows. Renner's gorgeous illustration - if this isn't a flying car, it's a car, flying, and that certainly was as good to look at and drool over - was one of the first to catch the 50s dream car ideal. Renner also worked on the 1959 Cadillac Cyclone below, bracketing the era with jet fighters on wheels.
1954 Ford FX Atmos
Nobody loved this body styling more than the designers at Ford. They pumped out a series of concept cars in the 1950s that slavishly included variations on the basic nacelle+fins ideal, none more so than the FX-Atmos, FX standing for Future Experimental, the Atmos "subtly" indicating atomic power, although the shell debuted at the 1954 Chicago Auto Show had no powertrain at all. The absolute ultimate pluperfect example of the concept, shown in the center of this page, never became public. Seriouswheels.com has an image credited to Ford without any further information although it also seems to date from 1954. With nacelles on top of nacelles under tail fins with their own nacelles, everything about the drawing screams the 50s' motto of "too much is never enough." Still modern, even futuristic, today, this image is one of the few pure examples of a comic book future in an era when the Batmobile was a lumbering tank. Imagine Jack Kirby teaming with Jim Steranko to produce a car of the future. On steroids. The modest shell that was the Atmos is the merest physical expression of a future that could contain such wonders.
1951 Hiller Wingless Airplane
Stanley Hiller's design for a wingless aircraft as depicted on the cover of Science and Mechanics magazine, February 1951. Note the single row of seating revealed by the bubble canopy, allowing the passengers an unrealistic amount of shoulder room, far more than the cramped Rocatomic that might have been possible to fit into a car lane - the background illustration shows the car improbably driving on a standard road. Never built, but Hiller did produce a prototype of a later version with two propellers, stubby wings, and a single seat for a pilot, lacking the rounded nacelles and shrinking the tail fins. It actually flew, a feat this one was unlikely to achieve, but no longer looked futuristic.
1953 Car of Tomorrow
What better way to introduce a new science fiction magazine than to display a schematic of the Car of Tomorrow, meaning a flying car? France's Science Fiction Magazine did exactly that in 1953. The nacelles and fins are toned down but clearly suggested and the bubble top is pilot-only. He could get the car into the air in less than 25 seconds and zoom along at a very reasonable 240 mph (390 kph) in the air, 170 mph (275 kph) on the road, and, oh yeah, 75 mph (125 kph) on water. It had a bevy of additional futuristic gadgetry, including a front photo-electric sensor that would detect obstacles 2 ft (50 cm) away and a set of antennae lifting off from the rear center fin that would not merely communicate with his office but allow him to drive or fly in the dark using radar. Atom-powered turbo-reactor for that extra oomph.
1955 Lincoln Futura
The car companies competed internally as well as externally, so Ford's Lincoln division got a futuristic concept based on the same ideal schemata, but somewhat more realistically car-like. The Futura made the car show circuit in 1955 and eventually found its way into the hands of a customizer named George Barris. When Barris was asked to create a futuristic car for a television series he realized that he had an excellent prototype sitting in his yard. Some fiberglass bodywork later, the Batmobile of the 1966 TV show changed a moribund do-gooder forever. The power of the future applied to the present.
Concept Sketch for 1954 Ford FX-Atmos
1956 Motor Trend
What would Detroit's cars look like in 1957? Nothing like what was depicted on this October 1956 cover for Motor Trend magazine, but by then the habit was far too ingrained to break. The only variation is a hard top rather than a bubbletop, but the swiveling front seat is a nice touch, perfectly positioned either for gossip with the back seat or taking dictation from the corporate drone who is, naturally, the driver.
Nothing shows the power of consensus future design better than this cartoon from Washington Star editorial cartoonist Jim Barryman. Not only is it uncannily similar in outline to the 1953 French flying car, which he was unlikely to have seen, the parody list of features of this "Stratomobile for 1977" parallels the French artist's serious vision. The "car with the backward blast" has a 57,000 hp "ultramoronic turbo-awful jet" engine; a nose radar, a "powered oxygen pump for pressurizing hardtop bubble;" and adds a nose cone and an "aperture for space gun." Call MOon 00-U2 for a demonstration.
1959 Cadillac Cyclone
Though they may have started it all, the designers at GM probably felt left out of the concept car race, although they had come out with the 1956 Oldsmobile Golden Rocket, a pocket-sized version of the more standard land yachts, adhering to the formula with the exception of substituting a tiny center fin on the rear. Though the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz made it into production with tail fins near the size of the Rocatomic and side panels that tapered to circular rear lights that evoked the rocket form, the one thing it lacked for perfection was nose cones. Harley Earl, who is always referred to as "the legendary GM designer Harley Earl", gave a company a present just before he retired: the Cyclone. The bubbletop could be removed for summer driving but the nose cones were forever.
1956 SF Magazine
Usually the science fiction magazines led with future imagery, but here we see one picking up the zeitgeist. This cover of the May 1956 Galaxy magazine, attributed only to the single-named Tocchet, who has no other credits, manages to squeeze in every cliché of the era. Sure it's a convertible instead of a bubbletop and the fins have been replaced by antennae, but the nose-coned nacelles are exquisitely perfect. So, amazingly, is her hair - especially when you consider that the title of the picture is "But Officer, I Was Doing Mach 1!" Sounds exactly like something that would come out of George Jetson's mouth.
1958 Hiller Aerial Jeep
The indefatigable Stanley Hiller was obsessed with rotors. Starting with the helicopter he created at the age of 17, he spent the next two decades ringing magnificent changes on the concept. In 1958 he started a blast of publicity for a vertical take off vehicle using imbedded, ducted rotors that could be adapted for a flying crane, a flying car, a flying jeep, or this, a police vehicle. None were ever built, so artists - this one for the cover of the May 1958 Science et Vie, had a free hand to sneak in the standard cues that this would be the future, the nacelles. No fins here, and no bubble top, but that didn't stop the artist for the July 1957 Popular Mechanics from putting one on Hiller's "Aerial Sedan," a standard-issue flying car for the commuting set.
1961 Comic Book Cover
By the 60s, new futures were needed to outshine the older ones, which suffer from an ever-diminishing half-life. This cover, from a 1961 issue of the French comic book Astrotomic (#28), already seems like a retrofuture, almost as dated as the repetition of the themes of the 1939 New York World's Fair would doom the 1964 New York World's Fair to ignominy. The giant buildings in the background, the snazzy winged rocket plane in the sky, the floating skywalk, the hooded superhero all could have appeared on a cover almost any time in the previous 50 years. Nacelles, fins, and bubbletops faded out of design in the turn of a page. 1960's concept cars were sleeker, less bulky, and sported far fewer bulges, less overtly future but still adhering to a common design theme, just with new signals.