The Crazy World of ’70s Concept Cars

I don’t know about you, but I love a Motor Show. There’s the swell of excited pundits and journalists scrambling into position ahead of the debut of the “next big thing” from “you-know-who”; the no-expense-spared stands with all manner of free goods and fancy paraphernalia from the well-dressed marketing departments; the under-the-radar technology stands from companies you’ve never heard of; and there is, of course, the stands filled with beautiful classic cars.

And then there’s the concept cars.

Not only has it been a while since any of us have been treated to the buzz of excitement that surrounds a motor show parade as it rolls into town, it’s been a long time since anyone has dared to create a genuinely cool concept that really made us stop, look and imagine a world where it was possible to drive around in something so utterly mad.

There was a time when mad was normal; or at least in car design. And one of the greatest periods was the 1970s.

Here’s our pick of the best.

Lancia Stratos Zero (1970)

As conceptual as they come – the Bertone-designed Lancia Stratos Zero

There isn’t one thing about this concept that isn’t cool: the name alone is still as awesome now as it was then; it was designed by the man who created the Lamborghini Miura and Countach; Nuccio Bertone drove it into the Lancia plant, underneath the security barrier, to sell the principle to the Italian marque; and it inspired, of course, the Lancia Stratos. And that’s before we even talk about how it looks.

Perhaps, here at CLT, we’re a little biased towards Italian, but there’s no denying that this concept provided the DNA for most of the automotive industry’s greatest concept cars; certainly the greatest concept cars of the ’70s.

It defined the wedge shape that became synonymous with an entire generation of cars, it reminded the world that concept cars could, and should, push boundaries and challenge perceptions, and it was the cornerstone of the relationship between Lancia and Bertone that would, eventually, gift us the Lancia Stratos, amongst other things.

Pinocchio – That pointed nose tells no lies

The Stratos Zero’s proportions are stunning, every square inch of the metalwork carefully designed with hundreds of considerations in mind. But more than that, it still looks like something the world isn’t ready for.

Concept cars are supposed to push boundaries, make us question things, propose ideas for future generations. Nowadays a concept car is a thinly-veiled disguise of what’s about to roll off the production line, so that the manufacturer can praise themselves for “respecting the form” or producing cars with “concept looks”. Bullsh*t.

The Stratos Zero pioneered Sweeping DIs by about forty years, is only 33 inches high, had a movable steering column and even debuted the large, tablet-esque centre console that Tesla owners will be very familiar with… more than forty years before it ever graced the Model S. This is what concept cars are supposed to be. And it was completely driveable.

Ferrari 512 S Modulo (1970)

Fiat? Fish? Ferrari?! – The utterly un-Ferrari like 512 S Modulo

What a year 1970 was, huh? If you’re going to start a new decade, do it in style, and what better way than with the Ferrari 512 S Modulo concept.

And I know what you thinking, it looks like every other Ferrari ever produced, bla bla bla, it’s boring and too conventional… right?!

In truth, this was also a coachbuilt vision, and also an Italian one, the 512 S Modulo the work of Pininfarina and, more specifically, Paolo Martin, of Fiat 130 Coupe and Rolls-Royce Camargue fame.

The Modulo was originally “just” a Ferrari 512S that was, after conversion, donated to Pininfarina to create something special for the 1970 Geneva Motor Show. And boy did they create a showstopper.

Unsteerable? – The wacky Ferrari 512 S Modulo

With a 5.0l V12 Ferrari engine in the back, and that famous 512 S chassis, albeit somewhat stripped back, the car was actually capable of reaching 220mph (354 km/h) and 0-60mph (97km/h) in just 3.0 seconds. In 1970. Let that settle in.

Yet it wasn’t these figures that have seen it win more than 22 international awards, rather the iconic design that makes the 512 S Modulo so distinctive.

It has a canopy-esque glass roof that slides forward to enable entry, partially covered wheels, a minimalistic interior and the weirdest steering-wheel I’ve ever seen.

But again, it was thought-provoking, adventurous and willing to push boundaries. And there’s never been anything like it, before or since.

Alfa Romeo 33 Navajo (1976)

’70s or ’80s? – The Alfa Romeo 33 Navajo

Anyone who loves cars and appreciates design knows the Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale. Not only was it one of the world’s first supercars, and absolutely stunning, it was also the foundation for some brilliant concept cars that envisioned the future of automotive design. And the one we’ve chosen is the 33 Navajo.

Though the 33-derived Cuneo debuted in 1971, the same year Alfa Romeo also debuted the Caimano, we’ve chosen the Navajo variant for it’s revolutionary vision of the wedge style that debuted in the late ’60s and, arguably, peaked in 1970 with the aforementioned Lancia Stratos Zero.

And it had a bark to match its bite. Tipping the scales at just 870kg (1,918 lbs) and with a 2.0l V8 producing 233PS (230hp), it shifted. And with design cues including that huge rear wing, pop-up headlamps, bumper-integrated exhaust pipes and all manner of aerodynamic tweaks, it was by far the most eye-popping concept to come from the 33’s chassis.

Designed by Bertone, the legendary coachbuilders who blessed us with the Stratos Zero, the Navajo was a vision of future Alfa Romeos and a glimpse through the coachbuilder’s perspective on the up-coming decades. More specifically, the ’80s.

The Navajo, whether intentionally or not, was an inspiration for many future vehicles; that rear end, for one thing, seems very Testarossa-esque to me. And if a concept is not inspirational, then it’s no good at all.

Panther 6 (1977)

Alien Invasion – The Panther 6

What do you mean you’ve never heard of Panther Westwinds? And you don’t think cars need six wheels, especially roadsters. It’s impractical, you say? I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Actually, I do. Of course I do. It’s nonsense, really, but nonsense that seems in fitting with the ’70s; and the true ethos of a concept car. It also has a mid-mounted, twin-turbo, Cadillac-derived V8 powering it so… you know… that’s worth considering.

Where’s Lady Penelope?

In reality, this is a less a design study and more an engineering inquiry, one of several attempts over the years to re-assess the tried-and-tested four wheel layout of a traditional motorcar.

Two were made in total, both of which still exist, and though big claims were made about it’s top speed and handling, and though it came with a telephone, dash-mounted TV, electric seats and air conditioning, the 6 never made it past the concept stage. And it’s probably for the best.

Mercedes-Benz C111-III Diesel Concept (1978)

Boundary Pushing – Mercedes-Benz C111-III Diesel Concept

Now we’re talking. If all that’s available is a grainy, black-and-white photo, you know the car is good, but you also know there must be a tragic or mysterious story attached to the car. Well there’s definitely a story, but it’s neither tragic nor mysterious; just impressive.

in 1969, Mercedes-Benz debuted the C111-I complete with glass-fibre reinforced composite body panels and a 3-rotor wankel engine to great acclaim, complete with gullwing doors and an adventurous design. It was a study of both engineering and style, but one that would keep evolving.

In 1970, the C111-II debuted with a four-rotor Wankel-driven powertrain and an evolved design, which proved popular with the public but didn’t yet meet the requirements for series production. And that’s where the C111-III comes in.

Prescient – The C111-III shows striking similarity with the VW XL1 of 2015

The C111-III shown above quickly evolved into a record breaking car that Mercedes-Benz used to push their engineering skills to the limit; and prove the principle of many concepts, including the capability of their new family of diesel engines.

With a drag coefficient of just 0.191, the C111-III went on to claim nine world speed records, including maintaining an average speed of 200.1mph over 500kms (311 miles) at Nardò, Italy, in 1978.

A concept never destined for production, but one that inspired, and provided the DNA for, generations of brilliance that followed. Impressive.

Ford Probe I (1979)

From a great concept that inspired decades of brilliance to a dream concept that inspired turgid design and bland engineering. The Ford Probe I.

A vision of glass and aerodynamic design, the Probe I was as ’80s as perms and spandex leggings, but was designed before the turn of the decade as a vision of what Ford was capable of.

Created by Carrozzeria Ghia in collaboration with their American counterparts, the Probe I was born in a post-fuel crisis era that envisioned sleek, fuel-efficient cars and interiors crammed with all manner of electronic gadgetry.

It had a drag coefficient of 0.25, did 39 miles to the gallon and had all manner of quirky under-body designs to reduce airflow turbulence; but it was never going to be more than a concept.

When Ford did eventually produce the first Ford Probe in 1988, they borrowed most of the underpinnings from Mazda and produced an utterly underwhelming successor, not just to the first Probe concept, but to the four others that followed.

A true what-could-have-been car if ever there was one.

And Don’t Forget…

A what?! – The Vauxhall SRV

There were many vehicles not included in this list, whether because they were deemed too similar to others discussed, such as the Vauxhall SRV above and the Nissan 126x, or they were simply too close to production vehicles, such as the BMW Turbo, which became the BMW M1.

There were also some great examples of cars that did push certain boundaries but weren’t radical enough in either their vision or execution to sit comfortably amongst the esteemed list of cars we’ve discussed.

Inspirational – The VW Porsche Tapiro

But what they all shared was a vision of the future, a clear view of a different time, one they embodied within their metallic (or composite) skins.

And I hope and pray that, when all this is over, and we return to some level of normality, the concept car will continue to hold a special place, not just in the hearts and minds of the motoring public that attend motor shows, but the directors of car companies all across the globe as well. Only time will tell.

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