Mark my words: Detroit 2008 will go down in history as the motor show at which the Big Three finally succumbed to the inevitable and let reality take over from fantasy.
The standout feature of this year’s Detroit show isn't anything on display: it's that missing dose of glamour, glitz and daring-do that has appeared at every Detroit show before now in the shape of their wild, mould-breaking, forward-looking concept cars.
America invented the concept car in the 1940s, when Harley Earl built the Buick Y-Job (right). This was a glamorous one-off prototype used as a daily driver on his commute to GM’s famous Colour and Trim department, the forerunner of today’s vast design studio complexes.
More recently Chrysler revved up Detroit’s captive audience of hacks with the outrageous ME412, a mad idea for mid-engined supercar wearing Walter P Chrysler’s sound-as-a-pound badge (left). Cadillac went a bit mad with the Sixteen, a dot-com bubble luxury saloon dripping in glamour and giltz.
And last year Ford teamed-up with American legend Airstream whose alloy caravans are as stars ‘n stripes as Coke, Coneys and the Cowboys. The resulting shiny confection (below) might have stretched the outer envelope of disbelief, but it let designers explore wild ideas in three dimensions and gave car fans an insight into new design themes.
We can thank Chrysler for re-inventing the genre of the dream car in the 1990s, rolling out three or four thought-provoking designs each year, some barking mad, some production feasible, but all thought-provoking and stimulating. Unable to leave the creative way open, Ford and GM felt obliged to respond and fifteen years of design creativity flowed.
It doesn’t matter that many of these flights of fancy never made production; they existed because they were unfettered by production realities, because they allowed designers' and engineers' minds to run free.
I’m not the only one to have spotted this year’s concentration on production-real designs. Conversations with several influential car designers moved onto the same ground quickly and we agreed that the show lacked a blockbusting design concept.
Money must play a part — a fully-running, hand-built metal-bodied concept costs around $1m. But more significant must be the overpowering mentality at Chrysler and Ford that these are companies in crisis and recovery mode, which leaves no place for fantasy. GM’s lack of razzamatazz is more difficult to fathom.
My prediction for next year? A return to untrammelled creativity expressed as slightly mad concept cars, otherwise we’ll know the Big Three are suffering again.