Attempting to envision the future is unavoidable for car enthusiasts; we just can’t help ourselves sometimes. Here at Curbside Classic, we usually look to the past, but often our minds wander into the future as well, looking for emerging trends, or attempting to shape our own version of utopia. Car magazines occasionally do the same thing – such as in 1982 when Road & Track asked 5 renowned automotive designers what they thought people would be driving in 2017. Well, the future has arrived – let’s see how the experts fared.
2017 wasn’t an entirely random date for R&T. The article appeared in their 35th anniversary issue (June 1982), and 2017, being 35 years in the future, provided an alluring target. At the time, the US automotive world was emerging from a decade of upheaval – two energy crises, the surge of imports, downsizing, and the emergence of new technologies and new ways of designing cars. With that backdrop, we can see how the panel of 5 auto design experts envisioned 2017:
Long-time Road & Track contributor Werner Bührer was a logical designer for Road & Track to turn to. Bührer furnished R&T with detailed technical and styling analyses for many years, and he was no stranger to the magazine’s readership. A Swiss native who studied industrial design in Germany, Bührer’s expertise was not just limited to cars, but his detailed automotive renderings and design critiques earned him a loyal following.
Bührer postulated that by 2017, vehicles would prioritize fuel economy, small dimensions and easy access. To suit these requirements, he proposed a pod-shaped 3-seat car (the driver sits in the center, flanked by two passengers sitting slightly to his rear). His car has a small engine immediately to the rear of the seats, and interior access is gained by a combined roof/doors panel that is hinged on the front and swings open for easy ingress and egress. The design, he noted, would be suitable for gas, diesel, electric, rotary, hydrogen or other power. Recognizing the need for vehicles beyond a 3-seat pod, Bührer’s vehicle featured a modular design, with the front pod able to be hitched to various “tail adaptors” that would transform the car into a van, pickup, cargo vehicle, etc.
Stewart Reed was, in 1982, a chief designer for Toyota’s Calty Design research studio in California. Prior to joining Toyota, Reed worked for Chrysler Corporation’s advanced design studio, as well as for AMC. He is still involved in automotive design today, leading his own consultancy, Steward Reed Design.
Reed made several predictions about broad economic trends, several of which proved to be prescient. Predictions of fewer automobile manufacturers, a growing reliance on subcontractors, and the emergence of “shared ownership schemes” have all come to fruition in the last 35 years. He also predicted that, despite massive changes to our economy and lifestyles, “individualism and free, personal mobility will still be important parts of our transportation system.”
As for the cars themselves, Mr. Reed suggested that increased urbanization would lead to “compact 3- and 4-wheel cars” suited to high density environments. He foresaw three types of vehicles: 1) Tiny 1- or 2-passenger vehicles like the red example above; 2) Small 1-box, 3-passenger cars like the example at bottom-left; and 3) Larger, 1-box vehicles to serve a variety of transportation needs – these vehicles would maximize interior space, with minimal space devoted to mechanicals; all servicing would be done from underneath.
Mark Stehrenberger was born in Switzerland, attended design school both in his native country and in California, and immigrated to the US in 1964. He opened his own design studio in 1969, which he continues to run today. His half-century of design experience has included everything from cars to clothes to food marketing.
Stehrenberger focused his prognostication on family vehicles, predicting a merging of mobile living room qualities of early 1980s conversion vans with the size and efficiency of European and Japanese vans. Within a few years, the minivan trend took the family vehicle market by storm, followed by SUVs and CUV, so in many respects, Stehrenberger’s prediction ran true (though the velvet lounge chairs and wet bars of conversion vans never migrated downstream). For a power plant, Stehrenberger predicted interchangeable cartridges similar to battery packs that could easily slide in and out of a vehicle, a feature that would obviate engine repairs, and would even enable engine swaps in just a few minutes.
Alex Tremulis was the senior member of R&T’s 2017 design board. At 68 years old in 1982, Tremulis participated in numerous eras of automotive design since he entered the field in 1933. Among other accomplishments, he served as Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg’s chief stylist in 1936-37, designed the 1948 Tucker, and worked for Ford’s advanced studio before starting his own firm in 1962. While at Ford, Tremulis was known as a futurist, and in 1957 designed the X-2000, a bubble-top space-age concept meant to evoke cars at the dawn of the coming millennium.
The space age theme carried through to Tremulis’ Road & Track exercise, with bubble-tops and dorsal fins. Tremulis sought to achieve a “happy marriage between automotive and aircraft technology,” particularly regarding aerodynamics, which he saw as the key to greater efficiency. The “Lone Eagle” was a single-seat 3-wheeler reminiscent of a modern-day enclosed recumbent trike. With an ultra-low drag coefficient of 0.13 and a moped engine, the Lone Eagle could achieve 50 mph and 250 mpg. A larger “Aeronaut” sports car was also envisioned, with Tremulis estimating 90 mpg from a 544-cc Subaru engine, though he expected future advances in continuously variable transmissions and gas turbine engines to increase efficiency even further. Finally, Tremulis designed an 8-passenger, symmetrically-styled “Aero Van” to “replace the station wagon.”
Tremulis passed away in 1991, leaving a long legacy of automotive designs and an even longer legacy of concepts.
Teruo Uchino rounded out R&T’s design panel. One of Japan’s most innovative designers, Uchino designed the Datsun 510, which launched that company’s good fortunes in the US. By 1982, Uchino served as Nissan’s chief designer, and is credited with many popular Nissan cars of the time. Unlike some of the other panel members, Mr. Uchino was not known as a futurist, but rather was credited with having a remarkable penchant for what consumers in the future would actually desire, and his combination of design and marketing skills brought a unique contribution to the 2017 predictions.
Uchino predicted “evolutionary changes,” rather than a revolution of microcars, and predicted the greatest advances would be in electronics and materials. The typical car of 2017 would have a smaller, yet more powerful engine thanks in part to advanced electronics, increased use of lightweight materials, aircraft-inspired aerodynamics, and “automatic control systems” to avoid accidents. Befitting his realistic mindset, Uchino’s design contribution was the least daring example of the bunch, but his design and engineering predictions are the closest to our actual 2017 vehicles.
One wonders how surprised the five design experts would have been to learn that in their target year of 2017, the most popular cars in America wouldn’t be all that different in general execution from their forebears in 1982. Pickup trucks, CUVs and mid-size sedans would dominate the market, alternative powerplants would account for only a small portion of vehicle sales, and commuter pods would be nowhere to be seen.
Of course, the inaccuracy of these designers’ predictions doesn’t reflect poorly on their own expertise, but instead speaks volumes about the unpredictability of the future. Predicting long-term transportation trends (or anything else for that matter), is like guessing the path of a hurricane. Even armed with expert foresight and knowledge, the actual course of events can emerge as a big surprise.
The world changes in unpredictable ways: Who knows what will be considered a curbside classic in 2052?