Changing Concepts in the Auto Industry : Design: Show cars once were meant to be attention-grabbers at expos. But today, they may be a glimpse of what will be appearing on the highways.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nissan's California designers were having a tough time explaining the concept behind an experimental new truck, the Gobi, to the company's Japanese managers.

Designed to be practical, yet whimsical, the Gobi has storage bins embossed with the words "stuff and things" and "odds and ends."

"They asked me to explain 'odds and ends,' " recalled Jerry Hirshberg, Nissan's chief California designer. "I found myself saying, 'Do you guys have a little drawer just to the left of your kitchen sink? That's where you put your odds."'

Even more difficult challenges face designers such as Hirshberg who try to devise so-called concept cars, or "show cars"--the one-of-a-kind vehicles intended for display at international auto shows.

The most difficult is predicting the future. If they are successful, an auto maker's concept cars can be the ultimate fantasies at an auto show, foretelling trends and showcasing forward-looking design and technology.

A successful design can even predispose the public--and conservative auto company executives--to coming changes, as Ford's Probe concept series prepared the way for the aerodynamic styling of its Taurus and Sable autos.

But at their worst, concept cars are wastes of money and time, pie-in-the-sky exercises with little practical utility that are really intended only to garner a few minutes of television time or boost designer morale. An operational concept car may cost $1 million to $2 million and a year's worth of painstaking work.

Until recently, the ideas behind most concept cars rarely saw expression in actual production vehicles. Some auto makers, like Honda, don't even bother making them, preferring instead to devote time and money to developing real products.

But there are signs that things are changing. At the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show and its Detroit counterpart, both opening today, car makers will be showing more concept cars than ever, officials said. And more of those are intended for eventual production.

Years ago, "a concept car . . . was basically an image enhancer to show off the capabilities of a particular car manufacturer," said Chris Cedergren, senior automotive analyst with J. D. Power & Associates, an automotive market research firm in Agoura Hills, "Now, they're more like prototypes. The market is so competitive," he added, that auto makers "can't just develop them for purposes of showing them at an auto show."

"At very least, that's the lip service being given," added Hirshberg, head of Nissan Design International in La Jolla. "The buzzword at all shows is that every (concept) car is being looked at seriously and being considered for production. I find that hard to believe, but I think basically it's a healthy trend."

Concept cars come in all shapes and sizes. They have names such as Impact, Banshee, Aurora, Millennium, Viper. They have electric motors, heated seats, video cameras, computer memories, infra-red keys, even a picnic table in the trunk.

Many--even those making their debuts in Detroit rather than Los Angeles--owe much of their design and development to Southern California studios.

They are hand-built from the ground up, and designers use every minute they have: Pontiac's Sunfire concept car was painted only the day before it made its first appearance in Detroit last week.

Some look futuristic, yet oddly familiar. The Dodge Viper looks like a 21st-Century reinterpretation of the two-seat sports car. The Pontiac Stinger beach car looks like a cross between a moon buggy and a dune buggy.

One interesting trend emerging among this year's crop of concept cars is retro design, recalling simpler cars and simpler times. It is a trend most successfully exploited recently by Mazda's Miata sports car, which recalls the English sports convertibles of the 1960s, said Alain Clenet, president of ASHA Corp., a Santa Barbara-based association of designers, engineers and technicians. "It touches the heart of many," he said.

Some concept cars look other-worldly. George Jetson would have been right at home in the Cadillac Solitaire, with its glass dome and sweeping lines.

And more of the futuristic vehicles are turning into real cars. The trend is influenced in part by the traditional practice of Italian design shops, which build one-of-a-kind vehicles as three-dimensional examples of their work to persuade auto makers to hire them to develop production models.

"As we tighten up our business practices, you can't just waste whole sums of money and energy on something that is just simply single purpose--and that's for show," said William Scott, Pontiac's chief interior designer. "Now we're . . . trying to build enthusiasm and spirit in the show, but also look at some products that we're really interested in."

Typically, a concept car will influence an entire line, as the Ford Probes did. (The production model Probe is not based on the concept cars, though it shares their name.)

Sometimes a few features of a concept car find their way onto a production car even if the whole car never makes it to the production line. The composite body materials from the Cadillac Voyage concept car went into the front fenders of the 1989 DeVille and Fleetwood, while some of its engine features ended up in the Allante.

But the trend these days seems to move an entire concept car into production.

Pontiac has already transformed one of its concept vehicles into a production car: the 1990 Pontiac Trans Sport, a sleek new van that began life as a show car in 1986. The changes from concept to production car show how a blue-sky idea must be tempered for the real world.

The original concept was a roomy and practical van that was also sporty. Its shape was aerodynamic, with a steeply raked front end. It had gull-wing doors and a computer video screen in the dash.

The van that ended up in production has a less-rounded shape, sliding doors and analog instruments.

But the two vans look remarkably similar, and the basic idea behind the original concept car seems to have been preserved. "The popular reaction to (the concept car) proved useful in keeping the program on track," said Terry Henline, Pontiac Studio's chief designer. "People didn't chicken out."

"Not every concept car we show is going to be produced necessarily," Henline added. "But even if we never produce one of these things, they are of some value. . . . You get used to saying 'yes' to new ideas."

It can be four years from concept car to production vehicle. Before that happens, a company must first study the financial feasibility and the potential market. Designers and engineers accomplish some of that by eavesdropping on conversations at auto shows.

Strong positive reaction to one concept car influenced the eventual exterior design of Chrysler's new sports coupe, the 1991 Dodge Stealth, debuting this fall.

It evolved from a partnership between Mitsubishi and Chrysler's Highland Park, Ill., design studio, but the finished model's exterior design strongly resembles the Dodge Intrepid concept car designed two years earlier at Chrysler's California studio.

Unlike the Intrepid, which sported an all glass-canopy and a mid-engine design, the Stealth has a front-mounted engine and a conventional roof. "But we wanted to capture some of the essence of it," said David McKinnon, manager of Chrysler's international design studio.

Sometimes concept cars end up as production vehicles because of overwhelming popular response--something designers hope for. Nissan rushed production of its prototype two-seat Be-1 mini-car when Japanese auto buyers raved over it at the Tokyo auto show a few years back, Nissan's Hirshberg recalled.

Now, it seems that concept cars are designed to test the public's reaction to production plans. Two of Cadillac's previous concept cars, the Voyage and the Solitaire, were never intended for actual production, chief engineer Robert Dorn said.

But its newest one, the Aurora, is "presently a do-able car," said John O. Grettenberger, general manager of General Motors' Cadillac division.

It's unclear whether this year's crop of concept cars will ever end up idling in traffic. But not for want of trying.

"For a designer, a concept car is a chance to explore and have the luxury of doing radical types of things and put them in a public forum without fear of having a marketplace flop," said Ronald Hill, chairman of the industrial design department of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. "They can test the water and blow off some steam."

* AUTO SHOW: More than half a million people will visit the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show. Story in View

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