(Editor’s note: This is part of an on-going series of stories about Larry Edsall’s favorite concept cars. He’s already offered his favorite American concepts from the 1950s, the ‘60s and the ’80s. What about the ’70s? For economic and other reasons, they were the “lost decade” for American concepts. Here are his favorites from the 1990s. Still to come: Favorites from the 2000s and favorites from Europe and from Japan.)
There was a design renaissance in the styling studios of the American automakers in the 1980s and it continued into the ’90s when these 10* vehicles were displayed at auto shows across the country:
10. Chrysler Voyager III
This concept vehicle was both a mini and a maxi van. Only need a compact vehicle for around-town errands? Just take the front portion of the Voyager III. Need room for the entire family and a few friends? Back that coupe to attach it to the back half and off you go. Each portion has its own four-cylinder engine, which means you have 8-cylinder power when the sections are linked.
9. Ford Synergy
Ford wanted to show how lightweight materials and aerodynamic styling could be used to produce a practical but fuel-efficient family sedan. The idea anticipated the 80 mpg average-fuel-economy mandate rumored to be coming from Washington for the 2010 model year. Propelling the Synergy was a 1.0-liter diesel-electric hybrid powertrain augmented by a flywheel storage system.
8. Lincoln Sentinel
If the Synergy was all about delicate lightness, the Lincoln Sentinel was about menacing and powerful presence. Powering the vehicle, which looked like it was designed for either a mafioso or the super hero pursing him, was the 6.0-liter V12 engine that Ford also put into another concept of the era, the IndiGo, an idea for a street-legal Indy-style racer.
7. Chrysler Chronos
Chrysler’s design studios — one in Michigan and another near San Diego — were on a roll, turning out spectacular concepts one after another. Among them was Chronos, inspired by Virgil Exner’s post-war Chrysler D’Elegance but with the passengers moved reward to leave room up front for a V10 engine.
6. Chrysler Aviat
Believe it or not, this car with its dramatic outrigger rear fenders, was based on the Neon, though with a supercharged 2.0-liter powerplant. The design not only was aerodynamic, but allowed the radiators to be moved to the rear, where they would be cooled by the air flowing through the gaps in the fenders. The car also featured scissors-style doors.
5. Plymouth Pronto Spyder
You have to wonder what Plymouth’s fate might have been had Chrysler produced this concept as an affordable sports car instead of the faux-hot rod Prowler. Mounted behind the driver and passenger was a turbocharged four-cylinder engine that pumped out 225 horsepower.
4. Buick Cielo
Cielo is the Spanish word for sky, and this was Buick’s concept for a four-door convertible, with the lateral roof rails providing not only structural stability but also enhanced security and safety. The convertible roof comprised three hard panels that powered back and hid themselves in the car’s trunk.
3. Chrysler Phaeton
Chrysler also presented its idea for a four-door convertible — the elegant, retro-styled Phaeton. Just as in the pre-war era, this was a dual phaeton with a dashboard not only ahead of the front seats, but also between the front and rear seating area. Should they want to reduce the air-in-the-face riding experience, those sitting in back could push a button and a second windshield would emerge from their separate dashboard.
2. Ford GT90
There were several efforts within Ford to create a successor to the GT40 that won Le Mans. One of those was the GT90, which showcased the “New Edge” design language popular within Ford’s styling studio. The quad-turbo V12 engine was so powerful — 720 horsepower — that the car might have achieved a top speed of more than 250 mph, but it also generated so much heat that Space Shuttle-style ceramics were needed to keep body panels from warping.
1. Chrysler Atlantic
Bugatti had its Atlantic, and so did Chrysler (see featured photo at the top of this story). In addition to its stunning and shapely design and Art Deco interior, the car benefited from 360 horsepower generated by a straight-8 engine made from a pair of Neon 4-cylinder powerplants
* Volkswagen Concept One
What’s a Volkswagen doing in a story about the best American concepts of the decade? It’s because the car was designed in California by Americans J Mays — who later became head of design worldwide for Ford — and by Freeman Thomas — who would become an influential design manager at Chrysler and Ford. Mays and Thomas were working in Volkswagen’s U.S. styling studio when the company sought a concept vehicle in which to showcase its new electric powertrain. Thomas and Mays’ created a concept that was such a success that almost no one cared about its propulsion system, they simply wanted VW to put that shape on the road, and thus the New Beetle.