“It’s 2020. But sometimes it feels like our futuristic dreams are stuck in the 1950s and ’60s. And there’s actually a good reason for that,” reports Budget Direct Singapore, part of the Budget Direct insurance company that commissioned artwork based on bygone dreams.
“The period between 1958 and 1963 might be described as a Golden Age of American Futurism,” the insurance company continued. “Bookended by the founding of NASA in 1958 and the end of The Jetsons in 1963, these few years were filled with some of the wildest techno-utopian dreams that American futurists had to offer.
“Some of these futurists delved into the motoring and automotive design space – and these types of retro-futuristic concepts were the ones that intrigued,” the company continued in explaining the seven “speculative blueprints of the past” that were reimagined and set in a contemporary world with the following text:
The June 1936 cover of Modern Mechanix & Inventions Magazine promised two revolutionary technologies: television, and the 300 mph Super-Cycle. Sadly, the Super-Cycle and its unnamed inventor were quickly left behind by TV.
The Super-Cycle is capable of reaching record-breaking speeds on its spherical wheels. The driver is safely encased within the bike’s aerodynamic shell. For added safety, there is a cushion attached to the front of the canopy windshield to lean your head on as you power forward.
And those twin motors? “Two separate power plants are employed, one on each side of the powerful rigid chassis,” explains the author, without even blushing.
Chrysler ‘Heir’ (1941)
Gil Spear started as a specialist within the trade of car design: he mostly did the fronts. The 1939 Plymouth, 1939 New Yorker, and 1940 Saratoga front ends were his. And Chrysler adopted the wraparound grille on this unbuilt 1941 cruiser for their 1942 Royal (hence we’ve christened the ’41 model the ‘Chrysler Heir’).
Spear’s proto-space-age Chrysler tapers to a point at the rear, encasing a maximum of two passengers in the bubble-like cockpit. We can imagine that the designer would have projected the speedometer onto the windscreen, since that was one of his proposals for Ford a few years later.
HobbyPop RoadShop (1958)
Nostalgic for woodwork, cheerful Partridge Family optimism, and casual sexism? You’ll love this 1958 bus-length workshop on wheels. The elevated driver’s cabin means Mum is far less likely to take a wrong turn. Plus, the entire lower deck is left free for Dad to use it as his carpentry workshop.
Okay, so Bruce McCall actually drew up the HobbyPop RoadShop in 2001 to parody vehicles like the others on our list. But it’s still an oddly plausible addition to the world of 20th century speculative vehicle design.
McLouth – XV’61 Concept (1961)
Syd Mead’s most famous vehicles are the Tron Light Cycle (which inspired Kaneda’s bike in Akira) and Blade Runner’s flying Spinner car. Mead’s military-funded design for “a four-legged, gyro-balanced, walking cargo vehicle” directly inspired the Star Wars AT-AT.
But if you’re more of a Volvo sort of person, consider the XV’61, which Mead designed for – um – the McLouth Steel Corporation. McLouth built the XV (‘Xperimental Vehicle’) for the ’61 New York International Automobile Show, boasting that the family car was both road safe and future safe – because it would also run on the monorail. Minimal trim and simple geometric lines just about keep the XV’61 down-to-Earth for the responsible family man with one eye on the future.
Suddenly, the Singoletta doesn’t seem far-fetched. Put a canopy on a Segway and you have the perfect social-distancing little vehicle.
“A speed of no more than forty kilometers per hour. A minimum of protection from the weather. A minimum of space. A minimum of consumption. A minimum of cost.”
The magazine artist Walter Molino illustrated the Singoletta for the Domenica del Corriere in 1962. But the actual inventor was the mysterious Cesare Armano, a pseudonym for the famous correspondent and science-fiction author Franco Bandini. Bandini’s solution to the traffic pandemic would cost a quarter of the price of a Fiat 500, and 10 ‘Singlets’ would fit in the space of one car. Plus, its electric motor would have been kind to the environment. Visionary!
The New Urban Car (1970)
In 1970, the average 4-seater carried just 1.2 humans (today, it’s 1.67), y, clogging the air and roads. Automotive writer Ken W. Purdy imagined the solution in a Playboy article illustrated by Syd Mead.
“Tomorrow’s in-city car” would be a two-seater with a cheap, quiet, slightly greener gas turbine in place of the internal combustion engine.
Space is maximized by combining the steering wheel and accelerator into a single fold-away lever. Swing it to steer, twist it to accelerate.
The rear unit – including wheels, turbine, and transmission – is detachable to make repairs easier.
“A cheap but adequate two-way telephone” comes as standard. Looking for the doors? The canopy simply flips open and is hinged at the bumper.
Anti-Gravity Car (1979)
Mead’s 1979 anti-gravity vehicle conjures worlds beyond us, being part Spinner and part TIE fighter with a hint of Batwing.
“We don’t really know what gravity is but we’re going to figure it out,” Syd Mead told Car Magazine, shortly before his death. “I think that’s the next huge breakthrough in controlling the real world.”
The Anti-Grav’s wraparound windscreen gives the driver-pilot a clear view in all directions. But wherever you’re going, you still need roads as this is a hovering vehicle rather than an all-out flying car.
Note to city planners: Mead’s illustration includes buffer walls at street level to stop the car’s overhanging fins from knocking down pedestrians!
“Any attempt to predict the future of vehicle technology is doomed to be a bit absurd,” the Budget Direct team continues. “But the future is much closer than it used to be, and the world around is starting to look distinctly Jetsons-like.
Self-driving cars cruise the streets, even if they can be outwitted by a mischief with a can of paint. Mercedes-Benz posits the Urbanetic (the name Urbmobile was already taken in 1968), a self-driving, fully electric auto with an interchangeable body. Yes, the whole body.
And Elon Musk says Tesla’s cartoonish Cybertruck was inspired by Syd Mead’s Spinner. The consumer pickup has the specs of a sports car, armored glass, an “impenetrable exoskeleton,” and the option to include a fold-out barbeque and picnic table at the back. Perhaps Musk has been studying some of history’s sillier car designs, too.
A note on methodology and sources: “The team started by gathering interesting concepts created by visionaries, artists, and inventors depicting what they thought vehicles in the future might look like. They then researched each image further: who created it, where it was originally published and when, as well as any interesting facts or important features. Finally, a team of specialist designers created new, realistic renders based on the original drawings — bringing these vehicles that never were to life.”
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Modern Mechanix. (2006). Super-Cycle to Smash All Speed Records. blog.modernmechanix.com
Novak, M. (2007). Cars Detroit Forgot To Build. paleofuture.gizmodo.com
Pittenger, D. (2012). Gil Spear and the 1942 Chrysler. artcontrarian.blogspot.com
Sabatini, R. (2020). Coronavirus, the “prophetic” cover of Domenica del Corriere in 1962: «We will go around like this». ilmessaggero.it
Sand, C. (2017). Syd Mead Urban Car design study. retro-futurism.livejournal.com
Tate, R. (2017). Syd Mead and Stainless Steel in a Concept for the Future. motorcities.org