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10 Cool Car Ideas That Never Made It into Production

FordLevaCar

Ford Hover Car (1950s)

Automotive engineers and designers are always looking for the next big thing. They are constantly searching for the technology, accessory or styling flourish that will bring buyers stampeding to the showroom and make profits soar. Some ideas like automatic transmissions (1940s), power windows (1950s), hatch backs (1970s) and hybrid motors (2000s) are true game changers. Others like tail fins (1950s), pop-up headlights (1960s) and two-tone paint jobs (1970s) are just short-lived fads.

And some interesting ideas just never caught fire.

Here are 10 cool auto technology and design ideas that never made it into widespread production:

1) Steam Engines — Some of the first automobiles were powered by steam, not gasoline. While steam engines can be smaller and lighter than their gas- and oil-powered counterparts, they require a boiler, which makes the total vehicle larger and heavier. Even so, steam continues to fascinate and challenge automobile engineers. As recently as 1996, Volkswagen was experimenting with a steam-powered engine.

2) Independent Wheel Control — The 2006 Jeep Hurricane was a concept 4×4 that boasted wheels that turned independently. This provided zero-turning radius, which would be great for driving on tight mountain trails. Alas, the market was considered too specialized.

3) Tricycle Cars — One of Mercedes-Benz’s first cars was a three-wheeler. In the past 130 years, numerous inventors have tried to come up with a practical “tricycle” car (often for economic reasons). Unfortunately, the design is inherently unstable, as any four-year-old will tell you.

4) Turbine Engines In the 1950s, Chrysler decided to see if it could make a true “Jet Age” car by replacing the traditional internal combustion engine with a turbine. In 1963, it made 50 Ghia-designed prototypes, which it loaned out for test marketing. The car could supposedly run on any liquid fuel, including vegetable oil or tequila. (And you thought the price of gasoline was high!)

5) Ground Effect Hover Cars Not quite a true flying car, the 1959 Ford Levacar Mach 1 used a miniature jet turbine to create an inch-thick cushion of air between the road and the vehicle. The hovercar could then “skid” above street with no friction or resistance. Which begs the question: How were you supposed to steer the damned thing?

6) Atomic Engines — The 1958 Ford Nucleon was designed to be powered by a small nuclear reactor. That’s right — Ford engineers envisioned civilian nukes. Suddenly, the Ford Edsel doesn’t look so bad anymore, does it?

7) Stainless Steel Bodies Auto designers have toyed with stainless steel as an alternative auto body material since the late 1930s. The stainless steel car reached its zenith with the 1981 DeLorean DMC-12, immortalized in the 1985 film “Back to the Future.” Although extremely durable, the metal is too expensive and difficult to weld to make it practical for the mass market.

8) Joystick Steering — In the late 1960s, auto engineers experimented with joystick-style steering controls mounted on the center console. This was supposedly safer than a steering wheel in the event of a crash, but posed a serious problem for left-handed operators!

9) Third Headlights The revolutionary 1948 Tucker Sedan featured a centrally mounted “Cyclops” headlamp that swiveled to provide greater visibility when rounding corners. Not only did the technology prove too cumbersome for most mainstream manufacturers, but 17 states had laws prohibiting cars from having more than two headlights, which made the concept dead on arrival.

10) Airplane Cars/AquaCars — Since the 1930s, inventors have been trying to devise a practical motor vehicle that can quickly convert into an airplane or operate like a boat. It’s tough enough to build a great car; multi-function vehicles have proven to be 10 times as problematic.

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