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Chrysler's concepts often turn into reality

Automaker has a reputation for building vehicles that push the design envelope

CanWest News Service

Monday, July 30, 2007

Just about all automakers build concepts to test public reaction, try out new styling and engineering ideas, evaluate new types of powertrains or just plain have fun with a show car that will never see an assembly line.

On the auto show circuit each year, Chrysler, Ford and GM vie for attention with their concepts and, predictably, the European and Asian nameplates are well in step with their own offerings.

The people at Chrysler Group have chosen to mark 20 years of concept-building during 2007, though of course, concept cars go back many decades before the late 1980s.

Chrysler has developed an amazing reputation for going ahead with concepts and at every auto show, one never quite knows whether a styling exercise that looks too radical to build will end up on the showroom floor.

The company regards its concepts as one of its key strengths, and there aren't too many people around the industry who would argue.

Chrysler points out that even if a specific concept vehicle doesn't go into production, its design and engineering features might be incorporated into future models.

According to Chrysler, the modern era began when it revealed its Portofino cab forward concept sedan (complete with Lamborghini engine) at the Frankfurt Auto Show in 1987.

Few of us who were there at the time realized we were looking at what would become the company's future large sedan range, sold with great success under various nameplates including Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth and Eagle.

Since 1988, Chrysler has created more than 100 concept vehicles in every imaginable shape, size, configuration and material. Highlights that made it to the dealer lots include the Dodge Viper RT/10 (1989), the Dodge Neon (1991), the Plymouth Prowler (1993), the Dodge Viper GTS Coupe (1994), the Jeep Commander (1999), the PT Cruiser (2000), the Chrysler Crossfire (2001), the Chrysler Pacifica (2002), the Jeep Compass (2005), the Dodge Avenger (2006) and many others.

I'd love to have seen Chrysler build the wonderful Bugatti-inspired Atlantic of 1995 and the amazing and opulent Chrysler Phaeton of 1996, but I guess we can't have everything, and the automaker has, after all, delivered so much else from its stable of concepts.

In 1989, the company showed eight concepts at auto shows around the world, and in 2000, an impressive 10 were revealed. This past show season, Chrysler showed fewer concepts than usual, but perhaps the corporation is busy with some blockbusters for 2008.

Says Chrysler design guru Trevor Creed (who once told me that his dream vehicle was the Dodge Power Wagon of 1999): "We've always said at Chrysler that we don't just produce concepts for fun. We have proved year after year that our concepts are innovative and relevant."

It's interesting to ponder what happens to these wonderful flights of fancy after they've had their weeks of glory on the auto show circuit.

Some end up in the company museum, if one exists, but all too many are stored away somewhere in a corner of the design department to gather dust until somebody realizes their historic significance and brings them back to life.

I once visited a major North American design operation where there were dozens of long-forgotten concept vehicles stored in a warehouse - some of them going back to the 1950s. It costs millions to build some of these concept vehicles - especially if they have innovative drivetrains that actually work.

The lessons learned during the concept design and building process often prepare the ground for all kinds of ideas that help make today's vehicles what they are. It's rarely money wasted, even if the original concept does have a limited life and, ultimately, all vehicle buyers benefit.

Vancouver Sun
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