Opened in October 2014, the Audrain Automobile Museum in Newport, Rhode Island, quickly established itself as one of the premier automobile museums in the Northeast, thanks in part to its ties with other noteworthy collections and automotive celebrities. As proof of this, Styling the Future: A History of GM Design and Concept Cars, a new exhibit debuting at the Audrain on Friday, August 2, features a gathering of iconic show cars on loan from the GM Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Michigan and the Lingenfelter Collection in Brighton, Michigan.
Curated by historian and author Donald Osborne, Styling the Future features a dozen of GM’s most influential concepts, a quantity that the Audrain claims has never before been shown together in a curated museum setting. The 1938 Buick Y-Job–widely considered to be the first concept car–will be on hand, but so will the 2003 Cadillac Sixteen concept, displayed alongside a 1931 Cadillac Fleetwood V-16, the automobile that served as its inspiration.
1951 Le Sabre concept.
Other vehicles in the exhibit include the jet-fighter-inspired 1951 Le Sabre concept, which boasted technology like a rain sensor to close its top, heated seats, and a lightweight magnesium body over a honeycomb aluminum floorpan; the 1953 Cadillac Le Mans, with its power-operated memory seats; the 1958 Firebird III, which previewed styling traits (such as the lower quarter panel fins that appeared on the ’61 Cadillac); and the rocket-themed 1959 Cadillac Cyclone, which showcased proximity sensors for accident avoidance and sported automatic sliding doors.
1973 Chevrolet Aerovette.
Corvette concepts are well represented in the exhibit, too. Planned displays include the 1954 Chevrolet Corvette Test Mule EX-87, the first research-only Corvette to be powered by a V-8 engine; the 1954 Chevrolet Corvair concept, which envisioned what a first-generation Corvette coupe might have looked like but was doomed by slow sales of the original Corvette; the 1961 Mako Shark concept, designed by Larry Shinoda, which helped to influence the styling of the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray; and the 1973 Chevrolet Aerovette, a mid-engine concept that was supposed to be powered by a four-rotor Wankel engine and boasted digital instrumentation a decade before this hit production.
1990 GM Impact Experimental.
Perhaps the most controversial vehicle in the display is the 1990 Impact Experimental, a battery-powered car that foretold a future where electric vehicle sales would be mandated and not merely subsidized. Sculpted in a wind tunnel for a low drag coefficient, the Impact Experimental would later be produced, in slightly updated form, as the GM EV1 electric car from 1996-’99.
Leased only to residents of Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson, the EV1 was meant to test the demand for electric cars among consumers, as well as the complexities and potential profitability of building such vehicles. At the end of the program, the 1,117 EV1s produced were recalled with no provision for private ownership, and the vast majority were destroyed (to the suspicion of conspiracy theorists everywhere). Excluding the series hybrid Chevrolet Volt, it would take GM another 13 years to release its next battery electric vehicle, the 2012 Spark EV.
Styling the Future: A History of GM Design & Concept Cars will run through November 11, 2019. For additional details, visit AudrainAutoMuseum.org.