Ahead of their time: concept cars that failed to reach production

From a 237mph Aston Martin to an advanced MG these inspirational machines were, for various reasons, binned after a brief burst of fame

Ron Hickman design drawing for a still born Lotus
Vision: a styling drawing by Ron Hickman for Lotus

Car manufacturers view them as potential harbingers of future designs, a chance to showcase cutting-edge technology within a stylish – well, in most cases – new body. We’re talking prototypes, normally unveiled at motor shows to gauge the public’s reaction before a decision on mass-production is made. 

While some prototypes triggered the arrival of new models on our roads, others disappeared without trace. Those which never made the grade were rejected for myriad reasons, including too expensive to produce, lack of consumer interest and changes in the manufacturer’s long-term strategy.

Here, we turn back the pages of time to spotlight some of the prototypes which never got to enjoy life on the road.   

MG EX-E 

Advanced: this lovely two-seater MG had a mid-mounted engine and four-wheel drive

Unveiled at 1985’s Frankfurt motor show, it was hoped that MG’s EX-E mid-engined, all-wheel-drive sports car would help fill the void left by the company’s struggle to produce a worthy successor to the MGB.

Head of design at British Leyland, Roy Axe, was the proud owner of a Ferrari 308 GT4 and gained inspiration from the Italian car when the EX-E project was conceived. 

With an estimated top speed of around 170mph planned plus many proposed high-tec elements, including electronically-controlled shock absorbers and remote central locking housed within a sleek, streamlined body, hopes were high for the EX-E.

Despite winning many plaudits, the fibre-glass prototype’s future was bleak. The then state-owned Austin Rover was enduring an unstable period and concerns were expressed about forking out taxpayers’ money to put the EX-E into production; in fact, the project wasn’t even allocated enough funds to finance a running prototype.        

Ditched before even having chance to woo the punters, the EX-E shows visitors to the British Motor Museum, where it currently resides, what life on the road could have been like in the mid-1980s.  

Aston Martin Bulldog

Striking: the Bulldog was claimed to be capable of 237mph but never had a chance to prove it

With its 5.3-litre, twin-turbocharged V8 engine, the Bulldog’s staggering top speed of 237mph was destined to leave its contemporaries in the dust. But plans to build up to 25 were shortlived and just one model emerged. 

Production costs were five times greater than any other Aston Martin back in 1980. Plus, its unveiling coincided with an energy crisis and subsequent UK recession. The manufacturer’s elaborate plans for its futuristic £200,000 supercar were, sadly, deemed too costly and were swiftly ditched.

Now valued at over a million pounds, the wedge-shaped Bulldog with its gull-wing doors and drop headlights passed between several owners before an American enthusiast recently snapped it up at auction with plans to make it roadworthy again.

Aston Martin’s test drivers achieved speeds of 192mph back in the late 1970s. Although its engineers predicted it could reach staggering speeds of 237mph, a UK test circuit with long enough straights to accommodate such high speeds didn’t exist. 

But when the two-seater car is restored – a mighty task project managed by Richard Gauntlett, son of Aston Martin’s former chief executive, who revived the company’s fortunes in the 1980s – attempts will, hopefully, be made to reach the speed engineers predicted could be achieved.   

Vauxhall SRV

Innovative: the long, low SRV now lives at Vauxhall's heritage centre in Luton

First seen at 1970’s Earls Court Motor Show, the sleek, innovative SRV (which stood for styling research vehicle) came with bags of delights, such as adjustable front aerofoil and self-levelling air suspension. It symbolised the company’s forward-thinking attitudes to technology despite the vehicle only housing a mock-up engine at that point; and with no gearbox built for the vehicle, it couldn’t move under its own power.

Bizarrely, controls in this four-seater, four-door concept car, with its mid-mounted transverse engine, were found on a pod connected to the driver’s door. 

Despite hugging the ground at just over 40 inches high, its 16 feet-plus length meant the SRV was no midget. But when it appeared officials at General Motors, which acquired Vauxhall in the 1920s, were quick to point out that full-scale production wasn’t a possibility. 

Using it purely as a styling project to, perhaps, help influence the industry, the SRV was still popping up at motor shows at the end of the decade, affording a potential peek into the future of car design.   

Considering Vauxhall’s output in the early 1970s involved, primarily, Vivas and Victors, the futuristic SRV was a giant leap forward in design and style.

Triumph Lynx

Mismatched: the Lynx four-seater coupé mated a TR7 snout to a staid rear end

A host of reasons can sound the death knell for prototypes and the Triumph Lynx’s fate was decided by the 1978 closure of British Leyland’s factory in Speke, seven miles south-east of Liverpool’s city centre.

The idea for the four-seater coupé version of the TR7 was born long before the 7’s launch. Company chiefs had high hopes for the model, including exporting potential, despite the Lynx’s mismatch body shape. While the front was a clear copy of the TR7, the rear, courtesy of the company’s Solihull-based design studios, was more staid in design.

With a Rover V8 engine beneath the bonnet, the Lynx was technically straightforward and production of the TR7 in 1974 was coupled with the company intensifying efforts on the Lynx front.

Many of its components, including gearbox and suspension, were borrowed from existing models in the company’s portfolio. Confidence in the Lynx’s chances of success was such that full-scale production at the company’s Speke factory was given the green light.    

But trouble lay ahead: a crippling four-month strike at the factory tasked with turning the Lynx dream into reality led to not only the abandonment of the proposed car but the factory itself.

The one and only Lynx is now found at the British Motor Museum.

Saab Catherina

The 96 was a success for Saab, but the two-seater concept based on it failed to make the grade

The now defunct Swedish car manufacturer built its reputation on producing rugged, tough, reliable models. Among its most memorable models was the Saab 96. Manufactured for two decades, it became a popular rally car, winning – among others – the RAC and Monte Carlo rallies.

But not all of Saab’s models were a success. In the early 1960s, design work began on the Catherina – named after the town in which it was designed. Saab was keen to launch a sports car and, in 1965, the two-seater with a targa top – which could be stored in the boot – was unveiled at a sports centre. 

To save cash, parts from the popular Saab 96 were used but all the hard work was in vain. Test drives revealed that more development time was required before a decision could be made regarding putting the Catherina into production. 

Around the same period, work began on another prototype – the MFI13 – which impressed executives so much that it formed the basis of the company’s sport car, the Saab Sonnet II. This marked the end of the road for the Catherina, which is now displayed at the Saab Car Museum in Trollhättan.

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