Are all concepts created equal?
No. Some concepts - and they're generally pretty easy to spot - are nearly finished versions of production cars. They're wheeled out at motor shows to whip up a bit of hype and persuade the public not to go and buy something from the opposition. For instance, the Jaguar C-X16 and the C-X17 were done to get us ready for the F-Type and the upcoming crossover.
Jaguar's silly coyness about their prospects was unnecessary because neither of these cars were replacing anything else in the range. BMW's endless succession of i car concepts were necessary to prepare the ground with public and dealers to underpin BMW's scarily expensive leap of faith. But the concepts can't be too realistic (see the C-X17's fantasy interior), because things might change as the real design matures, or, worse, the opposition might copy it.
What about the really wacky ones?
Ah yes. Those tend to appear several months after a new design director's appointment. They point in a direction, rather than at a specific car. Think about the wild concepts from the early Bangle era at BMW, or, a decade later, Gilles Vidal's Peugeot SR1.
But looking back, those seem almost... sane.
Yup, that's the whole point. The design community works several years ahead. They have to soften us up, and their own managements, for what's coming.
Or not coming...
True, and they're often interesting footnotes. Sometimes a rejected proposal is made into a concept, if the manufacturer is having a quiet time of it. There might be internal friction: years ago when Rover was a BMW subsidiary, its engineers wanted a ‘new Mini' to be as revolutionary as the original, so proposed a tall rear-engined car a bit like a stretched Smart. BMW let them show it as a concept but not build it. Or there are what-if concepts, like the Land Rover DC100. At the time, Land Rover was unsure how designery it should make the new Defender, so it tried this out on us.
Concepts aren't really tests of public opinion, are they?
Generally no. Car companies like to say they are, but normally they've already made up their minds to build the thing, and are just testing the waters to see how they should compose the mood-music around the launch. Also, concepts can simply be designers doing something to show they're still alive, even when the rest of the company is moribund. A sort of 3D job application. Chrysler did it a lot in 2008 and 2009.
But what about those really out-there Tokyo weirdos?
You mean those blobby little pods that levitate, or follow you round the room, or glow different colours depending on your mood? A decade ago, those really were concepts, the height of imagination. Now though, they might just mean something...
Check out BMW's best ever concepts here