In the early 1990s, two very different retro-themed concept cars hit the show circuit barely 12 months apart from each other. Both reached production nearly unchanged. One went on to spawn a styling revolution that sold millions of cars over the next two decades, while the other became a punchline that has only recently gained appreciation with enthusiasts and collectors alike.
The Volkswagen Concept One is the egg-shaped face that launched the tidal wave of neoclassic design, boomeranging from a California studio to German boardrooms across the ocean, and then back again to American dealerships where it kickstarted the industry’s decade-long fascination with nostalgia. Not only did it birth more than 1.2 million New Beetles into the world, but its success also inspired sales stars like the Chrysler PT Cruiser, the reborn Mini Cooper and the S197 generation Ford Mustang—alongside equally ambitious but less popular takes including the Chevrolet SSR and HHR, the Fiat 500, and the final Ford Thunderbird model.
(Editor’s note: It’s easy to dismiss concept cars as marketing gimmicks and dead-end design exercises. But every once in a while, a company gives away the secret to its future without anyone noticing. With ever-grander promises about electrification, autonomy and material advances being made by today’s concepts, I thought it’d be useful to take a look through the archives to see how and when the major engineering and design trends that define the present were actually seeded. This recurring column by the great Ben Hunting is called The Most Important Concept Cars You Forgot All About, and its aim is to give you the tools to understand what’s really coming next. — KC)
The fantastic success of the New Beetle normalized car buyers to proportions and styling language introduced by the Concept One, and its essence was quickly adopted by multiple OEMs as the blueprint for future retro designs. Beyond that, one of its fathers would go on to wield significant influence in an industry that had gone ga-ga for retrofuturism.
It’s funny, though. Today, the Concept One is little more than a footnote, subsumed by its own success and forgotten by most. That other car? It was a failure—and an instant and enduring icon.
Retro With A Twist
Seeking to pull out of a sales tailspin in the 1990s, VW tapped its newly-opened Simi Valley design studio in California to come up with a solution. Eagerly awaiting the challenge were two Volkswagen Group stalwarts. J Mays began his tour of design duty at Audi in the early 80s, and after a brief detour to BMW he returned to a lead role under the Volkswagen umbrella by the end of the decade. Similarly steeped in Teutonic principles was fellow American Freeman Thomas, who had hopscotched from Porsche to Volkswagen along a similar timeframe.
It’s no coincidence that the Concept One (or Concept 1 as it is sometimes written) shared part of its name with the iconic Volkswagen Type 1, better known as the Beetle. Early on, Mays and Thomas had their eyes set on reimagining the very vehicle that had served as VW’s entry point into the popular consciousness. Mays was no stranger to mining the past to serve the present: he had just come off the Audi Avus project in 1991, which modernized the brand’s championship-winning Silver Arrow race car. The iconic Beetle’s proportions were perfect for stretching across a modern platform, and both Mays and Thomas were convinced the car’s heritage could go a long way in helping VW recapture its early popularity in the American small car scene 30 years previous.
After presenting Volkswagen’s design director, Hartmut Warkuss, with the initial look—which consisted of a near-symmetrical front and rear shape paired with a roofline bump that was unmistakably Beetle-esque—the two were given the green light to produce a concept based on their design sketches. The VW Concept One landed at the 1994 North American International Auto Show in Detroit where it was the unquestioned star of the event. Volkswagen had little choice but to fast-track the Simi Valley creation to production.