Fuel-cell concepts from 50 years ago: famed designer Brooks Stevens

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Utopia sedan concept by designer Brooks Stevens, 1960  [image courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum]

Utopia sedan concept by designer Brooks Stevens, 1960 [image courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum]

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Most car buyers would be hard-pressed to name a single automobile designer working today.

But it wasn't always that way: names like Raymond Loewy and Harley Earl were known well outside the design studios where they created the "cars of tomorrow."

A half-century-old concept from designer Brooks Stevens underscores the futuristic nature of hydrogen fuel-cell propulsion, both in the 1960s and today.

DON'T MISS: Toyota Mirai manga: hydrogen fuel cell beats electric cars, plug-in hybrids

As described in Hemmings Motor News, the Utopia Concept created by Stevens in 1960 pioneered numerous ideas for advanced auto manufacturing and propulsion that he envisioned for vehicles a decade later.

Among the innovations were the elimination of redundant stampings by using only two door panels: one for left-front and right-rear doors, the other for right-front and left-rear.

The hood and deck lid were similarly interchangeable, and even the single horizontal headlight bar could become a taillamp housing with a red lens swapped in.

Utopia wagon concept by designer Brooks Stevens, 1960 [image courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum]

Utopia wagon concept by designer Brooks Stevens, 1960 [image courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum]

Enlarge Photo

The Utopia wagon concept featured a sliding roof panel that actually made it into production on the 1963-66 Studebaker Wagonaire wagon, and was briefly revived for the 2004-2005 GMC Envoy XUV sport utility vehicle.

But the hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain may have been the most utopian of all the Utopia's features.

Stevens believed that future fuel cells would allow a more compact powertrain, giving him greater flexibility to provide space for passengers and cargo.

ALSO SEE: 2016 Toyota Mirai: First Drive Of Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Sedan (Dec 2014)

It's not immediately clear where the required high-pressure hydrogen tanks are located within the Utopia design.

Stevens would return to the idea of hydrogen power for his Gondola Terra motor home, which used a bank of fuel cells to provide power to an electric motor in each wheel.

That vehicle has a pair of tanks located transversely under the floor.

Terra Gondola fuel-cell powertrain by designer Brooks Stevens [image courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum]

Terra Gondola fuel-cell powertrain by designer Brooks Stevens [image courtesy Milwaukee Art Museum]

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Despite the optimistic license plate ("1970-X"), the vehicles of the 1970s turned out quite differently than Stevens imagined.

The 1971 creation of the Environmental Protection Agency led to the first serious regulation of vehicle emissions, along with a host of other regulations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration having to do with crash safety.

CHECK OUT: 2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell Priced 'Around $60,000,' CA Launch Before End Of Year

Cars from the period 1975 to about 1990 are sometimes referred to as "Malaise Era" vehicles, with cookie-cutter styling, strangled performance, and often abysmal assembly quality.

But zero-emission electric propulsion provided by electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell is still something of a futuristic dream today.

2016 Toyota Mirai - Quick Drive - Portland, July 2015 [photo: Doug Berger]

2016 Toyota Mirai - Quick Drive - Portland, July 2015 [photo: Doug Berger]

Enlarge Photo

There are likely still fewer than 5,000 fuel-cell cars in the world today, against close to 1 million plug-in vehicles, both battery-electric and plug-in hybrid.

It's tempting to wonder how designer Stevens would have viewed the appearance of the 2016 Toyota Mirai, the first production fuel-cell car in the world.

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