Concept vehicles are often a virtual minefield for automakers. The vehicles can run the gamut from far-fetched, futuristic rigs that have little chance of making it to showrooms, to near-production previews of models just around the corner. The other danger is translating critically-acclaimed show models into production, where inevitably, some of the cooler, edgier features of the show cars are toned down or replaced by more practical, production-ready parts.
Today, we're going to look at the whole range of these vehicles from Ford, long a leader in the truck and SUV segments. As you will see with some of these concepts, many were a not-so-thinly-veiled preview of upcoming production models, whereas others were simply one-off specials that never made it past the show circuit, but had some features or design cues that found their way to production models.
1995: Ford Triton Concept
The Triton is summed up succinctly by Gary Hass, design director at Ford's Light Truck Vehicle Center in 1995, who is quoted in the concept's original press release as saying, "There are many styling cues and functional options on the Triton that you're likely to see in Ford's pickup trucks of the future."
Namely, those were a much more aerodynamic body and modular, overhead-cam V-8 power. Aside from a slightly different grille and front-end treatment, the Triton basically was the 1997 Ford F-150. Given the staid, traditional styling of its predecessor, the Triton and the 1997 F-150 it presaged were a radical change.
1997: Ford E-350 Econoline Chicane Concept
Envisioned as a support vehicle for superbike racing teams, the Chicane was based on an E-350 powered by Ford's then-new 265-hp, 410-lb-ft, 6.8-liter V-10. Those specific output figures are laughably tame compared to Ford's current engine offerings, but aside from the optional Powerstroke diesel, it was the big kahuna of the day.
The interior of the Chicane was highlighted by four captain's chairs, a rear-seat VCR(!) player, Siemens TetraStar navigation system, and a solar-powered hot air purge system for when the vehicle was stationary for long periods. The rear cargo area was separated from the main cabin by a bulkhead and featured a fold-out workbench, tool chest, storage compartments and bike tie-downs.
Ford Tremor Concept
Chevy may have had its TrailBlazer SS in 2005, but Ford had the idea for a high-performance SUV almost a decade earlier in the form of the Tremor concept. Based on the Explorer, the Tremor packed a high-performance 380-hp, 4.6-liter five-valve V-8 with custom heads designed by Yamaha. However, the impressive output of the specially-tuned V-8 was mated to a rather conventional four-speed automatic transmission from a Lincoln Mark VIII.
The Tremor concept previewed many of the features that would be coming on the 2002 Explorer including an independent rear suspension and optional modular V-8 power.
Ford Powerforce Concept
Also previewing a future model, the Ford Powerforce concept was an early look at the 1999 Super Duty, which definitively split the F-Series into distinctive light-duty and heavy-duty versions. In addition to its imposing size, the Powerforce showcased some advanced features that are still considered modern fifteen years later. These include HID headlights and sequential LED taillights.
Some other cool features on the concept that didn't make the production cut were a power lift tailgate that lowered to the ground to aid in lifting large and heavy items into the wood-lined bed.
1998: Ford Alpe Limited Concept
If you squint and look closely, you can see a sneak preview of the Ford Escape in the Alpe Limited concept.
The Alpe featured a translucent plexiglass roof to give the interior an airier feeling and rode on aggressive-for-the-time 17-inch wheels and tires. The contrasting interior featured a maroon-colored dashboard and leather/cloth seats with fabric inserts made from recycled soda bottles.
Based on the Escort and powered by a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, the compact Alpe was an early look at the coming tsunami of compact SUVs that would take the U.S. and world markets by storm.
Ford Himalaya Expedition
While Ford typically reserved most of its concept debuts for the Detroit show, the Himalaya Expedition was showcased at the 1998 SEMA show in Las Vegas.
The Himalaya is one model we're somewhat sad never went into production. Following the discontinuation of the Bronco in 1996, the conventional four-door Expedition replaced Ford's legendary two-door back-trail machine. The Himalaya Expedition bridged the gap between the departed Bronco and mommy-mobile Expedition by removing the roof and rear window section aft of the C-pillar, giving it a semi-open driving experience.
The interior featured Recaro sport seats and five-point harnesses. Further reinforcing its adventurous intentions, the Himalaya featured a Rancho suspension with adjustable shocks, BFGoodrich Baja TA tires, front and rear Warn winches, grille and taillight guards, a full-size spare tire, gas can, and side-hinged tailgate.
2000: Ford Equator Concept (Pickup)
If Ford had decided to field a competitor to the Hummer H2 SUT, it probably would have looked like the Equator concept. Not to be confused with the 2005 concept SUV unveiled in Japan, the first Equator concept channeled the chunky proportions of the Hummer by combining the wheelbase length of an F-150 with the width of a Super Duty.
Like the Hummer H1, the Equator featured a four-wheel independent suspension and, like the H2 SUT, featured a collapsible bulkhead and folding rear seats that created a six foot-long cargo area. Another cool feature was configurable 'clamp-on' gauges that allowed the driver to position the gauges where they wanted them.
The Equator concept was ultimately auctioned off in November 2005 to benefit the American Red Cross and victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
24.7 Pickup Concept
Ford joined forces with tier-one supplier Visteon, itself a spinoff from Ford, to create a family of blocky, Lego-like concepts called the 24.7. Consisting of coupe, wagon, and pickup variants, the vehicles were meant as showcases of Visteon's future and emerging technologies such as voice-activation, advanced lighting, handsfree phone calling, and configurable projected gauges.
Although packed with high-tech features, the interior of the 24.7 had a minimalist appearance, with bench-type seating and a flat, low-profile dashboard.
Despite its high-tech appearance, the 24.7 featured the conventional 2.0-liter Zetec four-cylinder engine from the Focus.
Ford Desert Excursion Concept
Back when 'bigger is better' was the prevailing mantra in SUV design, Ford rolled out its Desert Excursion concept. Incorporating some of the same design elements of the Himalaya Expedition, the Desert Excursion likewise chopped the roof off from the C-pillars rearward, but that wasn't the full extent of the sheetmetal surgery. The overall length was shortened considerably, resulting in greater off-road agility.
The interior featured seating for six passengers, oversized gauges, an integrated navigation system, mesh door pockets and heavy-duty rubber floor mats.
The Desert Excursion was once again powered by the 6.8-liter V-10, this time producing 310 hp and 425 lb-ft of torque.
2001: Ford F-150 Lightning Rod Concept
The F-150 Lightning Rod Concept was a full custom interpretation of the company's high-performance production truck. Featuring the same supercharged 380-hp, 450-lb-ft, 5.4-liter V-8 as the production model, the Lightning Rod may have been similar to its production counterpart under the skin, but had completely unique styling.
Ford EX Concept
The Ford EX Concept looks a lot like what a modern-day interpretation of the classic Meyers Manx buggy would look like. The one important difference is that the EX concept had a front-mounted engine, a relative rarity in today's purpose-built buggy market.
The EX featured a 375-hp and 410-lb-ft supercharged version of the 4.0-liter overhead-cam Cologne V-6 and the transfer case and other mechanicals were shifted rearward for optimal weight distribution. The interior featured five-point harnesses for both occupants while full frontal and directional lighting and dual airbags kept it (hypothetically) street-legal.
2002: Ford Mighty F-350 Tonka Concept
Usually, the term 'toy-like' is not exactly the adjective you use to convey ruggedness and toughness, but in the case of the Mighty F-350 Tonka concept, it's a badge of honor. Painted the trademark bright yellow and featuring bold, angular styling with prominently flared wheel arches, the Mighty F-350 Tonka concept showcased Ford's new 6.0-liter Powerstroke V-8 diesel engine mated to a five-speed automatic transmission.
The Mighty F-350 Tonka concept definitely showed a family resemblance to the production F-350, but the interior design, which featured modular snap-on gauges reminiscent of the 2000 Equator truck concept and oversized toggle switches, was totally unique to the concept.
One innovative feature of this concept that has yet to find its way onto production Super Duty models is the Hydraulic Launch Assist 'hydraulic hybrid' system which builds hydraulic pressure during deceleration and re-releases it under acceleration to save fuel.
Glacier Park Red Bus Restoration
Although not technically concepts or new, Ford's restoration of Glacier National Park's fleet of 33 'Red Buses' was interesting enough to cover here. In service since the 1930s, the original red buses were nearing the end of their service life and concerns about safety and reliability forced the once-iconic park transports into retirement.
As part of the comprehensive restoration, the original chassis was replaced with a new E-450-based platform and the old carbureted engine was replaced with a bi-fuel 5.4-liter modular V-8 designed to run on gasoline or propane. Braking and lighting systems were also brought up to modern standards as part of the restoration.
2003: Ford Freestyle FX
The Freestyle FX concept was a good indication of what was to come with the production 2004 model Ford Freestyle, albeit with a couple of key differences. The Freestyle FX concept's configurability mimicked that of the GMC Envoy XUV, which came out for the 2004 model year, with a mid-gate and re-configurable rear cargo and passenger area.
But while GM committed to putting its design into full series production, the freeform versatility of the Freestyle FX didn't make it past the concept stage. The production Freestyle went into production with a conventional two-box design and fully enclosed rear compartment.
Designed to appeal to trendy urbanites, the Ford Faction concept was a two-door compact SUV designed by Ford's Ingeni design center in London. Following the urban, European theme, the Faction featured a stylish, minimalistic interior, with most functions controlled through a centrally-mounted 'multi-switch.'
The Faction had a 'City Eye' system that let the driver choose between a panorama or close-up rear view, a view of the other passengers, display information from a PDA, or the ability to watch videos, presumably while the vehicle is parked.
Ford Model U Concept
Reportedly inspired by the original Model T, the Ford Model U concept was the futuristic vision of Bill Ford Jr. The biggest design feature was its extreme configurability. The vehicle was fitted with slots in the floor, door panels, and instrument panels that allowed the mounting, moving, or changing of different components to the driver's liking.
The Model U featured a power-retractable roof, rear window, tailgate, and trunk, allowing it to go from fully enclosed to open. Previewing some of the features of Sync, the Model U featured a conversational speech interface.
The most unique feature of the Model U was its engine, a four-cylinder supercharged hydrogen internal combustion engine combined with a hybrid transmission. The concept was capable of a hypothetical 45 mpg.
2004: Ford Bronco Concept
The Bronco Concept gave an idea of what a modern-day revival of Ford's iconic 4x4 would look like. The Bronco concept's 94.9 inch wheelbase was within a few inches of the original and, rather than the original's small-block V-8, this Bronco featured a 128-hp, 244-lb-ft, 2.0-liter turbodiesel I-4. With an added boost from the nitrous oxide system, peak power went up to 178 hp.
Although that power output may sound modest, the Bronco concept's light target weight of 3100 lb promised an entertaining off-road ride. The concept also featured a preview of Ford's dual-clutch PowerShift transmission, which ultimately made its debut in the 2011 Fiesta and 2012 Focus.
2004: Ford Ranger Lightning Bolt
The most power in the smallest possible package has long been a favorite formula of ours, and it was also one of Ford's in the form of the Ranger Lightning Bolt concept. SVT stuffed the F-150 Lightning's 380 hp, 450 lb-ft supercharged 5.4 liter V-8 under the Ranger's short hood. The framerails were boxed and cross-bracing was added to cope with the massive increase in power. The resulting vehicle, as you might imagine, was quite the performer, laying down a sub 14-second quarter-mile even at a nearly mile-high altitude during our 2004 test, and the steamroller-width 345 rear tires were still easy to smoke at will.
Although the present-day EcoBoost V-6 produces close to the same power figures in a much lighter, more efficient powertrain, there's still something so awesomely visceral about a forced-induction V-8 in a compact truck that will ensure the Lightning Bolt's permanent place in the pantheon of Ford truck concepts.
2005: Ford Fairlane Concept
If you take away the rear 'suicide' doors, you're basically looking at what would become the 2008 Ford Flex, right down to the horizontal indentations in the door panels. Envisioned to appeal to families as well as empty-nester boomers, the Fairlane utilized premium materials such as wood, leather and brushed aluminum to give the interior an upscale appearance.
The concept was powered by Ford's 3.0-liter Duratec V-6 mated to a six-speed automatic, whereas the production Flex came to market with a 3.5-liter version of the Duratec V-6.
Ford Equator Concept (SUV)
Shown at the Toyko Auto Show, the Equator SUV concept was basically a highly-stylized version of the Escape. Styling was done by Ford's Lio Ho Design Technology Center in Taiwan and was designed to appeal to customers in the Asia-Pacific market.
Like the Fairlane, the Equator concept featured Ford's Duratec 3.0-liter V-6 plus an intelligent 4WD system. Unfortunately, the Equator's handsome, aggressive styling didn't make it to the production Escape -- the mid-cycle refresh in 2008 adopted a more traditional truck-like appearance.
Ford 4-Trac Concept
Unveiled at the 2005 Bangkok Motor Expo, the 4-Trac concept was a fairly reliable indicator of what the forthcoming T6 Ranger, which made its debut for the 2011 model year in overseas markets, would look like.
The 4-Trac Concept featured a unique 'tailgate within a tailgate' with separately-opening inner and outer sections to facilitate optimized cargo utility. The outer section folded to the ground, acting as a ramp, and the inner section folded down to allow easy access to cargo.
2006: Ford Super Chief Concept
Another variation on Ford's Super Duty line, the Super Chief employed a unique tri-fuel supercharged V-10 capable of running on hydrogen, gasoline, or E85. Although the name might bring to mind native American tribal elders, the name was actually inspired by the Super Chief trains operated by Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway from the 1930s to 1970s.
The Super Chief's interior captured the upscale elegance of the vintage trains by utilizing American walnut wood trim, brushed aluminum and leather. The glass roof of the truck was also inspired by the namesake trains' viewing cars.
2007: Ford Airstream Concept
After several concepts with hydrogen-fueled internal-combustion engines, the Ford Airstream concept featured a hydrogen fuel cell powerplant with a target fuel efficiency of 41 mpg equivalent. As the name implies, the concept was inspired by the iconic travel trailer of the same name.
Looking simultaneously futuristic and retro, the Airstream's interior featured a swiveling passenger seat with a 70s sci-fi look. Just as unique as the interior were the side and rear doors. The passenger-side door was a huge, nearly full-length top-and-bottom-hinged two-piece that created a 'tailgate' seating surface when opened. The rear door was a three-piece rear hatch with a top-hinged upper window and a Dutch door two-piece lower portion.
2008: Ford Explorer America Concept
Just as the Fairlane previewed the Flex, the Explorer America concept previewed the 2011 Explorer, though not quite as literally. The biggest indication of the direction of the future Explorer were the four-cylinder and V-6 EcoBoost powerplants in the concept and the unibody platform on which it was built.
Some of the stylistic flights of fancy that didn't make the transition to production were the three-dimensional dome-shaped compass and sliding rear doors.
Ford Ranger Max Concept
If the 4-Trac concept gave a hint of what the new T6 Ranger would look like, the Ranger Max concept basically blew whatever pretense of cover was left. Looking at the Max concept side-by-side with the production 2012 model, aside from minor styling details, the trucks are virtual twins.
The cog-like detailing on the fender flares and contrasting orange and black finishes were meant to evoke a power tool-inspired design theme, emphasizing the concept's ruggedness.