Carmakers sometimes come up with ideas so inspired and innovative they seem certain to catch on right across the industry -- but they don't. Here are five revolutionary concepts that really ought to have been more popular.
CENTRAL DRIVING POSITION
The McLaren F1 road car of 1992 was packed full of automotive firsts. It was a clean-sheet supercar that was, for a time, the fastest production vehicle in the world: 391.02km/h. That speed was not bettered until 2005, when the Bugatti Veyron came along.
But one of the most interesting innovations in the F1 was its racing-inspired central driving position (pictured right). For a super or sports car, this made so much sense: with the driver sitting in the middle, McLaren was able to package another two chairs in the cabin, staggered on either side. More fun for more people.
The central chair allowed the driver to place the car more accurately on the road in fast driving and there were even benefits in terms of production, because very little change was required to switch between left and right-hand drive markets.
True, it's not a configuration that would work for a family car -- save perhaps wide-body people-movers like the six-seat Multipla Fiat or Honda FR-V. But for a supercar it was sheer genius and it's amazing that it has never been copied -- not even by McLaren itself, which formally entered the road-car business in 2009 as McLaren Automotive and now has a range of production cars, including the 650S and P1. Both are designed as conventional left or right-hand drive machines.
Four-wheel steering (4WS) was a favourite of Japanese carmakers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Honda was really the company that put the technology into the mainstream, with the 1987 Prelude coupe. That first system was mechanical, but later 4WS technology employed electronic control.
What a great idea. At low speed, the rear wheels turn in the opposite direction to make the car much more manoeuvrable in tight corners or for parking. At higher speeds, they turn in the same direction for smoother lane changes and the like.
So 4WS was a raging fashion in a particular part of the world for about a decade -- but like all raging fashions, it faded away. Carmakers have since come up with less complex and costly methods for enhancing vehicle manoeuvrability and stability, many using the sophisticated electronic braking systems fitted to modern vehicles. Torque vectoring by braking, for example, can selectively apply braking to an inside wheel, thereby feeding more power to the outside for a pseudo-steering effect.
But 4WS is not completely dead. Lexus has brought it back in some V6-powered F-Sport models, including the latest RC coupe -- but not the flagship RC-F, which retains more of a purist driving ethos.
Porsche is also a modern proponent of 4WS, in its 911 GT3 and Turbo models -- although the system is so smooth and subtle it's very hard to discern it working.
Back in 1997, some commentators called the Mercedes-Benz A-Class the most important small car since the Mini. That was because the Three-Pointed Star threw out the rulebook for its first family hatchback and created a completely new method of construction called the sandwich platform.
Essentially, the chassis had a double layer, with the engine and transmission angled between them at the front. This gave the A-Class outstanding crash safety for a small car (equivalent to the contemporary E-Class) because in a frontal impact, the powertrain would slide under the floor and away from the occupants. The double layers and high seating position also made it very safe in a side impact.
The original A-Class has incredible interior space, because the cabin floor was completely flat and most of the car's overall length could be devoted to occupant accommodation. A long-wheelbase version launched in 2001 had as much rear legroom as an S-class.
The A-Class didn't get off to a great start, rolling over during a standard emergency lane change manoeuvre (the now-infamous "elk test") in the hands of Teknikens Varld magazine in Germany. But Mercedes-Benz acted quickly, recalling all cars and making changes to the suspension and safety electronics.
The A-Class was quickly accepted as a revolution in small-car packaging and engineering. It also remained an oddity. Of course, Mercedes-Benz held the patent for the sandwich platform, but even it abandoned the design for its 2012 model third-generation A-Class.
The sandwich platform was a standalone engineering exercise and required bespoke powertrains -- a great expense in an age when carmakers are trying to share as many components as possible between different models. Also, Mercedes-Benz no longer feels the need to have such a small car in the range: the current (very conventional) A-class is actually larger than the first-generation B-class.
Utter disaster that the Delorean DMC-12 project (1981-83) was, the notion of a body shell made from stainless steel was pretty clever. The car was unpainted, the brushed steel giving it a striking appearance. Stainless steel does not rust, so the panels were incredibly long lasting. Minor scratches could be worked out with a scouring pad, sandpaper and a little expertise.
Why other carmakers did not rush to emulate the DMC-12's shiny suit of clothes is not entirely clear. Unappealing connotations were perhaps partly to blame, what with John Delorean arrested on drugs charges and the whole company collapsing.
Stainless steel was expensive to produce compared with steel, and not all customers wanted an unpainted car. It's quite difficult to get paint to adhere to it, by the way.
More to the point, car bodies that outlasted mechanical components by decades were probably not a priority for the car industry, which is built around the concept of planned obsolescence.
These days, lightweight aluminium and composite materials are widely used for upmarket and high-performance models.
An interesting footnote: the Delorean DMC-12 wasn't the first stainless steel-bodied car. An American steel producer called Allegheny Ludlum created a small number of Ford vehicles over a 30-year period to promote its product, ranging from a 1936 Deluxe sedan to a 1967 Lincoln Continental.
They were not mere showpieces. Allegheny's top salespeople were allowed to drive the Deluxe Sedans as company cars for a decade. Four of those six cars built survive today, sparkling and rust-free.
STEER BY WIRE
Well, to be honest we haven't given this a chance yet. The first production steer-by-wire car was launched only last year: the Infiniti Q50, from Nissan's luxury brand (not sold in New Zealand).
Steer-by-wire means there is no physical connection between the steering wheel and front axles. Instead, the wheel sends electronic signals to the steering gear up front.
There are potential packaging and weight advantages with the removal of the steering column -- although these are not realised in the Q50 because the hardware is retained as a failsafe should the electronics fail. Refinement is also improved, as road texture is not transmitted back into the cabin through the steering wheel.
Consumer uncertainty about the technology was not helped by a recall of the Q50 shortly after launch. Infiniti found that the steering gear could fail to operat r, steer-by-wire forms the foundation of the aircraft industry, so there is logically little to fear. This technology is an important step on the path to autonomous driving and an equally important step towards making driving no fun at all.
But it's old news in some respects. Saab fulfilled every schoolboy's fantasy in 1992 by creating a joystick-controlled version of the 9000, as part of a European research programme into making roads safer. The promise at the time was of a dual-joystick layout for future production versions -- one for each hand.
We're still waiting.