In the mid-20th century, 2014 seemed so impossibly far off. Surely by then cars would no longer be driving on roads but instead ascending to the skies. But the unfortunate reality is — apart from a few prototypes very much in development — we have no flying cars, no coupes with metal appendages coming out of the sides, and no smart cars fully operational without a driver.
But that doesn't mean we can't appreciate the super-sleek airborne robotic cars from films. Here are our favorite imaginary futuristic automobiles, and the stories behind their creation.
Is there a more iconic movie car, futuristic or otherwise, than the time machine from the Back to the Future franchise? The combination of the distinctly '80s-looking make and model with the time-traveling hijinks of Marty McFly and Doc Brown has stood the test of time, and it remains one of the most recognizable cars in pop culture history. Sure, a car with a 130-horsepower V6 engine is nothing to write home about, but when you add a flux capacitor to it, that's a whole different story.
But how did it all come together? Director Robert Zemeckis supported the DeLorean DMC-12 — its gull wing doors gave it an alien spaceship look that he thought was perfect for the film — but it still needed some serious modifications to pass for a time machine. Artist Andrew Probert was brought in to modify the look, but Zemeckis thought the resulting sketches looked too polished — Doc Brown built it in a garage, after all. So Ron Cobb, who had worked with Back to the Future producer Steven Spielberg on Raiders of the Lost Ark, had his way with the sketches, perfecting the now-iconic back of the car: the dual coils, the horizontal vent, and the mini nuclear reactor.
"Obviously no one knows how one travels through time exactly but I just wanted to create a lot of believable stuff," Cobb said in an interview. "I thought it should look a little bit homemade because Dr. Brown supposedly was doing it in his lab at home and so he would be using parts from RadioShack or something like that."
At the end of the film, the car gets a little upgrade, becoming a flying time machine in the sequels. As Doc Brown says: "Roads? Where we're going we don't need roads."
While it's a shame that car makers haven't yet reinvented the wheel — like, literally reinvented the wheel — in 2014, I, Robot (the 2004 film based on an Isaac Asimov story) predicts that they will have by 2035. The film's director, Alex Proyas, worked to develop a prototype for a new type of machine, in which wheels would be replaced by "spheres," allowing the vehicle to dart through futuristic Chicago with any part of the vehicle facing forward. The result was a sleek sports coupe with butterfly-action doors not unlike the gull wings on our beloved DeLorean. In the front seat the steering wheel folds up into the dashboard when not in use and out again when the driver sits down. Its owner wouldn't even have to agonize over what shade they wanted: this chameleon car changes color as it glides through the city.
In the 1970s, Syd Mead was perhaps the world's preeminent designer of future worlds, contributing his vision of technology to corporations such as Ford and Philips Electronics. So when Ridley Scott needed someone to flesh out the striking look of 2019 Los Angeles, he turned to Mead. Of all the indelible images featured in the film, the most memorable may be The Spinner, the cylindrical flying police cruiser, battalions of which dart through the neon-washed skies to enforce the totalitarian state.
After Mead came up with his designs, he took them to Gene Winfield, the legendary car builder and chopper, who began the massive job of building the 25 cars needed for the film. This proved a nearly Herculean task for the car maker. "Basically every piece that has a shape to it that you see in there, we made," Winfield said in an interview. "We made the seats, the steering apparatus and everything." Upon re-watching Blade Runner, that attention to detail really shows. But if you ever got inside a Spinner to check it all out, you're probably in some serious trouble — unless you're a cop, of course.
Those are the stories behind three of cinema's most memorable futuristic cars. So what about your personal favorite?
Correction: This post originally stated that the coupe in I, Robot was a flying car. It is not.
Image by Michael Erazo-Kase