With its unique blend of high arts, surf culture and multiculturalism, California could lay claim to the title of America's 'cultural epicentre' – and its rich car culture is one of the highlights.
Over the years, the Los Angeles motor show has risen from a domestic display with a hot rod-inspired past to a global event. Where the 'Big Three' once dominated, international brands have recently risen in prominence, underscoring how important the Los Angeles Auto Show, as it's officially known, has become.
Now the big reveals of the 2018 show are out of the way, we're taking a misty-eyed look at some of the highlights from the last two decades.
2006 Ford Mustang by Giugiaro
America’s chrome-laden legends have an unmistakable presence, but it's the Europeans with a real knack for refined proportions.
In 2006, Ford Racing Technologies showed what the Mustang might look like if Italdesign Giugiaro was given the reins, and the result was nothing short of amazing.
While the production Mustang maintained an unmistakable resemblance to the original, its finer details seemed heavy-handed compared to the efforts of design director, Fabrizio Giugiaro.
A shorter rear, longer front and heavily-widened rear haunches give the car a dramatic stance.
Careful tapering gives the powerful rear-wheel drive stance pride of place amongst details like Koenigsegg-style door hinges, a one-piece glass roof, a clamshell bonnet, and angular interpretations of the model's legendary head/tail lights.
This wasn’t the first time an Italian coach builder turned its hand to a Mustang, with the 1965 Bertone Mustang leading the charge. Under the design direction of Italdesign Guigiaro’s founder, Giorgetto Giugiaro, the 1965 car served as inspiration for the 21st century program, but no production version was forthcoming.
2001 Chevrolet Borrego
At a glance, the Borrego looks like the result of a drunken one-night stand between a Chevy Corvette and a Silverado. Don’t let the Chevrolet design details fool you though, nor the Baja racer stance. Under the skin, the Borrego was actually derived from General Motors' tie-in with Subaru.
What makes the Borrego special? It rekindled the idea of an off-road-ready compact pickup, with a reconfigurable cabin that could be expanded from two to four by simply – deep breath – sliding the mid-gate backwards, stowing the rear glass, snapping the long roof (which normally resides under the cargo bed) into place, and letting the self-inflating seals work their weatherproof magic. Apparently.
There’s a water tank on board so passengers could take a shower after a dusty day of trail bashing. With a Subaru WRX-sourced turbo engine under the bonnet and a ride tall enough to get into trouble, the water tank could be just as handy for cleaning up any unforeseen spills.
While the Convert-A-Cab system did make it to production on the Chevrolet Avalanche, the rest of the package, a perfect spiritual successor to the Subaru Brumby/Brat – was sadly consigned to motor show duty.
2014 Audi Prologue
Ultimately the stunning Audi Prologue coupe did make production, albeit as the much less dramatic A8.
While the four-door A8 introduced a production version of a ‘bold’ new Audi styling direction, the Prologue’s execution as a two-door luxe-tourer was cleaner, crisper, and brimming with attention to detail. Look at those minimised shut lines and that taut, muscular surfacing. Mmm.
A powerful C-pillar gave the Prologue a purposeful stance, while a convex rear windscreen trails all the way to just short of the boot lid for a rather un-Audi set of muscle car proportions.
That’s nothing compared to the minimalist interior, awash with open-pore timber, fine-grain leather and an entire dash face which became a massive control screen across three individual panels, giving driver and passenger an intuitive smartphone-style control panel.
2004 Hummer H3T
Poor old Hummer, often maligned as a poster-child for SUV excess. Thing is, SUVs are king of the hill right now. We're sure GM bigwigs are still shaking their heads at the short-sightedness of shuttering the off-road division in 2010.
Before that happened, though, the brand took its military-grade styling and applied it to a version of the Holden Rodeo and Chevrolet Colorado chassis, complete with matching pickup truck utility.
Ultimately the H3T was a precursor to the production H3 SUV and (later) H3 dual-cab. Something about the single-cab concept, with side access doors in the tub, a power-folding canvas roof and a drop-down rear window for all-access all-weather fun is so much cooler, though. Jeep Gladiator? Never heard of it!
It’s hard to know what was in the water at GM marketing meetings though, with an official release calling the H3T “an efficient, refined package” and a “sporting and dynamic driving sensation”.
Anyone familiar with the Holden Rodeo of the day will know that's an incredibly generous statement to make.
2010 Cadillac Urban Luxury Concept
Cadillac and oversized land-barges go together like Elvis and fried food, which made the Urban Luxury Concept a complete surprise. Designed to help alleviate LA’s traffic chaos, the Urban Luxury Concept distilled Cadillac’s luxurious vibe into a more compact footprint.
None of the concept’s stats sound remotely Cadillac-esque, with a 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo engine pushing a car barely 3.9-metres long –shorter than the Barina with which it shared a platform. The ULC was about the right size to fit in the cargo bay of something more traditional, like an Escalade.
Somehow Caddy's designers managed to imbue a sense of dynamism in the ULC’s mono-volume form. A rising belt line and slim slither of glass house atop bulging fenders, coupled with trademark ‘art and science’ vertical light strips, kept roller skate comparisons to a minimum.
A tech-fest interior with projected displays and touch-sensitive controls completed the picture, and somehow even managed enough room for four occupants.
The Urban Luxury Concept is possibly the most innovative Cadillac there has ever been, so of course GM steered clear, sticking to sedans and SUVs of a more traditional size instead. No doubt a more successful and profitable business plan, but disappointing nonetheless.
2002 Lincoln Continental Concept
You could walk into a Lincoln dealership and buy a Continental complete with front-wheel drive in 2002, based on the platform of a Ford Taurus and styled like a collapsed microwave pudding. A sad state of affairs.
At the Los Angeles motor show, meanwhile, a preview of the ‘next’ Continental well and truly returned it to the brand flagship position. Styling was inspired by the absolutely stunning fourth-generation car of the 1960s, while the V12 engine the concept recalls the first Continental of 1939.
At 5.5-metres long, the unmissable Continental Concept featured coach doors around the pillar-less cabin, but added a parallel-hinged boot with slide out luggage draw, and an interior laden with machined metal and real leather, blending iconic 60s design cues with the best tech 2002 had to offer.
Not only would the new Continental have left Cadillac shaking in its boots, it could have put Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and even Rolls-Royce on notice.
Something went terribly wrong at Ford HQ though, and less than two weeks later, at the Detroit motor show, the company confirmed the project had been unceremoniously killed.
The Continental name did live again, but not until 2017. Once again the lure of cost-saving shared mechanicals won over, in the form of a six-cylinder engine and a platform kindly donated from the Ford Fusion/Mondeo.
2010 GMC Granite CPU
General Motors' fascination with downsizing didn’t just affect Cadillac, with its ‘Professional Grade’ pickup truck division, GMC, also swept up in the move.
The existing Granite crossover, shown at Detroit earlier in the same year, copped a severe makeover and became a compact pickup, or CPU. Under the tiny body, the GM Gamma II platform gave the Granite CPU plenty in common with cars like the Holden Barina and Trax.
GM was adamant the CPU was a design exercise only, but as a continuation of the original Granite concept, it’s clear the company was investigating what bandwidth a brand-first range of compact models might have offered.
A 1.4-litre turbo engine, innovative racking, side-access ports and an extendable tray ensured the tiny ute was as versatile as possible. Better still, the outside blended a fresh aesthetic with some hallmark GMC cues for a convincing interpretation of how a baby ute could look.
2003 Ford Faction
Ford gave North American consumers a dose of European style in a small package when it unveiled the Faction in 2003, introducing the idea of a city-sized SUV to consumers more acquainted to cars requiring their own zip code.
There’s an obvious stylistic connection to the then-current Fiesta, but the Faction’s minimalist styling flourishes, geometric yet strongly-grounded wheel arches, and pickup-inspired facia created a timeless style that still holds up today.
At a time when urban SUVs were still an outlying oddity, the Faction showed true innovation with a tech-focussed interior that even included surround-view camera, widescreen central display, and retracting gear selector. Almost unheard of in the production cars of 2003.
A version of the 127kW/196Nm 2.0-litre engine from the Focus ST170 mightn't sound thrilling by today’s standards, but would have been enough for deliver a flutter of excitement when required.
Neat touches like space-efficient dual-hinged doors, a separately-opening glass tailgate for ease of loading, and flush-mounted door handles catered to the space limitations of urban drivers.
2006 Honda Remix and Step Bus
Honda pulled out all the stops in 2006, releasing two attention-grabbing concepts.
If I told you the company had a low-cost mid-engined rear-drive model in its sights you’d probably be thrilled to hear it, right? Now what if I told you it could seat five, had sliding doors, and was proportioned like a wardrobe on wheels? Much less exciting.
It's not the car pictured above, but rather the one below. It did preview some of the themes that would later appear on the brand’s N-Box kei car in Japan. Desirable? No. Innovative? Absolutely.
Rest assured, Honda had better things up its sleeve with the Remix. Despite more traditional front-wheel drive mechanicals the coupe and its slinky liquid metal bodywork garnered plenty of attention.
Hints of the high-deck CR-X and a performance-skewed suspension, tyre and brake package make us pine for the possibility of what could have been.
2000 Oldsmobile Profile
Oldsmobile managed to assert a position amid GM’s overflowing range in the 1970s with the Vista Cruiser wagon, which became something of a modern legend, but by the 1990s it was again awash amid a sea of badge-engineered Chevrolets, Buicks, Saturns, Pontiacs, and Cadillacs.
History could have repeated itself, though, if the Profile concept had found a production future.
At a time when the United States was moving more MPVs than ever, Oldsmobile broke the mould with a car mixing the utility of a minivan with a coupe-like profile, frameless door glass, and super-slim lighting units. All-wheel drive and a supercharged V6 were a little above the standard set by period SUVs, too.
An interior with a driver focus and generous passenger space showed a no-compromise approach to mixing utility and comfort. Stacks of tech like keyless entry and on-board internet are almost standard in prestige cars today, but were proper flights of fancy at the start of the millennium.
Could the Profile have reversed Oldsmobile’s fortunes? Who knows, but just four years later GM put the not-much-of-anything brand to bed.
Bonus round: Dishonourable mentions
There’s been some rough patches in the Los Angeles show’s history. in 2000 Cadillac tried a factory hot rod theme on an El Dorado, called the (wait for it) El DoRODo harking back to the show’s modified vehicle past, but hang onto your hat – it gets worse.
Honda’s luxury arm, Acura, has always labelled itself dynamic but the Advanced Sedan Concept of 2006 looked less athletic and more inflatable than anything else in the range.
Awkward proportions made the sedan seem tall and narrow, and even 23-inch rear wheels looked tiny under its bulbous flanks. From the front, Acura’s new squid beak grill stood proud above narrow headlights positioned within the lower air intakes.
Consider yourself lucky there was no production future for this one. Sadly not every bad idea gets cut off in time.
Smart rolled out its ForJeremy concept in 2012, applying the fashion designer’s winged motif – most famously applied to Adidas sneakers – to the pint-sized city car, which was already the butt jokes around the world.
Instead of rear three-quarter visibility, the For Jeremy adopted a giant set of rear light-up wings, said to represent freedom. The added length of the garish additions seemed to fly in the face of Smart’s prime directive, but who’s keeping score?
Worse still, in 2013 Smart foisted a production version on the world, stripped of the full chrome Tridion safety cell and wheels, and equipped with a smaller set of wings but utterly ridiculous all the same. Oh, and you'll have to supply your own spacesuit-clad hipster.