- 12 Min Read
- By: Christian Schaefer
The Forgotten Concepts of the '90s
The ’90s were a radical time for automakers and car enthusiasts. New technology and advancements in assembly materials made going faster, easier, and safer than ever before. Automakers began experimenting with these new technologies and creating prototypes, test beds, and even complete driving concepts with wildly “futuristic” designs to help them achieve 200+ MPH figures. Some designs became a reality, like the Bugatti EB110 and the Jaguar XJ220. Others were relegated to storage, museums, or the crusher, never to be spoken about or publicized again. Here are some of the wildest and most overlooked concepts from European manufacturers in the 1990s.
BMW Nazca M12, C2, C2 Spyder
The M1 was BMW’s first mid-engined supercar. Designed by Italdesign, it was a classic 70’s wedge shape and featured an inline-6 directly from BMW’s race cars of the day. Initially meant to be a racer, hiccups in production and a change in the racing rules caused BMW to modify it into a production vehicle. It was a commercial failure, with less than four hundred street cars produced. However, many looked back on the car with kind eyes, and with the burgeoning popularity of supercars, BMW decided to create a successor. Enter the BMW Nazca M12.
At the turn of the 1990s, BMW approached Italdesign once again with an idea for a mid-engined supercar. In typical Italdesign fashion, they delivered a concept that would steal the show upon its 1991 Geneva Motor Show Debut. The M12’s chassis was a swoopy, smooth, streamlined design made entirely from carbon fiber with a large glass greenhouse and gullwing windows. Upfront, the signature kidney grilles were paired with large projector headlights and a deep chin spoiler. It weighed in at just over 2400lbs, and combined with the 300 horsepower M70 V12 from the 850i, it could scream up to over 180 MPH.
The concept received scores of attention upon its debut, prompting BMW to continue with the project. Italdesign went to work redesigning the exterior and brought in Alpina to help with engine development. Again, the new car made its public debut at the 1992 Tokyo Motor Show to much fanfare. The redesigned exterior featured headlights aligned with the grille, wider fenders to house the widened front track, and a larger front splitter. Italdesign reworked the rear to incorporate a rear wing into the existing bodywork to balance the increased front-end downforce. Underneath the bodywork, the chassis went under further engineering, resulting in 220lbs shaved from the M12’s curb weight. Adding to the revised chassis was the tweaked M70 engine. Alpina’s fiddling pulled out an extra 50 horsepower from the same displacement, giving the C2 significantly better performance than the M12.
One last variant of the Nazca C2 was made for 1993, featuring another set of revisions. The new concept was the C2 Spyder, a semi-roofless take on the C2. Italdesign removed the gullwing windows and the large engine cover in favor of an exposed cockpit and engine bay. However, the Spyder’s drivetrain featured the most significant changes. The S70B56 V12 replaced the M70 that powered the first two examples, while a new six-speed manual replaced the previous concept’s five-speed. The BMW 850CSi had become the flagship for BMW, and its 5.6-liter V12 was plucked off the production line and fitted into C2 Spyder. With 375 horsepower and over 400 lb-ft of torque, the C2 Spyder was the fastest of the concepts, topping out at 190 MPH.
Since their debut in the early nineties, their history has been pretty scattered. The concepts never materialized into serial production and were left to time as forgotten concepts. Many outlets claim that only three Nazcas exist, the three being the concept cars. However, a blue, right-hand drive example of the M12 was sold several years ago. The earliest photos of the blue model come from the Sultan of Brunei’s car collection, so it’s possible his vast fortune convinced Italdesign to build a fourth car. Whatever the case may be, the Nazca concepts remain what could’ve been for BMW.
Audi Avus Quattro
Volkswagen and Audi were coming off a decade built around the quattro all-wheel-drive system and motorsport dominance by the time the 1990s rolled around. Their success with the Quattro system gave them a world rally championship, a trans-am championship, and the basis for an entire line of road cars featuring their novel all-wheel-drive system. Around the same time, VAG was developing a new engine, unlike any used in a road car before. The W12 engine that has become a VAG staple was in its infancy, and Audi was eager to bring it into the public eye. To show off the engine and their plans of extensive aluminum use in production cars, they built the Avus Quattro.
Instead of a front-engined sedan or coupe as Audi was so synonymous with, they brought out a gleaming, mid-engined coupe that harkened back to the days of Auto Union's world-crushing Grand Prix cars. The low-slung retro-futuristic coupe featured Audi's new 6.0-liter W12 and the quattro all-wheel-drive system to create their first mid-engined concept—or at least it would've been if the engine was ready. The W12 was still very much in its infancy when the Avus debuted in Tokyo in 1991, and a functioning prototype wasn't available yet, so the concept went without it. Instead, it carried an arts and crafts project, a mock-up engine made from wood and plastic.
Audi had plans to begin producing a number of its models with extensive uses of aluminum, going so far as to crown aluminum as "the material of the future," and the Avus was made entirely from the light and durable metal as a result. Audi built an aluminum tube-frame chassis to hold the drivetrain and suspension components before the Auto Union-inspired body was hand-beaten and bolted down to the chassis, becoming a stressed member. Thanks to its aluminum construction, the chassis and body weighed in at around only 150kg. Again, keen to show off its future technology, Audi avoided painting the concept in favor of polishing the aluminum shell to a mirror finish.
Even though the engine wasn't complete, Audi dressed the top of it as they believed it would look in production. The central valve cover was flanked by two air inlets that breathed through a large NACA duct positioned in the center of the all-glass roof. Lifting the scissor doors revealed a unique but relatively spartan interior fitted with two red bucket seats to complement and contrast the polished bodywork. From the interior, the driver could theoretically wind out the 500 horsepower W12 through the six-speed manual transmission attached to it. A claimed three-second sprint to 60 mph, and an estimated top speed of 211 MPH would've put the Avus in line with the fastest-performing supercars of the era and certified VAG as a significant player in the supercar market.
However, that never happened. The initial three-bank W12 design was scrapped for the twin-VR layout we know today, and VAG's priorities went elsewhere. The Avus concept was destined for the museum but not before lending its development to a handful of other VAG products. The 20-inch wheels fitted to the concept were shrunken down and fitted to almost every S-model at the turn of the millennia, and the mid-engined W12 idea transferred over to Volkswagen, who picked up the platform for their own concept in 1997. Even the production-ready A8 wore a completely polished aluminum exterior like the Avus for its trip around the auto show circuit. It may not be well known, but the Avus was a critical stepping stone for the Audi and Bugatti supercars we know today.
Volkswagen W12 Syncro, Roadster, & Nardo
Since appearing in the Avus Quattro, Volkswagen’s W12 engine has powered more than a handful of Bentleys, Audis, and VWs. But before hitting dealerships, the engine made its functional debut in a series of mid-engined, Volkswagen-badged supercar concepts. The concepts appeared in video games like Test Drive Unlimited and Gran Turismo, but Volkswagen did little to promote the cars beyond 2001. Whether they’re working concepts, test beds, or failed projects, the three W12 concepts paved the way for the Bugatti Veyron and smashed a bunch of records along the way.
By the end of 1996, Volkswagen had its first W12 engines up and running. The radical design saw its first uses in the first world war in aircraft engines before going relatively unused until VW began to mess around with it. Volkswagen engineers began with the 2.8-liter VR6 found in a handful of VW vehicles at the time. Knowing the narrow vee-angle kept packaging tight, the engineers developed a special crankshaft and engine block that essentially fused two VR6s. The naturally aspirated lump displaced 5.6-liters and produced a respectable, for the time, 414 horsepower.
The first of the concepts was called the W12 Syncro. At the time of development, VW’s all-wheel-drive system went by the Syncro moniker instead of today’s 4Motion. Syncro had been used in Vanagons and Golfs for some time but never in a performance application. Seeking to prove its effectiveness, Ferdinand Piech paired it with the new W12 and built a supercar around it.
VW tapped Guigetto Giugiaro and his company Italdesign to design and build the chassis and body around the drivetrain. Having spent decades developing iconic VWs and his entire career designing performance machines, Giugiaro produced a swooping and elongated design evoking themes of the endurance racing machines of that era. Unlike any VW product before, the nose was short and wide with a sizeable smile-like grille opening and headlights. The curvy lines flatten out and extend over the drivetrain before finishing in a distinctive Kammback rear end. Although nicely trimmed, the functional concept received a unique but relatively basic interior.
The concept proved itself and the technologies it carried when it debuted in Tokyo in 1997, but VW was determined to continue the project. A year later, VW arrived in Geneva with a roofless, rear-wheel-drive concept called the W12 Roadster. The original concept lost its roof and gained a wrap-around glass windscreen encompassing the passenger compartment. A pair of roll hoops, an exposed engine thanks to the lack of roof structure, and a slightly updated front bumper rounded out the Roadster’s updates. It was all of the development we would get to see of the W12 until 2001 when VW brought the concept back. The final iteration was the W12 Nardo, presenting a significant update over the original design.
The Nardo brought back the Syncro’s coupe body and featured revised lighting and updated bumpers. The Roadster’s rear-wheel-drive layout returned in the Nardo, but this time an h-pattern 6-speed manual gearbox did the gear changing. Mated to the new transmission was an updated W12 displacing 6.0-liters. Development of the W12 and revisions to the cylinder heads allowed the enlarged powerplant to put out over 590 horsepower and 450 lb-ft of torque. The Nardo concept was the peak of the W12 concepts and the last to debut, but it still had a job to do.
Whether VW wanted more development or just to prove its capability, the German automaker took a modified W12 concept and seven racing drivers to the Nardo Test Track in Italy. There, the matte black W12 was driven flat-out for 24 hours straight, twice. It achieved an average speed of 200.6 MPH during its second run and topped out at around 220 MPH, helping it beat the FIA’s 24-hour speed record. On top of that, the W12 Nardo achieved five more endurance world records and twelve class records.
That was to be it for the W12 concepts, however. VW’s attention turned towards producing the Bugatti Veyron with its quad-turbocharged W16 engine and all-wheel-drive system. The W12 engine was offered first in the Audi A8 before making its leap to Bentley’s products, where it was fitted with a pair of turbochargers. Since then, it continues as a powerplant in the Bently lineup, although much less common than previous generations.
Mercedes, mainly known for the luxury sedans and coupes they produce, has also had a significant motorsports program throughout its history. That racing experience has led to more than a few developments in their road cars, making them faster and safer. However, those developments couldn’t be taken directly from prototype racers to streetcars. Instead, a development test bed was needed to bridge the gap. By the dawn of the nineties, Mercedes needed a new test bed and developed the C112. It featured a host of modern technology and had more than a few prospective buyers lined up to buy a production-ready car, but it was never to be. Instead, the C112 was left behind by new management, only to be a glimpse of Mercedes’ near future.
Mercedes built the C112 to test and develop new luxury and high-performance streetcars systems. It had to be quick but safe and easy to drive and pass all road-legal homologation standards worldwide. The C112 started with a bonded and riveted aluminum monocoque center section with a roll cage to make up the passenger’s tub, just like their Gropu C racers. An extensive steel subframe was bolted to the rear of the tub; it carried the drivetrain and acted as the rear suspension’s mounting points. Around that structure, the body formed a sleek and aerodynamically-influenced design that would keep drag low but retain sufficient downforce for high speeds.
The C112 looked nothing like any other supercar concept of the day or any Mercedes road car. A slippery body made of kevlar and aluminum was riveted around the crash structure and fitted with an actively deploying splitter and rear wing. But because it needed to be slippery, the active systems were there to support the downforce created by the flat floor and venturi tunnels. The underbody treatment gave the C112 an “underwing” like the Group C racers it was semi-related to, providing significant downforce without a drag penalty. When the splitter and airfoil did deploy, they allowed the concept to produce around 2200lbs of downforce at maximum.
That was quite a substantial amount of force for a road car to handle, so Mercedes had to fit the C112 with suspension components that could cope. The front suspension’s architecture was a double-wishbone that utilized tubular control arms and forged steel knuckles, while the rear used a five-link multi-link setup similar to their 190E road car. Between the suspension arms sat Mercedes’ prototype Active Body Control suspension dampers. The new dampers utilized several sensors and electronically controlled valves to adjust the suspension on the fly to the given situation. Additional safety systems keeping the C112 in check were anti-lock brakes and Mercedes’ Anti-Slip Regulation.
Sitting in that rear subframe assembly was Mercedes’ M120, a 6.0-liter, naturally-aspirated V12 that put out around 400 horsepower. Mated to a six-speed manual ZF transmission designed specifically for the C112, the test bed would theoretically top out at over 190 MPH. While the M120 didn’t see extended service with the C112, it went on to power the Pagani Zonda and a handful of other Mercedes road cars. Altogether, the test bed had all the makings of a supercar multiple decades ahead of its time. Its active suspension and aerodynamics, rear-wheel steering, and ground effects would’ve made the C112 a world-beater had Mercedes put it into limited production. Unfortunately, the C112’s creator, Werner Niefer, was no longer around when the project had concluded, and the new management had other ideas. The only C112 was retired and now resides in a museum standing as a testament to what could’ve been.
Audi Quattro Spyder
Audi had unveiled another mid-engined concept about a month before the Avus debuted. Instead of a world-dominating supercar, the earlier prototype was more of an everyday sports car aimed at the middle of the market. At the time, the Ur Quattro and its evolutions were the only performance cars Audi offered. Keen to get into the sports car market, Audi cooked up a functioning concept featuring extensive aluminum use. The Quattro Spyder blended the boxy lines of the coupe Quattro with a more streamlined mid-engine shape, delivering the styling that would define the next fifteen years of Audi’s road cars.
Audi started with their Quattro all-wheel-drive system. They knew that any performance model they offered would utilize torque at all four wheels, and with that in mind, they built a space frame chassis from steel tubing as the Spyders central structure. From there, designers sculpted a perfectly proportioned body from aluminum and laid it over the chassis. It’s a stunning little car. The glass center roof section was removable and would mount to the car above the engine cover for open-top driving. It gave the concept a pseudo-open top and presented itself as an interesting mix between Porsche’s 964 and 993 Targa models.
Removing the top would also allow the engine to be heard better. Fitted directly behind the passenger compartment was Audi’s brand-new 2.8-liter V6, good for 172 horsepower and 181 lb-ft of torque. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it was there for a reason. A reasonable engine that’s already developed is considerably less expensive than engineering a bespoke power unit. Cost savings was a core goal of the Quattro Spyder concept—though you wouldn’t know that just by looking at it. The passenger compartment was full of goodies, perfectly complimenting the sleek, aluminum-bodied exterior. Aluminum accents were everywhere, making up the pedal, shifter, and gauge bezels. Most other surfaces were covered in leather or cloth and evoked some of the design language found in the late ’90s and ’00s VAG products.
Sitting in the high-bolstered cloth seats, drivers could take advantage of the V6 and Quattro all-wheel-drive while shifting through a five-speed manual gearbox. Thanks to the aluminum bodywork, the estimated curb weight was around 2400lbs, allowing that V6 to push the sports car to 60 MPH in under six seconds, which was very respectable. The handling characteristics were also excellent, thanks to a lack of weight and the mid-engine layout. Suspension derived from the Trans-Am and IMSA GTO championship-winning Audi race cars supported the concept, as both cars utilized a similar double-wishbone front suspension. It was a very enticing package, and potential customers threw money at Audi in drives with around 3000 pre-orders reportedly placed.
However, that would matter, as a few issues were standing in the way. Executives had set a price target for the sports car of around $60,000, putting it in line with its competition. However, Audi found that the mid-engined coupe would go over the set price target due to the materials cost and production. Production would be too small for Audi to conduct due to the limited initial offering, so the sports car’s construction would need to be contracted out, taking more profit off the table. Then there was the issue with its competition.
The Audi CEO at the time was Ferdinand Piech, grandson of Ferdinand Porsche and nephew of Ferry Porsche. Considering the leaders of Volkswagen, Audi, and Porsche were all related; there was plenty of transparency between them. Fears that the mid-engined Audi would take sales away from the newly-introduced Porsche 964 were rife through Porsche’s management. Porsche was in dire financial straits at the time, and a further reduction in their dwindling sales would surely crush the company, so Piech was convinced to shelve the project. Thirty years later, Porsche and Audi are in relatively good standings, with the modern 911 and the mid-engined R8 going head-to-head without any company-ending consequences.
Concept cars aren’t what they used to be. Engineers and designers can have aerodynamic packages nearly perfected before a car hits production, making the initial sketches not far off from what we get. Sure, it’s nice to know early, but the wonder and excitement of a radically new concept vehicle is a unique feeling that seems to be disappearing. In an era before mass internet access, those concepts were even more special with such limited access. If you know of any concepts from any other decade that no one seems to remember, let us know in the comments below, and maybe we’ll make another article about it. As always, subscribe to our YouTube channel and follow along on the DIY Blog for more daily content!
Owner of a flat-six swapped 1998 Impreza 2.5RS and a 1973 Porsche 914. Horizontally opposed views, only.