Once the stuff of dreams, concept cars have fallen victim to harsh economic realities.

Futuristic concepts of the kind that likely would never reach production largely have vanished from auto show stages.

The reason, says Derek Jenkins, Mazda’s North American design director: “the car industry has gotten so serious. We’re not talking about concept-car budgets, but the seriousness of our messaging.”

Seriousness was not a consideration during the golden age of concept cars. Playfulness was the order of the day, inspiring events such as General Motors Corp.’s “Motorama.”

Conceived in 1949, Motorama was a showcase for over-the-top concepts. It featured singers, dancers, an orchestra and even inspired films, such as “Design for Dreaming” in 1956.

In the short film, a husband and wife talk excitedly. “Since it’s just a dream that involves no money, which one would you like me to buy you, honey?” asks the man.

But as Jenkins suggests, today’s industry is consumed with practicality.

“I think the days of wild, indulgent concepts for the sake of show are kind of, at least now, especially with business and economic climates, being scrutinized a lot more,” John Mendel, executive vice president-American Honda Motor Co. Inc., tells Ward’s.

“They’re usually not a couple hundred thousand-dollar vehicles; they’re millions of dollars.”

Concept programs not only are costly, they also eat up valuable manpower, something a slimmed-down auto industry can ill afford.

“We don’t have a lot of people sitting around with nothing to do,” quips Clay Dean, director for GM advanced design and the Cadillac brand.

Dean fondly recalls the days of Motorama, though it was far before his time. Back then, he says, concept cars “telegraphed a shift in things to come.”

And things that never came. In 1953, the XP-21 Firebird, also referred to as the Firebird I, was called “General Motors’ Newest Experiment on Wheels.”

Today, its rocket-shaped body is almost comical. Although never intended for the highway, the car was track-tested and boasted a number of technologies revolutionary for the time, including a gas turbine engine, external brake drums, and swept-back delta wings controlled by the steering wheel.

“We were the purveyors of dreams; it was a magical time,” Dean says of GM’s early concepts.

For designers, the ability to conjure new ideas represents the core of their being. However, today’s ideas must have a foundation in reality.

The shift is occurring because of increased competition and because concepts not only inspired, they alienated, says Larry Erickson, chairman of the Detroit-based College for Creative Studies’ Transportation Design Dept.

“Companies are very aware (of) what they want to do with the public’s attention when they have it,” he says. “When they show too many show cars that don’t turn out (to be) a product, you use up your equity.”

But that hasn’t entirely stopped auto makers from throwing out wild concepts to see what resonates with the public.

Toyota Motor Corp.’s Scion Hako Coupe Concept car, shown at the 2008 New York auto show, featured flared fenders and a vertical windshield reminiscent of classic American coupes.

Another is Ford Motor Co.’s SYNus concept. Introduced at the 2005 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, it was meant to illustrate what people would drive as they commuted from suburbs to major cities.

Small, but tough, the SYNus boasted protective shutters over the windshield, side glass and a bank vault-style rear hatch.

While interesting, don’t expect Ford to churn out anything like the SYNus anytime soon, says the auto maker’s top designer.

“At Ford, we’ve cut back (on concepts) dramatically over the last five years,” says J Mays, Ford’s group vice president-design and chief creative officer. “I always tell the design team concepts are great for you guys, but they’re in the public mind for about 10 minutes.”

JC Pavone, exterior designer for Volkswagen AG, takes Mays’ sentiments one step further, arguing outrageous concepts have no real value.

“As a piece of art, they’re interesting,” he says. “But concepts should be able to hit the road. Production is also part of the design philosophy, not just sketching something beautiful and presenting it.”

Despite the economy and the misgivings of Mays and Pavone, GM’s Dean says concepts still have a role to play, even “over-the-top” show vehicles. One concept that struck a chord within the design community was BMW AG’s GINA Light Visionary Model introduced in 2008.

Supported by an articulating substructure of steel and carbon fiber, the skin of the GINA concept was made of a durable, flexible fabric that allowed design elements to change shape depending on vehicle requirements and driver preference.

“You look at GINA and say there is nothing real there, but I don’t know,” Dean says. “It was intriguing, and BMW has made clear it wants to be a leader in personal mobility. Not every vehicle has four wheels and sheetmetal that covers it.”

Adds CCS’ Erickson: “In the case of BMW, their show cars serve different purposes. Sometimes they try concepts on for size and see if they (create) interest.”

But not everyone thinks dream cars are gone. Many observers point to the auto industry’s cyclical nature and figure once the economy picks up and auto maker budgets expand, futuristic concepts will return.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s and the early 1940s, consumer interest in concepts lagged, followed by what many consider the heyday of such vehicles in the 1950s and 1960s.

When the oil embargo hit in the 1970s, concepts once again disappeared from auto shows. But they exploded in the mid-1980s and 1990s, Dean says. The industry goes through “periods of time where the focus is on what’s important. We’re in that period now.”

Will an economic reversal prompt auto makers to once again produce whimsical concepts? Some say the industry has been forever changed by the ongoing recession and a return to the old days is highly unlikely.

If auto makers continue to be cautious with their concept offerings, it will be the end of “automotive fantasy,” of which “concept cars are the ultimate expression,” says Mazda’s Jenkins.

Auto makers will attempt to balance fantasy and reality, designers say, as GM did with the Cadillac XTS Platinum concept car unveiled at the 2010 NAIAS. It hints at a future fullsize sedan from the wreath-and-crest brand.

The exterior of the XTS Platinum further develops Cadillac’s Art & Science design language, GM says, but in a more progressive manner. Its sleek profile complements its advanced technology and provides the plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle with its necessary aerodynamics.

Its powertrain, a 3.6L V-6 engine with direct-injection technology, plus the PHEV propulsion system, also suggests where the luxury marque is headed. The XTS is what Cadillac internally refers to as a “precursor,” Dean says.

“We didn’t want to show the total car, but it’s an idea of what the new car is going to look like.”

Ford demonstrated this approach with its new ’11 Explorer SUV, a vehicle whose predecessors were based on body-on-frame architectures. To gauge consumer interest in an updated car-based Explorer, Ford in 2008 unveiled the Explorer America concept.

The show vehicle was a hit with consumers, and its exterior design was a major influence in the production version.

“To do a concept properly, it has to signal something that we’re going to do in the future, or at least give you an indication of a design direction,” says Moray Callum, executive director-Ford Americas Design.

But sometimes a concept never meant for production gets green-lighted because of unexpected positive reaction.

Such was the case with the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle. When first shown as a concept at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, “there were no plans for (a production) Volt,” Dean says.

“The Volt was a ‘what if?’ A question for the media and public.”

The Volt EREV is scheduled for a fall release. Assembled at GM’s Hamtramck, MI, plant, the Volt will sticker at $41,000, but buyers are eligible for $7,500 rebate from the U.S. government on their income taxes the following year.

GM has not released sale volume expectations for the Volt, but says it plans on building 10,000 units in 2011 and another 45,000 units in 2012.

The concept’s role as a tool to gauge consumer interest in new technologies, design and ideas may be its saving grace, especially in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

“When you do a concept, it’s like throwing a big net in the ocean, you don’t know what you’re going to catch,” Dean says. “That’s the value of the concept. You think you’re doing one thing, but you can attract people you never had in your sights.”

Adds Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota’s Calty Design Research Inc.: “The latest concept cars are designed to solve real problems.

“We’re looking at what personal mobility looks like in the future and understanding our customers’ new values.”

bpope@wardsauto.com