Elegant ideas that never took off.
Great ideas a little too ahead of their time.
Bad ideas at any time.
Wacky, weird, or wonderful, the automotive industry has a rich history of oddballs. Some made it to production and may be familiar. Others are one-off concept cars made for show only. Some are variations on relatively normal themes, and a few are something else entirely. None are quite ordinary. Let’s take a hard left from Memory Lane onto Weirdo Boulevard. Enjoy!
Our first stop is the 1933 Dymaxion. Designed by Buckminster Fuller during the Great Depression as a first step in the development of a vehicle that would fly as well as drive, the Dymaxion looks ahead to the jet-age futurism of a couple of decades later. It’s also an early example of a recurring automotive oddball theme: three wheels. There are enough unusual three-wheeled cars to fill their own book, but the airship-like Dymaxion is one of the earliest and coolest.
Continuing the theme of famous designers making bold, modernist statements, flash forward to the brainchild of GM Art Department head Harley Earl, the 1951 LeSabre. Harley was largely responsible for the concept of the show car, and his ’51 LeSabre introduced aircraft-inspired design elements that would come to define Fifties automobiles, such as wraparound windshields and tailfins. Sadly, the LeSabre was an elegant one-off, though GM would revive the name via Buick in 1959.
Was it a car? Was it a truck? The Ford Ranchero, introduced in December of 1956, was both. Adapted from the new–for–1957 full-size platform, the original issue Ranchero was essentially a station wagon with the front seats separated into a cab and the rear seats and cargo area converted into a reinforced bed. The Ranchero not only made it to full production, it was popular enough that Ford built over half a million over its 22-year run. Not to be left behind, GM introduced the competing (and perhaps more recognizable) El Camino in 1959.
Italian firm Pininfarina is celebrated for dozens of memorable automobile designs, particularly Ferraris, Alfa Romeos, and Maseratis. One of their most unique by far is the 1960 Pininfarina X, an intriguing concept car for the transition from jet–inspired to space–age. While decidedly less sexy than most of the firm’s other designs, the four-wheels-in-a-diamond footprint of the X is no less exotic. The aircraft-inspired nose and tailfins add a certain period charm to the design, which was at the very least forward-thinking in aerodynamic terms. This car last sold at auction for $330K.
Image Source: newatlas.com
The difference a decade makes in design terms is astounding: skip ahead to 1970’s bizarre Bond Bug. Wedge-shaped sports cars were in the early days of their popularity as notions of futurism took a noticeably less elegant turn. Apparently, the notion of three-wheeled cars was making something of a comeback, though, as the Bond Bug managed to stay in production through 1974. While the car may not be especially recognizable outside of its native UK, most of the world has seen a modified version: one of the filmed models of Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder from Star Wars was built on the chassis of a Bug. Not unlike Luke’s speeder after the XP-38s came out, demand for the Bond Bug seems low with examples selling for around $7K these days.
By the late ‘80s weird cars were back to four wheels, though the combination of wedge shape and forward-opening canopy was alive and well in the Slingshot. Plymouth introduced this sort of Tron-meets-Star Trek concept at the 1988 Los Angeles Car Show, aimed at the young market of the future. Hindsight reveals the most ahead-of-its-time feature about the Slingshot to have been keyless entry. The Slingshot’s cameo appearances in the television show Viper are about as memorable as the show itself. They can’t all be winners…
…but occasionally a car can win and lose simultaneously. To that end, consider the early-aughts Fiat Multipla. What other car can claim “Car of The Year” and “Ugliest Car” in a single show? Top Gear named the Multipla both in 2000. Furthermore, it was voted “Family Car of the Year” by Top Gear Magazine four years running, so how bad can it really be? It was even displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Describing this sort-of-minivan is tricky: it looks a bit like a two-part exquisite corpse, as though the top of one car was grafted onto another’s lower half. Despite the acclaim– and a 2004 facelift that substantially de-weirded it– the Multipla wasn’t much of a sales success outside Italy.