Every car company has made mistakes and missteps. For every awesome production vehicle that a company makes, there are probably five to 10 that were scrapped because they weren’t good enough. But some of these mistakes make it onto the manufacturing list, and some of them, lo and behold . . . sell well. Some of the strangest cars ever designed started off as limited production runs, that then became too big for their own britches, as it were.
Classic cars especially, ones that are 25 years or older, have gone through a bevy of car designs. For instance, many people might not know it, but those old boxy cars you see on the road these days were actually normal during the 1980s. But cars made a drastic change from boxy to curvy around the turn of the decade, into the ‘90s, and we haven’t looked back since.
When a company is struggling, they’ll try anything to bounce back. Just look at the BMW Isetta, a microcar that had no business being popular, but it ended up saving a drowning company—one which is now among the best-selling car manufacturers on the planet. And it all started with a little microwave on wheels.
Some of the weirdest, craziest car designs deserve to be scrapped, to never see the light of day again. But some of the strangest designs also deserve to be looked at again, for their innovative features, their odd, inspirational body styles, and their strangeness.
Here are 10 classic car designs that make no sense, and 10 that would sell like crazy today.
Let’s get this right out of the way: just because the car design of the BMW Z1 doesn’t make much sense for our modern sensibilities, doesn’t mean it’s a bad car. In fact, CarBuzz.com has it listed as the #5 “most iconic BMW ever made.” Here’s what it was known for: the weirdest doors ever made, that slid vertically into the doorsills. We haven’t seen anything like it since, and we probably never will again, because it’s not a very marketable feature. Still, with the doors open, the original Z1 looks like a sedan version of a door-less Jeep, which is pretty cool! It developed into the Z3, Z8, Z4, and the new Z4 that’s on the way soon.
The Cadillac Cyclone is a vintage car that could very well sell today, but it might be a little long and odd for modern buyers. Its main feature, and the one that would make no sense today, is also a feature that made it truly spectacular for its time. Those two little black cones at the front, where the headlights should be? They aren’t just there to make the Cyclone look like a hammerhead shark. Those are radars for the car’s crash-avoidance system, technology that has evolved into today’s adaptive cruise control. If the car sensed an approaching object, it would set of a series of warning lights and a high-pitched R2D2-like beep! The car could also automatically apply the brakes.
The reason this car doesn’t really make any sense is because it doesn’t look like anything else out there. It would be one thing if the car’s design was amazing and unique—then it would probably sell like crazy today. But this “Thunderbolt” really looks like a balloon-blower’s version of a thunderbolt: round but strangely bulky, and unwieldy. The curves on the 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt were apparently inspired by streamliner trains, and it was one of the first cars to have power windows (using hydraulic motors). The fully retractable hardtop and button-operated pop-open headlights were also revolutionary—designs that showed up decades later—so it had some awesome features, just a strange concept design.
The LeSabre was a concept car in 1951, and considered one of the most important show cars of the 1950s, due to it introducing aircraft-inspired design elements, like the wrap-around windshield, tail fins, and the hooked, straight-arrow nose. These designs would become common automotive designs during the second half of the decade. Here are a couple odd things about the car, though: 1) the sport fins stuck out way too far, giving it an unbalanced look, and 2) it came with a moisture detector that would automatically raise the convertible’s top if it rained. Cool, but kind of useless if the engine’s off and you’re not around, right? And if you ARE around, then you can probably feel the rain yourself!
Here a classic car design that can’t really be considered “classic” or “vintage,” because it just looks so dang strange. The 1948 Tasco was the product of a short-lived brand called The American Sports Car Company (the car is an acronym of the company’s name). Gordon Buehrig, formerly of Deusenberg, took the design inspiration of the Tasco from WWII fighter planes, and the fiberglass covering over the front wheels actually moved with the steering input. That being said, this old tank-looking vehicle just looks odd and bulky. It’s slow, has a weird design that isn’t really reminiscent of fighter jets, and probably wouldn’t sell well today. It is unique, however.
The Ferrari 512S Modulo, or simply the Modulo, was a concept sports car designed by Paolo Martin of Pininfarina. It obviously kept very close to the fighter jet concept of the earlier decades, but for a Ferrari it just made no sense. It also looked more like an alien spacecraft than a jet. This bizarre frame truly looks like it belongs on Star Trek, and it’s even stranger that it was put on the chassis, and shares the name of, the classic Ferrari 512 race car. We’re glad this car didn’t take off, because it’s the strangest, worst Ferrari design that’s probably ever existed. Then again, it was the end of the 1960s, and we know that not everyone had their minds right during that time . . .
This might anger some people who love Regals, but there’s no doubting that the classic car design was one of the strangest ever made. It was produced between 1953 and 1973, and a boatload of them were sold. It’s also considered a “tricycle” and can be driven with a full motorcycle license. The Reliant Regal and Reliant Robin (another three-wheeled car that Top Gear claimed is one of the worst cars to drive in existence) share a special place in British culture as a symbol of the country’s eccentricity. And that begs the question: Why does this thing only have three wheels?! What is the point of making it so unstable that you’re likely to flip on any hard cornering?
Here’s another classic car design that makes no sense, especially considering that it was one of the most popular work vehicles in its home country of Japan, for a time. The Mazda K360 seemed to take the Reliant Regal and add another mishap when it said “let’s take an unstable three-wheeler and give it a truck bed so it can carry things to make it even more unstable!” Well, the truth is that the K360 was very popular because it had excellent maneuverability through narrow streets. It was also the first Mazda of this era to be introduced with a steering wheel (instead of a handlebar), a safety windshield, a wide cabin, two seats, two doors, and two windows.
The Stout Scarab was another balloon-looking car design that didn’t really fit into any one category. Was it a bus? A sedan? A limo? Well, it was all of those things and none of them: it’s credited by some as being the world’s first production minivan. A 1946 prototype version of the Scarab also became the world’s first car with a fiberglass body and air suspension. So, it was innovative. A fiberglass body and air suspension would have been even nicer on a car that didn’t look so strange! It was, of course, designed by an aircraft engineer, so maybe that’s why it looks like half of a Boeing 747. The stretched car introduced the “diner car” concept, and it might be popular with VW Type 2 fans today, but not many others.
This is another controversial issue, no doubt, as this charming car is starting to come into popularity in recent years, and can sell for quite a pretty penny these days. The thing that makes the Porsche 928 make no sense is the fact that it didn’t look anything like the Porsches we know. It looked like a Datsun, maybe. But here’s the thing, the 911 was introduced 14 years earlier, in 1963! So Porsche already had an iconic, legendary car under their belt. The 911 is often considered THE most legendary car ever made. The 928? Not so much. Porsche executives believed this flagship 928 would have a wider appeal than the compact, quirky 911, and boy, they couldn’t have been more wrong.
Here’s another quirky, odd classic car, the 1947 Norman Timbs Special, but it would probably sell like crazy, because it at least has a frame that is somewhat recognizable. Sure, no other car quite looks like the Norman Timbs Special, but it’s reminiscent of the 1930s Lincoln Zephyr, and some old Bugattis. It’s looping, curved body style has been called the most beautiful German car design to come out of America, by Jalopnik. Its front-mounted cockpit and curve that leads to the raindrop tail is quite unique. It was also made with a Buick Straight 8 engine. All those qualities combined make for a rare, unique car that would do well in today’s collectable marketplace.
This car would sell like hotcakes today for one reason alone: it looks awesome and unique. Out of all the strange cars that were designed by aircraft engineers and fighter pilots, the GM Firebird XP-21 is the one most akin to an actual airplane. And it looks wicked. This car was an actual fighter jet, with four wheels, a tail fin, and a bubble cockpit. It had a turbine engine that spun at 26,000 RPM, which generated a whopping (for that time) 370 horsepower. Today’s supercars like the Paganis and Koenigseggs of the world like to take their inspiration from fighter jets, but it really all started with this short-lived bad boy, put out by none other than General Motors.
The Chrysler Streamline X is a strange looking car that, of course, takes many of its cues from fighter jets, considering in what time it was built. It got its name, “Gilda,” from a 1946 Rita Hayworth film. The firm Ghia, from Italy, outfitted the Gilda with a plain 1.5-liter engine made for touring, after originally planning on equipping this thing with a jet turbine engine. The design here is an antecedent to the short run of Chrysler turbine cars that were made later on. Its fins tell you it’s from the 1950s, as does its awesome design, and here’s another reason this car might sell well today: it sort of looks like the Mach 5 from Speed Racer!
We KNOW this car would sell loads today because it was the progenitor of a car that did: the Lancia Stratos. Well, the 1970 Lancia Stratos HF Zero was a concept car that truly takes the word “concept” and puts it into literal terms. Look at this wedge design! Lovers of the Lotus Esprit and the Lamborghini Countach rejoice! This car was so low to the ground (838mm tall, or 33 inches) that conventional doors could not be used, and to gain access, drivers had to raise the windshield and walk into the car. Talk about a space car. For low-riding supercar fans, or enthusiasts of wedge-shaped vehicles, this is one of the best of them all, and it’s one of the originals.
Bugatti was making vintage car designs long before they were making million-dollar supercars. The Type 57S is one of their most iconic, older designs. This version, the Competition Coupe Aerolithe, debuted at the Paris Auto Show in 1935, and was a big hit. It was mysteriously lost after the unveiling, though, and people believe that Bugatti disassembled it for parts to make the Type 57 production car. The model on display is a recreation that was produced in 2007, based on recorded specs and photographs. That being said, this rare, almost mythological car would certainly sell like crazy today, because of its legend, folklore, and awesome, old-timey design.
The Avions Voisin C-25 Aerodyne was a car built by Gabriel Voisin, who created the luxury automobile brand in France in 1919, before trading the company in 1939. This is another car that is very reminiscent of Bugattis, Morgans, and Rolls-Royces of those days, with its timeless body shape that absolutely exudes class and style. What makes this car worth so much is the fact that only 28 of them were ever made. One of these Aerodynes won Best in Show at the 2011 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, so there’s no doubt that if there were more of these cars in existence, they would be pretty hot commodities.
The 1956 Buick Centurion is an awesome, sporty car that has a very unique body shape and style to it. This car also had a back-up camera decades before they appeared in other consumer vehicles, which makes it quite fresh and original. Buick emphasized the car’s advances and its Jetsons-like clear bubble roof and cockpit, which gave the driver and passengers unobstructed views. That 360-viewing design is honestly something that many car companies are trying to replicate these days, with much more advanced technology. Maybe it’s time to take a look to the past, to cars that have already done it, and take your cues from the Centurion?
The 1978 BMW M1 is iconic because of its precedence, and because of its style. It had a body shape that was utterly Lambo-esque, and that’s because it was co-developed by BMW and Lamborghini. If those companies were to make another car like this today, it would sell so fast. This mid-engined sports car was made to be homologated for production racing. Then BMW cut ties with Lamborghini, but they continued production of the car anyway, with ex-Lambo designers. It’s powered by a 3.5-liter inline-6 engine, had 273 horsepower, and a top speed of 162 mph (impressive for the ‘70s). This was also the first ever BMW M-car, and only 453 were ever produced, making it extremely valuable and one of the rarest BMWs ever made.
The 1955 BMW Isetta was basically a microcar designed by Italians. But it was actually licensed to BMW at a time when the brand was struggling, and this little vehicle changed the history of the company forever. The 13-horsepower Isetta single-handedly saved BMW when they were in a tough spot financially, and turned the company around. A total of 161,728 of these microcars were designed in its 7-year production span, which are huge numbers. And given the popularity of minis today, like the Abarth, Fiat 500, and Mini Countryman and all that, there’s no doubting that this vintage micro would sell fabulously to hipsters around the world.
The Nissan S30, or Fairlady Z, or 240Z, was the first generation of Z-GT two-seat coupes from Nissan. Right around the time of the early 1970s, when tightened emissions regulations led to some weak muscle cars, the one glimmer of hope was the Datsun Z. This little zippy zinger was lightweight, maneuverable, and thrilling. Its inline-6 engine did best along curvy country roads. It also had an awesome design, shaped like a Porsche (almost exactly like a Porsche 928, actually), but it cost just a fraction of a Porsche. This car is still popular today, despite being defunct for over 40 years (1978)! There’s no doubt that it would be a powerhouse in today’s market, with its Miata-like drivability, its inexpensive cost, and its sleek design.
References: businessinsider.com, carbuzz.com, jalopnik.com, motor1.com