Automotive Oddballs: Cars to drive on the road less traveled

Classic cars are valued for their gorgeous style, sublime performance, rarity, and sometimes a combination of all three. Though most of us drive ordinary grocery getters, day to day, there’s another end of the spectrum, where you’ll find motoring’s most interesting underdogs. This is a short list of some cars that, though they may have baffled the car buying public, have nonetheless made their marks in automotive history.

AMC Pacer - 1975-79

Does life in a fishbowl sound uncomfortable? How about driving around in one? The Pacer’s odd proportions resulted from building a car compact in length but wide as a full-sized sedan. Intended to borrow General Motor’s upcoming new rotary engine, the Pacer was compromised by a hastily swapped-in straight six when GM cancelled its radical engine program. The Pacer’s miserable gas mileage combined with an interior that heated up like an ant under a magnifying glass to earn it a prime spot on Time magazine’s list of the worst cars ever. But, in its defense, a Pacer did serve well as Garth’s wheels in the Wayne’s World movie.

Edsel Bermuda - 1958

You might consider all 1958 Edsels ungainly with their horse collar grilles, slab sides, and strange tail lights, but have you seen an ultra-rare Bermuda station wagon? A one-year only offering, the Bermuda was Edsel’s fanciest, boasting a design incorporating every 1950s design cliché imaginable, and then some. The taillights deserve special mention--they were huge arrow shapes that cleverly pointed opposite of the direction the driver intended to turn.

AMC Gremlin - 1970-78

Compact hatchbacks came on strong in the early 1970s, but tiny, independent American Motors didn’t have the cash to jump on the trend with an all-new car. They cleverly did the next best thing by hacking the trunk off their compact Hornet sedan. Then they conjured up a special edition with a Levis denim interior. You know, for the kids! The Gremlin wasn’t actually a bad little car, but its awkward styling and tiny monster logo have inspired cheap laughs ever since. (Read the full story of the Gremlin here)

Studebaker Scotsman - 1958

A full size car at a compact price? Sounds great, but have you ever seen a Scotsman up close? This was a car that redefines the word cheap. Flimsy, printed cardboard interior panels coupled with painted hubcaps and a complete absence of chrome trim to offer a new low in spartan motoring. The Scotsman was truly a car only the Amish could love. And the Amish don’t drive.

Delorean DMC-12 - 1981-82

Even sexy Italian styling by design legend Giorgio Giugiaro and a Lotus-tuned suspension couldn’t save this multi-level disaster. Also named to Time’s worst cars list, the DMC-12 boasted gull wing doors and a chic stainless steel body, but it was sadly underpowered and insufficiently sorted on release. Nowadays the sleek little coupe is best known for its role as a time traveling contraption that starred in Back to the Future. But the Delorean has proven to be a die hard, as a Texas company that bought the rights and parts is actually making new ones.

Pontiac Aztek - 2001-05

Though some oddball autos take decades to earn their infamy, the Aztek was a shoe-in right off the showroom floor. The ungainly cross-over seemed like a good idea, at least on paper. It had amazing versatility, boasted a carrying capacity big enough for full 4’ X 8’ sheets of plywood, offered an optional tent/air mattress that attached to its lift gate, had a center console that served as a removable cooler, along with a vast selection of racks to carry outdoor gear along with its copious interior room. But in the end, the Aztek’s ugly duckling body, seemingly perched on tiny shopping cart wheels, trumped its charms so thoroughly that nothing else mattered.

Citroen DS, 1955-75

Proving that eccentric cars can find an honored place in history, Citroen’s DS was successful enough to sell nearly a million and ahalf copies. The innovative DS nonetheless defines the oddball motorcar. So advanced for the mid-1950s, it redefined what a car could be. Aerodynamic bodywork, hydrolastic suspension, disc brakes, roof mounted turn signals, safety steering wheel, and headlights that turned with its steering added up to a reinvention of motoring. Said to provide the smoothest ride ever, the DS’s liquid suspension system was as unique as its appearance. Winner of multiple awards, and a favorite of car buffs everywhere, the DS truly stands alone to this day, heroic in its originality.

Aerocar - 1949

Since WWII, dreamers have envisioned flying cars. They remain a hopeful lot, even sixty some years after the first successful example, the Aerocar, first flew. Though flying cars are said to “drive like a plane and fly like a car,” this little oddball came very close to mass production. The Aerocar was developed by Moulton Taylor in Longview, Washington. Taylor’s invention worked, reaching 60 M.P.H. on land and 100 M.P.H. in the air. After producing a series of prototypes with folding wings that were trailered behind the car on the road, Taylor obtained a funding guarantee based on procuring 500 orders. Though promising his flying car was just two years away, he was only able to scare up half that number, and the Aerocar never entered production. Just six prototypes were built. To this day, new flying cars are proposed with some regularity, but, so far, they remain just “two years away!”

Amphicar - 1961-67

If a flying car doesn’t suit your purpose, perhaps a floating one will? The Amphicar remains the only amphibious vehicle ever mass produced and offered for public sale. Though it was said to be, “The best boat on the road and the best car in the water,” two Amphicars were able to cross the English Channel in 1968 while braving gale force winds and twenty foot waves. Over four thousand Amphicars were built in Germany over its six years of production with most sold in America.  Powered by a puny, rear-mounted British four banger with 43 horsepower, it could reach 70 M.P.H. on the road or 8 knots per hour on the water.

Though most of these automotive oddballs have suffered their share of ridicule over the years, they’ve nonetheless found fans who love them despite their eccentricities--like ugly mutts whose lovable character makes it easy to overlook their obvious shortcomings.

Written by Jim Cherry