Ever since the first concept car – the Buick Y-Job of 1938 – rolled into public view, these earthbound trial balloons floated by automakers have become a staple at the world’s major motor shows and other venues. Whether they are being used to preview a pending production model, show off the company’s new design direction, or simply serving as a wheeled flight of fancy, concept cars draw massive attention.
Sometimes, though, that attention isn’t of the positive variety. Sometimes the ideas of designers are a little too “out there” to mesh with the tastes of the automotive media and/or the public. Here are 25 such nightmarish dream cars that run the gamut from head-scratching to sputum-summoning.
Lagonda is hardly a new nameplate, with the most recent production car to use it being the awesomely-angular sedan of the 1970s and ‘80s. But while that car’s looks have their fair share of detractors, even they are likely to prefer it to the eponymous 2009 SUV concept seen here. On the eve of its reveal its designer, Marek Reichman, observed, “I don’t think there’s anything like this.” If you ask us, that’s cause for celebration.
Normally, when you think of woodies (the cars, not the…other things) you think of sunshine, sand, surfboards, palm trees and bikini-clad beach bunnies. This 1950 Martin Stationette, on the other hand, does not make you think of any of those things, despite its fibrous body. Its designer – American James V. Martin – billed it as the commuter car of the future, but no investors were forthcoming and, as with Martin’s two previous idea cars, it remained a one-of-one prototype. Gidget probably would have laughed her head off at it anyway.
Who among us hasn’t wanted a pickup truck with room in the bed for a matching hovercraft? Okay, maybe not everyone, but Frank Rinderknecht – founder and head of Swiss design and engineering firm Rinspeed – though it sounded cool. Fast forward to the 1999 Geneva Motor Show and the (very large) cover came off the X-Trem. In terms of function, this big yellow combo plate of vehicles provides oodles of open air fun. As for form, well…uh…hey, it’s got a freaking hovercraft, all right?
While China has become the world’s factory, the world isn’t quite ready for some of the ideas coming out of there. Case in point: This four-door sedan riding atop one wheel at each of its tapered ends and two larger wheels located midway down the sides. It premiered at the 2007 Detroit Auto Show. Did we mention the interior contains hemp fibers? Well now we have, and admit it: That doesn’t surprise you in the least.
While Chrysler gained a well-deserved reputation for leading edge design in the ‘90s (born on the backs of vehicles like the Viper, the Prowler, the 1994 Dodge Ram and the LH-body sedans), even it cranked out a few duds. Chief among them, it could be argued, was the 1993 Chrysler Expresso concept. While the whole urban taxi idea is neat, the whole cartoon face on the side is just. Plain. Creepy.
Though the world has gotten much smaller in the last half century or so, there are still instances where things can get lost in translation. For example, back in 2006, German coachbuilder Karmann (which has since been absorbed by Volkswagen) produced this rather handsome 4-door convertible crossover concept. Unfortunately, it appears not one single person noticed what the abbreviation for Sport Utility Cabrio would sound like if pronounced as an acronym. Dummkopfs!
Many people buy cars to avoid having to take the bus to get from place to place. Be that as it may, Suzuki must have thought it would be fun to remind the automobile set what it’s missing out on when they were designing this 2003 Tokyo Motor Show concept. It even has bifurcated doors in the middle! You just know that if it went into production most owners would start bitching about graffiti appearing in the interior and mustachioed Latino lawyers asking to put mini-billboards for their firms on the tailgate.
It’s hard to believe now, but in the ‘80s, Indy car racing was easily America’s most popular form of motorsports. How popular? Manufacturers actually built custom and concept cars to pace the races. In 1985 Cadillac built a dual-cowl phaeton based on one of its sedans. There was just one problem: That sedan was the Cimarron, arguably the most shameful (yet shameless?) example of “badge engineering” in automotive history. We can just picture the likes of Rick Mears, Tom Sneva and Mario Andretti following this thing around, struggling to not puke inside their helmets.
While we’re on the subject of rebadged cars, consider this vehicle. It wears Chrysler badging and a brand-appropriate grille insert, but it looks quite European, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. Specifically, it’s a current-gen Lancia Delta (not to be confused with the O.G. Delta that was available in rally-ready Integrale trim). You see, following Chrysler’s shotgun marriage with Lancia’s parent Fiat, someone thought it would be cool to show off possible synergies between the two companies. If doing so involves being lazy (Seriously, what’s up with that name?) and underestimating the intelligence of American car nuts, then they did a bang-up job.
As Toyota’s youth brand, Scion pretty much has to crank out vehicles at look hip and edgy. This is especially true of its concept cars, and the 2008 Hako fit that description to a “T.” Of course, you can only be so edgy before going over the edge, and many would argue the Hako’s backwards Prohibition Era sedan roofline and robotic teddy bear face followed Wile E. Coyote over the cliff. Will some of those styling themes show up on production Scions? Stay tuned.
The Ferrari Mondial, like the 308 GT4 that preceded it, gets little love from Ferrari fans. The fact that the Mondial was available as a coupe or a convertible, had a mid-mounted V8 and a pair of rear seats for the kids could not (and still does not) make folks who bleed Rosso Corsa look past the somewhat tepid performance and clumsy proportions. Said proportions, however, look downright handsome compared to this Sbarro (no relation to the pizza joint at your local mall) rebody, which actually debuted in 2001, eight years after the last Mondial was made. So many “whys” and not one “because.”
Lotus has made its name on lightweight, no-nonsense sports cars, the Elise and Exige twins being the most recent examples of the breed. Now, though, the company wants to push upmarket with heavier, more powerful and more complicated cars. No member of the massive concept car fleet revealed year makes that point more clear than the four-door Eterne. Granted, Lotus has worked its magic on a sedan before, but this time it’s not the corporate sugar daddy putting in the request and providing the platform. And so what if it helps your bottom line? We still want you to “simplicate and add lightness,” dammit.
While most sheep, er, people are okay with the notion of the automobile as an appliance, we doubt very many of them want a car that actually looks like an appliance. This did not deter Honda in the least, for one of their concepts for the 1999 Tokyo show was the Fuya-Jo. Honda claimed it evoked “the image of a futuristic all-night club.” We reckon it answers the question, “What would The Brave Little Toaster look like as a manga?”
What’s the average prison inmate’s number one dream ride? No, female news anchors don’t count. If you said an armored car, give yourself a cookie. However, Ford designer José Paris thought even non-ne’er-do-wells would love driving a money-mover, and his (and interior designer Joe Baker’s) 2005 creation, the SYNus, tested that theory. While some urban hipsters who are into what they think is irony would love it, we’re betting most drivers would be scared of being attacked by inhabitants of the criminal underworld. And what’s up with the name? If it starts acting up, do you hose it down with Nasonex?
When it comes to excellence in automotive design weirdness, even the Japanese have a hard time keeping up with the French. A prime example of this leadership is the Citroen C-10 Coccinelle from 1956. Planned as a model to be positioned between the entry-level 2CV and the range-topping DS, the C-10 Coccinelle used the 2CV’s flat-twin engine and front-wheel-drive system in a slightly larger, bubble-bodied shape. Unfortunately(?), Citroen execs instead chose the (slightly) more conservative Ami 6 to be its intermediate model.
At some point we’ve probably all dreamed of designing and building our own car; sadly it is a dream few – if any – of us will realize. American Bill Flajole was one of those lucky few. As the head of his own independent industrial design firm, he had the means to purchase a 1953 Jaguar XK120 “M” (the high performance package) and, after two years of designing and fabricating, reinvent it as the Forerunner. But while features like side coves and a targa top would be aped by later cars, its killer bee attack victim aesthetic (i.e. purple and bloated) would, mercifully, remain a footnote in automotive styling history.
With government fuel economy requirement increases just over the horizon, all carmakers doing business in the U.S. are scrambling to make their fleets more frugal. For the current auto show season, even Cadillac is getting in on the act with its three-cylinder subcompact Urban Luxury Concept (ULC). While it’s cool looking as city cars go, it hardly fits the Cadillac brand image. And while Aston Martin is bringing a similar car to market, it’s not part of a larger conglomerate building plug-in hybrids to offset premium brand gas guzzlers. Cadillac does have that luxury, so why slum it if you don’t have to?
Five years ago, the Hummer H2 (and most other big body-on-frame SUVs, for that matter) was already headed down the path toward becoming a pop-culture pariah, but that didn’t deter Fiat (yes, Fiat) from doing its own riff on the boxy urban assault vehicle. Except the Italian machine was closer to the H1 in size and scope, having been built on a large military vehicle chassis produced by the company’s truck subsidiary Iveco. Even the dashboard looked like the stylists commandeered an H1 and hit “Ctrl+C” and “Ctrl+V” on their vision. We always thought the Italians were the trendsetters of automotive design, not the trend followers.
While there are no Chinese cars for sale in the U.S. (yet), the world’s most populace country has been exhibiting cars on our shores for the past decade or so. One of the most, uh, memorable of those vehicles was independent designer Tang Hua’s Detroit Fish, which was shown at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show. Unlike the other two concepts Tang Hua showed at that show – the (we aren’t making these up) Book of Songs and the Piece of Cloud – the Detroit Fish was purportedly amphibious. Lessee…electric car, amphibious, no doors or windows, and made in China. Can we live among grizzly bears instead?
Speaking of safety concerns, how would you like to drive a car with a nuclear fission reactor in the trunk? Not so much? Ford was pretty sure people would be down with it in 1958, which is when they revealed the Nucleon. Working much like a nuclear submarine, the reactor would generate heat that turned water into steam that spun turbines that drove electric motors. Despite the passenger cabin being placed as far forward as possible and a projected range of 5,000 miles(!) between “fill ups,” American motorists weren’t gung ho, and the idea of the atomic car was quietly dropped.
In its quest to keep the Prius name fresh, Toyota is expanding the brand into a “family” of models. The smallest of these new additions is being previewed by the Prius C concept, which debuted at last month’s Detroit Auto Show. We can appreciate the idea of a small, affordable hybrid with spectacular fuel economy; what we can’t appreciate is one with a nose that looks like a road-pressed Pokemon. Yeah, we get the whole aero efficiency thing, but is that really the best y’all could do?
Sometimes the best intentions have the worst outcomes; witness Father Alfred Juliano’s contribution to motoring history, the Aurora Safety Car. Juliano, a Catholic priest from Connecticut who was an aspiring car designer before becoming a man of the cloth, believed (correctly) that cars could be much safer than they were in the late 1950s. Thus, he designed and built this fiberglass-bodied machine – which rode atop a Buick chassis – with things like shock-absorbing bumpers, a collapsible steering column, and seat belts. Those items eventually became required on all new cars, but not before Juliano went bankrupt and was booted from the church. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, a car this hideous was a guaranteed bust.
There are just some things about which you wouldn’t expect any rational human being to wax nostalgic. Disco is one thing that comes to mind, and another is the Trabant, the wretched little plastic-bodied, two-stroke-powered people’s car of the former East Germany. Yet these little turdblossoms have a massive following, so much so that a German consortium created this all-electric concept last year. If it does go into production, we have to wonder if you’ll have to get government clearance and put on a years’-long waiting list to buy one.
The idea of democratizing automotive design is intriguing, but also fraught with risk. If someone creates a car that’s the wrong side of homely, then the manufacturer that made that person’s dream a reality gets most of the blame for all those frightened children and tossed cookies. Peugeot, to its credit, wasn’t scared by this possibility back in 2005 when, for the third year in a row, let an outsider create a concept car. André Costa’s Moovie, which was basically a purple, enclosed self-propelled rickshaw, is cool for fans of The Fifth Element and Blade Runner, but for the rest of us, it reaffirms the long-held suspicion that car design might be best left to the pros.
What’s this, you say? The Aztek concept looks so much less dreadful than the production model? Yeah, a lot of folks have that reaction. So why is the prototype an atrocity? It got everyone’s hopes up…right until the production model showed up in all its underpowered, pudgy, plastic-clad glory. So for toying with the emotions (and stomachs) of American car buyers, the Aztek concept earns a spot on this HTML-based wall of shame.
Of course, if you think there’s a craptastic concept car that isn’t on the list but should be, don’t be afraid to name names in the comments section.