We have a tendency to complain “all cars look the same these days”, and occasionally the car manufacturers take heed of this idle (and quite ill-informed) lament to do something a bit ‘out there’ for us. With billions of dollars, euros or yen at risk if opinions are split too deeply, that takes guts. On the other hand, stick to the identikit formula to play it safe and the rug can be pulled from under your wheels by adventurous rivals. Here are 11 of the most daring designs to have made it to the franchised dealer’s welcoming, carpeted premises…
The relentlessly boring van-like shape of 1990s MPVs drove Fiat to do something very different in its quest to yank attention away from the top-selling Renault Megane Scenic. The big difference was its packaging which offered six seats in two rows of three, and to accommodate all those jabbing family elbows the Multipla was quite a bit wider than the Fiat Brava it was based on with almost vertical sides. To emphasise this fact, the passengers sat in a bulging glass greenhouse apparently plonked on top of its base unit, with the Dali-like disconnect leaving the foglights and bonnet badge on a metal valance below the windscreen. “Wait until you see the front” said the sticker on the back window of early Fiat Multiplas sold in Britain. There was nothing else remotely like it, although Vauxhall recalculated the typical Catholic requirements for a family MPV and came up with its seven-seater Zafira, cruelly overshadowing the Multipla’s key benefit. Fiat restyled the Multipla in 2004 to try and normalise it, so conflicted had it became at trying to do something really different.
Rover 2000 P6
In a trice Rover went from making some of the least invogorating cars in the world to setting a breathtaking new pace in sports saloons overnight. It was goodbye to the upright P4 beloved of country solicitors and stuffy bank managers in 1963 and hello fresh in the form of the P6, a compact executive sports saloon with racing car-like De Dion rear suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, sporty handling and supportive comfort designed for the new motorway world of all-day cruising at 70mph. All this was crammed into a positively space-age body built around a monocoque central cage, like a Citroen DS, to which all the panels were bolted. A Jaguar MkII might have offered speed but the sharp-edged Rover hurtled the company into the future with unheard of urgency on every front. Those, for Britain, really were the days…
Alfa Romeo SZ
In the 1950s and ‘60s anything with the Zagato emblem on its sides was bound to push boundaries in stepping outside the mainstream. “You see that car?” the legendary Elio Zagato once said. “Is it different from all the others? Then it’s a Zagato.” By the 1980s it was getting harder and harder to make a car stand out like this, and Zagato was confined to making electric golf buggies and taking the roofs off Maserati Biturbos, But then, in 1986, Fiat finally got its hands on its homegrown rival Alfa Romeo. The company needed to build a car to prove Alfa wouldn’t become just another sub-brand. The early sketches and ideas for the 75-based SZ came from the wildly unpredictable pen of Fiat design head Robert Opron – who, as instigator of the Citroën SM and Renault Fuego, knew all about boldness. At the axis of beauty and monstrosity, the SZ with its plastic bodywork and unconstrained (by driver aids) rear-drive drivetrain, radiated danger. And the unconventional House of Zagato was picked to build it.
From apprentice carpenter to full-time sculptor to shaper of the most advanced cars on the planet, Flaminio Bertoni was an artistic genius. He was born in Italy but found his calling in the Bohemian Paris of the 1930s, where Citroën took him on, and he proceeded to create not one – the Traction Avant – but two – the DS as well – incredible cars that tore up and drove over contemporary rulebooks. In 1961 the wraps came off his latest work, although people have been divided about the Ami’s bizarre forms ever since, in the best tradition of truly challenging art. Some think its pointed, reverse-rake rear window, chiselled sides and wavy lines are more Tracey Emin’s Unmade Bed than Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The Ami was a way to make a civilised family car by reusing the platform chassis and air-cooled engine from the 2CV, and over its long lifetime on sale it was a massive seller, especially since Bertoni died in 1964 at just 61 and then Citroën’s marketing drones revised the car to make it resemble a compacted GS. Such was Bertoni’s dedication to the new that he even rethought the Ami’s headlights, making the original ones the first ever to adapt styling and take on a free-form shape.
While both contemporaries such as the Merc 560SEL and Bentley Turbo R are actually 3cm broader than a Testarossa, the 197cm-wide Ferrari certainly sought to shock the supercar world with its roadhog appearance. The huge strakes on the outer flanks to suck air into the flat-12 engine bay, plus a wider track at the back, made it anything but dainty. Anyway, it was the mid 1980s with all the trashy pizzazz that suggests, and Ferrari was through with taste, so Leonardo Fioravanti’s Testarossa design for Pininfarina is the perfect period piece, well suited to the show Miami Vice in whose later episodes it starred. And just in case this shatters your illusion that the Testarossa was the widest car ever, you could get a Gemballa-modified one pulled out to 210cm – very near the all-time record – for which just about every low-speed driving manoeuvre was a nightmare.
Colin Chapman and his disciples just seemed to pull this one out of the hat from nowhere in 1966. How they found the time and the finance to build the Europa defies belief after Lotus had launched the Elan, the Lotus-Cortina, moved factories and made a stunning assault on Formula 1 in quick succession; now here they were putting out a mid-engined sports car that was every inch the poor man’s Ford GT40. Actually, in inches, the Europa gave very slightly more in standing just 42.5 off the ground versus the Ford’s 40, but you get the picture. Initially the engine was the fairly mild 1.5-litre Renault 16 motor, but while lying back as if in a deckchair within its horribly claustrophobic cockpit, you could fling the breadvan-shaped sports car round corners at speeds Hovis delivery men could only dream about.
There wasn’t much in the way of Health & Safety legislation to be considered by the two Italian engineers who came up with the Isetta. A key part of their thinking for the very first of the ‘bubble cars’ was that the two occupants could park up against the kerb, push open the front of the car, which disconnected and unfolded the steering column, and step out on to the pavement. If you had a head-on crash and the door was jammed, you were supposed to make your escape through the canvas sunroof. Happy days. The minute three-wheeler with a moped engine powering its single rear wheel caused an absolute sensation in 1953, and building it under licence helped to make BMW the company it is today.
Twisted logic with a streak of design inspiration led American Motors Corporation to launch the Pacer in 1975 – great news for Bill and Ted in the distant future; not so good for cash-strapped US drivers in the teeth of a savage fuel crisis and desperate to make every gallon of gas go the extra mile. AMC, like the rest of Detroit, was being pummelled by cheap Japanese imports with their four-cylinder engines and light weight offering a quantum leap in petrol consumption. But it was anxious not to lose its traditional customers who liked spacious accommodation and waterbed ride comfort, so the Pacer was in essence a cut-down version of its full-size models given a chubby three-door hatchback body, inside which big comfy armchairs cosseted the portly suburbanite. With a hatchback and vast, goldfish bowl windows, it cut the weirdest of dashes on the street, and even featured doors of different lengths on each side, the one on the driver’s side longer so kids could hop out while mom stayed seated. It was almost tragic the way Toyota Corollas and Honda Civics danced around the Pacer for its troubled, five-year existence.
You might recall the Fiat Strada from its 1979 TV ad campaign showing a battalion of robots making the car to an operatic backdrop. But that wasn’t all that was new and interesting in the three- and five-door hatchbacks from Turin. In trying to avoid the me-too thinking that was producing such clones as the Talbot Horizon and Vauxhall Astra, Fiat and Bertone conspired to add a generally off-set theme throughout the Strada (called Ritmo in mainland Europe). The bonnet badge and air vent were all positioned to the left, the wheels were styled to counteract any roundness, the piggy headlights were sunk into the big grey plastic bumpers, and the fuel filler and door handles were all matching circles. Harmony was the enemy here, but the Strada was more likely to decay or malfunction long before you’d decided that it was actually downright ugly.
The man who designed the Bond Bug, Tom Karen OBE, got the chance of a lifetime to do something different as a design consultant thanks to the bravery of his main client Reliant. Deciding there had to be a way to tempt hard-up students into the three-wheeler world, they asked him if he had any ideas to do something different with the chassis and engine of the existing Regal 3/25. And as it happened, Tom as a young man himself had built a three-wheeler fun car, the Vimp, back in the 1950s. Now, in 1969, he updated his ideas with all the then-current tropes and motifs of the early 1970s: a psychedelic bright orange colour as standard on the brutal wedge shape, a lift-up canopy instead of doors to suggest the space age, and black graphics and NACA ducts for a go-faster feel. It was fun and thrifty, for sure, but then so was a secondhand Mini with two extra seats.
As well as the Pacer above, there are plenty of fairly recent American cars that have employed bold designs to stand out from the metal herd. Just think of the Pontiac Fiero, the Buick Reatta, the Plymouth Prowler and Chrysler PT Cruiser, even the Tesla Model X and Cybertruck. Here’s one you might not know because its curious existence never touched folks beyond the US borders: the 1995 Oldsmobile Aurora. At the time the Olds marque was in deep trouble with an ageing customer base and correspondingly staid designs. So GM decided to offer this radically smooth-looking sedan with front-wheel drive and a V8 engine through its dealers – a sort of concept luxury saloon that you could actually buy, and with the Oldsmobile brand so toxic neither the word nor the familiar logo appeared anywhere on the car. The intention to make it look like something sleek yet anonymous from a Ridley Scott sci-fi movie set in the fairly near future was signalled by the full-width rear light, pillarless hardtop looks, and GM’s own built-in cellphone. Sadly, although it really did stand out among big US sedans, Oldsmobile’s future prospects gained little uplift, and in 2004 both car and marque were consigned to history.