11 cars that dared to look different

by Giles Chapman
27 April 2021 7 min read
11 cars that dared to look different
Photo: Silverstone Auctions

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…

Fiat Multipla

11 daring car designs_Fiat Multipla
Photo: Fiat

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.

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Rover 2000 P6

11 cars with daring design_Rover 2000 P6
Photo: H&H

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

Alfa Romeo SZ profile view
Photo: Girardo & Co

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.

Citroën Ami

11 cars with daring design_Citroen Ami
Photo: Citroën/Georges Guyot.

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.

Ferrari Testarossa

11 cars with daring design_Ferrari Testarossa
Photo: RM Sotheby’s / Patrick Ernzen

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.

Lotus Europa

11 cars that dared to differ_Lotus Europa
Photo: Silverstone Auctions

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.

Iso Isetta

Cars with daring design_Iso Isetta
Photo: RM Sotheby’s / Darin Schnabel 

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.

AMC Pacer

Cars with daring design_AMC Pacer
Photo: Hemmings Auctions

Twisted logic with a streak of design inspiration led American Motors Corporation to launch the Pacer in 1975 – great news for Wayne and Garth; 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.

Fiat Strada

11 cars with different styling_Fiat Strada
Photo: Fiat

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.

Bond Bug

Bond Bug with a motorbike engine
Photo: Kevin Van Campenhout / Artcurial

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.

Oldsmobile Aurora

11 cars with daring design_Oldsmobile Aurora
Photo: GM

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.

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  • Mike Etherington says:

    Had an Isetta… sorry… “ moped engine” is wrong… it was a 250 cc OHV BMW motorcycle engine… very reliable and capable of pushing the car to 70+Mph !!… as I did often…. also had an Ami 8….an x.. shaped engine…. a V and an inverted V together… using 2cv barrels/ pistons… inboard disc brakes at front, 1500 cc … went like a rocket and body roll on corners was spectacular… I should have kept it….and the Isetta… never mind… got a 1275 RWA midget which is great fun…

  • Friend 8 says:

    My Ami 8 just had a 2 pot boxer engine. Never heard of the X engine.

  • Tim Bates says:

    The Oldsmobile Aurora wasn’t particularly strange, but what about General Motors’s greatest monstrosity, the Pontiac Aztek? Cubist, angular, ill-proportioned, it sold in miniscule numbers.

  • Stuart F says:

    Had a early lotus europa (Renault Gordini powered) back in the day (around 1981-81) – not a fast car particularly but the handling was sublime – a lot of fun!

  • Les Price says:

    I realise these are personal views but how can the Rover P6 be included but the Citroen DS be excluded? Fine car the P6 is of course.

  • Mr D Featherstone says:

    I thought the D.A.R.E. DZ should have been given a mention.

  • Andy says:

    My best friend at and after school for a bit had an Iseta bubble car. We swapped one day – I had the bubble, he had my Lambretta ! An indicated 80mph down ( admittedly ) a local hill on the old A23. Great fun that vehicle. Reverse was blocked off for learners. He took a driving test in it thinking it would qualify him for cars. It didn’t ! Citroën Ami and the Fiat Mutipla are an affront to my eyes. Burn them all ! 🙂

  • Andy says:

    Also wrong : the steering wheel and column ( c/w speedo etc ) folded out WITH the front door. 2 person bench seat within, parcel shelf behind. There were also 4 wheel versions, with narrow track twins at the rear. Air cooled BMW engine in my mates car, built at the Trojan Works in Brighton. Wish I had one today !

  • mr B.B.Payne says:

    As regards getting out of the sun roof if you had a head on crash, ( dread to think about that !) I do not think you would be in a fit state to do anything except to keep breathing.

  • gnetfos says:

    Triumph Vitesse twin cam; Humber Sceptre (with an overdrive) …. Peugeot 404; now the “Shark” (M635CSi) …

  • Nigel says:

    Some motoring hack described the Fiat Multipla as looking like “an irradiated tadpole”

  • Steve Seagrave says:

    Have owned a Europa, in the dim distant past. Held the road like a limpet, and, more recently a rare Route 66 version of the PT Cruiser. Yellow paint and chrome wheels and more like a hot rod than daily driver. Currently own a 70s Corvette Stingray. The classic coke bottle shaped shark and a beautiful shape, by any standards, but always gets overlooked for lists of stunning car designs.

  • Rich H says:

    Actually, it was the PASSENGER door that was 4″ longer on the Pacer.

  • Steve says:

    The Aston Martin Lagonda should be in that list!

  • Daniel says:

    Bill and Ted had a phone box. It was Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World who had the Pacer famous for the Bohemian Rhapsody scene.

  • Martin Hulbert says:

    Messerschmitt KR200, Citroen DS, Triumph TR7 /Fiat X19, Citroen 2CV Charleston, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Ford Anglia, Vauxhall Cresta PA, Daihatsu Materia

  • Rossano says:

    Sorry but Subaru SVX by Italdesign Giugiaro ??

  • TREVOR BEST says:

    I thought the De Lorean would have been included. I worked in Belfast in the 1980’s and regularly saw the car transporters loaded with these heading towards the docks. They had big blocks of polystyrene stuck onto the bumpers to help protect them. I saw a TV programme recently chronicling the Delorean story. They were interviewing some of the former work force. You have to remember these were built by people with little to no previous experience in car production. The first batch were so bad that the foreman hoped the boat would sink on it’s way to USA. In saying that I would give my right arm to own one now.

  • Richard says:

    The Iso Isetta, that you have pictured, actually has 4 wheels (Look, count them, 1, 2, 3, 4). Most Isetta’s in the world have 4 wheels. It’s only in the UK where the relatively rare 3 wheeler is more common. All down to 1950’s road tax, I’m afraid. The engine? Not a moped but a modified R27 BMW motorbike engine, originally 250cc, but bumped up to 300cc later. Even the original Iso 2 stroke engine was a 237cc twin piston operating in a single combustion chamber. Bit too big for a moped, methinks.

  • Beano says:

    Umm – the Italian Isetta bubble car as made under licence by BMW had a single cylinder air cooled 300cc four stroke engine – a more stable version was available with two rear wheels close together, still classifying it as a three wheeler.

  • Beano says:

    I bought a Bond Bug for my daughter when she became sixteen. Got a shock when I got insurance quotes. They classed it as a two seat sports car with a flammable fibreglass body and rated it high up the scale, putting it out of reach of the very market it was aimed at. (A sixteen year old could drive a three wheeler if the reverse gear was blanked off.) It had a 700cc Reliant engine and was good for about 65/70mph flat out.

  • R. Pilgrim. says:

    Surly many TVR’s out qualify some on your list as different. The Tasmin was so wedge, Griffith with no handles, fuel cap or bonnet and boot handles. Tuscan is so different there is not a straight panel inside or out.

  • Roger says:

    I borrowed a bubble car one day to test it out. What a wonderful experience. I was too poor to buy one in those days, so sad. ☹️

  • Glynn says:

    Had a bubble car, actually 2, turned it on its side round a corner. Really upset opened the door and broke the air horns I fitted. Had 4 people in it once. Another time I broke the chassis. Took it to the school metalwork teacher who put it on its side and welded it back together

  • Tony Besgrove says:

    I remember the Isetta bubble car as having 4 wheels, the two at the back being positioned close together. Perhaps there was more than one version. Myself, I had a Heinkel bubble car, very similar to the Trojan. 174cc four stroke.

  • J.wentworth says:

    AMC pacer only car Mike and edd couldn’t improve on infact they had problems selling they were so bad they had to donate to charity for an online auction, sadly the charity got very little for it,fiat multipla what can I say absolutely hideous.

  • Roger says:

    There was also a high compression version of the engine, developed for single seater racing. In the Bug, this could achieve about 110mph on a track. I saw the test reports, but reliant hushed it up or the insurance would have been astronomical.
    Also the wedge shape generated downforce, and the centre of gravity was down with the wheel hubs, so you could actually slide it!

  • Duncan Tearle says:

    Obviously only 11 here but so many more
    I own a 51 Studebaker ‘Bullet Nose’…Radical design

  • Malcolm anthony says:

    My Dad a had a Mayflower that was an odd looking car it was all square

  • Howard Bull says:

    No mention of the Citroën DS? The other thing was that the Bond Bug could be driven on a full motorcycle licence which of course would not have been possible with a second hand Mini.

  • Stu says:

    Missed the Triumph TR7. What a load of rubbish after the earlier TR’s. I nearly traded my MGB Roadster for one but after driving it I changed my mind.

  • Robert Price says:

    Had a Rover P6 V8, lovely car, but on the motorway you could literally watch the fuel gauge go down !!

  • Mark Crampton says:

    The 700Es high compression version of the Bond Bug would certainly do well over 65/70 mine would cruise at an indicated 80 with plenty left in reserve. I got let off by the local plod at 92 on the M5 , they assumed their speedo was faulty!

  • Khunwilko says:

    I had an Ami 8 Estate – it had some amazing adventures, in particular it’s off-road ability was fantastic.
    There was an engine conversion available, the GS 4 cyclinder egine could be fitted, which was in fact just 2 CVs in one.

  • Paul C says:

    Being different can go one of two ways, when the result comes from a clear design philosophy , visionary engineers and brave management then the results can be gamechangers, when they are the result of niche marketing the products tend to be rubbish. The only two visionary cars in your list are the Multipla and the Europa. The P6 was good but no better than contemporary Alfas, Lancias, Mercs and BMWs. Cars that were actually revolutionary in the modern era that you haven’t included are the 2cv, the DS and the GS Citroens, the original Mini, the MK 1 golf GTi Range Rover Ford Mustang , Toyota Prius, Tesla

  • John says:

    The most successful and different car was the VW Beetle. Most successful car ever (21.5 million built), and nothing else like it before or since. How could you have not had that car here?

  • Nelson Hillier says:

    What about the Renault Zel Statis? A truly bonkers looking car😃

  • Keith Reavill says:

    In 1974 I had the 700ES Bond Bug ..£500 new ..I drove it on my bike license and only sold it to buy a Cortina 1600E when I passed the car test

  • Rodger Nicholson says:

    11 cars, fabulous, I had two of them, Fiat Multipla ( don’t pick me up from school in that, secretly loved the three seats ) Isseta bubble car, could drive it at 16 on a motorcycle license, as long as you blocked out reverse gear
    Happy days

  • Marc Marchasky says:

    As for the Olds Aurora, GM didn’t know a good thing when it saw it!!!!I have a 2001 4.0. Excellent car!!!!

  • PaulTheSame says:

    Nothing remotely unusual or different about the American stuff except the Pacer, which was still overpowered, & you chose the wrong Multipla

  • Lizzie says:

    Lotus europa, fun cars, looks great.

  • Steve says:

    And don’t forget the Range Rover

  • Jon Annereau says:

    The king of cars that were different from the rest, the world’s best selling car ever – the VW Beetle – is not here.

  • Steve.Barber says:

    My favourite lotus. Very rapid with the twin camm mill.

  • Jeff Kearey says:

    The bubble car picture looks more like a Trojan than an Isetta 3-wheeler (also 4-wheelers and other variants available). Mine had a 300 cc air cooled engine – tremendous acceleration up to 30 mph.
    Terrible trouble with the single real wheel hub and axle parallel splines which wore very quickly if not fitted with engineering adhesive. Still loved it.

  • Chris Thurston says:

    Thames Valley plod used the P6 as pursuit car on the M4 when it finished at Maidenhead Thicket . They had trouble with flat tyres because under fierce acceleration, the wheel trims spun and guillotined the tyre valves !!

  • Joseph says:

    Had a friend who’s mam and bought him a bubble car because he had had so many accidents on his scooter ! First day he drove into the garage to park it up and had to wait three hours until his dad came home from work to help back him out ! NO REVERSE GEAR !

  • Jon Mills says:

    How on earth can a conventional Rover car be here, yet the VW Beetle not be? Totally different in every way, yet the Beetle became the most successful car ever. That is not going to go down well with your many Beetle-owning clients!

  • Steve Daily. says:

    I always thought the Europa looked like a Lotus van! Once ungraded my Florida hire car to a blue Chrysler PT Cruiser, it didn’t disappoint.

  • Vic Parsons says:

    Hi Mike. Had an Ami 8 for years and loved it. Horizontal twin, 2CV engine tweaked to 34hp (Ooh, power!). Had 75 in mine (Ooh, such speed.) Would have liked the Ami Super with 1 ltr 4cyl GS engine. Underside round suspension tubes went rotten and it was scrapped (shame). All he best, Vic.

  • Chris says:

    Tom Ksren, designer of the Bond Bug died this New Year.
    He also designed the Raleigh Chopper bike, Marble Run, the classic Leyland truck and much more

  • Roger Bean says:

    The Isetta/BMW Bubble Car had a single cylinder 300cc four stroke engine, not a moped or motorcycle engine. The steering wheel and column swung out with the front door – and no way would it reach 80mph evon driven over a cliff. There was also a version with twin rear wheels so close together they were classed as one – a four wheeled Three -Wheeler 😁

  • Andrew says:

    Where’s the Nissan Cube?

  • David Cawton says:

    I hAd one of the first Ritmo’s when living in Italy, drove it several times to the UK with never a problem.
    You didn’t mention the Alfa Romeo GT/GTA. fabulous little cars !!!

  • w. merfyn jones says:

    How about the Wartburg Knight and Tourist. , must say that it is the only car that I have made money on

  • Chris Turner says:

    I had a Fiat Strada in the 80s probably the worst car ever made.Awful gearbox, had to fight to get it in gear. The upholstery started to peel off the seats & the fuel consumption was awful.

  • Stephen Overton says:

    Bmc princess wedge

  • Browncoat42 says:

    Worthy list, helpful contributions but only PaulC notes the absence of the original 1959 mini – revolutionary in almost every way and an incredibly brave, engineering-led project from a manufacturer that was ultimately strangled by its accountants.

  • bob glaister says:

    I had three wheeled Isetta for a couple of years. 50 mph flat out😇

  • Rick says:

    I always thought that the Citroën Ami was a bit of a rip off of the Ford Anglia in design to look at

  • Brian George says:

    I refer to Beano ( the comic) as far as I remember Reliant , Tamworth Staffs .
    The engine was a Austin 7 , side valve too ohv . Built at Beans Industry, Tipton ?
    A family friend was a driver in the Austin 7 racing team in 1930s !
    Bugatti hill clime race in Gloucester?
    Again mind blowing, a lady knew in Matlock Derby’s , had a pilot license,
    Flew delivered planes , all sorts , off production line to RAF .
    Only engines tested , no radio , no ammunition, sat on parachute , followed railway lines .
    The RAF crews amazed at lone lady , as some of the bombers had a crew of nine !
    Very few ladies drove cars , a starting handle , a wrist breaker !
    Then petrol coupons?
    Memories! Bryan

  • Paul Geoffrey Mitchell says:

    i own and run a SUZUKI X90 another car that was different in looks.

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