There is a number of cars throughout history that seem so strange or bizarre that I honestly cant believe they reached production – let alone what they were thinking when they designed them. There is a few exceptions, but virtually all of them came from GM. Lets take a look at these unusual cars and appreciate the risk and brazenness that had to take place for these cars to hit the assembling lines.
The first car that comes to mind is the Chevrolet Corvair. A rear engined, air-cooled flat 6 cylinder that came in a number of body styles, including a 4 door station wagon. I would love to know what they were thinking when they started designing it. From the research I have done, it looks like it was for ease of assembly as the car was designed to compete in the economy car segment. Maybe the inspiration came from the VW Beetle, the only other air-cooled rear engined car that had significant production. You have to agree that an air-cooled engine attached to a transaxle really simplifies manufacturing where the entire unit can be installed into the chassis in one piece with no driveshafts, differential or cooling systems to worry about.
But the Corvair car was not the only oddball, they also had a pickup known as the Rampside. This tiny pickup, built on the corvair platform, must be the strangest truck ever made. Featuring the rear engine layout of the Corvair, a cockpit with absolutely no font end past the occupants legs, and a door in the middle of the chassis that opened down like a ramp which gave the truck its name.
Mazda Rotary Engines
The next thing that comes to mind is not really a car, but anything powered by a rotary engine – that is a number of Mazda’s including the Cosmo and RX-7. The cars these engines were in were really nothing special, but it was the engine itself that made them odd. I have owned a FC RX-7, it was a great car, but I actually felt that the car was being held back by its engine.
I personally think that the rotary engine has no place in a car. All engines are trying to tear themselves apart, but the rotary is a special exception. Their strange heating differentials and sealing issues simply do not lend themselves to the reliability of the traditional piston engine. Not to mention their inherent inefficacy. All of the major manufactures bought into the rotary engine idea and did their own testing. All scrapped the idea other than Mazda. Somehow they made it work “good enough” and the cars they came in made enough people fall in love that they become a legend. But you have to stand back and look at the development that Mazda had to do to bring this to market. All of that work to end up with something that was actually worse than a piston engine and a developmental dead end. Was it just a marketing exercise that went too far?
A mid-engined, budget oriented, parts-bin sports car? From a company that already had the Corvette, Camaro, and Firebird? From a brand that wasn’t known for anything special? Was there market research done? What was the target market and niche this was meant to fill? I’m not sure, but from what I understand, GM at the time was trying to revitalize the Pontiac brand with new exciting ideas. The car they come up with was supposed to rival exotics. But with the tiny budget allocated to the Fiero project, what we ended up with was a very good looking (for its time and before it got a reputation), iron duke 4 cylinder powered, two-seat sports car that was a turd. The car sold well at first, but after a host of quality and reliability issues, its reputation was permanently marred. I’m sure its performance not living up to its looks didn’t help either. A shame since the car got better in its later years; it got a new suspension and v6 engine. Can you imagine any American company making a small 2 seat MID-ENGINED economy sports car? I don’t think we will ever see anything like this again.
Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky
The Solstice gets on my list because like the Fiero, it seems totally out of place in any of GM’s line-up’s even though it is a fairly conventional car. I remember the car started as a stunning concept that had everyone, including myself, admiring the lines. I recall the Solstice name was just the working name of the concept that some thought was kind of silly. If you think about it, “Solstice” doesn’t really sound exciting or inspire thoughts of high performance. GM chose to stick with the name since the concept was such a hit. Even though the car was only made for four years, GM sold various versions of the car, including a Saturn, Opel, and a not well known Daweoo version called the G2X. The Solstice had decent sales figures even surpassing the Mazda Miata’s, but the car was axed after GM closed the Pontiac and Saturn brands and sold the plants they were made at. The car was known to be quite good and it really tore up autocrosses in its SCCA classification. I still see some out at autocrosses today and usually wearing massive tires, as large as 315’s, on all four corners which somehow works. This is also a size you would never expect on such a small car. V8 swapped Solstice’s are truly something to behold and are basically a modern Shelby Cobra.
The C8 Corvette
Coming out right after the Fiero, the Japanese auto maker did a much better job than Pontiac ever dreamed of. So much so, folks think back on the MR2 fondly while with the Fiero… not so much… Toyota already had a lot of experience in sports cars and was involved in high level racing. They had the Celica and Supra, so a mid-engine car seemed like the natural progression. They also had the 4A-GE engine, which was the first mass produced DOHC 4 cylinder. What is unexpected was not only was it a mid-engine car, was that it was also an economy car. Toyota even worked with Lotus for some of the suspension design. But like GM, it’s amazing that company gave the MR2 the green light for production.
There are some others out there that should be mentioned but I don’t think they are as wild or unbelievable as the cars above. One that comes to mind is the original NSX; but Honda set out to make an exotic so what they ended up with seems about right. A great car indeed, but it was a factory “special” designed to show what the company could do. Same goes for the BMW i8 and other low-volume exotics from non-exotic brands.
Is there anything else that that should be on the list?