the craziest car designs
Mass-produced, commercial cars have been around for roughly a century, and during that time, there has been a great deal of homogenization. Innovations pass from manufacturer to manufacturer, and technological advances spread throughout the industry until cars have only small differences between them. Car production, therefore, works like evolution, with a selection towards efficiency and safety. With innovation comes eccentricity.
In the past century a number of cars have attempted to innovate in ways that quickly became obsolete. The cars that went up an evolutionary dead-end are often examples of mispredictions of the future of driving, or simply an underestimation of what the public would endure in the name of efficiency.
This guide examines the craziest car designs of the last hundred years, from the sublime to the ridiculous.
The Stout Scarab
( 1936 )
High on most people’s list of crazy cars is the Stout Scarab. Designed by William Bushnell Stout, the car takes a number of innovations from the aviation industry and lays a major claim to being the first car influenced by the science of aerodynamics.
William Stout was influenced in his design by Buckminster Fuller, and the long, curved lines reflect the desire to streamline the car where possible.
Stout had already founded the first regularly scheduled airline in the United States, which was the first airline in the world to have stewardesses, and offer meal service. Accordingly, his car is designed on such luxury principles and can seat six people.
The engine was located in the rear of the car; the hood and front-end were relatively empty. This means that the ‘passenger cabin’ could be stretched out between the wheels. The middle seats could be folded down to make a table or even to create a bed.
The driver sat immediately behind the front wheel, making it the first car in the world to have this arrangement – one that is now standard in car design.
The Oeuf Electrique
( 1942 )
Unlike the Stout Scarab, which was designed for luxury and space, the Oeuf Electrique (which is the French for ‘electric egg) was manufactured to reduce weight, space, and materials.
The car was designed by Paul Arzens, who was a citizen of Nazi-occupied Paris. During the occupation, materials were extremely scarce, but Arzens was able to acquire the aluminum and plexiglass required to create his vehicle. The chassis of the Oeuf weighed only 130lbs and the whole car weighed around 750lbs when the motor and a battery is included.
Norman Timbs Special
( 1947 )
Unlike the Oeuf, which was built to be light and maneuvrable, the Norman Timbs special was designed to be fast. Indeed, during the immediate post-war periods, there was a split between European and American designers. Where the former tended to favor small cars, built for driving in the city, the American designers built their cars for the new freeways in the United States.
The Norman Timbs Special fits within this pattern. Norman Timbs was an engineer, who later designed cars for the Indianapolis 500. The car is built for aerodynamics, with sleek waves embedded onto the side of the vehicle.
The exterior is built from aluminum as befits its space-age looks. The covering of the back wheels was also an attempt to reduce drag. Furthermore, it contained a contemporary Buck Straight engine, which meant that it had a top speed of 120 miles per hour.
( 1950s )
Much like the Oeuf Electrique, the BMW Isetta was designed for city driving, particularly in the post-war European market. Like the P50, the Isetta had three wheels and was designed for one person driving, plus one bag of shopping.
The door was mounted on the front of the vehicle, which made getting in and out a tricky maneuver. Despite the inherent impracticality of this car, it played a remarkable role in the history of BMW.
( 1955 )
When one hears the name Messerschmitt, one does not typically think of car design. However, in the immediate post-World War Two period, Messerschmitt was forbidden from manufacturing aircraft, and so turned their expertise to designing cars.
The KR200 is short for Kabinenroller, which means Scooter with cabin; the designer, Fend Flitzer, had previously experienced success selling a car designed for handicapped drivers. When most of these were bought up by able-bodied drivers, Flitzer felt that there was a market for a small, personal car.
Despite the car’s initial success, the lifting of the ban on Messerschmitt’s aircraft production meant that they lost interest in producing cars, and the design was sold to another company. Variations on the KR were produced until the early 1960s – essentially until the German economy had grown enough that cost was no longer the primary factor in car purchases, and more luxury vehicles began to dominate the German market.
Amphicar Model 770
( 1961 )
1961 was the height of the space race, and car designers were increasingly challenging the paradigms of what a car could and should do. It was only natural, therefore, for someone to develop an amphibious vehicle, especially because of the success of amphibious vehicles during the world war less than two decades previously.
( 1962 )
British tax law holds a special category for cars that have three wheels, meaning that their owners weren’t liable to pay the annual road tax. As a result, a number of British manufacturers produced micro-vehicles, designed for urban driving over small distances. The most extreme example of this is a car that looks only partially complete.
The Peel P50 held the world record for the smallest car for over 50 years from its launch in 1962. The car only has space for one person; it is only 41 inches wide and 54 inches long. This made it smaller in volume and width than a standard London red telephone booth.
Lancia Stratos HF Zero
( 1970 )
Unlike the P50, which effectively sacrificed looks for (perceived) practicality, the Lancia Stratos did the reverse. The Lancia Stratos was very much built to represent the company’s future-looking design.
The Lancia was designed in part by the notable Italian designer Marcello Gandini, who was responsible for the large windshield/sunroof.
The car is best known now for its low ground clearance, which prevented it from being able to drive over speed bumps without hitting the front bumper and damaging the underside of the car.
( 2009 )
As evidence for the fact that the small car trend has never gone away, in 2009, Renault debuted the ‘Twizy’ as a concept car.
The car is not only tiny – less than eight feet long, five feet high, and four feet wide, but it is also fully electric. Despite its size, the car is designed for safety.
The protruding wheels and reinforced chassis provide additional strength in case of side impact, and it is possible to add winter tires to the car for driving in icy conditions.
As a nod to the wacky history of these types of vehicles, it is possible to buy electric blankets that plug into the car for driving during the colder months.
The development of electric technology means that the car can ride for 56 miles between charges, and has a top speed of around 60 miles per hour. While not necessarily the best car for anything other than urban driving, the diminutive size means finding parking is unlikely to be an issue.
What this list shows is that good design is about more than aesthetics, it’s about function and practicality. For most of these cars, the specific function that they were designed to do was either too niche or was soon superseded by another piece of technology.
In other cases, the car simply wasn’t effective at completing its task. However, these cars broadly can be divided into two groups.
The first of these are (usually) the American cars, designed for luxury, speed, and generally to be enjoyed. These are more likely to be ‘crazy’ by virtue of their luxury. Luxury, by definition, is impractical; the Stout Scarab was a saloon on wheels, so it’s unsurprising that it didn’t stand the test of time.