Not every car is a winner ...
Automotive manufactures have drafted all sorts of interesting car designs over the years. For every winning design, however, there's likely several that are bogged down with strange choices or unsafe technology. So, we're looking at five peculiar trends in automotive engineering and why you can't readily purchase them today.
Amphibious Cars Take Off-Roading to a Whole New Level
Amphibious cars (or car boats) began to emerge around the 1920s. Although they have consistently been considered a niche product, WWII saw a sudden renewed interest in developing hybrid vehicles that could drive comfortably on both land and water. The general premise behind car boats has remained fairly constant: build a boat frame and add a car chassis.
The amphibious car movement captured Europe's imaginations in 1965 when four Englishmen drove to the Frankfurt Auto Show by way of the English Channel. Customs authorities in France were notified of the event only hours before. When the drivers arrived on the shores of Calais, they instantly became local celebrities. Crowds gathered and used massive nylon ropes to tow them across the beach before sending them off to Germany.
On the other side of the Atlantic ocean, former president Lyndon B. Johnson supposedly would use his own amphibious car to prank friends. He would offer to take them out for a joyride before pretending to lose control of the vehicle as it sped down a hill towards the lake. After his passengers inevitably jumped out for fear of a crash, Johnson would calmly pilot his car in a few relaxed loops around the lake before returning to shore.
While amphibious cars are certainly safer and more practical than some of the later entries on this list, they've never quite found a place within the consumer car market. Costs associated with waterproofing the car and installing nautical components often push vehicles well out of affordable price ranges. Most people need cars and many use boats, but it seems that too few want both at the same time.
Monowheels Turn a Single Flat Tire Into a Serious Issue
If you thought unicycling looked intimidating, try being inside the wheel and traveling at highway speeds.
Enter: The Monowheel.
These awkward-looking vehicles were once thought of as a possible replacement for bikes, motorcycles, and even cars. The underlying belief was that focusing on a single wheel for propulsion offered a considerable reduction in size, weight, and engineering considerations.
Most modern vehicles will split functions up across multiple wheels. In bicycles, one wheel provides the propulsion and another provides the steering. This design is seen in cars with rear-wheel drives, along with most industrial machinery. Reducing everything to a single wheel means that this wheel needs to accelerate, steer, brake, and support the rider all on its own. While some modern monowheels have been able to reach 60 MPH, the thrill of going fast is quickly offset by difficulty steering and a lack of effective brakes.
The earliest mechanized monowheels came from Europe in the 1930s. There was an initial excitement over the implications that the vehicle had for public transit, but it ultimately failed to replace cars as a primary mode of transportation. This is likely because while monowheel designs vary greatly, they all share a common feature: it's dangerously easy to fall over.
Plane Cars Give New Reasons to Be Afraid of Flying
The first attempt at manufacturing a flying consumer car was in 1917 with the Curtiss AutoPlane. Its aluminum frame sported three wings and featured a whopping 40' wingspan and a four-bladed propeller mounted on the rear. Although it never truly flew (and was only capable of making short hops off the ground), it signaled that attempts to make consumer cars airborne would always exist on the fringes of the industry.
Flying cars have fascinated engineers well through the 20th century and into the present day. Recently, Uber announced goals to have its own version by 2026. Their vision is for fully electric personal aircraft that use VTOL engines, meaning they can take off and land vertically. While the fantasy of avoiding traffic jams by simply flying over them is appealing, critics argue that core concerns about the safety of personal compact aircraft are years away from being meaningfully addressed.
Soaring through the skies for your morning commute sounds exciting, but that sense of wonder quickly fades away when envisioning an airborne rush hour. Car crashes are already dangerous and getting into a car crash several hundred feet into the air is even worse. Additionally, removing traffic from static roads on the ground risks aircraft collisions with buildings, something that critics say will need to be firmly addressed before the concept is viable.
Retrofuturist Cars Celebrated the Space Age
America during the 1960s had a fascination with the future. The Space Race of the Cold War was in full swing, and people were excited to embrace a future full of atomic power, robotic housekeepers, and interstellar travel. This era saw a massive boom of optimistic science fiction that would try and guess what sort of luxuries awaited the people of tomorrow. The Jetsons started airing during this time and is considered some of the most prominent imagery of the movement.
It's no surprise that this rush to embrace the aesthetics of tomorrow influenced car designs from this era. Multiple car companies abandoned the aesthetics of the '50s in favor of designs that resembled fighter jets and rocket ships.
For instance, the Cadillac Cyclone shown above mounted two large radar cones on the front of the car. These devices scanned the road ahead and notified the driver of any incoming objects using a series of blinking lights on the dashboard. The car also had electrically sliding doors, a feature that would later be embraced in minivans. Although the car is now remembered for being ahead of its time, it suffered the same fate as many other attempts at building futuristic vehicles: building one was just too expensive to turn a profit.
The 1970 Lancia Stratos Zero ... Exists ...
While the 1970 Lancia Stratos never saw mass production (less than 500 are estimated to be in circulation today), it's the bizarre design and warm reception by the automotive community make it a poster child for questionable car choices. This oddity was the brainchild of Marcello Gandini, an Italian car designer who had previously done work on the Lamborghini Miura. When Gandini brought the first Zero model into the Lancia factory, he simply drove it under the gates to get in.
You read that right. This car is only 33 inches off the ground, making it one of the lowest cars ever produced. The car is so low, in fact, that it has no side doors. Instead, drivers must open up the windshield to enter. As one might imagine, the car's cabin is cramped, forcing drivers to partially lie down in order to properly fit inside. During initial safety testing, the car was considered dangerous because it was so low to the ground that bikers were sometimes unable to notice it. To the best of our knowledge, it is the only car to ever have that distinction.
The Stratos models that eventually found their way to showroom floors looked fundamentally different from the Zero. Critics praised the design for looking like a singular hunk of metal but ultimately couldn't find many productive directions to take the concept. As a result, the Lancia Stratos Zero now exists mostly in galleries and private collections.
Do you know of any other strange automobiles? Let us know in the comments below!