For most people with modest salaries, cars function more as practical tools than as highly-stylized artistic creations. However, the history of auto manufacturing is chock full of oddities, ranging from the ambitious to the beautiful to the mind-bogglingly impractical. Especially in the early days of the automotive industry, many famous and obscure car designers took inspiration from airplanes, submarines, and even James Bond films to craft cars that defied the imagination.
Many of the vehicles were merely concepts that never became mass-produced and accessible to the general public. Yet, even the vehicles that were unrealistic and scantly produced introduced revolutionary concepts that became staple design elements of future cars.
What happens when creators balance aesthetics, functionality, and their personal vision of the future is one reason we love cars. That’s especially true when the results leave us wondering, “How could anyone think this was a good idea?” Here are 15 of the strangest cars ever designed.
1. 1932 Ford Speedster
The 1932 Ford Speedster, packing a flathead V-8 engine, came with a starter button, decades before the feature became standard automotive fare. The low, long roadster was the brainchild of Henry’s son Edsel Ford and designer Eugene Gregorie.
2. 1934 Voisin C-25 Aerodyne
Like many of his peers on this list, designer Gabrielle Voisin started off making airplanes. After World War I, he turned to cars. Only 28 of the 1934 Voisin C-25 Aerodyne were made, one of which won Best in Show at the 2011 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
3. 1935 Bugatti Type 57S Competition Coupe Aerolithe
The original example of the 1935 Bugatti Type 57S Compétition Coupé Aerolithe, which debuted at the Paris Auto Show in 1935, was lost after the unveiling — the popular explanation is that Bugatti disassembled it for parts to make the Type 57 production car that followed.
4. 1936 Stout Scarab
Designer William Stout, who worked as an aircraft engineer before turning to automobiles, was a pioneer in integrating luxury and leisure into transportation. Stout Air Lines is credited with introducing flight attendants and in-flight meals. The Scarab draws on that idea; it’s a road-going diner car powered by a Ford V-8 tucked in the rear of the stretched aluminum body. The brand never took off, partly because at $5,000 (about $90,000 today), the Scarab was more expensive than the Packards and Cadillacs of those days. Fewer than ten were produced.
5. 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt
The curves on the 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt were inspired by streamliner trains. The car was among the first to have power windows — Chrysler used hydraulic motors to move them. The fully retractable hardtop and button-operated pop-open headlights were also seminal design features that showed up in cars decades later. It was one of the last Art Deco designs before concepts leaned towards futuristic aesthetics.