These weird cars show what happens when designers ignore the rulebook

Terrafugia Transition
Terrafugia Transition
The great thing about cars is that they come in all shapes and sizes. You can have a tiny Smart Fortwo hatchback or a massive Ford Super Duty pickup truck. You can have a practical Chrysler Pacifica minivan or a decidedly impractical Lamborghini Huracán Performante. Or you can have a weird car — one with three wheels that tilts like a motorcycle, or one that can swim.

These are just some of the weird cars that have made it into production over the years. Some were truly ahead of their times, but others were probably best left on the drawing board. Either way, each of our top 10 strange rides brought something different to the automotive landscape.

Amphicar

Amphibious vehicles are commonplace in the military, but they have never caught on with civilians. The Amphicar shows why that is the case.

It may have been a genuine amphibious car, but the Amphicar proved lackluster on both land and sea. Built in Germany and launched in 1961, it only had a top speed of 70 mph on land (7 knots in the water), and even out of the water it handled like a boat. On the plus side, switching from road-going to amphibious mode was as simple as driving into the water and throwing a lever.

There was likely going to be a big market for amphibious cars, but the Amphicar’s lackluster performance doomed it. The Amphicar cost as much as a Ford Mustang, and we don’t have to tell you which vehicle most people spent their money on. Just 3,378 Amphicars were built before production ended in 1967, although the waterborne convertible is now a cult classic.

Ariel Atom

Ariel Atom 3.5R

Makes of sports cars have been finding creative ways to shed weight for decades, but the Ariel Atom took things to a new level. The driver may be completely exposed to the elements, but the Atom’s skeletal chassis keeps things light, benefitting performance.

U.K.-based Ariel Motor Co. started out building bicycles in 1870, eventually moving onto motorcycles and cars. Before the 2000 launch of the Atom, the company hadn’t built a car in decades. The sports car actually started out as a university engineering project.

The first Atoms used four-cylinder engines from (now-defunct) British automaker Rover, but Ariel has mostly relied on Honda engines since 2003. It also developed a V8-powered Atom, which was capable of 0 to 60 mph in 2.3 seconds and briefly held the Top Gear track record. As if the Atom wasn’t crazy enough, Ariel launched an off-road version called the Nomad in 2015.

Carver One

The Carver One is the perfect vehicle for people who can’t decide whether they want a car or a motorcycle. It rode on three wheels, had an enclosed cabin, and could carry two people, but it could lean into turns like a bike. That made the Carver One agile, but also made it look like it was falling over most of the time.

Despite its amazing abilities, the Carver One never found enough buyers to stay in production. The technology that allowed the Carver One to tilt is now controlled by Carver Technology, and a company has even tried to use the vehicle’s three-wheeled tilting design as the basis for a flying car called the PAL-V One.

Dymaxion

Futurist Buckminster Fuller developed the blimp-shaped Dymaxion car in the 1930s as just one facet of an expansive design philosophy. Dymaxion is a portmanteau of “dynamic maximum tension,” and Fuller applied it to a series of radical inventions, ranging from a futuristic house to a map that depicts all of the continents as one contiguous island.

For his car design, Fuller created a sleek shape that could carry 11 people. A Ford V8 engine powered the two front wheels, while the single rear wheel handled the steering. The car was fairly aerodynamic, and the rear steering made it easy to park, but it also developed a reputation for nasty handling characteristics.

The Dymaxion was actually intended to be the basis for a flying car, but Fuller never got that far. A factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, built three prototypes, one of which survives today, and that was it. Given the number of failed attempts at flying cars, it’s unlikely that the Dymaxion would have gotten off the ground anyway.

Isetta

BMW Isetta 250 Export

After World War II, Europeans were desperate to get back on the road. So desperate, in fact, that they would consider driving cars like the egg-shaped Isetta. The three-wheeled Isetta had barely enough power to get out of its own way, and barely enough space for a driver. Its front-mounted door at least made getting in and out easy — as long as said door wasn’t blocked.

While it’s often referred to as a “BMW Isetta,” this little car wasn’t actually developed by the Bavarian automaker. Italian firm Iso designed the Isetta and built the first examples; BMW was subsequently licensed to build it in Germany. BMW did heavily re-engineer the car, and sales helped keep the company in business during some dire times in the late 1950s. With that in mind, it’s no surprise the Isetta is so closely associated with BMW today.

Messerschmitt KR200

Messerschmitt KR200
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

It’s hard to believe the company that built one of the most feared German fighter planes of World War II — the BF109 — also made this contraption. After the war, Messerschmitt was forbidden from building military hardware, so the factory was turned over to car production. Enter the KR200.

The KR200 was the pinnacle of a series of “Kabinenroller” or “Cabin Scooter” micro cars built by Messerschmitt in the 1950s. Befitting of a car designed by an aircraft manufacturer, it had a canopy instead of a conventional roof and doors. It also had tandem seats, which supposedly improved handling by concentrating weight along the centerline of the car.

Another hint at Messerschmitt’s aircraft-making origins was the steering. Instead of a steering wheel, the driver changed direction using a yoke like one might find in an airplane cockpit. Messerschmitt’s foray into car building was short lived; the KR200 was phased out once the company was allowed to build aircraft again.

Nissan Pulsar NX Sportbak

The 1980s saw the birth of the Transformers franchise, and at roughly the same time Nissan launched its own, less successful, take on the “more than meets the eye” concept.

Named after a type of star that produces deadly waves of radiation, the Nissan Pulsar NX was not all that it seemed. With its wedge shape and pop-up headlights, it looked like any number of 1980s coupes from the front. But at the back, it featured a modular rear hatch that could be removed, turning the Sportbak into the world’s most useless pickup truck. You could also remove the Targa-style roof panels for a convertible-like experience.

It’s unclear what Nissan’s executives were thinking with the Pulsar NX Sportbak, but it’s not surprising that the same company eventually gave us the Murano CrossCabriolet.

Peel P50

Peel P50

The Peel P50 was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s smallest production car, and Jeremy Clarkson famously demonstrated the potential uses of such a small car when he drove through the BBC’s London offices on an episode of Top Gear.

While it may be great for getting around the office, the P50 was never a practical car. It only had enough space inside for a driver and its 49cc gasoline moped engine. Th P50 was always better at publicity stunts than as a practical form of transportation. Fewer than 50 examples were built in the original 1960s production run, but the P50 has become so famous since then that there is an effort to revive it, complete with an electric powertrain option.

Terrafugia Transition

Terrafugia Transition

Terrafugia isn’t the first company to attempt a flying car, but it did flip the script on the concept. Instead of a flying car, the Terrafugia Transition is really an airplane that can drive on the road.

The Transition was designed in part to take advantage of the network of rural airports around the United States. These airports make it possible to fly across the country, but they don’t have the amenities of, say, JFK or LAX. Terrafugia envisioned pilots flying into one of these airports, and then driving to a nearby destination in the same vehicle.

Being more plane than car means the Transition looks like a small hatchback that is towing a bunch of airplane parts. When it’s time to fly, its wings unfold and power is rerouted from the rear wheels to a propeller.

Terrafugia is still working to get the Transition into production, but it’s already thinking about future plans. The company eventually wants to build another machine — called the TF-X — that will more closely resemble the popular image of a flying car, allowing people to fly point to point.

Tramontana

Tramontana XTR

If a Ferrari or Lamborghini is too tame for you, give Tramontana a call. This Spanish boutique automaker builds sports cars that are just plain ridiculous.

The current Tramontana XTR is less ugly than the previous Tramontana R, but it still looks like an angry insect. The interior is just as wacky as the exterior, with tandem seats and gold trim. Not even a Bugatti has that.

The XTR has the performance to back up its lurid design. It’s powered by a 5.5-liter twin-turbocharged Mercedes-Benz V12, which produces 875 horsepower and 678 pound-feet of torque. The engine is mounted behind the two seats, and sends its power to the rear wheels. Tramontana claims the car will do 0 to 62 mph in 3.3 seconds. With performance like that, you can excuse the looks.

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