The auto industry is a weird place. On the one hand, you have numerous models that come out year after year, looking mostly similar and with a clear design that eschews anything resembling a risk or divergent concept. Then, on the other hand, you have the occasional oddball, the strange and unusual that you never expect to see, and yet it gets conceived, designed, and actually made – even if only as a concept. If you’re interested in checking out some of the strangest cars ever built, then you’re in luck.
To be fair, there are dozens more vehicles that I could list here, especially when you look at concepts and test models that never went into production. I decided to focus on the ones that really stand out to me for one reason or another – mostly to keep this little overview to a manageable size. Just know this: there are plenty more out there that I’m not going to look at today, so feel free to let me know if I left off your favorite wacky ride. Now, let’s consider some of the choicest of strange vehicles.
#1 – The 1948 Tucker Torpedo
First off, we have one man’s dream of what a car could be – the Tucker 48, lovingly referred to as the Tucker Torpedo. Conceived as the brainchild of one Preston Tucker in the 1940s, this car had a number of forward-thinking developments, from a third headlight that would turn with the steering wheel to illuminate your path to a rear engine and rear-wheel drive. Only 50 of these beauties were ever made, as Tucker’s company was dragged into a financing investigation that ultimately did irreparable damage to the brand.
#2 – The 1951 GM Le Sabre
Not to be confused with the Buick LeSabre that came about several years later, the 1951 Le Sabre from GM was a concept car that proved incredibly influential after it was revealed. This stunner included features like a wrap-around windshield and tail fins, which were both inspired by aircraft design. These kinds of elements became pretty widespread on cars by the end of the decade, and for the most part, they all owe their origins to this concept. It even had a water detector that would automatically raise its convertible top if rain was detected – 70 years ago!
#3 – The 1953 General Motors Firebird 1
Also referred to as the XP-21, this was the first of four concept vehicles designed for auto shows in 1953, 1956, and 1959. Never intended to be a production car, the Firebird 1 instead offered a look at the kind of power, engineering, and design that cars could theoretically handle. The Firebird 1 was designed by the same man who created the aircraft-inspired look of the Le Sabre and featured a bubble-top canopy and single-seat cockpit. It was basically a small jet fighter on wheels that was powered by a 370 hp Whirlfire gas turbine engine and looks exactly how you would expect from that description.
#4 – The 1955 Ghia Streamline X “Gilda”
Although there have been plenty of strange concept cars created over the years, few offer so bold a design as the Ghia Streamline X “Gilda” (named for a Rita Hayworth movie). Designed by Italian auto designer Giovanni Savonuzzi of the design firm Carrozzeria Ghia at the request of Chrysler, this unique piece of engineering featured a simple 1.5L engine – but this was only after they were unable to make the originally-planned jet turbine engine work. It has a sleek, narrow design with rear fins that are unmistakably from the 1950s, even though it looked well out of place even in its day.
#5 – The 1956 Buick Centurion
Not to be confused with the eventual replacement for the Buick Wildcat in the 1970s (which was also called the Centurion), this original namesake was a concept car shown off in 1956. It has a long red-and-white fiberglass body that includes numerous swooping lines and soft shapes. The interior was influenced by aircraft design, with a spacious cockpit topped by a clear, bubble roof that feels straight out of a sci-fi movie (or cartoon). Perhaps most remarkable about this oddity is that it featured the first rear backup camera, a full 60 years before they would become mandated here in the US.
#6 – The 1959 Cadillac Cyclone
Although the Tucker might’ve been called the Torpedo, this car more fully lives up to its name. Built in 1959 as a concept car to show off another strange piece of engineering, this unique beauty features a pair of front cones that jut out from the front-end where headlights would normally be. There were so many strange things about this car that it’s hard to know where to start: from its silver coating to its bubble-top canopy that opened automatically along with its sliding electrically operated doors. Perhaps wildest of all, however, is that those nose cones housed radar sensors that allowed it to detect vehicles and utilize collision-avoidance technology, safety features that have only now become popular more than 60 years later.
#7 – The 1962 Peel P50
Flashy and bizarre concept cars are one thing – they’re made to show off new tech or crazy design ideas – but weird production vehicles are something else entirely. The Peel P50 was first released in 1962 and sold through 1965 in the UK – though only about 50 were made during that time. Still, this is the Guinness World Records-holder for the smallest production car ever made: it measures 54 inches long, 39 inches wide, and weighs just 130 lbs. It has a seat for one person, and that’s it – powered by a 0.05L 4.2hp engine (you read that right), the P50 has a top speed of 37 mph. Best of all, it can’t actually reverse; to go backward, you have to lift up the rear of the vehicle by a handle and physically move it back, then you lower it, hop in, and hit the road!
#8 – The 1970 Ferrari 512S Modulo
There are cars, there are concept cars, and then there’s this thing. Shown off at the 1970 Geneva Motor Show, the Ferrari 512S Modulo is a concept car that was clearly inspired by an encounter with an alien spacecraft. It has a distinct wedge design with a canopy-style glass room that actually slides forward when someone needs to get in or out of it. This model has won more than 20 awards for its design since it was first shown off, and while it’s not a car you’ll own anytime soon, there’s no denying that it’s unique.
#9 – The 1973 Reliant Robin
Although certainly weird, I actually really like this thing: the Reliant Robin is a British car that was available in numerous generations over several decades. The Mk. 1 was released in 1973 and featured a 0.75L engine and, perhaps most remarkably, a three-wheel design. That’s right: it has two wheels in the back and one in the center-front. Despite this strange design, it was actually quite popular in England and was the second-most popular fiberglass car in history. This body and its shape have earned it the affectionate nickname, “Plastic Pig,” and I’m actually quite fine with that.
#10 – The 1982 DMC DeLorean
Considering the litany of concept cars that have mostly made up this retrospective, you might find such a well-known model to be a strange choice. Without a certain popular film trilogy, however, the DMC DeLorean would likely be long disposed of on the scrapheap of history. Sometimes referred to as the DMC-12, this car featured gullwing doors (as I’m sure you know) along with a brushed stainless-steel outer body that provides its truly distinct look. Financial troubles ultimately resulted in the downfall of the DeLorean Motor Company, and only about 9,000 of these were ever made. Thanks to the adventures of a mad scientist and his best friend, the DeLorean will never be forgotten.