We get it: Cars aren’t for everybody. For the vast majority out there, they’re just appliances, designed to take us from A to B. But every now and then, a car can transcend and become interesting to more than just gearheads. These are the types of cars we decided to take a look at today.
Keep in mind that adjectives like “expensive” and “fast” don’t always equate to interesting. There are also quite a few one-offs and near-forgotten models out there too. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, we think that these 10 have a story (or stories) that just could pique just about anyone’s interest. Here are 10 classic cars that we think are fascinating.
1. Tucker 48
Of all the interesting cars in the world, the Tucker 48 is the granddaddy of them all. Announced by the charismatic Preston Tucker after World War II, when the American public was clamoring for new cars, this promised to be something completely different. It was powered by a rear-mounted air-cooled six-cylinder engine borrowed from a helicopter. It would have three headlights, with the center one swiveling with the steering wheel. And it would have a number of safety features at a time when Detroit largely ignored anything safety-related.
But it wasn’t to be. The company went under after just 51 cars were built. There were rumors that GM leaned on the government to help take Tucker down, creating endless “what-if” scenarios, and inspiring a 1988 movie about it starring Jeff Bridges. For a car, the Tucker holds a huge place in American pop culture.
2. Volkswagen Beetle
Despite its cutesy looks and dirt cheap price, the Beetle is truly all things to all people. On top of being a cultural icon that was built for 65 years, it’s been the basis for race cars, dune buggies, amphibious vehicles, off-roaders, and countless fiberglass kit cars. There are Beetle restorers, hot-rodders, and collectors all over the world.
Volkswagen’s headquarters, Wolfsburg, was a planned city designed solely around building the Beetle. Vocholandia (or “Beetleland”) is a rough neighborhood in Mexico City, named after its high concentration of the cars. It’s the only pop culture icon that can be associated with both the darkest forces of World War II and the ’60s hippie movement. Drivers of a certain age probably owned or learned to drive in one. Is there anything left to say about the Beetle that hasn’t been said? On top of everything else, that’s what makes the Beetle so interesting: On top of the official story, there are at least 21 million more personal ones out there.
3. DeLorean DMC-12
Everyone knows the DeLorean. But how well do you really know it? Back to the Future and the company founder’s cocaine bust aside, the DMC-12 is just a fascinating car. Its stainless steel body was backed by an innovative fiberglass body structure. Its chassis and suspension were developed by Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus Cars. It featured an innovative crash safety structure. And with its factory built in a Belfast suburb, the company (and British government) hoped that the jobs it created would ease tensions in war-torn Northern Ireland. Alas, it wasn’t to be. But the DeLorean’s story is as cool as the car itself.
4. Chevrolet Corvair
General Motors didn’t get to be what it is today by taking many risks. But the much-maligned Corvair could be the biggest gamble it ever took. The brainchild of Ed Cole (father of the famous Tri-Five Chevys), the Corvair was a rear-engined, air-cooled, European-inspired compact that could be anything from a staid family car to a sports car, cargo van, or even pickup truck. It was initially successful (its youth-oriented Monza model supposedly influenced the Ford Mustang), but it couldn’t compete with Ford’s more traditional subcompact Falcon. By 1962, Chevy launched the Nova and began work on a sportier, niche Corvair. But by the time it was launched in 1965, Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed singled out the Corvair as the embodiment of the auto industry’s indifference to safety. Sales fell off a cliff, and by mid-1969, the Corvair was history.
Ironically, the Corvair would go on to influence a generation of European compacts. In the 1970s, tests largely vindicated the Corvair, proving that it was no more or less safe than any other American car of its era. Today, Chevy’s wild compact has a strong cult following among collectors.
5. McLaren F1
The McLaren F1 is one of those perfect things that deserves all the credit it gets. Launched in 1992, it was race car manufacturer McLaren’s first road car. The F1 could reach at least 217 miles per hour and was the first new car to cost over $1 million. But it’s so much more than just a fast car.
The British supercar was envisioned by engineer Gordon Murray. It features a highly-modified BMW V-12, which was insulated by a gold-lined engine compartment for better heat dissipation. It was the first road car to use a carbon fiber chassis, and features a unique three-seater setup, with the driver sitting front and center, with passengers sitting behind. Just 108 cars were built over a six-year span – including five cars that dominated the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans. Today, they’re the most coveted cars of the 1990s.
6. BMW Z1
The BMW Z3 has become one of the most iconic cars of the ’90s, thanks to its good looks, reasonable popularity, and cameos in movies like James Bond’s Goldeneye. But its predecessor, the Z1, is downright wild.
Launched in 1989, the Z1 was based on the 3 Series, but had plastic body panels that could be swapped out when buyers wanted to change the color of their car. But the Z1’s real party trick was its set of doors that disappeared into the sills. Unfortunately, the Z1 was never sold in America. In Germany, its price made it a considerably slower Porsche 911 competitor. Just 8,000 were built.
7. Rover P6-Series
By the 1960s, it was becoming clear that the British car industry was falling behind. To try and compete with more modern cars coming from Germany and America, Rover launched the P6, its first total clean-sheet design since before World War II. Like the Z1, Rover offered replaceable body panels in different colors, allowing drivers to re-body their cars as much as they liked. Inside, gauges were limited to a pod that sat atop the dash, which could be moved to the left or right sides, depending on the market the cars would be sold in.
The P6 was handsome, quick, and relatively advanced from an engineering standpoint. Despite reasonable success (over 320,000 sold) and a cult following in America, it wasn’t enough to save the British auto industry. By the time it disappeared in 1977, Japanese cars were overtaking domestic cars in Britain. Rover was bought out by BMW in 1994. It disappeared for good in 2005.
8. 1986 Ford Taurus
Sometimes radical ideas make so much sense that they seamlessly fit into the cultural zeitgeist – think tech like the iPhone. In hindsight, the ubiquitous Ford Taurus was dull as dishwater; chances are you grew up around one, or several. But in late 1985, it was a shock to the automotive ecosystem.
In the early 1980s, Ford was still reeling from several costly lawsuits and recalls. The average American sedan was all right angles, rectangular sealed-beam headlights, and hefty chrome bumpers. Then came the Taurus. The fruit of a multibillion-dollar project, the Taurus’ aerodynamic, monochromatic design made it look like something out of the future. Inside, every control was designed to be within reach of the driver and recognizable by touch, to prevent driving distractions. It was front-wheel drive, well-built, reasonably powerful, and pretty cheap. Again, in the ’80s, all this stuff in one package was ground-breaking.
By 1989, it had made Ford financially stable again, selling over one million units. By the 1990s, GM and Chrysler were taking pages from the Taurus playbook. Over 30 years later, it’s still in the DNA of every American sedan on the market.
9. 1970½ Chevrolet Camaro
As beloved as the first-generation Camaro is (especially the 1969 model), let’s face it, it wasn’t that special. The first Camaro was a rush-job Mustang competitor built on a modified Chevy Nova platform. But the second-generation Camaro broke the mold – literally. Under the guidance of GM design chief Bill Mitchell, Chevy’s muscle car was inspired by Italian sports cars, and its complex curved sheet metal was unlike anything that had come out of Detroit before. In fact, one of the major reasons its launch was delayed was because GM’s tooling had to be extensively modified to build something this complex.
Despite a few brief big-block-powered glory years, the second-generation Camaro descended into overwrought Disco-Era glitz before it disappeared in 1981. Still, no self-respecting gearhead should overlook the brilliant styling and big leap forward that the car represented at the dawn of the ’70s.
10. Porsche 911
On paper, the Porsche 911 shouldn’t work. In reality, it’s an automotive legend. Launched in 1964, the 911’s engine hung out behind the rear axle, making the front end incredibly light, and by extension, handling incredibly unpredictable. Within a few years, Porsche was lining the front bumpers with lead weights to compensate for the weight disparity. But by the 1970s, Porsche was already perfecting their quirky sports car. Now-iconic features like the “whale tail” spoiler and front air dam stabilized the car while it introduced even more powerful engines. What’s more, the car was built using the same body shell for 30 years.
Today, the Porsche 911 still has its insanely powerful engine hung out behind the rear axle. But between aerodynamic aids, traction control, engineering tricks, and available all-wheel drive systems, it’s one of the best driver’s cars in the world. Talk about taking a bad idea and making it brilliant.