What makes a car cool? Chiseled body lines, leather bucket seats and staggering acceleration? No, then we would have to include the Bertone Mantide in this list, and that simply isn’t going to happen. A cool car doesn’t have to be fast or pretty, but it does have to set itself apart, whether by charm, purposefulness, style, or just the ability to stir emotion in its drivers. These cars are all completely different, but make the cut for their charisma and insistence on putting a smile on our faces. So here you have it, 10 Oddball cars that even James Dean wouldn’t deny have cool factor.
1973 Lotus Europa JPS
Lotus founder and F1 Team owner Colin Chapman had a mantra around which his company was formed: “Simplify, then add lightness.” Using a suspension design invented in-house and a full fiberglass monocoque body, the first Europa models weighed in at just over 1,300lbs. That’s a good 400 pounds lighter than a VW Beetle of the same era. Fueled by their recent successes in F1 and eager to improve the car further, Lotus released the JPS, or John Player Special version. Equipped with a high-tech twin cam engine and 5-speed gearbox, it was capable of doing 0-60 in a scant 6.6 seconds, and of holding 0.9g on the skidpad, a feat most modern cars still cannot match.
1971 DeTomasso Pantera
With the body of an Italian supermodel and the heart of an American body builder, the DeTomasso Pantera was the complete package. Powered by a mid-mounted 351c.i. Ford V8 making as much as 380hp, the Pantera (Italian for ‘panther’) leapt to 60 mph in 5.5 seconds. Luxury features uncommon for the era such as powered windows, air conditioning and the monstrous low-end torque of the engine made the car a pleasure to drive, and the drop-dead gorgeous steel monocoque chassis and refined driver-centric interior almost made you forgive its unwillingness to remain in running condition.
1955 Lancia Aurelia
A tribute to Italian carmakers’ ingenuity and eccentricity, the Lancia Aurelia was a glorious combination of high-tech innovation and boyish good looks. Available as a sedan, a coupé, a convertible or this spider, this Grand Tourer exudes class, and played what is arguably the starring role in Dino Rissi’s film “The Easy Life.” A V6 engine with hemispherical heads, uncommon for its time, sent power to a rear-mounted transaxle (a design later adopted, and still used, by the Corvette). Also rear mounted were the clutch and flywheel (later adopted by Porsche in the 968), and inboard mounted rear brakes (later adopted by the Jaguar E-Type).
1967 Mazda Cosmo
No list of oddball cars would be complete without a rotary-powered Mazda. Using eccentrically spinning triangular rotors in lieu of pistons, the Cosmo was the first production vehicle to be released with the revolutionary (get it?) Wankel engine. The unique styling of the car, with covered recessed headlamps, flat and low rear end, and split taillights, may not be as iconic a shape as its rival, the Toyota 2000GT, but the impact the Cosmo had on future design and on the racing pedigree of Mazda is unequalled. The rotary engine, updated but largely the same basic design, still powers Mazda’s leading sports cars.
1957 Citroen 2CV
With a look that even its mother would have to fake a smile about, the 2CV was the epitome of utilitarianism. Originally conceived in 1936, with the idea dating as far back as 1922, it wasn’t until 1948 that Citroen’s ultimate economy car hit the market. Designed with the poor rural farmer in mind, the 2CV was created to get you from A to B, no matter the road condition, for as little money as possible, period. It featured an air-cooled, horizontally-opposed two cylinder engine that made a shockingly low 12hp, but the car was so popular that it remained in production for 42 years.
1957 BMW Isetta 300
Originally designed by Italian automaker Iso Autoveicoli, BMW production of the Isetta began in 1955. The German automaker redesigned the so-called “Bubble car,” using many of their own motorcycle parts for the single-cylinder engine. With the line-topping model making 13hp, the Isetta was no runner. It did however, get up to 70mpg while cruising at a comfortable 53 mph, and the forward-swinging door is just plain cool. It’s an undeniable quirky classic, though you might want to consider the social implications of driving Steve Urkel’s car before trading in the Prius.
1969 Reliant Regal
In automotive design, sometimes less is more. Reliant Motor Company’s Reliant Regal took that adage to its logical conclusion by doing away with frivolous items, such as a fourth wheel. The Regal (and successor the Robin), made famous by the likes of the BBC’s “Mr. Bean” and “Top Gear” (and Newton’s “Laws of Motion” for its uncanny ability to topple over at will), is a quaint little tribute to a minimalist approach. Built to be as lightweight and economical as possible, the Regal and its brother the Supervan were a hit in Great Britain, and have grown to become the automotive equivalent of a cult classic.
1975 AMC Pacer
American Motor Company had long been a group of forward-thinkers. Frequently, they implemented technologies and safety features years before the “Big Three” American auto manufacturers did, and the Pacer was a testament to this design mentality. AMC’s new compact was designed entirely around the passengers, with the intention of being more comfortable and spacious than any other car in its class. Touted as “the first wide small car,” it was just as wide as a full-size American car of the era, and only slightly longer than a Cortina. The aerodynamic body looked like nothing else in 1975, and features like hideaway windscreen wipers and a passenger door longer than the driver door set it apart.
1970-1974 Bond Bug
If you think you have never seen a Bond Bug before, dust off your VHS of “A New Hope” and have a look at Luke Skywalker’s land speeder. Yep, built off of a Bug. Originally designed from a hacked up Reliant Regal, the Bond Bug was an attempt to make a 3-wheeled car fast(ish) and fun. With better acceleration than a Mini Cooper and a top speed higher than the limit in England, the 1970 motorist could easily toss around a Bug with a smile on his face. The handling was…well, it didn’t try to flip over, anyway. With a canopy-style hatch for ingress and a sharp wedge shape, it was the future incarnate.
1973 Citroen SM
As we saw earlier, Citroen has never much cared about what other manufacturers were doing. The engine and transmission were installed backwards, placing the transmission between the front wheels and the engine tucked up into the firewall. Why? Because they could. Tech like variable power steering, automatically adjusting windscreen wipers, and autolevelling suspension and headlights put the SM way ahead of its time. And immediate success in rally racing and an in-class land speed record of 202 mph with a turbocharged purpose-built variant proved that it wasn’t all fluff. The SM manages to be incredibly sleek, yet still have that endearing 70s boxyness that defines cars of the era.