In the midst of the mid-2000s retro craze, the Chevrolet development team came up with the crazy idea to produce a nostalgic two-seater convertible pickup with muscle car performance. The result was the SSR, a vehicle that looked unlike any other car on the market, but not necessarily in a good way. The 1950s-inspired design didn’t work well, so the SSR looked just plain odd.
Despite many efforts to make the SSR appealing to their intended audience, Chevrolet managed to sell just around 24,000 of these oddballs. The SSR was a painful realization they needed much more than a wild imagination to make a concept work.
If you think the automobile industry has invented all the car classes, think again. There is always room for more, although possibly useless concepts. One of those was Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet. If you’re not familiar with this car, that’s because they only offered it for sale from 2011 to 2014, producing it in small numbers.
Nissan realized SUVs were becoming more luxurious as people wanted a more personalized product. They thought they would take things a step further and present a convertible SUV. It would have all advantages of an SUV in terms of ride height, comfort, and usability with the luxury and open-air feel of a convertible. However, despite the almost bespoke nature of this car and dependable Nissan technology, the CrossCabriolet flopped. Obviously, there wasn’t a market for SUV convertibles, so the CrossCabriolet became Nissan’s newest black sheep.
The second generation of Ford Mustang debuted in 1974 and was on the market for four years until 1978. Despite the fact it was a subject of so many jokes and bad press, the Mustang II was actually a very important model. The downsizing of the whole Mustang range, the introduction of economical four-cylinder engines, and part sharing with other Ford models helped the model survive the recession of the ’70s and the death of the muscle car movement.
But all of that doesn’t mean there were no exciting Mustangs between 1974 and 1978; they just were slow. There was one particularly exciting model, and this was the special-edition King Cobra. Ford knew that their 5.0 V8 engine made only 140 hp in Mustang II, and the performance was very slow, but they also knew that by dressing up the car, they could attract some buyers. So the King Cobra was introduced. With a flaming snake on the hood, front and rear spoilers, and full body kit, the King Cobra was a typical ’70s factory custom car. The 5.0 V8 was mated to a four-speed manual transmission in an attempt to make a performance car. Needless to say, the performance was not great. In fact, it was terrible, but the outrageous body kit stole the show, and today the King Cobra is considered a collector’s item.
For decades, engineers toyed with the idea of a floating car, a vehicle that could be driven on the water as well on the roads. However, most of them decided that it was not worth the trouble of investing in running (or floating) prototypes and abandoned the idea, except for Amphicar.
The Amphicar was a German-made half car half boat produced from 1961 to 1965. Immensely popular in the States, it sold over 3,500 examples. The power came from diminutive 1.2-liter four-cylinder engines powered the rear wheels and propeller mounted in the back. On land, Amphicar could achieve up to 75 mph, and on the water, it could do seven knots. To be perfectly honest, Aphicar wasn’t much of a boat or much of a car either.
Hot Rod culture is one of the key ingredients of the American automotive landscape. However, no company ever dared to present a factory-built Hot Rod until 1997 when Plymouth presented the Prowler, a retro-futuristic roadster with a V6 engine and fantastic looks.
Imagined as the follow-up of the Viper, the Prowler was the hit on the show circuit, and Chrysler wanted to capitalize on that. However, despite some people like the looks, everyone thought the car was underpowered. Ultimately it was a hot rod without any power, which buyers found quite pointless.
Built in Czechoslovakia, in the ’50s, the Velorex Oskar was one of the strangest cars ever to be produced behind the Iron Curtain. A motorcycle company produced it, so it was kind of a three-wheeled bike more than a real car.
It was powered by a 300 ccm motorcycle engine with 6 HP, and since the car itself was extremely light, this tiny motor even produced some performance as well. Interestingly, the Velorex didn’t have body panels, but canvas stretched over the frame rails.
The Mercedes G-Class is one of the longest-running models in the car world. First introduced in 1979 as a primarily military off-road SUV and truck, it is still on the market with the same basic design. It survived many modifications and redesigns during the course of almost 40 years but never changed its distinctive appearance and basic mechanical layout.
So, what do you do when you cannot modify the model anymore and can’t make it more exclusive? Simple, just attach a pickup truck bed and install one more axle and make it the fastest, most expensive, and rarest 6X6 in the world. Mercedes did exactly that creating one monster of a truck. Monster by power and torque ratings and monster by sticker price too. Under the hood is the 5.5-liter twin-turbo engine with 540 hp, which delivers power to all six wheels through a specially built automatic transmission unit.
Back in the early ’90s, Subaru wanted to enter the sports car market and promote its most significant assets of all-wheel drive and flat-six engines. So, the company hired Italdesign to design sleek and modern coupe. In 1991 the SVX debuted with strange styling, complicated side window patents but sublime handling and excellent performance.
However, the car was massive. The attempt was also introduced at the same time as much more competent competitors from other brands, which made Subaru kind of redundant. Under the hood was a 3.3-liter flat-six, which propelled this rare car to 7.3 seconds 0 to 60 mph times. Only around 14,000 were sold in America until 1996.
Younger enthusiasts don’t remember the name Panoz. Yet back in the ’90s, this company was one of the best known limited production American brands. Successful in racing, Panoz was one of those brands that offered many racing technologies in street-legal vehicles, which made them favorites with performance driving fans.
The Roadster model was introduced in the early ’90s and represented the modern-day version of the legendary Shelby Cobra. It was a pretty stripped-down open-top two-seater built of aluminum, which kept its weight down. Panoz used a lot of Ford Mustang components, including the engine, drivetrain, and suspension, which meant that the Roadster had 300 HP and amazing performance.
Even before retro was a thing, Nissan presented a very influential and crazy-looking compact model called the Pao. It was for sale on the Japanese market only, and all models came in right-hand drive configuration.
The design kind of resembled the Austin Farina or Mini, but underneath the body, the Pao was an advanced car with independent suspension and 52 HP engine. It was sold for just three years between 1989 and 1991, with over 50,000 made.
Daihatsu is one of the prime manufacturers of Kei Cars with its entire range dedicated to those small vehicles. Their most exciting model is definitely the Copen, a tiny roadster. If you want to visualize what Copen is like, try Miata but the half size.
The Copen is introduced in the early 2000s and is in its second generation. As expected, the 660 cc engine is under the hood, and power is below 70 HP mark. However, the turbocharged engine is highly tunable, and if you want, you can get some pretty lively performance from this compact roadster.
One of the unique ’80s cars was Nissan’s Pulsar in the NX Sportbak package. This car’s idea is to combine a regular two-door coupe with a wagon body style but not in a Shooting Brake kind of way. Nissan decided to make a standard coupe but add body extensions, which transformed the Pulsar Sportbak into a wagon.
Introduced in 1986, Pulsar Sportbak did receive some attention from car enthusiasts, but eventually, people turned to more conventional coupe styling, and wagon canopy addition was less desirable. The model was discontinued in 1990 and still remains one of the strangest production cars ever made.
The venerable K-Car platform saved Chrysler from bankruptcy in the early ’80s, and the company used it for most models in its lineup. Minivans and compact sedans were built on it, and it was cheap and easy to produce. However, in 1986 Chrysler decided to introduce a luxury convertible called the Le Baron.
Not only that, 2.2-liter four-cylinder wasn’t the best choice for the car, but Chrysler’s stylist also gave the Le Baron faux wood panels on the side, mimicking the classic ’50s and ’60s station wagons. The crazy and ludicrous mix of styles featured on this car turned off many buyers, and Chrysler sold only less than 2,000 copies.
At first glance, the Toyota Sera looks like a generic Japanese compact from the early ’90s, but drivers can see why this little car is so special when you open the door. Conceived on a regular Corolla platform powered by a standard 1.5-liter four-cylinder, Sera is technically a regular car. Still, the design and technical solutions of the cabin, doors, and roof are unique.
The Sera project was kind of a design exercise to show the world how a boring compact car can be transformed into a design marvel. In order to do so, Toyota installed a glass canopy, which partially opened with butterfly-style doors very rarely seen on anything except for the McLaren F1 supercar. This feature’s production was very demanding, and Toyota needed special tools and machines to fabricate door mechanisms and make a specially curved glass. However, Toyota’s engineers managed to pull it off, and the Sera was introduced in 1990 and stayed in production until 1996, during which time over 16,000 were made. Unfortunately, almost all sold exclusively in Japan.
The 1985-87 Nissan MID 4 is a courageous and competent mid-engine sports car concept, which unfortunately didn’t become the production model. Even though it is mostly forgotten today, it is still a fascinating engineering piece that deserves a better look.
The MID 4 had a mid-mounted 3.0-liter V6 engine with around 200 HP, specially designed all-wheel drive, and almost perfect weight balance. Nissan envisioned it to fight sports cars from Ferrari and Porsche. Unfortunately, the company pulled the plug at the last moment, and MID 4 was left as a concept that influenced the Honda NSX.