The Ugliest Cars of the 1950s
In an era of questionable design, these poorly-penned pontoons are particularly unpleasant.
Ah, the 1950s—the decade that gave us brutalist architecture and some of the gaudiest cars the world has ever seen. The post-war economy was roaring, the citizenry was eager to fill its newly-bought houses with bright and shiny things, and the automakers pretty much fell all over each other to offer the most glitz and glam possible. Many of the cars of that era were memorable, some were quite beautiful, but others were simply hideous—and it's those four-wheeled beasties that we're talking about today. Here are fifteen of the ugliest cars from the 1950s.
1950 Nash Rambler
The Rambler is widely acknowledged to be the first successful American compact—but it certainly didn't succeed based on its looks. A product of the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation, it's pretty clear to us that while the car folks from Nash did the engineering, it was the refrigerator folks from Kelvinator who did the styling. Nash introduced the skirted "bathtub" body in 1949, and while it looked cool (if a bit dated) on the big cars, when applied to the little Nash Rambler it just seemed a bit dire. With its barely-exposed wheels, the Rambler looked more like a toy car writ large than a real car writ small. No wonder Americans of the 1950s came to believe that bigger inherently meant better.
1950 Studebaker Starlight Coupe
Remember in the first Harry Potter movie, when Professor Quirrell took off his turban and there was another face on the back of his head? Well, the Studebaker Starlight Coupe reminds us of that—it looks like two different cars going in opposite directions at the same time. The Starlight was an expansion of the business coupe, a two-seat, long-trunk body style popular with traveling salesmen. The Starlight added a back seat and four giant windows, and the arrangement of the glass seems to have inspired the Boeing 707's windshield—except Boeing chose to stick it on the front of their plane instead of the back. We were shocked to learn that this confused-looking contraption was penned by Virgil Exner, Sr., whose 1955 "Forward Look" Chryslers are among the best-looking vehicles of the decade.
1952 Bond Minicar
The Bond Minicar was a British three-wheeler designed for the ultimate in thriftiness: It could be driven on a motorcycle license, cost less in taxes than a four-wheel car, and used barely any fuel, mostly because it had barely any engine. The original Bond Minicar of 1959 wasn't a terrible looking vehicle—actually, it was kind of cute—but in 1952 someone decided it would be a good idea to style faux front fenders that only seemed to highlight the lack of individual front wheels and, by extension, the Bond driver's poverty. They could have accomplished the same ends with a big neon sign that said "Look at me, I can't afford a proper car!"—though with only eight horsepower from its single cylinder, it's doubtful the Bond's engine could produce enough power to light it up.
In 1951, Nash-Kelvinator partnered with budding British carmaker Healey to produce a rather attractive two-seat roadster with a Nash powerplant. But a year after its debut, Nash decided a restyle was in order, so they got in touch with Battista "Pinin" Farina. Nash must not have paid him enough, because this is what he did to it. The body shape isn't bad—it's largely a copy of the '51—but a grille and headlights crammed inboard of the front fenders makes the Nash-Healey look as if it's in the process of swallowing another car. The Healey kept this bizarre look until it was discontinued in '54, but the bad idea lived on—Nash ported it to their full-size '55 Ambassador.
1953 Kaiser Dragon
The early-'50s Kaiser was already a strange-looking car with its double-arched windshield and chromed "Darrin dip" on the rear doors. But Kaiser ascended to the next level of unattractiveness with the '53 Dragon, which featured an embossed and padded "dragon skin" vinyl roof, gold brightwork, and a pen-and-ink-drawn "Bambu" pattern for the vinyl interior—a harbinger of the overwrought design which was on its way from every automaker. Take a closer look at this example from BringATrailer.com and revel in the gaudiness. And if you're hankering for something unexpected, here's a press shot of a 1953 Kaiser Manhattan driving down a set of stairs.
Buicks of the mid-'50s were among the better looking of General Motors' cars, what with their natty portholes and rounded rear wheel arches, but it would seem that front end was left to the more disgruntled of GM's stylists. All four Buick models—Special, Century, Super and Roadmaster—looked like they existed in a permanent state of misery. With their droopy headlight bezels and grimacing grilles, the cars didn't look angry or aggressive or even grief-stricken; rather they seemed to be clinically depressed about their dreary lot in life. If the '54 Buick could talk, we're pretty sure it wound sound exactly like the original version of Marvin the Paranoid Android. Thankfully, by 1954 the era of the year-by-year model change was in full swing, and the 1955 Buick got a prettier face to go with its beautiful body.
1954 Nash Rambler Cross Country
We'll admit to being impressed: We didn't think it was possible for the second-generation Nash Rambler to be less attractive than the 1950 original, but when Nash grafted a flat-topped cargo bay behind the Rambler sedan's arched roof, well, they sure proved us wrong! If buyers of the 1950s had any doubt that Nash was building cars on the cheap, this dumpy little wagon certainly set them to rights. Funnily enough, the wagon-on-the-cheap styling never really died: Exactly fifty years later, Infiniti copied this ridiculous roofline for its giant-sized QX56, and it didn't look any better in the 21st century than it did in the 20th.
1955 BMW Isetta
We know, we know—the Iso (later BMW) Isetta is a revolution in automotive packaging, so of course it looks different. Okay, fine—but did it have to be so ugly? The Isetta has all the grace of a bug that has already been squashed—perhaps an apt metaphor, as that is precisely what the occupants would look like after a collision with anything more substantial than a cardboard box. We can't even blame German practicality for the Isetta's unusual look, because the car was originally designed by Iso, an Italian company that built refrigerators before WWII, and was apparently looking for something to do with all those left-over fridge doors. (The Iso version had a different headlight design and a different window arrangement that made it look… well, different.) Happily, Iso fobbed its bubblemobile off to the Germans and went on to produce much prettier things.
1955 Messerschmitt KR200
The Germans are very smart. After World War II, Messerschmitt was banned from making aircraft, so it turned to cars—though covered scooter is a better description of the KR200 (and close to what KR—Kabinenroller—really means). The aircraft influence is obvious, although considering the taildragger's inherent lack of stability, one wonders why Messerschmitt would engineer something that better serves the demands of gravity when placed on its side. Slow, noisy, hard to steer, and prone to imitating its aircraft ancestors when driven quickly over potholes, the KR200 was the perfect vehicle for a country in the process of punishing itself. And apparently the ruse worked: Once it was clear that the KR200 was the best Messerschmitt could do, it was soon allowed to go back to manufacturing airplanes. See, we told you the Germans are smart!
1956 Studebaker Hawk
The 1953 Studebakers penned by Robert Bourke of Raymond Loewy's design studio are among the prettiest cars of the 1950s, but the 1956 update looks as if it was penned by the Robert Bork of the Saturday Night Massacre. With a tombstone grille, egregious chrome clutter, and vestigial fins that grew to intolerable dimensions in 1957, the Hawks proved that the 1950s could ruin pretty much anything. There were several variants of the Hawk and it's hard to say which is the ugliest: The 1958 Golden Hawk shown here is the champion of chintz (though its supercharged V-8 was pretty neat), but the Packard Hawk, with a tacked-on Citroen-DS-like fiberglass nose, might be slightly more terrible, a design as unbalanced as Theodore Kaczynski after a twelve-pack.
1956 Tatra 603
We love almost everything about the Tatra 603, not least of all its streamlined shape and rear-mounted air-cooled V-8 engine—but you don't have to be pretty to be lovable, and the Tatra 603 proves that. From its triclops-eye headlight design up front to the Western hedonism of its two-tone paint job to the oversized air scoops out back, the Tatra 603 is a delicious smorgasbord of awkward styling cues. The Czechs would continue to refine the 603 right through the mid-60s, making it more outlandish with every revision, and we adore every dorky inch of every one. Unfortunately, its replacement was more conservative, but Tatra, bless their oversteering souls, continued to build big rear-engine cars right up until the turn of the century.
1957 Studebaker Champion Scotsman
If you've ever wondered what cars of the 1950s might have looked like had the whole chromegasm not happened, take a look at Studebaker's entry-level Scotsman. This painfully parsimonious sedan is as unadorned as a car can get, with a stamped-steel grille, painted hubcaps, and painted cardboard door panels that didn't even get armrests. The mechanical situation was just as dire: A flathead six with a three-speed manual that struggled to make 60 mph in 20 seconds and vacuum windshield wipers that slowed to a crawl when the engine was under load. A heater was optional and a radio wasn't offered. Topping it all off was a name that reflected the casual racism of the era—always something fun to remind your friends about when they start pontificating about how great the 1950s were.
Considering the general gaudiness of late-50s American automobiles—and the ugliness of the 1958 models from all Ford divisions in particular—it's almost amazing that the style-challenged citizenry picked out the 1958 Edsel for a rarified level of ridicule. Or is it? No matter which Edsel model you consider—the bigger Citation and Corsair or the smaller Ranger and Pacer—the front end is awful, in particular the wide-set headlights and the center grille, which folks publicly likened to a horse collar while privately noting its vague resemblance to a lady's intimate bits. The giant convex quarter panels looked as if they were weighing down the back of the car, and viewing an Edsel in profile (particularly the convertible) one has to wonder if a good bump would be enough to break the car in two. As badly built as they were styled, the Edsel taught the Ford Motor Company that failure was, in fact, an option. Two years after the cars were foisted on the public, Ford announced that the brand would get the axe.
1958 Oldsmobile 98
If you like '50s excess, 1958 was a good year for Chevrolet, Buick, and Pontiac (and OK for Cadillac, though 1959 was much, much better). But what the hell happened at Oldsmobile? It looks as if the body-trim shop exploded, splattering the clay model with random chunks of chrome. We can't decide which is worse, the speed-streaked mascara look of the headlights, the model train tracks tramping their way down the quarter panel, or the random assortment of oddly-shaped chrome bits placed on the trunk lid apparently without the aid of common tools such as eyesight. General Motors styling of the era tended to be a cut above others—note how few GM products there are on this list—but the '58 Olds 98 is simply wrong, wrong, wrong.
1959 Ford Anglia
Britain is known for suffering stoically; witness the 1959 Ford Anglia, a visual disaster that assaulted Anglican eyes for the better part of a decade, and did they complain? Not once. There is just so much wrong with the Anglia, from its saggy roofline to its reverse-slanted rear window to its truncated trunk—a collection of styling miscues that only enhanced the awkwardness of its tall-and-narrow proportions. If you ever wondered why Britons were such early enthusiasts of public transportation, now you know—their alternatives were walking or being seen in one of these.
1959 Studebaker Lark
True story: I first encountered the 1959 Lark in model form, one of those 1/25-scale plastic demos that dealerships used to give away. I assumed the model had warped and stretched, as 1950s plastic was prone to do. Nope—turns out that was actually what the real car looked like. The lumpy, bumpy Lark was conceived as a budget alternative to full-size cars, and seems to have initiated the concept that a cheap car should be styled to reflect the dire circumstances that led to its purchase. Though we don't know for sure, we suspect that this dorky nebbish of a car may have prompted the sobriquet "Stupidbaker".