Four of the Weirdest, Most Interesting American Classic Cars Ever Built
From the Dymaxion Car to the Tucker 48, being weird is not the same as being bad—at least not always.
Where would you even start in creating a list of the most interesting American classic cars? Or, how about America's weirdest cars? Sure, when you're talking about interesting cars, there are plenty of worthy Corvettes, Camaros, and Mustangs out there. The Chrysler Airflow cars are definitely cool, as is the rear-engine Chevy Corvair, and the old 16-cylinder Cadillac models of the 1930s. But dig a little deeper and you'll get to some really weird cars, most of which were so advanced, strange, or just plain different enough that they barely turned a wheel before they were relegated to the annals of history. Today, we explore four such weird cars that represented groundbreaking new ideas but never enjoyed the success their designers intended.
1933 Dymaxion Car
American inventor Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller is possibly a name you haven't heard since your high-school physics class, but the absolutely weird automobile he invented is even less well-known.
Fuller imagined a lightweight and nimble vehicle, but also one able to carry several adults in comfort and perhaps, one day, even fly. Looking like a cross between an experimental aircraft and a Tatra T47, the first of three Dymaxion Car (standing for Dynamic, Maximum, Tension) prototypes was unveiled at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, where the race driver hired to demonstrate the car in motion was killed behind the wheel after a politician crashed his own vehicle into the Dymaxion Car.
Undeterred, Fuller produced two more prototypes, each with two driven wheels at the front, a third rear-mounted wheel used to steer (the Dymaxion Car could carve impressively tight circles), a central vertical wing for stability, and a rear-mounted Chrysler V-8 engine. Notoriously unstable, difficult to drive, and even unsafe, Fuller himself crashed a prototype before ending the whole venture several years later. Just one example remains in existence, though several replicas have been built.
1948 Tucker 48
We probably shouldn't even refer to this entry as a weird car. In the mid-1940s, America was back to work after World War II, and automakers were trying to update their antiquated pre-war models into revolutionary new cars for the contemporary consumer. Preston Tucker, an energetic and passionate auto enthusiast who had already attempted to design a high-speed military vehicle, decided to build a new car so groundbreaking that it would cause the established automakers in Detroit to stand up and take notice.
That car was the Tucker 48, which was unconventional with its rear-mounted, air-cooled, helicopter-derived engine, and streamlined body profile. A focus on safety brought ideas such as pop-out front windows, a central "Cyclops" third headlight which turned around corners with steering input, and a large safety zone under the dashboard where occupants could crouch in the event of a crash. An elastomeric suspension replaced conventional steel coil springs, and disc brakes were specified instead of more common drum brakes. Unfortunately, just 51 Tucker 48s were ever built, and the company was effectively shut down by a lawsuit Tucker ended up winning. A 1988 movie by Francis Ford Coppola would later endear the Tucker legacy to the American public, and the cars are highly prized today with values in excess of $1 million.
1963 Chrysler Turbine Car
Alternative propulsion methods in automobiles aren't anything new, and by the 1960s, the Jet Age had truly arrived, heralding automakers to look into gas-turbine-powered cars. Chief among these efforts was the 1963 Chrysler Turbine Car, which had sleek, wind-cheating bodywork from Italian design house Ghia.
Chrysler had actually been developing experimental turbine engines since the 1930s and by '63, it built 55 Turbine Cars of which 50 would be tested by the public as daily transportation. It's said that more than 200 drivers were able to get behind the wheel, logging somewhere around 1-million development miles in the two-door coupes, all painted Turbine Bronze.
Unfortunately, the results were unimpressive, with drivers reporting too much noise, slow acceleration, and poor fuel economy. The program was shut down in 1966, and Chrysler ordered all but nine of its Turbine Cars to be crushed. The Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles houses one of the remaining Chrysler Turbine Cars in its collection.
1970 Chaparral 2J
Jim Hall was both a racer and engineer who helped pioneer early aerodynamics in motorsports, including adjustable wings. Much of this development took place on Texas-built race cars Hall created under the Chaparral name. While there are many significant Chaparral race cars, the most interesting must be the 2J, which used two large fans from a Howitzer tank, and plastic rear side-skirts that kept a constant 1-inch gap to the ground to create as much as 2,200 pounds of downforce on the 2J's rear end.
The "sucker car," as it came to be known, was perhaps less weird than it was revolutionary at the time; it caused quite a stir in the Can-Am series paddock, though it only competed in a handful of races in 1970. While the 2J proved it could be very quick, outqualifying every other car at Laguna Seca that year by wide margin, the fan system would often suck up all manner of foreign objects. This resulted in self-destruction, as well as ire from other drivers as they'd be caught in the 2J's dust cloud. Ultimately, the 2J was banned from competition, and the project was canceled after the 1970 Can-Am season.