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March 31, 2013

News & Features

Oddball autos: They don't make 'em like they used to

Bloomberg News

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The 1971 Buick Riviera Boattail had a dramatic V-shaped rear and fastback rear window. (General Motors)

As I cruised down a New Jersey interstate in a late-model Infiniti, a 1971 Buick Riviera Boattail floated alongside.

Imagine a gargantuan two-door coupe with a shiny canted grill and a radical V-shaped rear. And oh, that fastback rear window!

What an utterly shameless piece of extravagant design, showing an optimistic, hedonistic, we-won't-be-denied bravura. That thing had personality. My Infiniti, a conveyance stuffed with conveniences, suddenly felt a little pale. Banal.

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A 1984 Saab 900. (Saab)

It got me to wondering: In this age of mass production and global distribution, have we seen the last taillights of cars with personality? Where are the oddball autos that appeal to only a heartfelt few?

While those mid-century American cars with big fins weren't practical or even always beautiful, they sure had charisma. Perhaps we've lost something along the way.

The death of Saab certainly points in that direction. The much-loved Saab 900, for instance, was so nerdy that it was cool, with a flat roof, odd angles and an ignition in the center console. Driving a Saab was a proclamation that your marching inner drummer was actually playing a trombone.

Citroen is also struggling, partly because the French themselves are ignoring the maker in droves. Shame. Google the term "Citroen DS" and then ogle the sedan, produced from the 1950s to 1970s. I challenge you to find another wackadoo contraption so chock full of unadulterated charm.

I'm surrounded by car colleagues who shamelessly adore defunct British models that I've never even heard of.

Take John Voelcker, editor of Green Car Reports, who focuses on ruthlessly aerodynamic and efficient modern vehicles. He owns a 1961 Morris Minor Traveller, a car his dad bought new in London.

How odd is this car? The rear frame is made out of wood and the roof is attached by brad tacks. It requires, he says, "as much maintenance as a boat."

"The Morris has a rounded front end and it comes across as very friendly," he says. "People look at it and smile. You get that reaction from many older cars, from the extreme fins on a 1959 Cadillac or the humped gangster profile of a 1940s Chrysler Windsor.

"Relatively few new cars give me that warm, fuzzy feeling. Of course, I don't expect an old car to do the same things as a new one. We make allowances."

Modern cars must meet a phalanx of safety regulations. This includes crumple zones and pedestrian safety parameters, which influence the dimensions of the hood. One wonders what regulators would think of the fins and protrusions found on a 1950s Ford Thunderbird.

"We like to blame regulation, but I really think the issue is globalization," says Vic Doolan, a longtime industry executive who was president of both BMW North America and Volvo North America. "People want to make money, which means more mainstream, predictable designs. Look at BMW, Mercedes and Audi: These days, they are high-volume brands. It's difficult to stand out in the crowd when you are the crowd."

He makes a good point. I can think of only a few recent oddball designs, like the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet, a convertible SUV. It is surprising and interesting. It is also hideous.

The others are from Silicon Valley startups: The Fisker Karma and the Tesla Model S. The Karma, an electric-gas hybrid, is a design-forward car with sensuous curves, a wacky nose and madcap interior details.

The Model S, meanwhile, is conservative on the exterior, but the interior is full of innovation, including a flat floor and storage under the front hood, both owing to its all-electric powertrain.

Doolan agrees that electric technology will influence future cars, allowing for innovations that surprise and stimulate: "Hopefully we'll see designs that stir the passion of both a 6-year-old boy and a 60-year-old boy."

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