Car Ideas That Were Too Clever For Their Own Good




Ideas. They're the untouchable, ephemeral things that make the world go round and keep humankind moving ever, endlessly, exhaustingly forward.

Some ideas are born great. They're immediately, blindingly, obviously brilliant. Like electricity. Others have greatness foisted upon them. They shouldn't be great but they are. like Airplane! the movie.

And other ideas are just rubbish. Except the people who dreamt them up don't realise. And, if they're in powerful positions, they keep plugging away until the rest of the world catches up with them. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don't. Like these five cars. What unites these five cars is that they were ideas out of time. Some we've latterly come to realise were visionary. Some were not very good. Others were downright silly. So, lets disappear down the rabbit hole and take a look at the cars built by car firms that went bonkers.

1. AMC Pacer

AMC Pacer: some doors were bigger than others

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the basic idea for AMC's Pacer: a small, compact second car for America's growing suburban families. So we should applaud that, even if it wasn't exactly an idea AMC came up with.

The trouble with the Pacer was that a small, compact car probably shouldn't have - or at least, doesn't need - a 3.8 litre or even a 5 litre engine, which is what the Pacer was launched with. Even in a country where big means bigger, it also wasn't actually small. The Pacer is longer than a Vauxhall Cavalier and was just as wide as a regular American car. And then there's how it looks. Whilst Americans were cruising around in their Buick Centuries and Cadillac Fleetwood Eldorado Brougham Coupes, cars that were a stranger to curves in both the road-based and design-based sense, here was a tubby, bloated car that looked a bit like an Allegro after too many Big Macs.

Despite a successful first year, the Pacer was axed after 5 years due to poor sales. It's since been rediscovered as something of a trailblazer since it actually combined a lot of ideas that are now mainstream - like designing the car from the inside out, a cab-forward layout, large glasshouse, roll-over hoop and impact-resistance bumpers.

The pioneering use of two different sized doors - the passenger side was bigger for easier access to the back - hasn't been widely adopted. Oddly.

So, despite the awkward looks, the Pacer design team has been sort of vindicated.

2. Talbot Matra Simca Rancho

Talbot Rancho: rest easy roaming wildebeest

In the mid 1980s, when the Rancho was launched, boy how we all laughed. Here was a Simca panel van made over by Halfords' lighting department to provide some sort of wild game hunting vehicle for the residents of Islington.

The Rancho had all the equipment you'd expect of a Land Rover Defender. There were extra driving lights, bull bars, a rooftop fuel storage, 'lamping' lights and chunky plastic wheelarches.

The problem, instead, was with what you couldn't see. In place of the Landy's torquey diesel engine, the Rancho offered up a feeble, tappety 80 bhp 1.4 litre Simca unit. And instead of 4WD it had just front wheel drive. The roaming wildebeest of Britain could rest safely. The Rancho's designers, however, have had the last laugh. 30 years on and we're all driving tall, offroad-esque cars that have all the offroad capability of a tin of beans. They wisely identified that more people want to look like they enjoy countryside sports than actually do countryside sports.

Whether discovering the Rancho was an offroader-for-non-offroaders trailblazer makes the original idea a great one, or still a silly one, I'll leave you to decide.

3. Pontiac Aztek

Pontiac Aztek: rubbish

The execrable Aztek is an object lesson in what happens when lots of clever people get carried along with a bad idea.

In the late 1990s, in a twist strangely reminiscent of the Austin Allegro's development, Pontiac decided that it needed to change. It needed a new car that would make a statement. And that perhaps explains why nobody stood up at any point in the Aztek's design development and said, "Ahem, are we all ok with this?"

I wish they had. Because the new car, launched under the risible tagline 'Quite possibly the most versatile vehicle on the planet', was quite frankly awful. It was designed by the same guy who later created the 2013 Corvette, so he was capable of so much better. Yet few cars look so fundamentally awful as the Aztek. It lacks redeeming features. In fact it's so bad - and became such a byword for suburban mediocrity - that it was later made famous as Walter White's wheels in the Breaking Bad series.

It was meant to make a statement. And, if you subscribe to the 'all news is good news' PR dictum then it worked. But sales were woeful - a fraction of the 75,000 a year that Pontiac predicted. It was finally killed off seven years after launch.

4. Daimler SP250 Dart

In the late 1950s Daimler was in trouble. Its fuddy-duddy models were out of favour and a sale to Jaguar was on the cards.

In a bid to reinvigorate things, Daimler conceived of a new V8 engine to power a saloon and convertible. The saloon never reached fruition by the convertible became the SP250. The SP250 makes this list not because it wasn't a good idea. Daimler wanted to take on the popular Austin Healey and Triumph TRs in the burgeoning American market. The trouble lies in the execution, which attempted to marry together a number of competing ideas.

The brief for the new car was to combine a 'jet set' style with an American fixation with fins. So the front looks like it belongs to a different car from the back. And, to keep costs down and speed up the road to production, it would be made from glass fibre, a material that Daimler had absolutely no experience with. Also for reasons of speed and cost the body was built on a separate chassis. This combination meant the new car lacked rigidity, resulting in the doors often flying open during cornering.

When it was launched in 1959 it was voted the ugliest new car on sale. Conservative Daimler customers hated the avant-garde styling and new customers were equally put off. On the plus side, the small capacity Turner V8 engine was glorious. But with those looks and weaknesses the Daimler was doomed from the start. When Jaguar bought the firm in 1959, shortly after its launch, it improve the rigidity but quashed the car to avoid competition with the new E Type.

5. Panther Solo

Panther Solo: what happens when project management goes wrong

The Solo started as quite a good idea. A low volume, high performance, advanced British sports car. But, as you can begin to see from the above photo, it didn't quite work out like that.

The Solo's journey from good idea to bad idea may feel like a familiar one, It's a trip beset by a multitude of compromises, small but significant changes that watered down and wrecked the orginal concept. Except nobody along the way yelled 'Stop'.

Panther's 1980s owner, Y C Kim, was a bit of a visionary. Despite running a company churning out pastiches of 1950s cars like the Kallista and De Ville (which had, lest we forget, British Leyland doors), Kim envisioned a much more modern and radical future. Along with seemingly everyone involved in car building in Britain circa 1983 he wanted to build a new, small, inexpensive sports car. That the venerable-but-popular MGB had just left production might have influenced his thinking.

The first Solo, the car that resulted from this revelation, was, in fact, a revelation. Compact, quick and pretty, it was, on paper, brilliant.

Then Kim went on holiday and spotted the newly launched Toyota MR2. He realised that someone had got there first.

Cue a rethink. The elephant in the room was that Panther could never have made a small car cheaply enough to be profitable, something that the MR2 just demonstrated. But instead of confronting that fact and chucking the idea in the bin, Kim decided to go upmarket. The Solo, he concluded, needed to be bigger, faster and more luxurious. That meant he could charge more so that Panther wouldn't need to build as many. Which worked for everyone. Except it didn't work. Having already announced the original Solo to the press, Panther went into lockdown, endlessly redesigning and changing the car. Momentum was lost and when the new car was finally announced, it was a let down. Big, bloated, heavy and ugly, it was miles away from the original idea.

And that's before you consider who was building it. Panther was a cottage industry, trickling out hand built retro cars with simple mechanicals and undemanding owners. The Solo was neither simple or undemanding. It would have tested even a seasoned manufacturer of high performance cars. The few Solos that did reach owners were unreliable, badly built and a bit of a let down. They did handle quite well, but they weren't especially quick.

The Solo is a classic case study in project management. When your original idea gets blown out of the water, it's not always a wise idea to plough on with a slightly different idea. _______________________________ Graham Eason runs Great Driving Days, the classic car experience company 01527 893733

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