In every period of automotive history, a combination of fashion and current technology has led to cars built at around the same time looking roughly similar.
Generally, it's possible to identify when a particular model was designed just by looking at it. That's why people complain that "cars all look the same nowadays", usually when referring to ones built after they had become set in their ways.
But it's also true that there are always cars which completely buck current trends, or seem unremarkable at first but turn out to be radical in detail. To celebrate the unconventional, here are 25 of the many four-wheeled oddballs which have made the motoring world so interesting over the decades.
This story first appeared in Classic & Sports Car
Alfa Romeo Disco Volante
Designing a purpose-built competition car without paying attention to aerodynamics is unthinkable today, but in the early 1950s manufacturers and teams tended to think more in terms of power and handling.
Alfa Romeo was one of the exceptions. Its Disco Volante ('flying saucer') sports racer looked astonishing back then - and still does today - precisely because it was designed to slip through the air in a way that almost none of its contemporaries could. A modern interpretation of the car was displayed at the 2012 Geneva auto show. It was a sharp looker, no question, but it lacked the shock value of the original.
Aston Martin Lagonda
The Lagonda was an unusual Aston in that it was a sedan rather than a sports car, but that's not what people talked about when it first appeared. The digital instrument panel (a startling feature in the mid 1970s) attracted a lot of attention, though not nearly as much as the body shape.
This was the work of William Towns, who was fond of flat panels and sharp edges, and applied them freely – and controversially - to the Lagonda. Some oddballs have a short life, but not this one. With three updates, it remained in production for a decade and a half.
Audi Type K
The Type K was a technically advanced car in production form, but its appearance was not out of the ordinary for a model introduced in 1922. The version pictured above is clearly not standard. It was one of several prototypes created by the Hungarian designer Paul Jaray, a pioneer in vehicle aerodynamics.
The improved body made a big difference to the Audi's straightline performance, but it looks like it might have given the driver pause for thought in crosswinds.
With its open two-seater body and components borrowed from other BMC models, the first-generation Sprite was at first glance as conventional a mid-century British sports car as could be imagined.
It qualifies as an oddball partly because of its unibody construction (an amazing development for a low-cost car of this type in 1958) but mostly because of its front-end appearance, which led to it being nicknamed Frogeye in the UK and Bugeye in the US. No other mainstream vehicle has ever looked anything like it, though there is a strong resemblance to the body-on-frame Crosley Hotshot built in small numbers from 1949 to 1952.
Assuming a car has doors at all, they are almost always hinged at the front, or more rarely at the back. Gullwing and scissor types also appear occasionally. In the BMW Z1, they retracted downwards. The car was innovative in other ways too, but this feature alone guarantees its place in any list of motoring oddballs.
It's possible to drive the Z1 with one or both of its doors in the 'open' (meaning 'down') position, though it might be better not to.
There are cars, and then there is the Citroën 2CV. Designed before the Second World War and still sold in production as late as 1990, it was intended to answer the needs of low-income motorists. Practicality and economy were paramount, luxury and performance almost completely ignored.
Citroën could hardly have expected that the 2CV would become a cult car, or that anyone would ever buy one as a fashion statement or convert it into a racing car, as many people have.
Looking back, it seems astonishing that the only cars Citroën produced for several years were the 2CV (and its derivatives) and the DS. They were as different as could be expected of models whose names meant 'two horses' and 'goddess' respectively. All they shared were a badge and a spirit of innovation.
From its launch in 1955, the DS had a futuristic shape and high-level indicators, and relied on hydraulics almost as much as an F1 car does today. Cornering headlights were added later. In a sense, the DS was the car the rest of the motor industry didn't catch up with until decades after it was introduced.
Fiat 600 Multipla
The Fiat 600 sedan could hold four people in reasonable comfort by the standards of the 1950s. But what if there were six of you? Well, then you'd need the Multipla derivative. Mechanically identical to the sedan, it had a third row of seats mounted in front of the other two.
There was no space for a hood, so the windshield, front panel and lights were presented directly to oncoming traffic, and provided minimal protection for the driver and foremost passenger. You couldn't sell a car like that now, or indeed back in 1998 when Fiat launched a new Multipla. It looked nearly as weird as the 600, but at least nobody had to sit in the crumple zone.
Ford Consul Classic
Until globalisation became the norm, British cars were often influenced by American designs. Ford went a step too far with this when it created the Consul Classic. Its dramatic appearance was probably the main reason for poor sales, which led to its replacement by the more conventional (though still rather American-looking) Corsair after just two years.
The coupe version, named Consul Capri, was even wilder. Coupe buyers would have been more tolerant of eccentric looks, but the Capri was discontinued only a year after the Classic.
Not normally associated with eccentricity, Isuzu displayed the VehiCROSS as a concept in 1993 and put it into production with minimal changes four years later.
Despite its almost cartoonish styling, the VehiCROSS was a very capable SUV with a powerful V6 engine, and was praised both for its adventurous looks and for its considerable off-road ability.
Long before he founded the company bearing his own name, Ferdinand Porsche worked for the Austrian manufacturer Lohner. While there, he designed what is now known as the Lohner-Porsche. The fact that it was electric was nothing new for 1901 - all the cars which had held the Land Speed Record up to then had been like that.
The Lohner-Porsche differed from all of them in that its electricity came from a generator which was powered by a gasoline engine. That's not so unusual today - it's used in the current, though soon to be discontinued, BMW i3 - but it was a remarkable feature on a car designed more than a century ago.
For a sports car introduced in 1966, the Europa was very unusual, though not unique, in having a mid-engined layout. It was more notable for its styling, sometimes described as 'breadvan'. This was the work of Ron Hickman, whose other designs included the Black & Decker Workmate. No other Lotus had looked like it before, and none has looked like it since.
The Europa was initially powered by the engine from the Renault 16, a less eccentric choice at the time than it seems now. Lotus later swapped this for its own Twin Cam engine, derived from the Ford Kent.
The Rancho was what we would now call a crossover SUV, a term completely unknown when Matra put it on sale in 1977. Based on the Simca 1100, it had a mostly non-metal body which provided a great deal of well-lit space for luggage and rear passengers.
An early design flaw which allowed anyone to break in simply by pushing back the sliding rear side windows was soon fixed by fitting those windows with catches, a solution you might have thought someone would come up with during the prototype stages.
The category of tiny cars devised by an American manufacturer for its home market but built in the UK by Austin consists only of the Nash Metropolitan. Launched in 1954, it was six feet shorter than the contemporary Cadillac Eldorado. This wasn't the sort of thing American buyers were expecting, but the car was reviewed mostly favorably in the press.
It was marketed as a Nash, an Austin and a Hudson, and eventually simply as a Metropolitan. Production continued for eight years, so there was obviously a market for it.
Engine failures early in the production run gave the Ro80 a reputation for unreliability which eventually killed not only the car itself but the whole NSU brand. This was a great pity, partly because the reliability issue was soon sorted but also because the Ro80 was a masterful piece of work.
Beneath its stylish body were the incredibly smooth-running rotary engine, all-independent suspension, power steering and a clutch which was operated simply by touching the gearlever - an impressive specification for 1967. NSU had built what should have been a triumphant oddball, yet it's mostly remembered today because its engine became trustworthy after it went on sale, rather than before.
Renault Sport Spider
The Sport Spider was a simply astonishing car for Renault to produce. In nearly a century and a quarter, the company has devised nothing else like it. There had been fast Renaults before, but they were all derived from production vehicles.
True, the 2.0-liter 16-valve engine and accompanying gearbox had already been used in the Clio and Megane. The chassis, though, was a unique item made of aluminum, and clothed in an composite bodywork. In concept, the Sport Spider was similar to the Lotus Elise, but that was the kind of car you might expect Lotus to come up with in the 1990s. From Renault, it was almost unbelievable.
A century after the dust has settled, it seems strange that anyone could ever have made a fuss about Rolls-Royce's new entry-level 20hp model. But oh boy, was there ever a fuss. In 1922, a Mr Leslie Northcott wrote to The Autocar with several criticisms of the Twenty, including the overhead valve arrangement of its engine (why not an overhead camshaft?), the lack of front brakes, three forward gears rather than four and the fact that the gearlever was placed in the middle of the cockpit, rather than tucked away on the right as God intended.
For months afterwards, the correspondence pages sizzled with replies from people who thought either that the objections were valid or that Mr Northcott was talking through his hat. Although the engine was never replaced, Rolls-Royce later added front brakes and a fourth gear, making the Twenty less of an oddball than it had been at first.
The 92 was the first car produced by the manufacturer whose name is an acronym for a phrase which translates into 'Swedish Airplane Company Limited'. Saab's aerospace experience was evident in the 92's aerodynamic body shape. The company also made the structure very stiff by fitting tiny rear windows and not offering a trunklid, though it later compromised in both cases when designing the 92B.
There were many more updates (and several changes of name, up to 96), but the basic design was the only one Saab produced until the 99 was launched in 1968. Even then, the Swedish oddity was so successful that Saab was able to continue producing it right up until 1980.
Like the Saab 92 but more than a decade earlier, the Scarab was influenced by airplane technology, particularly when it came to aerodynamics. Its shape was remarkable even in comparison with the famously streamlined Chrysler Airflow. It also had flush glass and no exterior doorhandles - the doors were opened electrically, using buttons which did not intrude into the surrounding air.
The Ford V8 engine and three-speed gearbox were both mounted at the back. The flat floor made possible by this allowed for so much interior space that the Scarab is sometimes referred to as the world's first minivan. Sadly, only a few prototypes were built. The Scarab never went into production, and remains one of the motoring world's most tantalising might-have-beens.
A downbeat way of looking at the Avanti is that it was the last, desperate burst of creativity from a company which knew it was about to die. Derived from the Studebaker Lark sedan, it had a very advanced body designed by Raymond Loewy. The body was made of fiberglass, and there was no radiator grille. Disc brakes at the front were another radical feature.
Powered by a 4.7-liter V8 engine (optionally supercharged), the Avanti went on sale in 1962. The factory where it was built was closed near the end of the following year. Studebaker staggered on for a little longer before closing down in 1967.
Designed partly by Paul Jaray, who we met earlier, the T77 was Czech company Tatra's first aerodynamic model. It was launched in 1934, the same year as the Chrysler Airflow, but was more luxurious and less conventional. The body was like something out of a science fiction movie, and the air-cooled 3.0-liter V8 engine was mounted in the back.
The T77 was soon updated to the T77a, which had a bigger engine, and replaced by the equally strange-looking T87, which had a smaller one. All three could easily be described as oddballs (as could the 603 introduced in 1956), but the T77 earns a place here because it started the process.
The Trojan’s high hood line deceived the gullible into thinking that there might be something underneath. In fact, the engine (an almost unburstable four-cylinder two-stroke) was laid flat under the seats. It was so economical that Trojan claimed the car would cost four shillings less to drive for 200 miles than you would spend on shoes and socks if you walked the same distance.
Solid rubber tires and the lack of a front differential were anachronistic for the late 1920s, but they helped the reliability of this curious machine. The Trojan company’s future was suitably eccentric. It went on to build the Elva Courier, the Heinkel bubble car and – perhaps most strangely of all – McLaren racing cars.
The Trossi Monaco was the weirdest car ever devised for Grand Prix racing, and we will not be taking further questions at this time. Designed by Augusto Monaco and bankrolled by Count Felice Trossi, it was a front-wheel drive single-seater with a 4.0-liter 16-cylinder two-stroke radial engine. An unusual combination, to say the least.
It was built in 1935, when the mid-engined V16 Auto Unions were considered strange, at least by people who didn't know about the Trossi Monaco. Unlike the Auto Unions, which won many races in the 1930s, the Trossi Monaco didn't even start one. With 75% of its weight pressing down on the front wheels, it understeered like an aircraft carrier, and was abandoned after testing.
Voisin C25 Aérodyne
Along with the Chrysler Airflow, the Stout Scarab and the Tatra T77, Gabriel Voisin's luxurious C25 Aérodyne was yet another aerodynamically designed car introduced in the early to mid 1930s. While the others appeared fully modern, the Aérodyne combined the old and the new.
Gracefully curving lines contrasted dramatically with the large, exposed headlights sitting on either side of an almost vertical radiator grille. It was almost as if Voisin could see the future, but wasn't fully prepared to accept it.
Even in the strange world of the microcar, the Janus is unsurpassed as an oddity. It was built by motorcycle manufacturer Zündapp but developed by the Dornier aircraft company, which came up with an almost symmetrical design.
The front and rear passengers sat back-to-back, looking in opposite directions, as the two-faced Roman god Janus was able to do all on his own. The doors were located at the front and rear, rather than on the sides. Despite its cleverness, the Janus was resoundingly unsuccessful. Production was abandoned after just a year in 1958.