We have come a long way since the Model T first rolled off the production lines in 1908. Not just with automotive engineering, technology advancements, and efficiencies in the manufacturing process, but in overall automotive exterior design.
Exterior designs in the past hinged more on the utility of the vehicle than whether it is gawk-worthy, head-turning, elegant, mean or sporty. In short, it was less about educing emotion and more about practicality and usage. That said, while elements such as windshields, windows and even doors were absent in cars of the early 1900s, one thing has always been there from day 1, and that’s a working set of head and taillights.
It wasn’t until the 1930’s that a unibody-type chassis made its way into the industry, with a focus on making cars lighter and structurally strong. This wave also allowed for more unique styling elements to arrive, notably around both ends of the car. Automotive head and taillights were starting to get embodied within the chassis, rather than be awkward add-ons. According to a design inspiration piece by Shutterstock, the bulging hoods and bulbous headlights that flowed continuously with the car’s aerodynamic and visually cohesive surface created a svelte and muscular effect that jived well with changing cultural attitudes.
It was unfortunately quite often that automakers got it wrong. Sometimes even the tiniest design detail within the head or tail-lamp can throw the overall aesthetics of a car off its high horse. Here is a look at 25 of the weirdest designs we’ve come across.
25 Dodge Charger
While both the first and second-generation Dodge Chargers have similar design language, we’re going with the second-generation model, produced from 1968 to 1970. The two-door fastback certainly is an iconic car with sales far surpassing the manufacturer’s original plans of 35,000 units in 1968. Almost 100,000 were eventually produced.
Where we do tend to question things is the headlight design of the fastback. Actually, we’re not even sure we can call it a headlight because you can’t actually see any lights as they are hidden behind the front grille. The fact that the design remained unchanged into the second generation is what’s probably more disappointing.
24 Alfa Romeo SZ
In an epic partnership between Zagato, Alfa Romeo and Fiat came the Alfa Romeo SZ high-performance sports sedan, which is available in both coupe and convertible formats; powered by a 3.0L V6 that makes 207-hp and 181 lb-ft of torque.
Equally bizarre to the blackened-out taillights are the odd-looking and square-shaped six headlamps that resemble a bunch of cubes stacked randomly next to one another. Its saving grace is an overall unique vehicle design which Top Gear considers a “wedge-shaped slice of motoring that landed at the end of the 1980s (which was) a striking thing”. The lights themselves, not so much.
23 Tatra 603
Believe it or not, Tatra was the maker of luxury automobiles back in the 1850s in Czechoslovakia, and the 603 model manufactured from 1950 through 1962 was a 4-door, full-size luxury sedan powered by a 2.5L air-cooled V8, which was quite something for its time. In order to make room for middle occupants in the front row, the gear shifter was moved upwards and underneath the steering wheel. Speaking of which, the transmission was a 4-speed automatic, with a “mountain” option that effectively changes the shifting ratios.
Perhaps the most intriguing design element of this car is the front headlamps. It’s not often you will find a car, any car that is equipped with three lamps sitting through the front, especially one where the middle lamp sits within the engine grille. Bizarre, indeed.
22 Fiat Multipa
It is quite rare for automakers from Italy to make a bad-looking car, but on this occasion, the Fiat Multipa surely wins plaudits for one of the most risqué design elements in European automotive history. Produced for just 2 years, starting in 1998, the automaker retired the brand in 2010 but continued to produce it for a further 3 years for the market in China, branded as the Zoyte M300.
While the overall design raises plenty of eyebrows, it’s the front headlights that most peoples' eyes are drawn to. According to Car Throttle, the bug-eyed headlights just pair so horribly with the muffin-top bulge at the bottom of the A-pillar.
21 Nissan Juke
Nissan was well ahead of the game when they introduced a sub-compact SUV in 2010, and sales did quite well in the United States for the first four years, comfortably averaging over 37,000 units per year. There was a good reason too, with a relatively engaging engine, excellent safety scores and available all-wheel drive.
The design certainly is unique, but it’s the stacked array of lights that tend to disappoint. Running lamps signaling indicators are mounted on the top, while the main headlamps sit below and under the lower end of the curved grille. It’s intended to be reminiscent of lighting elements fitted to rally cars, but it just doesn’t work for us.
20 Nissan Cube
Nissan’s Cube is a subcompact MPV produced between 2009 and 2014, and although it has a far longer history, and still continues to be sold in Japan, the car has not enjoyed much success in North America. Awkward design language aside, the Cube was vastly underpowered, featuring a weak 1.4L inline-four at launch, and making a paltry 108-hp.
That said, complaining about the excessively bland-looking taillights of a car that prides itself on being a totally retro-designed car is a bit counter-productive. Still, if it isn’t for the plain-looking lights themselves, just look at the positioning, sitting so far below eye-sight that you might as well hang it off the rear bumper.
19 Renault Avantime
Another car that did not do too well in the markets was the Renault Avantime, a minivan produced over just 3 years starting in 2001. The French manufacturer sold only 8,500 units during that time, which is a bad statistic. Despite having a 2-liter turbocharged petrol, 3.0L V6 petrol, and 2.2L inline-four diesel-powered engines, they simply couldn’t translate into sales.
According to Renault, the goal was to design a vehicle that combined the elements of an MPV, large sedan, a 2+2 coupe and minor elements of a convertible. That is quite a lofty series of requirements to bundle into a single vehicle, but the result was ultimately underwhelming. The strangest element with this car was the taillights, and how its crisscrossing diamond-style design just doesn’t seem to work on any level.
18 Alfa Romeo Montreal
The Montreal was a sports coupe produced by automaker Alfa Romeo from 1970 to 1977 after first having been a concept car just 3 years earlier in the Montreal Expo in Quebec, Canada. It featured an unconventional V8, rated at 2.6-liters and was paired to the excellent ZF 5-speed manual.
The design by Marcello Gandini was mostly decent, and it was no surprise considering his past successes of the exquisite Lamborghini Countach LP400 and iconic first-generation BMW 3-Series. However, the headlights seem to have an awkward-looking upper eye-lid that seems to droop over the headlamps. What’s more is the lid includes a mesh grille for some bizarre reason that just doesn’t go with the rest of the design.
17 BMW i3
BMW introduced the i3 subcompact luxury electric sedan as a concept at the 2011 International Motor Show in Leipzig, Germany. The diminutive 5-door hatchback was quite popular and won the 2013 Car Design of the Year within its category, which isn’t saying much considering the category includes the Toyota Prius, Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Cube.
There isn’t much to talk about with the headlights, however, the U-shaped LED taillights try really hard to give a floating feeling, but it just doesn’t seem to go with the glazed tailgate. Where there is little argument is in the numbers though, with the i3 having the potential to give 120 miles in its most efficient mode and translates to a gasoline equivalent mileage of a whopping 124 mpg.
16 Citroën C4 Cactus
The Citroën C4 Cactus is a sub-compact crossover SUV produced by the French manufacturer but in Madrid, Spain since 2014. While the vehicle is not sold in North America, it enjoys plenty of success across Europe, Australia, South Africa, and South America to name a few geographies. Powered by a 1.2L inline-three gasoline and the more popular 1.6L diesel, the C4 Cactus does the basics well.
The redesign for 2018, however, is a bizarre one with the headlights. It’s becoming a common theme now, with Hyundai Kona and Santa Fe doing something similar. The headlights are positioned below the daytime LEDs and sit inside their own bubble-shaped casing with the fog lights sitting below them and into the front bumper. It’s staggering that there are 3 sets of headlight levels on this SUV.
15 Jeep Cherokee
Jeep Cherokee has had a relatively stable design language, going back to the first-generation model, dubbed the SJ from back in 1974. Over the years, the car has had good success as the younger sibling to the larger Jeep Grand Cherokee and has retained the look and feel of a relatively rugged compact SUV, although it was originally a larger SUV in its very early days.
The design changes dramatically for the fifth and current generation which hit the roads in the summer of 2013. It was the first Jeep vehicle to use Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Fiat Compact Wide platform, which was co-developed by Chrysler and Fiat. The split headlights have been a bone of contention for many automotive enthusiasts and we’re super glad to see this design faux-pas exit the stage for the 2019 model refresh.
14 Pontiac Aztek
If the Fiat Multipa was rated one of the worst-designed automobiles in Europe, a similar accolade here in the United States would undoubtedly go to the Pontiac Aztek. Produced for only 5 years from 2000 to 2005, this mid-size crossover SUV was designed by Tom Peters, who surprisingly was also tasked with designing the excellent Chevrolet Corvette C7.
While GM was hoping for the Aztek to signal a design renaissance for the brand, styling was widely criticized by many pundits, and despite winning an award for the “Most Appealing Entry Sports Utility Vehicle” in 2001 from J.D. Power and Associates, they specifically called out the fact that the award excluded exterior styling.
13 Honda Clarity
Honda’s Clarity is an excellent battery-electric and plug-in hybrid mid-size sedan. While the original nameplate was used exclusively for its hydrogen fuel-cell electric car, it was expanded just 2 years ago to include other alternative fuel options. The 2017 model entrant offers an excellent drivetrain with highly efficient economy of up to 44 mpg in the city and is still capable of delivering over 210-hp.
While the Clarity moves away from Honda’s ancient-looking design cues into what is really a handsome sedan, it still retains some of those risqué design elements that hybrid cars of yesteryear still hold on to. Most notable are the headlights and the extremely unnecessary extension of an LED strip that extends from the indicator lamps all the way down to the lower end of the front bumper.
12 Maserati 3200 GT
Like its predecessor, the Maserati Ghibli, the 3200 GT was also a grand tourer sports car but only available in 2-door coupe format from 1998 to 2002. In true design (Italy-style), the 3200 GT paid homage to the 3500 GT of the late 1950s but features a more powerful twin-turbocharged 3.2L V8 engine mated to a 6-speed manual transmission. The grand tourer managed to deliver a highly impressive 365 hp.
The droopy-looking taillights were among the world’s first to offer LED taillights, and although that is a notable feat, the design itself is sad-looking, literally with its downward angles and lines.
11 Hyundai Santa Fe
Now in its fourth-generation, the hugely successful Hyundai Santa Fe sees a total overhaul, adopting Hyundai’s new design language, especially on the front-end of the vehicle. Hyundai's official description states a signature Cascading Grille and a Composite Light design that includes LED Daytime Running Lights positioned atop LED headlights.
That sounds fine but when you look at the end product it just doesn’t look refined at all. A similar story can be said for their smaller SUV, the Kona which adopts a similar lighting pattern. Lighting aside, the interior of the new generation is luxurious and plush while the drivetrain now includes a 2.2L turbocharged diesel.
10 Ferrari Daytona
Turn back the clocks to the late 1960s and you will find the Ferrari Daytona, which is officially called the Ferrari 365 GTB/4. It’s a two-door grand touring sedan, of which about 1,500 were produced during a 5-year period that run through to 1973. The designers at Pininfarina made a mostly nice car, although the design language was vastly different with far sharper edges than their historically more rounded designs.
Key among the changes, especially for early model Daytonas were fixed headlights behind an acrylic-type glass cover. Eventually and due to a U.S. safety regulation, which banned headlights behind covers, Ferrari produced retractable pop-up twin headlights in 1971. For once we have U.S. safety regulators to thank in forcing an automaker’s hand to making safety improvements that actually aids in having a better overall design.
9 Chrysler Crossfire
Developed during the newly made marriage between Daimler and Chrysler was the Crossfire sports sedan in 2003, but the good times lasted only 4 full years with production ceasing by 2008. Powered by a 3.2L V6 and paired to a 5-speed automatic borrowed from the Mercedes-Benz fleet, the Crossfire certainly offered a lot in terms of power and driving dynamics.
Sadly, where it fell somewhat flat was in some of the design details, notably the front and rear lights. This is especially the case with the taillights that resemble a typical 180-degree protractor, which brings scary memories from back in my geometry days.
8 Bentley Bentayga
Cars.com said it best in a February 2017 article titled “10 Cars Slapped With the Ugly Stick” when they effectively said that money can't buy looks. Look no further than the Bentley Bentayga for evidence of this. Those minuscule headlights are so completely and utterly out of place on an SUV as large as this one.
Given the Bentayga shares a platform with the Audi Q7 and is more than twice the price, our money would be much better spent on the excellent Q7 large-size SUV. Even paying for all the fully-loaded extras is still far cheaper for an excellent SUV.
7 Oldsmobile Aurora
Oldsmobile’s Aurora was a mid-size luxury sports sedan manufactured at home in Michigan from 1994 to 2003. It was powered by a powerful 32-valve 4.0L V8 engine, paired to a 4-speed automatic transmission. This was the car that was thought to revitalize the brand and it did fairly well, having shared a platform with the Buick Park Avenue and Cadillac Seville.
While later models included daytime running lights, the tail lights are actually just one giant cover on the back. It tries to blend a very 1990s design with one eye into the future but doesn’t quite get it right.
6 Suzuki XL7
The XL7 was Suzuki’s mid-size SUV produced from 1998 to 2009, however the latter years was under the tutelage of General Motors. The first generation offered a relatively bland design language until they partnered with General Motors for the second generation in 2006.
Borrowing several bits and pieces from the Chevrolet Equinox, Pontiac Torrent and Saturn Vue helped slightly with the design, giving it a more modern look and feel. Even the headlights look sleeker, except for the extended jagged-looking glass bottom which makes its way down towards the fog lights. Adding an extra piece of plastic is beyond us.
5 Subaru Tribeca
The nifty thing about Subaru is that they go along their jobs quietly, efficiently and with little fuss. Their mid-size SUV, the Tribeca, also known as the B9 Tribeca in some markets was a solid Lafayette, Indiana-produced vehicle. However, competition is so stiff in this segment that having a solid car just isn’t enough, and for that reason Subaru announced they would discontinue the car in 2013.
It was among the worst-selling vehicles in 2013 with less than 1,600 units sold. The headlamp design was one of the culprits of uninspiring design, with lighting resembling very closely to that of the equally poorly-designed Porsche Cayenne light casing.
4 Porsche 911 Carrera
There is very little to fault the awesome Porsche 911 Carrera with, thanks to a strong history spanning over 55 years. The Stuttgart-produced high-performance rear-engine sports coupe has enjoyed plenty of success over those decades and is noticeable by pretty much everyone.
The 911 Carrera’s design language has been extremely well-balanced and mostly unchanged over the generations. There was a short period however in the 1970s, specifically the 1972 Porsche Carrera 911 RS, that introduced a very awkward-looking fog-light attachment below the more well-known signature rounded headlight. It just looks so out of place, almost added as an afterthought.
3 Hyundai Tiburon
Hyundai impressed enthusiasts around the world when they introduced the Tiburon, also known as the Coupe in 1996. It enjoyed a relatively successful 12-year stint from 1996. The first-generation model looked the part too, with sleek lines that would be sure to age well. The motors were good too, with 1.6L and 2.0L I4s along with the more powerful 2.7L V6.
This is why it's so bizarre that Hyundai opted for a ghastly design revamp in 1999 by splitting the headlamps into two circular casings, separated by the indicator lamp and themselves too. It just looked very odd, and unnecessary. Order was restored with the second-generation model in 2002.
2 Jeep Renegade
Jeep have had a good formula of success for decades when it comes to a well-established design for their entire fleet of cars, whether it’s the Jeep Cherokee, Grand Cherokee, and ages-old Wrangler. However, they have begun changing that recipe recently in a bid to gain interest from new and younger buyers across the country.
Some of those changes have been well-received but an example where it did not was the new Jeep Cherokee and its split-headlamp design. The Jeep Renegade retains the original design from the front, but in the rear, for some obscure reason, they have added a cross on the inside of the taillight. It would have been completely fine to just leave the light as-is, so we’re not quite sure what prompted them to add the giant X-shape inside the light casing.
1 Lincoln Navigator
Lincoln Navigator is a full-size SUV, produced since 1997 and is still very much in production today. As a luxury brand under the Ford umbrella, it just gives the automaker some additional options despite having class-leaders, the Explorer and Escape as well as the mammoth Expedition. While sales have waned over the past few years, in its early years the Navigator consistently sold in excess of 35,000 units per year before sales dropped off from the early 2000s.
The performance-oriented Altezza upgrade taillights to the Lincoln Navigator from 1998 to 2002 were certainly very strange. The brand went from traditional red lights to a mix of red circles surrounded by poor-contrasting white spaces.
Sources: Shutterstock, Cars.com, US News Cars, Car & Driver, Motor Trend, Car Throttle.