15 Cars Which Were Way Ahead Of Their Time
Modern cars always try to be technologically advanced, but there have been a couple ones in automotive history that really stood out because they were so far ahead of their time. They didn’t always sell too well though, as you’re about to see… Enjoy!
The Audi A2 is known for being one of the first mass-production cars with an all-aluminum body - some versions of it even featured aluminum chassis parts like wishbones, suspension struts and brake callipers. When it came out back in 1999 though, not many people were interested - it was too expensive, had a weird shape, and many people went for the more traditionally styled A3 instead. However, as depreciation started to hit and the car got discontinued after only five and a half years of production, the demand of used examples skyrocketed: the A2 had proven to be a very reliable and efficient daily driver. Therefore, on the used car market, it finally got the attention it had deserved from the beginning.
Modern cars are often accused of looking bland and similar - but when Subaru went radically different from everybody else in the early 1990’s, people didn’t seem to like it too much either. The SVX’s design polarized with futuristic features such as the split side windows (which proved to be very impractical), the low-slung front and the high-raised rear. Only about 25,000 SVX were made during the six years of production.
The Aston Martin Lagonda appears to be the definition of “a car ahead of its time”. Built in three different series over the course of 12 years, only 645 Lagondas were made. And - as we all know - it did not only come with an amazing wedge-shaped body, but also with an interior that featured touch sensitive buttons and a voice computer. In 1978! Okay, the computer software tended to fail all the time and the buttons were extremely unreliable, but still this technology was way ahead of its time. Nowadays, almost every new car has a touchscreen, and voice computers have also become very common.
Introduced in 1999, the Honda Insight was the first mass-production hybrid car to go on sale in the United States (not so in Japan though, as the first generation Prius was available since 1997). It comes with a 1.0 liter 3-cyliner engine producing 68 hp, combined with an electric motor that adds another 14 hp. This very efficient hybrid drivetrain in combination with a drag coefficient of only 0.25 meant that the Insight only used 3.4 l / 100 km, which translates to 69 mpg. Only 12,000 first-generation Insights were made until the end of production in 2006. The second generation launched in 2009, but got discontinued four years later due to poor sales figures. The third generation (which is about to roll to the dealerships) might be more successfull, though, as the world is now more ready than ever for hybrid cars.
Ahhh, the Pontiac Aztek - a car that has been featured on every single “ugliest cars”-list since 2001. Despite it’s - erh - questionable design, it might actually have been a great hit if only it had launched 10 years later than it did. The current SUV and crossover craze has brought up a ton of cars which are based on the same concept as the Aztek, and let’s be honest, compared to an Infiniti QX80 or a Subaru Tribeca it doesn’t look all that bad after all. Also, let’s not forget the Aztek actually had some pretty cool and innovative features, like a removable drink cooler and even a freakin’ tent! The funniest thing about the Aztek’s fate in my opionion though is that the recently-launched Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross is basically a modern version of it - it’s based on the same overall concept and layout, has a very similar same shape, and is also not exactly a looker… We will see if it can beat the Pontiac in terms of sales figures, which would prove my theory of the Aztek being well ahead of its time!
Unlike the Pontiac Aztek or the Audi A2, the Porsche 959 did not suffer from being ahead of its time. It was ahead of its time to shock the world, to show everybody what’s possible, and to become the fastest production car ever made. And god, did it achieve in those things. It boasted a highly complex four wheel drive system, sequential turbocharging with one big and one small turbocharger, titanium connecting rods, a ride height control system, an electronic tire pressure monitoring unit and much more. And all that 30 years ago! It was a technological masterpiece, and is until this day known for being one of the craziest and fastet, but also one of the most comfortable and most daily-drivable supercars ever made. According to Porsche, 292 959 were made.
The AMC Eagle was made in several different body styles, including a sedan, a notchback and a fastback Coupé and a so called Kammback variation, but the one I’ll be focussing on for now is the 5-door wagon. Because you see, lately there have been a lot of offroad-ish station wagons, but this car predates them all - take, for example, the Volvo “Cross Country” lineup, the Audi “Allroad” models, Volkswagens “Alltrack” variations, the Skoda Octavia Scout or many more. They are all based on the same concept: Take a standard station wagon, lift it a couple of centimenters, add some off-roady looking plastic trim all the way around and finish it off with some fake underbody crash protection at the front and rear. And the AMC Eagle? It’s basically the same idea, just from a couple of decades earlier. Oh, and instead of a plastic trim, it’s got a fake wood trim on the sides…
I know there are a lot of people out here (most likely Americans) who have never even heard of this car - which is a shame, considering how technologically advanced it was for its ime. And for all of you little keyboard warriors who are about to type “bUt I tHoUgHt NsU WaS a TeRroRiSt OrGaNiSaTiOn”: You’re right, however they are in no way related to the Neckarsulm-based car, motorbike and bicycle company NSU which was founded in 1873 and started out by producing sewing machines. Anyways, enough of the general education, let’s talk about the Ro80: It launched in 1967 with an unusual-looking, but very streamlined wedge-shaped body and - most importantly - a rotary engine. No, not only Mazda used it in their cars, the Germans gave it a try as well. Sadly, the 115 hp rotary was affected by countless sealing ledge problems, and despite the company’s accommodating engine replacement measures, the reputation of both the Ro80 and the rotary engine went downhill. Even though the sealing ledge problems were fixed eventually, only 37,406 Ro80 were made.
In 1990, GM unveiled a concept car at the Los Angeles Auto Show called Impact, a compact electric car with a very distinctive shape. The concept got unusually high attention from the media, and when the company announced that it would become a production vehicle, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) passed a new law that would require all seven major carmakers selling vehicles in the US to offer at least one zero-emission car, otherwise they would no longer be allowed to market their cars in California. Subsequently, GM developed the production version, but they soon realized that it would not be profitable. It was too late to pull the plug, though, and so GM came up with a plan. Instead of selling the EV1s to customers, they would only lease them out, and when the contract expired a couple of years later, they would retract the cars and crush them. Seriously, that was their plan. And they actually made it reality, despite of the protesting customers who really liked the car. Of the 1,117 units that were made, the majority was crushed, and around 40 were delivered to museums and educational institutes with their powertrains disabled, under the agreement that the car would never be reactived and driven on the road. Only one intact EV1 survived and was featured on Jay Leno’s Garage. The EV1 scandal clearly didn’t help the reputation of GM or the one of electric cars.
Another German car which I’m sure some of you have never heard about: The Volkswagen Golf Country. When Volkswagen unveiled the “Golf Montana” concept, they never even thought about making a production version, but as pre-orders started to pile up at the dealers, they decided to actually build it. Making the Golf Country was rather simple, as it was not a standalone model, but rather a modified version of the Golf CL syncro. These existing Golf II were shipped to Austria where they were converted into Countrys by lifting the car 12 cm and adding a bull bar to the front as well as a spare tire mount to the rear. It was not very practical, especially as the spare tire mount had to be folded away to the side to open the trunk; it was not very fuel efficient, as the modifications added a lot of weight and drag; and it was not particularly good off-road either as it was lacking locking differentials. So in other word, it’s exactly like all the countless “soft-roaders” or “mini-SUVs” that have been popping up lately, i.e. the Toyota C-HR, the Hyundai Kona and the Seat Arona, to name just a few of them.
The Chrysler Airflow was one of the biggest failures in automotive history. It all looked very promising at the beginning, though: Chrysler engineer Carl Breer wanted to come up with a new shape for a car that would make it more efficient, more comfortable and with a better power to weight ratio. He and his team built over 50 different true to scale models until April of 1930, and then went on to apply what they had learn from the experiments onto an actual car. Instead of the back then commonly used two-box design (i.e. on the Ford Model A), they went for a drop-like shape, with a sloping grille instead of an upright one, headlights that had been integrated flush into the bodywork, and covered rear wheels to reduce drag. They also changed the engine position to between the front wheels instead of behind them, and moved the passenger cabin forward for better front-to-rear weight distribution and therefore a more comfortable ride.
So far, so good. But then came the problems. Chrysler unveiled the Airflow months before the production run even started, and so the delays started to pile up. Also, as the Airflow used an incredibly innovative and sophisticated unibody design, there were lots of manufacturing and quality problems - according to enginner Carl Breer, the first 2,000 to 3,000 Airflow which left the factory had these issues, which could for example lead to the engine loosening or even falling out at speeds of around 130 km/h. What really made the Airflow fail though was its design: Most people just didn’t like it. It was probably just too futuristic, but many people said the front looked “all mashed up” and “blended together”. Still, even though the production of the Airflow ended after just four years, it influenced car design for decades.
The Tucker ‘48 was the lifetime achievement of Preston Tucker, who engineered and built it pretty much all by himself. It was a very advanced car and came with features like seatbelts, a windscreen that would pop out in case of an accident, a third headlight in the middle which could rotate right to left to illuminate turns, disc brakes in both the front and the rear, a 5.5 liter flat 6 engine mounted in the rear of the car, crash protection in the dashboard and steering wheel and a very good drag coefficient of 0.27. The car also had plenty of power (167 hp) despite of its rather high weight (1921 kg). Between January of 1947 and July of 1948, 50 units were made, along with the first concept (the so-called “Tin Goose”) and one car that was built entirely from parts at the end of the 1980s. 48 of those 52 cars still exist today.
Another car that was very technologically advanced for its time was the Mitsubishi 3000GT, which already had most modern supercar features back in 1990: Adaptive suspension, active aerodynamics on the front and rear wing, a vacuum-activated clutch, a rear differential lock as well as four-wheel-steering and four-wheel-drive. It also came with a 286 hp V6 engine that could push the 3000GT from 0-100 km/h in just 5.7 second and make it reach a top speed of 280 km/h.
We all know that the DS was a very innovative car, being the first car to have hydraulically assisted suspension (the system we know as Hydropneumatic), brakes, gearbox and power steering. Furthermore, it also came with a very distinct and futuristic design, which actually proved to be quite useful in day-to-day use - just like the hydraulics system proved to be far more reliable than expected. The fact that it was build with only minor changes to the original design for twenty years really shows how advanced and beautiful it was. Almost 1.5 million DS were made in total.
And last but not least we’ve got the seventh generation of the iconic Buick Riviera. Although this generation sufferd hard from downsizing and wasn’t much of a looker from the exterior, it did have one really cool featue in the cockpit that got it a spot on this list: a touchscreen. Yes. A TOUCHSCREEN. In 1986. Okay, to be fair, it was pretty basic and not too reliable, but it did allow you to control the climate control, stereo and trip computer on a 9 inch black and green CRT display.
Alright, that’s it for now guys! I really need to post more frequently… By the way, I am writing this article at midnight on a laptop in a hotel room in Portland, USA (where we just arrived a couple of hours ago after visiting San Francisco and Seattle), so not the kind of working environment I’m used to ;)
Anyways, see ya - hopefully - soon guys, and until next time!
Tobi aka The Stig’s German Cousin