The old line goes: “a girl is either smart or pretty, but not both.” Of course, I stopped believing this when I met my wife. (Okay honey, you can stop reading now.)
In the world of cars, an almost reverse belief exists: only pretty cars can be great. In fact, people sometimes go under the assumption that pretty cars can’t be bad, and ugly cars can’t be great. Let’s put this to rest: pretty, smart, great…none are dependent or mutually exclusive.
The list of pretty and great cars is long and distinguished. For every Jaguar D-Type, however, there is an XJS coupe – a beautiful car that for many reasons (including weight-challenged handling, torture-chamber ergonomics and reliability from hell) was anything but great.
Sometimes being considered pretty, but not great can be attributed more to being held to the same standard as the rest of the family. Case and point is the Mercedes 190SL, which while pretty, was a letdown next to the 300SL coupes and roadsters. In fairness, the 190SL was designed to be a cruiser, while the 300SLs were sports cars.
When I think of pretty cars that cannot classify as great, Fiat comes to mind. I recently saw a ’62 1200 Spider, almost identical to the ’61 my father bought new. (The dealer tried to sell him the alloy-bodied 300SL Gullwing originally owned by Lance Reventlow for about $4000 out of pocket, but in a decision of monumental stupidity, he instead saved a few bucks and went for a new Fiat.) The 1200 looks like a 250GT left too long on high-heat tumble, which is to say it is smaller, but just as beautiful. By any standard, though, the car was (and continues to be) far from great. Despite its fine handling, the car was brutally slow and terribly brittle in confounding ways, such as generator mounting brackets that wouldn’t stop breaking.
Fiat is also on the hook for the 124 Spider (and Spider 2000). Few cars of the Nixon-through-Reagan era were as pretty, but literally hundreds of vehicles were far greater. Fiat’s Lancia division also had pretty, but rather lame cars during the same time period. The Beta Zagato was among the best looking little cars of its late-seventies period, but unfortunately, it rusted faster than a nail on an ocean beach.
Trying to identify other cars that were great, but not pretty is a tough task, mostly due to cars being beautiful in the eyes of their beholders. Minis aren’t pretty, but are cute enough to miss this list. With sporting dynamics and tractor reliability, Triumph’s TR2 and TR3 were truly great cars, but the looks have always been polarizing. Some see British bulldog, while others see dumpy and drippy.
Some cars are just ugly enough to meet with little resistance. The Packard/Studebaker Hawk was uglier than Roger Clemens beanball. With the Studebaker Golden Hawk’s supercharged engine, lower weight and great appointments, it was a pretty great car… which was almost enough to offset that horrible catfish-looking face.
For some reason, when it comes to ugly-but-great, Volvo and Saab both pop into my head. Volvo’s mission for decades seemed to be producing cars like the Amazon, which were dreadful to look at, but couldn’t be stopped by any terrain. Similarly, Saab’s two-stroke-powered inverted bathtubs were simply amazing all-around vehicles.
It’s probably a tie for the two best examples of “ugly but great”. The first would be Tatra’s long-running line of air-cooled rear-mounted engine sedans. Some might say they were streamlined, but even this lover of the creative has always looked at Tatras with a grimace. Still, one would be hard-pressed to find more luxurious, capable executive cruisers in the days surrounding WWII.
Similar is the case for the other winner – the Chrysler Airflow. With mugs that only a mother (or mechanical engineer) could love, Chrysler’s Airflow line (including those with Imperial and DeSoto emblems) contained vehicles so ahead of the time that in terms of pure driving dynamics, there was little comparison to contemporary coupes and sedans. Speed records and safety tests proved the Airflow’s greatness, but alas, the ugliness doomed it. True, there are plenty of people who love them for their looks (my father included), but the overwhelming majority of folks (car enthusiast and non-car hobbyists alike) find the looks atrocious.
At least we won’t touch on the subject of “ugly and bad”. Otherwise, we’d be here all day discussing the Pontiac Aztek, Bricklin SV-1, Renault Alliance…