What to Read Next

Why we’re thankful for “ugly” cars

April 8, 2013

It's almost rote, this pattern that flows from the posting of a list like this one at Edmunds claiming to rank the 100 ugliest cars ever. The writer makes a play for attention that's both naked and respected (especially the ranking of the Lamborghini Veneno atop the countdown) while enthusiasts shred the work like Rottweilers tussling over beef-scented pashmina. I disagree with a majority of it, but despite the danger of encouraging such things, it's worth a moment to talk about the bigger point stories like this raise: Without "ugly" cars, there'd be no beautiful ones.

Take the car above, the Tatra T603, the 1956 edition of which comes in 15th by Edmunds' rankings. Built behind the Iron Curtain by Czechoslovakian engineers, the 603 was the ride of choice for people with connections, still known in parts of the world as "the Communist Party's finest car." Unlike much Soviet bloc engineering, Tatra had talent on hand, and its rear-mounted, air-cooled V-8 was known for reliability, and stayed in production through 1975.

I've seen a Tatra 603 in person, and of all the words I could use to describe it, "ugly" isn't one of them. The world has grown so accustomed to the anthropomorphic look in cars — the headlights as eyes, the grille as a mouth — that the Tatra seems at first glance like the robot Gort from "The Day The Earth Stood Still." But the more you look, the more the shape works; the design has period-appropriate flourishes, the rear hides its girth well and the chrome character line keeps the overall shape from looking too bulbous.

Many of the other cars on the "ugly" ledger – from the Jaguar XJ-S to the AMC Gremlin and Citroen 2CV — were popular in their day, have ardent fans and collectors now and pushed other designers to further their craft. And that breed of flamboyant or risk-taking model has become an endangered species in the automotive industry, hunted to the brink by aerodynamic dictates, safety rules and the business of using the same chassis under as many vehicles as possible. The list of challenging designs on dealer lots today doesn't run beyond a dozen; but we could spend a week running "separated at birth" posts on cars that look alike and barely make a dent.

It's never been harder to make a beautiful car, and rarely has there been more demand for bland ones. But the launch of a few ugly models arrive every year provides proof of life for imagination behind the penny-pinching corporate façades. If an automaker announced a rear-engined, V-8 midsize sedan today, they'd be hailed as an innovator, just because it would be so alien.

Photo: Kamienok via Flickr