All history is filled with people who had the right idea at the wrong time. While some of these innovators influence future designers, others linger mostly as historical footnotes. Automotive history follows these patterns too. Sometimes, an idea precedes the current technology’s capacity. Sometimes, the innovator lacks the means to sustain their ideas, or the bean-counters dial back the dream. And sometimes, you’re just late to the party.
We dreamed up a list of more than 30 cars that just missed being in the right place at the right time with the right resources. We deliberately avoided those regulars of Worst Car Ever lists, because A. We don’t believe those are bad cars and B. There are no bad cars. All cars have a place and a purpose. So if you’re looking for the usual stuff like Pontiac Fiero (Read more about that here), Delorean (Read more about that here), Edsel, and pretty much everything sold with an AMC badge after 1973, you can find those being celebrated elsewhere on the site.
This list could easily be too much, so we also kept it short with just a half-dozen items for now. If you like it, we have plenty more for another list, but we also want to hear your thoughts on it.
1947 to 1955 Kaiser/Frazer/Henry J
Buoyed by his success in the World War II boom of shipping production, Henry J. Kaiser set out with Joseph Frazer to nab a piece of the post-war automotive boom. While the company was doomed by unsolvable economic issues, Kaiser and its upmarket (Frazer) and downmarket (Henry J) brands set the tone for early post-war car styling. Unhindered by pre-war relics, the clean sheet designs proved highly influential to other automakers. Luxurious appointments added to the trend that other American brands would follow and Kaiser, unable to develop their flathead inline-six engine, also became an early adopter of factory supercharging (Check out the first Junkyard Gold to see a supercharged Kaiser!). None of those innovations kept the brand(s) alive, however. The products were good, but the production was expensive and the sales and distribution was behind-the-times. Still, we got some great drag car bodies out of the deal.
1961 to 1963 Pontiac Tempest
In the early 1960s, General Motors pushed major engine-design boundaries with several compact cars. The Buick Special got the small-displacement Buick 215, to which Oldsmobile added turbocharging in the ’62 F-85. However, Pontiac pushed things farthest with the first-generation Tempest. The new nameplate got four-wheel independent suspension, a rear transaxle, and a four-cylinder engine. The engine was half a Pontiac 389, quite literally; the company cut their standard V8 in half to make a 194.5 cubic-inch inline-four. That improved fuel mileage while reusing many engine internals. Ultimately, all of these elements went away with the Tempest’s 1964 redesign and wouldn’t show up in GM designs for decades. It was just too soon, Pontiac, too soon.
1970 to 1974 Dodge Challenger and Plymouth Barracuda
Yes, these are priceless classics now. However, Chrysler’s E-Bodies came a few years too late to affect the original Pony Car wars in earnest. By the time the Challenger and ‘Cuda arrived, Ford and General Motors had already staked out much of the market. Most people hold strong opinions about the Camaro vs. Mustang rivalries while the Challenger and ‘Cuda—and Mopar people in general, some might say—have been outsiders. We think that might have been different had the Mopars gone to market closer to 1967 or 1968.
1967 to 1972 Austin America
The original Austin Mini enjoyed some 1960s success in the United States. However, the Brits wanted to battle Volkswagen’s Beetle for cheap hippie transportation with a version of the ADO16 platform, sold across the world with nearly every British Leyland nameplate like Morris (above). It landed here as the Austin America with front-wheel drive, an automatic transmission, Leyland’s “big block” 1275 cc engine, hydroelastic suspension, and a price competitive with AutoStick-equipped Beetles. While the innovative hydraulic suspension provided a smooth ride and incredible damping, it also suffered from the (sorry) low quality standards of British workmanship but an MGB or a Mini, the complex suspension couldn’t be fixed with a rock and some pluck. It proved no match for the simple and reliable VW.
1973 to 1988 Fiat X1/9
Roadkill editor Elana Scherr loves the little two-seat Fiat (she snapped these photos of an X1/9 in the wild…spot her car in the header photo) and who can blame her? It carries all the hallmarks of the best Italian cars ever built: small, mid-engined, and purposeful-looking. Unfortunately, for all of its gorgeous design the miniscule engine, 1.3 and later 1.5 liters of it, made virtually no power in the rare instances the dang thing worked. Had its existence not spanned the entire Malaise Era, the X1/9 would have been truly remarkable. An engine with higher compression and/or dual-overhead cams could have made it a giant killer.
1988 to 1989 Mazda 323 GTX
Mazda built a modern dream machine in the late 1980s and it wasn’t the RX-7 or the Miata. Instead, the 323 GTX (or “GT-X”) had it all: hatchback body, all-wheel drive with a locking center differential, manual transmission, and turbocharged engine. It had more power (132 horsepower) and had a lower base price ($11,650 in ‘88) than the Honda Civic AWD Wagon, the Subaru RX Turbo, and even the front-wheel-drive Volkswagen GTI.
As you might guess, Mazda built the all-wheel-drive 323 as a low-production racing homologation special, a three-word phrase that describes most of my favorite cars ever built. Mazda sold only 1,243 in the United States, however, which made them rare when new and unicorns now. Many saw duty as race cars and at least one or two still race in American rallies. We doubt Mazda had the ability or will to sell the 323 GTX at high volume at the time, but dang we wish they had.
OK, we’re sure you’re ready to skewer us in the comments, so let us know how far we’ve wandered from sanity this time. While you’re at it, let us know your favorite car that almost, but not quite, got it right.