In this survey of unique cars, we have focused on cars that were actually driven on public roads for at least part of their careers, as distinct from cars used only for racing, experimental cars used only for testing, or show cars used only for display. We've defined "unique" examples as ones with significantly different outward form (and sometimes mechanical elements) than their siblings from the same manufacturer. And we've defined "car manufacturer" as any concern which made automobiles with (at least) engines of their own design, and offered them to the public. We didn't disqualify anyone who was bankrupted by the effort, as this would have eliminated too many interesting cars. Coach builder's names, in parentheses, are preceded by the designer's name where known.
1.) Hispano-Suiza H6C Targa Florio "Tulipwood" (Nieuport Astra, 1924)
Apertif king Andre Dubonnet wanted to race in the Targa Florio, Sicily's high-profile, high-hazard road race. He ordered a big, six-cylinder 8-liter Hispano-Suiza and had French airframe builder Nieuport Astra construct a lightweight body of thin wood strips adhered to a wood subframe with thousands of tiny brass rivets. The tapered boat tail feature appeared on other cars during the 20s, but the teardrop fender forms anticipated shapes that were to arrive in the mid-30s. The completed body allegedly weighed around 160 pounds, and the engine in this car made 195 hp. It finished 6th in the Targa Florio. Dubonnet used it as his road car for awhile, and today it seems less a forecast of later road racers than a sort of land-bound yacht, with all the beauty and maintenance headaches of a wooden boat.
2.) Hispano-Suiza Xenia (Andreau for Saoutchik,1938)
Dubonnet was also an amateur inventor. In 1927, he patented a system of independent front suspension which was later used by General Motors and licensed to Alfa Romeo. Later in life, he nearly went bankrupt financing solar energy experiments. But in the meantime, he must have noticed that his old Tulipwood Hispano was beginning to look like a used car. So, in order to showcase his patented suspension and his ideas on aerodynamics, he commissioned Jean Andreau to design a body using his ideas (sliding doors, curved panoramic windows) and had Hispano supply a new chassis. Jacques Saoutchik's Paris workshops formed the complex curved panels, and Dubonnet named the result after his late wife. Compared with the tulipwood Hispano, Xenia is another step away from the horseless carriage approach to car design, with teardrop forms flowing around a glassy canopy which anticipated those on jet fighters. The doors, sliding on cleverly hidden pivoting arms, would appear on minivans in the mid-80s, and the lifted, elongated tail section predicts Le Mans streamliners of the 60s. It seems Dubonnet forgot to patent the panoramic glass, which General Motors borrowed for its own cars in the 1950s.
3.) Alfa Romeo BAT 5, 7 & 9 (Scaglione for Bertone, 1953-55)
Struggling coachbuilder Nuccio Bertone wanted to get Alfa Romeo's attention, so he had Franco Scaglione design a series of experimental cars to test aerodynamic theories (the Berlina Aerodinamica Tecnicas). Three of the cars were built and tested, and they worked as Bertone had hoped. BAT 7 had a Cd of 0.19, which means it had unusually low wind resistance even by today's standards. The wild fins recall manta rays more than bats, and were supposed to increase directional stability. Just after the series began, Bertone got the contract to build Alfa's breakout mass-market sports coupe, the Giulietta 1300 Sprint. The BATs were later sold and exported to the United States, where #7 performed regular duty hauling kids to high school in LA. Where else? The car probably fit right in with a generation that watched "The Jetsons" on TV…
4.) Ferrari 375 MM for Ingrid Bergman (Pininfarina, 1954)
Movie director Roberto Rossellini liked Ferraris, and had raced one in Italy's thousand-mile race, the Mille Miglia. When his fate collided with that of actress Ingrid Bergman, he decided to give her a similar car, but one with more comforts than a racing car could offer. He commissioned Pinin Farina to design and build this one-off coupe. The parabolic coves behind the front wheels were adopted by GM for the 1956-62 Corvettes, while the flat rear window with flanking sail panels appeared on 1966-67 GM intermediates, the 1968-77 Corvette, and on the Jaguar XJS in 1975. As GM Styling VP Bill Mitchell later suggested in connection with the Cadillac Seville, "If you're going to rob somebody, rob a bank, not a delicatessen."
5.) Nardi Lancia Blu Ray II (Michelotti for Vignale, 1958)
Enrico Nardi built race car chassis, modified engines for racing, and most famously built wood and aluminum steering wheels. The first Blu Ray was built to publicize this business, and used a race-tuned Lancia V6 engine and transaxle under a wild alloy body. It toured the show circuit and was then sold in the U.S. Three years later it was joined by Blu Ray II, also with a Lancia drivetrain but this time tuned for road use, and with a steel body. Two-toning was a 50s theme, but usually applied as a sort of afterthought to slab-sided cars and bordered by chrome strips. Blu Ray is different in that the contrasting colors follow the forms of the air intake and roof, as well as the indented panel on the car's flanks which leads the eye forward to the trim, tapered snout. Blu Ray II also made its way to America, and in the 70s was sold by a collector to 18 year-old enthusiast Jim Simpson at the exact moment it was in transit from Captivating Used Car to Captive Museum Exhibit. Jim had been discouraged to discover that minions of Harrah's Museum had arrived on the same day to make an offer. Still, the owner suggested he take a test drive. He must have liked the way young Jim handled the car, because he sold it to him for $500 under the asking price, and well under Harrah's offer. I like to think this guy was betting on his old car giving more enjoyment on the road than as a static museum display. As it turned out, Jim Simpson restored Blu Ray II and drove it for 16 years, in the meantime tracking down and restoring Blu Ray I as well. And later on he designed and built a Blu Ray III as a tribute to his first automotive love.
6.) Alfa Romeo Canguro (Giugiaro for Bertone, 1964)
Bertone's new twenty-something design chief Giorgetto Giugiaro designed this car on the tubular chassis Alfa made for its TZ series of road racing cars. Cutting the door windows into the roof made entry easier, and along with the arc of vents marching down the fender flanks, helped emphasize the pleasingly tactile curvilinear forms. It's always seemed a shame there was only one Canguro built. Alfa's competitors (as in Porsche) must have sighed with relief when Alfa declined to advance the project beyond the prototype stage. The Canguro (Italian for kangaroo) was later sold, wrecked, and rebuilt, but it still looks like a fresh new idea…
7.) Serenissima Ghia (Tjaarda for Ghia, 1968)
Depending upon whom you believe and how you count, at least 3 and maybe 4 car companies were started by unhappy former customers of Enzo Ferrari: A.T.S., Lamborghini, Iso and Serenissima. Two of these companies received financing from Count Volpi di Misurata, a customer for Ferrari race cars who offended the big man by financing A.T.S., a competing sports and race car outfit staffed by Ferrari exiles. After building maybe a dozen cars with bickering partners at A.T.S., the Count decided to build everything for his own team, including chassis and engines. He also supplied engines for the McLaren Formula One team for awhile, gaining them their first point in GP competition. The relevance of Serenissima to the history of one-off cars is that they are possibly alone among modern car makers in that they never built even two cars alike. All of the 7 cars I've been able to track were different. The Ghia-bodied car was especially unique in that according to Volpi, even its 4-cam engine shared no parts with the other Serenissima V8s...not that even these devices were common; there may have been less than a dozen in all. American Tom Tjaarda's design resembles a glassy interpretation of the DeTomaso Mangusta (also built by Ghia), with its steeply sloped windshield and strong horizontal crease connecting the wheels, and adds engaging details like an exposed roll bar which appears to have been drilled for lightness. Ghia attempted to interest Volpi in producing this prototype road car for sale, but he quickly realized that building cars might do to his bottom line what open-ended science experiments had done to Dubonnet's. So he took the car home after its tour of the auto shows, and used it to drive to the races…
8.) Maserati Boomerang (Giugiaro for Ital Design, 1972-3)
After graduating from running design at Bertone and then Ghia (where he designed the Mangusta discussed in #7), Giugiaro started his own firm, Ital Design, and his explorations of form moved away from compound curves and parabolic sections to what's commonly called The Wedge, eventually giving us the VW Golf 1, Lotus Esprit, and BMW M1. Before those cars, however, he launched the Boomerang, a mid-engined V8 show car based on the running gear of his then-current Maserati Bora production car. Boomerang seemed to harbor references to 2001: Space Odyssey as well as the architecture of the day, with its glass infill between slim metal framing elements. The overall effect grabbed the attention of potential clients among the bigger car makers as hoped, and brought more attention to the interior design of cars; note that the stationary instruments and switchgear are encircled by the spokes and rim of the steering wheel. This car was eventually sold, disappeared and was thought lost. Many years later it resurfaced in Spain, where a wandering car-spotter spied it in a disco parking lot, a perfect place for a well-loved relic of a lost future we thought would involve personal helicopters and supersonic travel for Everyman. Today it's back on the auto show circuit, where the red carpet rolled out for Maserati's 100-year anniversary.
9.) Postscript: Dream Makers
This picture shows the Serenissima team between races, gathered in front of their workshops and maybe 75% of their total production; the 6th of 7 or 8 different cars is barely visible on the right. Technology experts have predicted that rapid progress in 3D printers, as well as computer-guided tooling, may make it economically feasible to tailor cars to order again, reviving the era of the one-off. One wonders if they will be self-driving electrics...
2.) Front and rear views: Wikimedia; side view: Fabwheelsdigest.com
4.) Front view: Stuff.co.nz; rear view: Carbar.no
7.) Serenissima Automobili
8.) Overhead view: Ital Design Giugiaro; interior: Ototrends.net
9.) Serenissima Automobili