Five Dumb Car Ideas

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 18, 2016

Pretensions of grandeur, cars trying to be something they’re not. Here five ideas from automotive history that take "fake it 'til you make it" to new lows. Laugh now, but some of these ideas--like the Excalibur--were hits at the time.

Fake convertibles. It was 1979, and Detroit thought that safety regulations meant that actual ragtops were a thing of the past. No American manufacturer offered one that year. So instead, Cadillac invented the Phaeton, a special edition on the massive Coupe deVille that was a $2,029 option package.

The Cadillac Phaeton option cost more than $2,000 in 1979, and all it got you was wire wheel covers and a fake convertible top that wouldn't go down.Did the package make the de Ville sportier? Not at all! It was Detroit’s favorite, an appearance package, adding such features as a custom fake convertible fabric roof treatment (with ugly portholes), flush-mounted “opera lamps,” wire wheel covers and special “Phaeton” scripts.

It looked godawful, but in Cadillac speak it “escalated the already luxurious deVille to new heights in elegance.” Want it in Slate Firemist with a black roof and Antique Slate Gray leather interior? The customer is always right.

Lincoln had a a fake convertible, too. I believe this was the Cartier edition. Not to be outdone, Cadillac rival Lincoln also offered fake convertible tops, complete (as was Cadillac’s) with fake top bows.

Fake Cadillacs. Never heard of the El Morocco? Your life is the poorer.

In 1956 and 1957, a fellow named Reuben Allender, a/k/a “Ruby,” had the bright idea of giving Chevrolet buyers an upgrade that would somehow fool their neighbors into thinking they could afford a Cadillac. With fiberglass (later metal) fins grafted on the tail, the cars (two- and four-door hardtops, plus convertibles) did indeed look like a Cadillac Eldorado—from the back. The front was unchanged, except for some fake “Dagmars,” bumper protectors made (in this case) from some old Dodge headlight shells turned backwards. The interior was stock Chevy, too, though the original owner got his name on the steering wheel boss.

No, that's not a Cadillac--it's a 1957 Chevy El Morocco! Fooled? (Greg Gjerdingen/Flickr) Only a handful of El Moroccos were made—the public wasn’t clamoring for them—which explains why they’re so valuable now. A concours-quality ’57 El Morocco recently traded hands for $140,000. But, of course, a restored ’57 Chevy Bel Air fetches pretty good money, too.

Fake accessories. The J.C. Whitney catalog was a dream book for many a penniless American teenager. It was full of both useful auto accessories and utterly useless junk. In the first category I would put the baby moon hubcaps that were offered at bargain prices. In the latter, how about fake spotlights and dummy twin antennas? I seem to recall fake dual exhausts, too. They were all for appearance only. Kind of like the fake convertible top on the 1979 Cadillac Phaeton. The Whitney catalog still exists, though it's not as flamboyant as it used to be.

The J.C. Whitney catalog was the dream book for car-hungry kids. Fake Miatas. The Miata is a very cool car—I’m a happy owner of one. I would never want it to be something it’s not. But apparently other people do, and that’s why there’s a thriving market for body kits that transform your Miata to, among other things, a 427 Cobra. Sure, it still has a four-cylinder engine, but it looks like a Cobra!

The Alfa-Miata, or something like that.Visit this site, and you’ll see everything from fake Italian sports cars to Lotus 11s, the 1955 MG TF and the iconic 1950s Aston-Martin DBR1. An original DBR1 can fetch MILLIONS but the MEV DBR1 can be had for much, MUCH less!” How does $12,999 sound? It sounds idiotic to me, but…

No, not an Aston-Martin. There's a Mazda Miata somewhere under that body kit.Fake classics. There’s a special corner of hell reserved for cars that—badly—imitate the majestic antiques of old. They’re called “Neo Classics.” The first one I remember is the Excalibur, which insulted the 1920s Mercedes-Benz SSK. It was the brainchild of Brooks Stevens of Studebaker fame, and with a Corvette engine under the long, long hood cost $7,250 (more than twice the price of an actual Corvette). The car was garish in all the worst ways, but there’s no accounting for taste—3,268 were sold.

The Excalibur in all its roccoco glory. Others followed—the Zimmer, Clenet, Tiffany, Sparks, Spartan—all hideous. Hagerty opines:

Ask the man (or woman) who owns one and you’ll get an enthusiastic recitation of a neo-classic’s benefits. It’s a taste of 1930s grandeur, they say, but with greater comfort, driving ease, reliability, serviceability and safety. It’s an affordable slice of heaven on wire-spoke wheels.

If neo-classics somehow appeal to you (it helps if you’re a retired guy in his 60s) then head on down to Bob’s Classics in Clearwater, Florida. Bob has sold 1,600 of them. Just don't ask me to congratulate you on your new purchase. 

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