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Beautiful losers

  • The good die young

    Building cars was, is and always will be a cut-throat endeavour. The last few years alone have taught us that not every automaker, no matter how large or legendary, can weather the ebbs and tides of shifting resources and tastes. Take Saab, the once successful Swedish firm that went from winning rallies to filing bankruptcy papers.

    But there were others – many others – that rode a wave of anticipation to the production line, only to go belly-up shortly thereafter. Arguably the most famous of these is set to be auctioned on 9 March: the Tucker.

    On the eve of that car’s impending sale, we present a survey of some of the most memorable cars that, like James Dean, burned hot and died young.

  • Tucker 48

    The Tucker 48, also known as the Tucker Torpedo, was born out of a prohibition-era policeman’s fantasy – a saga depicted in the 1988 Francis Ford Coppola film Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Preston Tucker envisaged an innovative vehicle that would surpass the competition in every measurable way, satisfying postwar America’s hunger for passenger vehicles in the process.

    The rear-engined machine Tucker designed was not only pleasing to the eye but filled with firsts, such as a directional third headlamp, a patented collapsible steering column and other pioneering safety features. Alas, a brief economic downturn and negative publicity shadowed the car’s innovations, and the ailing company was shuttered in 1949.

    Only 51 cars were built, among them the example above, serial number 1003. RM Auctions, which consigned the vehicle for its 9 March event at Amelia Island, in northern Florida, notes that the vehicle previously belonged to George Lucas, who produced Coppola’s biopic. The Tucker carries a pre-auction estimate of $1.5m to $1.9m. (Pawel Litwinski/RM Auctions)

  • Bricklin SV-1

    Malcolm Bricklin is no stranger to the automotive industry, having sold the first Subaru franchises in North America in the late 1960s, and brought the bargain-basement Yugo passenger car to US shores in the 1980s. But between these two ventures came Bricklin’s passion project.

    The entrepreneur devised a plan to create a sports car company bearing his name. In the 1970s, he successfully sought financial backing from the Canadian government, and the SV-1, or Safety Vehicle 1, was born in the province of New Brunswick. The coupe included safety features well before proposed government mandates, including a roll cage, gull-wing doors with side impact beams and a fibreglass body painted according to a “safety” colour palette. But the safety equipment’s heft made for sluggish performance, and reliability plagued the company from the outset. Bricklin’s firm filed for bankruptcy in 1976, having sold fewer than 3,000 cars.

    Examples have been known to surface on eBay Motors for under $10,000. (RM Auctions)

  • Kaiser Darrin

    The Darrin was the last passenger car from Kaiser Motors. Designed by Howard Darrin, an American trained in the art of coachbuilding – whereby a firm designs a bespoke body for its client’s Duesenberg, Packard, Rolls-Royce or other prestigious conveyance – the Darrin was a fibreglass-bodied roadster with a retractable vinyl roof that could be partially raised to create a landeau-style cover. Perhaps its most unusual feature was its sliding doors, which retracted into the front fender. This defining design element drew on Darrin’s early experience working with Otis elevators. Having purchased Willys-Overland in 1953, Kaiser decided to exit the passenger car market. Just 435 Darrin models were produced when production ceased in 1954, making them sought-after collectibles.

    RM Auctions, the company that consigned the Tucker for Amelia Island, sold the 1954 Darrin pictured above for $99,000 in January 2012. (RM Auctions)

  • Stout Scarab

    The brainchild of William B Stout, the Scarab is widely recognised for having invented the minivan typology. Conceived in 1932, the vehicle’s body was modelled on an aircraft’s fuselage, with the engine at the rear. Its modular interior, meanwhile, featured a flat floor, unusual for its day.

    For automakers in ensuing decades, the Scarab would function as a Rosetta Stone of innovations. It was the first vehicle to feature unibody aluminium spaceframe construction, four-wheel independent suspension and a powertrain layout that would be adopted 30 years later by Lamborghini. All of this innovation, however, came at a dear price – roughly five times that of a luxury sedan at the time. Though widely discredited for its unappealing aesthetic in 1936, the vehicle is now considered a touchstone of Art Deco vehicle design. Only nine were produced, the last prototype having rolled off the line in 1946. (Owls Head Transportation Museum)

  • Zimmer Quicksilver

    Based on a chassis and running gear donated by a Pontiac Fiero, the 1984 Quicksilver was a departure for a car company known for producing neo-classic automobiles like the Golden Spirit, pictured above in the background. Penned by former General Motors designer Don Johnson, the Quicksilver was assembled at the company’s Florida headquarters. The long hood was merely there for show, as the Pontiac’s mid-mounted V6 engine still beat behind the passenger compartment. Though longer than the donor Fiero, the Quicksilver’s body was again made of fibreglass and adorned with acres of chrome. The interior was far more lavishly appointed, however, with Italian leather and burl walnut trim –necessities, really, to justify the $52,000 conversion. Four years later, the company succumbed to financial hardship and declared bankruptcy.

    With only around 200 examples known to exist, Quicksilvers are rarely spotted in the wild. When they do come up for sale, it is at a fraction of their original asking price. (Zimmer)

  • Vector W8

    In 1971, Gerald Weigert was just a young man with a plan. Fresh out of college, he wanted to build fast cars and, after several years of trial and error, he built the W8, his first production-bound car. With avionic rivets and a massive 6-litre twin-turbocharged Ford-sourced V8 producing 625 horsepower and 630 pound-feet of torque mounted behind the cockpit, the W8 was a formidable performer. Weigert claimed his creation could surpass 220mph – astounding performance for 1989, when it went on sale. Weigert had clearly spared no expense making his dream come true, and it was reflected in the car’s $455,000 sticker price, which exceeded that of the Ferrari F40, a benchmarked supercar that has gone on to become catnip at collector-car auctions. Production of the W8 ended in 1993. Just 17 W8s found homes.

    RM Auctions sold the pristine W8 pictured above in 2010 for £179,200 ($287,000).

    In the dark recesses of the internet, however, stirs what may be the second coming of Vector Motors, promising cars with 2,000 horsepower. Some dreams, apparently, die hard. (RM Auctions)