Wheels of Wonder: Extraordinary Cars That Defied Automotive Norms

Explore the world's most extraordinary cars in "Wheels of Wonder." From the Ghost Car of 1939 to the Antarctic Snow Cruiser, discover vehicles that defied norms and captured imaginations.

By Euna Mosciski
Oct 26, 2023
25 Minutes
Wheels of Wonder: Extraordinary Cars That Defied Automotive Norms

In the annals of automotive history, certain names and models stand out—icons that have shaped our understanding of what a car can be. Yet, beyond the limelight of these celebrated machines lie stories of extraordinary vehicles that dared to defy convention. These are the cars that pushed the boundaries of technology, challenged the status quo, and captured the world's imagination, if only for a fleeting moment. From transparent marvels to steam-powered dreams, from three-wheeled wonders to behemoths designed for icy wastelands, these unique cars offer a fascinating glimpse into the daring and often audacious spirit of automotive innovation. Welcome to "Wheels of Wonder," a journey through the most unique and captivating cars that have ever graced the roads—or in some cases, failed to do so. Prepare to be amazed, puzzled, and perhaps even bewildered, as we delve into these remarkable tales of human ingenuity and ambition.

The Ghost Car of 1939

In the bustling streets of New York City, the year was 1939. The New York World's Fair had just opened its gates, and people from all walks of life poured in to witness "The World of Tomorrow." Among the marvels of technology and visions of the future, one exhibit stood out like a gemstone in a sea of rocks—the Ghost Car, a fully transparent automobile.

The Ghost Car was a Pontiac Deluxe Six, but not just any Pontiac. Its exterior was made entirely of Plexiglas, a material that had been developed just a few years prior. The car was a collaboration between General Motors and Rohm & Haas Company, the inventors of Plexiglas. It was a spectacle to behold, a car that seemed to be sculpted out of a single block of crystal.

As visitors approached the car, they could see its innards in full detail, from the meticulously crafted dashboard to the complex machinery under the hood. The seats were upholstered in white leather, and all the metal hardware inside was chrome-plated. It was as if someone had turned the car inside out, revealing its deepest secrets while maintaining its elegance.

But why create a transparent car? The Ghost Car was more than just a showpiece; it was a statement about the future of automotive design and engineering. It demonstrated the potential of new materials like Plexiglas in revolutionizing how cars could be built. It also served as a testament to the ingenuity of American engineering at a time when the world was on the brink of war.

The Ghost Car toured the United States after its debut, drawing crowds wherever it went. However, as World War II escalated, the focus shifted from innovations for the future to the immediate needs of the present. The Ghost Car was eventually sold at auction and passed through various owners, its luster fading with time.

Yet, the legend of the Ghost Car lives on. It remains an enduring symbol of a time when the future seemed boundless, and when a transparent car could capture the imagination of an entire nation.

The Locomobile - The Steam-Powered Dream

The year was 1899, and the world was on the cusp of a new century. In Watertown, Massachusetts, two engineers, Francis and Freelan Stanley, were about to make history. They had developed a steam-powered car, a contraption that looked more like a horseless carriage than the automobiles we know today. They called it the Locomobile.

The Stanley brothers were not the first to experiment with steam power, but they were among the first to see its commercial potential. Their Locomobile was compact, easy to operate, and could reach speeds of up to 25 miles per hour—a marvel for its time. It ran on a mixture of gasoline and water, producing steam that powered the pistons. The car had no gears, no clutch, and no crankshaft; it was simplicity itself.

The Locomobile caught the eye of a wealthy investor, Amzi Barber, who bought the rights to the vehicle and started the Locomobile Company of America. The company produced hundreds of these steam-powered cars, marketing them as the "Best Built Car in America." For a brief moment, it seemed like steam cars would dominate the future of transportation.

However, the Locomobile had its flaws. The boiler took time to heat up, and the car was prone to breakdowns. As gasoline engines became more reliable and easier to use, the Locomobile started to lose its appeal. The company eventually shifted to gasoline engines, but the magic was gone. The steam-powered Locomobile faded into obscurity, becoming a footnote in automotive history.

But the story of the Locomobile serves as a poignant reminder of the paths not taken. It was a car that dared to be different, challenging the norms of its time. And for a brief, shining moment, it offered a glimpse into a future that could have been—a world where steam-powered cars roamed the streets, and where the Locomobile was king.

The Davis Divan - The Three-Wheeled Wonder

In the post-war glow of 1940s America, a charismatic entrepreneur named Gary Davis had a vision. He saw a future where cars didn't just have four wheels—they could have three. Davis was not an engineer or a designer; he was a dreamer with a knack for selling ideas. And his idea was the Davis Divan, a three-wheeled car that promised to revolutionize the automotive industry.

The Davis Divan was unlike anything people had seen. Its sleek, aerodynamic body was inspired by airplanes, and its third wheel made it look like something out of a science fiction novel. Davis claimed that the car's unique design made it more stable and fuel-efficient than traditional four-wheeled vehicles. He envisioned fleets of Davis Divans filling American highways, forever changing the way people traveled.

To bring his vision to life, Davis founded the Davis Motorcar Company and set up shop in an old aircraft hangar in Van Nuys, California. He hired a team of engineers and craftsmen, many of whom were veterans looking for a fresh start. Together, they built a prototype of the Davis Divan and showcased it to the public.

The car generated buzz almost immediately. People were intrigued by its futuristic design and the audacity of its creator. Davis even managed to secure orders from celebrities and businesses, further fueling the hype. It seemed like the Davis Divan was destined for greatness.

However, the dream soon unraveled. Production delays and financial troubles plagued the company. Davis was accused of fraud, and investigations revealed that he had used funds from new investors to pay off old debts. The Davis Motorcar Company was shut down, and the Davis Divan became a symbol of failed ambition.

Despite its downfall, the Davis Divan has earned a cult following over the years. It remains a fascinating chapter in automotive history, a testament to the power of vision and the pitfalls of hubris. Though it never changed the world as Gary Davis had hoped, the Davis Divan continues to captivate those who wonder what might have been if a three-wheeled car had taken the world by storm.

The Antarctic Snow Cruiser - The Behemoth on Ice

In the late 1930s, the world's eyes were on Antarctica. Nations were vying for territorial claims, and scientific exploration was at its peak. Amidst this backdrop, a colossal vehicle emerged from the depths of American ingenuity—the Antarctic Snow Cruiser. Designed for the United States Antarctic Service Expedition, this massive machine was intended to conquer the frozen wastelands like no vehicle before it.

The Snow Cruiser was a marvel of engineering. Measuring 55 feet in length and weighing 37 tons, it was designed to be a mobile research laboratory. It featured living quarters, a darkroom for developing photographs, and even a small aircraft mounted on its roof. Its tires were 10 feet in diameter, designed to traverse the treacherous Antarctic terrain. The vehicle was so large that it had to be transported in pieces to Boston, where it would embark on its journey to the frozen continent.

When the Snow Cruiser was unveiled to the public, it captured imaginations instantly. Newspapers hailed it as a "mechanical marvel," and thousands gathered to witness its departure from Boston Harbor. The vehicle was loaded onto a ship and set sail for Antarctica, carrying with it the hopes and dreams of a nation.

However, the Antarctic Snow Cruiser faced challenges from the moment it arrived. The vehicle's massive tires struggled to gain traction on the icy surface, and its weight caused it to sink into the snow. Despite modifications and attempts to improve its performance, the Snow Cruiser failed to live up to expectations. It was eventually abandoned, left to the mercy of the Antarctic elements.

For years, the Snow Cruiser was considered lost, until it was rediscovered in the 1950s by another expedition. Attempts were made to salvage it, but the harsh conditions made it impossible. The last known photographs of the Snow Cruiser show it partially buried in snow, a silent monument to human ambition and folly.

The Antarctic Snow Cruiser serves as a humbling lesson in the challenges of conquering nature's extremes. It remains one of the most audacious and enigmatic vehicles ever built, a symbol of the relentless human drive to explore the unknown—even when faced with insurmountable odds.

And so concludes our journey through the most unique cars throughout history. Each of these vehicles tells a story of innovation, ambition, and the complexities of human endeavor. They are testaments to the ever-evolving landscape of automotive history, capturing the essence of an industry that continues to push the boundaries of what is possible.