Are you bored at work today? Want to burn an hour, or a week, reading random words on a website? Allow me to suggest TV Tropes, a place where people compulsively and joyously overthink the basic ideas behind television shows, movies, literature, and other media. As a lifelong storyteller, I have been fascinated with the “Tropers” for about a decade now. One of my favorite pages on the site is Early Installment Weirdness.
What’s that, you ask? Well, consider the first episode of Seinfeld. Kramer is “Kessler,” Elaine doesn’t exist, and the show itself is called The Seinfeld Chronicles. Once you’ve trained yourself to look for Early Installment Weirdness, you will find it everywhere from Friends to Harry Potter books to the Seventies-era Star Wars spinoff novel Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye, in which lightsabers require regular recharging and Luke has a fairly zesty relationship with Leia.
As you’d expect, the automotive world has plenty of Early Installment Weirdness. Sometimes it’s because the first car to bear a particular brand or nameplate has an usual origin story, sometimes it’s because a vehicle changes significantly to meet popular demand, and sometimes it’s just because the weirdness in question was more like plain stupidity.
Come along with me and let’s discover a few of the best examples:
- The original Corvette wasn’t exactly a rip-snorting world-beater; it was an ungainly-looking miniaturization of Harley Earl’s big-car styling ideas, powered by a prosaic combination of standard-saloon inline-six and two-speed Powerglide automatic. The much-ballyhooed fiberglass construction made it heavy and noisy. There was no coupe option and no V8. Overall, it had virtually no redeeming values and if a fellow named Zora Arkus-Duntov hadn’t gotten involved to square the whole mess away, “Corvette” would be as obscure a nameplate now as “Nash Metropolitan."
- Speaking of Chevrolets… Some people think that the original Suburbans were cars. They weren’t, strictly speaking, being built on truck-style chassis from the very beginning. But there was some Early Installment Weirdness in the form of the 1967-1972 models, which had two doors on the passenger side but one on the driver’s side, sort of like a Veloster but not really. Why was this a good idea? In retrospect, it was a halfway point between the two-door previous generations and the 1973 four-door, which set the Suburban template as “four-door station wagon on Club Cab length chassis.” Put it this way: only for the second half of its eighty-three-year run has a Suburban actually looked like what we think of as a Suburban.
- The first Lexus RX, known as Toyota Harrier in its home market, had two unique styling features meant to emphasize its unique shape: bi-level front lamps with a body-color panel separating the headlights from the turn signals, and a faux-wraparound rear window that, from certain angles, made the RX look like an ES300 sedan. The second-generation vehicle dispensed with both in favor of a visible C-pillar and unified headlights. When you see an original RX now, take a hard look at it; it shares very little with its successors.
- A significant percentage of first-generation Civics sold in the United States were “coupes” that looked almost exactly like hatchbacks but which had just a small “trunklid” opening between the taillights. Oh, and the only Accord bodystyle available for the car’s first year of production was the three-door fastback hatch, something that hasn’t even been available for the last thirty years.
- Similarly, both the Toyota Camry and Nissan Stanza (later Altima) made their Stateside debuts in the early Eighties as five-door hatchbacks, assuming standard sedan forms shortly afterwards. A completely unrelated JDM Nissan van, the dual-sliding-door Prairie, was sold here as the Nissan Stanza wagon before being renamed “Axxess” for the second generation.
- The first examples of the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow weren’t just unique for their compact size, unibody construction, and disc brakes; they also featured Citroen-designed hydro-pneumatic suspension that could artificially level the car. In 1969, the Shadow was simplified by returning the front end to standard springs and shocks; shortly afterwards, the whole system was pitched.
- 1984’s Toyota 4Runner, like the second-gen Ford Bronco and the K5 “squarebody” Blazer, had a removable fiberglass top. It was considered indispensable to California beach bums and a real hassle by everyone else, so subsequent versions mimicked Nissan’s Pathfinder and its steel top over an odd window arrangement before settling down and just turning into four-door SUVs.
- Everyone knows that the NA-platform Miata is the only one with pop-up headlights– but only hardcore Miata fans know that it also featured a wide variety of chrome trim pieces and design features meant to evoke the Lotus Elan, including tiny one-finger door handles. All of that was unceremoniously dumped for the NB, never to return.
- Dodge’s D-Series pickup trucks included a “Club Cab” option in 1973, which was basically the “extended cab” as we know it today. At the time, the company thought it wouldn’t catch on, so the Club Cabs were built on temporary tooling. When the dealers filled the order books and then some, permanent Club Cab fixtures were made, and the resulting trucks were subtly different in construction and operation. But Dodge got cold feet and canceled the model in 1984, putting said fixtures in storage. In 1991, they brought it back for a relatively short production run before the new Ram arrived as a 1994 model.
- The mighty Toyota Supra started as nothing but a Celica with a longer nose and a straight-six installed–a surgery that was relatively common on Japanese cars built in the Seventies and, as we will see below, happened in even odder forms elsewhere. The second-generation car was designed to be sporty rather than luxurious, but it still shared everything behind the A-pillar with the Celica GT-S. Only when the base Celica went front-wheel-drive did the Supra get its own engineering package.
- Both the Acura Vigor and the first-gen Acura TL were nothing but home-market Accords with a unique and expensive feature: five-cylinder engines mounted north-south instead of east-west. It made almost no practical difference in how they rode or drove, so all future TL and TLX models returned to transverse engines.
- Other cars that appeared with manual transmissions in this market only to have them disappear within a few years: Honda CR-V, Lexus SC300, the 1990 Mercedes 300SL, Ford Taurus MT-5, Ford Explorer Sport (three-door), Ford Explorer XL (five-door), Ford Explorer Sport Trac (pickup), BMW 735i (E32 generation), Land Rover Discovery.
- Finally, my favorite Early Installment Weirdness of all: As I’ve discussed a few times in the past on these pages, upscale variants of the A-body mid-size sedans from General Motors were initially released in “aeroback” form, reverting to traditional three-box silhouettes after the market declared its complete and utter disgust with the Crossfire-esque shape of the thing. Eventually, they will all rust away and it will be like it never happened.
I’m sure my readers can come up with many more examples of Early Installment Weirdness – feel free to discuss them on the . The real question is: What vehicles of today are going to be seen in retrospect as weird early efforts? I’d suggest that nobody really yet knows what form a truly useful electric car should take. The minute that someone figures it out, everything from the Bolt to the Model S is going to immediately turn into Early Installment Weirdness. As far as I’m concerned, it can’t happen a moment too soon or, as Seinfeld’s Kessler never actually said in the first episode, “Giddyup.”