|The debut of the Lotus 49 awakened in me the realization
that racing cars could be beautiful in an aesthetic way, quite apart from their qualities
as machines. There are real elements of an art form in many cars, although art was not
their builders' goal. Prior to the 49 I understood that cars could have pleasant
appearances. But Chapman's original, pure 1967 creation with the absolutely perfect
proportion of tire, engine and body; the exquisite clash at 3/4 body length of the
graceful, minimalist cockpit-nose with the gleaming, faceted complexity of the Cosworth
and rear suspension; the rakish termination of the dainty exhaust pipes; the simultaneous
visual suggestions of great fragility and indomitable authority; transcended the
mechanical world and passed into the universe of classic beauty. Alas, it is often
characteristic of the beautiful that it is ephemeral. The '67 Lotus 49 lived less than a
As there is no figure without ground, no yin without yang,
so it is that beauty cannot exist in the absence of ugliness. This article therefore pays
tribute to ugly Grand Prix cars. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, true ugliness is
probably more universally agreed upon. I therefore expect not to step on many toes with my
selections, but if I do offend your sensibilities, feel free to rebut my opinions.
A scale of ugliness might be useful. I suggest a range of 1
to 10, with a 1 being awarded any car whose appearance would impress a minor wrinkle of
distress upon the brow, and a 10 being awarded any car one would not expose to small
children or persons with heart problems.
The introduction of advanced aerodynamics to racing
requires us to consider two separate eras of ugliness: "before wings" and
"since wings". The latter will certainly gather the lion's share of the prizes.
With this in mind we might as well give the initial award
to ...... the Lotus 49. This would be the 1968 version with the spoiler engine cover and
the big, screen-door-awning wings set on long poles above the nose and tail. Yes, the ones
that tended to collapse at inconvenient moments putting Hill and Rindt into the Armco.
Actually, almost all of the cars that season sported these monstrosities, so let us award
6's to the whole sorry collection.
Low wings are sufficiently homely as to earn virtually
every car since 1969 at least a 3. A few teams, such as Brabham and McLaren, would at
certain times and circuits during the late '70s and early '80s divest their cars of front
wings in the interest of proper setup. These get a 2. And the early Lotus 72 wedge
possessed so many virtues of form to offset the vices of its wings that it will be the
only "since wings" car to get no award at all.
There was a period during the late '70s when particular
marquee, notably March, BRM and Brabham, eschewed discrete front wings in favor of one
giant piece of body-work that fanned out to envelop the leading surfaces of the front
tires. No way was this the path to reducing the unsightliness of front wings. These
machines were sufficiently reminiscent of (at least the nose) of the car that will
presently be awarded top prize that we will give them 6's.
Maybe it's because the '70's just seemed to be a time of
disaster for good taste, but that decade produced additional F1 offensiveness. The tire
regs. brought forth big, fat balloons for rears and small, black things for fronts.
Tyrrell is to be commended for conceding the obvious and mounting four itsy-bitsy fronts,
thereby revealing the ridiculousness of the trend. For rendering this service the
six-wheel Tyrrell, which otherwise would rank highly, gets only the standard 3 noted
above. Having praised Tyrrell, this is probably a good point at which to chide them for
first bringing into F1 the now ubiquitous high noses and low-slung front wings, and the
(fortunately) not ubiquitous recent "rear view mirror" winglets. Actually, the
Tyrrell winglets suggest a special awards category: tiny ugly aerodynamic devices. Other
competitors could include the mini wing on the "cruise ship" McLaren, and the
micro nose wings, also on the contemporary Tyrrell.
Add 2 to all the '70s cars with great big air boxes perched
on top of naked engines (e.g., certain of the Marches).
It is probably good to reiterate that the judgements made
here say nothing about the performance of the machines being considered. An eyesore that
wins is undoubtedly a thing of beauty to its driver and team. Scheckter and Ferrari may
very well have felt this way in 1979 regarding the 312 T4. Picture a cereal box laid flat
with a tire at each corner. The usual rear airfoil is present and a cockpit is cut out of
the middle of the box. Cantilevered off the nose is a cone supporting at its pointy end a
shovel-like structure serving as the front wing. If a predecessor to this car was
nicknamed the "snowplow", then this must have been the "super
snowplow". Ferrari themselves applied the term "ugly" to it. It would
sometimes appear in public missing the body work covering the roll bar and driver's air
supply bottle. One of the worst slanders that can be made against an F1 car is that its
appearance would be improved by adding one of those outsized '70s airboxes, but this I
fear is true of the 312 T4. However, it won for Ferrari and the South African the
manufacturer's and driver's World Championships, and for Villeneuve second in the points.
Not withstanding this, it gets a 7.
It should be evident by now that we must generally look to
the "before wings" era to find cars which earn none of the sort of recognition
being dispensed here. Nevertheless, the mid '60s and earlier years can claim a share of
ugly Grand Prix cars. To begin with, none of the first rear-engined Formula 1 cars looked
good with skinny tires. Give them all a 5, including Brabham's championship Cooper and
Moss' Rob Walker Lotus (the latter added insult to artistic injury by sometimes turning
out minus portions of the side of the cockpit, presumably in deference to comfortable
ventilation for Moss). The first rear-engined cars must have represented a real shock to
discriminating connoisseurs of Formula 1 machinery. While the American Indianapolis racers
never did figure out how to make a good looking front-engined car, Mercedes, Ferrari,
Alpha Romeo and Maserati (though not Vanwall) at various times produced magnificent
front-engined machines. Chapman and Lotus served well the cause of racing beauty by
helping put the Indianapolis roadsters out of existence, but they served it poorly by
abetting the advent of bicycle-wheeled cigars into F1 at the cost of the front-engined
The car that takes top prize, rear-engined category, is, of
course, the notorious 1934 - '37 formula Auto Union. The practical Ferdinand Porsche would
throughout his career never shy away from producing a homely vehicle if that served his
purpose. The mid-'30s Auto Union was a performer for sure, although evidently almost as
difficult to race as to look at. With the driver jammed right up behind the chopped-off
nose and squeezed at the rear by the fuel tank and huge V16 engine the thing was
grotesque. And just as in the late '50s and early '60s there were those skinny tires. Give
it an 8. In reverse testament to the adage that beauty is only skin deep, when enclosed in
an all-enveloping German racing silver body for record-breaking runs the 1937 version was
transformed, Cinderella-like, into one of the handsomest of all Grand Prix cars.
It is hard to pass judgement on the appearances of cars
constructed prior to the mid-30's. If the design and manufacture of automobiles was past
its infancy, then it certainly was still in its childhood. Tires were not much more than
particularly tough inner tubes, sheet metal work was unsophisticated, bonnets were often
strapped shut with leather belts, engine cranks were sometimes permanently attached
fixtures, etc. It would probably not be fair of us, possessing the bias resulting from
having at hand the fruits of modern manufacturing technology and materials, to judge these
machines too closely. We do, however, need to reach back to 1923 to find our all-time
ugliest Grand Prix car. This distinction falls upon the T30 Bugatti, a louvered, armor-
plated racing car from hell that could easily have passed for a section of superstructure
from a Civil War iron-clad. The designers' minds were in the right place in attempting to
create a streamlined shape (it had some of the lines of several '70s F1 cars, and, for
that matter, of the original PS2 mouse) but their aesthetic senses were definitely out to
lunch. This assault on the eyeball will get the only 9.
We can probably cease at this point, having at least
skimmed the cream of Grand Prix ugliness. I suppose I should not close the matter without
addressing one obvious question: why no 10? As far as I'm concerned, there can be no car,
indeed no self-powered, moving machine of any sort, that is without any redeeming visual
qualities, be they only the beauties of motion and of intricate assembly. Photocopiers,
microwave ovens and certain medical apparatus definitely earn a 10, but a racing car will
never get one from me.