What's the worst thing you could imagine adorning a car? We've come up with the ten automotive trends that could result in the ultimate motoring monstrosity: A denim-interior, wood-paneled sedan with a vinyl roof, spinners, flame decals, two-tone paint, a monstrous wing on the back that carries a Baby on Board sign, fuzzy dice and wheel-mounted shifters inside. Pretty cool, huh? We thought not. But how can something so wrong occasionally feel so right? We look at the ten worst automotive trends of all time, and scratch our collective heads accordingly.
Can you say wannabe? The trend continues apace for the taking of factory-stock hatchbacks, often in terrible condition, and adding the latest in customization gadgets to the exterior to make them appear fast. This began in the 1980s with the rise of Japanese imports and continues to this day. Think oversize wings, side skirts, flared wheel arches, glow bars, rims, fake hood scoops and vents, LED lighting, lowered chassis heights and everything else that somehow serves only to attract the attention of the highway patrol and police officers looking for cars with stolen parts. These wannabes are separated by expert customizers by the lack of anything new or improved installed under their hood. And, of course, the fact that their cars break down a lot.
If you're following the current trend for oversized wheels -- think 22-inch-plus -- you'll notice that few of them now come with "spinners" -- those spinning discs on the outside of wheel casings that continue to rotate when the car comes to a halt. A must-have for enthusiasts 10-15 years ago and popular in the hip-hop community, spinners have since gone the way of velour interiors -- and velour jumpsuits -- and novelty mudguards. A quick check to our local wheel shop, Performance Plus in Long Beach, Calif., reveals not a single spinner among the about 200 types of wheel displayed on its walls. Our man in the shop's accounts department tells me that demand for spinners is now "non-existent. We can order them for you, but we don't stock them."
"Baby On Board"
Before the trend for SUVs and people-movers among young moms -- from the 1980s through to the early 1990s -- "Baby on Board" signs on the back of family-friendly sedans and wagons were as ubiquitous as Tab and Bryan Adams. Pioneered in Europe and marketed across the U.S. by Safety 1st company, the bright yellow diamond-shaped signs have since dropped in popularity like a rattle from a stroller. Admittedly, there are fewer nerve-wracking experiences than driving a newly-born and an exhausted wife home from hospital, but we considerate drivers never really knew what the slogan was meant to impart: Should we expect a new mom or dad to be driving badly? Or more slowly? Or should we just give them more space all round? Who knew?
Decals and Bumper Stickers
Flames, stars, team colors and all manner of add-ons to your car's paintwork have changed and evolved with the ages. Once considered cool, flames licking the side panels of any car now are considered the last vestige of die-hard hot-rodders who never really grasped that ZZ Top fell from grace, although disturbingly they can still be seen gracing some purple-paint Chrysler PT Cruisers (with "Gimme All Your Lovin'" undoubtedly blaring from the stereo). Thankfully, bumper stickers, those witty one-liners that usually scream out for context, are now considered similarly passé, although the fad remains on the school run with proud moms advertising their daughter's honor roll status -- and animal lovers displaying their pet Doberman's proclivity for eating said honor student. And did your karma really run over your dogma? Really?
Drive around seemingly anywhere these days and chances are you'll see a new version of a trend from the 1950s -- two-tone paint. It worked great back in the day on almost every classic car ever built, and most major car manufacturers now offer an option, and admittedly it works well on models such as the MINI Cooper and Scion xB. We'll also admit Honda's Element and some of the sports markings on, say, a Dodge Charger R/T. But we've all seen too many bad home paint-jobs or cheap paint shop efforts, as getting the joining edge on a two-tone paint job is notoriously tricky. And there are style rules: painting that old-school BMW two-tone may have sounded like a good idea at the time, but did you really want to be seen driving around in an outsize bowling shoe?
Maybe it's the coincidence in the name Jeep Wrangler, but the black, grey or blue denim interior of early Jeeps -- and AMC's Javelin and Gremlin among others -- remains a fad that, like the pants proper, just won't go away for good. While original Jeep denim interiors are rare, the Levis custom interior -- complete with trademark copper buttons and rivets -- offered in Jeep models in the mid-to-late 1970s is in high demand among enthusiasts and on auction websites. "Blue denim" sadly or not is now more likely to describe the exterior color of new models including the MINI and the Kia Soul. Meanwhile, Fiat heir Lapo Elkann's 599 GTB Fiorano fitted with custom designer-jean interior gives new meaning to the phrase driving by the seat of your pants.
While many of us aren't lucky enough to own a car with racing-car-style gear shifters mounted on the steering wheel and think they must be the coolest thing since the Fonz, we think they may be a trend that goes the way of wheel-mounted transmission systems pioneered by Packard and Chrysler in the 1950s and branded under whacky names like "Ultramatic" and "Teletouch." While today's wheel-mounted shifters can be operated without moving your hands from the wheel -- a notable improvement over the earlier shifters -- it's all too easy for inexperienced drivers to flip the Tiptronic-style manual shifters in error. So if you ever see a sports car ahead of you bucking like a Buckaroo mule, you'll know they hit the shifter the wrong way.
"Fake" Wood Paneling
Much witnessed on station wagons and surfer cars throughout automotive history, fake wood paneling is a trend that staunchly refuses to go the way of the Dutch elm. Enthusiasts today are adorning their Smart cars, Hummers, Ford Edges and, perhaps most commonly, their PT Cruisers with the distinctive retro vinyl paneling whose uptake by the Brady Bunch inspired a legion of fans across America. Automakers capitalized on the surge in interest and believed that the paneling added a svelte touch to the most monstrous of a clutch of station wagons including Buicks and Oldsmobiles. The trend for wood paneling that began in the mid-1960s and fizzled some time in the mid-1980s (when latterly it was viewed, somewhat bizarrely, as a status symbol. Hey! It was the Eighties). It re-emerged in the 1990s when automakers somehow thought it was a good idea to migrate the fake-wood look inside -- another trend that thankfully largely disappeared.
Landau Bars / Vinyl Roofs
Want to make your sedan look like a convertible? While many buyers of Cadillacs, Buicks and Oldsmobiles said yes to vinyl roofs and prerequisite Landau bars, many later consumers seemingly asked a far more pertinent question: "What exactly is the point?" As in most trends, there really was no point, except manufacturers seizing onto the public's demand for a fresh look on a car (and the burgeoning popularity of convertibles). The vinyl roof graced later-day models also from Mustangs to Lincolns through the 1970s and 1980s and since has presented classic-car enthusiasts with the ultimate head-scratcher: "How do I restore/replace a vinyl roof?" Despite the roof's previous popularity, and a trend toward white roofs, it would take a very brave modern-day manufacturer to release a vinyl-topped model.
Rear-View Mirror Ornamentation
Where fuzzy dice, Christmas tree air fresheners and rosary beads historically often clash with parking valet tickets and dealership-service documents has recently become a legal issue. Late last year a Michigan motorist was pulled over and subsequently convicted of driving while hanging a four-inch Tweety Bird from his rear-view mirror, which is against the law in many states including Michigan, New York, Louisiana and Nebraska. That he also was not licensed to drive and found to be carrying an open alcohol container, crack cocaine and a bundle of cash was apparently not the point. After a constitutional legal battle over probable cause and, more importantly for the purposes of our trend, the legality of driving with dangling objects potentially obstructing a driver's vision, the rear-view mirror law was struck down, then reinstated earlier this year by an appellate court. As a result of the legal back and forth, the rear-view mirror law in Michigan now remains a little woolly -- much like those funny fuzzy dice beloved by motorists throughout history.