The soft, gentle and voluptuous curves of traditional automotive design made a radical right turn in the late 1960s, when cars like the Alfa Romeo 33 Carabo concept by Bertone introduced the rising wedge line. The look was futuristic, cool, and first embraced by a handful of production Italian exotics. But soon the entire automotive industry caught on, and from the 1970s through the mid-1980s, nearly every new sports car had a pointy nose and pop-up headlamps. Here are 20 of the most memorable — a group of cars that envisioned an angular future.
Few cars embody wedge design as thoroughly as the Countach. It is the poster child for the trend. Penned by Marcello Gandini—who also did the Alfa Romeo 33 Carabo Concept— the Countach looked absolutely alien when it landed in the early 1970s as a production car. Those first LP400 models with 375-hp V-12s are the pointiest and purest, as they lacked the wings, flares, spoilers, and excessive power of the later cars. Today, they command . The Lamborghini Countach was in production for an astonishing 16 years, an eternity for a high-profile exotic and a testament to the wild and otherworldly design.
The stunning 1970 Datsun 240Z's flowing lines borrowed just enough from the great European sports cars of the 1960s to make this car a classic itself. The look was so successful that the company kept updating and tweaking the design through the '70s and into the early 1980s. By 1984, Nissan needed something fresh—so it went wedge.
The angular 300ZX looked completely different than any Z before, but shared the same wheelbase and some chassis bits with the older 280ZX. The car packed a new 3.0-liter V-6 and optional turbocharger that produced an even 200 hp—not bad for the time. The chiseled nose wore pop-up headlights (a wedge car staple) but here those lights were partially revealed, perhaps as an homage to the original Z. When equipped with the optional digital dash, the Z certainly felt like the future.
The Lancia Stratos was the first production car designed from the ground up with the express purpose of obliterating its rally competition. Lancia's competition manager Cesare Fiorio polled every person on the rally team for his or her opinion of what would make a world-beating competition car; it was those traits that molded the design of the Stratos road and race machines. The inspiration, of course, came from Bertone's incredible Stratos Zero concept from 1970—the perfect wedge. The production Stratos, with its stubby proportions, featherweight yet durable chassis, and aerodynamic shape, created a devastatingly effective tool for crushing rally stages. With legendary pilot Sandro Munari behind the wheel, this car won the manufacturer's championship three years in a row.
The Subaru XT was one of the strangest and coolest Japanese cars to come from the 1980s. Its wedgy design is unmistakable; the XT looks like nothing that ever came from Subaru's factory before or since. Incredibly aerodynamic, the XT used a low hood made possible by Subaru's boxer (flat) four-cylinder engine. The part-time 4WD system had a push-button design, and used an adjustable air suspension—so you could raise it up for (somewhat) serious off-road work. Like many performance cars from the 1980s, its top models were turbocharged and featured a . The 1988 model gained two cylinders for increased power (145 hp) and torque (156 lb-ft) as well as suspension and steering improvements.
Still, as cool as the XT was, it lacked the performance of a true sports car. Its successor, the SVX, was a more serious stab at a Subaru sports car.
The Esprit may have been thoroughly British in its engineering, but its severe wedge was the peak of Italian style. The Esprit sprang from a 1972 Italdesign concept of the same name done by legendary designer Giorgetto Guigiaro—the man also responsible for wedges including the BMW M1, numerous Maseratis, and the DeLorean DMC-12. The Esprit was a lightweight sports car so pure, sharp, and purposeful that it looked like it could rival the performance of anything from Ferrari or Lamborghini.
In truth, the original Esprit, with its normally aspirated four-cylinder, was a little slow. Yet that didn't stop it from becoming a two-time Bond car, first in 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me (in which it turned into a submarine) and again in 1981's . By the mid 1980s, Lotus fixed the horsepower deficit with the Turbo model, making them quick enough to hit 60 mph in less than 6 seconds.
The second-generation General Motors F-Cars (Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird) were still selling well in 1981, their final model year, thanks to a strong . But the design was tired. Luckily, Pontiac had a wedge design in the works, and in 1982 the third-generation Firebird took wing. Its crisp aero-design, smoothed in GM's wind tunnel, was a jaw-dropper.
The Firebird became one of the most recognizable cars from the 1980s. At first, engine choices were modest. So the real excitement came from a black Trans Am's starring role as in the TV show "Knight Rider" (1982-1986). That fame helped the Firebird reach its best sales numbers for this generation in 1984 with 128,304 cars sold. However, it was the 20th Anniversary Turbo Trans Am that had the most muscle. These models could hit 60 mph in 4.6 seconds and go on to 162 mph—enough to make the Trans Am the quickest domestic production car of 1989.
The edgy and inexpensive Fiat ( later sold as a Bertone) X1/9 allowed regular folks to own an Italian exotic penned by Gandini. The X1/9 was built from the shared parts of other Fiat cars (the engine came from the 128 Coupe, for instance), which kept the price down. Not surprisingly, then, the X1/9 certainly wasn't as quick as it looked; the trip to 60 mph took between 10 and 13 seconds depending on the year. But the handling of the little Targa-roofed sports car was sublime thanks in part to its feathery weight—just under a ton.
It's rare to see a X1/9 out in the wild today, but if you do, the size will blow you away. This car was tiny. The X1/9 was such a novel idea it encouraged other manufacturers to develop inexpensive wedge cars like the Toyota MR2 and the Pontiac Fiero.
Toyota wasn't known for sports cars back in the mid-1980s. But that didn't mean it couldn't build one, and in 1984 Toyota decided to prove it with the MR2— a fun, two-seat, rear-drive, mid-engined wedge of a sports car.
The MR2 looked like a larger, faster, and more refined cousin of the X1/9. But when the supercharged version arrived in 1988, this Toyota got seriously quick. Among sport compact car lovers, the MR2 is still regarded as one of the most rewarding rides of the decade.
In the 1950s, Saab built a handful of cars, called Sonett I, with a new racing series in mind. When the race rules changed, Saab built another Sonett (II) that would come in the 1960s as a mass-produced sports car. The Sonett was an odd car to be sure. And when management wanted to spark sales at the start of the 1970s without expensive re-engineering—they turned to Italy for a wedge.
Italian designer Sergio Coggiola, under the constraints of using most of the old car, succeeded in making the new one look more modern. The resulting Sonett III had the pointed nose and the pop-up headlamps. But that pokey Ford-sourced V-4 and front-wheel drive still made the Sonett a tough sell for traditional sports car buyers.
When John DeLorean, the ex-GM executive, needed a design for the new sports car that would bear his name, he turned to Italy and called Giugiaro. When the DeLorean DMC-12 finally came around, it was dogged by controversy related to the middling performance of its weak-kneed V-6, the delayed production from the Northern Ireland factory, and finally DeLorean's own well-publicized legal woes. Of course, little of that mattered once DeLorean's famous stainless steel gullwing-door sports car played a starring role in the 1985 hit Back to the Future. The car's place in history was sealed,
The wedge design trend wasn't the exclusive domain of the two-seat sports car. In the early 1970s, Aston Martin's designer William Townes applied the style to a large luxury sedan. The long, low, and very pointy Lagonda was one of the wildest four-door sedans ever produced. It looked like the future. And though there was nothing futuristic about the drivetrain, the 280-hp 5.3-liter V-8 could power the sleek sedan to 150 mph.
The wild exterior wasn't the only breakthrough. The Lagonda was the first car to use a digital dashboard. It was unreliable, sure, but in the '70s and '80s, no sedan could turn heads quite like the elegant Lagonda.
The mid-eighties were a good time for affordable mid-engined sports cars—though this pint-sized Pontiac was another case where the performance couldn't keep up with the looks. Under the plastic panels and sport wedge profile, the Fiero was a simple conglomeration of mundane GM small car parts. Perhaps this was to keep the price down, but many believe the little sports wedge lacked any real punch so that it wouldn't compete with the Corvette—GM's real sports car. By 1988 there was a stronger V6 in the lineup and enough upgrades to the suspension to make the Fiero a solid performance car. But that was the final year for this little Pontiac.
That wasn't the end for the Fiero, though. Thanks to the car's abundance (more than 370,000 were produced) and easy-to-replace plastic body panels, many a Fiero because the basis for kit cars resembling Ferraris and Lamborghinis.
The 308 GT4 was unlike any Ferrari before it. The Italian automaker preferred voluptuous and flowing lines, the trademark of the Pininfarina design house, and this new-style wedge design was unchartered territory. But the result was a remarkable machine.
The sharp, pointed nose and wide laid-back windscreen created great visibility from the driver's seat. Behind the seats sat the company's very first mid-engined V-8, the same engine that would go on to power the much more popular 308 GTB (the "Magnum PI" car). The GT4 may not have been beastly quick, but its performance was respectable for the time and it rode just as nicely as it handled. The design wasn't a hit in the US, causing sales to suffer, but today this cars remains one of the great bargain Ferraris — and one very cool looking wedge.
The M1, BMW's first supercar, takes its cues directly from the wedgy BMW Turbo concept of 1972. The result was a German car with plenty of Italian influence. Not only was Lamborghini originally contracted to help produce the car (BMW later took back the reins), but the M1's distinctive take on 70s angularity comes directly from the pen of Giugiaro, the man who practically invented the look. The hand-built mid-engined M1 used BMW's glorious 277-hp 3.5-liter six-cylinder engine, and the M1 was reportedly wonderful to drive and more forgiving to use daily than most supercars. Only around 400 M1s were produced, so today they are rare and highly valued by collectors.
The TR-7 was a radical departure for Triumph, as the traditional British carmaker unapologetically embraced 70s wedge design with a car that sat on an all-new chassis. Looking back today, the TR-7's shape appears a little less elegant than the Esprit, but the front-engined, four-cylinder TR-7 was certainly exotic.
While Americans buyers loved the shape, the driving experience was a mixed bag. The combination of a solid rear axle and soft tuning made the TR-7 less of a hardcore sports car (60 mph took a leisurely 11 seconds). Drivers could have forgiven that wimpiness if the build quality had been better. Instead, the TR-7 and TR-8 sadly represented the end of the British sports car era.
Unlike some angular cars that traded almost exclusively on their futuristic design, the Mazda RX-7's beauty went right to its core—the lightweight RX-7 was incredibly rewarding to drive. Under that sloped hood was Mazda's innovative, compact rotary engine that revved right up to 7,000 rpm, placed just behind the front axle and mounted low in the chassis for balanced handling. The RX-7 gained engine size and got quicker as it aged. Yet the early RX-7s, like the Miatas of today, are about so much more than mere straight-line speed. RX-7s provided their owners with plenty of inexpensive fun when the road began to twist.
Maserati's lineup of the 1970s was dominated by pointy mid-engined exotics like the Bora and Merak. But the wedgiest was a front-engined V-8 grand touring coupe—the Khamsin. This was the first design by Bertone for Maserati, replacing the classic Ghibli. The Khamsin shared that model's potent 320-hp 4.9-liter V-8, allowing a top speed of more than 150 mph. Because Maserati was owned by French automaker Citroen at the time, many of the other components were shared with the Citroen SM.
The Khamsin was certainly wild-looking, but U.S. models had to be fitted with larger bumpers and a reconfiguration of the Khamsin's trademark glass taillight panel to meet new safety regulations. All that mucking around detracted a bit from the elegant wedge Gandini had designed.
British automaker TVR (named after founder Trevor Wilkinson) might be nearly unknown here in the States. For a brief time in the 1980s, though, the company's uber-pointy Tasmin came to America in small numbers. The Tasmin was powered by a 160-hp 2.8-liter Ford V-6 and used many components from other British manufacturers to save money, including the Jaguar rear differential. There was plenty of Lotus influence here, too. The exterior was designed by the man responsible for Lotus's wedgy Eclat and Elite.
The Tasmin could hit 60 mph in less than 8 seconds, and as was the case with many TVRs before and after, it was an excellent handler on a twisty road.
Vector was an American supercar manufacturer that struggled throughout the early 1980s to fund a production version of its W2 prototype, a wedge design powered by a 600-hp twin-turbo V8 that (according to Vector, anyway) could hit 242 mph.
Despite that dubious claim, the company eventually managed to produce an insane-looking Vector W8 supercar using a 650-hp twin-turbo V-8. The W8 looked like a Lamborghini Countach that had been re-designed by a 1980s computer program, with a dashboard dominated by a sea of buttons and a large digital screen. Over-the top? Sure. But interesting to be sure.
The Pantera was De Tomaso's most successful and famous supercar. Unlike just about every Italian sports car born in the early 1970s, it was designed by an American—Tom Tjaarda. The Pantera wasn't as low as some of the cars on this list and didn't have quite the extreme angularity. Perhaps as a result, its lines have aged well.
Under the hood of the mid-engined Pantera is another American surprise: a Ford 351-cid Cleveland V-8. And because Panteras were sold through Lincoln-Mercury dealers and each component on the car carried a Ford part number, servicing Panteras wasn't particularly difficult then or now. The later GT5 cars in the '80s grew wings and flares in an attempt to appeal to those looking for a budget Lamborghini. In total, about 5000 Panteras came to the U.S., and today they remain one of the best supercar values.