Nerdy Cars Gone Cool

Mostly, it’s the glasses. On the silver screen, a pair of thick-framed specs is good enough to disguise Superman as Clark Kent, so to the audience they’re sufficient as shorthand for Nerd. Usually it’s some well-known actress, dressed down and fitted with the Steve Urkel look, ready to be transformed near the end with a hair-flip and some slow, swelling singer-songwriter jam out of She’s All That.

Roll your eyes at the well-worn trope if you must, but recognize that we are most certainly living in the revenge of the nerds. From social-media startups to jackpot app sales, the modern world belongs less to the letterman jackets and more to the dweebs who used to get stuffed into lockers. We’re like a decade away from gangs of exoskeleton-clad ruffians gathering in the halls to talk World of Warcraft and trip up the cowering football jocks.

It’s much the same in the automotive world, where the car versions of braces-and-headgear are suddenly the belles of the ball. After long years of pimple-faced adolescence, these dorky ducklings are suddenly swans spreading their wings. With graduation time just around the corner, here’s a look at nerd-mobiles turned hot stuff.

Every Volvo Ever

For as long as anyone can remember, Volvo has been the official manufacturer of people who drive around wearing tweed jackets with leather elbow patches. Volvos: they’re boxy, but they’re good – with a safety-first image, tractor-like durability, and relentless practicality, Volvos had all the sex appeal of the box your refrigerator came in.

This served the brand well, as any child of the 1980s probably has a photo album full of family pictures with a couple of Volvos hanging out in the background. But then Volvo tried to move upscale into BMW and Mercedes territory, with mixed results. There were a few high points, like the funky little C30 and the svelte C70, but thinking outside the box mostly didn’t really work for Volvo.

Then, all of a sudden, the Swedes showed up with a pared-down and handsome styling that was basically Alexander Skarsgård with four wheels. Everything looks stunning, from the V70 and V90 wagons to the popular XC90 crossover and the new XC40. At a time when the Germans and the Japanese seem to be trying to out-grille each other, Volvo has swooped in with a more mature style that it achieves effortlessly. When you’re this good-looking, you don’t have to try so hard.

Pontiac Aztek

Is that a Lamborghini Urus? No, it’s a reasonably crappy Pontiac crossover that’s been a punchline since the day it hit the market. (But yes, there’s an unfortunate resemblance. Not so great, Lamborghini.)

Universally panned for its goofy looks and particularly weird front end, the Aztek was frequently used as a warning against design-by-committee. It was a commercial failure, and seemed relegated to the back lot of history.

However, precisely because it was such a loser, the Aztek became the perfect conveyance for Walter White, the down-on-his-luck chemistry teacher who rose to criminal prominence on the smash-hit Breaking Bad. Suddenly the dorky Aztek was front and centre in the public eye, and people started snapping them up.

Add in a healthy dose of nostalgia for the days of Tamagotchi and ’NSync, and suddenly the Aztek is hot property. It’s still not cool, but it is ironic cool, and that’s the first step towards collectability.

Jeep Wagoneer

Not so much a nerd as the guy who spent way too much time staring out the window and wearing plaid, the Jeep Wagoneer is a wood-panelled throwback that just missed out on the SUV craze. A bit too 1970s, with that faux wood trim and rudimentary interior, it was never quite as cool as the trucks that followed it.

When fuel prices rose, people just plain forgot about the Wagoneer. But today, something strange is happening in the world of SUVs. Vintage off-roaders are worth a bundle, enough that Jaguar Land Rover’s heritage division can charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for a totally restored first-generation Range Rover.

Suddenly, the Wagoneer has come into its own. Cost is no barrier with these things, with restorations cresting the six-figure mark regularly. Probably the coolest of them is the Icon Wagoneer Reformer, which features a Corvette V8, genuine and leather throughout the interior, and a burly stance with off-road tires. Once, the Wagoneer was a dreamer going nowhere – now it can go anywhere if your pockets are deep enough.

Lexus

Nerds have had money before. It’s all videogames and software these days, but once upon a time the accountants and businesspeople of the world donned their pocket protectors and set out to make their fortunes in the dullest fields possible. Many succeeded.

Their rewards were cautious – something like the Lexus LS400. An impeccably crafted Japanese take on Germanic luxury, the LS400 was the safe bet, and also about as exciting as vanilla pudding.

These days, Lexus is perhaps the last defender of the naturally aspirated high-performance engine, and builds cars like the LFA-infused RC 500. It’s a beast, and the rumours of a F-designation model to follow, with Aston Martin-beating prowess, show just how much the brand has changed. Hand-to-hand accountancy combat.

Amphicar

The fastest boat on the road, the fastest car on the water. These are not good qualifiers to have.

Still, the quirky little Amphicar had enough of a weirdo fanbase to keep a few alive through the years, and there always seems to be a new barn find every so often. Of course, where once they were a mere novelty item, now the collector market has made them a star.

You haven’t got one of everything until you’ve got an Amphicar. It’s the cherry on top of the collector world, and as such is in demand across a wide swathe of the market.

Every Subaru

Like the Volvos up back at the top of this list, Subaru was always a purveyor of safe and stodgy quirkmobiles. Yes, the WRX models arrived overseas in the 1990s and here in the early 2000s, but those merely enhanced how homely the rest of the breed was. The Forester looked like a toaster. The Outback was a Japanese take on a go-anywhere Vista Cruiser.

Because they weren’t the mainstream choice, Subarus became the Birkenstock of cars. In the early days, those Birkenstocks were worn with socks and cargo shorts, and were supremely dorky – but owners didn’t seem to care.

Then, suddenly, that lackadaisical attitude started becoming attractive. Thick-calfed hikers, skiers, and mountain bikers made Subaru synonymous with outdoor living. Something like the Crosstrek was ideal for millennial camping enthusiasts. The Forester was for Gore-Tex-clad families. The Outback appealed to cross-country-skiing boomers who could afford just about anything.

In short, Subaru went from LL Bean to The North Face profitability. Sales are still through the roof, year over year, and when the new three-row Ascent hits dealership, it’ll be Birkenstocks for seven.

DeLorean DMC-12

Underpowered, unreliable, and fitted with a weird-looking ride-height, the DMC-12 was a doomed stainless-steel wedge of 1980s failure. It only persevered thanks to the halo effect of the Back to the Future series, which again produced some pretty nerdy fans.

However, at some point over the past five years, DeLorean collectors started having some real money to play around with. Companies started catering to them, building versions of the rear-mounted V6 that actually provided sufficient oomph, and reworking the suspension to sit properly. Sitting flat, with a 200-plus horsepower V6 and the curb weight of a Subaru BRZ, the DMC-12 is suddenly a genuine sportscar.

And, best of all, you get to have your gullwing doors and rear louvres to go with. Marty is McFly again.

Mercedes-Benz 240D

In North America, the Mercedes-Benz badge is a status symbol. In Europe, you’re just as likely to see one on the front of a taxicab. Where the diesel-powered 240D is concerned, the real luxury is having plenty of extra time to get where you’re going – because you’ll be moving at a rate of speed normally reserved for continental drift.

For a long while, the W123-chassis Mercedes was the sort of thing some crotchety old German accountant might drive. It was dowdy, slow, and unappealing.

But just as happens with neighbourhoods all across North America, suddenly the 240D attracted the attention of the hipster crowd. Suddenly, automotive boiled sauerkraut replaced avocado toast as the must-have accessory to a life of loafing around Los Angeles. W123s were snapped up at such a rate that there are now restoration companies who don’t deal with anything else.

BMW M3 E30

Now hear me out. You may be thinking, “An E30 M3? But those have always been cool!”

Sure, if you’re a gearhead, BMW’s box-flared DTM racer for the street has always been a very special thing. However, have you ever noticed the glazed look on your face when you’ve tried to explain high-compression pistons or close-ratio gearboxes or even downforce to the average person? Geeking out over racing-inspired engineering is just that: being a geek. And, as a four-cylinder BMW that was quickly out-powered by subsequent generations of M3, the E30 was, for a time, the car-nerd’s choice.

Not now, of course. At some point, the craze for young-timer classics hit the E30 and values shot straight up. BMW has tried to capitalize on things a bit with the modern M2 (which has flares to match its ancestor), but the original is still the one everybody wants now.

Porsche 911 996-model

Want to buy an air-cooled Porsche for a reasonable price? Better go invent time-travel. The classic Porsche 911 was discovered by Silicon Valley-types some time ago, and as a result most are out of reach of the average buyer. When billionaire WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum announced that he would be retiring to spend more time collecting air-cooled Porsches, the rest of us basically had no chance.

A rising tide lifts all boats, but there’s still one attractive Porsche boat anchor out there. The 996-chassis 911 is roundly considered the worst of the 911 range, noted for its IMS (intermediate shaft) bearing Achilles’ heel, and a frog-faced front end that’s hard to love.

However, aftermarket fixes exist for the latter, and it’s still a Porsche, after all. This generation of 911 has a pretty terrible interior, but is light and lively to drive, and well understood by private mechanics. It’s not as durable or lust-worthy as the older versions, but as the Porsche you can afford, the 996 has made a comeback. Buy the Turbo version if you can – it’s a steal.

Sizzlin’ sheetmetal 6/4/2018 8:00:00 AM