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The coolest cult cars

They weren't mainstream then, and they're rarely seen now — but they'll still wow you. Lamborghini's Countach is literally the poster child for cult cars.
The Jaguar D-Type  was a favorite of Steve McQueen.
The Jaguar D-Type  was a favorite of Steve McQueen.Ferrari / Jaguar
/ Source: Forbes

They weren't mainstream then, and they're rarely seen now — but they'll still wow you.

Lamborghini's Countach is literally the poster child for cult cars.

For its entire life — model years 1973 to 1990 — the Countach appeared on the bedroom walls of kids around the world. People have worshipped few cars as they did this Italian supercar.

But the Countach practically defines the phrase "not to everybody's taste." It was severe and showy — bordering on tasteless. Lamborghini itself admits that Ferrari owners, who themselves are not exactly subtle, think Lambos are props for nouveau riche attention hounds.

And even among fans, the Countach gradually wore out its welcome. Late-model Countachs with such additions as enormous rear wing spoilers "look downright silly — an absolute cartoon of what they started out to be," says Sports Car Market magazine. The Countach is fading from sight, in part because tastes have changed but also because the high maintenance costs of unreliable, old-model Lambos keep them off the road.

When you hear the phrase "cult cars," you might think of Ford Motor's Mustang or General Motors' Chevrolet Corvette, which have legions of devotees but are very common and still in production. Similarly, the Jeep Wrangler, Porsche 911, Mini Cooper and Volkswagen Beetle and New Beetle are so high profile and commonplace that their followings are merely large. The Beetle is possibly the world's all time best-selling car. Quirky though the car may be, saying it has a cult following is like saying Titanic is a cult film.

Even if the Countach started out garish, became a parody of itself and is now on the decline as a collectible, it's a great example of a cult car. It wasn't mainstream to begin with, and you don't see it much these days. Yet it still has a loyal following. People who grew up in the 1970s and '80s remember playground discussions about the car and recall how exciting it looked in those old posters. For these people — this writer included — the Countach will never cease to get the blood going.

The vehicles on our list of the coolest cult cars of all time were niche cars when they were new — supercars, race cars, exotic European autos and other low- to mid-volume vehicle types. Probably the two most mainstream were Cadillac's Eldorado and Lincoln's Continental, but both were luxury cars, not volume players. Dodge's affordable Challenger competed against such popular, mass-market cars as the Mustang but came late to the party and was off the market after five years.

When we considered which cult cars are cool, we passed up the "cutesy" (e.g. Citroën 2CV, Fiat Jolly) and "quirky" ( BMW Isetta, Saab Sonett) in favor of more upscale stuff. And although taste is subjective, lists like this will always spark debate, so here are explanations for certain vehicles we left out:

DeLorean DMC: A cool shape, but its build quality, as one industry analyst puts it, was "diabolically bad," Monotony limits the car's collectability. DeLoreans look the same: gray, stainless-steel exterior, black or gray interior. Zzzzzz.

Lamborghini Miura and Mercedes-Benz 300SL ("the Gullwing"): More like museum pieces than cars with underground followings. The Miura and Gullwing have appeared on the covers of too many books and magazines and are held up as the be-all and end-all of automotive design. You could say Ferrari's Enzo Ferrari, a recent supercar that made our list, was also on the cover of plenty of car magazines. But the Enzo is not to everybody's taste. Angular and deliberately shocking — abrasive, even — it's too new to fit into the pantheon next to the Gullwing and Miura.

Big American iron: We didn't have room for these classic monsters — though we love the Plymouth Fury of the late 1950s, the Chevy Bel Air, the Pontiac Catalina, old-school Oldsmobiles and other aircraft carriers. There are a zillion of them, and we could have done a story on American cult cars of the '50s, '60s and '70s. Instead, we chose three examples: the Eldorado, which shows the opulent side of American largesse; the Dodge Challenger, which shows the sporty side; and the 1961 Lincoln Continental, the coolest of the cool.

AC Cobra, Ford Deuce Coupe and certain early Lotus models: Too common among hot-rod junkies. The Cobra and certain Lotus cars are probably the world's most frequently reproduced or replicated models — the kings of "kit cars." The Deuce Coupe — a 1932 Ford — was the Honda (nyse: HMC - news - people ) Civic of performance cars: cheap, easy to customize and common.

Pontiac Fiero: It's a commuter car.

BMWs: The coolest BMWs —  M1, Z1, Z8 — don't have followings because they were produced in such limited numbers. The BMWs that do have followings are too high-profile ( 3 Series), not upscale enough ( Isetta) or passé ( 2002).

Aston Martins, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Maybachs, etc.: Rarefied and desirable, but too stuffy to be worshipped. Ferraris are for rich people, but their raciness makes them ready-made for posters bought by eighth graders. When was the last time you saw a print of a limousine on a kid's wall?

Japanese cars: Japanese automakers focus on practical, reliable cars, building the occasional pulse-lifting sports car just to show they can. The Z Car is probably the closest to deserving a place on this list, but with the popularity of Nissan's current-generation 350Z sports car, the Z is too commonplace. The followings for old-school Toyota Motor roadsters and Acura NSXs are too small.

McLaren F1: We chose Ferrari's Enzo over the similarly capable, equally venerated McLaren F1 because the Enzo seems more "cult" than the McLaren. It takes a certain type to understand the Enzo — it's at least partially hideous — whereas the F1 is smoother and less jarring and is almost universally praised as the ultimate modern supercar.

Jaguar E-Type: Including Jaguar's fanatically venerated 1960s sports car would have been too obvious and boring. The E-Types seem to appear on every list of the greatest sports cars. So why did we include, instead, Jag's D-Type race cars of the 1950s? For one thing, they look cooler. For another, the D-Types were dominating race cars.

Every vehicle on our list makes a statement. While Toyota Motor designs its Camry so that it will simply blend in, these cars were designed to stand out from the mainstream, and that is one thing they have in common. That and the fact that they are all cool and lots of fun to look at and discuss.