“Worst car ever built,” is a phrase that gets flung around with the careless impunity of a toddler with a bag of superballs. Whatever you’ve once called the “worst car” is wrong. A Yugo may as well be a Maybach compared to the Hoffmann, the actual worst car ever built. I know because I drove it.
I was able to drive the astounding Hoffmann thanks to our friends at the Lane Motor Museum, whom I asked specifically to find me their worst cars. When they polled everyone and came up with a list, only one car received a unanimous vote: the 1951 Hoffmann.
Of course, I was wildly interested. It helps that the car looks like something that’s very appealing to me at first glance — strange, streamlined, sort of like a zeppelin and a colossal robotic tortoise made angry love. But the more I looked, the stranger things got: odd, asymmetrical curves and details, oddly and seemingly willfully mis-aligned parts and trim, a general shape seemingly designed with either a gleeful disregard or outright contempt for both the human form and the laws of physics.
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The Hoffmann was made in Germany right after the war by one M. Hoffmann, a man no one seems to know much about. I’m not entirely sold on the idea he was a human at all, actually. Whatever he was, he had real skill — the car is actually beautifully built, with lots of difficult metalwork and fabrication evident throughout.
It all seems to be hand-made, with a few identifiable off-the-shelf-parts. I’m pretty sure the front axle is the lower half of a Kubelwagen front axle (just the lower torsion tube used), and the engine is an ILO 200cc single. But most of the rest seems to be carefully hand-built.
And that’s what makes the Hoffmann so fascinating. It’s not a piece of shit, build-quality-wise. It’s just that every possible design decision made on this car is somehow the absolute worst decision you could make. The track is longer than the wheelbase. The gas filler, for no reason, goes through the inside of the car, complete with a fume-leaky rubber cuff. The rear-wheel steering design devours about half the usable space inside the car.
It’s awful. Everything is awful. Every decision. The way the car almost flips even when parked. They made me drive it with someone in the passenger seat because they were sure it’d roll if I was in it alone.
The fumes — oh god the fumes. That little two-stroke pumped so many terrible chemicals into the cabin that I’m pretty sure I was peeing two-stroke oil for days after. Really, this thing could have been a huge success if Hoffmann had just called it the Hoffmann Mobile Suicide Booth instead of the Hoffman car.
Perhaps the worst part of all is that, despite it trying to kill me at an embarassing 3 MPH, part of me sort of loves this little silver nightmare. Part of me respects it for being so pure, so terribly, horrifically awful. It’s like the automotive Sistine Chapel of terrible ideas. It’s the Veyron of Shitty Engineering, and as such it deserves, if not our respect, our awe.
Or maybe that’s still the fumes talking.
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