The Greatest Spectacle in Racing has long been coveted by automakers as the Greatest Spectacle in Automotive Product Placement, but this doesn’t mean that the most exciting cars ended up polishing the track each year. In fact, possessing performance attributes seemingly ceased to be a factor at certain points in history, mean one could occasionally see very dull machinery circling the track. Still, time heals some wounds, so cars chosen as the pace cars before 1970 tend to get a pass simply because most of the context is lost, but relatively recent vehicles are often the ones that seem the most painfully dated.
Here are seven Indy 500 pace cars from relatively recent history that haven’t aged all that well.
Where would any decade of the Indianapolis 500 be without several appearances of the Chevrolet Corvette? The C5 Corvette was certainly fresh by 1998, having debuted for the 1997 model year, so the car choice was very timely—more timely than the 1995 appearance of the outgoing C4 Corvette. But the graphics and colors chosen were seemingly designed to look very garish on television, and given how bad TVs at the time were they were also designed to look “blown out” on the broadcast feed. The result was that you couldn’t really see the lines of the car all that well, but the yellow wheels and graphics would burn your eyes—and still do.
Fashion Crimes Committed: This has the color scheme of a Super Soaker, or some kind of giant Nerf cannon advertised during Nickelodeon cartoon blocks: “Batteries not included!”
Even within its own confined universe, the yellow wheels just don’t work here and really stick out among other color choices. If the wheels were some other color, this would be like 30% less of an eyesore. The bright yellow seats inside made the whole car look like a small Sea-Doo, too.
Redeeming Qualities: Thanks to the fact that the C5 was a popular retirement gift to oneself, there are plenty of these around (with automatic transmissions), and they offer very affordable performance. We’re pretty sure some gated subdivisions mandated C5 Corvette ownership, and the result is there are a lot of these out there now in any color you’d want, but probably wearing original tires despite the mileage. Buyer beware.
Out of all the vehicles on this list, the Bravada makes us feel the oldest. For starters, Oldsmobile was still around. Also, 2001 still doesn’t seem that distant—there are plenty of cars from its era that are still used as daily drivers. On the other hand, there are youngsters already driving cars who weren’t even alive when this Bravada was still in production.
The Bravada now seems like a real dark horse pick for 2001, because there was a variety of these GM SUVs produced just with different front ends, like the Saab 9-7, and also because Oldsmobile ceased to exist in just a few short years. In a way, this is a portrait of the pitfalls of badge engineering.
Fashion Crimes Committed: First of all, this is a big and bulbous SUV, so it wasn’t going to be a pretty sight on the track no matter what was done to it. The graphics here have a McDonald’s aesthetic thanks to this red body color, but the white zigzag belt graphics add a serious whiff of a fire chief’s SUV. All that was needed here is a lightbar, and we’d pull over on the shoulder to let it pass us.
Redeeming Qualities: Despite being relatively recent, these are actually kind of rare now (unless you live in Michigan or Ohio). These are going to be at a concours event in another 10 years, and we’ll overhear kids asking their parents, “What’s an Oldsmobile?”
The 1990 Beretta finished in a pastel yellow was certainly a spectacle on the race track, and already seemed painfully dated by 1993. The Beretta convertible seemed like some kind of beach car or a picnic basket even before the yellow color was added, and it wasn’t even a new model by 1990 either, having debuted for 1987. As cool as the name itself sounded, the Cavalier underpinnings were lukewarm at best, as was the three-speed automatic, but the V6 had a mild chance of providing quick transport to the drive-thru on a Friday night.
Fashion Crimes Committed: Simultaneously cheap looking but aspirational, the Beretta convertible was something a background character from Miami Vice could drive. The body kit here is doing a lot of the heavy lifting, but the pastel purple door graphics really betray the time time period involved. You couldn’t really rock this look just a couple short years later, because that door had slammed shut on that period in design.
Redeeming Qualities: We’d argue that unlike most other cars on this list, the 1990 Chevy Beretta has actually come back around to being cool again in an ironic way, and is very eligible for Radwood. The only problem is that it’s difficult to find a Beretta these days in this color that’s been well maintained.
At their best, Indy 500 pace cars tend to be snapshots of a proud moment for an automaker, like the debut of a new pony car. The 1993 Camaro Pace Car certainly marked such a moment, replacing a model that had been in production for a decade and had become visibly dated by the early 1990s. The 1993 model brought Chevy’s sporty runabout into a new decade with a very timely appearance at the Indianapolis 500, just months after production began.
Fashion Crimes Committed: The color scheme, visually splitting the car into a light and a dark side, does not really convey the design of the new Camaro all that well. The upper half, almost devoid of graphics, obscured the surface details of the car, while the bottom white half would have blown the highlights on TV and photos of the time. The result is another Sea-Doo-evoking graphics package, complete with some colorful ribbons at the water line.
Redeeming Qualities: Like the Beretta a few years prior, this Camaro graphics package has almost swung back around to being cool again, and it helps that it’s not garish like some of its successors later that decade. It’s pretty clear that the color scheme could have been far worse here.
Ahh, yes! Remember the retro craze of the early 2000s? The Chevy SSR arrived just late enough to miss most of it—those who wanted a PT Cruiser had already bought one by then—so GM was left to pick up some of the leftover buyers with a convertible pickup that was not all that functional as a pickup and couldn’t carry many passengers as a four-seat convertible. Which is also why it became a car for empty-nesters to cruise in to the Dairy Queen on a Friday night.
Fashion Crimes Committed: The SSR was cool for about 15 minutes, channeling some customs and concepts of the second half of the late 1990s, but its turn on the track landed a little flat. The purple color and the flame graphics made it look like something out of a restomod magazine from the 1990s. From the top of the bleachers on the day of the race itself, this probably looked like a VW Beetle convertible with a stretched wheelbase, which actually debuted that same year. So 2003 was a busy year for retro-styled convertibles.
Redeeming Qualities: These actually had some serious power late in the model run with 400 hp on tap, and it’s really one of the last Indy 500 pace cars that was not a Corvette or a Camaro. So it gets some points back for variety, even if the truckvertible itself was a sales dud.
If it’s possible at all to categorize the pre-Corvette and Camaro era of Indy 500 pace cars, stretching from about 1970 until 2005, it’s a span when they were either really garish or really dull. It’s pretty clear which category the 1983 Riviera falls into, featuring beige sides over a white top, and very few graphics of any sort.
Fashion Crimes Committed: This is probably the least visually exciting pace car of the 20-year stretch from 1980 through 2000. The Riviera itself is more a hometown parade convertible rather than a pace car, and the design of the model was also really bland for the time, to the point that it’s hard to tell what marque it belongs to. Unless you know exactly what it is, you can’t really say that this is definitely not Cadillac or Oldsmobile styling of the time.
It’s also hard to tell what it says on the doors, because the font is too cursive and too small, what you might see on a flower car owned by a funeral home. The choice of wheels doesn’t really communicate any performance aspirations, and the overall presentation looks somewhat gothic.
Redeeming Qualities: Well, it was roomy enough to carry some VIPs around the track with that sweet twin-turbo V6, and they could sit on the trunk. But that’s about it.
Just over 25 years after the Aurora debuted, it’s already difficult to explain to someone from Europe what role the Oldsmobile brand played in the GM portfolio, or why Oldsmobile had this giant sedan in its lineup and what it offered that Pontiac, Buick, and Cadillac sedans did not. The model debuted in 1994, and a short three years later it polished the Indy track for the first time, returning again in 2000 with the debut of the second-gen model.
Fashion Crimes Committed: With a pearl white exterior—not a slenderizing color—the Olds sedan already looked big enough on the track. But the graphics here are quite random and inelegant, with a gold Brickyard theme haphazardly wrapped around the doors, changing in thickness at various points, with each of the checkered squares being a different shape. The American flag and the checkered flag are different sizes, and they’re just sitting above the golden Oldsmobile badge on the hood. The graphics here look like they were thrown together in about 10 minutes.
Also, some tend to gloss over the fact that the design of the Aurora was largely that of a scaled-up Chevy Cavalier of the time, or just a really big and streamlined Saturn. So for all the hype about the V8 underhood, there are perhaps some painful lessons here that few want to examine that are linked to why Oldsmobile isn’t around anymore.
Redeeming Factors: These are kind of a rarity these days, especially with a paint job that hasn’t peeled by now. We’ll see one at a concours event in another 20 years, as part of some ’90s nostalgia class.
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