At the dawn of the automotive era, grilles — and the radiators behind them — were awaiting the development of water cooling. Air was the only cooling medium at the time, and people, noting the lack of what is now a conventional grille, were making a much bigger fuss over the lack of a conventional horse. It was only later, with the advent of front engines cooled by water that the radiator moved ahead of the powertrain; in almost all cases an attractively sculpted grille provided both functional protection and brand identity.
In later years, grille structures were modified by rear engines (Volkswagen Beetle), midmounted engines (Porsche Boxster) and, much more recently, no engines (Nissan Leaf). Despite their growing importance in pickup trucks, grilles are often regarded as a design afterthought by the committees making such decisions. And while "ugly" is always in the eye of the beholder, we've assembled our Top 5 in this ugly contest. If you think you might own one, the time to turn away is now.
1) Ram ProMaster
Regrettably, in this listing there can be only one winner. Happily, that winner is essentially the undisputed champ. We know of nothing on the automotive landscape less happy than the front end of Chrysler/Fiat's new van. Born of Italy's popular Fiat Ducato, the Ram ProMaster seems to have received an extra injection of ugly in its transformation from pizza wagon to plumber's helper. If it was ours we could see but one solution: Spend your days driving in reverse.
2) Nissan NV
For those of you enjoying the stylistic adventurism that is Nissan's 370Z Nismo Coupe or Infiniti FX50, know that no one responsible for those two design icons would have had anything to do with Nissan's NV. Designed with little more than a straight edge, the NV cargo/passenger van sits atop a modified Titan platform. If the design team had retained the Titan grille we might have avoided its inclusion — or at least its inclusion near the top of this list. Instead, this black mass rivals that of the Ford Econoline, but is even less integrated into the truck's stylistic — if you will — whole. It's a massive mess and perhaps the very best argument for having a front-end collision. Daily.
3) Mitsubishi Raider
A re-skin of the relatively attractive Dodge Dakota, the Mitsu was wrong in so many ways. With an inept execution up front, the sheet metal never got better, remaining awkward from the truck's front clip, through the cab and back to the bed. Happily Mitsubishi dealers, then as now, were in relatively short supply, as were prospects for Mitsubishi's midsize pickup truck. Since its launch in 2006, we've seen three.
4) Ford Econoline
We were torn between Ford's first Econoline (from the Kennedy/LBJ era), which essentially had no grille, and Ford's much more recent iteration, dating to its face-lift around 2003. Back in the day, the Econoline — like the F-Series — was really targeted toward the small business owner and not the soccer mom (soccer had not caught on yet). Functionality trumped style, and most of the Econoline's cooling needs could be met by a small inlet mounted beneath the front bumper. Almost 50 years later this solution doesn't look particularly attractive, but — to its credit — it was an integrated solution; with the late-model Econolines, not so much.
As with the Econoline's contemporaries at GM, revised collision standards collided with architectures dating back to Reagan (or was it Nixon?). To that end, the marriage between dated platforms and new front clips look like they come from the Jimmy Durante School of Design. For trucks that had previously done little to show their age, the addition of this black plastic mass was, both literally and figuratively, a slap in the face.
5) Early Dodge Ram
What had at one time (during its 1971 launch) been a relatively attractive take on the domestic passenger/utility van ultimately lost its appeal when a revised front clip was added to a very nondescript grille. "To hell with elegance," the design team seemed to say, "It's a truck." And the designers probably had stopped caring roughly a decade earlier.