Originally published February 22, 2010.
Like wines, cars contain the flavours of their origin. And the Lada was not a fine vintage. Instead, it was the automotive equivalent of prison vodka, infused with the unpleasant flavours of the Soviet Union as the communist system headed toward collapse - substandard metallurgy, non-existent rust-proofing, aggrieved labour, and mail-it-in engineering.
Although it was based on the Fiat 124, the Lada only vaguely resembled that car. In the Soviet Lada factory, the car became an ugly, Frankenstein imitation of its Italian kin. Loose-fitting pistons gave the engine a tractor-like sound. Blue smoke belched from the tail pipe. Buyers who expected the Lada to drive like the Fiat were in for a rude shock - the ride was sloppy, the steering was inexact, and the brakes faded quickly. Ladas, first imported into Canada in the 1970s, enjoyed brief sales success thanks to their low price and a simple mechanical design which appealed to do-it-yourselfers. If you owned a Lada, self-sufficiency was important - breakdowns were common, and the warranty was short. The Lada's North American reign was brought to an end by the appearance of Korean rivals like Hyundai and Kia, which competed on low price, but offered higher quality.
The Vega was at the top of many readers' worst-car lists. And with good reason. The Vega was plagued with engineering and manufacturing problems, including an aluminum engine block that warped like a piece of badly-cured lumber. I knew the car only too well - in the mid-1970's, I tried to convince a female friend not to buy one. She did anyway, partly because the Vega was available in a shade of green that she loved.
The Vega quickly turned into a costly dissertation on auto repair. The brakes failed. The sills rusted out. The window winders broke. And the car used nearly as much oil as it did gas. A few years later, my friend sold her Vega at a deep loss. By then, the coveted green paint had faded to a shade that conjured up a sickly gekko.
I had considered the Vega for my original Dirty Dozen list. Now the readers had spoken, chiming in with their own Vega horror stories: "Rust galore!" wrote Jrleroux. "Warping Aluminum Engine! Then there were the engine fires, the mounting recalls, etc., etc., etc. This is one of the key cars historically that started the sinking of Detroit."
"Nothing went thru more oil and engines than a Vega," said Mr. Green Jeans. His sentiments were echoed by zoolander. "The oil-burning Vega was hands down the worst car GM ever made," he wrote. "Mine died at 70,000 km but was on life support since about 30k."
The K-Car represented badge-engineering at its most cynical. The K-series were cheaply built, poorly-engineered cars with legendary brand names slapped them. The K-Car was available as the Dodge Aries, the Plymouth Reliant and the Chrysler LeBaron, a name that evoked a Chrysler luxury brand that dated back to the 1950s. The K-Car version was a cheap imitation of that substantial vehicle - calling it a LeBaron was like putting a Hilton sign on a rent-by-the-hour motel.
For a while, it worked. The K-series sold well, thanks to a generation of North American car buyers who believed that the Chrysler name meant quality and substance. But they soon learned better. The K-series was the product of a company in crisis. Chrysler was on life support in the 1980s. It had staved off bankruptcy with a government bailout, and was led by executive Lee Iacocca, who had recently been fired from Ford.
Mr. Iacocca pursued the same strategy he had at his previous employer, pushing for cheap-to-make cars that could be sold with fancy names or easy-to-apply features - like the opera windows that became a staple of the infamous Ricardo Montalban advertisements. Under its tinny skin, the K-Car was a generic front-wheel drive vehicle notable only for its grade-D mechanical components, which included a wheezing four-cylinder engine, weak brakes, and a solid-beam rear axle that gave it ox-cart handling.
The K-Car was nominated by several readers. I heartily concurred. My mother-in-law owned three K-Cars. Her father, who had grown up in the golden age of Detroit, had taught her that she could never go wrong with a Chrysler. But as my mother-in-law learned, times change - by the time she died in 2007, she had switched to Honda.
Ford Mustang II
The Mustang II was born during one of Ford's darkest periods, an age defined by labour problems, gas shortages, and the cheesy, cost-cutting tastes of executive Lee Iacocca. The original 1964 Mustang was one of the car industry's greatest success stories. Mr. Iacocca's game plan was to design a car that retained the Mustang's spirit, but would be cheaper to make. The result was an automotive atrocity.