This story was originally published January 25, 2010
Design icons like the Chanel jacket or the 1963 Corvette Stingray coupe are the result of taste, inspiration and good timing. But what goes into a design so bad that it goes down in history as an example of what not to do?
A bad car can be the product of inadequate engineering, questionable taste, or poor manufacturing quality. Some vehicles combine all three. Others make their way into the automotive rogues' gallery for their own, unique reasons - like the Ford Explorer, which helped melt the polar ice caps by launching North America's obsession with oversized sport-utility vehicles.
I decided to choose an automotive “dirty dozen” -- 12 of the worst cars ever built. There were many candidates, from the well-known Soviet-era Lada, to obscure mechanical travesties like the Wartburg Knight and the Mahindra Chief (a Jeep clone built in India, with a Peugeot diesel engine.)
I considered the Triumph TR7, a mid-70's disaster that signified the downfall of the once-proud British car maker. Then there was the Maserati Biturbo. The Maserati name, guaranteed to make an enthusiast's heart race, had been applied to a car that looked like an early-1980's Chrysler.
But to make the list, a car had represent true automotive infamy, standing the test of time to become a universally accepted symbol of failure, like the fiction chosen in the annual Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest. (“It was a dark and stormy night....”)
The “winners”: (In alphabetical order)
Launched on April Fool's Day in 1970, the Gremlin marked the beginning of the end for the American Motors corporation. Although AMC built a number of terrible cars (including the Matador and the Pacer) the Gremlin is generally agreed upon as the worst of them all, a small, rust-prone car that guzzled fuel like a vehicle several times its size. The Gremlin's handling was atrocious, its engine was crippled by emissions control equipment, and the flip-up back window was prone to breaking off in a driver's hands. But the Gremlin's worst feature was its egregious styling, which was considered a disaster even by the dubious standards of the early 1970s. Automotive reviewers said the car had been styled by two designers: One did the back end, the other did the front. Why AMC product planners decided to name the Gremlin after a mythical creature that sabotages machinery remains a mystery to this day.
Like avocado colored appliances and the mullet haircut, the Pacer is an enduring symbol of bad taste. Introduced in the mid-1970's, the Pacer featured tall, wraparound windows that gave it the look of a rolling fishbowl. AMC spent millions promoting the car, but it was a sales flop. The Pacer had asymmetric doors - the right was longer than the left, so passengers could climb into the back more easily. But the oddball design feature had unexpected consequences. When the Pacer was converted into a station wagon, items stored in the back fell out when the right door was opened. And when it was converted to right hand drive for some foreign markets, the long door was now on the wrong side. Although it was a gas guzzler and a rust bucket, the Pacer's hideous looks were its main calling card. A sky blue Pacer with flame decals was used in the movies Wayne's World and Wayne's World II. Lead characters Wayne and Garth referred to the car as the Mirth Mobile.
Bond Bug Three-Wheeler
The Bond Bug was created in an era when designers were entranced with the possibilities of fiberglas. Freed from the costly process required to bend sheetmetal into artful forms, they went wild with the new composite material. The result - a vehicle that looked like an upside down hot tub with windows. The Bug's design was also shaped by contorted British tax laws that made it cheaper to license a vehicle with three wheels than a car with a wheel at each corner. The Bug was available in only one color - Day Glo orange (Pea Green was also offered for a limited time.) Although the flip-up body enticed a few Walter Mitty types, the Bug was a sales disaster (just 2000 were delivered) and drove its manufacturer into bankruptcy. Light weight gave the Bond sprightly performance, but drivers who tried to use it soon learned that the three-wheel design made the car easy to roll over. The Bond now enjoys cult status as a particularly offensive example of 1970's kitsch.