Automotive experts tried to tell New Brunswick premier Richard Hatfield to take a pass on Malcolm Bricklin's SV1 project, which resembled a badly-engineered Corvette with gull wing doors. Mr. Hatfield funded the project anyway. Only a handful of the fiberglass-bodied SV1's were ever built, and the project was plagued with problems that ranged from inadequate brakes to a leaking rear hatch. The SV1 looked like an adolescent auto fantasy, but suffered from crippling design flaws and construction quality that conjured up a Soviet-era Lada.
Rushed into production as a slap-dash response to an OPEC oil embargo that created a market for small cars, the sub-compact Chevette earned a reputation as a car that drove even worse than it looked. The engine was rough, the suspension was crude, and the interior was lined with shiny plastic that came in black, beige or bright red. Construction quality of the early Chevettes epitomized mid-1970's Detroit, a period when disgruntled workers sometimes welded Coke bottles into the sills of cars going down the assembly line, creating mysterious rattles that were impossible to fix. The problems continued into the 1980's. A Halifax woman was pole-vaulted into the air when the driveshaft of her brand-new Chevette dropped off as she drove down a provincial highway, spearing itself into the pavement.
General Motors introduced the Corvair in 1960 as a showcase for mechanical innovation: the engine was in the back, and it was cooled by air instead of water. But trouble loomed from the get-go. When the company tested an early production Corvair at a race track, it flipped over. Many more would follow. The rear-mounted engine placed more than 60 per cent of the Corvair's weight over the back wheels, making it easy for a driver to lose control. Further hazards were provided by a complex heating system that tended to fill the cabin with noxious fumes, and a one-piece steering column that became a giant entomologist's insect pin in a head-on collision, skewering the unfortunate driver. Safety advocate Ralph Nader nailed the lid on the Corvair's coffin when he wrote a best-selling book about the car. Its title: Unsafe at Any Speed .
The Edsel flopped so badly that its name became a synonym for failure. A massive Ford publicity campaign had hyped the upcoming Edsel as a revolutionary vehicle, but when it finally appeared in 1957, it was a grave disappointment - a slab-sided car that looked like previous models, but with a horse-collar shaped grill that buyers hated. Ford spent more than $300-million developing the Edsel, but their timing couldn't have been worse. The Edsel was a large car, but arrived during a recession that was pushing buyers toward smaller vehicles. Nothing else went right, either. The Edsel's automatic transmission had push-button controls that were mounted on the steering wheel - many drivers ended up shifting gears while trying to honk the horn. Ford considered thousands of names for the new car (a poet consulted by the company suggested "Utopian Turtletop" and "Mongoose Civique") The Edsel was finally named after one of Henry Ford's sons. The name proved to be marketing poison - some analysts noted that it rhymed with ”dead cell,” a term for a defective battery.
Like the first doughnut ever consumed by Kirstie Alley, the Explorer's significance could be seen only in hindsight. Like Ms. Alley, a once-svelte starlet who later became a synonym for obesity, the North American auto industry underwent a massive bloat that nearly destroyed it - in 2008, an economic recession and soaring fuel prices killed demand for the large vehicles that Detroit had become addicted to selling.
Asked to trace the roots of this catastrophe, many auto experts point to the Explorer, which was created in 1990 when Ford grafted an oversized, station-wagon style body onto an F-series pickup truck chassis. The result was an instant hit that sold North Americans on the SUV concept. The Explorer's sales success soon had Detroit hooked on the fast profits to be made by selling heavily optioned SUVs. Other manufacturers copied Ford and upped the ante, building ever-larger and more luxurious models - like the Cadillac Escalade favoured by many sports and entertainment figures (including Britney Spears, who maintains a chauffeured fleet that stood ready for spur of the moment Taco Bell runs.)