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.
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.)
The Explorer also earns a place in the automotive rogue's gallery by virtue of its troubling accident history. Early models came standard with Firestone tires that had a habit of blowing out at highway speed. This, combined with the Explorer's tall profile and crude suspension (not to mention the driving skills of many buyers) led to a long series of rollover crashes, many of them fatal. It also gave the Explorer a new nickname: The Exploder.
The Pinto could make a worst cars list purely on its mediocre styling, but its real claim to vehicular infamy is a design error - a fuel filler neck that snapped off in rear-end collisions, turning the Pinto into a flaming deathtrap. The problem defined the Pinto, which became the butt of countless jokes. In a routine about his ghetto childhood, comedian Eddie Murphy told audiences that his family used to rear-end Pintos instead of buying fireworks.
The Pinto turned into a public relations disaster for Ford when it was learned that the company had discovered the fuel tank problem during pre-production testing, but decided that a proposed fix (about $50 per car) was too expensive. Although the gas tank problem was rectified in later models, the car's reputation gradually strangled its sales and killed its resale value.
The Pinto was produced in a few different models, including the Pinto Squire, which featured simulated wood panel on the doors and fenders.
The Aztek was born during a Detroit period defined by rising SUV sales and stylistic drift, as venerable brands like Pontiac struggled to maintain their identity amidst a confusing list of GM divisions as well as a flood of imports. Criticized for bland, derivative styling. Pontiac designers took a bold but ill-advised step with the Aztek, which looked a bit like a Transformer figure based on a Dust Buster vacuum cleaner. The Aztek was sold for only five years, and was available at deep discounts, because few people would buy them. In 2007, Time magazine declared the Aztek one of the worst cars of all time. In 2008, a British newspaper declared it Number One in a list of the 100 ugliest cars ever produced. Mechanically, the Aztek was mediocre, with underpinnings borrowed from other GM models. Styling-wise, the Aztek was a schizophrenic: the bizarre exterior gave way to an interior of exceptional dullness, as if the designers had finally chickened out.
The SVX marked a rare misstep by Subaru, a car company known for solid engineering and decent (if uninspired) design. The SVX stands as a monument to misguided styling, with odd panel breaks and complex windows that defined the car - and killed it in the showroom. The windows were a two-part design, with fixed outer sections that had sliding panes set within them. They might have made sense to the stylist who came up with them, but to everyone else, the windows seemed ridiculous. Like the fashion of wearing clothes backwards during the mercifully brief reign of the hip hop duo Kris Kross, the SVX's radical window design died a quick death: The car was taken off the market in 1995, just four years after it was introduced.
In the same way that a ghetto childhood can help a boxer become heavyweight champion of the world, the Trabant's East German background gives it a clear advantage in its bid for the Worst Car of All Time title. The now-fallen communist state provided ideal conditions for the creation of a truly awful vehicle: a demoralized labour force, incompetently-run factories, and a iron-fisted political system that crushed innovation. Trabants were powered by smoke-belching two-stroke engines, and the bodies were constructed of compressed cardboard coated with plastic resin. Reliability was terrible, and the gearshift mechanism is generally agreed upon as one of the worst ever invented. None of these problems quenched demand. In East Germany, the Trabant was the only car available, and the waiting list was typically ten years long. The Trabant went out of production in 1990. The fall of the Berlin Wall removed the Trabant's key feature - a monopoly position.