As a lifelong engineering buff, I’ve always admired the shark, one of the finest and most durable designs ever created (more than 100 million years so far, with no end in sight).
When it comes design, no one does it better than Mother Nature, and the shark is her tour de force, with structure, systems and hydrodynamics that make it an enduring winner. This got me thinking about the human world, where plans are often based on marketplace whim, human vanity and the fickle, ever-shifting barometer of fashion.
Consider the powdered wig and the Earth Shoe – someone invented them, many bought them, yet history has relegated them to the Failure File, along with New Coke and the Segway. This sparked a further thought – what are the worst car design features of all time? I decided to make a list – a bottom 10, if you will.
There is no shortage of candidates, from the jewelled spinner wheel rim to the non-collapsible steering column to the gruesome Pontiac Aztek. But these were too easy. To make the list, a design feature had to involve misguided engineering, environmental insult, safety risk, social annoyance and bad taste. (Ideally, it would incorporate them all.)
Here are my choices. Feel free to add yours to the list.
Click here for a gallery of the Top 10 Car Design Blunders.
1. The Flying Car: There have been numerous attempts to overcome the conflicting demands of road and air travel, none of them successful. In the late 1940s, for example, aeronautical engineer Molt Taylor designed the Aerocar. Despite Mr. Taylor’s design talents, the Aerocar never caught on. (Only six were ever built.) Now, a new design called the Terrafugia Transition is undergoing testing. With wings that fold like a Swiss Army knife, the Terrafugia will have a base price of $279,000. I admire Terrafugia’s ambition, but it faces some brutal marketplace realities: to use it, you’ll need a pilot’s licence and be willing to drive a car that’s longer than a Ford F-150 truck, yet has a passenger compartment the size of a Smart Car.
2. The Tail Fin: Taking their cue from fighter jets (and maybe the shark), Detroit designers became entranced with tail fins in the 1950s. Unlike jets or sharks, the Cadillac Eldorado and the Plymouth Fury used tail fins not as essential stability aids, but as grandiose vanity additions. The pointed, chrome-bedecked tail fin detracted from performance by adding weight and drag, and created the possibility of impaling a pedestrian while backing up.
3. The Car Alarm: In my experience, car alarms have never prevented a single car theft or break-in, but have produced untold annoyance. Who knows how many millions of sleepless hours have been yielded by klaxoning alarms that can’t be turned off except by the offending car’s absent owner? They don’t seem to deter thieves much, either. When a thief worked our neighbourhood a few years back, the alarm that sounded on our first car didn’t stop him from robbing it – or from moving on to our second car and cleaning it out as well.
4. The Vinyl Roof: If you lived through the 1970s, you were witness to the stylistic scourge that was the vinyl roof. Designed to evoke the elegance of a bygone age, the vinyl roof instead served as a symbol of the current one’s bad taste. The vinyl roof was combined tacky affectation with structural hazard – if moisture crept in beneath (as it invariably did), the impermeable plastic membrane turned into a rooftop sauna that happened to be a perfect breeding ground for rust, consuming the steel roof beneath it. The only thing worse than a vinyl roof was a vinyl roof with opera windows. (For proof, look up Ricardo Montalban’s Chrysler ads on YouTube.)
5. The Swing Axle: Until it rolled you upside down in a corner, a rear axle that pivoted in the middle seemed like an inconsequential technical detail. Installed on vehicles like the pre-1969 VW Beetles and the Chevrolet Corvair, the swing axle lay in wait for the driver who went into a corner too fast, then cut the throttle, unleashing an effect known as weight-jacking. As the car slid sideways, the swing-axle acted like a vaulting pole, raising the car on its suspension and setting the stage for a rollover. Although car wonks preached about the dangers, few drivers were prepared to listen until they found themselves in the swing-axle’s grim lair, where they got a rapid, unpleasant lesson on the importance of camber control and a good medical plan.
6. The Add-On Spoiler: On a race car, a large wing with the correct airfoil shape and angle of attack can make all the sense in the world. But an aftermarket wing kluged onto the tail of a low-performance street vehicle is nothing more than a drag device. Unless you get lucky, the car will probably be less stable than it was without the wing.
7. The Three-Wheeler Car: There haven’t been many of these, and for good reason. The tricycle arrangement kills interior volume, and can lead to serious stability problems. If a designer is careful to keep a three-wheeler’s roll centre of gravity low and close to the paired wheels, it can be a stable vehicle. But the platform is easily abused – as proof, watch Top Gear’s hilarious video where they repeatedly roll a three-wheeled Robin Reliant. Three-wheeler cars were typically built for reasons that didn’t include handling, safety or practicality – as in postwar England, where building a car with only three wheels created a tax advantage (hence the rise of the roll-prone Robin).
8. The Aquacar: There have been several attempts at marketing an amphibious car, but none caught on. Among them was the German-made Amphicar, which was produced between 1961 and 1968. The Amphicar had a four-cylinder motor, and a pair of rear-mounted propellers. In the water, the front wheels acted as rudders. One owner described it as “the fastest car on the water and fastest boat on the road.” This wasn’t saying much – the Amphicar’s top speed was 110 km/h on the road and 13 km/h on water. Less than 4,000 were sold before the company went out of business.
9. The SUV: Like the brontosaurus, the SUV is a bad design that flourished due to artificial conditions that included flawed legislation and misguided consumer tastes. Although few people actually need a tall, giant-sized vehicle with gas-guzzling four-wheel drive, the SUV became a runaway sensation in the 1990s, and persists to this day despite soaring gas prices. Although many buy SUVs for reasons of perceived safety, their mass and high roll centre make them more prone to rollover than a standard car. The rise of the SUV was aided and abetted by an unfortunate legislative loophole. Car makers were able to skirt a steep gas-guzzler tax by classifying SUVs as working trucks. This was ironic, given that the majority of buyers seemed to be soccer parents and celebrities who used their SUVs for shopping runs.
10. The Fake Air Scoop: This is the toupee of the car world. Genuine air scoops were first seen on race cars, where they pulled in air to cool high-performance motors and hard-worked brakes. They soon became a symbol of power on street machines like the Shelby Cobra and Dodge 440 Charger. Then came the fake scoop, which was supposed to add an air of virility to cars like the Charlie’s Angels-era Mustang II. It didn’t. But the fake scoops did add weight and drag, and they made any car instantly tackier, creating a near-perfect design fail.
Click here for a gallery of the Top 10 Car Design Blunders.
For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)
Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive
Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/