I recently came across an article by Justin Lloyd-Miller that describes what he feels are “10 Cars that should have never hit the road.” While his list parrots other “worst car” lists, I take exception with some of these cars since their contribution was greater than a lot of people realize. Albert Einstein once said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” The same can be said about this list. While these cars certainly have their low points, they have some redeeming qualities that should spare them from such animosity, except the Yugo, that car really sucked:
1. AMC Pacer
JLM Says: More denounced for its unusual styling than its actual performance as a car, the AMC Pacer is a classic automotive flop. Hagerty Insurance issued a poll asking for the enthusiasts to name the worst car design of all time, and the Pacer was bestowed with the unfortunate honor. In addition to its bulbous appearance, cheap materials and subpar build quality didn’t help the Pacer in the court of Public Opinion.
20 years before Chryslers Concorde and Dodge Intrepid brought “cab forward design” into the lexicon, the AMC Pacer was the first American production car to introduce us to the concept. In an effort to make an economy car that separated itself from the Hondas and the Toyotas starting to flood our shores, AMC designed and built the Pacer. The Pacer was a departure from the boxy look that was considered the design norm at the time. The Pacer was wide and extremely spacious for it size, thanks in part to its cab forward design and massive glasshouse. Love it or hate it, the Pacer brought auto design up front and now how a car looks is as much of a brand feel as how the car drives. For a car that was only in the market for 5 years, 30 years later it is still a recognizable iconic car and name, hardly a flop.
2. 1981 Cadillac Fleetwood V8-6-4
JLM Says: The Cadillac Fleetwood V8-6-4 had the potential to be a good car, had the engineers at Caddy stuck with a traditional engine. Instead, they got a little ahead of themselves and opted to add a primitive form of cylinder deactivation to keep up with the CAFE standards. The result was a jerky ride in a car that stalled consistently — and made unusual noises that cars probably shouldn’t have been making. It turns out the car was ahead of its time, as cylinder deactivation systems are found throughout industry today.
You cannot ignore the value of the technology the V8-6-4 brought to the auto industry. Say what you will about the Cadillac L62 engine’s reliability; it introduced the automotive world to “Modulated Displacement.” While it was plagued with electronic issues, the V8-6-4’s idea was revolutionary. Eventually automotive electronics caught up with the idea. “Modulated Displacement” became “Variable Displacement” and drive-by-wire technology has vastly improved the performance results, as well as an improvement in MPG figures. Considered a novelty in the 80’s, you will be hard-pressed to find a manufacturer today who is not using “Variable Displacement,” especially in their bigger engines.
3. 1971 Ford Pinto
JLM Says: The Ford Pinto is one of the most infamous examples of automotive flaws, for the unfortunate placement of the fuel tank behind the rear bumper. It also had a penchant for rupturing in accidents over 25 miles per hour. Conservative burn death estimates associated with the faulty tank design hover around 500 during the eight years before Ford redesigned the fatal flaw.
There is certainly no way to avoid the controversy around the exploding gas tanks and the deaths they claimed. In the late 60’s as “self-serve” gas started becoming a common option, a lot of car manufactures put gas tank fillers in the rear of the car, which allowed the driver to fill up at any pump no matter what side it was on. A large majority of cars of this era have rear-fill tanks. The Pinto was intended to be an import fighter, with its small size and excellent mileage. It came in a coupe and a wagon, which had a side-mounted gas filler. Despite the controversy, the car sold very well. In 1974 alone, Ford sold over 500 thousand pintos. Over its 9-year run, Ford sold a total of 3 million Pintos. The equally despised and loved Escort replaced the Pinto in the 80’s. The Pinto remains popular in the automotive subculture as it an easy car to find and a cheap car to buy. It shares a platform with the extremely popular Mustang II, so it has a wide range of high performance parts available. A 427 Pinto? Yes, Please! Oh but, fix that gas tank first.
4. 1996 Suzuki X90
JLM Says: The X90 wasn’t really a sports car or an off-roader like the earlier Samurai, but sort of a odd and impractical combination of both. It had all the drawbacks of a small SUV, coupled with the worst parts of a sports car, like the conspicuous lack of seating for more than two people. Needless to say, it sold terribly, but found limited success as the choice car for Red Bull — that is, until Red Bull moved on and adopted the Mini.
I am not sure why the X90 is on this list. Sure it’s confusing. It’s a two-seater with 4WD it has a removable roof and Recaro racing seats. Not enough room or equipment to do any real off-roading. Not enough power or style to make it a real roadster. It’s a perfect example of how auto manufacturers try to create very specific niches in the auto market. It did precede the much more successful Isuzu Vehicross. The Auto industry is still trying to create new niches and markets to exploit. The X-90 sold horribly because there was no market for a 2-seat off-road vehicles or a roadster with 4-wheel drive. At least they never killed anyone.
5. 1991 Chrysler TC By Maserati
JLM Says: Though intentions were pure (as they most often are), the Chrysler TC by Maserati was a Frankenstein of vehicle, with adopted parts and badges thrown together to create what would ultimately become a bit of an embarrassment to the two companies it was trying to promote. Over three years, the car only sold 7,000 examples, and successfully butchered the friendship between Chrysler and the Italian automaker.
While at Ford, Lee Lacocca was responsible for the creation of the Mustang and the De Tomaso Pantera. No one will deny that Lacocca saved Chrysler with the legendary but extremely ugly K-Car. Like a single guy in a bar at last call, Lacocca struggled to keep the K-Car momentum going into 2nd and 3rd generations. Lacocca called his old Pantera cohort Alejandro De Tomaso, who was now head of Maserati. Together they concocted what they hoped would be a car as magical as the Pantera. The TC was never intended to be a massive production car. Promises of a rare and exotic Italian import were dashed as soon as everyone realized the car was basically a Chrysler Lebaron Convertible with very expensive Maserati badges. While essentially a Chrysler Lebaron on the outside, it does boast an Italian motor and exquisite interior on the inside. The cars were partially built by hand in Italy. At $35,000, it cost way more than a fully optioned Lebaron. At the time it was the least expensive hand-built Italian car you could buy. The TC club of America boasts 700 members, 10 percent of the amount of cars sold over the 3-year run, not bad for a 25-year-old car.
6. Cadillac Cimarron
JLM Says: In what has become known as the most shameless example of horrific badge engineering to date, the ‘Cadillac’ Cimarron was little more than a Chevrolet Cavalier in a fancy suit — but not a nice suit. More like an ill-fitting one bought off the rack during the 70 percent off-everything-must-go sale. In the words of Pulitzer-prize winning automotive journalist Dan Neil, “Everything that was wrong, venal, lazy, and mendacious about GM in the 1980s was crystallized in this flagrant insult to the good name and fine customers of Cadillac.”
In an attempt to recapture that magic Cadillac introduced the Cimarron, Cadillac had a huge success with its first foray into “compacts” with the Seville in the 70’s. The Cimarron, however, was completely identical to its GM sisters the Oldsmobile Firenza, The Buick Skyhawk, The Chevrolet Cavalier, and the Pontiac J2000. It was hard to make the Cimarron stand out when there were 4 identical versions with much smaller price tags available. What people don’t know is that most of the people who bought Cimmarons went on to buy other (read more expensive) Cadillac models. The Cimarron also increased the brands awareness to a younger market, something its sister Buick still struggles with. While seeing the end of the Cimarron, the 90’s also saw the end of re-badged clone cars. Automakers now concentrate on making each brand unique and, while platforms and parts maybe interchangeable, there is no way anyone could mistake a Cadillac for a Chevy in today’s market. You can thank the Cimarron for that.
7. 1997 Plymouth Prowler
JLM Says: Around the mid-nineties, Plymouth set out to create a factory-rendition of the iconic hotrod. It’s open wheel design, wedge-shaped fuselage, and sloping arches hit all the right hotrod notes, until one opened the hood to see Chrysler’s 3.5-liter V6 and all of its 250 horsepower — the car was more of a rod, but not really a hot one. While 250 horsepower could be written off as respectable when it was released, the lack of a manual transmission humbled the car’s performance significantly.
In 1993 Plymouth introduced us to the Prowler Concept Vehicle. Designed to be a modern retro hot rod, it was a smash hit at the auto shows and rolled off the production line 3 years later. During that time, Volkswagen announced its concept of the New Beetle. New Beetles hit the show rooms a few months after the Prowler. The world was quickly introduced to Heritage Styling also known as Retro styling. Over the next decade, we would be see a multitude of heritage styled car: The Chrysler PT Cruiser, The Chevrolet SSR and HHR, The Ford Thunderbird and Mustang, and the Dodge Charger. The heritage style continues today almost 20 years later with the Dodge Challenger, Mini Cooper, Fiat 500, Chevrolet Camaro and 2nd generation New Beetles. While not heritage styled, this increase of nostalgia encouraged automakers to revive previously dead badges. Brought back from extinction are names like, the Chevy Malibu and Impala, The Dodge Aspen and Dart, and the Lincoln Zephyr. The Prowler may have come and gone, but it has left its odd little triangle-shaped footprint on the automotive industry.
8. 1958 Ford Edsel
JLM Says: The Ford Edsel is one of, if not the most, famous — or infamous — of automotive blunders. Despite being kind of homely, fuel thirsty, and quite pricey, the Edsel was actually a pretty decent car. The big shortcoming here was Ford’s overhyping of the vehicle, promising it to be much more than the Mercury ultimately was.
The Edsel, much like the AMC Pacer, has lived a much better life after it stopped production. With less than 10,000 Edsels know to exist, the pristine examples will fetch more than 100 thousand dollars. There are many possible reasons for the Edsels commercial failure. The main reason is that the market research that Ford used to create and build the “perfect car” did not accurately reflect what the buying public wanted. Give the car a weird name and a grille that looks like a toilet seat and no one is going to buy it. Ironically, many other carmakers had success with vertical grilles. Mechanically most people believe the Edsel was no more or less sound than Fords other offerings of the day. The Edsel gave the world self-adjusting brakes and a gear selector on the steering wheel, something that is only found in luxury sports cars today. What most critics don’t know is, at the time Ford ended the Edsels run they were working on the Edsel Comet. The Edsel Comet was given to Mercury as a stand-alone product and developed side-by-side with the Ford Falcon. The Mercury Comet was a success and was replaced in the 70’s by the Pinto/Bobcat.
9. 1985 Yugo
JLM Says: The Yugo. The pinnacle of automotive imperfection. The gold standard of inferior craftsmanship that gave off the impression “of something assembled at gunpoint.” It’s the car that all crappy, poorly made subcompacts strive to be when they grow up. The engine had a tendency of not working, bits of the car would fall off, and the electrical system seemed to be more for show than anything else. “Yugo” was probably an ambitious statement in this case.
Malcom Bricklin just wanted the world to be able to afford a car—a basic privilege we should all enjoy. Or maybe he hated the automotive industry so much he wanted to destroy it from the inside out. Sadly, Malcom Bricklin’s wonder car came from soviet block Yugoslavia. Known to Eastern Europe as the Zastava Koral, it became the Yugo GV in the United States. In 1986, the average price of a new car was $10,000 and the Yugo clocked in at $3,500. Overpriced is an understatement. The car advertised its carpeted floors as a feature. It came standard with a rear window defroster (to keep your hands warm while pushing it) and the car was a giant flop in the U.S. At the time, America was living off a brief resurgence of muscle cars and big car bourgeois. Maybe in today’s climate the Yugo could have been a success. Who am I fooling? This is probably the one car that deserves to be on this list.
10. 2001 Pontiac Aztek
JLM Says: No terrible car list is complete without the dearly despised Pontiac Aztek. In efforts to appeal to a younger crowd, Pontiac cosmetically botched its result so badly that even though the underlying vehicle was relatively decent, its outward appearance scared off buyers before they could get close enough to unlock the damn thing. ”It’s undeniable that the Aztek’s utter hideousness drove the biggest and last nails into Pontiac’s heavily side-clad, plastic coffin,” says Edmunds.com Editor-in-Chief Scott Oldham.
Some people think the Aztec killed Pontiac. At this point in time, all Pontiacs were just re-badged Chevrolets. The Aztec, while aesthetically unpleasing, was a well-equipped crossover vehicle with optional fulltime all-wheel drive. The Aztec was essentially the same vehicle as the Buick Rendezvous. The Rendezvous, which was not quite as funky looking as the Aztec, outsold the Aztec 3 to 1. Despite its looks, the Aztec sold very well from 2001-2004. In 2005, Pontiac replaced it with the Torrent. When Pontiac finally died in 2009, the car was replaced by the GMC Terrain. Recently, the Aztec has had a brief resurgence in popularity. In 2008 a little TV show called “Breaking Bad” used a Pontiac Aztec for its main character Walter White. Much like the small group of fans devoted to the Delorean time machine from “Back to the Future” fame, I envision many years in the future groups of people with their greenish-tan Pontiac Aztec’s lovingly restored to look Walter Whites famous car. Then maybe the Aztec will lose its bad reputation.