Fri 28 Sep 2007
1. AMC Pacer
The main selling point of the American Motors’ Pacer wagon was its extreme width. Compact cars weren’t popular in the early ’70s, so AMC made the Pacer as wide as a Cadillac of the same era.
In the fuel-starved America of the time, a small car with lots of interior space no doubt seemed smart, and the Pacer did find a ready market in its early days. Unfortunately, the bulbous, blobby Pacer is remembered today as the ultimate example of “the nerdy car my parents drove.” (Its starring role in the 1992 geeksploitation flick “Wayne’s World” didn’t help.)
Introduced in 1975 the Pacer met with initial success, but sales dwindled quickly and the model was phased out after only five years. Among its odder features was a passenger side door that was four inches longer than the driver’s side door The idea was to allow easier access to the rear seats. Almost 40 percent of the car’s total surface area was glass, leading to “fishbowl on wheels” wisecracks.
Today, the AMC Pacer is seeing some interest as a collectible icon of the ’70s. McKeel Hagerty, president of Hagerty Insurance, the collector car insurance company that did the “Questionable cars” survey, owns one himself.
Chinese car companies are now talking about entering the U.S. market, so you’ll see the Yugo cited frequently as an example of how not to do it. Lesson number one: There is a definite limit to what Americans will accept in exchange for a low price.
Introduced to U.S. buyers in 1985 at a price of $3,990 the Yugoslavian-built Yugo sounded like a bargain. It was, by far, the cheapest new car you could get. But the Yugo’s reputation for awful build quality – which some dogged defenders still insist was undeserved – quickly became the stuff of legend. Yugo jokes were almost as numerous as lawyer jokes and just as scathing. (No, the rear window wasn’t really heated to keep your hands warm while pushing it, but you actually may be able to double the car’s current value by filling it with gas.)
Consumer Reports, in its review of the Yugo, called the car “hard to recommend at any price” and concluded that “you’d be better off buying a good used car than a new Yugo.”
The Yugo stands out as the only car from a non-U.S. manufacturer to make the Hagerty Insurance “Most Questionable Cars” list.
“I threatened a couple of times to buy one and leave it in somebody’s driveway,” said McKeel Hagerty, president of Hagerty Insurance.
3. Ford Pinto
The issue wasn’t just the car itself, however, but the alleged decision-making process within Ford Motor Co. Media reports at the time drew a picture of a company virtually psychopathic in its disregard for human life and suffering. Ford was willing, it seemed, to let a certain number of people – company officials even estimated how many it might be – be burned alive rather than spend a few dollars per car to stop it. (Ford defenders have said that at least one company memo central to this thesis was taken out of context and misinterpreted by the press.)
Once the allegations became widely known, Ford’s defensive public response tainted consumer perceptions of the Pinto and all Ford products of the time, according to Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Ford Motor Co. “Wheels for the World.” It was 1978 before Ford, faced with public hearings into the matter, finally recalled the Pintos it had built up to 1976.
In one trial Ford Motor Co. was even held criminally liable for deaths in a Pinto fire. Ford won that case.
In retrospect, it turns out that about as many people died in fiery crashes in Pintos as in other popular cars of that time, although crash tests indicated the gas tank problem was genuine.
4. Pontiac Aztek
On certain rare occasions a car company can produce a model that many people find unattractive and yet, somehow, it ends up finding an adoring market. The Honda Element is one example. The Chrysler 300 is another.
Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way with the Aztek. In its five year production run, just 115,000 were made. The crossover SUV’s exterior, reminiscent of Pablo Picasso’s cubist period, doubtlessly drove away many buyers who might have loved the versatile vehicle packaged inside. The Aztek was always highly rated by its owners, garnering top scores in J.D. Power’s owner satisfaction surveys.
When the Aztek was finally replaced by the Torrent, a Chevrolet Equinox with a Pontiac nose and tail, GM billed the Torrent as Pontiac’s first ever SUV. Even GM, it seemed, wanted to relegate the Aztek to the scrapheap as quickly as possible.
5. Chevrolet Vega
The Vega was an early attempt by General Motors to break into the fuel-efficient compact car market. Unfortunately, the Vega quickly earned a reputation for consuming, not gasoline, but motor oil. The Vega’s aluminum engine just wasn’t up to the job and, according to various sources, the cars were plagued by mechanical problems, including a hearty appetite for lubricants. Premature rusting was another commonly reported issue.
If true, it was probably a bad sign when, eight miles into a test run on GM’s proving track, a Vega literally fell apart, as related in a book by John DeLorean recalling his days as head of Chevrolet.
Despite its many issues, the Vega was a fairly popular model in its day and almost 2 million were produced. (A little over 2 million if you count its Pontiac sister model, the Astre.)
GM produced about 3,500 (relatively) high-performance Cosworth Vegas which are (relatively) collectible today. “They sell for more than you’d think,” said McKeel Hagerty, president of Hagerty Insurance, which conducted the survey.
The vehicle shown here is an example of the even lesser known Yenko Vega in racing trim.
6. AMC Gremlin
Like other AMC cars (see the Pacer) the Gremlin can be seen as either a daring leap forward by an innovative underdog or as a desperate attempt to do something – anything – that would stand out in a marketplace dominated by larger competitors.
Despite its odd looks – and despite being named for a mythical creature said to cause mechanical problems – the Gremlin actually sold fairly well for an AMC model. A total of about 675,000 were produced.
Despite its size, very small by the standards of the day, the Gremlin offered decent performance compared to its 1970s competitors. (Not that that’s saying much.) Unlike competing compact cars, the Gremlin was even available with a V-8 engine.
The rear-engined Corvair, designed to compete against sporty European models then gaining popularity, earned a special place in automotive history. It was the subject of a chapter in Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” which detailed the U.S. auto industry’s overall reluctance to take safety seriously. The Corvair’s alleged problems stemmed from its unusual rear-engined lay-out and the suspension that held it up. That design led to unstable emergency handling, according to Nader.
It’s hard to say whether the Corvair was much more dangerous than other cars of its time. This was the early 1960s when safety was still, as Nader’s book pointed out, a barely acknowledged afterthought. (Try to find anyone wearing a seatbelt in a 1960s car ad. For that matter, try to find a seatbelt.) You could probably name any number of cars that were, arguably, just as dangerous for a variety of reasons, including a few models that are remembered fondly today.
But the Corvair got top billing as a death trap and General Motors did its part to ensure a lasting impression. Instead of just improving the Corvair’s rear suspension, which it did, GM also hired private investigators to dig up dirt on Nader. The private eyes didn’t get any dirt, but they did succeed in forever typecasting GM as America’s favorite auto industry bad guy and the Corvair as a killer.
GM and the Corvair, by being such an easy target, ultimately helped bring about the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and things like crash tests and safety standards. There can be no question that our automobiles are much safer today as a result.
Before all the bad press finally clobbered sales, despite the improved rear suspension, the Corvair was produced in a surprising variety of body styles including a van, a station wagon, and a pickup truck with a side ramp. In all, about 1.8 million were made.
8. AMC Matador
The unfortunate Matador, an undistinguished midsized car that was really a thinly made over AMC Rebel pitched as “all new,” may suffer from what McKeel Hagerty, president of Hagerty Insurance, calls AMC’s “negative halo effect.” Cars like the Gremlin and the Pacer are tossed out as prime examples of automotive awfulness so the Matador gets thrown in there, too, even if it was merely not so great.
The Matador coupe was actually named “Best Styled Car” in 1974 by the editors of Car & Driver. The Matador even had a moment of MTV stardom. In the long version of Michael Jackson’s “Black and White” music video he smashes the glass out of a Matador.
AMC’s ultimate failure as a business – it was bought by Chrysler in 1987 and only its Jeep brand survives today – adds weight to the popular notion that AMC cars were all laughably bad.
The Edsel wasn’t just a car. It was supposed to be a whole new car line. There were seven Edsel models altogether, including three wagons: the Ranger, the Pacer, the Corsair, the Citation, the Roundup, the Villager and the Bermuda.
In retrospect, Edsel’s marketing mission looks suicidal. In the 1950s, Ford saw some demographic daylight between Ford and Mercury and between Mercury and Lincoln and a single brand, Edsel, was conceived to fill both those gaps. The Edsel was supposed to be sophisticated and technologically advanced – you could shift gears by pushing buttons on the steering wheel – but the name is synonymous today with “colossal marketing flame-out.”
Ironically, the Edsel was named after Henry Ford’s son, Edsel Ford. As Ford Motor Co. CEO in the 1920s, Edsel was known for his elegant sense of style. In contrast to his father, who built the company on the dirt-cheap and rugged Model T – “any color as long it’s black” – Edsel recognized the importance of good design in the mature automobile business. His guidance was a big reason the Model A looked so much handsomer than the Model T.
The Edsel cars’ aptly named “horse collar” grill was immediately the focal point of crude jokes. But mechanical problems in the early cars, a market shift toward smaller cars and a general economic downturn just as the models were hitting showrooms probably did as much as anything to seal Edsel’s fate. If times had been richer, Ford might have just changed the grill.
10. Chevrolet Chevette
Another GM attempt to compete against small, inexpensive imports. And, again, this one wasn’t a market flop. In fact, the Chevette was the best-selling small car in America for the 1979 and 1980 model years. Ultimately, 2.7 million were produced over its lifetime.
But it is remembered today for being mechanically troubled, poorly constructed and underpowered, a sad reminder of the trouble Detroit automakers had (and still have) in responding to the flood of small, cheap cars from Japan. The attempt to piggyback on “Corvette” with the clever Chevette label only made things worse. Why draw attention to meager performance by trying to pretend there’s some relationship to Chevrolet’s legendary sports car?
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