Cars (and concepts) that deserved to be crushed…

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Automotive good ideas gone bad range far and wide, whether it’s a classic  fail like the exploding Pintos of the early ’70s – or a late-model turd like the Pontiac Aztek.

Here are ten automotive Turduckens that will be remembered for as long as the warranty claims (and class-action lawsuits) linger:

* The entire American Motors Corp. (AMC) lineup –

From dreadful dreadnoughts like the malformed Matador to demented detritus like the Gremlin and Pacer, no other automaker ever managed to build such a seemingly endless conga line of bizarre, poorly conceived (and often, poorly built) cars within such a short span of time (from the late 1960s to the early-mid 1970s).

Only bankruptcy eventually succeeded in stopping the madness.

* Chrysler’s “lean burn” engines –

While Honda was developing highly efficient combustion chambers to lower engine emissions via engineering advances such as the CVCC cylinder head used in the first-generation Civics in the mid-70s, which allowed the cars to meet federal exhaust emissions standards without catalytic converters – Chrysler was duct-taping its obsolete V-8s with leaned-out carburetors that mainly made them even harder to start than they were before – and prone to stalling in the middle of busy intersections. The added plus was wimpy performance and terrible gas mileage.

Now you know why “rich, Corinthian leather” (and Ricardo Montalban) never made a comeback.

* General Motors’ diesel V-8 –

Imagine a luxury car that was both slow and inefficient as well as prone to early and catastrophic engine failures and you have a taste of the bitter flavor that was the diesel-powered Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

These “diesel” engines were in fact converted gas engines, which lacked the strength to deal with the high-compression combustion of diesel operation.

The resultant debacle not only soured an entire country on the otherwise perfectly sound concept (real diesel engines), it helped hustle Oldsmobile to the boneyard of automotive has-beens – and nearly killed off Cadillac, too.

* The Sterling –

Here’s an oldie but still a stinkie…. even after 20-plus years. 

Japanese automakers rarely make big-time mistakes, but this was pretty close. Back in the late 1980s, in collusion with British car-maker Land Rover, Acura Legends were re-sold as “British” Sterling 825s and 827s. The alliance was as enduring as the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact – and just as awkward. Parts for these cars – especially interior pieces – are all but impossible to find. Dealer support is nonexistent. Resale values are lower than current highs for well-worn Yugos.

If Truman had had another bomb left to drop, the childhood home of the dude who would grow up to create Sterling would have been a worthy target.

* Pontiac Fiero –

A great idea ruined by upper management cheapskates, who thought it would be a slick con to use Chevette-sourced underthings (front suspension, engine) in a car that looked sporty but couldn’t live up to its billing. First-year sales were great – until the word got out. They then nose-dived like the Concorde, forcing the car’s cancellation just four years after it came out and just in time to hand over the entire market for a car of this type to Mazda, which brought out the Miata a year after the Fiero was sent to the crusher.

* “Cab forward” design –

Remember? When Chrysler Corp. hawked this layout in the ’90s, it was supposed to be an automotive Great Leap Forward. But after a succession of belly-flops ranging from the luckless LHS to the Dodge not-so-Intrepid, the whole works was discreetly packed up and shipped off the land of unwanted toys. Chrysler reverted back to front-engine/rear-drive (“cab normal”) vehicles like the current 300 series and Charger – which, not surprisingly, actually sell well.

* Geo –

Circa Ronald Reagn’s first term, and desperate to rehabilitate its image, GM figured the only way to get people to consider buying a GM small car was by giving their crappy little economy cars a new name. Hence the “Geo” nameplate. Sold alongside Chevrolets, some Geos were ok (at least, the ones like the Prizm that were just re-badged Toyotas). But others were far from fabulous, notably the depressing three-cylinder Metro and the sad-sack Storm “sports coupe” – both of which may sometimes still be glimpsed on seedy used car lots in rural backwaters to this very day.

* The “new” GTO –

The Holden (GM’s Australian subsidiary) Monaro was a perfectly good car – powerful as well as fine-handling. But it was neither a Pontiac nor a GTO. Tacking on the badges didn’t make it so.

It didn’t help that the resurrected “GTO” was blandly styled (it looked a lot like a hot-rodded Cavalier) and close to Corvette expensive – making it all but impossible for even the handful of rednecks who might have wanted one to be able to afford one.

* Firestone’s Wilderness A/T tires –

Mix marginally competent drivers, top-heavy SUVs, high-speed driving and defective tires – and let the barrel-rolling (and endless litigation) begin! This late 1990s debacle all-but-ruined the reputation of what had been the country’s best-selling SUV – the Explorer – even though the root cause of the problem had more to do with improper use and sketchy tires than with the “Exploder” itself.

* Chevy SSR –

What’s heavy, ugly, top-heavy and clunky? No, it’s not your mother-in-law. It’s the SSR, or Super Sport Retractable hardtop. Blechh! GM built this Frankenstinian atrocity for a few years in the early-mid 2000s. It looked like a ’40s pick-up and had some interesting features – including a “torque-o-meter” gauge to let you know how much power the huge, Corvette sourced V-8 was putting out. But like the even more execrable PLymouth Prowler, it was a fake hot rod – a factory-built, store-bought Guidomobile for guys who want to be seen as sporty car-crafter types but who probably couldn’t find the dipstick on a dare.

With a base price of almost $50,000 it was the perfect accompaniment to a tract-home McMansion.

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Your Libertarian car guy.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I bought a 1986 Chevy Sprint ER [Extended Range] new in ’86. It got 55 city and 60 highway [EPA]. I could actually wring out 62-63 mpg on the highway if I drove 55. Only 3 spark plugs and 4 quarts of oil to change. New tires were less than 30 bucks installed. With gas at $1.50 you could drive to Vegas and back for about $15.00 [700 miles] from where I lived in CA. I even slid it off a road at 40+ once, bounced the left front tire off a boulder, and all that happened was a bent rim. [Tire didn’t even pop!] Made a lot of money delivering pizza in it! An added bonus was with a 0-60 time of 14 seconds I only got 1 speeding ticket in 5 years of ownership.

  2. I said it when the “new” GTO hit the market and I’ll say it again… GM apparently decided they would re-do the early GTO theme. The early GTOs were just slightly different appearance wise from the tempest which itself wasn’t all that much different from the lemans. That’s the formula they used. I don’t feel it was wrong from a historical perspective to make it look almost like all the other current at the time Pontiacs but… The problem is they didn’t do their market research to see what people expected from a GTO. people expected something much more different like the later GTOs or retro styling. And that is fail on a basic product research level. Same car with a retro 1969 or 1971 GTO styled body even at the high price would have done MUCH better.

    • That’s part of it, I agree – but I would say the major problem was it (the last GTO) was not a Pontiac in any meaningful sense. It was a rebadged Holden with a Chevy engine. Did it perform well? Absolutely. But – having driven it – I can tell you it had no unique personality; close your eyes and you could easily believe you were driving a Corvette (because it had the Corvette’s engine). In contrast, the early GTOs, though sharing platforms with other GM models, had their own Pontiac-specific drivetrains. A Ram Air III 400 sounds/feels/drives (and looks) distinctly different from, say, an LT-1 350 Chevy V-8.

      It’s not just looks (tough I agree the “new” GTO was very bland).

      Have you seen the new “Trans-Am” based on the current Camaro? It’s an aftermarket concept car/prototype built to gauge public interest in resurrecting the TA. It is a very professional/well-executed job… but it’s just a skin job. The car is still just a Camaro with cosmetic tuning. It holds zero interest for me and I suspect most Pontiac people share my opinion. What’s the point?

      My opinion: GM killed Pontiac when it took away Pontiac’s in-house engine shop and turned it into a marketing division for “GM” products. The amazing thing is that Pontiac hung on for as long as it did.

      • That is of the (valid) school of thought that GM’s divisions died with their V8s in the early 1980s. This in turn expands the list greatly, including most 1985 and newer non-chevies.

  3. You left out one of the worst in what would become a long line of Chrysler junk cars.

    The Plymouth Cricket that was imported from the UK in the early 1970’s.

    The design was bad enough, but the fit and workmanship was about what you would expect from England’s version of our United Auto Workers.

    Any parts that hadn’t already fallen off of this four-wheeled catastrophe by the time a new buyer picked it up usually did on their way home. Of course if the new owners happened to be Hansel-and-Gretel that made for a nice trail to follow back to the dealership – assuming it would go that far.

    At least the Dodge division had enough sense to bring in their small import from Japan. The Colt had a more successful career.

    The Cricket was no insect. It was turkey.

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