Which are the worst cars ever produced? There have been lot of horribly-designed vehicles, but does that make a car bad? The terrible Trabant usually makes the “worst car” list. But Josef Czikmantory and his family escaped communism by driving a Trabant across the Hungarian border. To him, it’s a beautiful car.
What if you and your sweetie had your first kiss in the back of a Pinto, got engaged in a Pacer or conceived your first child in a Yugo? (Somehow.) Then these cars would represent something cherished.
“Cars sometimes become members of the family,” said Leslie Kendall, chief curator at the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. “We give them names and assign human attributes to them.”
So here’s our list in absolutely no order. It was compiled with the help of a real car guy. Peter Cheney is Ontario’s premiere auto writer – as opposed to the auto of Ontario’s premier (a Chevy Suburban.)
•CHEVY CORVAIR (1960-69)
The Corvair is probably most famous for a skewering by safety watchdog Ralph Nader when he wrote a book about the car titled “Unsafe at Any Speed.”
The engine was in the back and was cooled by air instead of water. During its first test run at a race track, the car flipped over. The rear-mounted engine placed more than 60 percent of the car’s weight on the back wheels, making it difficult to control. The complex heating system filled the cabin with noxious fumes. There was a one-piece steering column. In an accident the driver became a shish kabob.
But at the same time, the Corvair was also lauded. Calling it a “Poor Man’s Porsche,” Motor Trend magazine named it their Car of the Year for 1960.
•FORD EDSEL (1957-59)
This car is so bad that it became a synonym for a failure.
The Edsel was much ballyhooed by Ford as a revolutionary vehicle. But when introduced, buyers hated the design.
Ford spent $300 million developing the Edsel. Not money well-spent. It had automatic transmission with push-button controls that were mounted on the steering wheel. Drivers ended up shifting gears while trying to honk the horn. It was named after Henry Ford’s son, but in retrospect they should have gone with one of the other names that were considered: “Utopian Turtletop” or “Mongoose Civique.”
•AMC GREMLIN (1970-78)
The Gremlin was introduced on April Fools Day in 1970. This small rust bucket was also a gas guzzler (21 mpg). The flip-up back window was prone to break off in the driver’s hands, Cheney said. The worst feature was itsstyling. The windshield wipers were vacuum-operated. The original design was sketched on an air sickness bag. Both former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush drove Gremlins in 1974.
• AMC PACER (1975-81)
Car and Driver dubbed the Pacer “The Flying Fishbowl.” It was heavily advertised but failed miserably. The right door was longer than the left. The car was eventually converted to a station wagon but your groceries stored in the back would fall out the right door when you opened it, Cheney said. Also known as the “Rolling Jellybean,” its gas mileage was just over 20 mpg. The 1977 model offered a Levi’s jean interior.
A sky blue Pacer with flame decals and a licorice dispenser was used in Wayne’s World. Wayne and Garth called it the Mirth Mobile. The car was sold at a Las Vegas auction earlier this year for $37,000. Schwing!
•FORD PINTO (1971-80)
The Pinto’s claim to infamy was a notorious design error – a fuel filler neck that snapped off in rear-end collisions, turning the Pinto into a flaming deathtrap. Eddie Murphy joked that his family used to rear-end Pintos rather than buying fireworks.
A memo later uncovered concerning the Pinto said that Ford executives were aware of the problem but calculated that the cost of reinforcing the rear ends ($121 million) was greater than the potential payout to victims ($50 million).
•VW THING (1968-83)
When you think about Volkswagen, you think about the Beetle, not a stripped-down off-roader that looks like the illegitimate offspring of a dumpster and a bread box. The car was known as the Kurierwagen in West Germany, the Trekker in the UK, the Safari in South America and the Pescaccia in Italy. In the U.S. it was known as the Thing because in the 50s through to the late 70s Pontiac produced a station-wagon called the Safari, so the name was off-limits.
The Thing went on the American market in 1972. Sales were unimpressive. Folks thought The Thing was just too damn ugly. U.S. distribution ceased in 1975 because the car failed to meet new safety standards.
The Thing bears a striking resemblance to the Volkswagen Type 82 Kubelwagen, a light military vehicle used by the Nazis in World War II. The Kubelwagen was designed by Ferdinand Porsche.
Dan Neil, auto writer for the Wall Street Journal, called the Yugo the Mona Lisa of bad cars. “It was built in Soviet-bloc Yugoslavia and had the distinct feeling of something assembled at gunpoint,” Neil said. The car WAS initially produced by an arms manufacturer named Zastava. Time Magazine’s “50 Worse Cars” pointed out: “Interestingly, in a car where ‘carpet’ was listed as a standard feature, the Yugo had a rear-window defroster (to keep your hands warm while you pushed it.)” Our favorite Yugo joke: A guy walks into an auto parts store and asks the clerk, “Can I get a set of wiper blades for a Yugo?” The clerk thinks about it for a second and then says, “Well, I suppose that’s a fair trade.”
•CHEVY VEGA (1970-77)
When you saw a Vega on the road it was either belching out oily smoke or being towed.
The engine only delivered 80 horsepower.
Rust was its biggest problem and holes often developed the floorboards after only two years on the road. Folks in salted slop states like Minnesota had to replace the front fenders after only two years.
In 1972, GM issued three mass recalls, the largest covering 500,000 Vegas, to fix defective axles, balky throttles and a bunch of other problems that caused fires.
The man in charge of overseeing the Vega’s production: John DeLorean.
•PONTIAC AZTEK (2001-05)
“The Aztek looks like a Transformer figure based on a Dust Buster vacuum cleaner,” Cheney said.
They only stayed on the market for five years – no one wanted to buy them. The car had such a negative impact that many say it was single-handedly responsible for destroying Pontiac. In the U.S., annual sales never topped 25,000
GM executive Bob Lutz said the Pontaic Aztec looked like “ an angry kitchen appliance.”
On the plus side, the center console could be converted into a beer cooler.
The car was a commercial failure but the Aztek saw a resurgence in popularity in 2008, thanks to its association with Breaking Bad. It was the car driven by the main protagonist Walter White. The Peterson Auto Museum currently has an Aztec on display. “It’s a popular exhibit,” Kendall said. “People marvel at its unusual appearance and note that it was a perfect fit for Walter White’s personality
•SUZUKI ESTEEM (1995-2002)
“Breaking Bad” boosted the status of the Aztek. That show’s prequel, “Better Call Saul,” has given the 1998 Suzuki Esteem a cult following. The Blue Book value for Jimmy McGill’s car is $525 but ’98 Esteems now sell for more than $2,500
The commercials for the Suzuki Esteem in America were shot in South Africa because it was cheaper to film there. The first commercials featured a giraffe talking to the camera as this peculiar gas-guzzler drove by. “That’s a pretty nice-looking car,” the giraffe says. The next ads featured a young woman driving across the desert while talking to a baby antelope.
The employee parking lot at the American Suzuki headquarters in Brea is peppered with ’98 Esteems.
•CHEVY CHEVETTE (1975-87)
The sub-compact Chevette earned a reputation as a car that drove even worse than it looked. The interior was shiny plastic that came in black, beige or bright red. Although the Chevette got great gas mileage it had only a 51 horsepower engine. Disgruntled union workers in Detroit sometimes welded Coke bottles into the sills of cars going down the assembly line, creating mysterious rattles that were impossible to fix. But the most annoying thing for us is that the commercial jingle is still stuck in our heads: “Chevy Chevette – it’ll drive you happy!”
We saved the worst for last – the Trabant (or Trabi). The Trabant was a utilitarian car built in East Germany from 1957 to 1990. Not surprisingly, the Germans who manufactured the car, VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau, knew exactly how many Trabants they produced (3,096,099). It’s the size of a Mini Cooper. The Trabant has two-cylinder two-stroke engine with a horsepower of 26 – the same as a Sears Craftsman 917 riding lawn mower. The Trabi has no oil pump. You have to mix two cycle oil with the gas by yourself, so the Trabant spews a constant plume of gray, pungent exhaust.
But in communist East Germany, the Trabant was a status symbol. The waiting list to get a Trabbi was as long as 15 years and they cost a year’s wages.
But despite its downfalls, owners could fix most any problem with a screw driver and a couple of wrenches. If you couldn’t repair it yourself, you could get the factory to fix it and you’d have a like-new Trabant (without that new car smell).
Our goal is that you vehemently disagree with our list. Our hope is that right now you’re in a bar with your car buddies harrumphing that we left off the Festiva, the Matador, the Cavalier, the Reliant, the LeBaron, the Mustang II, the Lincoln Continental Mark IV, the Bricklin SV1, the Explorer, the Eagle Premier, and Johnny Shipley’s 1983 entry in the Boy Scout Troop 349 Soap Box Derby in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
But before you begin your raucous discourse, pour yourselves some double shots of Wodka Gorbatschow potato vodka.
And toast the Trabant.
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