It’s one of the great hypocrisy of fandom: When you guys win, it’s “We,” when they lose, its “Them.”
Honestly, it isn’t that much different in the automotive world. Everyone has their pet brands, and everyone knows that their brands have all made awful, awful mistakes. In almost every business, products come out that look like a mistake as soon as they leave the factory, but due to the auto industry’s inherent exposure to the public, automotive flops tend to be more spectacular than most — and potentially more damaging to the brand responsible.
Here we’ve compiled a collection of 10 of the most high-profile offenders. Although these cars may have seemed right at the time to somebody, they probably should have been put through a little more development — and at least a focus group or two.
1. 1975-’80 AMC Pacer
In the 1970s, tiny Wisconsin-based American Motors was strapped for cash, and increasingly relying on its aging Gremlin/Hornet platform (which would eventually underpin its Concord, Spirit, and Eagle models). That’s what makes the Pacer so baffling. On paper, it was a pioneer: The second American car to have rack-and-pinion steering, an integrated rollbar, a longer passenger door for rear seat access, and an interior designed for safety and class-leading space. But in reality, it was “The Flying Fishbowl,” a gawky, unbelievably hot (all that glass), and expensive failure. The struggling company sank $60 million (nearly $360 million today) into developing the car “from the inside out.” Customers took one look at the slow (100 horsepower), heavy (nearly two tons) Pacer, and said “no, thanks.” In 2007, 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.
2. 1981-’84 Cadillac Fleetwood V8-6-4
Today, GM’s performance cars like the Corvette and Camaro use cylinder deactivation systems in their V8s to hit fuel economy numbers that would’ve been thought impossible a generation ago – and that’s largely because of the failure of Cadillac’s V8-6-4 engine. In order to keep up with rising CAFE standards, Caddy offered a novel and complex electromechanical cylinder deactivation system on its flagship Fleetwood models beginning in 1981. Unfortunately, technology hadn’t caught up with the idea just yet, and it was besieged with warranty issues well after the V8-6-4 left production in 1984. Turns out buyers didn’t want a jerky ride, stalling, or bizarre engine noises from their $16,000 (around $45k today) Fleetwoods after all.
3. 1971-’80 Ford Pinto
The Pinto was supposed to be Ford’s car of the ’70s; a modern compact perfectly in tune with what buyers wanted. Instead, it nearly destroyed the company. At risk of adding $11 to the manufacturing costs of every car, Ford decided to place the Pinto’s gas tank in a place where it could be punctured by the rear differential and snap at the filler neck in rear-end collisions over 25 miles per hour, spraying gasoline into the interior (a shield to prevent this would’ve added $1 to manufacturing costs), and igniting the car. The reasoning? Ford’s bean counters decided it would be cheaper to pay off any wrongful death claims than fix the problem.
In 1978, Ford finally recalled over 1.5 million Pintos, and began years of slogging through civil suits that would push the company to the brink of bankruptcy. While the Pinto astonishingly soldiered on through the 1980 model year, it’s estimated that as many as 900 people died from the defect.
4. 1995-’97 Suzuki X90
The X90 wasn’t really an off-roader like the earlier Samurai, or a targa-topped sporty car like the Honda Civic del Sol, but sort of a odd and impractical combination of both. It had all the drawbacks of a small SUV (increased rollover risk, road noise), 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.
5. 1989-’91 Chrysler TC by Maserati
In the late ’80s, Chrysler president Lee Iacocca partnered with Maserati in the late ’80s to develop a competitor to Cadillac Allanté (a close runner-up for this list). Astonishingly, the two managed to make a car that was even more underwhelming than the Cadillac. The TC was lightly restyled, K-Car-based, front-wheel drive LeBaron convertible mounted on a shortened (also K-Car-based) Daytona chassis, manufactured in Italy, and branded with Maserati’s iconic trident set inside Chrysler’s Pentastar logo. And instead of a free-revving Maserati engine under the hood, there was an Italian-built version of the turbocharged 2.2. liter V6 that was available in the Dodge Caravan.
Unsurprisingly, the Chrysler TC by Maserati was a bit of an embarrassment for both companies, and it disappeared after just two years and 7,000 examples. Ironically, Chrysler and Maserati are both owned by Fiat today.
6. 1982-’88 Cadillac Cimarron
In the ’80s, the BMW 3-Series was making huge inroads in the U.S. thanks to its combination of luxury, performance, and style. But to GM, it was just an expensive compact, so it responded with what it thought was a BMW-killer: The Cimarron. Little more than a front-wheel drive Chevy Cavalier with leather and a $15,000 price tag (the Chevy sold for $6,400), the public blanched at the Cimarron, and by 1988, it had disappeared in a cloud of ignominy. 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.”
7. 1997-’02 Plymouth Prowler
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 you 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, and the $38,300 ($56k today) base price didn’t help matters either. In recent years, Plymouth’s last grasp at relevancy has begun to be reconsidered in enthusiast circles. Astonishing.
8. 1958-’60 Ford Edsel
The Ford Edsel is one of, if not the most, famous — or infamous — of automotive blunders. But despite being kind of homely and pricey, the Edsel wasn’t actually a bad car. Meant to slot just below Lincoln, Ford sunk $400 million (over $4 billion today) into developing the brand from scratch, hiring experts and market researchers to “find out what the public wants” – without actually showing anyone the car it was building.
When the brand that “Makes History by Making Sense” debuted on a special prime-time program on September 4, 1957, it was met with shock. Even in the late ’50s its styling was considered garish, and its trademark upright grille became known as the “horse collar” in polite company (it was compared to the female anatomy behind closed doors). While history has softened on the brand’s outrageous cars (this one fetched $35,750 at an RM Sotheby’s auction), the Edsel has become a lesson in how not to launch a brand. Ironically enough, the Edsel’s big block V8 soldiered on long after the brand disappeared, remaining available in Lincoln models through 1968.
9. 1985-’92 Yugo GV
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 Yugo GV (for “Great Value!”) reached our shores in 1985 as the cheapest car in America: $3,995 ($8,500 today). In other parts of the world, the Yugo was known as the Zastava Koral, a Serbian-built clone of a ’70s-era Fiat 124. In America, 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 – and that was before it left dealerships. Yugo quietly left our shores in 1992, and despite NATO bombing the factory in 1999, the car astonishingly remained in production until 2008.
Today, the former Yugo plant is owned by Fiat Chrysler, and it builds the Fiat 500L there, leading us to believe the factory is haunted and probably never should’ve been rebuilt.
10. 2001 Pontiac Aztek
There’s the Edsel, the Cimarron, the Yugo, and of course, the Pontiac Aztek. In an effort to appeal to a younger crowd, Pontiac took a promising concept and cosmetically botched it so badly that its outward appearance scared off buyers before they could get close enough to unlock the damn thing. Apologists say that it was one of the first modern crossovers available, but Consumer Reports thought it was so bad, it abandoned its test car on its grounds. Astonishingly, the Aztek’s profile has gotten a serious image boost among Millennials thanks to its cameo on Breaking Bad. To the kids who don’t remember just how bad they were the first time around: Don’t go anywhere near this hunk of plastic, you’ll regret it.
Additional Reporting by James Derek Sapienza