14 of the Biggest Automotive Flops of All Time
Over the years there have been plenty of bad cars. Countless bad cars, really. If you made a directory of car model ever built, you’ll realize that even the most encyclopedic gearheads have a real grasp of a fraction of them, and that’s probably a good thing. The vast majority will reside somewhere in the forgotten middle, and the ones that are remembered are generally the really good, or the astonishingly bad.
And there are some terrible cars worth remembering. The Ford Pinto. The Subaru 360. The Dodge Aspen… well, you could make an argument for almost everything built between 1974 and 1982, if only to serve as a cautionary tale. But the dozen cars here are different. Not only were they flawed (some more than others), but they all promised something, and were all rolled out with such hubris that their failures have resounded for decades.
Whether they were ahead of their time, too little too late, or just plain terrible, here are 14 of the biggest automotive flops of all-time.
1. 1923 Chevrolet Series-C Copper Cooled
Chevy’s first few decades were spent playing catch-up with Ford and its ubiquitous Model T. In its attempt to build a cheap Tin Lizzie competitor, Delco chief engineer Charles Kettering believed his simple, overhead-valve air-cooled inline-four with copper cooling fins would be the key to this new affordable Chevy. Despite failing virtually internal test at GM, the Series-C car was rushed to production in 1923 amid huge fanfare and plans to build 50,000 models by the end of the year. But the results were disastrous; the cars overheated at low speeds, causing catastrophic engine failure and fires.
By May, just 759 cars had been built when GM gave the order to abandon the project and recall them. It destroyed 259 before they even left the factory, successfully recalled and crushed all but two (both survive today), and went on to pretended that the whole thing never happened. By the end of the decade, its conventional water-cooled models had begun to outsell Ford.
2. 1958-1960 Edsel
In 1956, Ford became a publicly traded company, taking on a board of directors whose last names weren’t Ford. One of its first decisions was that the company wasn’t big enough; While Chrysler had DeSoto and GM had Oldsmobile and Buick to slot below their flagship brands, they believed Ford’s Lincoln brand was sliding downmarket. So in order to prop Lincoln up, it proposed a new brand to slot above mid-level Mercury. After millions of dollars in development and market research, it bought a prime time slot on CBS and declared September 4, 1957 “E Day.”
That night, amid performances by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Bob Hope and Rosemary Clooney on The Edsel Show, Ford debuted its new brand. The TV show won an Emmy. The Edsel became shorthand for failure. By the time Edsel got the axe 25 months later, it had sold less than 120,000 cars, and had cost the company $350 million, or roughly $2.8 billion today.
3. 1975-1986 Rolls-Royce Camargue
Eager to update its old-fashioned, traditional image in the early ’70s, Rolls-Royce reached out to legendary coachbuilder Pininfarina to design a flagship grand tourer to lure younger buyers to the brand. But the company was mired in financial troubles, and by the time it could get around to building it, the automotive world was shocked.
The Camargue was almost universally reviled from the start thanks to its polarizing styling and standard Silver Shadow underpinnings. Despite that, Rolls inflated the price hoping it would increase demand, making it the most expensive car in the world. It didn’t work; over its 11 year production run, Rolls managed to sell just 531 examples.
4. 1981-1983 DeLorean DMC-12
Yes, the DeLorean has become a legend, but not in a way founder John Z. DeLorean could have envisioned. After spending most of the ’70s promoting his car as the sports car of the future, and negotiating with the British government (for about $120 million in grants), DeLorean agreed to build his factory in war-torn Belfast, Ireland, promising thousands of new jobs.
DeLorean expected to sell around 12,000 units a year. By late 1981, the company was out of money, and just 6,000 cars had been sold. After his well publicized drug bust, the British government seized the company’s assets, and closed the factory in December 1982. Back to the Future may have kept the car’s legacy alive (about 9,000 were built in total), but the company fell well short of its grand plans.
5. 1980-1985 Chevrolet Citation
Eager to move beyond the disaster that was the Chevy Vega and replace the aging Nova, GM designed the X-Platform to usher in the 1980s, with the Chevy Citation at the forefront. On paper, the Citation, GM’s first ever compact front-wheel drive platform, and fuel efficient engines looked like huge leap forward for The General. In 1980, over 800,000 people bought Citations, making it the best-selling car in America, and becoming Motor Trend’s Car of the Year.
But like the Vega, build quality was atrocious, and within just a year sales had fallen off a cliff. The last major change for the Citation came in 1983; after that it languished in the Chevy lineup until 1985.
6. 1982-1988 Cadillac Cimarron
In the early ’80s, GM was starting to worry about losing luxury sales to Germans, and decided to build itself a sport sedan. Instead of building anything that handled or did anything exciting, it launched the Cimarron, a car that was about the size of a BMW 3 Series, but was just a rebadged Chevy Cavalier for nearly twice the price. The public might have bought it 10 or 15 years earlier, but by the height of the import boom, it saw right through GM’s cynical attempt at a market grab. Cadillac’s fortunes were already seriously eroding by the time it axed the Cimarron in 1988; it would be nearly two decades before it could stop the slide.
7. 1985-1992 Yugo
The Yugo should have been a footnote in automotive history, but it was so incredibly bad that it will never truly disappear. Malcolm Bricklin — the man who introduced Subaru to America and launched a failed sports car in the ’70s — brought the ancient Fiat 124-based Yugo to the U.S. in 1985. Billed as the successor to the Model T and Volkswagen Beetle for $3,990, Yugo launched a massive PR campaign to promote what was essentially a 15 year old car built in a factory in communist Yugoslavia. Reviewers were shocked once they got their hands on once.
Despite having a model called the “Great Value,” build quality was atrocious, it was horribly unreliable, and was dangerously underpowered for American roads. By the time the company folded in 1992, the car had already become a joke. Astonishingly, the Yugo (known in Europe as the Zastava Koral) remained in production until 2008.
8. 1995-2000 Oldsmobile Aurora
Oldsmobile was already on a downward slide by 1995, when most of its lineup had largely become rebadged Chevys and Pontiacs. Simply put, the Aurora was designed to save Oldsmobile, and it put up a noble fight. With radical styling and a unique 4.0 liter V8 engine (Olds’ last unique powerplant), the Aurora benefitted from a major advertising campaign designed to woo buyers back to the beleaguered brand. It helped for a while, and its design did inspire a refresh of the entire lineup, but in the end the Aurora was fighting a battle it couldn’t win. After a terrible redesign in 2001, the Aurora, and all of Oldsmobile, was axed in 2004.
9. 1996-1999 GM EV1
In 1996, GM — conservative, old GM — found itself at the forefront of electric vehicle development. The EV1 was developed on a shoestring budget and was shockingly advanced for its time. Radically aerodynamic with a .19 drag coefficient (The Tesla Model S has a .24 Cd), a 90 mile range (the current Nissan Leaf has a 107 mile range), and a charge time of just three hours (the Leaf takes four to six from a 220 volt source), the EV1 was the first and only car sold with a GM badge, and was available for a monthly lease as low as $299. There was a market too; when the company launched a pilot program for the first 50 cars, over 25,000 people volunteered for it.
By 1999 (the year Toyota released the Prius, and Honda the Insight), 1,117 EV1s had been built, and there was still demand. But at a time where hybrids were beginning to soften drivers’ resistance to alternative powertrains, GM unceremoniously shut down the program, confiscating and crushing the bulk of the cars. It was a public relations nightmare for GM as high-profile protests, and an award-winning documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?, demonized the company just as fuel prices started to soar and it teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. Instead of leading the pack of the EV segment, GM still playing catch up: It released its first production EV, the Chevy Bolt in 2017.
10. Ford Contour
The Belgian-built Ford Mondeo debuted in 1992 and quickly became one of the best-selling cars in Europe. Eager to replace its aging Tempo model in the U.S., Ford launched the car as the Contour in 1995, declaring that its “World Car” would dominate the compact segment. It wasn’t a bad car (in fact, the performance Contour SVT was one of the best handling cars of the era), but its small size and relatively high price made it a sales disappointment, and it was discontinued in 2000. Interestingly enough, Ford’s current “One Ford” global program isn’t much different than the Contour rollout.
11. Jaguar X-Type
In 1999, Ford rolled Lincoln, Aston Martin, Land Rover, and Jaguar, and Volvo into the Premier Auto Group in an attempt to streamline its luxury brands. As you might expect, that diverse group didn’t exactly play well, and the PAG ended up doing more harm than good.
The X-Type was a prime example: Launched in 2000 as a BMW 3-Series fighter, the front-wheel drive compact was largely based on the Ford Mondeo, and while it was similar in price to rivals from Mercedes, Audi, and BMW, it couldn’t keep up in terms of quality, performance, and technology. The compact Jag soldiered on for nine years, but it raised serious questions about the direction — and future — of the brand. Thankfully, the new XE sedan has undone most of the damage the X-Type caused.
12. 2002-2006 Volkswagen Phaeton
Volkswagen was flying high in the early 2000s when chairman Ferdinand Piëch decided that the company was ready for a world-class flagship in the U.S market. The Phaeton was a great car; a true Mercedes S-Class/BMW 7 Series/Lexus LS fighter. It was hand-built on the same platform (and in the same factory) as the Bentley Continental Flying Spur, and was powered by either a V8 or exotic W12. But it was dangerously similar to the company’s other flagship, the Audi A8, and easily broke the $100K mark. Unsurprisingly, America wasn’t ready for a six-figure Volkswagen, and the Phaeton is remembered more as a “what were they thinking?” moment than a high-water mark.
13. 2002 Lincoln Blackwood
Today, luxury trucks can rival the nicest car interiors, and command prices well into the $60K range. But back in the early 2000s, it was uncharted territory. Gearheads were shocked when Ford announced a production version of the Blackwood, a truck based on the Lincoln Navigator for 2002. At the time, buyers blanched at the idea of a $52K truck ($69,500 today) that was more luxury than truck, and it disappeared after just one year. Lincoln tried again with the Mark LT in 2006-2008, but it didn’t fare much better. We can’t help but think that if it waited a few years, it probably could’ve done pretty well.
14. 2000-2005 Pontiac Aztek
The Aztek was GM’s hubris on full display. Debuting in 1999 as an avant-garde concept, the “sport recreational vehicle” was designed specifically for the “extreme” lifestyle of Generation X’ers, and was hailed by GM as Pontiac’s next big hit. By the time the production version debuted in 2000, it was nothing short of a disaster.
The Aztek was the worst example of design-by-committee since the Edsel. With terrible fit-and-finish, an engine from the Pontiac Grand Am, and universally reviled styling, it repelled the buyers it sought to attract. Its boxy dimensions actually made it fairly versatile, but the bad far outweighed the good, and after five years, the Aztek was history. After 2010, so was Pontiac.