From the automotive industry’s rough early days, through the rough period of the 1970s – when auto makers seemed to be in a competition to produce the ugliest, most underpowered tin can on Earth – and right down to the modern day’s abominations, some cars stand out as some of the worst piles of scrap metal ever to be attached to wheels.
1971 Ford Pinto
Any list of bad cars has to open with a reference to the 1971 Ford Pinto. The Pinto was conceived as a compact, entry-level Mustang Lite. It was the Pinto's bad luck to fill that role at almost the exact moment that Ford decided to ruin the Mustang and turn it into a rattling deathtrap. The Pinto turned out to be the cheap version of that rattling deathtrap. The Pinto's big problem, apart from the styling, was an unprotected gas tank that split wide open when the car was rear-ended, which aerated the fuel and triggered an explosion.
What makes this galling is that Ford knew about the problem all along. Ford didn’t fix it as the company figured it was cheaper to pay the projected $50 million in wrongful-death settlements than to recall and upgrade the cars, which would have cost $11 per car, or $137 million overall. Ford badly misjudged. A single lawsuit in California resulted in $128 million in damages for death and disfigurement in a single collision. Other cases were quietly settled, and Ford had to recall the Pintos anyway.
The Vega was Chevrolet's answer to the Pinto in the small-car market. Only instead of setting customers on fire, the Vega helped burn down General Motors' reputation for producing solid, reliable cars. Unlike every other Chevy at the time, the Vega was designed by an outside group of GM corporate engineers. Chevrolet was left to do the finishing touches and the marketing only, and it showed. The Vega had nice lines and decent mileage for the time, but the Chevy team, led by John DeLorean, was less than enthusiastic about what they regarded as an awful intrusion on their turf.
Given only one year to get the machines prepped and start mass production, the Chevy team seemed to take an "aw, screw it" approach to some pretty important details. For starters, the Vega had very little rustproofing, and the sheet metal used in its body was disastrously thin, which meant that cars sold in the wet, slushy Northeast rusted through in a single winter. In the dry, hot Southwest, on the other hand, the weak aluminum engine block and haphazardly built iron pistons stripped and bent in the heat. The Vega, after trying heroically to kill GM, was retired in 1977.
1967 Fiat 124
When you hear the phrase "quality control," it's a fair bet that "USSR" does not immediately pop into your mind. Congratulations on being smart—and not being like Fiat in the 1960s. Fiat executives made the decision to build what would be the 1967 Fiat 124 using cheap steel from the Soviet Union. Soviet steel mills weren't under any obligation to produce quality product. The mills were assigned a gross-tonnage target, and the mill manager had to make that happen no matter what, even if it meant melting down buckets, or throwing dirt and rocks into the forge, to bulk up the batch of steel.
The Fiat was a smart little coupe, and continued the Italian tradition of making fun-to-drive little ground pounders. The 124 looked like a sleek, sporty drive, which it totally was – right up until the door came off its hinges when you tried to open it. While the Vega had problems with rust, the Fiat 124 may actually have been made out of rust. During European winters, it wasn't unheard of for whole pieces of this car to just drop right the hell off at red lights. Combined with the company's unfortunate name, the 124 helped tag Fiat with a reputation for selling unreliable cars that would dog it into eventual reorganization.
Malcolm Bricklin: Subaru, Yugo
Malcolm Bricklin was to the American motorist what Slenderman is to underage hikers. He got his start in the early '60s by swindling investors with bogus franchise retail opportunities, then used the money he got from that to wage war on car lovers across the United States. He merits multiple entries here, because he's that most dangerous of creatures: an idiot with initiative.
In 1965, Bricklin – who was a con-man, remember that – started Subaru America when he figured out how to exploit a loophole in American import laws. Back then, scooter engines weren't subject to federal safety certification because they weren't used in cars. Guess who put them in cars. This is the Subaru 360, named Consumer Reports' "Most Unsafe Car in America, 1969." Bricklin was forced out as Subaru scrambled to fix the hole he had blown in their budget.
Not satisfied with rigging scooter engines to crappy VW Beetle knockoffs to make tremendously dangerous cars, Bricklin's next move was to build "the car of the future." Unlike the Subaru debacle, the Bricklin SV-1 was going to be “safe.” So safe, in fact, that it had a hard time reaching the speed limit on surface streets.
The interior of the SV-1 was lined with thick, preschool plastics, and several thousand pounds of extra buffering and padding made the emissions-compliant engine creep like a bad dog. The gull-wing doors alone weighed 100 pounds each. This car was so safe that it didn't even have a built-in lighter, because Malcolm Bricklin is one of those people who thinks other people shouldn't be allowed to smoke. That's a popular idea now, but this was 1975, when doctors smoked in the delivery room. Ironically, the SV-1 was prone to fires, which were really hard to put out because of all the plastic.
We're not done with Bricklin yet. He's also the man who decided to import the 1985 Yugo. The Yugo was an example of what could be done when Serbs and Croatians put aside their differences and worked together under a repressive communist regime. Indeed, "carpet" was actually included as a feature in the sales literature. From its 1985 introduction to the US market to the day NATO bombed the factory, the Yugo set a new standard of low performance, shaky reliability, and hideous styling.
See how enthusiastic everybody in this picture looks? Notice how they're all lit from different angles, as if their images had to be grafted into the picture? That's right, the Yugo's marketing team literally couldn't pay models to look happy near their car on the brochure cover.
Speaking of communists, meet the Trabant. The Trabant was, in its own way, everything you need to know about East Germany. The Trabant's "engine" could, with a strong tailwind, deliver up to 18 horsepower, which allowed the car to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph . . . eventually. What the Trabant lacked in power, it more than made up for in pollution, and the little car managed to belch thick clouds of black smoke everywhere it went, which usually wasn't far. The car's body was made of a futuristic compound called Duroplast, which was much lighter than imperialist metal. That's because it was made from the stuff Taco Bell uses as bulk filler in its meat: cotton fibers and sawdust.
Communists don't have a monopoly on bad judgment. Chevrolet blundered horribly with the 2004 SSR, Chevy's attempt to produce a factory-issue hotrod. Hotrod enthusiasts will immediately see the problem with that – hotrods are garage-built modifications of boring normal cars, not something you go into debt to buy. This mutated pickup truck with a chassis designed for a family SUV, of all things, was doomed from the start. Of course, the $42,000 sticker price didn't help with sales. After limping through three agonizing years, the SSR was mercifully discontinued.
Chevrolet Iron Duke
The 1982 Chevy Camaro was a rolling fraud. It had the body of a Camaro, which had always been Chevy's answer to the Mustang, and some of the sharpest lines of the '80s. The engine was even called the Iron Duke, which makes it sound like it split its time between running Chevy muscle cars and oppressing heathens overseas. All of this was false advertising. The Iron Duke was a squeaky, 2.5-liter four-cylinder that produced a shockingly horrible 90 horsepower at 5,500 rpm. Chevy did offer V-6 and V-8 options for the '82. Given that even the "performance" package was a whole 100 horsepower weaker than the Z28 from just two years earlier, you have to wonder why they even bothered.
1978 Dodge Challenger
The 1970s were a dark time for the automotive industry. The freewheeling open-road machines of the 1960s were forced to give way to the fuel-conscious and emissions-compliant disposable diapers of the post-Watergate era. The Dodge Challenger was one of those disposable diaper cars. Within ten short years, a line of pony cars designed with such playfulness that they offered "statutory grape" as a standard color in 1968 became a 2.0-liter fart machine with a 77-hp engine in the base model. For shame, Dodge.
1984 Dodge Charger
This is what happened to the Challenger's big brother, the Charger. Remember the opening scene of Bullitt or General Lee from Dukes of Hazzard’s car? Those were Chargers, models 1966-68. By 1984, the line had been neutered into a three-door hatchback with a 67-hp engine. Pictured here is the Shelby model, the "sport" version.
1993 Ford Aspire
For some cars, the 1970s bummer trip didn't stop for decades. The 1993 Ford Aspire was basically a go-cart with fewer amenities than a soapbox racer. It was less sporty, too. Just as nobody could be found in 1976 who would admit to having voted for Nixon, by the time this line was put out of its misery nobody could be found who knew why Kia built it, Ford sold it, and masochists with a mean streak bought it.
1984 Pontiac Fiero
In 1984, Pontiac compiled the worst of the worst in that year's Fiero. Engineers took the Iron Duke's horrible engine out of the depressing '82 Camaro, rigged it up with the world's least reliable front suspension, and then decided to put it in an ugly couple that no one in his right mind would want to pay such an inflated sticker price for. To add to what can only be assumed was some sort of cocaine-induced insanity, engineers screwed up the electrical system in such a way that the car would spontaneously burst into flames in people's driveways.
After more than 100 fires, almost all of them involving the 1984 model, Pontiac made some makeshift repairs, but the damage had been done to the car's reputation, and nobody made a move to replace the disastrous Iron Duke power plant. Pontiac eventually reached the acceptance stage of grief, and the Fiero was canceled after the 1988 model year.
1975 Clenet Series I
There's retro, and then there's pathetic fake. The 1975 Clenet Series I was the clumsiest attempt to cash in on nostalgia since Joni Loves Chachi. Believe it or not, what you're looking at here is a Mercury Cougar with a vividly bogus MG chassis. The styling was meant to invoke the classic Rolls Royce Silver Spirit, which it did by installing dummy exhaust ports along the sides and unnecessarily stretching the front until you could stage RC races on the hood. Add to that the choice of materials; where the Rolls that inspired this vehicle was a graceful blend of steel and leather, the Clenet was made out of fiberglass and plastic, with a little vinyl inside so your date doesn't feel cheap. One authentic touch is the handling, which was just as balky and unreliable as the Silver Spirit's.
1996 Ford Taurus
The 1995 Ford Taurus was America's best-selling sedan. So, naturally, Ford went and redesigned it for the 1996 model year. Apart from the styling, there really wasn't anything different or wrong about the '96, but it's included here as an example of why corporate committees are the world's worst decision-making bodies. For reasons beyond human comprehension, Ford took a huge success, retooled it to look like an alien bowel movement, and drove the line into retail failure.
1987 Cadillac Allante
You know what makes the Mercedes SL so desirable? It's made in Europe, and it's very expensive. Maybe that's why Cadillac decided to compete with the 1987 Allante. Like the Mercedes, this car was (partially) built in Europe, except every one of them had to be loaded into a 747 and flown across the Atlantic ocean to be assembled in Michigan, which is why it was much more expensive than the SL.
It certainly wasn't because of the build quality. To get an idea of the problems with the Allante, consider this: The headlights were designed with dual bulbs so that, when one inevitably went out, the other could pick up the slack until horrifically expensive repairs could be done, at which point the other bulb would burn out and require a replacement to be flown in from Europe.