In the late 70’s, American manufacturers were all about fuel efficiency and downsizing. The era of big cruisers and powerful gasoline engines of the 60’s was gone. Everybody was busy trying to find a way to introduce new and innovative automotive technologies.
Oldsmobile was on the forefront of this new trend with the introduction of the diesel engine in their passenger cars. In those days, American buyers were unaware they could use diesel fuel for their automobiles. European customers already had a couple of diesel cars on the market, but for America, this was new.
So Oldsmobile introduced the 4.3-liter V8 diesel engine as an option for the Cutlass line. Soon this model was subject to an enormous amount of recalls and engine swaps. Simply, the 4.3-liter had the tendency to explode and shatter during normal driving.
The passengers weren’t hurt, but the car was unusable and good only for scrap. Oldsmobile later introduced the 5.7-liter diesel which was somewhat more durable, but the 4.3-liter is probably the worst diesel engine in history.
Domestic car manufacturers addressed the changing market climate and rising popularity of compact cars with several homegrown models. However, most drivers considered all of them bad. One of those cars was the Ford Pinto. Ford introduced it in the early 70’s, and the Pinto was popular due to its low price, fairly nice design and long list of options. They equipped it with an economical four or six-cylinder engine, so the overall quality of the car was decent.
So, what was the problem?
While engineering the car, Ford forgot to protect its rear-mounted fuel tank. The fuel tank was below the trunk and just behind the rear bumper. In most models, there was a strong cross member to protect the fuel tank in case of a crash. However, the Pinto lacked this feature. This became apparent when people started getting killed in fiery crashes due to leaking fuel tanks.
The families of people killed or hurt in such incidents sued Ford. Eventually, the company spent millions settling their court cases. Despite improving the design of the Pinto, Ford discontinued the model. The Pinto went into the history books as the “car of death.”
Today, almost all luxury brands have downsized their lineup of models, offering more affordable and compact versions of their big sedans. But, back in the early 80’s, this move was still unheard of and hard to understand. In those days, Cadillac had an identity crisis and sought to reinvent itself to fight foreign competitors.
The product development managers decided to introduce a small Cadillac with a lower price to attract more customers. The problem was that Cadillac didn’t have a small platform, so they turned to Chevrolet. Cadillac borrowed the modest Cavalier chassis, along with the small, slow four-cylinder engine. Although Cadillac dressed the Cavalier with unique trim, new colors and a new name – the Cimarron wasn’t enough.
The sales were poor, and Cadillac was under fire from brand loyalists for ruining their image. The Cimarron was the laughingstock of the industry. It remains one of the worst examples of downsizing ever, even to this day.
Back in the late 80’s, ex-Yugoslav car manufacturer, Crvena Zastava attempted to enter the American market with their compact model, the Yugo. The Yugo was a nice-looking three-door hatchback built on the Fiat 127 chassis. They also added some improvements in design and technology. Under the hood was a 1.1-liter four-cylinder engine with electronic fuel injection. For the U.S., market, the buyers got updated equipment, a radio and even AC as an option.
From today’s standpoint, the Yugo was a basic, primitive, odd production car, but for the middle of the 80’s, it was a decent solution to the economy car dilemma. The Fiat mechanics were relatively common in America since Fiat has just left the U.S. market in the early 80’s. So, why did the Yugo receive such bad reviews from consumers back in the day? Why do people consider it to be one of the worst cars ever sold on the American market?
The reason was simple.
Both the driving dynamics and quality were horrible, even by the standards of the day. The engine sent 65 HP to the front wheels over a badly-assembled five-speed manual gearbox. The performance was painfully slow, but that is not the worst thing. The fit and finish were bad.
To make things worse, Yugo importer Malcolm Bricklin didn’t import enough spare parts. This means if your Yugo broke down, as they all did eventually, the spare parts had to travel for months from Yugoslavia to America.
Despite all that, the Yugo was somewhat of a sales success, selling over 40,000 of them. The price of $4,000 was one of the reasons for Yugo’s success. It was the most affordable automobile for sale in America when it entered the U.S. market.
Back in the early 80’s, when fuel efficiency and cost savings were the most sought-after imperatives in the car game, manufacturers were experimenting with various engine and drivetrain options. Oldsmobile went the diesel route by introducing the notoriously bad 4.3-liter V8. They followed it with the even better 5.7-liter V8. However, Cadillac decided to install a fancy electronic cylinder deactivation system on their gasoline V8s.
The idea was like today’s modern systems in many of the newer models with big engines. When cruising around town, the car would use only four cylinders. It would deactivate the rest electronically, stopping fuel delivery and shutting down the spark plugs. When the driver needed more power, the car would activate two more cylinders.
This would make the engine a V6. When the driver pushed the throttle to the end, all eight cylinders would fire up to deliver full power. Everything looked good on paper at least, and their customers were interested.
Problems started as soon as they delivered the first models. One reason was that the electronic system was unreliable and the engine had a tendency to get stuck in one mode, often as a four-cylinder. After a few years on the market, Cadillac discontinued this option, but it took a long time to recover from its lost reputation.
Back in 1977, the American car industry was rapidly changing. A decade of fuel shortages, tightening emissions, safety standards and import cars claiming a big percentage of the U.S. market was about to end. The domestic manufacturers were forced to adapt to the new conditions and gone were those big, thirsty V8-powered cruisers of the 50’s and the 60’s.
The new models were front-wheel drive, small, with four-cylinder engines and far better fuel economy. The Dodge Omni was a popular compact model that was the right car for the late 70’s and the changing economic climate.
Or was it?
Consumer Reports magazine claimed the Dodge Omni was unsafe for drivers. The reports were due to its vague steering, bad brakes and poor road holding. Consumer Reports even claimed the car was dangerous to drive because the steering was so bad drivers could not be sure what the car was doing. From that distance, it was a harsh review from the experts, but it didn`t affect the popularity of the Omni.
In the 13 years it spent on the market, Dodge sold over three million Omnis. It was a compact, practical car with bad steering and potentially dangerous road holding. This just shows that not all bad cars are failures. Sometimes, they are strong sellers, despite their flaws.
If you don’t know what the Sterling 825 is, nobody can blame you. Once marketed as the next big thing in the luxury segment of the American car market, the Sterling is now a forgotten brand. It just didn’t make its mark, moving to the margins of automotive history. Sterling was basically a British company, which they established in the late 80’s with Honda’s capital and Rover’s design.
Back then, Honda owned Rover and they wanted to enter the American market with a luxury model. So, they conceived the Sterling, a luxurious car based on the Acura Legend. It may seem like a strange combination, but the finished product had a nicely designed interior and decent power from Honda’s V6 engine. After the introduction in 1987 and promising sales numbers in the first few months, the first problems showed up.
The Sterling was poorly put together, the electronics were troublesome and some cars even developed rust issues. Honda tried to improve the production process, but there wasn’t much they could do. By the early 90’s, the Sterling was gone and nobody was sad about it – not even Honda.
As one of the first popular SUV models, the Explorer of the early 90’s was the typical example of the concept. Big, powerful, luxurious and capable, it could carry its passengers with ease over any terrain – at least it looked like it could. Despite the popularity, the alarming reports of instability and tendencies to roll over plagued the market and the car public.
Apparently, the Explorer wasn’t stable at sharp turns and high speeds, causing numerous crashes, deaths and injuries. Slowly, as the story unfolded, Ford admitted they had concerns regarding stability and road holding. However, Firestone, the tire manufacturer ensured Ford`s engineers they could solve the problem by deflating the tires below the recommended limit. Ford followed their advice, but the situation got even worse.
It evolved into a major scandal involving Ford and Firestone. The aftermath was a massive recall of Ford Explorers, a sharp decline in stock prices of both companies, big penalties, lawsuits and a loss of reputation.
In 2000, the Pontiac Aztek seemed a viable idea on paper, at least. This mid-size crossover model with sharp new styling, a decent engine lineup and plenty of interior space was a modern concept at the time. Pontiac was eager to present it to the public because their overall sales were slumping. They thought the new model would boost the popularity of the brand, bringing new customers to their dealerships.
The plan was sound, except for one thing – the design. The Pontiac designers managed to draw and push to production one of the ugliest cars in automotive history. Even 17 years after the first Aztek saw the light of day, it is still a car with a design that makes no sense whatsoever. Consumers found the car extremely ugly and the interior was also questionable.
The Aztek designers later created the great-looking Corvette C7, so it is strange how they managed to do such a bad job for Pontiac. The pure ugliness of the car, as well as the bad fit and finish quality, sealed the fate of the Aztek, despite some positive aspects of this model. The Aztek had plenty of space inside and delivered a decent performance. It also had a higher-than-average equipment level and a big trunk. In fact, it would have been a good family crossover if it wasn’t for that hideous design.
In recent years and over a decade after they stopped producing them, Azteks are popular. This is mostly due to its appearance in the cult TV show, Breaking Bad. It has also placed first in many ugliest car lists. Unfortunately, the failure of Aztek affected Pontiac as a brand. A couple of years later, Pontiac closed its doors for good.
Marketed in the U.S. from 1961 to 1967, the Amphicar was one of the strangest mass-produced cars ever because it was a small roadster that could go on land as well as on water. Produced by a German company, the Amphicar borrowed some technical solutions from a Nazi amphibious vehicle called the Schwimmwagen from Second World War.
The concept was advanced, but the problem with the Amphicar was that it wasn`t a good land or water vehicle. It was slow, handled poorly and the diminutive 1.1-liter engine only produced 38 HP. On the other side, it could go up to seven knots on water, but it couldn’t fight the big waves.
When they introduced the car, it caused a lot of interest for its unusual capabilities. However, buyers eventually realized that the Amphicar wasn’t a good car or a boat. It was notoriously rust-prone and the sealing on the body sometimes let the water inside. This caused failures and sinking straight to the bottom of the water. The Amphicars had a bilge pump that pumped out the water from the inside of the car, but it was also known to fail.
Interestingly, after a long period of obscurity, Amphicars are sought after by collectors. However, that doesn’t change the fact that in their day, they were one of worst cars they ever sold to American buyers.
AMC introduced the Gremlin on April 1, 1970, so people considered it to be an April Fool’s joke. It was the first American sub-compact car and the idea behind it was a good one. AMC tried to introduce small, urban cars to fight the rising competition from the VW Beetle and Japanese companies. However, the execution was a total failure.
The AMC Gremlin had a small body with solid comfort and interior space. The rear end was strange because it looked like somebody chopped off the trunk. In fact, it was just the case since the company didn’t have the time or money for proper design job. They just cut off the rear end, making the Gremlin a hatchback.
Under the hood, there was a large, heavy six-cylinder engine with poor performance. The lumpy engine in the front threw the weight distribution off, so the Gremlin didn’t handle well. In contrast to other compact cars of the era, the Gremlin was somewhat faster, but its poor quality and rust kept it from being durable.
In the early 2000’s, the retro design was the king. Introducing new cars with classic shapes seemed to be the ticket to success. So, Chevrolet thought it would be a great idea to present a retro-styled truck with a sporty feel and retractable hard top. It was a crazy idea, but they thought it might work as a lifestyle vehicle for people who wanted a sports car, but with retro charm and space for all their needs. Whoever oversaw the Chevrolet product development department had a wild imagination.
However, Chevrolet introduced such a vehicle in 2003 and called it the Super Sports Roadster or SSR. They built it on an SUV platform but with a Corvette V8 engine. It had a fold-down hardtop and tight cabin for only two passengers. The SSR was something like a modern hot rod. The performance wasn’t impressive and the sprint to 60 mph took around six seconds, but it wasn’t slow either. However, the market`s response was mild, and for good reasons.
The price was north of $45,000, which meant it wasn`t affordable, and very soon, older people started buying SSRs as midlife crisis cars. This wasn’t the Corvette people expected by looking at the numbers. It wasn’t a practical pickup by looking at the truck bed, as well. And it wasn’t a fun roadster by looking at the retractable hardtop. Especially, it wasn’t the hot rod model which Chevrolet’s marketing department tried so hard to present.
These cars may be the worst sold in America, yet each one offered some good things, too. It seems as if the car company or the designers overlooked one or two crucial things, often with heartbreaking results. If you plan to own any of these classic baddies, be sure to get it checked over for safety.