Home Cars 20 Unique Performance Cars That Were Sales Flops

20 Unique Performance Cars That Were Sales Flops

Vukasin Herbez December 17, 2020

There are numerous factors that determine whether the car will be successful or not. In most cases, manufacturers try really hard to promote its vehicle and sell as much as possible since it will keep them afloat in the stormy water of high business. However, even though the car might be good or fast, its position on the market is not guaranteed and these cars still can become sales flops.

Today, we’ll revisit 20 interesting but unsuccessful American performance machines. Some are very fast, most look amazing, and some even had interesting features that are making a comeback on the cars of today. But for one reason or another, they were left behind and were categorized as sales flops. Hear their stories via Car and Driver and think about what may have happened if those vehicles were given a chance.

Bricklin SV-1 - Sports car

20. Bricklin SV-1

The SV-1 was the brainchild of automotive entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin. The Bricklin company produced it from 1974 to 1975 with less than 3,000 cars. For a short while, they marketed the SV-1 as the most advanced American sports car. However, as soon as the first cars started rolling down the assembly line, it was clear the SV-1 was not what people expected it to be.

Sports car - Bricklin SV-1

Their idea was to produce a safe-yet-fast sports car with the name SV-1 for Safety Vehicle One. Bricklin designed the car with big bumpers and numerous additional features like warring sensors. It also came with power Gullwing doors and an integrated roll cage, making it heavy and not agile. It also came without any cigarette lighters.

Power came from the 360 AMC V8 engine, which wasn’t powerful. Later the company turned to the 351 Ford V8, but it still couldn’t deliver any real performance. The public praised the SV-1 for its dedication to safety but criticized it for its lack of performance. Its heavy weight, high price tag, and poor build quality killed this car, ranking it among our list of flops.

Chevrolet Cosworth Vega - Chevrolet Vega

19. 1975 Chevrolet Vega Cosworth

After the debacle of the Chevrolet Corvair in the ’60s, the company was reluctant to enter the compact market again. But since the segment grew, Chevrolet didn’t have a choice. They presented the new Chevrolet Vega as a 1971 model. The Vega was a compact modernly-styled model with three basic body styles, a two-door coupe, two-door sedan, and a practical three-door wagon.

The front end closely resembled the design of the 1971 Camaro with a similar grille, headlights, and bumper. In 1975, Chevrolet even introduced an interesting although not-so-successful Vega Cosworth model. It featured a high revving 2.0-liter four-cylinder twin-cam motor that delivered 110 HP. Although it wasn’t particularly fast or strong, the Vega Cosworth was attractive with an interesting black and gold paint job and unique wheels. Still, it rated as one of many sales flops of its time.

Pontiac Fiero - Pontiac

18. Pontiac Fiero

In the 1980s, everybody expected another GTO from Pontiac. However, they got a small sports car that was similar to something Italians would build. It was a bold move for Pontiac to introduce a compact rear-wheel-drive car with the engine positioned in the center and pair it up with a five-speed manual transaxle gearbox.

Pontiac Fiero - Pontiac

For the standards of the day, this was the most advanced American production model. Car customers were hyped by the appearance of the Fiero for its cool, modern design and advanced technology. The initial response was more than they expected. In 1983, sales figures were over 130,000 cars.

Pontiac didn’t develop the Fiero, and early models were badly put together. The engine power wasn’t good great and the interior was cramped. GM responded by upgrading the car, and by the end of the ’80s, the Fiero was a sports car with 150 HP from a 2.8-liter V6 engine. Unfortunately, safety hazards made it one of the worst American sports car flops.

Car - Convertible

17. Mercury Capri 1991

Over the years, Mercury sold numerous models under the Capri name. First, it was just a trim level on the regular Mercury sedan, then it was a re-badged Ford Capri from Europe. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was the Mercury version of a Fox-bodied Mustang. However, in 1991, it was a new and separate model.

Sports car - Car

Mercury wanted a compact convertible/roadster, and this small car was exactly that. They assembled the 1991-1994 Capri in Australia and sold it in the U.S. The two-seat roadster had a 1.6-liter engine and front-wheel drive. Despite being a decent car in all aspects, it failed to gain significant popularity and ranked among sales flops of the time, so it was withdrawn from the market in 1994.

Merkur XR4Ti - Mercury Capri

16. Merkur XRT4 Ti

During the ’80s, Ford attempted several approaches in order to revive its performance image. One of them was the introduction of the Merkur XR4Ti model. This was basically a British Ford Sierra packed with a special aero package, a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and other improvements.

Merkur XR4Ti - Car

Ford envisioned it as a hot hatch with rear-wheel drive, racing credentials, and better driving dynamics than its front-wheel-drive competitors. Unfortunately, the Merkur XR4Ti proved to be unsuccessful since it was expensive, ranking among sales flops as the American market did not understand Ford’s vision.

Mercury Capri - Car

15. ASC McLaren Mercury Capri

Although the Mercury Capri from the ’80s was just a Fox-body Mustang with a different grille, there was a special version that deserves more attention. In those days, the American Sunroof Company (ASC) was famous for its convertible versions of various production models. So they teamed with Ford to produce two-seat roadster variants of the Mustang and Capri.

1985 Mercury Capri | GAA Classic Cars

But Mercury also had a deal with McLaren, so in 1984, they introduced a special model called the ASC McLaren Capri. The cars were available as coupe or convertibles with many improvements over the standard model. The 5.0-liter V8 delivered 210 HP, a significant increase over the other models. There were different details, fog lights, special wheels, and body kits. However, the overall production was low as it fell down among other sales flops that they ended the ASC McLaren line in 1986.

14. Ford Mustang SVO

The third-generation Ford Mustang appeared as a 1979 model. It brought some necessary modernization to the Mustang. The so-called ‘Fox-body’ Mustang was sleeker, more modern, and aerodynamic. It was also somewhat lighter and more nimble, which was reflected in the performance.

However, the biggest news was the introduction of the turbo engine, a state-of-the-art device at the time. Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) department introduced a special Mustang SVO for 1984. It featured a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 175 HP, a lot of power for a small engine.

This engine in a light car made the 1984 Mustang SVO highly popular. The package included four-wheel disc brakes, a stiffer suspension, and sharper steering, transforming the little Mustang into a capable sports car. For 1985, SVO upped the power to an impressive 205 HP, attracting the motoring public to the third-generation Mustang. However, customers were not impressed since Mustang with the smaller engine cost more than the GT with a 5.0. That meant that SVO wasn’t going to be a big seller, instead falling down with other sales flops of the time.

13. 1983-84 Oldsmobile Hurst/Olds

After taking a few years off, Oldsmobile introduced a new limited-edition Hurst/Olds model for the 1983 model year. The Cutlass was the only mid-size rear-wheel-drive platform that could serve as the basis for a muscle car after Oldsmobile’s smaller offerings switched to front-wheel drive.

Under the hood was a 307 V8 with 180 HP that delivered a relatively swift performance and 0 to 60 mph times under eight seconds. The secret was the famous Oldsmobile Lightning Rod shifter. It was an automatic with three levers, one main and two separate sticks for manual shifting of the first and second gears. The 1983 Hurst/Olds sold 3001 examples, ranking it among sales flops. They didn’t change the car for the 1984 model year and production rose to 3,500 units. Today, however, both models are highly-prized collector cars.

12. Plymouth Prowler

The hot rod culture is one of the key pieces of overall American automotive culture. However, no company ever dared to present a factory-built hot rod until 1997 when Plymouth presented the Prowler. It was a retro-futuristic roadster with a V6 engine and a unique look.

They imagined the Prowler as a follow-up to the Viper. Fortunately, the Prowler was a hit on the show circuit, and Chrysler undrstandably wanted to capitalize on that. Despite having some initial success, the car proved to be a failure and now ranks as one of the biggest sales flops. Customers expected V8 power instead of V6 power.

1993 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera - 1993 Oldsmobile Achieva

11. Oldsmobile Achieva SCX W41

Despite the limited sales of the original W41 Cutlass in 1991, Oldsmobile knew the 2.3-liter four-cylinder had the potential to be more than just a footnote in their history. Since they discontinued the Cutlass Calais in 1992 and replaced it with the all-new Achieva model, Oldsmobile decided to introduce another W41 model.

The goal was to develop the concept of a compact front-wheel-drive sports car further. For the 1992 and 1993 model years, Oldsmobile offered the SCX W41 model. It was the last W-version Oldsmobile ever built, based the SCX W41 on the previous model. It featured the same 190 HP, 2.3-liter engine that revved to 7,200 rpm. The design was improved as well as the interior equipment.

Also, they made some changes to the suspension and brakes. But the biggest improvement was the five-speed manual gearbox they developed especially for this model. The SCX W41 was the quickest car in its segment. But despite its qualities, it still flew under the radar of most enthusiasts, so Olds only sold 1,600 of them and added it to the long list of car flops.

Oldsmobile - General Motors

10. Oldsmobile Jetfire

The Oldsmobile Jetfire is an important model for automotive history that never got the respect it deserved. This was the first turbocharged passenger car alongside the Chevrolet Corvair Monza. However, the Oldsmobile system was more complex and powerful than the Chevrolet system. In those days, each GM division was in competition to present something better than their competitors.

So Oldsmobile chose turbocharging as the new technology to perfect. GM added a special “Turbo Rocket Fuel” tank consisting of distilled water, methanol, and a corrosion inhibitor mixture they injected into a fuel-air mixture to prevent detonation. This was necessary since turbochargers were prone to detonation in those days, which could ruin the engine.

The Jetfire V8 was state-of-the-art technology and initially the market was interested. The V8 delivered 215 HP, one HP per cubic inch, making it one of the best performance cars of the day. With the 0 to 60 mph time of eight seconds, it was almost as fast as the Corvette.

However, the Jetfire had problems from the beginning, most owner-related. People praised the power delivery, but they weren’t used to maintaining a turbo engine. Many owners forgot to fill up the “Turbo Rocket Fuel” tank. This caused a loss of power and even engine failure. Soon the Jetfire developed a bad reputation despite the praises of automotive magazines. After just two years and around 10,000 Jetfires sold, Oldsmobile decided to kill the car and turbocharging technology, putting it among our unique flops.

Plymouth Superbird - Dodge Charger Daytona

9. Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird

NASCAR races were one of the most important battlefields in the muscle car wars. In the late ’60s, superspeedways were the place of many fierce clashes between Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, Plymouth, and Pontiac. The most interesting period was the late ’60s when NASCAR rules allowed modifications to car bodies to make cars more aerodynamic.

The condition was to apply those changes to regular production examples and sell a limited number of such cars to the public. Most manufacturers jumped at this opportunity and created “Aero racers” or specially-designed models homologated for the races.

Dodge Charger Daytona - Dodge

Two of the most famous are the Dodge Daytona and Plymouth Superbird. They built those two cars for only one year – the Dodge in 1969 and the Plymouth in 1970. They designed both cars using a wind tunnel. The big wing on the back was essential in achieving high downforces at high speeds in NASCAR races. They made just 500 Dodge Daytonas and 2,000 Plymouth Superbirds. When they introduced the Daytona in 1969, the rules said they had to produce over 500 copies.

However, when they produced the Superbird in 1970, the rules changed. The manufacturer had to produce one car per dealership, which was exactly 1,936 cars in the case of the Plymouth. Both of those models were successful in NASCAR and the investment in their specially built bodies paid off. Daytona and Superbirds are rare, expensive, and highly unusual pieces of muscle car history.

Saturn - General Motors

8. Saturn Sky Red Line

American manufacturers don’t do roadsters. Apart from the first-generation Ford Thunderbird, Corvette, or Viper convertible, there were no small, two-seat open-top models ever produced. That’s why GM’s decision to introduce a small, turbocharged roadster in 2005 in form of the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky was strange. Those models were basically U.S. versions of the Opel GT from Europe.

Used 2008 Saturn Sky Red Line Carbon Flash SE For Sale ($9,698) | Atlanta Autos Stock #130352

But GM thought having a cool, little two-seater roadster could help bring back Pontiac sales and help Saturn’s image. Unfortunately, it didn’t do any of those things even though the Solstice and Sky were powerful, exciting cars to drive.

Compared to the BMW Z4 or Mercedes SLK, for example, GM’s roadster had a much lower price. It also delivered up to 290 HP in the Pontiac Solstice GXP version, offering great performance and handling. After a few years on the market, the sales numbers were not impressive because car buyers didn’t understand this model, making it one of several significant flops. GM stopped production and a few years after, there were no new Pontiacs or Saturns on the market, either.

Ford Mustang - McLaren Automotive

7. Ford Mustang McLaren M81

The late ’70s and early ’80s were bad times for muscle cars, but there were still a few unique versions Detroit released in that period. One of those is the famous M81 McLaren Mustang. This interesting car was built with the help of the well-known McLaren racing team from Michigan.

Ford Mustang - McLaren Automotive

The idea behind the project was to take the 2.3-liter turbo engine from the regular Mustang and transform it into a street racing beast. It would include a race-tuned suspension and a lightweight body. McLaren and Ford installed a tuned turbo engine with 190 HP, which was a big numbercoming from 2.3 liters. They also changed the looks of the Ford Mustang.

The result was a good performance and driving dynamics, but also a high price tag. Ford offered the McLaren M81 for $25,000, which was roughly three times the price of a regular Ford. Even though they installed lots of improvements in the M81, it was a tough seller. Ford only sold about 10 before they canceled the project, making it one of Ford’s sales flops.

6. 2004-06 Pontiac GTO

Pontiac got the message with the success of the GTO Concept in 1999. But the biggest problem was that they planned to discontinue the Firebird/Trans Am, so there was no appropriate platform or design to base the GTO on. Pontiac and General Motors didn’t have the time or money to invest in a new platform, so GM looked to its subsidiaries, finding the perfect car in Australia.

Holden, GM’s Australian branch, produced a rear wheel drive muscle car called the Monaro. It sat on a modern chassis with a sleek two-door body just like the original GTO. It also had an independent rear suspension and disc brakes. GM’s plan was to import the Monaro to the USA and rebadge it as a GTO.

2005 Pontiac GTO - 2006 Pontiac GTO

But things didn’t work out as they planned. The first year for the modern GTO was 2004 and the car received universal praise from the buyers and the car press. Under the hood was the LS1 5.7-liter V8 with 350 HP, delivering enough performance to be one of the hottest American cars for 2004. The target sales figure was 18,000 and Pontiac sold almost 14,000, which was considered a success.

Pontiac presented the 400 HP 6.2-liter engine, delivering better performance in 2005. Although it had a 0 to 60 mph time of just 4.6 seconds, sales started to decline to 11,000 and threatening to rank it among flops in 2006. The car didn’t excite customers like the original GTO. The design was restrained and not aggressive. Although it was fast, as an overall package, the new GTO didn’t appeal to drivers, which was the main reason for its early demise.

5. Pontiac Can Am

Back in the late ’70s, the American performance car segment was a pale shadow of its former glory. But in 1977, Pontiac introduced the Can-Am, the one-year-only model that was the last true muscle car with big-block power packed in a unique body style and white color.

Pontiac LeMans - Car

Under the hood scoop from the Firebird Trans Am, there was a big 455 engine with 200 HP. That was more than any other muscle car on the market at the moment. The Can-Am package consisted of special rear window louvers, a rear spoiler, and a long list of special optional extras. They introduced the car early in 1977 and the market responded well. In fact, Pontiac received between 5,000 and 10,000 reservations. But in the end, they only sold 1,377 Can Ams, ranking it among sales flops of the decade.

4. Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais 442

Ever since the original muscle car era ended in the early ’70s, Oldsmobile has tried to recapture the magic of the original 442. Behind that honored name lies a compact, front-wheel-drive Calais two-door with a highly-tuned four-cylinder engine that developed 190 HP from 2.3 liters. Today, this doesn’t sound all that powerful, but when they presented this car almost 30 years ago, 190 HP was considered powerful.

Thanks to its low weight, race-tuned suspension, and gearbox, the Calais 442 W41 could accelerate rapidly. It could even beat much bigger and more expensive cars. Unfortunately, they limited production to only 204 cars. Despite its great performance, most drivers forgot about the W41. However, it influenced other car manufacturers to present similar compact-but-powerful cars. Without this obscure Oldsmobile, there would never have been the Chevrolet Cobalt SS or Dodge Neon SRT-4.

AMC Hornet - Rambler Classic

3. 1971 AMC Hornet 360

The early ’70s marked the beginning of the end for muscle cars with downsizing, tightening emission controls, and heightened safety standards. AMC was one of the first companies to realize they needed a new breed of muscle cars to keep power-hungry customers happy. So in 1971, they introduced the Hornet 360.

Even though the Hornet arrived just before the Malaise Era, it fits the profile. The Malaise Era was from 1973 to 1983 when most U.S. cars offered poor performance numbers. AMC based the Hornet 360 on the regular economy car called the Hornet, equipping it with an improved suspension and sharper steering. To that, they added a graphics package and a 360 V8, transforming this hot Hornet from an ordinary compact to a proper muscle car. Power wasn’t big at 245 HP, but in a lightweight body, those horses could make the Hornet fly.

AMC Hornet - AMC Pacer

The rest of the muscle car offerings in 1971 had problems with big sizes and weights, as well as engines that didn’t make power anymore. But the Hornet 360 was one of the fastest cars available. This is the only time that a Malaise or pre-Malaise Era car possessed real performance.

Unfortunately, most buyers didn’t understand the forward-thinking of AMC, so they sold less than 800 Hornets in 1971. That made the Hornet 360 a rare and obscure muscle car. In an era when bigger was always better, the Hornet 360 was unusual for its compact size and strong engine. Unfortunately, people failed to realize how good the idea behind it really was and it became one of AMC’s many flops.

Mitsubishi GTO - Dodge

2. Dodge Stealth

The Dodge Stealth is another ’90s legend most mainstream sports car enthusiasts have forgotten, which is a shame. With its pop-up headlights, rear panorama glass, and big spoiler, the Stealth screams early-’90s car design. But there is much more about this car than contemporary nostalgia, as it is one serious driving machine.

Sports car - Car

Under the hood is a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 producing 300 HP that sends its power to all four wheels over an intelligent AWD system. To behonest, the Dodge Stealth is basically the twin brother to the Mitsubishi 3000 GT. In fact, apart from the exterior design, the two cars are identical. They even produced them on the same assembly line in Japan and then imported them to the states.

Rambler Rebel - Rambler Classic

1. Rambler Rebel V8

This one is an interesting early muscle car born by chance. Squeezing a 327 V8 engine from the Nash Ambassador into the small, compact, and light Rambler body created one seriously fast-yet-unassuming muscle machine. The 327 V8 delivered 255 HP, which wasn’t that much, but in the compact Rambler body it was enough for a 0 to 60 mph time of just seven seconds.

And to make things even more interesting, only the expensive fuel-injected Chevrolet Corvette could beat the small Rambler in 1957. However, the powerful engine option raised the price of an affordable Rambler. So, there were just a few buyers ready to pay extra for the privilege of outrunning anything else on the road. And for that reason, Rambler only built 1,500 of them.

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