The popularity of Japanese sports cars from the ’70s to the ’90s is one of the biggest stories in the classic car world in recent years. However, if you are looking for a genuine JDM car, you are probably too late. Today, prices are stratospheric and the choice of models is limited. However, there is an alternative in the form of the Mazda RX-7. The first generation of the compact Mazda sports car has all the right ingredients to become a cult classic. It’s 40 years old and comes with rear-wheel drive. The Mazda RX-7 is inexpensive and plentiful. Also, it achieved some racing success.
The first-generation RX-7 debuted in 1978 and stayed on the market until 1985. During that period, they built almost 500,000 RX-7s, selling most of them in America. Under the hood was a 1.1 to 1.3-liter Wankel rotary engine, which was the RX-7’s most notable feature. The Wankel was extremely compact and light. Also, it produced 102 to 135 HP, which was more than enough for a lively performance. However, the rotary engine was also the biggest problem for the RX-7 since sourcing parts and service for them was a problem. The Wankel rotary engine was a constant headache for thousands of Mazda owners. It’s an unreliable powerplant famous for failures to this day.
Triumph presented the Stag from 1970 until 1978. The market was impressed by the new model featuring open-top driving with the hardtop. It still had enough room for four adults and all their luggage. The Stag was powered by a 3.0-liter V8 engine delivering 145 HP for decent performance. With its muscular appearance and V8 rumble, the Stag looked like a luxury muscle car, attracting many buyers.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before most Stag owners experienced its notorious unreliability. That, along with its high price, destroyed any chances on the American and global markets. When they ceased production in 1978, Triumph had produced just 25,000 cars.
One of the coolest-looking, most exclusive Citroen cars was the gorgeous SM introduced in 1970. This elegant coupe had some interesting features that made the competition look outdated and old. In the late ’60s, Citroen became the owner of Maserati. The Citroen management team wanted to use Maserati’s powerful engines and sports car know-how to produce a luxurious, fast coupe. It would come with Citroen’s signature design and style, and that’s how the SM was born.
The aesthetics were clearly French with a hydro-pneumatic self-leveling suspension and front-wheel drive. But instead of the underpowered four-cylinder engine, the SM got a 2.7-liter V6 developed by Maserati that provided enough power for a lively performance. The French hydropneumatic suspension, Italian engine, and questionable build quality resulted in an unreliable but gorgeous car as its 12,000 owners eventually learned.
Are you looking for a limited production Italian sports car from the ’70s with two seats and a mid-engine layout with only around $20,000 to spare? Although that sounds impossible, there is a solution in the Lancia Scorpion. In 1976, Lancia presented the Scorpion, a U.S.-spec version of the Beta Montecarlo model. Lancia couldn’t use the Montecarlo name for the American market because Chevrolet already had a car they called the Monte Carlo. So Lancia decided to go with the aggressive Scorpion nameplate. Despite the car’s modern looks and technical layout, the Lancia Scorpion had a sluggish four-cylinder engine that delivered only 81 HP in U.S. spec.
The Scorpion was available for two years, in 1976 and 1977, with Lancia selling approximately 1,800 of them in America. The car sold in such small numbers because it was underpowered, unreliable, and rust-prone. Unfortunately, there were problems with everything from the engine and differentials to electronics and body rust. The Lancia Scorpion looked cool, but it was just a poorly-built Italian coupe.
The Tipo 105 successor was the coupe version of the Alfetta, which debuted in the late ’70s. Alfa employed advanced construction and offered an updated suspension and several other details. The GTV6 came with a transaxle gearbox that vastly improved the weight distribution and handling. They added a De Dion type rear axle that helped with cornering and driving dynamics. With a 2.5-liter V6 engine in the front, the GTV6 delivered 160 to 170 HP and a vivid performance for the time.
Even today, the GTV6 is famous for its perfect driving dynamics and solid acceleration times. On top of that, drivers got a fantastic soundtrack coming from the high revving V6. But sadly, it was also famous for rust, failing electronics, and random screws falling out of nowhere. If you’re still interested, you can pick one up for a bargain price.
Ferrari introduced the F355 in the mid-90s. Obviously, the car was beautiful, fast, and powerful, yet it’s also relatively inexpensive and common. Unfortunately, it has a problem with durability and maintenance costs. There are several significant problems with the F355, including cracking exhaust manifolds due to bad engineering and poor material.
The cost of replacing the headers is close to $5,000. If you don’t replace the headers and keep driving, you could face engine failure. A full engine rebuild costs around $25,000. In addition, the valve guides are prone to failure in one out of every five Ferrari F355s. As you can expect, the price of sorting this problem out is also astronomical at approximately $6,000. But it doesn’t end there, because every three to five years, F355 owners are required to do a regular belt change and full service. This includes pulling the engine out of the car and several days of expensive labor. Some dealers charge around $10,000 for this routine service.
Fiat was always one of the best producers of supermini and compact cars. The company offers sportier or open-top versions, and that’s exactly what the 850 Spider is. Presented in 1964, the 850 Spider was a cool-looking roadster version of the regular 850 compact family car.
Despite looking like a toy compared to other full-size cars of the period, the 850 Spider was a capable driving machine because it was so light and nimble. With just 49 HP, the car couldn’t outrun any Porsches. But since it was so small, it could provide a lot of driving excitement. However, most Spiders never got to fulfill their owner’s dreams as they rotted away so quickly.
The 1976 to 1990 Aston Martin Lagonda is one of the quirkiest cars you could own. Aston Martin envisioned it to be the ultimate luxury sedan with V8 power, a bespoke interior, and top-of-the-line features. However, the Lagonda was one of the most expensive cars in the world during its production run. That’s the reason Aston only sold approximately 650 of them.
The main selling point was its exclusivity and unusual wedge-shaped styling. Unfortunately, Lagondas soon showed their dark side because they were notoriously undeveloped and problematic. That was mostly due to then-new electronic systems the company installed in the car. The Lagonda was so bad, it broke down moments before they were going to show it to Queen Elizabeth II.
In 1998, the 996 generation of the 911 debuted, shocking Porsche purists. Air cooling, a defining characteristic of the car, was gone. The reason was that air cooling couldn’t handle the rising power of modern engines as well as the demanding engineering of Porsche cars. The engines had to use regular water cooling, which is far more efficient and commonly-used. Some experts say that removing air cooling caused the 911s to lose some of their appeal. However, it was the right move because it enabled the engineers to develop the car.
However, the biggest problem wasn’t the engineering or design. Rather, it was one tiny yet crucial mechanical component called IMS for “intermediate shaft bearing.” It is a small shaft that connects the crankshaft to the camshaft. Porsche never provided the proper lubrication, causing the bearings to break, which led to fatal engine failure. The absolute worst thing is that IMS could fail without any warning since it wasn’t connected to normal wear and tear or total mileage. If the IMS fails, drivers have to do a full engine rebuild, which is expensive and frustrating.
Back in the early ’80s when fuel efficiency and cost savings were imperatives in the car game, most manufacturers were experimenting with various different engine and drivetrain options. Oldsmobile went the diesel route by introducing the notoriously poor-performing 4.3-liter V8 and then the improved 5.7-liter V8. However, Cadillac decided to install a fancy electronic cylinder deactivation system in its gasoline V8s.
When cruising around town, the car would only use four cylinders and the rest would deactivate, stopping fuel delivery and shutting down the spark plugs. When the driver needed more power, two more cylinders would activate, making the engine a V6. But when the driver pushed the throttle to the end, all eight would fire up to deliver full power. Unfortunately, as soon as the first examples arrived, problems started because the electronic system was unreliable. The engine tended to get stuck in one mode, usually four-cylinder. After a few years on the market, Cadillac discontinued this option, but it took even longer for the company to recover from its lost reputation.
In the late ’70s, American manufacturers were all about fuel efficiency and downsizing. The era of big cruisers and powerful gasoline engines of the ’60s was gone. Everybody was trying to introduce new, innovative technologies. Oldsmobile was at the forefront of this new trend with the introduction of the diesel engine in passenger cars. The company introduced the 4.3-liter V8 diesel engine as an option for the Cutlass line. Soon afterward, this model was subject to enormous amounts of recalls and engine swaps.
Unfortunately, the 4.3-liter had the tendency to explode and shatter during normal driving. Passengers weren’t hurt, but the car was unusable. Oldsmobile later introduced the 5.7-liter diesel that was somewhat more durable. But most people consider the 4.3-liter the worst diesel engine in history.
If you don’t know what the Sterling 825 is, nobody can blame you. Once marketed as the next big thing in the luxury car segment, Sterling is now a forgotten brand in automotive history. However, Sterling was a British company that began in the late ’80s with Honda capital and Rover styling.
The finished product was attractive with a stylish interior and decent power coming from the Honda V6 engine. But after the introduction in 1987 and the promising sales numbers in the first few months, problems showed up. The Sterlings were poorly constructed, the electronics were troublesome, and some cars even developed rust issues. Honda tried to improve the production process, but by the early ’90s, Sterling was gone.
When the Range Rover debuted in 1970, it took the Land Rover Defender concept and improved it far beyond market expectations. Most car historians agree the Range Rover launched the modern SUV class with a unique blend of off-road capabilities, elegant design, and luxury appointments. Thanks to the Range Rover, many other car manufacturers started selling comfortable off-road vehicles. Soon, the SUV craze swept through the industry.
The Range Rover was for those customers who needed a capable car but not an off-roader like the Defender. During the ’80s and early ’90s, the original Range Rover became the best-selling vehicle in its class and a legend of the industry. However, soon the customers found out that the Range Rover was unreliable thanks to three major issues. The first was rust and the second was electronics, like many British cars. But the problem that was the worst was that Range Rovers were prone to overheating. The owners found that simply adding coolant wasn’t an option since overheating bent the fragile aluminum heads in the V8 engine.
The 8-Series was a new model BMW conceived to be the best Gran Turismo coupe in the world. The design and platform were new as well as the engines. The BMW 8 Series featured the V8 as well as the advanced V12 engine. The car was full of advanced technical solutions and electronic systems as well as top of the line hardware. BMW included lots of luxury details and acres of the finest leather.
The big coupe lasted on the market until 1999, but it wasn’t a big commercial success for the company. However, it was one of the finest cars BMW ever produced and a true future classic. But behind the perfect design and impressive numbers were some fragile mechanics and the complicated V12, which loved to burn oil. Not to mention the problematic suspension setup and electronic problems that plagued the 8-Series throughout its production.
One of the unsung heroes of the ’90s Japanese sports car invasion was the Mitsubishi 3000 GT. Today, the Acura NSX gets all the attention, but the 3000 GT is an accomplished and exciting car. It has advanced technology for its day with a twin-turbo V6 engine delivering up to 300 HP in top-spec, intelligent all-wheel drive, and even four-wheel steering.
However, it was a bit heavy and expensive to maintain. Soon, this JDM gem was forgotten. Because it was prone to all kinds of problems, owners soon gave up on them.
The Fiat 124 Spider entered the market in 1966 and sold in America until 1985. The Spider came with a Pininfarina design on a 124 Sedan platform with straightforward mechanics. Fiat equipped it with a twin-cam engine, four-speed manual transmission, and rear-wheel drive. Early models got 90 HP from the 1.6-liter engine, while later versions got 2.0-liter engines with fuel injection and 102 HP.
However, despite looking like a Ferrari from the ’60s at discount prices, the Fiat was notorious for having rust issues. So much so, there’s not a single Fiat 124 Spider that doesn’t need a restoration. These cars were so bad, if you want to buy one today, the first thing to look for is rust. Chances are part of the floor is missing.
Many car enthusiasts claim the Miura is the first proper supercar in the world. It may qualify with its fantastic design, crazy power, and performance numbers. Also, it comes with a high price tag and the company limited the production numbers. The Miura was also the first car to feature several technical solutions that later became mandatory features in the supercar segment.
If it wasn’t the first, it is certainly was the most influential and iconic. Part of that appeal came from the 4.0-liter V12 transversally mounted behind the driver delivering 350 HP to its rear wheels. Sadly, the Miura was one of the most dangerous supercars ever made since it could catch fire at any moment. Quite a few Miuras were lost due to fire because of mechanical flaws, poor carburetor assembly, and bad fuel lines.
The Mini was an immensely influential and significant car when it was released in 1959. Today, every front-wheel-drive car uses the same drivetrain layout and concept. However, the first Mini wasn’t without its flaws. Apart from being unsafe and rust-prone, the Mini had one major design flaw. Due to a transversally-mounted engine, the radiator was on the left side behind the wheel well. But this design feature left the distributor and spark plug wires without any protection. So during rainy days, water flooded the starting system of the Mini through the front grille.
This left thousands of owners stranded and without any chance to start their car. These are 20 of the most unreliable classic cars that were a thorn in car owners’ sides for years. They all have their innate qualities, yet they also come with some serious flaws, some even with deadly consequences. Hopefully, the car industry has learned some valuable lessons from these cars to protect drivers in the future.