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September 26, 2021

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The Ford Edsel.

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The ultimate lemons

The no-good, the bad and the ugly of 20th-century cars

Praise the Automotive Gods if you are in possession of a driver’s license today, for we are truly living in a golden age of automobiles — whether you look at the sheer selection of rides, the quality of the product or the value-for-the-money. Even the automotive categories run the gamut, from econo-boxes to gargantuan SUVs and even tire-smoking retro ’60s muscle. You really can get anything you want.

What’s more, thanks to intense competition, the quality of even base-model economy cars has never been better. That Accent retailing for just $13,699 down at the Hyundai dealership? Trust us: that isn’t your father’s 1986 Pony. Indeed, the Accent was named Best New Small Car Under $21K by the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada.

But although today’s consumers are awash in a sea of choice, such was not always the case. So, fasten your seatbelts and grab your air sickness bag as we take stock of the lemons and losers, the misfits and misfires of yesteryear.

Edsel (1958-1960)

Ford invested a fortune to launch its new upmarket division in 1957, yet despite great fanfare and a plethora of pre-launch media buzz, Edsel tanked. Big time.

So, what went wrong? In a word: everything. For starters, when the Edsel division was conceived in the early ’50s, the US economy was humming along. By the time the Edsel debuted, the economy was mired in a recession and consumers had little appetite for big, costly cars.

But chances are the Edsel would’ve flopped anyway given that it was such a cosmic design disaster. Many would-be buyers simply couldn’t get past the Edsel’s garish front end: some likened the grille to a horse collar; others said it looked like a certain part of the female anatomy.

Strike three: poor build quality, even by 1950s benchmarks. The end result: the Edsel was a $400 million fiasco (about $3 billion in today’s dollars), forcing Ford to axe the division outright in 1960. Today, the Edsel remains synonymous with “failure”, “lemon” and “bomb.”

Chevrolet Corvair (1961-1970)

When consumer advocate Ralph Nader went looking for a poster child for his 1966 book Unsafe At Any Speed, he chose the Corvair, a rear-engine, air-cooled economy car that was meant to be GM’s answer to the Volkswagen Beetle.

True early models of the Corvair were not properly engineered. Thanks primarily to its engine placement and oversteering, the car was plagued by a tendency to spin out of control. The PR black eye resulting from being included in Unsafe at Any Speed proved fatal. Even though some of Nader’s findings about the Corvair later turned out to be exaggerated or unfair.

AMC Gremlin (1970-1979)

Why an automaker would choose to name a car after a mischievous creature with a penchant for gumming up mechanical devices is baffling. As if to further taunt fate, AMC decided to premiere the Gremlin on April Fool’s Day, 1970.

This AMC abomination looked like a sedan with the trunk sawed off. Worse, it was appallingly built. Various gimmicks didn’t save the quasi-hatchback either. For example, the beefed-up Gremlin X, could be ordered with an optional Levi’s denim interior. That way, as you waited for a tow truck to come along, at least you’d look groovy.

Ford Pinto (1971-1980)

A public relations disaster for the ages, early models of the infamous Pinto had a tendency to explode when hit from behind, thanks to the pipe leading from the fuel filler to the tank rupturing on impact.

While this engineering failure was bad enough, more appalling was the fact that it was later uncovered that Ford knew about the glitch in advance but didn’t want to recall the Pinto as the fuel filler problem would’ve cost $50 per car to fix. The end result: people died in faulty Pintos. Ford, meanwhile, was later hammered with several multi-million-dollar lawsuits.

Briklin SV-1 (1974-1975)

Malcolm Bricklin made his fortune with hardware supply franchises in Florida. Then in the early ’70s, the smooth-talking entrepreneur convinced the New Brunswick government to put up the lion’s share of a multi-million dollar investment to build the SV-1.

Two Bricklin plants were opened in Minto and Saint John and hope abounded that a Canadian sports car would emerge as a world-beater. But problems soon arose.

Cost overruns caused the price to spike from $4000 to $9980 within a year of launching. This made the Bricklin uncompetitive compared to the Chevrolet Corvette. Plus the fibreglass body panels had a tendency to warp and crack. The electro-hydraulic gull-wing doors were prone to failure (sometimes trapping the occupants). Even the weather-stripping tended to leak.

The Bricklin was no terror under the hood, either. Cars produced in 1974 featured a 220-horsepower AMC V8. Because of supply problems, the next year they switched was made to the 175-horsepower Ford 351V8.

By September of ’75, the New Brunswick government pulled the plug on further funding. The company promptly fell into receivership, and so ended a Canuck car fiasco, courtesy of your tax dollars.

De Lorean DMC 12 (1981-1982)

John De Lorean was one of the catalysts behind the performance car boom of the 1960s when he was with GM’s now-defunct Pontiac division (responsible for the GTO and Firebird). So it’s nothing short of mind-boggling that his DMC 12 was such an “all show, no go” kind of car.

The stainless steel coupe turned heads when it debuted, but a heavy Renault V6 engine made for an under-whelming power plant and build quality was dreadful (those famous gull-wing doors sometimes wouldn’t open).

Built in Northern Ireland, the DMC 12 would later be featured as a time machine in the Back to the Future trilogy. And it's the inclusion in the films that make this car a collectible today with auto enthusiasts and film buffs alike.

Renault Fuego (1981-1985)

Speaking of Renault, the French automaker no longer sells cars in North America. The Fuego is one reason why. Despite its sleek look (for the time period, at least), the Fuego was unreliable and used antiquated technology.

Even the name was perversely unfortunate: fuego is Spanish for fire and ironically, this French coupe had an alarming habit of bursting into flames due to dodgy electrical wiring.

Cadillac Cimarron (1982-1988)

A word comes to mind when looking at the Cadillac Cimarron, and that word is “brandalism.” The people heading up GM’s Cadillac division in the early ’80s were so incompetent they ended up vandalizing the brand they were meant to protect.

The compact Cimarron was given the green light when GM noticed that small luxury cars made by Mercedes and BMW were gobbling up increased market share in North America. GM could’ve attempted to make a good, small luxury car to compete with the Germans. But no. That was too logical. Instead, the General chose to tart up a Chevrolet Cavalier with leather seats and a faux-wood dashboard and then mark-up the base price by thousands.

Bottom line: it’s a minor miracle the Cadillac nameplate didn’t perish along with the Cimarron in 1987. It really was that awful.

Chrysler TC Maserati (1986)

Talk about a one-hit (non) wonder. Built for only one model year, the awkwardly-named Chrysler TC Maserati was the offspring of a bizarre strategic partnership between Chrysler and Maserati. In a nutshell, Chrysler wanted to pimp up its Le Baron convertible for the luxury car buying consumer. Thus, Chrysler turned to Maserati for help.

Too bad Maserati in the ’80s was going through a creative lull of its own. The build quality was ghastly and almost every engine suffered warped cylinder heads or blown oil seals. Did we mention this car was really just a pimped-up Le Baron?

Suzuki X90 (1996-1998)

This is a classic case of a vehicle suffering from an identity crisis. Was the X90 a 4x4 that could tackle the Jeep Jamboree? Or was it a sports coupe? Turns out it was neither, even though Suzuki billed the X90 as “the world’s first two-seater sports car off-roader.”

As well, the car’s exterior design was baffling: the front and rear ends were virtually identical, prompting some observers to quip that it was hard to tell if the X90 was coming or going.

Pontiac Aztek (2001-2005)

Legend has it that prior to green-lighting the Aztek, GM hired a high-priced consultant. After studying the Aztek (billed as the world’s first SAV — “sport activity vehicle” — whatever that is), he concluded that for this baby to fly, GM must ensure that the vehicle did not have small wheels and that it didn't feature grey plastic cladding slapped on the sides.

Guess what? When the Aztek debuted, it sported small wheels and grey plastic cladding along the sides. It gets worse: the Aztek’s posterior is virtually identical to the backside of a garbage truck. How this mishmash of curves and odd angles ever went into production will remain a mystery.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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