By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Automotive good ideas gone bad range far and wide, whether it’s a classic like the exploding Pintos of the early ’70s — or a late model gem like the Pontiac Aztek.
Here are ten epic failures that will be remembered for as long as the warranty claims (and class-action lawsuits) linger:
1) The Entire American Motors Corp. (AMC) Lineup
From dreadful dreadnoughts like the malformed Matador to demented detritus like the Gremlin and Pacer, no other automaker ever managed to build such a seemingly endless conga line of bizarre, poorly conceived (and often, poorly built) cars within such a short span of time (from the late 1960s to the early-mid 1970s). Only bankruptcy eventually succeeded in stopping the madness.
2) Chrysler’s “Lean Burn” Engines
While Honda was developing highly efficient combustion chambers to lower engine emissions via engineering advances (the Compound Cortex Combustion Chamber, or CVCC cylinder head used in the first-generation Civics in the mid-70s) which allowed the cars to meet federal exhaust emissions standards without catalytic converters, Chrysler was duct-taping its obsolete V-8s with leaned-out carburetors that mainly made them even harder to start than they were before — and prone to stalling in the middle of busy intersections. The added plus was wimpy performance and terrible gas mileage.
Now you know why “rich, Corinthian leather” (and Ricardo Montalban) never made a comeback.
3) General Motors’ Diesel V-8
Imagine a luxury car that was both slow and inefficient as well as prone to early and catastrophic engine failures and you have a taste of the bitter flavor that was the diesel-powered Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs of the late ’70s and early ’80s. These “diesel” engines were in fact converted gas engines, which lacked the strength to deal with the high-compression combustion of diesel operation.
The resultant debacle not only soured an entire country on the otherwise perfectly sound concept (real diesel engines), it helped hustle Oldsmobile to the boneyard of automotive has-beens — and nearly killed off Cadillac, too.
4) The Sterling
Here’s an oldie but still a stinkie.
Japanese automakers rarely make big-time mistakes, but this was pretty close. Back in the late 1980s, in collusion with British car-maker Land Rover, Acura Legends were re-sold as “British” Sterling 825s and 827s. The alliance was as enduring as the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact — and just as awkward. Parts for these cars — especially interior pieces — are all but impossible to find. Dealer support is nonexistent. Resale values are lower than a well-worn Yugo.
If Truman had had another bomb left to drop, the childhood home of the dude who would grow up to create Sterling would have been a worthy target.
5) Pontiac Fiero
A great idea ruined by upper management cheapskates, who thought it would be an amusing con to use Chevette-sourced underthings (front suspension, engine) in a car that looked sporty but couldn’t live up to its billing. First-year sales were great — until the word got out. They then nose-dived like the Concorde, forcing the car’s cancellation just four years after it came out and just in time to hand over the entire market for a car of this type to Mazda, which brought out the Miata a year after the Fiero was sent to the crusher.
6) “Cab Forward” Design
Remember? When Chrysler Corp. hawked this layout in the ’90s, it was supposed to be an automotive Great Leap Forward. But after a succession of belly-flops ranging from the luckless LHS to the Dodge not-so-Intrepid, the whole works was discretely packed up and shipped off the land of unwanted toys. Chrysler reverted back to front-engine/rear-drive (“cab normal”) vehicles like the current 300 series and Charger — which, not surprisingly, actually sell well.
Circa Ronald Reagan’s first term, and desperate to rehabilitate its image, GM figured the only way to get people to consider buying a GM small car was by giving their crappy little economy cars a new name. Hence the “Geo” nameplate. Sold alongside Chevrolets, some Geos were ok (at least, the ones like the Prizm that were just re-badged Toyotas). But others were far from fabulous, notably the depressing three-cylinder Metro and the sad-sack Storm “sports coupe” — both of which may sometimes still be glimpsed on seedy used car lots in rural backwaters to this very day.
8) The “New” GTO
The Holden (GM’s Australian subsidiary) Monaro was a perfectly good car — powerful as well as fine-handling. But it was neither a Pontiac nor a GTO. Tacking on the badges didn’t make it so.
It didn’t help that the resurrected “GTO” was blandly styled (it looked a lot like a hot-rodded Cavalier) and close to Corvette expensive — making it all but impossible for even the handful of rednecks who might have wanted one to be able to afford one.
9) Firestone’s Wilderness A/T Tires
Mix marginally competent drivers, top-heavy SUVs, high-speed driving and defective tires — and let the barrel-rolling (and endless litigation) begin! This late 1990s debacle all-but-ruined the reputation of what had been the country’s best-selling SUV — the Explorer — even though the root cause of the problem had more to do with improper use and sketchy tires than with the “Exploder” itself.
10) Chevy SSR
What’s heavy, ugly, top-heavy and clunky? No, it’s not your mother-in-law. It’s the SSR, or Super Sport Retractable hardtop. Blechh! GM built this Frankenstinian atrocity for a few years in the early-mid 2000s. It looked like a ’40s pick-up and had some interesting features — including a “torque-o-meter” gauge to let you know how much power the huge, Corvette sourced V-8 was putting out. But like the even more execrable PLymouth Prowler, it was a fake hot rod — a factory-built, store-bought Guidomobile for guys who want to be seen as sporty car-crafter types but who probably couldn’t find the dipstick on a dare. With a base price of almost $50,000 it was the perfect accompaniment to a tract-home McMansion.