In America, the car is first. The automobile preceded innovations such as radio, plastic, and women’s suffrage. In fact, cars were already in vogue when top hats and spat shoes were considered the height of men’s fashion.
The history of the automobile demonstrates how American entrepreneurs and the American public have influenced technology throughout the world.
The American car’s transformation into a global icon was by no means gradual, too. In a few short years, the car came to symbolize more than just technology and industry.
By the 1920s, cars had become the symbols of a new consumer goods-oriented society. By the mid-1920s, cars ranked first in value of product. By 1982, the American automobile industry was providing one out of every six jobs in the United States.
- 1 What happens when car manufacturers bungle the job?
- 2 The countdown: The 20 Worst American Cars
- 2.1 20. 1975 Ford Pinto
- 2.2 19. 1996 Ford Explorer
- 2.3 18. 1975 AMC Pacer
- 2.4 17. 1970 AMC Gremlin
- 2.5 16. 1999 Ford Excursion
- 2.6 15. 1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Diesel
- 2.7 14. 1976 Chevy Chevette
- 2.8 13. 2004 Dodge Durango
- 2.9 12. 1965 Chevrolet Corvair
- 2.10 11. 1958 Ford Edsel
- 2.11 10. 2004 Chevrolet SSR
- 2.12 9. 2007 Chrysler Sebring
- 2.13 8. 2003 Saturn Ion
- 2.14 7. 1964 Ford Mustang
- 2.15 6. 1979 Corvette L48
- 2.16 5. 1990 Chevrolet Lumina APV
- 2.17 4. 1982 Cadillac Cimmaron
- 2.18 3. 1971 Chevy Vega
- 2.19 2. 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser
- 2.20 1. 2000 Pontiac Aztec
What happens when car manufacturers bungle the job?
The whole world knows that you can rely on the quality of a good American car. The Model T, the Ford Model 18, the Chevrolet Corvette, the Chrysler Minivan, and the Jeep MB all hold hallowed places in automobile lore.
But, over the years, we have seen the American car industry fumble, as well. The missteps have been many and varied: from wasteful gas guzzlers to goofy aesthetic miscalculations and deadly design errors.
Below is a gallery of what many experts consider to be the 20 worst American cars ever made.
The countdown: The 20 Worst American Cars
20. 1975 Ford Pinto
The 1975 Ford Pinto was a fiasco. The car might look fine. Many even found its gently slanted roofline and extended rear rather novel. Sales started off strong in 1971. But in 1974, the US Center for Auto Safety petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to recall Ford Pintos.
The consumer safety agency cited fuel system design defects in the car. The claim was based on reports from the lawyers of three deaths and four serious injuries in rear-end collisions. All the accidents had happened at moderate speeds.
Apparently, the design and the placement of the fuel tank on the Pinto were unsafe. The design flaw was such that there was a significant risk of an explosion in rear-end collisions!
Even worse, there was some evidence to suggest Ford knew about the safety issues. The auto manufacturer said nothing because it was making money from the car’s current design. While the fiasco was greatly exaggerated during its time, there was some truth to it.
19. 1996 Ford Explorer
Ford began producing the Ford Explorer in 1990 and it soon became one of the company’s best-selling models. While still widely used to this day, there was a time when the Explorer gained a reputation for rolling over in a crash.
As early as 1996, there were cases of the car’s tire tread separating. The tattered tires caused a higher-than-expected number of rollover crashes. As it turns out, there were problems with the tires, resulting in numerous accidents – even deaths.
Ford lost a sizeable chunk of its earnings on recalls. The company also fired some of its executives and broke its ties with the company that manufactured the tires.
18. 1975 AMC Pacer
The 1975 AMC Pacer looked unique, yes, but also a little strange. The car’s doors were four inches longer than usual. The extra wide door was supposed to make it easier for passengers to ease into the car. But the design caused items stored in the back to fall in the Pacer’s station wagon version.
People also noted a few aesthetic gaffes. The window was too wide, some claimed. Many even likened the car to a spaceship. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the car’s appearance seems to have kept consumers away.
Still, many car reviewers gave the Pacer high marks during its day. Years later, the car was even featured in the Wayne’s World movies.
17. 1970 AMC Gremlin
You may find it difficult to believe now, but American consumers liked the look of the AMC Gremlin when it first hit the market. Granted, the ‘70s was a decade of constantly changing opinions and styles — in America and elsewhere in the world.
At that time, American consumers thought the subcompact Gremlin looked fabulously trendy. The car was among the most popular cars among American high-schoolers. But time seems to have revealed the car’s appearance for what it really was: an irredeemable eyesore.
Apart from the Gremlin’s protruding rear, the loss of a rear suspension system also made handling awkward and ungainly. Richard Teague, the designer of the car, had previously designed some successful, critically acclaimed cars. The Gremlin wasn’t one of them.
16. 1999 Ford Excursion
With a design based on the F-250 Super Duty pickup truck, the Excursion was a big, heavy SUV. The idea behind the vehicle was simple. Drive the heaviest passenger SUV on the planet and feel like you are the boss. (Strangely enough, American Moms, in particular, loved the Excursion.)
The car was successful in the first few years after the launch. But people began to shy away from the giant gas-guzzler after the energy crisis of 2000.
People thought it was no longer worthwhile to continue driving an inefficient, gas-guzzling vehicle. The Excursion soon after earned the nickname “Ford Valdez.” The moniker refers to the oil tanker Exxon Valdez, which had caused the second largest oil spill in America.
15. 1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Diesel
Most car experts agree that the 1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Diesel was the first blunder of GM. The Oldsmobile Cutlass was selling well in the market, and so was the Cutlass Supreme.
We aren’t sure why GM decided to go diesel in 1978, but the first two years of sales were great. Oldsmobile running on diesel engines comprised 60 percent of all US passenger diesel vehicles in 1981.
But then there was a decline in gas prices and the controversy over rumors of diesel fuel contamination. People began to wonder about the practicality and safety of running a car on diesel. From then on, GM saw a sharp decline in the Oldsmobile Diesel.
14. 1976 Chevy Chevette
GM had come up with the name “Chevette” in the hopes of evoking the widely successful Corvette. They may have achieved that goal as Chevette did well in the US market and overseas, initially.
GM had designed a simple, front-engine, RWD car for the masses. That’s what the Chevette was. It was only over time that people started disliking how the Chevette looked.
The clumsy shape of the car’s rear, combined with the cheap interior, made the car even more worthless. The shiny plastic interior lost its appeal, especially after Corolla entered the market. The engine, too, became suspect as it produced 60 HP (23 HP was the lowest in some!).
13. 2004 Dodge Durango
If you look at any recent model of the Dodge Durango, it looks like any other SUV. But that was not always the case. The 2003 model was fine. But the 2004 Durango didn’t do as well.
The 2004 Dodge Durango became the vehicle to avoid when its HEMI engine started causing people problems. Owners reported loud knocking noises in the motor. Some said rods blew holes in the engine block, especially after driving in the rain or a car wash.
They regularly maintained their Durangos, performing oil changes within expected time frames. Still, these owners usually had to pay anywhere from $2,500 to $3,500 for a new engine replacement.
GM eventually traced the problem back to a flaw in the design of the windshield wiper cowl. Water would leak down into the engine’s intake, causing it to blow. Of course, from then on, people began to look elsewhere when buying a new SUV.
12. 1965 Chevrolet Corvair
Some find it difficult to believe that the 1965 Chevrolet Corvair was the predecessor of the Camaro. In production from 1960 to 1969, the car looked good enough from the outside. The car even seemed to perform well for the first few years.
What made the Corvair unique was that it was the only American-designed car that had a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine. But its novel design was also its biggest drawback. The engine placed 60 percent of the car’s weight over the rear wheels. This meant that, without good traction, owners easily lost control of the car.
Some owners likewise observed that the car’s heating system leaked noxious fumes into the cabin.
The 1965 Corvair’s failings prompted the consumer activist Ralph Nader to call it “the most dangerous automobile on the road.”
11. 1958 Ford Edsel
Ford spent a year publicizing and advertising the 1958 Edsel. The company made 18 different versions of the Edsel at its launch. That’s a lot considering that other car manufacturers provide three to four versions at most.
The car’s designers wanted to make the Edsel look unique. They hit on the idea of a vertical grille. But the problem was that a car’s grille has a specific purpose. The grill allows air into the engine bay to keep the engine cool.
In order to keep the Edsel running, that vertical grille had to be enormous. This made the entire car look silly in the eyes of critics and many consumers. Some cultural experts say the grille looked too much like a vagina. Ford stopped manufacturing the Edsel after just two years.
10. 2004 Chevrolet SSR
The Chevrolet SSR was a cross between a truck and a car. There was a lot of hype for the SSR before it was released in 2004. While Chevrolet expected the car to have a long life, it quickly fizzled.
Why? The car wasn’t all that ugly-looking. But despite its powerful engine, the car garnered underwhelming performance statistics. Its 7.7-second 0-60 mph time wasn’t excellent. Many complained SSR was difficult to handle, weighing in at around 4,700 lbs.
But experts say the SSR’s biggest problem by far was its ridiculous price. In 2005, the SSR started at $42,000 new. The 390 hp model SSR commanded a $43,000 price tag. Chevrolet offered a variety of add-ons, which could then jack the price up to around $50,000.
No wonder the car manufacturer sold only 9,000 units of the SSR in its first year. Not seeing any other way out of the debacle, Chevrolet discontinued production of the SSR in 2006.
9. 2007 Chrysler Sebring
Many would say the 2007 Chrysler Sebring isn’t a bad-looking car. But critics have lambasted both the car’s exterior design and its interior. One critic even went so far as to say the car’s cabin is “constructed from the parts of five different cars to look like the lobby of the Chrysler Building.”
But looks weren’t the Sebring’s biggest problem. In all, Chrysler recalled the 2007 Sebring seven times. The reasons behind the recalls were many and varied, from electrical failures to malfunctioning latches, locks, and linkages.
In 2008, Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson called the Sebring “the worst car in the world” because of its lackluster engine.
8. 2003 Saturn Ion
The 2003 Saturn Ion had problems as soon as hit the market. The car garnered terrible safety ratings. The best mark it ever got was “acceptable.” Critics and experts alike pointed out that the Ion was destined to perform poorly upon side impact.
Other critics also found the car’s interior cheap and uncomfortable with all its plastic-like material. Obviously, the Ion didn’t do too well in the market. GM recalled the Ion a few years after its launch. The company soon decided to discontinue building Saturn models altogether.
7. 1964 Ford Mustang
The Mustang was an instant hit, bringing sizeable profits for Ford in the 1960s. The car had everything you could ask for in a sports car. Not only was the Mustang a handsome car, its packed power commanded a fairly reasonable price tag and hence, profit margin.
But over the next couple of years, Ford began to make the car fatter and slower. The car had gained 800 pounds at one point.
The new bulkier designs were meant to allow the car the luxury afforded by other vehicles. That’s when sales dwindled and people began to avoid it like the plague.
6. 1979 Corvette L48
The Corvette is an excellent car. Chevrolet has been producing this classic sportscar since 1963. To this day, the car will outdo many sportscars that command twice or thrice the Corvette’s price. But that hasn’t always been the case.
The 1979 Corvette L48 did not live up to the expectations of many car experts and enthusiasts. The 1979 L48 had a 5.7-liter V8 engine that made only 195 hp. That was barely enough to keep the 3,372-pound car moving.
Critics also found the interior ugly, with disco-era upholstery colors across the door panels and the dashboard. But the car sold well. Chevy sold 53,807 Corvettes during the 1979 model year. That makes the L48 the best-selling Corvette ever made!
5. 1990 Chevrolet Lumina APV
There isn’t much you can do to make a minivan look great. You cannot make them sleek and tough-looking like SUVs because you need more space for the interior.
The Lumina APV was supposed to be a stylish alternative to the Dodge Caravan. But the car’s long, sloping windshield didn’t suit the car’s overall design at all. Even worse, once you get into the driver’s seat, you found yourself in an uncomfortable driving position. That windscreen also let in an enormous amount of heat during warmer months!
4. 1982 Cadillac Cimmaron
The 1982 Cadillac Cimmaron is nothing like the cars that Cadillac produces today. That’s because there is a whole new team and design philosophy behind the current Cadillacs.
This 1982 Cimarron was supposed to be the luxury brand of Cadillac. But you can’t simply rebadge an economy car as a luxury vehicle and expect consumers to pay the higher price tag.
Citing low sales and poor performance, Forbes put the Cimarron on its list of “Legendary Car Flops.” CarBuzz called the Cimarron a “textbook example of what goes wrong when a carmaker tries to badge engineer an economy car into a luxury car.”
3. 1971 Chevy Vega
Sometimes, it might be plain bad luck that makes a car sell poorly. The 1971 Chevy Vega looks good and seemed to perform exceptionally well in its first few years. The Vega even won the 1971 Motor Trend Car of the Year Award soon after it launched. But problems began to emerge just a few months later.
For some reason, the car’s engineering didn’t encourage the public’s trust. Consumers questioned the Vega’s safety and reliability. Some complained that its interior did not hold its color. Sales began to plummet and Chevrolet eventually stopped producing the car.
2. 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser
The people who designed the 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser wanted to make something new and innovative by borrowing from the past. Chrysler launched the PT Cruiser in 2001. The company eventually terminated the model in 2010.
Motor Trend had given the PT Cruiser its “Car of the Year” award when the car first came out. Some experts say that’s part of the reason why it stayed in production for so long. American consumers wanted novelty, a good engine, and an affordable price tag. But people eventually found the car’s retro-style design silly and unattractive.
1. 2000 Pontiac Aztec
Sometimes, a car will fail just because its ugly. The car that takes the Number One slot in this list of flops is the 2000 Pontiac Aztec. Both critics and consumers have derided the look of the Aztec. We say they have good reason to do so.
From the front, the car looks like a human face with a double-chin. Some have criticized the placement of the headlamps and the two small vents on the front, in particular.
But that’s not all. The Aztec looks horrendous from all angles, which is probably why the it didn’t do well in the market. The experts over at Hotcars say alterations to the chassis may have made the Aztec a better-proportioned vehicle. But that much work may have proved too much for Pontiac.
Nowadays, you’ll find it difficult to spot an Aztec on the road. Pontiac stopped producing the car in 2005.
Of course, as the saying goes, ‘beauty is in the ey of the beholder’. Some of the above vehicles failed miserably based purely on aesthetics. Other’s failed for design flaws that, at times, even made them unsafe.
Have you got a particular car you’d add to the list?