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Cars that flopped                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Feb/10/2014 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Perspectives,

Cars matter a lot to most of us. While we publically justify our automotive purchases based on practicality, cost and efficiency, we often have other motives. Unlike a washing machine or vacuum, we are seen publically in our cars. For most of us, style and general appearance mean a great deal, if it didn’t we would all venture to the grocery store in our pajamas with disregard for any personal grooming. Automotive manufacturers study us and try to market the car they believe we will all want with widely varying degrees of success. In response to a recent conversation, I thought I would share my personal list of the ten biggest car flops in production date order.

1958 Ford Edsel: There are lots things that could be said about the Edsel, but fundamentally it was simply not “the car you told me it would be.” By the mid 1950’s General Motors through its list of brand acquisitions had moved into a dominate position in the American consumer car market. Playing catch-up Ford decided to develop a car to compete in the upper price range against Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and similar cars. The advanced marketing effort by Ford for their pending “E-car” began in 1955. The problem with over two years of advance promotion is that you set the bar of expectations really high. Once released, the Edsel proved to be a “pretty decent” car, but did not inspire stampedes to the dealers. The Edsel did introduced new features such as warning lights for oil pressure, temperature and parking brake engagement. While promoted as a completely new badge from Ford, consumers struggled to see the difference between it and many other Ford or Mercury products of the day except for its unique and somewhat homely front grill. The big shortcoming for Ford was nearly two years of overhyping. In the Edsels’ short lifespan it failed to live up to excessive promotional expectations. The Edsel brand has evolved in the American vernacular to be a metaphor for a “flop” despite being merely an okay car.

1971 Ford Pinto: In the late 1960’s the Japanese manufacturers had begun to make inroads into the American automotive market with a new class of cars dubbed ‘subcompact.’ In response, Ford President Lee Iacocca wanted his designers to come up with a car that would be priced less than $2000 and weigh less than 2000 pounds. The clay model design of the Pinto was approved in December 1968 and the first cars rolled out of production in the 1971 model year. Part of the light weight design was achieved with a very minimal frame structure. Additionally, the fuel tank doubled as the floor of the trunk area. This configuration of rear mounted fuel tank proved vulnerable to rupture during 25 mph impacts in this light weight configuration spraying gasoline throughout the passenger area. Once ruptured, fire was a major risk. Conservative estimates associate nearly 500 burn deaths with this design flaw. Ford did not elect to change the design until 1978 by which time the brand had become a metaphor for poor safety design.

AMC Pacer: American Motors Corporation struggled in the 1970’s to find a market niche. The AMC Eagle, introduced in 1979 can be argued as one of the first true crossovers, it may have been too little, too late to save AMC. The AMC Matador and Pacer were simply too unusual in their styling despite a well intentioned design team. The Pacer had an engine/transmission combination that was more reliable than many cars of the same era. Unfortunately, cheap interior materials for the dashboard and trim that rapidly decayed helped lead to owner angst. The fishbowl like bulbous design and heavy doors ultimately hurt this car more than any other characteristic. In the court of public opinion this car is considered a flop and likely contributed to the demise of AMC a few years later.

1981 Cadillac Fleetwood V8-6-4: Cadillac had an established reputation for quality and comfort before this car entered the market. The ‘Oil Embargo’ of the mid 1970’s led to the creation of the CAFÉ Standard (Corporate Average Fuel Economy). Unlike Ford or Chevrolet, Cadillac did not have a broad range of models with varying fuel efficiency to help meet the CAFÉ Standard. Cadillac attempted to solve this problem with the introduction of a new engine with a primitive form of cylinder deactivation. While cylinder deactivation is a well established technology now, such was not the case in 1981. The engine was prone to unusual noises, vibrations and consistently stalled to the frustration of its owners. While the expectation was that when you paid up for a Cadillac, you got more, these cars unfortunately started to quickly appear on the used car lots tarnishing the Cadillac reputation for quality.

1982 Cadillac Cimarron: Under the continued pressure of the CAFÉ standards, all luxury car manufacturers were looking for ways to offer more efficient versions of their branded vehicles. In the late 1970’s General Motors (Cadillac’s parent corporation) had developed a J-body, economy car platform. Cadillac adopted this platform for Cimarron. While the Cimarron included nice features such as leather interior and air conditioning, the 4-cylinder engine and light weight body left a lot of buyers soured on the brand. Most consumers saw the Cimarron as a Chevrolet Cavalier in a fancy suit. Ultimately, Cadillac did not get the formula right for a mid-sized car with expected luxury features that appealed to younger buyers until the introduction of the CTS in 2002.

1985 Yugo: The Yugo was a car built in Yugoslavia by Zastava. Intended to be marketed in America as a ‘Great Value’, the brand was mortally wounded by quality problems. Yugoslavia was plagued by civil unrest and manufacturing quality varied wildly from month to month directly related to local political stability. The Yugo quickly earned a bad reputation in America for parts randomly falling off, random engine failure and a poor electrical system. The car may be most remembered for the colorful reviews written about it. One reviewer wrote of the Yugo that it was “The pinnacle of automotive imperfection.” Another automotive reviewer made the memorable statement that the Yugo was “The gold standard of inferior craftsmanship that gave off the impression ‘of something assembled at gunpoint’. One of the more noteworthy reviews of the Yugo said “It’s the car that all crappy, poorly made subcompacts strive to be when they grow up.” It should be noted that automotive reviews are seldom anything but glowing because the reviewers get a substantial number of perks, or their magazines get advertising dollars from the same companies whose cars they are reviewing. For me, the most telling message was when Yugo of America amended their marketing campaign to use the tag line “a great second car.”

1991 Chrysler TC: I have always been impressed with the Chrysler Corporations willingness to try new things. The TC was billed as a partnership between Chrysler and the Italian manufacturer Maserati. The intent was to merge a Chrysler body with a Maserati engine creating a world class touring car. Unfortunately, this unique mix of parts only produced an overpriced Frankenstein that embarrassed both companies and killed any future partnerships. Most consumers opted for the Chrysler LeBaron sitting at the same dealer lots which had a very similar body style with a more reasonable price tag. There is also a lesson here about having competing cars that look nearly identical sitting next to each other.

1996 Suzuki X90: If you’re wondering “what is an X90”, you’re not alone. The X90 debuted at auto shows in 1994-5 winning lots of praise for its innovative styling. Unfortunately, creativity is not always the same as pubic appeal or practicality. The X90 was the replacement to the Suzuki Samurai. Unfortunately for the X90, no one in the consumer market could ever figure out what it really was, or what it was meant to do. It sat up high like an SUV, but only had seats for two people like a roadster. The detachable roof panels made it look like it was trying to be a sports car. Obviously, certain combinations of design features just don’t go together well in the consumer market and the X90 proved to be a conspicuous example of this. Less than 10 thousand units were sold during its 3 year North American run. If you have never seen one and wonder how I can manage to know of such an obscure vehicle, it is purely by accident. I was at an event a number of years ago where a strange looking vehicle was parked in the vendor area with a large “Red Bull’ can protruding from its back leaning forward over the T-top roof. Upon exploring I learned it was an X90. Even Red Bull has moved on and adopted the Cooper Mini as their promotional vehicle.

1997 Plymouth Prowler: From the mid-nineties to the present, the Chrysler Corporation has shown a knack for daring and innovative styling well beyond their peers. Key examples of this include the PT Cruiser, the Viper and the Plymouth Prowler. Unfortunately, strong execution counts. The Prowler was introduced as an iconic and stylized rendition of the classic hotrod. The body lines were amazing with its open wheel design, wedge-shaped fuselage, and sloping arches hitting all the right hotrod themes, until you opened the hood. The Chrysler’s 3.5-liter V6 with 250 horsepower made the car more of a rod without the “hot.” Admittedly, 250 horsepower was not bad for a car of that weight class, but Chrysler had plenty of other more substantial power plants that could have gone under that sloped hood. More critical to the potential buyers was that Plymouth coupled the engine to an automatic transmission. The Prowler drivetrain proved to be underwhelming on the street. Hot-rodder’s and wannabe’s are looking for a car that has show and go. The Prowler excelled at the show and flopped when it came time to go.

2001 Pontiac Aztek: The Pontiac division of General Motors had not shown any creativity or risk in its designs since the end of the muscle car era. Targeting generation Xr’s, the Aztek was intended to bring a new crop of buyers to the Pontiac brand. Most reviews of the day praised the interior layout, form practicality and drive train. The exterior styling of the Aztek and its cousin the Buick Rendezvous that included large plastic side panels and an open front grill were not so well received. GM executive Bob Lutz famously referred to the design as looking like an “angry kitchen appliance.” Clearly, it is not good when your own executives publically slam the design. The Aztek had among the highest Customer Satisfaction Index scores in its class, and won the title of "Most Appealing Entry Sport Utility Vehicle" in 2001 from J.D. Power and Associates, an independent consumer survey organization also noted in their report: "The Aztek scores highest or second highest in every APEAL component measure except exterior styling." For the record, the lead designer for the Aztek was Tom Peters, who would later design the Chevrolet Corvette (C7). When graded specifically on exterior styling, the Aztek consistently finds its way to the highest levels of an infamous all time list. Pontiac needed to start taking risks, unfortunately, they waited so long that the Aztek proved to be one of the nails in their coffin instead of the first rung on a new ladder.

Some cars flop because they are the right idea at the wrong time. Some cars are simply rushed through engineering and fail to earn or keep consumer faith and trust. Some of the cars I listed are pretty obscure, which ultimate is a good indication of their poor performance at earning customer loyalty. As with any list of this nature, it is very subjective. Since I am doing the writing it gets to be my opinion. Whether I sparked a trip down memory lane, or heated response to some omission is moot. As a noted bouncer in a movie once said, “opinions vary.”

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Doug Firebaugh
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