The history of the automotive industry is littered with innovations and vehicles that failed miserably. For every Tesla there’s a Gremlin. For every GPS device there’s an automatic seatbelt. Whether they were the result of hubris on the part of auto company executives or just plain bad ideas, the failures in the global car industry far outnumber the successes over the long-term. Perhaps it’s just the cost of progress and part of the automobile’s overall evolution. Here are 13 of the biggest debacles in the history of the car industry.
13. DeLorean DMC-12
You can’t field a list like this without discussing the Delorean DMC-12. It’s arguably one of the biggest disasters ever in the world of cars. The Delorean DMC-12 is to the automobile industry what New Coke was to the beverage industry – an unmitigated failure. While it is true that the car’s reputation is boosted by its appearance in the Back to the Future trilogy, there’s no hiding the fact that the DMC-12 was a major flop when it debuted in the early 1980s. Let’s not forget, the DeLorean’s appearance in Back to the Future was originally meant as a joke.
Company founder John DeLorean spent most of the 1970s promoting his car as the “sports car of the future.” He negotiated with the British government to build his manufacturing factory in war-torn Belfast, Ireland in exchange for more than US$100 million in government grants. DeLorean hoped to sell around 12,000 units of his aluminum-made sports car that featured unique gull-wing doors.
However, by the end of 1981 the company was out of money and only 6,000 cars had been sold. After a well publicized cocaine bust, the British government seized the company’s assets from John DeLorean and closed the factory in December 1982. In all, only 9,000 DMC-12 sports cars were built. At least the car lives on as a pop culture icon.
12. Children’s Partition
Let’s be honest, being stuck in a car with kids during long road trips can be a headache. How many times can you hear the children ask, “are we there yet?” Or listen to a game of “I Spy” for the umpteenth time? It’s aggravating, to say the least. Automakers feel our pain. That’s why many car companies in the 1940s and 1950s experimented with partitions between the front and rear seats of cars.
These were like the partitions you see in limousines, that separate the driver from the shenanigans going on in the back. The idea was to separate parents from their annoying kids in the back seat. Not a bad concept, in theory. Unfortunately, it turned out that many parents didn’t like the idea of not being able to see or hear their kids in the back of the car — in case of emergency. Basically, it was the good, attentive parents who ruined it for the rest of us.
11. The Chevy Chevette
Routinely voted the ugliest car of all-time, the Chevy Chevette descended on unsuspecting motorists in 1976 and was quickly reviled by anyone with good taste. Basically a cross between a Pinto and a Gremlin, and designed as a hatchback with a snout, the Chevette is widely viewed as one of the most unloved and ugly cars to ever roll off an assembly line. While other automotive misfires such as the Pacer and the Yugo have fan clubs devoted to them, the Chevette is considered a car worth forgetting entirely.
A three-door hatchback that never quite caught on with the public, the Chevette had a 51 horsepower engine and a four-speed manual transmission. And not much else. The engine was loud and always sounded like it was about to heave its last gasp. Most people remember this car for spending more time in the repair shop than on the road.
10. Nuclear Fusion Engines
No, we’re not making this up. In a page out of the Jetson’s cartoon or Back to the Future films, automakers in the 1950s and 60s experimented with the development of nuclear fusion engines in cars. Remember, this was the dawn of the nuclear age. The idea made sense at the time. Ford even went so far as to develop a nuclear-powered concept car in 1958 known as the Ford Nucleon.
This scale model showed how a nuclear-powered car might look and operate. Many other carmakers also experimented with the idea of outfitting vehicles with nuclear engines. The idea was for cars to be powered by a nuclear reactor mounted in the rear of the vehicle. Fortunately, nuclear powered cars were quickly deemed to be too dangerous and expensive. Development was quickly scrapped. However, the Ford Nucleon is available to see today at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
9. The Plymouth Prowler
There have been some great hot rods and speedsters over the years. The Plymouth Prowler, released in 1997, is not one of them. By the mid-1990s, car designers worldwide had access to powerful new computer tools that enabled them to design new cars quickly and easily using nothing more than a computer mouse.
From this quantum leap in design technology came the Prowler. It was a retro-roadster that was meant to look futuristic with an open-wheel frontend and low-slung hot-rod fuselage. While this design might have looked cool on a computer screen, it did not translate well to the showroom.
Chrysler went all-in on the Prowler in the mid-1990s. They stuck a standard 3.5 liter V6 engine under the bonnet. Unfortunately, this engine was only capable of producing a lackluster 250 horsepower, which disappointed people who expected so much more from a modern hot rod. The Prowler also lacked a manual transmission, which made it almost impossible to lay down hot rubber. The result was a car that looked weird and disappointed everyone who drove it.
8. Scent Dispensers
There’s no question that cars can stink. Almost everyone’s car smells bad. That “new car smell” we all love disappears fast. It’s quickly replaced by a strong stench of B.O, pet fur, hockey bags, or that half eaten sandwich your kid stashed under the seat and forget about. What can be done about the wretched car stink?
Well, a few luxury carmakers have experimented with automated scent dispensers. The idea was to take the air freshener to its logical extreme and install timed pumps that dispensed pleasing aromas inside cars. Mercedes-Benz and Infiniti each developed built-in scent dispensers into some of their most popular models such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the Infiniti Q45. Seems like a good idea, right?
Problem was that many people are allergic to perfume and scents. In fact, most public buildings in North America now have “No Scent” policies for this very reason. It turns out, the same goes for cars. Ultimately, it’s just easier to spend a couple bucks on an air freshener for your car. This concept ended up smelling pretty bad in the end.
7. The Pontiac Aztek
Arguably the most reviled crossover vehicle of all time is the Pontiac Aztek. It was so badly designed that it illicited gasps from the crowd when it was unveiled at the 2001 Detroit Auto Show. Meant to be a crossover car/SUV, the Aztek succeeded in being neither. It proved to be a major let down in every conceivable way.
Regarded by GM as one of the company’s biggest blunders ever, the Aztek was revised, cost-shaved, and tweaked so many times before it was released that what was originally a cool looking crossover ended up being a bulky, plastic mess. The design was labeled ugly, with many people claiming it looked like an oversize children’s toy than a serious vehicle. The Aztek was quickly dismissed. It’s too bad, as there may have been a useful crossover somewhere under the terrible design.
6. A Fifth Wheel
Parking — specifically parallel parking — has frustrated even the best of drivers at times. Some people who’ve had their license for years still cannot parallel park – no matter how big the available space happens to be. Despite the best efforts of driver’s ed teachers everywhere, this still seems to be an issue.
Naturally, automotive engineers endeavored to rise to the challenge and solve the problem of parallel parking once and for all. They created a retractable fifth wheel that lowers from beneath a car’s trunk so that drivers can easily maneuver their car’s rear-end into a parking space.
Cadillac originally developed this innovation back in 1951. Sadly, it proved to be too cumbersome to deploy and retract, was prone to glitching, and generally found to be impractical. It was much easier for people to just drive around in a parking lot until they found a space where they could comfortably park their car. Auto engineers didn’t give up though, as some of the newest vehicles have automatic parallel parking features.
5. The Corvair (Rear-Engine Cars)
Rear-engine cars are great — until you have to drive one. Lots of automotive manufacturers have experimented with cars that switch the trunk and the engine, but these cars have never really caught on for one main reason. Putting the vehicle’s heaviest component behind the rear axle tends to cause cars to spin out.
During World War II, Nazi officers in occupied Czechoslovakia were banned from driving the speedy rear engine Tatras because so many people were killed in it. That didn’t prove to be a deterrent to Chevrolet, which launched the Corvair in 1961. While the engineers at Chevy made sure to include an air-cooled, flat-six engine in the back (similar to the engine design in Volkswagen Beetles) they neglected to spend the money needed to make the swing-axle rear suspension more manageable.
Ralph Nader singled the Corvair out for special condemnation in his influential book Unsafe at Any Speed, noting that the Corvair’s single piece steering column could impale drivers in a frontend collision. Other problems with the Corvair included the fact that it leaked oil, the heating system released noxious fumes, and it was cramped inside.
4. The Crosley Hotshot
Produced in 1949, the Crosley Hotshot was billed as America’s first postwar sports car. Unfortunately, Americans quickly realized that they could do better. The Crosley Hotshot proved to be a hunk of junk. Weighing a catastrophic 1,100 lbs and just 145 inches long, the tiny-but-pudgy Crosley Hotshot was both slow and dangerous. In fact, this car was featured in the classic 1961 driver’s education film Mechanized Death that was shown in high schools everywhere for a while.
We suppose you can’t expect much from a car that was designed by a guy who previously manufactured radios for a living. That would be inventor Powel Crosley Jr. of Cincinnati. Sadly, the Crosley Hotshot bombed and the company that made it was out of business by 1952. Today, historians claim that the Hotshot was doomed because of was its engine — a dual-overhead cam .75 liter four cylinder that allowed people to only drive about 50 miles per hour.
3. The EV1
Maybe the EV1 was just ahead of its time. That doesn’t obscure the fact that GM made a major miscalculation with this electric car that released in 1997. The early hype was that the EV1 was the best electric vehicle anyone had ever seen. It was poised to transform the automotive industry as we know it. Built to comply with California’s zero-emissions vehicle mandate, the EV1 promised to be fun to drive, reliable and good for the environment. Sadly, the car did not live up to the hype.
The battery technology at the time was nowhere near ready to compete against the tried and true gas-powered engine. The battery in the EV1 could not supply the range or durability required for the car to appeal to the automotive masses. Plus, the EV1 was super expensive to build and buy, which turned off consumers and led to GM killing the program. Or, if you believe the conspiracy theorists behind the film Who Killed the Electric Car?, the EV1 was killed off due to pressure from the oil industry despite widespread demand for a green alternative.
2. The Backseat Toilet
No, we’re not making up. Yes, this really happened. In 1947, Cadillac developed a car that was equipped with a toilet in it. A real, working toilet. This innovation was developed to help Cadillac complete the feat of driving over 10,000 kilometers non-stop. While this was mostly just a stunt, the idea of outfitting cars with toilets was hotly considered by major automakers in the late 1940s and 50s.
While the innovation worked in Caddy’s concept car, it proved to be horrendous in most vehicles. Just finding a place for the toilet inside the car, along with a tank to store the *ahem* waste, was difficult. There were also issues with splashing, spraying, and messes. Not to mention the smell. In the end, it proved to be much easier for motorists to simply pull over at a gas station and use the toilet than to squat in the back of a car. Thank heavens for that.
1. The Amphicar
We’ve written about the amphicar before, yet it never ceases to amaze. Don’t get us wrong — we love innovation and crossover vehicles. We’re always in favor of multitasking. However, we just don’t really understand the fascination of having a car that can also double as a boat. Perhaps fittingly, the concept of an amphibious car came from Nazi Germany. The SS previously designed the “Schwimmwagen” in the 1940s, which was an early prototype car that could also travel through water.
By the 1960s, designing an amphibious car was a bit of a holy grail in the auto industry. Consider it an obsession among engineers – kind of like landing a man on the moon. Turns out, though, that the Amphicar was both a crappy car and a crappy boat. With a top speed in water of just seven miles per hour, critics claimed they could swim faster than the boat. Also, the Amphicar was not really watertight and prone to sinking. That seems like a bit of a dealbreaker, really.
Despite these design flaws, nearly 4,000 of these cars were built between 1961 and 1968. We can only blame the Amphicar’s popularity on the fact that large numbers of people were taking LSD in the 1960s.