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Historic Automotive Flops

VO: Rebecca Brayton
The financial security of many automakers depends on good car design choices, both inside and out. Ford, for example, made two terrible choices with their Pinto: designing a malfunctioning car in the first place, and deciding not to spend money to fix the car’s problem. The American Motors Corporation had a history of ugly cars, with their Gremlin often named the ugliest car ever made. Finally, the beloved DMC-12 might not be the rarity it is today if not for the struggles of John Z. Delorean. In this video, takes a look at some interesting design choices made by carmakers over the years.

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Biggest Fails in Car History

The American Motors Corporation had more than its share of car fails.

The AMC Gremlin (1970-1978)

The AMC Gremlin was the first US-built subcompact. The sprint to get this car to market, before competitors Ford and GM managed a sub-compact, may have resulted in a rush on the car’s design. In short, the Gremlin is often cited as one of the ugliest cars of all time. It is considered poorly designed because of its odd proportions. Basically the Gremlin looks like a sedan that was chopped in half. The front-end suits a much bigger car, and the back is basically flat. While the car was introduced on April Fools’ Day 1970, the Gremlin was no joke. It did relatively well because it was cheap, and it was fast. Its primary competition was the imported VW Beetle, which was then and continues to be a popular model. However, the Gremlin, like other unique cars, had its share of loyal followers who were convinced that the car was ugly to the point that it was cute.

The AMC Pacer (1975-1980)

Another “ugly-till-it’s-cute” car by AMC, the Pacer has been called “the worst ever car design” by some car enthusiasts. The body style is described as “the jellybean,” and was designed by the same genius who brought us the Gremlin. But one of the worst parts about the Pacer was the heat. With fishbowl windows that magnified the sun and a practically non-existent air conditioning system, summer months were practically unbearable in a Pacer. Even better were the noxious fumes that often floated into the driver’s face from the dash. Even so, the Pacer has figured prominently in pop culture, acting as Wayne and Garth’s “mirth mobile” in the Wayne’s World movies.

However, AMC also had at least one design success with the Javelin.

The AMC Javelin (1968-1974)

The Javelin is one shining star in an otherwise less-than-stellar catalogue of car designs for AMC. It helped boost the company’s image – at least for some time – and was known as one of the best-looking cars of the 1960s. Designed to compete with such muscle cars as the Mustang and the Camaro, the Javelin did well but never matched its rivals’ numbers.

Delorean DMC-12 (1981-1982)

With its gull-wing doors and unpainted stainless steel body, the DMC-12 was unlike anything that had come before it, or since. The DMC-12 is considered a fail mainly because of the troubles suffered by the Delorean Motor Corporation, and not due to the car’s design. Cost overruns caused company founder John Z. Delorean to become desperate, and he was eventually arrested for trying to smuggle $24 million worth of cocaine into the United States. While he was acquitted, his reputation and that of the company remained tarnished, and it went bust in 1982.

Aesthetically, however, the DMC-12 is no fail. The DMC-12 has found its way into several popular films including Adam Sandler’s The Wedding Singer. But its best-known use was in the Back to the Future trilogy as a time-machine. And in the words of Doc Brown: “The way I see it, if you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?”

The Ford Pinto (1970-1980)

The Ford Pinto is well-know as one of history’s biggest car fails, and not simply because of its poor design. It has had several nicknames: “Death on wheels,” or “the barbecue that seats four” are a few of the worst. Basically, if you got rear-ended in a Pinto, the car might explode and you’d be trapped. Its gas tank was located right behind the rear bumper, and the doors had a tendency to jam when struck from behind. These problems were obviously due to design flaws within the car, which could have been fixed – at a price – by Ford. The real problem with the Pinto came when Ford allegedly calculated the cost of redesigning the car versus the costs from potential lawsuits. Reinforcing the Pinto’s rear end would have cost $121 million, whereas potential lawsuits would have cost $50 million. Based on these calculations, the company decided against a redesign, which essentially sealed the fate of some unlucky Pinto drivers. The resulting lawsuits were decidedly more than a PR hiccup.

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