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13 motoring disasters for Friday the 13th
The expression ‘a Friday afternoon car’ used to describe an unreliable model thrown together in a hurry by workers with one eye on the weekend.
These days cars are better than ever but motoring history is littered with ideas so bad they could only have been conceived on the unluckiest day of the year. Here we pick 13 cars that were so disastrous the very thought of them is enough to make a car company executive’s carefully coiffed hair go white with fright. Please rate this article at the bottom of the page - thanks.
A disastrous Bugatti? Well yes if the model in question is the Type 41 or Royale, a 6.4 metre long luxury town car launched just in time to coincide with the Great Depression. Ettore Bugatti named it the Royale because he intended it to sell to European heads of state and it was certainly imposing enough, with a 4.3 metre wheelbase and weighing in at comfortably over 3000kgs. The car rode on cast alloy wheels big enough to do a gangsta rapper proud, 24 inches, and that bulk was propelled by a whopping 12.8 litre straight-eight engine. Despite each cylinder displacing the same volume as your average Ford Focus engine, that mammoth powerplant was fed by a single carburettor and produced just 300 horsepower. The car first hit the road in 1929, the year before the world economy went into freefall and the market for cars of any sort, let alone luxury behemoths collapsed. Just six were built and only half of them were sold, the rest remaining within Bugatti. The remaining engines were pressed into service as locomotive powerplants. The rarity does mean that owners have the last laugh, as they are now exceptionally valuable; Royales currently occupy 1st and 3rd place in the most-valuable cars league table; in 1987 a Japanese buyer paid a cool $8.7m for a Royale Kellner Coupe, and the lesser Berline de Voyager commanded $6.5m in 1986.
Top 10: Most-expensive auction cars ever!
Ford Mustang II
Ford Mustang II
There’s no denying that replacing a much-loved icon is no easy task but when Ford came to replace the Mustang, they apparently ignored everything that made the original the fastest selling sportscar in history. The Mustang II appeared in 1974, a decade after the original and despite being smaller was actually heavier than the original and based on the fatally flawed Ford Pinto (see below). To add insult to injury, the car was no longer available with a V8 but instead was powered, in a very loose sense of the word, by a 2.3 litre inline-four or a 2.8 litre V6. Ford was inundated with criticism from car buyers and the motoring press. Even when a V8 was introduced a year later, the oil crisis and emissions standards had strangled outputs to such an extent that the 4.9 litre engine produced just 122bhp. It didn’t feel that badly but the Mustang II never entered the public consciousness like its forebear.
Another victim of the American auto industry suddenly waking up to their products’ dire fuel consumption in the 1970s was the Cadillac Seville launched in 1979. True, it was over 1000lbs lighter than its predecessor which was a start but as a further economy measure General Motors (GM) decided to install a 5.7litre V8 diesel engine from an Oldsmobile which produced just 105bhp. Based on a petrol engine, the motor wasn’t strong enough to cope with the higher stresses of diesel combustion which led to catastrophic failures of pistons, cylinder heads and even the cylinders themselves. Privately GM engineers advised that: “the oil should be changed every 3,000 miles and the engine every 30,000”. The petrol engine Cadillac introduced in 1981 was even worse however, a 6.0-litre V8 with a cylinder deactivation system which meant it could operate as a six or even four cylinder motor on a light throttle. Cadillac hailed it as a technological marvel but the computer power of the day clearly wasn’t up to the task leading to cars stopping dead on busy freeways or whilst climbing steep hills. The solution was for dealers to cut a couple of wires, bypassing the computer and leaving the engine running solely as a V8 and offering a heady 140bhp. The engine was dropped at the end of 1981.
The problem with identifying a truly dire British car from the 1970s and 80s is mainly one of narrowing the choice down to just one. Fixing one mistake by making another was typical of British Leyland and so it proved with the Austin Maestro, the replacement for the woeful Allegro. Development originally began in 1977 so by the time the car appeared in 1983 it was already out-of-date, not least in its boxy styling when the Ford Sierra and Vauxhall Astra were pioneering a smoother look. In a vain effort to make the car appear cutting edge, BL fitted it with an onboard computer and voice synthesiser to warn drivers of problems but which soon gained a reputation for crying wolf. The new fangled electronic ignition also had a mind of its own and the plastic bumpers would crack in cold weather, adding to the already shocking build quality problems. Amazingly the car struggled on in production until 1994 when new owners BMW finally saw sense and pulled the plug.
I must put my hand up at this point and admit to a bias as I am the owner of a Lancia Beta Coupe, which despite being a cracking car to drive, has, I admit, suffered from the ravages of tinworm. The first car to be designed after the Fiat takeover of Lancia in 1969, the Beta range of hatchback, saloon, coupe, convertible and three door sporting estate was launched in 1972. Featuring handsome styling, advanced suspension and a range of alloy twin cam engines the Beta should have been a roaring success. Sadly Fiat had done a deal with Lada which resulted in the cars being built from sub-standard Russian steel which took to the British climate like a Trappist monk to after dinner speaking. Horror stories of subframes collapsing and depositing engines onto the road led to Lancia buying cars back from owners and in truth the cars were probably no more rust prone than anything from British Leyland. The Beta lasted until 1984 but the damage to Lancia’s reputation in Britain was terminal and the marque withdrew from the UK market a decade later.
Caterham Cars bought the rights to build Colin Chapman’s diminutive Lotus Seven sportscar in 1973. A process of continuous development saw the tiny tearaway develop into a real road rocket, capable of humbling far more exotic machinery. However many smiles-per-mile the Seven provides though, it is undeniably a compromise on comfort. To address this, on the 21st anniversary of the birth of the Caterham Seven, the firm announced it would build a ‘grown-up’ roadster, the 21. Based on the underpinnings of the Seven the 21 featured full bodywork, a proper windscreen, convertible hood and doors and went on sale at the British Motor Show in 1995. Ironically this was shortly after Lotus had revealed the Elise to great critical acclaim. Faced with this plus the better built Mazda MX-5 and MG-F, the kit-build 21 didn’t stand a chance. From a planned production run of 200 cars a year, only around 50 cars were built before the plug was quietly pulled.
Soft-roaders, which look like proper 4x4s but without having to lug around the weight of a four-wheel drive transmission are becoming increasingly popular. GM first explored the possibilities in 2001 but sadly they chose possibly one of the ugliest cars ever with which to do so. The Pontiac Aztek was based on an existing people-carrier platform which gave it odd proportions for an SUV but it was then topped off with a body of almost wilful ugliness with a huge Pontiac grille resembling a giant pair of nostrils, hideous plastic cladding for a ‘tough’ look and a the Pontiac signature ribbed effect to the bodywork. To add insult to injury the car was also too heavy and too expensive, the public stayed away in droves. GM had planned to sell 75,000 a year and needed 30,000 to break even. In its best year the Aztek sold just over 27,000 units and was dropped in 2005. Fortunately this means very few made it onto the roads and with any luck none will be on this side of the Atlantic.
The Aztek came second in our ‘Ugliest Cars’ poll
Proving that there is nothing new in the world of motoring, the Boxster wasn’t the first mid-engined Porsche roadcar and the Cayenne wasn’t the first hideous collaboration with VW. Porsche wanted an entry level model to slot in under the 911 and VW wanted a replacement for the glamorous Karmann Ghia. The two firms agreed to collaborate on the 914 which would be sold under both brands except in North America where Porsche was worried the VW association would harm sales. Launched in 1969, the car’s styling bore little resemblance to any Porsche before or since and could never be described as beautiful whilst the four-cylinder VW engine really wasn’t up to the task so while the handling may have been Porsche sharp, the performance wasn’t Porsche fast. Fitting the flat-six from the 911T to create the 914/6 helped but this made it dangerously close in price to the 911 and only just over 3,000 were made. The car never got over the stigma of association with VW and was dubbed the ‘poor man’s Porsche’. It soldiered on until 1975, two years before a new entry level Porsche, the 924 appeared.
Before the all-conquering Impreza burst onto the scene, Subaru was known as a manufacturer of dependable pick-ups and estates much favoured by farmers for their ability to cross muddy fields carrying bales of hay. Hoping to sex up their image, Subaru took the well-trodden path of introducing a glamorous coupe to the range in 1985. Something seems to have been lost in translation however as the XT was about as sexy as Homer Simpson and full of almost deliberately odd features. The interior featured that 80s must-have, the digital dashboard but also a steering wheel with an L-shaped boss and a curiously phallic gearlever. The 1.8 litre engine featured loads of classic 80s turbo lag but little in the way of power, producing 111bhp. This however was still enough to overwhelm the switchable four-wheel drive system. The handling was made even more alarming if the adjustable ride height was raised, making the car roll like a yacht. Somehow Subaru managed to shift 100,000 of them but luckily very few in the UK.
Aston Martin Lagonda
Aston Martin Lagonda
In the mid 1970s, Aston Martin was once more nearly bankrupt and decided that the introduction of a luxury saloon would help keep the creditors at bay. William Towns was duly commissioned to design it and his amazing creation was unveiled at the 1976 British Motor Show, looking like a refugee from Tracy Island. Aston Martin took 170 orders at the show, helping keep it afloat but little did prospective buyers realise that it would be three years before deliveries commenced. The problem was that the car had been loaded with cutting edge electronics such as a digital dashboard and touch sensitive buttons which Aston simply couldn’t get to work reliably. Unfortunately the car was also rather overweight so even the 5.3 litre V8 struggled to move it with any alacrity and for such a huge car accommodation was tight. Amazingly the car struggled on until 1990 but just 645 were sold.
Conceived in response to a flood of cheap European imports, the Chevrolet Corvair was a breath of fresh air in an American auto industry obsessed with fins and chrome. Handsomely styled with little glitz, the car featured a rear- mounted flat-six engine and independent suspension all round. Unfortunately it was the combination of the two that led to the car’s demise. Swing-axle rear suspension combined with soft American springs and slow steering meant the rear end could suddenly lose grip leading to a spin and in some cases to the car rolling over. In 1964 up and coming activist Ralph Nader wrote a book about the Corvair’s shortcomings, "Unsafe at Any Speed", which irreparably damaged the Corvair’s reputation and ushered in an era of stringent federal safety regulations. A suspension change and a restyle failed to redress this and by 1969 the car was selling just 6,000 examples and was dropped.
The Pinto was the blue oval’s attempt at a subcompact car to appeal to cost conscious motorists and featured unexceptional mechanicals and styling. Unfortunately a major design flaw was soon revealed when it was discovered that the fuel tank had been placed behind the rear axle and there was little in the way of crash protection behind it. This meant that if hit from behind there was a danger that the fuel tank could be crushed against the rear axle, rupturing it. This occasionally resulted in cars bursting into flames and 27 people lost their lives. Ford was soon faced with multi-million lawsuits and an equally costly safety recall. The car even spawned a bumper sticker that read: "If you hit me, we both die".
In the late 80s the supercar market was booming and everyone wanted a slice of the action. Wanting to compete with the likes of the Porsche 5 and Ferrari F40, Jaguar unveiled the XJ220 to a rapturous reception at the 1988 British Motor Show. The car featured svelte styling, scissor doors, a 6.2 litre V12 and four wheel drive while the 220 part of the name referred to the car’s top speed. Production was announced in 1989 with a list price of £360,000 and a deposit of £50,000 which plenty of people were prepared to pay. By the time the car had appeared in 1991 the scissor doors had been lost as had the four wheel drive and the V12 had become a 3.5litre V6 based on the one in the Metro 6R4 rallycar while the price had gone beyond £400,000. With impeccable timing the car was launched just as the global recession bit and the supercar market collapsed. Owners threatened to sue Jaguar so the company allowed them the option of buying out their contracts. Dozens of cars went unsold and it was still possible to pick up an unregistered XJ220 in 1997 for around half its list price.
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