Originally published February 22, 2010.
Like wines, cars contain the flavours of their origin. And the Lada was not a fine vintage. Instead, it was the automotive equivalent of prison vodka, infused with the unpleasant flavours of the Soviet Union as the communist system headed toward collapse - substandard metallurgy, non-existent rust-proofing, aggrieved labour, and mail-it-in engineering.
Although it was based on the Fiat 124, the Lada only vaguely resembled that car. In the Soviet Lada factory, the car became an ugly, Frankenstein imitation of its Italian kin. Loose-fitting pistons gave the engine a tractor-like sound. Blue smoke belched from the tail pipe. Buyers who expected the Lada to drive like the Fiat were in for a rude shock - the ride was sloppy, the steering was inexact, and the brakes faded quickly. Ladas, first imported into Canada in the 1970s, enjoyed brief sales success thanks to their low price and a simple mechanical design which appealed to do-it-yourselfers. If you owned a Lada, self-sufficiency was important - breakdowns were common, and the warranty was short. The Lada's North American reign was brought to an end by the appearance of Korean rivals like Hyundai and Kia, which competed on low price, but offered higher quality.
The Vega was at the top of many readers' worst-car lists. And with good reason. The Vega was plagued with engineering and manufacturing problems, including an aluminum engine block that warped like a piece of badly-cured lumber. I knew the car only too well - in the mid-1970's, I tried to convince a female friend not to buy one. She did anyway, partly because the Vega was available in a shade of green that she loved.
The Vega quickly turned into a costly dissertation on auto repair. The brakes failed. The sills rusted out. The window winders broke. And the car used nearly as much oil as it did gas. A few years later, my friend sold her Vega at a deep loss. By then, the coveted green paint had faded to a shade that conjured up a sickly gekko.
I had considered the Vega for my original Dirty Dozen list. Now the readers had spoken, chiming in with their own Vega horror stories: "Rust galore!" wrote Jrleroux. "Warping Aluminum Engine! Then there were the engine fires, the mounting recalls, etc., etc., etc. This is one of the key cars historically that started the sinking of Detroit."
"Nothing went thru more oil and engines than a Vega," said Mr. Green Jeans. His sentiments were echoed by zoolander. "The oil-burning Vega was hands down the worst car GM ever made," he wrote. "Mine died at 70,000 km but was on life support since about 30k."
The K-Car represented badge-engineering at its most cynical. The K-series were cheaply built, poorly-engineered cars with legendary brand names slapped them. The K-Car was available as the Dodge Aries, the Plymouth Reliant and the Chrysler LeBaron, a name that evoked a Chrysler luxury brand that dated back to the 1950s. The K-Car version was a cheap imitation of that substantial vehicle - calling it a LeBaron was like putting a Hilton sign on a rent-by-the-hour motel.
For a while, it worked. The K-series sold well, thanks to a generation of North American car buyers who believed that the Chrysler name meant quality and substance. But they soon learned better. The K-series was the product of a company in crisis. Chrysler was on life support in the 1980s. It had staved off bankruptcy with a government bailout, and was led by executive Lee Iacocca, who had recently been fired from Ford.
Mr. Iacocca pursued the same strategy he had at his previous employer, pushing for cheap-to-make cars that could be sold with fancy names or easy-to-apply features - like the opera windows that became a staple of the infamous Ricardo Montalban advertisements. Under its tinny skin, the K-Car was a generic front-wheel drive vehicle notable only for its grade-D mechanical components, which included a wheezing four-cylinder engine, weak brakes, and a solid-beam rear axle that gave it ox-cart handling.
The K-Car was nominated by several readers. I heartily concurred. My mother-in-law owned three K-Cars. Her father, who had grown up in the golden age of Detroit, had taught her that she could never go wrong with a Chrysler. But as my mother-in-law learned, times change - by the time she died in 2007, she had switched to Honda.
Ford Mustang II
The Mustang II was born during one of Ford's darkest periods, an age defined by labour problems, gas shortages, and the cheesy, cost-cutting tastes of executive Lee Iacocca. The original 1964 Mustang was one of the car industry's greatest success stories. Mr. Iacocca's game plan was to design a car that retained the Mustang's spirit, but would be cheaper to make. The result was an automotive atrocity.
"It was a stick in the eye to every Mustang enthusiast," says Matt Taber, a car buff who has owned numerous Mustangs. "It was a Pinto with different sheet metal."
The Mustang II's sins were numerous. The car was a rust bucket, its styling embodied the worst of the early 1970s, and its mechanical underpinnings were distinctly third rate - soggy suspension, rental-car steering, and a four-cylinder engine that gasped for breath through crude smog control plumbing. Although many of the design decisions made sense to the bean counters, the end result defiled the legendary Mustang brand, and helped contribute to Ford's later decline.
A number of Globe readers nominated it for the Hall of Shame. "Worst car ever," one said. Many would agree.
Rolls Royce's decision to go after more youthful buyers led to a rare misstep - the 1975 Camargue, widely regarded as the least-desirable Rolls-Royce ever produced. As the traditional ride of the British Royal family, Rolls-Royce enjoyed a distinct pedigree based on meticulous hand craftsmanship, premium materials, and deeply conservative design. But the Camargue's trendy coupe styling was a deep affront to the company's loyalists, as if Buckingham Palace converted into a casino. The Camargue was equipped with Rolls-Royce's traditionally excellent mechanical underpinnings and first-rate materials (hide leather seats, solid wood dash, hand-cut Wilton carpeting), but had problems that included rusting sills and a strangely placed fuel-filler. The Camargue was removed from the market in 1985, and is available on the collector-car market at a deep discount compared to other Rolls-Royce models.
As the best-selling car of all time, you might expect that the Beetle would be safe from inclusion from an Automotive Hall of Shame. But several readers nominated it, citing flaws that included an underpowered engine, inadequate brakes and a heating system that pumped exhaust fumes into the cabin. As a former Volkswagen mechanic, I knew exactly what they were talking about. I owned about half a dozen Beetles, and repaired hundreds, which gave me an abiding respect for the Beetle's construction quality (at least until the factory was moved to Mexico) and first-hand knowledge of its unforgivable faults - the windshield washers depended on air from the spare tire, the cylinder heads constantly worked loose, and the windshield defogging system often left you blinded at critical moments.
The Beetle had incredible charm - what other car could have carried Disney's Love Bug movie franchise? (Would anyone watch the Love Yaris?) I used the Beetle's teddy bear charm shamelessly - my royal blue 1967 helped me win my wife, who despised men who drove muscle cars. But the Beetle's cuddly persona masked some intimidating vehicle dynamics. The drum brakes were inadequate, and the Beetle's swing-axle rear suspension (along with the rearward weight bias produced by the tail-mounted engine) yielded some vicious handling characteristics. If you go into a corner too fast, your natural reaction is to take your foot off the gas - but in the Beetle, this was like pulling the pin on a hand-grenade: the resulting weight transfer and axle tuck set you up for a spin. If you were lucky, you would spin out of control. If you weren't, you would roll over. Even though I tried to tame my Beetles with disciplined technique and modified rear suspension, I still managed to spin out twice.
By the time I resigned from the garage where I once worked, I could take the engine out of a Beetle in about 20 minutes, and carry out almost any repair at roadside with little more than a socket set, a few wrenches and a screwdriver. It was a clever little car. But I have to admit that it had some awful qualities. Although I believe that its enduring design should preclude it from Worst Car status, the readers have spoken.
The Pony hit the Canadian market in 1984 with one appealing feature - a low, low price made possible by its cheap Korean manufacturing. You could buy a Pony for $5,795, about the same as a decent snowmobile. You got what you paid for - the Pony looked like a Honda Civic built in a back alley by an inebriated blacksmith. The body panels were wavy, the paint looked like it had been swabbed on with a mop, and a plastic choke knob protruded from the dash. The tires were skinny, and the suspension was knock-kneed and awkwardly high, giving the Pony the gait of a knee-capped horse. But the low price sold it - the Pony was the automotive equivalent of the Scud missile, a cheap, ugly weapon that missed often missed its mark, but occasionally got the job done. Against my strong advice, one of my friends bought one in the late 1980s, lured by the super-low price - about a year later, it burst into flames on Highway 401 and burned down to its tires. Numerous Globe readers told me I was a fool for not including it in my original Dirty Dozen list. I had definitely given it consideration, but decided on other vehicles, partly because the Pony was such an easy target. But the readers were right.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has done some good things (like the Pumping Iron documentary, and his speaking lines in Terminator I and II .) But he deserves eternal damnation for his pivotal role in turning the gas-guzzling Hummer into a civilian vehicle craze. Designed by General Motors to meet the specifications of a U.S. military contract, the vehicle first appeared in 1985, branded as the High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle, or HMMWV. (The troops soon began calling it the Humvee.) In the early 1990s, Mr. Schwarzenegger, a champion body builder and action film star, bought a Hummer to drive around Los Angeles. He was quickly imitated by legions of wannabes, and the Hummer, designed as combat-zone troop transporter, was now a fossil-fuel sucking male enhancement device. The Hummer went through a series of revisions aimed at improving its civilian usefulness, but at its core, it remained a singularly stupid, vanity-based vehicle, huge on the outside, small on the inside, and inherently wasteful.
The Cimarron is widely regarded as the worst mistake ever made by Cadillac, a GM division that became a synonym for the American luxury car. Designed as a response to a rising tide of smaller, more agile imports like Mercedes and BMW, the Cimarron was introduced in 1982 with a four-cylinder engine. For buyers, this was pure sacrilege - when they opened the hood of a Cadillac, they expected to see a classic American V8, not an engine they associated with a toy car.
The Cimarron's styling and interior also failed to impress. It sold poorly, and was taken off the market in 1988, only six years after its introduction. History has judged the Cimarron harshly - it was too small and cheap to be seen as a real Cadillac, and too crude and cumbersome to compete with its foreign rivals. When readers nominated it as a Worst Car, I considered it a shoo-in. According to Car and Driver magazine, current Cadillac product director John Howell has a picture of the Cimarron on his wall captioned, "Lest we forget."
MGB Mark IV
Next to Winston Churchill in a Speedo swimsuit, there could be few sadder indications of the British Empire's decline than the MGB Mark IV, the last, sad gasp of a once-great sports car builder. The original MGB, which hit the market in the early 1960s, was an instant hit. With its low-slung suspension, light weight and quick-shifting manual transmission, the MGB provided fun, wind-in-the-hair motoring.
MG fans reacted with horror when the Mark IV was introduced in 1974. Its most egregious sin was its mockery of the MGB's classic design. Confronted with new bumper-height and collision standards, MG engineers had taken the easiest and ugliest way out - they jacked up the low-slung car with tall springs and equipped it with black rubber bumpers that looked like inflated Zorro masks. The Mark IV epitomized all that was wrong with the British car industry in the mid-1970's - kluged-together mechanicals, sloppy welds, and a short-circuiting Lucas electrical system that prompted the slogan: "Lucas, Prince of Darkness."
MG became a cog in British Leyland, a government-engineered industrial alliance that included a number of storied brands, including Jaguar and Rover. British Leyland became a synonym for sloth, incompetent engineering, and unionism run amok - it made Detroit look like a labour Shangri-la by comparison.
The British government pumped hundreds of millions into BL, but the conglomerate was a money pit that would go down in history as an example of what not to do. The MGB Mark IV became an enduring symbol of this great mistake.
"It was sad," one Globe and Mail reader said. "It was hard to see the MGB end up like that."