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September 14, 2007

Time's 50 Worst Cars

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

My mind freezes when asked to name my favorite this, the worst that or the best something-or-other. I'm seldom able to think in those terms. For instance, if asked "What was your favorite place to visit on your recent trip to Xxxx," I'd probably return a blank stare.

This isn't to say I don't have likes and dislikes: I do, as Faithful Readers know. It's just that I tend to like or dislike things on the basis of multiple criteria whose importance can vary over time due to new information, maturity / aging, or even whimsy. On occasion I actually can provide a favorite: ice cream-wise, it's chocolate. But it was strawberry when I was little, and I can't explain why that preference changed.

Which inevitably leads us to cars.

For a reason beyond my grasp, Time magazine's staff and Dan Neil, "Pulitzer Prize-winning automotive critic for the Los Angeles Times" came up with a list of "The 50 Worst Cars of All Time" (see here).

Maybe my problem has to do with the fact that I can't locate an introductory page -- something that lays out the task and mentions criteria used for making the list. Based on commentaries on the cars selected, a hodge-podge of reasons are included such as mechanical problems, styling/package-definition and marketing errors among other demerits.

Worse, the list includes some prototypes and other one-offs along with production automobiles. I don't think one-offs should be included with production cars. That's because they are experimental in nature, tests of ideas -- not items one can buy and regret from personal experience.

For what it's worth, while I agree with Neil that the Trabant, King Midget and Yugo are pretty sorry cars, I can't go along with many of the other selections.

For example, most automotive histories I've read consider the Ford Model T as one of the most significant cars of all time. But Neil's caption states

Uh-oh. Here comes trouble. Let's stipulate that the Model T did everything that the history books say: It put America on wheels, supercharged the nation's economy and transformed the landscape in ways unimagined when the first Tin Lizzy rolled out of the factory. Well, that's just the problem, isn't it? The Model T -- whose mass production technique was the work of engineer William C. Klann, who had visited a slaughterhouse's "disassembly line" -- conferred to Americans the notion of automobility as something akin to natural law, a right endowed by our Creator. A century later, the consequences of putting every living soul on gas-powered wheels are piling up, from the air over our cities to the sand under our soldiers' boots. And by the way, with its blacksmithed body panels and crude instruments, the Model T was a piece of junk, the Yugo of its day.

So it seems that a car introduced in 1909 doesn't quite measure up to a Prius or whatever car he really liked on a recent road test. And the T isn't Politically Correct because The Horror!! it put America and later the world on wheels! Maybe this guy should quit writing about automobiles and switch to the atonal music critic slot at the LAT if he thinks cars are so icky.

Then there's the Chrysler Airflow (also marketed under the DeSoto nameplate). Neil's rationale is as follows:

The Airflow's "worst"-ness derives from its spectacularly bad timing. Twenty years later, the car's many design and engineering innovations -- the aerodynamic singlet-style fuselage, steel-spaceframe construction, near 50-50 front-rear weight distribution and light weight -- would have been celebrated. As it was, in 1934, the car's dramatic streamliner styling antagonized Americans on some deep level, almost as if it were designed by Bolsheviks. It didn't help that a few early Airflows had major, engine-falling-out-type problems that stemmed from the radical construction techniques required. Chrysler, and the even more hapless Desoto, tried to devolve the Airflow stylistically, giving it more conventional grill and raising the trunk into a kind of bustle (some later models were named Airstream), but the damage was done. Sales were abysmal. It wouldn't be the last time American car buyers looked at the future and said, "no thanks."

I've never heard about engines dropping out of Airflows, but that doesn't mean his assertion is false. My impression is that the Airstream was a conventional mid-30s car with a few streamline-style touches added -- Chrysler's attempt to gracefully back away from the Airflow; this Wikipedia entry confirms my impression. But it's true that Chrysler fiddled with Airflow styling to make it seem more "mainstream."

Otherwise, the car itself was a large step forward in terms of component layout. The motor was moved forward from its aft of the front axle position and the rear passenger seat was positioned to the fore of the rear axle. This layout became common practice by 1940 and significantly improved rear-seat passenger comfort as well as allowed cars to be built lower. The streamlining, though crudely done from a style standpoint, was another major advance. Simply put, the Airflow was a good car that would have sold better had the styling been more evolutionary than revolutionary. As I just noted, nearly all American cars were "Airflows" by 1940.

I also disagree with Neil regarding the Plymouth Prowler. His take:

By the mid-1990s, car designers had powerful new computer tools at their disposal, allowing them to pursue low-volume, high-zoot projects that before would never have recovered the development costs. The Prowler was one such project. Inspired, if not plagiarized, by a retro-roadster design by Chip Foose, the Prowler looked like a dry-lake speedster from the 22nd century, with an open-wheel front end and low-slung hotrod fuselage. Except they forgot to make it a hotrod. Intent on containing costs, Chrysler stuck its standard-issue 3.5-liter V6 under the hood, good for a rather less than spectacular 250 hp. The Prowler didn't even have a manual transmission, which made it almost impossible to lay down the requisite stripes of hot rubber. The result was a flaccid little jerk of a car that threatened much but delivered little.

To me, the Prowler was what it was -- a popular show car that was put into limited production because lots of folks were enthusiastic about it. Sure, it had impractical features galore, but it was basically a show-offy cruise-the-streets-on-a-sunny-day car. That's it. If Neil wanted a Chrysler product that would burn rubber all the way from the LAT offices to the Bonneville Salt Flats, he could have bought a Dodge Viper V-10, a car that entered production before the Prowler and continues to this day.

I'll close with his commentary on the Edsel:

That's why we're all here, right? To celebrate E Day, the date 50 years ago when Ford took one of the autodom's most hilarious pratfalls. But why? It really wasn't that bad a car. True, the car was kind of homely, fuel thirsty and too expensive, particularly at the outset of the late '50s recession. But what else? It was the first victim of Madison Avenue hyper-hype. Ford's marketing mavens had led the public to expect some plutonium-powered, pancake-making wondercar; what they got was a Mercury. Cultural critics speculated that the car was a flop because the vertical grill looked like a vagina. Maybe. America in the '50s was certainly phobic about the female business. How did the Edsel come to be synonymous with failure? All of the above, consolidated into an irrational groupthink and pressurized by a joyously catty media. Interestingly, it was Ford President Robert McNamara who convinced the board to bail out of the Edsel project; a decade later, it was McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, who couldn't bring himself to quit the disaster of Vietnam, even though he knew a lemon when he saw one.

Aha! So the Edsel "really wasn't that bad a car." Then why is it on the list? Apparently because it allows Neil to make political points that assure Time readers that he's a Liberal and ain't one o' them knuckle-draggin' conservatoids what write about cars for buff mags and 2Blowhards. He is correct that the Edsel was over-hyped; along with many others, I expected the car to be a serious advance in terms of style, engineering, etc. And it was indeed a Mercury with different sheet-metal. Also a Ford with different sheet-metal. Edsels came in two ranges, the less-expensive one Ford-based, the top models from Mercurys. His remark about the Edsel grill projects more Freudian / feminist themes than most 1958 Americans recognized at the time. One could make similar observations about those slots on bread toasters or any number of objects, so the argument is specious. The reason for the vertical grill was that styling staff was under orders to create a car that would be instantly identifiable as an Edsel from a block away. Since grills in the mid-50s were horizontal, the stylists performed the Old Switcheroo. Since then, a number of cars have sported vertically-oriented grills including Ford Motor's Lincoln Continental line circa 1970.

If Time wanted a serious automobile ranking it would have been more believable if there were categories, and not just "worst." Examples might be: worst styling; worst reliability; worst engineering flaws; worst market timing and so forth.

And by the way: why did Dan Neil ever win a Pulitzer? Oh. I forgot. Nowadays Pulitzer Prizes are virtually meaningless byproducts of journalistic back-scratching.



posted by Donald at September 14, 2007


Having Dan Neil write about cars is like having a celibate write about sex, having Ray Kroc write about haute cusine, having... well, you get the idea...

Posted by: tschafer on September 14, 2007 2:48 PM

I'll never look at my toaster in the same way. And I'd never trust any list of lousy cars that didn't include the AMC Gremlin. (MBlowhard was the rueful owner of one such in the mid-late 1970s...)

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on September 14, 2007 2:56 PM

More on the schizophrenia of "worst cars" at this BusinessWeek article (with accompanying slideshow).

Posted by: Gil Roth on September 14, 2007 2:56 PM

Michael -- Um. As long as we're into mind-bending, the Time list actually does include the Gremlin. And the Ford Pinto and the Chevy Chevette and other crappo 70s-vintage cars. Missing is the Chevy Vega, another crappy contempo of the Gremlin and Pinto. I should blog about them sometime.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on September 14, 2007 3:33 PM

Michael, a Gremlin? I'm embarrassed for you. Anyway, I agree that the list doesn't have a set criteria so I sort of put it off as opinionated. Besides, anyone who throws the Prowler on such a list loses points in my book. But he'll get his; he's managed to insult the Bolsheviks.

Posted by: susan on September 14, 2007 3:53 PM

I blame it all on my Firefox "search" function.

Hey, not only did I drive a Gremlin, I earlier drove a Corvair. The Gremlin really was a turkey but I liked the Corvair. Never had a Nova or a Pinto, though. Didn't I read somewhere that the dud cars of the American 1970s are getting fashionable again, I suppose in a neo-ironice (but who knows, really?) kind of way?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 14, 2007 4:21 PM

The '74 XK-E was a worse car than the Austin Allegro, aka 'flying pig', with its 'quartic' (square) steering wheel ?

Dan Neil is pretty risible.

Posted by: Nigel on September 14, 2007 4:24 PM

My experience is a bit different from others here because I went back to my hometown after college and worked there for a few years before leaving for the big city. Of course, I ran into old classmates often, and even worked with a few. How things turned out was not much of a surprise. Most had settled into a good to decent job, and were getting or soon to get married by the time I left.

I left because there was a lot more interesting work in the big cities (civil engineering) and I wanted to experience a bit more than what I found back there. The place I'm from is pretty sleepy, but a mid-sized city (about 100-150,000 now). A lot of people know one another, or know someone that you know--a big small town. When I go back, its like jumping into a warm pool. But nothing ever goes on there. People mostly work, do the kid thing, and watch TV. You don't meet many new people either, so you basically go through life with your cohort classmate/freinds, kind of living on the old days and through your kids. I'm not that kind of guy anyway.

So I don't go back to reunions because I pretty well know how people turned out. The element of curiosity is not really there.

As far as engineers being happier than arts types, I can only speak from a one perspective. I would hardly say that engineers are merely "problem solvers"--many are very creative and sharp individuals. They rarely ever get an "attaboy"--just a steady paycheck. Many also have a variety of hobbies where they get to create things the way they want: working on their house, fixing up a car, making furniture, coaching sports, hunting, fishing, etc. None of those will garner much fame. I think its a lot more of an issue as to what you feel all your work has achieved in life, and what your expectations are. I would say for most, the job is a job, and that they don't expect to change the world, get famous, or figure out the meaning of life. They work and enjoy their time off. Life is generally overrated.

I know that I get a great deal of satisfaction in driving around and seeing the projects I worked on finished and being used by the public. I know that I made a positive contribution with my work. If you think certain artists are anonymous, try being an engineer. If everything works out right, nobody will ever hear about you. And that's fine with me.

I think your solutions to the difficulties of your own life the past few years after the cancer are highly positive and enlightening. More pople would be happier reaching out, having fun, and not trying to be the center of attention. Often the keys to happiness are serving others, tuning into the world around you, and forgetting about yourself, or at least not taking yourself so seriously. You'd think that more people would be able to figure that out. Being a big shot is not worth ruining your life.

Great post!

Posted by: BIOH on September 15, 2007 12:16 AM

"...almost as if it were designed by Bolsheviks."

Certainly true of Time Magazine.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on September 15, 2007 3:32 AM

I think he should take some CO2 emissions and call me in the morning.

An amazing bit of gasbaggery...

Posted by: Foobarista on September 15, 2007 4:22 AM

Dan Neil's write-ups were juust as annoying as advertised. One of my faves,
"Federal emissions requirements of the 1970s took a big neutering knife to American muscle cars, and no car bled more than the Corvette. The worst of it came in California — dang hippy librels! — where stricter state regs required...."

Posted by: grandcosmo on September 15, 2007 1:57 PM

No surprise to see the Hummer H2 on the worst cars list. While it is ... excessive, that's probably the best word, I actually drove one at this exhibit in Las Vegas a year ago and found it to be a whole lot of fun. I drove it over this off-road test route and all I can say is that its off-road capabilities are amazing. Taking one out into the real backcountry must be a thrill second to none.

Posted by: Peter on September 15, 2007 6:51 PM

I hope this Dan Neil character drives better than he writes, or I wouldn't want to be within two miles of him on an L.A. freeway.

Posted by: Rick Darby on September 16, 2007 6:29 PM

For several years now, I have been saying that journalists are "reprimanded" with Pulitzers, not that they "win" them. If you think of the recent choices as reprimands, then they make much more sense.

Given this article, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Neil was reprimanded with a Pulitzer, for some really terrible work.

(In other fields, the Pulitzer choices may actually be awards.)

Posted by: Jim Miller on September 18, 2007 9:38 AM

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