By Paul Williams

1961 Isetta 300
Photo courtesy of Isetta Internet & Other Micros. © 1998, used with permission

Have you ever seen a book called Lemons: The World’s Worst Cars by Timothy Jacobs? Strange thing is that some (okay, many) of my very favorite cars make up most of the contents of this book. What, for example, is wrong with an Isetta Bubble Car? Even if you agree with Jacobs that the vehicle was a deathtrap, that certainly doesn’t make it a lemon in any book that I write. This was the first post-war BMW, after all, and it was a very well built and nicely detailed piece of work. For sure they were weird, and you wouldn’t want to get hit by a truck while driving one, but they’re very cool.

1974 Triumph TR6
Photo courtesy of the Vintage Triumph Register, © 1995-98, used with permission

As a Triumph owner (TR8), I’m always happy to see pictures of these fine cars in automotive books, but spare me the usual complaints, please. There are not one, not two, not three, but four different Triumphs in these pages, including a great big double-spread picture of what appears to be a mint, yellow Spitfire. The other cars targeted are the TR-250, TR6 and the TR7 (no TR8s, thank goodness). To be fair, there are one or two legitimate concerns with these cars, which include unintended acceleration, defective rear-axle suspension linkage, defective lower trunion pin causing the steering apparatus to fail, defective brake proportioning valves, defective ignition amplifiers, failure-prone accelerator pedal cables, engine fires, various fuel leaks, horn failures, windshield wiper failures, dash-light failures, inefficient wiring, persistent fuse burnout problems, and a few other minor irritants. But let’s not jump to conclusions. If you look on the bright side, it was a rare car that had all of these problems at once!

While we’re on the subject of British Leyland, I suppose that the Austin (Morris) Marina is a pretty big target. Another yellow car is illustrated, (can this truly be coincidence?) and while the Marina isn’t an all-time favourite of mine, it does occupy a soft spot as it was the last BL family sedan brought into Canada. Did they really think this car could compete with the Japanese and small American cars? The suspension was out of a Morris Minor, for goodness sake, and although the engine block was an MG unit, the head was different. The advertising for this car placed it side-by-side with a London double-decker bus, which was supposed to suggest reliability, I think. Unfortunately, Marinas had many of the same problems as the Triumphs listed above. In addition, apparently the transmission exhibited an interesting propensity to engage first and reverse gears simultaneously, thus spontaneously destroying itself. Think of this car as historically significant, and mechanically challenging, but not a lemon. I recently learned of a Marina for sale. Original lilac paint, with a brown vinyl roof. Low mileage.

1968 Volkswagen Fastback
Photo courtesy of VW Planet
© 1996-98, used with permission

It’s not just British engineering that gets the treatment in this book. Volkswagen Squarebacks are handsome little cars that have always appealed to me. Squarebacks, and their sibling Notchbacks were made from 1961 through the early 70s. The Fastback came on line in 1965, and the three models are collectively known as Volkswagen Type 3s. Over a million and a half of these cars were built and the knock against them is the small engine compartment which caused overheating to the flat-four which was stuffed under the rear luggage compartment. But take a look at the workmanship the next time you’re near one. These were Volkwagens from the old school. Everything was overbuilt, simple, and beautifully constructed. But Lemons author Jacobs is no sentimentalist. Not only does he trash the Notchbacks, Squarebacks and Fastbacks, but he also dumps on the Scirocco (hey, I owned one of those!), Dasher, Rabbit and the Microbus. That would be about all of their cars over a 20-year period, I think.

It’s true that there are some cars in the “Lemons” book that only a mother could love. We escaped the Trabant in Canada, a car that came to prominence in the West when the Berlin Wall came down. You may not know that Trabants were in continuous production for 32 years, from 1958-90, and that early examples were actually made of papier mach� reinforced with resin. I guess these cars didn’t rust, they just turned into gloop. Later cars were made of a proprietary substance called Duroplast, which is plastic reinforced with natural fibres, including cotton waste. Yuck. Trabants were powered by a two-stroke engine that emitted nine times more hydrocarbons and five times more carbon monoxide than the average western car. About three million were built. I still don’t think this car is a lemon, though, as they were durable and did go. Perhaps a more accurate word for a Trabant is “hazard.”

1974 Kammback GT
Photo courtesy of Vega Crazed
© 1998, used with permission

A lemon, I suppose, is a car that you buy at the very least for the purpose of transportation, and it can’t even manage that. Perhaps the most legitimate contender for the title of “lemon” in North America is the early 70s Chevrolet Vega and its sister the Pontiac Astre (sometimes called the disastre). I remember these cars first-hand, and they really were something to behold. The speed with which rust moved through them was truly astonishing, the aluminum motors warped and belched smoke like a Trabant, and cars literally collapsed from metal fatigue. They could be seen on the road with gaping holes in the doors, rusted roofs, and fenders flapping in the wind. This is all too bad, as the car had a pleasing European-inspired design.

There are several other cars in “Lemons” that I particularly like. The NSU Ro80 was a beautifully constructed German sedan built from 1967-77. This was an extremely advanced car, which anticipated design features of the 80s by twenty years. The car was loaded with power rack-and-pinion steering, power disc brakes, leather, the works. It used a 1 litre rotary engine, which was a development of the original Wankel rotary, but unfortunately the motor had a road life of only about 20,000 km. This somewhat dampened enthusiasm for the car among the buying public, and I guess NSU replaced enough of these engines to bring the company to the point of collapse. Subsequently it merged with Volkswagen.

RX2 Sedan
Photo courtesy of Hi RPM’s Home Page,
© 1998, used with permission

Speaking of rotary engines, you may remember that Mazda produced a full line of rotary-powered cars in the early 70s. The RX-2 was mighty quick for its day and would be the one to get now, but you could buy wagons and sedans, as well. They’re all lemons, of course, according to Mr. Jacobs. As is the Renault Dauphine, all the Edsels, all the Fiats, sundry Volvos, Hondas, Ford Torinos, Pintos, Jaguars, various Nash models, and an array of Chryslers, Plymouths, and GMs. But it seems to me that one person’s lemon is another person’s pride and joy. I know a guy that runs a pristine Ford Granada, for example. He loves that car.

I’m not sure why I like, and have owned, so many cars that appear to be thought of as lemons. But frankly, I wouldn’t be embarrassed to shine up any of the cars I’ve mentioned in this article and drive them to a car show. Well, maybe not the Trabant. I don’t think they shine.

Cheers for now!

Connect with