by Tony Whitney
All-time ‘duds” list worthy of dispute
A report published some time ago by Forbes Magazine’s website listed the ten most notorious automotive “duds” of all time. Although the selections were intelligently made, many of them would prompt avid discussion among people with an interest in automotive history.
Included in the list, in order of “dudfulness”, were the AMC Pacer, AMC Gremlin, Renault Fuego, Chevrolet Chevette, Edsel, Chevrolet Citation, Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Maverick, Chrysler TC Maserati and AMC Eagle.
1977 AMC Pacer wagon. Photo: Bill Vance
I’m sure I wasn’t the only automotive journalist who scanned the list and thought, “Now hold on a minute here!” So I’ll take some of these beauties – selected for their “worst-designed” or “ugliest” status – and make a case for their defence. I’ll pass on the Chevy Citation because I can’t remember anything about it. That was perhaps its biggest failing: it was an “unmemorable” automobile.
Take the AMC Pacer and Gremlin, for starters. The Gremlin was certainly not the most stylistic of automobiles, but at a time when domestic automakers were beginning to realize that buyers wanted smaller cars and were looking towards Japanese nameplates, it was a worthwhile 1970s stopgap. Basically, American Motors just chopped the trunk off a Hornet and created a rudimentary hatchback which, for a cash-strapped corporation, was a smart economical move. The cars sold in reasonable numbers, and there are still a few around today.
The Pacer took the concept a step further, with a car that was quite advanced from a styling point of view. I knew at least one Pacer owner in the 1970s who loved her car and thought it great value for money. Nowadays, the cars are regarded with great nostalgia by many; reportedly, there are hundreds of Pacer fan websites.
As for the Renault Fuego, I recall an automotive journalist of some fame taking me for a ride in one in the early 1980s, before I got involved in this business. He thought that the French-made coupe was surprisingly good and when I saw one in Paris not too long ago, I pondered how well the styling had withstood the years. Today, you’ll have to look long and hard to find a Fuego, no doubt because rust was an ever-present problem.
The Chevrolet Chevette might have been just about as minimalist as a car could be — you could buy one with just the front seats — but it filled a market gap that no domestic maker is tackling today. The Chevette was very inexpensive and ran well enough for its status in the general scheme of things. Right now, the entry-level segment has been more or less taken over by Korean automakers and another “Chevette” from a North American auto manufacturer is eagerly awaited. A latter-day Chevette would be just the thing for young buyers or older folk on fixed incomes. How about it, GM, Ford or Chrysler?
Everyone seems to know that Ford’s Edsel was a failure, but few really know why. It’s always been my view that the car was perfect for the times in which it was launched, but didn’t succeed for reasons unaccountable. I once had a long chat with no less than Edsel Ford II about the car and we both agreed, after an animated discussion, that the Edsel’s failure was “just one of those things.”
The Chevrolet Corvair was a shining example of the kind of North American innovation that should have been encouraged over the years. The attractive, rear-engined car failed more due to political machinations, on both sides, than technical incompetence. Given a chance, the car could have been developed into a world-beater, but today, the only ones you’ll find are in the hands of avid collectors. I once met a guy in San Francisco who’d somehow managed to shoehorn a Jaguar V12 engine into the FRONT of a Corvair. Maybe that was the way the car should have evolved!
As for the Ford Maverick, I have to agree with Forbes’ list. I admit, with some shame, that I once bought a new Maverick. It was stolen off the dealer’s lot the day before delivery and trashed. I ended up with an excellent Ford Cortina GT, a car I wish I still had today. I remember renting a Maverick in the 1970s and to this day, I think it was the worst car I had ever driven. I guess I owe thanks to the thief who took “my” car. Ford has come a long way since the 1970s and it’s doubtful any of its products would make a “duds” list nowadays.
The Chrysler TC by Maserati is an interesting addition, because so few of them ever made it to the dealers. The car dates to the heady days at Chrysler, when Lee Iacocca ruled and all things Italian were highly desirable. The car was attractive enough, and with its Maserati connection, is very much a “sleeper” in the collector car market. I saw one recently in fine shape, parked at a shopping mall. I almost hung around and made the owner an offer.
As for the AMC Eagle, I met a guy a couple of years back who owned one of these all-wheel-drive station wagons; he commuted twice a week from BC’s Okanagen Valley to Vancouver in it. He thought there wasn’t a better vehicle for the job. And if you look at an Audi Allroad Quattro or Volvo Cross Country, they both owe their raised suspension and AWD configuration to the old Eagle.
In retrospect, maybe some of those almost-forgotten “dud” autos weren’t quite so defective after all.