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The Edsel and Other Epic Automotive Flops

Chris Kaiser

Yugo, DeLorean, Edsel. They’re jokes, icons, four-wheeled financial disasters; these are the most epic flops in automotive history.

The old adage goes that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Or, in automotive terms, if you bought a lemon of a car, there’s always the destruction derby. But what if an entire line of cars are lemons, or an entire company for that matter? Simple. Allow enough time to pass and a small group of quirky but rabid fans will emerge to found a Facebook group devoted to said car. America loves an underdog.

#5 Going Retro – Plymouth Prowler and Chevrolet SSR

Yes, these are two different cars from two different car companies, but the Plymouth Prowler and the Chevy SSR both represent the questionable trend in the late nineties and early aughts of car companies referencing the designs of the 1940s and 50s (also see the Chevy HHR or the PT Cruiser as examples). This sounds like a decent idea in the abstract, but the execution from GM and Chrysler proved disastrous.

1997 Plymouth Prowler on Carsforsale.com

1997 Plymouth Prowler – Carsforsale.com  |  Shop Plymouth Prowlers on Carsforsale.com

First the Plymouth Prowler, which premiered in 1997. The Prowler’s design was intended to evoke the stylings of a 1930s hotrod. Its original inspiration came from Doug “Chip” Foose’s college design thesis of a modern spin on classic roadsters.

But unlike those classic roadsters, the Prowler didn’t come with the requisite muscle under the hood. Instead, the Prowler came with a 3.5L V6 making 214hp. Even the 1999 updated engine only boosted that output to 253hp. On top of that, the Prowler only featured a single 4-speed automatic transmission. So, no option for rowing your own. These choices practically guaranteed enthusiasts would pass on the Prowler. And pass they did, along with the rest of the car buying public. The Prowler was discontinued in 2002 having sold just 11,702 units.

2003 Chevrolet SSR

2003 Chevrolet SSR – netcarshow.com  |  Shop Chevrolet SSRs on Carsforsale.com

Chevrolet’s SSR didn’t fair much better. Another great concept on paper, the SSR sought to echo the classic Chevy Advanced Design pickups of the 1940s. And again, the initial engine option proved too small to get motorheads hyped up. The 5.3L V8 offered 300hp, respectable for the time; but that only netted the SSR a 7.7 second 0-60 time, owing to a curb weight of over 4,700lbs. Borrowing the Corvette’s LS2 engine in 2005 proved too little too late. Like the Prowler, the SSR’s high MSRP of $42,000 was the final nail in the coffin. Production of the SSR ceased in 2006 after three years and 24,112 units sold.

Under powered and overpriced, the turn-of-the-millennium retro-rods had the cards stacked against them. Add the radical styling that turned off many potential buyers and you’ve got a pair of epic flops.

#4 The Pontiac Aztek

We already named Heisenberg’s RV from Breaking Bad as the greatest TV hero car, but we also can’t forget about Walter White’s other car, a Pontiac Aztek. The Aztek was no less loathsome for not being a mobile meth lab. Or at least that was the consensus back in the early 2000s when the Aztek was drawing flack for its too-much-of-a-good-thing radical design.

2003 Pontiac Aztek

2003 Pontiac Aztek – netcarshow.com  |  Shop Pontiac Azteks on Carsforsale.com

The Aztek was another concept that probably would’ve been better left a concept. Or more accurately, it should’ve stayed closer to the concept version that premiered in 1999. That version had a wide stance and aggressive styling that might have allowed it to stand out among a growing cadre of bland crossovers.

But the Aztek represents a theme on this list. That of vehicles whose designs blended too many genuinely good ideas together, thereby producing vehicles that left critics and the car buying public scratching their heads. In the case of the Aztek, GM execs and engineers differed on the direction for the new crossover originally conceived of as equal parts Camaro and Blazer. The compromise version was a vehicle built off a minivan platform (shared with the Buick Rendezvous) and was far more “rad” than rugged.

The Aztek’s no-idea-is-a-bad-idea design produced a singular automotive oddity. CBS named it to their list of the World’s 15 Ugliest Cars, and its double hood, coupe-like sloping roof, and squared fenders are just the beginning of the risky design elements. Plastic cladding has come to be known as a necessary evil in modern automotive design. It’s cheap, durable, and universally loathed … GM appeared to be using the Aztek as a test case for the upper most ceiling for plastic cladding, which turned out to be roughly 50 percent on the initial 2001 version.

The target market for the Aztek was outdoorsy weekend warrior Gen-Xers who ultimately shunned the overpriced eyesore. The Aztek failed to top 30,000 in annual sales and was killed off in 2005. This won’t come as a surprise once you know the development code name for the Aztek was the “Bear Claw”. Which would have been pretty cool if it wasn’t also the name of a pastry. Tone-deaf, myopic, a monumental case study in corporate hubris, call it what you will, the life and death of the Pontiac Aztek is certainly an epic automotive flop.

#3 Zastava Yugo

What the heck is a Yugo? you ask. Is it a sandwich, a Shakespearian villain, the punchline to a racist joke about eastern Europeans? Perhaps all three.

The cars on this list have a number of things in common, massive hype, too-radical designs, lackluster performance, and high sticker prices. But all these things are mere symptoms of a deeper disease, and that is the hubris of the executives who conceived, launched, and pushed these cars far beyond all good sense. So, who was behind the Yugo, known without exaggeration, as the worst car of all time? That would be automotive importer Malcolm Bricklin.

Bricklin had seen success with bringing other brands to American shores. He partnered with Fuji Heavy Industries to form Subaru of America in the late 60s, as well as importing Fiats and Pininfarinas in the 70s, to mixed results. In the late 80s, Bricklin took another gambit on a foreign built car, the Yugoslavian built Zastava Koral (dubbed the Yugo in the US).

Four artists took a Yugo on a multi-country odyssey from #Serbia to New York and beyond
Four artists took a Yugo on a multi-country odyssey from Serbia to New York and beyond – calvertjournal.com

The Yugo was intended to carve out a niche for itself at the bottom of the market with an MSRP of $3,990 (or $8,650 in today’s dollars). It sold well initially, as the cheapest new car on the market. Bricklin wisely cashed out early, netting $20 million on the deal in 1988.

But even at such a low price, the Yugo wasn’t the best deal out there. The shoddy quality of the cars quickly became apparent. The interior offered little in the way of creature comforts, no cup holders, no glove box, and no labels on the steering column stalks, but there was plenty of exposed wiring. The Yugo was powered (if we can call it that) by an anemic 40hp 1.1-liter 4-cylinder engine. Next to that engine sat the Yugo’s spare tire. Yes, that’s right, if you were unlucky enough to get a flat with a Yugo you were best advised to let the engine compartment cool enough to remove the spare or risk 2nd degree burns.

In 1990, the entire fleet of Yugos failed to meet new US emission standards and all 126,000 had to be recalled. But terrible engineering and poor quality weren’t the only problems Yugo faced. The Yugoslavian Civil War and attending trade embargo ended the importation of Yugos and Yugo parts (the factory was even bombed during the war).

The Cars of the Cars Movie
Yugo in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
Yugo featured in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist – imdb.com

The Yugo’s reputation for poor quality did indeed make it the punchline in American pop culture. Movies like Dragnet, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, and Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist make light of the “worst car ever made.”

Perhaps it’s coincidental, but the Subaru 360 (the first Subaru import) was also widely known to have glaring quality and safety deficiencies including a 0-60 time of over 37 seconds and is also known as one of the worst cars ever made. Coincidence, sure Mr. Bricklin, sure.

#2 DeLorean DMC-12

John DeLorean founded DeLorean Motor Company in 1975. An automotive engineer, DeLorean had worked for GM managing major design projects at Pontiac including ones for the GTO, Firebird, and Grand Prix. With the success of those projects came ambition. Rather than stay at GM and angle for a chance at CEO, DeLorean struck out on his own.

He was far from done with the car business, however. His plan for DeLorean Motor Company would rely on finding a suitable location (and government incentives) for this new factory. After flirtations with Puerto Rico failed, DeLorean struck a deal with, of all places, Northern Ireland. At the time, Northern Ireland was economically stagnant and suffering through the sectarian strife known today as “The Troubles.” The government of Northern Ireland saw the prospect of hundreds of new jobs as means for cooling civil strife. The British government provided DeLorean Motor Company with approximately $120 million dollars (60 percent of its initial start-up costs).

1981 DeLorean DMC-12 on Carsforsale.com

1981 DeLorean – Carsforsale.com  |  Shop DeLoreans on Carsforsale.com

Even by standards of the day, the DeLorean had a truly radical look. Based on designs by Giorgetto Giugiaro and engineered by William T. Collins (formerly of Pontiac), the DMC-12 featured a stainless steel body, gullwing doors, and a mid-mounted Wankel rotary engine. Though the first prototype was produced in October of 1976, engineering overhauls and funding shortfalls led to numerous delays. The engine was moved to the rear and swapped for a V-6, experimental chassis molding material was deemed unfeasible. After years of delays, the first DMC-12s rolled off the production line in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland in January of 1981.

Early versions of the DMC-12 were plagued by quality issues (possibly owning to an inexperienced workforce). The initial sticker price of $24,000 didn’t help sales, either. Even after new quality controls were implemented and the finished product of DMC-12s vastly improved, sales still lagged far behind expectations.

With the company on the brink of insolvency, DeLorean requested additional funding from the British government to help prop up the foundering automaker. The British government made any deal contingent on DeLorean finding matching funds from additional investors. And there’s where the story goes from merely odd and sad to downright weird.

In late 1982, DeLorean was contacted by a former neighbor, James Hoffman, who knew about his ol’buddy John’s money woes. Mr. Hoffman suggested that DeLorean take on a new, slightly less than legal business venture in the form of smuggling $24 million dollars’ worth of cocaine. Desperate for cash, and it being the 80s after all, DeLorean said yes. Unbeknownst to DeLorean however, Mr. Hoffman tipped off the FBI to the scheme in an effort to get a reduced sentence in a pending drug trafficking charge. DeLorean’s lawyers argued that this was an open-and-shut case of entrapment and the courts agreed, clearing DeLorean of all charges.

DeLorean DMC-12

DeLorean’s legal woes turned out to be the least of his problems. By the end of 1982, financial mismanagement, poor production quality, and mounting debt had all taken their toll and DeLorean Motor Company declared bankruptcy.

Despite the failures of the company and DeLorean himself (declaring personal bankruptcy in 1999), the DMC-12 saw an inspiring second act. The 1985 film Back to the Future featured a heavily modded DMC-12 (adding a Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor and Doc Brown patented flux-capacitor). Marty McFly jumps back and forth and back again in time in what became an 80s icon.

Today, there’s a whole subculture of DMC-12 enthusiasts fanatically devoted to these cars. Some owners choose to mod their DMC-12s to match the time machine from Back to the Future, while others are content keeping theirs as close to factory as possible. Either way, it’s cool to see these singular machines out on the road.

#1 Edsel

Today Edsel is a byword for utter and abject automotive failure and not without good reason. Back in the late 1950s, Ford set out to create a new brand to bridge the gap between Ford and Mercury. To that end, Henry Ford II tasked his best-and-brightest team of top executives, dubbed the Whiz Kids, with designing a new mid-market sedan.

1959 Edsel Corsair

1959 Edsel Corsair – Carsforsale.com  |  Shop Edsels on Carsforsale.com

Almost immediately the design-by-committee approach ran into trouble. After struggling to find a name for the car, a compromise moniker was taken from Henry Ford II’s father, Edsel Ford. But an odd and unmarketable name was only the beginning of the Edsel’s woes. Production problems cropped up almost immediately. Chiefly these stemmed from Edsel never got its own factory. Instead, the cars were being built on Ford and Mercury platforms in Ford and Mercury plants. Building Edsels on these same production lines lead to all sorts of quality control problems as workers struggled switching tools and acquiring the correct components mid-shift.

Then there was the over-hyped marketing. The Edsel was billed as a “car of the future,” and early advertising said it would “make other cars seem ordinary.” Ford’s marketing department was writing a check the designers and engineers just weren’t empowered to cash. And that’s because the Edsel was never intended to truly revolutionize anything. Aside from the radical exterior design (which we’ll get to in a minute), the Edsel was just a modest variation of the Fords and Mercurys coming off the same assembly lines.

What made the Edsel so far from ordinary was its ad hoc mixture of current design elements. Ford had spent months’ worth of market research on exhaustive surveys and focus groups only to ignore many of the findings in favor of executives’ pet ideas. Again, the Ford executives just couldn’t find an idea they didn’t like. Yes, to the large chrome bumper. Yes, to the long hood and trunk. Yes, to the double headlights and oddly shaped taillights. And yes, most fatefully, to the big oval in the middle of the grille.

The Edsel in the Cars For Sale office
Cars For Sale's very own Edsel

Despite spending $400 million on marketing and development, sales of the Edsel disappointed. If over-hyping a lackluster and ugly-looking car wasn’t hard enough, an average sticker price of over $3,000 and the economic headwinds of a recession meant there weren’t a lot of takers for the “uniquely” styled Edsel. Ford ceased production of all Edsel variants in 1959.

All the above cars have their fans today (though the Yugo folks may need their heads examined), and some are seeing second acts as collectors’ cars. As a matter of fact, we here at Cars For Sale happen to be big fans of the Edsel. So much so, we even have one in our office!

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Chris Kaiser
Chris Kaiser

Chris’ greatest passions include topiary, spelunking, and pushing aging compact cars well past 200,000 miles on cross-country road trips. His taste in cars runs from the classic and esoteric to the deeply practical with an abiding affection for VW Things, old Studebakers, and all things hybrid-crossover.

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