I mean seriously – what were they thinking?

It takes over a billion dollars, at least three years of development and testing, and hundreds of engineers and designers to come up with a brand new car. Then there’s tons of testing, multiple levels of approval processes, not to mention extensive customer clinics, before a manufacturer actually launches it.

So how the heck did these abominations get through?

10. 1997 Volkswagen (New) Beetle

Concept 1

This one is not so much ‘what were they thinking’ but more ‘how did they get it so wrong?’ The late 90s, early naughties was the era of the retro cars. Mini, Mustang and later the Fiat 500 all made such a success of using new ingredients in beloved old shapes, that they’re all still making hay today. Arguably Volkswagen was ahead of the curve and received a rapturous reception when the Concept One, aping the classic best selling people’s car was shown at the Detroit car show in 1994.

The production car even looked pretty much identical to the protractor-drawn concept, but was more spacious from being built on a Golf platform rather than a Polo. And yet it just never quite caught people’s imagination the way it should have, nor did it do the business, and it wasn’t much fun to drive either.

I remember doing a Volkswagen media driving day once, and abandoning a 1.8 Turbo engined Beetle after a short run in favour of a three-cylinder Lupo diesel because it was way more entertaining. Why didn’t the new Bug get the Love it craved? (See what I did there?) It could be argued that the Beetle’s engine was in the wrong place compared to the original, but that hasn’t thwarted the new Fiat 500.

I feel that ultimately the car was too forced, too contrived, and underneath not much more than a parts-bin special that cannibalised its cousins but not to great effect. They resolved most of this with the better looking and more satisfying 2012 redesign, but with production ceasing for good this summer, it’s evident that it was too little, too late.

9. Renault Avantime

No but seriously, your family really can’t come, there’s not enough room

Renault built this because they needed something for the old Matra factory to do after shifting Espace production in-house. It utilised the previous generation Espace platform, but far from being a people carrier it only seated four in what was meant to be magic carpet luxury limo. And it looked like a space pod.

I actually reviewed the car at the time. It was awkward and ungainly to drive, and frankly weird to sit in. You felt unnecessarily elevated and somewhat exposed and the controls were beyond vague. I have to say I didn’t entirely hate the car though, it was weird and quite bonkers and I do like that about some cars. I personally quite liked it’s angular eye-catching design too, even though its proportions were frankly outrageous.

But they sold less than 10,000 of these and Matra went under – so it was a qualified disaster. Ultimately it’s one of those cars that should have just existed as a great concept, but not transitioned to reality.

8. BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo

It’s not mine!

I remember parking a brand new BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo press car in an Asda car park only to get out and find all the car wash guys pointing and laughing: ‘Why did you buy that thing?’ – although as you can imagine their descriptive phrase was actually a little more colourful at the time. Fortunately I was able to laugh back and swipe a dismissive hand at the car with the perfect retort ‘it ain’t mine!’

But as I walked away – not once glancing back – I couldn’t help but think, what if I had just spent around £40,000 of my own money on that car, only to be greeted by such humiliation – I mean they didn’t even ask if I wanted it washed. They didn’t want to be seen cleaning it!

I remember buying an old early 90s E34 5 Series once. I didn’t keep it for long, but it ramped up my ego every time I got out and looked back it. It was great to drive and cool to be seen in. The GT by contrast is an embarrassment and an answer to a question no one ever asked: ‘can we have a taller, uglier, way more pointless 5 Series that’s unworthy of the “Ultimate Driving Machine” tag and makes us want to wear a brown paper bag over our head?’

7. AMC pacer

Party On!

Yes okay, the AMC Pacer does now have classic cult status thanks to the Wayne’s World movie in 1992 when it was famously the setting for the now iconic headbanging-to-Bohemian Rhapsody sequence that EVERYONE just had to re-enact including, yes, yours truly with some friends in Ford Granada Scorpio that one time long ago.

But aside from that claim to fame, this thing is the American equivalent of when Japanese firm Mitsubishi ended up calling its new sports car the ‘Starion’ because someone mispronounced ‘Stallion’. It’s as if the Stateside AMC designers were shown two-dimensional pictures of these weird little hatchback cars gaining popularity in Europe and misinterpreted ‘little’.

The Pacer had the width of a full-size American car but the length of a Ford Capri, so wasn’t exactly ‘compact’ as the rest of the world would think of the term. It was styled by someone that got rejected as assistant animator on The Jetsons, would gently bake its occupants thanks to the absurd amount of glass, and felt tired and old to drive event when it was new. One British mag, The Motor, reviewed it and said simply it wished it hadn’t.

Part of me secretly wants to like it, because it is just so bizarre. But then again, nah.

6. Suzuki X-90

Remind me again, why did we get that?

I’ve really tried to imagine the design concept stage conversation for this one: ‘what the people want is a two-door, two-seat, sports-coupe like small car, with a removable roof panel that’s really an SUV.’

Turns out the stunted oddity that was the X-90 was not what the people wanted. In fact it was discontinued after just two years which confirms that I was not the only one left perplexed by it. To be fair though, there was a precedent – Google ‘GAZ M-73 Ukrainian’. Though that car did have a slightly more logical pick-up bed option as a redeeming feature.

The X-90 was about as practical as using a spatula to drink soup with and the 95bhp engine belied any claim to sportiness. The only time it ever made visual sense was when there was a giant fake can of Red Bull stuck to the back of it – the advertising agency must have been its biggest buyer.

Still I guess it takes a few mistakes along the way to end up with a hit like the all-new Suzuki Jimny, a car that looks so damn spot-on I’m aching all over to give it a try.

5. Pontiac Aztek

Spell My Name!

I know you’ve just witnessed a picture of the monstrosity that is the Pontiac Aztek, and I apologise for the trauma, but I would like you to just close your eyes for a moment and picture the stunning current generation Chevrolet Corvette C7. Now open them and look again (sorry, sorry) at the Aztek.

There. You see it right? The similarities! No? That’s odd, considering that the guy who was responsible for the styling of this car later went on to design the awesome Vette. Although to be fair, there are a few jarring lines on the Chevy, but they are put to dramatic effect to give the sportscar a real striking presence. Which, it can be argued the Aztek also has, along with a misspelt name. Why, I ask WHY?!

Still that’s only one of its many sins. There’s not a cohesive line on this car, there’s not a single plane that sits harmoniously with the others immediately around it. Look at it in profile and it appears someone drew it using an Etch A Sketch and their feet. From the rear it looks like a Honda CRX dive-bombed a MPV that then embedded itself into an SUV. From the front – OMIGOD – it’s like every badly styled car ever merged into one.

But the Aztek at least has two saving graces: 1) it’s been popularised as the snotty green steed of the kindly teacher turned say-my-name devil Walter White, from Breaking Bad and 2) it’s not quite the ugliest car in the world ever.

4. 2004 SsangYong Rodius

All aboard? Not likely

Because the SsangYong Rodius is the ugliest car in the history of the automobile. Designed by someone who actually taught car design to students who thankfully weren’t paying attention, it was meant to evoke a luxury yacht on the road.

The back looks like a van, nah make that a couple of vans mashed unhappily together. From the side it tries and fails to fool you into thinking it’s a largish hatchback. Until that is someone marched into the design studio and barked something along the lines of ‘I thought we agreed it would be an MPV,’ in response to which the roofline appears to be have been extended under protest with the single strike of an HB.

Then the body was blown up to excessive proportions so the wheels ended up looking tiny, and as you took the slow dreading steps past the front and hesitantly turned back around to look at its hideous visage, you literally staggered back in horror, quickly covering your eyes with your hands in an overly dramatic Hitchcockian fashion to save yourself from the sight of this thing. And you happen to be Dr Frederick Treves! (Yeah, look that one up, it’s worth the giggle!)

There’s just no forgiving this car in my book I’m afraid, it looks like one of those new style Klingons on Star Trek Discovery. I dubbed it the Odious Rodius the moment I saw the press pictures, which I then burnt, just before I threw-up (though even the resulting puke was prettier).

3. 1974 Mustang II

I can’t believe he actually bought this!

This car is right up here purely because it bears the fabled Mustang name. I mean the original and early Mustangs are the sort of cars that petrolheads’ wet dreams are made of. When you think of a musclecar you think of those original Ponycars. When you think of a Hero car for your movie or story, you think of the machine that Lee Iacocca had the incredible foresight to create and push through to production.

Even though the last of the line 1971-73 Mustangs slightly went off sexy, you look at a Mach 1 or a Boss 351 from that era and, well, you still would, wouldn’t you?

So how did the 1974 Mustang II happen? Yes okay, the market was depressed in the wake of the fuel crisis and using the Ford Pinto for its underpinnings – a car that almost made it onto this list in its own right for being quite rubbish – would not have endowed it with enticing dynamics, but what happened to the styling?

How did it end up looking like the front of a 1970s Corolla Liftback (TE52) mated to a Mitsubishi back end? How did it suddenly become drab and dull and downright ordinary. It’s not necessarily ugly, it’s just not, well, a Mustang. And it’s probably the only generation of the car that will never be desirable or collectable – even the Foxbody 5.0 is Ice Ice cool now! C’mon, you saw what I did there right?

2. 1982 Dodge Charger L-Body

See now this ad just makes me really want that Trans Am!

Quite frankly if anyone should have learned from Ford’s mistake with Mustang II, it should have been Dodge when it came to putting the almost equally illustrious Charger name on a new car. And yet somehow in 1982 they put the name of one of the most badass cars in movie history onto this fifth generation 1982 version (admittedly after a quite appalling 1975 fourth-gen rendition of the car too).

Admittedly once again, it’s not entirely an ugly thing – I’d even say it was better looking than the Mustang II. But it was small, and a bit European (think Opel and Audi), and there’s worst to come.

Today we all know that the true beating heart of a Charger is a V8, a HEMI if you will. Well the L-body had four-cylinder engines in it sourced from Volkswagen and Peugeot. And it was front wheel drive. Argh! I know, I know, I should have suggested you be sitting down for this.

Even the potentially the most desirable version, the Shelby editions – yeah, weird right? – only managed to muster up 175bhp. Cars like this just need to be erased from the annals of automotive history.

1. 1983 Alfa Romeo Arna

This really is the dumbest car I’ve ever sat on!

But the prestigious number 1 spot on this exalted list of the most awful cars ever ever as agreed by me, myself and I, had to be reserved for this pure automotive aberration. Because it represents possibly the most pointless and misguided collaboration ever seen in the car industry.

Understandably it came about from the Japanese trying to get a foothold in a European market without scaring the locals who were already justifiably petrified at the thought of losing out to more affordable, better made and more reliable cars from the land of the rising sun.

But put it this way, it’s the 1980s and on the one hand you have Alfa Romeo which makes beautiful and desirable cars like the Alfasud that always break down, fall apart and start rotting on the way home from the showroom. And on the other you have Nissan, which makes soul-sapping dreary looking things which nonetheless are mechanically unburstable, drive okay and start rotting on the way home from the showroom.

So what would you do if you could combine them? That’s right, you’d take the efficient and solid internals from the Japanese cars and cloth it in a sexy, alluring body by the best in the business when it came to passion – Alfa Romeo. And maybe add a little extra rust-proofing.

Except that the Alfa Romeo Arna – was the exact opposite of that formula. It was actually just a rebadged Nissan Chery on the outside which was meh beyond belief, and featured an Alfa engine, transmission, steering, brakes and even front suspension. So it was no better to look at, and even if it drove more dynamically it didn’t matter as it would break down – yep – on the way home from the showroom, whilst rotting.

It was like the ultimate automotive facepalm moment.

Which are your automotive facepalm moments? Tell me in the comments!

4 thoughts on “10 cars that should never have been built

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