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Biggest Flops in Automotive History

In late January of 1886, German engineer Carl Benz submitted a patent application for a revolutionary new machine – the world’s first gasoline powered vehicle. 

Though his groundbreaking automobile wouldn’t pass muster by today’s standards, it spawned a multi-billion dollar global industry that over the years has churned out everything from iconic Ferraris and timeless Porsches, to urine yellow AMC Pacers, 40 horsepower Yugo GV hatchbacks and everything in between.

Though even the two latter examples met with some success, other vehicles are persistently labeled as classic flops. 

Some don’t necessarily deserve the derogatory moniker, but others like the ones on this list do, and for a variety of reasons including laughable design, marketing missteps, shoddy craftsmanship, unforeseeable economic slumps and exorbitant production costs. 

In short, sometimes everything that can go wrong actually does. 

Enough said, now let’s look at some of the biggest flops in automotive history.

GM EV 1

Between 1996 and 1999 GM built more than 1,100 EV 1 electric cars at the company’s Lansing Craft Center in Michigan.

The 2-door 2-seat coupes featured appealing lines, slippery aerodynamics, and a 3-phase alternating current induction motor and battery combo that together cranked out nearly 140 horsepower and 110 pound feet of torque at 7,000 rpms. 

Though the EV 1’s batteries were continually upgraded, early editions had a range of just over 50 miles (89 km) which made them suitable for commuting and little else – a distinction lost on some owners who insisted on taking their new rides on cross country road trips with less than satisfying results.

Later models could travel nearly 140 miles (228 km) on a single charge despite a hefty 3,000-pound (1,360 kg) curb weight, but the car’s cramped family-unfriendly sports car-like interior eliminated huge swaths of environmentally conscious urban professionals who may have bought them otherwise. 

Even today EV 1s are considered one of the 20th centuries most innovative, efficient and effective designs, but the program was a classic dud thanks in large part to faulty marketing and huge research and development costs which GM never recouped.  

But economics aside, from technological and style perspectives many previous owners, engineers and all-around auto enthusiasts look back on the EV 1 fondly, and some consider it superior to today’s most popular electric cars like the Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf and Chevy Bolt. 

However notwithstanding this crowning achievement, from the ‘70s thru the ‘90s American automakers like GM were relentlessly criticized for their top heavy management structures and listless design departments which together had an uncanny knack for producing hordes of low quality, gas guzzling machines that were notoriously lacking in ergonomics, efficiency and innovation. 

To set themselves apart from the pack, and spurred on by a California Air Resources Board (CARB) initiative mandating that by 1998, 2% of US auto manufacturers’ vehicles would need to be emission-free, GM set out to develop and produce a true game changer, and its starting point was the revolutionary Impact electric concept car that had debuted at the LA Auto Show nearly a decade earlier.  

By 1996 the original design had evolved into the EV 1, the first car ever to wear the General Motors nameplate instead of one of its brands like Chevrolet or Buick.  

Nearly 700 first generation EV 1s were produced, most of which were made available to residents of Arizona and California through a leasing program with monthly payments ranging from 399 to 549 USD per month, or 668 to 920 USD today when adjusted for inflation. 

Analysts surmised that demand would be between 5,000 and 20,000 units per year, and to that end the multi-million dollar product launch featured web, television and roadside billboard advertisements, as well as opulent leasing extravaganzas attended by sports stars, politicians, and A-list celebrities like Sylvester Stallone. 

Deliveries began in December of ‘96, but the stylish battery-powered EV 1s future was anything but bright. 

Lessees liked the car’s design, acceleration and the status that went along with driving it, but limited range, tedious recharging that often took up to 8 hours, and odd handling were among its most noteworthy drawbacks. 

But some speculate that it’s true Achilles’ heel was that it couldn’t recharge itself while driving down the road, which modern gas-electric hybrids do. 

Sadly, just a few years after bursting onto the scene, with demand lagging far behind expectations, GM announced that it would discontinue production. 

Reading between the proverbial lines, many noted that demand was actually robust, just not at GM’s prices, and even worse, the company was leasing the vehicles at a loss.  

In other words, the ahead-of-its-time EV 1 just wasn’t economically feasible. 

According to GM development costs were approximately 500 million USD excluding marketing, though it was partly offset by the Clinton Administration’s New Generation of Vehicles Program.

Though a few examples were whisked off to museums and GM facilities to be used as test and research platforms, most off-lease EV 1s were sent to crushers where they met unceremonious ends before being hauled off to scrap and recycling yards. 

Outraged at losing his beloved electric ride, one owner reportedly wrote an open letter to then GM CEO Rick Wagoner stating that the EV 1 was, “more than a car, it’s a path to national salvation.”

Score one for melodrama. 

Cadillac Cimarron

From 1982 to 1988 – and mercifully no longer – iconic American automobile manufacturer Cadillac produced one of the worst cars in recent memory – the Cimarron. 

Still the punchline of tasteless cocktail party jokes more than three decades later, each shiny base model Cimarron came with vinyl and cloth-clad bucket seats, cheesy 13-inch wheels, even cheesier hubcaps, and hopelessly anemic 4-cylinder powerplants that at full throttle produced just 88 horsepower – enough to rocket the 2,700 4-door sedan from a dead stop to 60 miles per hour in about 13 seconds, roughly two seconds slower than it took a Chevy Citation to get there.

That’s right, a Chevy Citation. 

Thankfully for those hellbent on owning a Caddy for whom 88 horsepower just wouldn’t do, the company offered a fire breathing 2.8-liter V-6 upgrade that thumped out a heart stopping 125 horsepower, which under optimal downhill conditions could propel the Cimarron to a top speed of about 89 mph.

Transmission options included a meager three-speed auto for the V-6 model and 4 or 5-speed manuals for the 4-cylinder versions.  

Apparently for proud owners of the latter, nothing quite spelled class and luxury like getting a charlie horse from riding the clutch in stop-and-go rush hour traffic. 

The dashboard consisted of multiple hunks of unevenly joined plastic that looked like they’d been designed and manufactured by Fisher-Price, and even the usually obligatory cup holders were missing, though diehard Cadillac enthusiasts claimed these shortcomings complimented the car’s sloppy brakes, soft suspension, and imprecise gear shifter nicely. 

But surprisingly, as utterly misguided as the Cimarron was, it wasn’t so much the car itself that cemented its place on flop lists like this one, but what it represented. 

Rewind to the ‘80s. 

Beleaguered by domestic competitors like Lincoln, and sportier, more fuel efficient imports from BMW, Audi, Volvo and Saab, Cadillac bigwigs made the colossal blunder of thinking they could compete by resorting to transparent – or at least translucent – gimmicks. 

Hence, the repackaging of the humble Chevy Cavalier – already the platform on which other less than appealing cars like the Oldsmobile Firenza, Pontiac Sunbird and Buick Skyhawk were based.   

But adding a few meager upgrades and sticking a Cadillac emblem on the hood of what were essentially baseline 4-door Chevy sedans wasn’t what cost-conscious luxury car buyers had in mind, especially since each Cimarron cost about twice what a Cavalier did. 

At about 12,000 USD (31,000 USD today) it wasn’t expensive by premium brand standards, but from performance and prestige standpoints it ended up being the proverbial turd in the punchbowl, despite its catchy new marketing slogan – “a new kind of Cadillac for a new kind of Cadillac owner.”

What the marketing department at Cadillac either failed to realize or outright ignored, was that going downmarket to attract people who’d even remotely consider purchasing a lowly Cavalier or Sunfire would irrevocably tarnish the image on which the brand had been built, which is exactly what happened. 

Cadillac did manage to recover, and chances are they won’t make the same mistake again any time soon, as evidenced by the fact that since the production lines ground to a halt in 1988 there’s never been a successor to the venerable Cimarron. 

All told, nearly 132,000 examples were produced, which isn’t bad for a car that made a Chevy Citation look like a Lotus Esprit Turbo.

Ford Edsel

In 1957, in an attempt to gain market share from Chrysler and General Motors, Ford launched a new car brand that tanked so completely that almost overnight it became a case study in how not to introduce a product.

Billed as a car for average working class Americans, Ford’s misplaced confidence ran so high that it purportedly sunk nearly a quarter of a million dollars (about 2 billion USD today) into Edsel, but in the end it lost not only its initial investment, but another 100 million USD to boot. 

Design and marketing teams at Ford began working on the car all the way back in 1955. 

But though the Edsel was often described as an unaesthetic gas-guzzler, thanks largely to it’s odd grill and the massive V-8 available in top of the line models that produced nearly 350 horsepower and 475 pound feet of torque, it wasn’t just its design and mechanical flaws that led to its downfall. 

Instead, the arrogance and ineptitude of those tasked with finding out just what the public wanted during the project’s research and development phase were more worthy of blame. 

Indeed numerous polls were conducted, all of which garnered helpful data that might have helped Edsel succeed. 

In the early going public input was sought to nail down everything from price, size, features and colors, to the new line’s name, but much of it was cast aside with disastrous results. 

Though Edsel was among the brand’s proposed names, most thought it was bland and didn’t jive with the image they were after.

However, in what may have been a blatant case of sucking up to the Ford family, at the 9th hour the Edsel name was selected by a powerful board member, because Edsel was the name of founder Henry Ford’s son. 

Of course, delivering spanking new cars with fluid leaks, faulty hoods and trunks, and buttons that wouldn’t depress soured many new owners to their purchases from the get go, but they were the least of the Edsel’s problems. 

Compared to now, automobile choices for American consumers in the ‘50s were limited, and the differences between design and performance from one manufacturer to the next were minimal. 

Ford’s Edsel designers should’ve focused on making their new car stand out, but instead of honing their vision they made the classic mistake of trying to make the car everything to everyone. 

In fact, at the launch in 1958 there were nearly 18 different models available including 2-door coupes, 4-door sedans, ragtops and even a station wagon.  

The Edsel was also a victim of bad timing, because in mid-1957 the stock market took a swift downturn and the sales of mid-priced automobiles plummeted. 

Even before the first Edsel had rolled off the assembly line, hard nosed corporate sales reps had hit the streets to persuade dealerships to order  more cars than they could possibly sell, and during the economic malaise they were left with lots full of unsold units.

And whey they did begin arriving at dealerships and auto shows, the reception wasn’t exactly warm.  

After inspecting it for the first time, one automotive journalist dubbed the car the “Edsel Hermaphrodite” because it was a strange amalgamation of masculine and feminine traits.

This androgenous hodgepodge resulted from Ford’s insistence that the car be universally appealing. 

They’d even produced two distinct media events prior to the big reveal. 

One for men featured an Edsel ripping around a closed course piloted by a stunt driver, while the other for women was hosted by a female impersonator, or what we’d call a drag queen today – a serious faux pa for a well respected American institution like Ford in the ‘50s.  

In addition, when it was finally launched the car was just too expensive for most Americans and sales were unimpressive at best. 

In 1960 Edsels were produced in fewer numbers, and with no light at the end of the tunnel, then Ford president and future Secretary of Defense Robert NcNamara finally pulled the plug. 

According to some statistics, each Edsel was sold at a loss of more than 3,300 USD (30,000 USD today), or the approximate cost of a new one.  

Yet despite numerous missteps and blunders, many executives refused to believe, or at least acknowledge that they’d done anything wrong. 

Some even blamed the public, saying they were too fickle and weren’t smart enough to realize a good thing when they saw one. 

In all about 115,000 Edsels were sold, or about half of what the company projected they’d need to sell to break even. 

These days Edsels in all their glorious forms are available all over the internet, and most of them are priced between 15,000 and 50,000 USD depending on model and condition. 

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