It’s human nature to always be searching for – and awed by – the latest and greatest. That tendency certainly extends to the automotive world, where the best new cars get all the headlines. But there are some important lessons to learn if we reverse course and look at some of the worst cars in history.
There was a good idea hiding somewhere within all of these vehicles, but in each case those good intentions were betrayed by ulterior motives, fueled collectively by a calamitous combination of greed, frugality, ego and short-sightedness. The result is five of the worst cars ever.
It may be strange seeing the DeLorean DMC-12 on this list of the worst cars in history considering its fame and popularity. But off the silver screen, the car fell far short of expectations.
Former General Motors executive John DeLorean touted the DMC-12 as the sports car of the future. With its gull wings and sleek metallic look, it certainly has the aesthetics to meet that boast. But behind that façade was a heavy, underpowered and overpriced vehicle.
Originally, the company expected to sell 12,000 cars per year. In the end, only about 9,000 vehicles were made during its two-year run and the company was shut down in 1982. Ironically, the DeLorean became iconic just a few years later with its prominent role in 1985’s “Back to the Future.” The movie franchise ensured that the car’s legacy would extend well past its seemingly destined fate as an automotive footnote.
The Yugo was a decades-old Soviet-era Yugoslavia automobile imported to the U.S. in 1985. The decision to sell the car in America was the brainchild of entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin and was destined for failure from the start. In an interview with Car and Driver, Bricklin recalled tasking his employees to find the cheapest car in the world. They did so at a 50-year-old factory in Yugoslavia that was manufacturing a 30-year-old car. “We took this piece-of-crap car and within 14 months had set up 400 U.S. dealers and made 528 changes to the car,” Bricklin said.
Yugoslavia had been manufacturing the car for years. Bricklin’s plan was to spruce it up and bring to America. There was no amount of changes that could overcome the vehicle’s poor quality, however. The Yugo’s engine generated a measly 55 horsepower, making the car dangerous to drive on American roads. The car was notoriously unreliable (the rear window defroster was reportedly there to keep your hands warm when you needed to push the vehicle), had many parts made of plastic, and oddly enough, featured carpeting as a standard feature.
But for the people selling the Yugo, the car was all about one thing: profit margin. The vehicle only cost $2,000 wholesale and was sold stateside for nearly twice that. Consumers quickly realized that even $4,000 was too much for the Yugo.
For as much grief as the Aztek got, it was actually at the forefront of what would prove to be one of the top automotive trends of the past two decades. When the car was first introduced in the early aughts, SUVs were surging in popularity and the idea of crossovers – vehicles with the space and power of an SUV combined with the on-street abilities of a sedan – was just beginning to take hold.
In fact, if you look the Aztek concept car, it doesn’t look all that dissimilar to some of today’s crossover models. Time magazine may have put it best, saying, “The shame is, under all that ugliness, there was a useful, competent crossover.”
Clearly, the idea behind the car was good, but the execution was not. The problem was that the Aztek was designed by committee. No singular, coherent vision took the lead and just about everybody got a say in the design process. Even the bean counters made their mark involved. GM accountants reportedly ordered the Aztek to be built on an existing minivan platform in order to reduce costs. This platform, however, was not long enough to hold the Aztek, forcing designers to create a box-like tail end.
The Aztek was in production all of five years, from 2001-2005. But showing that everything comes full circle, the car got a significant popularity boost when it was prominently featured as Walter White’s vehicle of choice in the uber-popular television show “Breaking Bad.”
While most of the cars on this list are here due to aesthetic design fails, poor craftsmanship or lackluster sales, several of the worst cars ever made were actually dangerous to drive. These vehicles had such fundamental mechanical and design flaws that they posed a serious risk to the occupants of the car.
Chrysler’s PT Cruiser had a unique look, which many people derided, but it’s most notable for its mercurial nature. The car was known to shut off in the middle of driving, completely out of the blue. The 1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, meanwhile, had an engine that exploded when it made 90 horsepower.
But the most infamously dangerous worst car in history is the Ford Pinto. The only feature that needs to be discussed about this 1970s vehicle is its fuel tank. The Pinto famously featured an exposed fuel tank. Cars involved in rear-end collisions, even at slow speeds, tended to burst into flames. Later on, the “Pinto memo” was publicized, which proved the company concluded it was cheaper to settle victims’ lawsuits ($50 million) than to recall and fix the cars ($120 million).
Aptly, the coda to the Pinto’s story is the car’s presence in American Museum of Tort Law.
We’ve reached the pinnacle of the worst cars in history. For decades, the terms “automotive failure” and “the Edsel” have been all but synonymous. So what went so wrong?
In the mid-1950s, Ford came to the conclusion that it should expand its product line. Specifically, it needed a new, mid-priced brand to go in between its flagship Lincoln and mid-level Mercury. Studies predicted that “by 1965 half of all U.S. families … would be buying more cars in the medium-priced field, which already had 60% of the market,” according to Time magazine. And so the Edsel was created, named after Henry Ford’s son, no less.
It’s not so much that the Edsel was such a terrible car – although it certainly had its faults, namely its price. It’s that it suffered the unfortunate fate of being hyped up as the greatest thing on four wheels. Believe it or not, Ford booked an hourlong prime time television slot on CBS to unveil the car, claiming the broadcast day as “E Day.” “The Edsel Show” included performances by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Louis Armstrong. By this time, however, the push for compact cars was well underway. Just two years after its prime-time debut, the Edsel’s run was over after less than 120,000 were sold. Ford had estimated it could sell up to 400,000 cars a year. In total, the company spent roughly $350 million on the Edsel’s research, design, tooling and production facilities, the equivalent of nearly $3.2 billion in 2021.
To add insult to injury, while the Edsel was cementing its place as the biggest automotive flop ever, “The Edsel Show” was nominated for an Emmy.
What do you think are some of the worst cars in history? Let us know in the comments below!
370 Thoughts on “The Worst Cars in History”
The Vega was definitely worse than the pinto. The chevettes were awful with automatics. Knew of two with a standard shift that were acceptable. Nobody mentioned the GM v-4-6-8 engined cars. Reliably unreliable.
Some of the imports were awful too! Early 2 cylinder Subarus, Austin Americas, Renault Le Car,Yugo ( got lateral file cabinets from the bankruptcy that were better made than the car).
Renault le car ( baby buggy with an engine), some of the early Subarus were very primitive. Here is another US choice GM v4-6-8 cars! Absolutely awful and unreliable. Dad had a Volare and an aspen, they would walllow through turns and you could hear the wind inside the doors.
The 1980 Fairmont 4 cylinder was powered with the Pinto 4 cylinder engine. It looked nice, rode well, but burned a quart of oil a week! All of the oil consumption was never noticed because the pollution control system converted it and never made any visible smoke.The Ford dealer tried to fix the problem, but failed. Our local mechanic fixed the problem for less than $100!
Frankly, I’m surprised you didn’t mention the Dymaxion. True, it never went into production, but it was a very unusual and innovative car and is remembered mostly, I think, for its failure. It was involved in a two car accident in Chicago, resulting in one fatality and one coma. But because the other car belong to a prominent politician, it was removed from the scene before the Police got there, making it look like a freak accident involving a radically different car. By the time the driver of the politician’s car came out of his coma and could explain what had truly happened, the press had already had a field day making the Dymaxion out to be a disaster on three wheels.
Rambler…my uncle said it was put together with chewing gum and rubber bands…
I fondly remember my 1970 Pinto, purchased in the Fall of 1969. I drove it for 9 years putting close to 150K miles on the clock without any mechanical issues of any kind until the very end. Ultimately, it was rust that did it in, living in the salt air of Cape Cod didn’t help. I traded it in for a ’78 Ford Fiesta which was not as good or as reliable as the Pinto. In turn the Fiesta was traded in for a Ford Escort which was far and away the worst car I’ve ever owned.
I had the Mercury Capri, more or less the same engine, but huge amounts of fun to drive, yet I wouldn’t get caught dead in a Pinto! 🙂 As to bad cars, we bought, years ago, the brand new Mercury Mistake; aka Mystique. Too small, but in some ways good, like rear wheel steering. BUT – the transmission was pure junk. And we encountered a Ford dealership that didn’t know it was a Ford product!
In 1975, Dodge introduced its improved Dart calling it the Aspen and the Plymouth equivalent, the Volare. Improvement? Hah!
Every year it would break down somewhere and the electrical system had to be replaced. Entering a busy highway was a nightmare. When you found an opening and stepped on the gas, the car would ponder the situation for 2 seconds and then go. Really scary.
The Corvair had a bad reputation for flipping over if the suspension failed.
The poorest quality car I’ve owned (and I’ve had some beauts!) was an ‘89 Camaro RS. I still think it was a beautiful car. However, quality-wise, it was terrible. The entire drivers door panel came off in my hands, the muffler-to-cat pipe split open at 19,000 miles, a hood strut failed and the hood fell on my head at 20,000 miles, a section of the dashboard fell out while I was driving. There were other things as well, but these were the memorable highlights. Other than that, I loved the car.
1980s cars (especially GM) tended to be ready for the junk yard as soon as you drove them off the lot. My wife and I, for a few years, drove an 84 Olds. Had a carb. Car would barely make it up hills with a V8 and dealer couldn’t figure out why. A separate mechanic cleaned the carb, and it was back to its usual mediocre self. When my wife was pregnant, the trunk lid struts had long since failed, and YEP, GM told us that nothing could be done about it. We had to find struts in an auto parts store – took me 20 minutes to install them. Horn rims were made from pot metal. Heater control cable replacement not available. Etc.!
The chevy citation
1970s Italian Austin Marina. I believe it was imported for only one year because it was an over-rated and over priced unique mid sized car.
The Austin Marina was actually British, not Italian. I had the misfortune of owing one in the mid-1970’s. A miserable car, plagued by electrical, transmission, and brake problems, utterly unreliable. The British revenge for the Revolutionary War.
How you can have omitted the Lada, the worst car in the world, is beyond me. And the East German version, the Trabant, as well. Hideous cars, that make the Edsel look like a Bentley by comparison.
Let’s not forget the AMC Pacer!
Uuuuuuuuugggggggggllllllllllyyyyyyyyyyy personified!!! All of the usual “worst cars” problems, except for not actually killing the occupants, that we are aware of.
Another person mentioned the Ford Pinto as the worse, as it was the only one, that we know of, that actually did this. However, one must wonder, if any of these other rejects, may have had that horrible potential as well. We are only aware of what we have been told.
Pacer was truly ugly!
I must disagree, with both of you! The Pacer was certainly of an unusual design, but ugly? Not on your nelly!
Never forget the old Fiat 500. Wouldn’t go more often than it would. A transportation disaster.
The Gremlin. First is the name. Are they describing inhabitants of the motor? The drive shaft? Maybe, but I think it’s about the size of the only creatures that could fit in there.
I was expecting to see the Gremlin listed too, being an AMC car along with the AMC Pacer. People made fun of the Gremlin for years and years. I had one. Survived a total collision while in it – without a scratch, I must admit, so it did have something going for it! It was an early hatchback and that was a plus too. It was considered ugly back then, but frankly its shape and look wasn’t too much different from my current Subaru Forester. So go figure!
What about the Chevy Vega? I owned one for two years. Started out ok, ended up as a bit of a horror story. It nearly stranding me on the CT turnpike, as its fuel pump was highly unreliable. And what of that aluminum block engine—that warped over time? It was a recipe for disaster.
I owned two Vega’s…did I meniton it took two to make one good enough to run…lol. It was BAD!
Chevy Vega: front seats only (rear was just storage), a minuscule aluminum-block engine that could only do 45mph, poor gas mileage, terrible steering, zero amenities. What a dud!
The only car on this list that really matters is the Ford Pinto because it actually killed people, and in a horrible way. It also revealed to the world just how ruthless, heartless reprehensible and irresponsible some corporations (i.e.; Ford) really are.
Chevy Chevette needs a spot here. Used to vibrate ominously at speeds above 55. Luckily, couldn’t go above 60.
We owned a Chevy Chevette. If fact two at one time! Couldn’t wait to ditch them both. One problem after another.
We owned two Chevettes at the same time and never had any problems with them. They were small, so when we had bigger kids we had to go to larger cars, but the Chevettes were fun to drive and handled well.
What about the Dodge Omni?my father bought one off the lot in 1979 and I was stuck driving it. Worst car ever. Doors froze shit in the winter, engine whined over 45 mph and fuel tank and floorboards rusted out,