Where have all the bad cars gone?
Updated: Jul 9, 2020
There was a time, now quite a long time ago, when you knew where you were. You could flick to the back pages of Car magazine, peruse the Good, Bad & Ugly section and know that all was right with the world. We had good cars, not very good ones and very bad ones: the good ones were good because the bad ones were bad, the world kept spinning in this Ying/Yang relationship.
Today it's different. All cars are good, most very good. Only Ssangyong makes cars we can laugh at and even they've decided not to do that any more. Where are the Wartburgs, the Ladas? Whither the Hyundai Stellars, the Reliant Rialto, the lonely desperate FSO Polonez? I miss them, I really do. Sometimes I dream of seeing, just once, another Dacia Denem, the Renault 12 clone that clever namechecked the Levi's-driven retro revival wave.
It wasn't just the automotive hinterlands that gave us crap cars. Our mainstream companies did it too, although in practice only one excelled at it: the Allegro, Princess, Maxi, Marina, TR7, SD1 and on and on were the work of a supposedly experienced car maker.
Progress, of course, explains the fact that no cars are rubbish any more. But I pity young car fans today because they'll never know the joy of an uneven playing field. Society needs an underdog, an Eddie The Eagle, to laugh at, sympathise with, empathise with.
For the sake of posterity here are my favourite useless cars of the last 40 years.
Much like a bad smell, once you enter the murky world of Allegro ownership you can never quite shake it off. Whilst I owned mine a few years ago I seemed to spend more time discussing it, writing about it and, indeed, explaining my lunacy, than any other car. By any rational benchmark the Allegro is either Not Very Good or actually Awful. And yet, and yet....
Today Skoda makes bland, dependable VW clones. It's been doing that for so long that we've almost forgotten those archly ironic adverts about how embarrassing Skodas are, despite the fact that they're actually, y'know, preally good. Before Skoda's reinvention it really did make rubbish cars. The Estelle was the butt of pretty much every motoring joke going. It looked ok (a bit like a Saab) and had decent space but the engine was in the wrong place, it handled like a shopping trolley and people who cared nothing about cars except how much they cost bought them. Skodas transformation from an eccentric car maker to a mainstream me-too producer is a particularly depressing sign of the times.
Before micro cars and Twizzies we had the Rialto, nee Robin nee Regal nee rubbish. The three wheeled plastic pig from Tamworth is such an easy target that bullying it feels almost pointless. But it was bad, very bad: bad in the sense of dangerous. It sold to people who didn't have car licences or were plain silly. Stability doesn't come in threes: if you're prepared to compromise your safety because you can't be bothered to get a driving licence then you are a very silly person indeed.
Hyundai Stellar & Pony
In the 1980s Hyundai was very different from the company it is now. It made very boxy, very staid clones of European cars. The Pony was a sort of Escort hatchback. The Stellar was a Cortina, for people who didn't want a Sierra. Although not actually awful they also weren't much good. Their distinctly Korean take on Upmarket Feel, which involved faux-chrome and a mysterious material apparently intended to look like wood, puts them firmly on this list.
It's hard to briefly and clearly express how bad the Polonez was. Sure, you can Google a picture and get a fair idea. But that's not enough to fully understand the sheer awfulness of this bizarre Fiat 124-based hatchback. The words 'fit' and 'finish' barely apply since nothing fit or was indeed finished. The engine was so agricultural it might as well have been a cow. The much-feted hatchback versatility involved a boot lip so high that owners complained of vertigo. The FSO was and is possibly the worst car ever sold in Britain.
The song Brim Full of Asha namechecks 'the 45.' But it's probably not a paen to this Yugoslavian runabout. First off Yugo thought Britain would quite like its novel hatchback Fiat 128. We didn't mainly because normal human dexterity prevented us loading anything over thr high boot lip. Then we got the 45, a conventionally designed supermini that at first glance appeared quite good. Truly, it wasn't. Under the svelte body (which I think Guigiaro had a hand in) lay the automotive equivalent of the Dark Ages. Of course the 45 was built to a new standard of Bad and quickly became showroom poison. Astonishingly, the Yugo was sold in America as a cheap, quirky car in the style of the original Beetle (there is a very good book about the saga). Strangely, the project stalled.
In the 80s, when coal miners were being made redundant, the story goes that a lot of them bought cheap new Eastern European tat. Lada, FSO and even Reliant saw sales spike in Northumberland, Wales and Nottinghamshire. Fortunately by then Wartburg had stop selling its cars in Britain. Fortunate, indeed, because a single Wartburg probably generated more air pollution than a city of coal-fired homes. The ugly-looking and even more ugly-named 'burg was actually a DSK, an illustrious East German car maker. But in the UK they were sold as Wartburgs. They were well screwed together, which only meant they poisoned more pedestrians for longer.
Riva is a pretty resort nestled twixt Lake Garda and the Dolomite Mountains. So it makes an obvious choice for a car name. Oh how Riva must have regretted not lobbying the world's auto makers to adopt it before Lada nailed the name to its reheated Fiat-124 based saloon. Few cars this side of the Mitsubishi Carisma were more inappropriately named. Such was the Lada's giddy mix of shiny, cheap chrome grille and wheel trims that calling the wretched thing Blackpool would have been spot on. Lada also made the Samara, which was less Fiat and more Lada so actually worse than the Riva. But nobody bought it so it misses out on this list.
I applaud Ssangyong for carrying the torch of crapness in recent years. I had a Musso for a brief period so I feel I can say that with some authority. For a while China showed promise in the crap car ouvre, but it looks to have been short-lived. No, in making the new Ssangyong SUV look Quite Good we must finally mourn the passing of truly, honestly bad cars.
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