I miss rubbish cars

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Andrew Frankel

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I am told with tedious regularity that there’s no such thing as a bad car any more. And while I refute the contention, even I must admit that the global population of cars that are truly crass, tragically flawed and fundamentally unfit for purpose are endangered possibly to the point of extinction. This is of course a terrible shame.

I’m old enough to remember a time when heroically awful cars still roamed around the planet, at least on those rare occasions when they weren’t steaming at the side of the road or taking their hapless occupants on yet another unintended adventure courtesy of some fatal flaw in its design or construction.

Remember the 1973 Moskvich 412? Thought not, but I do. This is the Russian import the Consumer’s Association branded ‘dangerously unsafe’ and, tautology aside, they had a point. So sharp were some of the interior fitments that you could survive an accident unharmed only to suffer the indignity of being impaled on your own car. The Department of Transport also investigated the highly individual handling characteristics of the Skoda Estelle.

But when it comes to built-in trouble rather than trouble that is thrust upon one (like Lancia Betas and Alfasuds turning from design icons into piles of iron oxide almost overnight), what you really needed were the Americans. Who else could have designed the Chevrolet Corvair, the car whose design so appalled Ralph Nader he decided to dedicate an entire book to it called Unsafe at any Speed and damned it forever? Then there was the Ford Edsel which was so unreliable and so full of parts that fitted badly or not at all it died within three years of going on sale.

But even an Edsel may have seemed preferable to the 1970s Pinto with its fuel tank located behind the rear axle although it did at least do fine business for the man who had the idea for the ‘Hit me and we blow up together’ bumper sticker.

But perhaps America’s most famed contribution to the ranks of really awful cars was the AMC Pacer. Not content with being the second most hideous car ever built (its brother the unapproachably ugly and aptly named Gremlin tops the list), it came with the neat idea of the door on the right hand side of the car being much longer than that on the left so your children could only clamber out onto the pavement. It worked beautifully until right hand drive models were built, all of which then forced your children to step out into the traffic…

I miss the DeLorean DMC1 too and its bonkers unpainted stainless steel body that would never rust but scratched so easily it could look like people had been skating on it.

Most of all I fear that modern computer technology will deny us forever the chance to laugh at our own designs, none more than the Austin Allegro whose square steering wheel was merely one of its more visible issues. Less obvious were the fact that owners of versions with alloy wheels often returned to their cars after a fortnight away to discover it had four flat tyres, the result not of vandalism, but porous wheels. And if you jacked it up you might also discover the car had so little torsional rigidity the rear windscreen might pop up.

At least owners were spared the indignity of knowing that the Allegro’s shape was actually at its most aerodynamic when travelling in reverse. A British car of the 1970s that was better at going backwards than forwards? Tells you all you need to know.

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