(Editor’s Note: Matt Cramer is one of the super smart dudes over at DIY AutoTune.com, the fine people who brought the world the MegaSquirt EFI system. He’s a tech support guy over there so he has a pretty good handle on what works and wat doesn’t in the world of automotive design. Here’s his look at 11 of the worst examples in history!)
Some bad designs can take a while to become obviously bad. A material that works in the lab may take a couple years to show it doesn’t work so well in the real world, or a safety flaw may only be obvious when a car gets crashed in exactly the wrong way and catches fire. But sometimes, a car’s designers come up with an idea so hairbrained that you have to wonder how it didn’t get nixed the first time an engineer showed the design to a boss, a co-worker, or even a five year old kid. Here are eleven of the craziest designs to make it into production.
Chrysler’s botched EFI – Putting nearly all the EFI components on the intake manifold and air cleaner, including a mass air flow sensor and the ECU itself, certainly made installation easier, but also put a delicate ’80s era computer right where it would be exposed to lethal amounts of heat and vibration. Chrysler, of all companies, should have known you need to test unproven electronics unmercifully before releasing them into the wild – they had offered the world’s first automotive EFI in 1957, only to have to recall all of the engines and convert them to carbs when 1950s era components weren’t up to automotive use.
Oldsmobile Rocket Fuel – Not only was it the first production turbocharged car, it was also the first production car to sport water injection. While the technology itself was not the simplest or most reliable, the insane part was asking owners to keep it topped up. Let’s face it, your average American non-enthusiast won’t check his oil until the low pressure light comes on, and on the Jetfire, running out of Oldsmobile Rocket Fuel could kill the engine. Buick later considered reviving the idea for the Grand National, but decided against it.
German engineering, the Communist way – There are a lot of good materials for making car bodies – steel, aluminum, fiberglass, and carbon fiber have all worked out pretty well. The Trabant is the only car to have its bodywork made from plastic-coated fabric scraps. Passenger safety wasn’t particularly high on the East German government’s priority list.
British wiring cost cutting – Apparently, part of British Leyland’s effort to be profitable included omitting any fuses the management thought unnecessary. There were only three fuses in the entire wiring system of a stock Triumph Spitfire, in an era where American cars often had three or four times as many fuses. Some systems, such as the headlights, did not have any fuses on them at all. Lucas earned the nickname “Price of Darkness” for a reason.
German biodegradeable wiring – In the ’90s, out of control Green Party members passed a law requiring a certain percentage of the parts in a car to be biodegradeable, over objections that nobody actually wants a car to biodegrade while they’re driving it. You’d think that manufacturers would have tried to satisfy this requirement by making biodegradeable seat cushion foam, or door panels, or something else that would only be mildly annoying if it started to rot. Mercedes, however, decided to rely on biodegradeable wiring insulation to meet these requirements. The results were bad enough that we’ll probably start seeing the Lucas electronic jokes start to get attached to Mercedeses instead in another ten years.
How to ruin your car’s reputation with just a fuel filter – A smart designer puts the fuel filter someplace where you can just pop the hood and pop out the filter with no hassle. A bad designer makes you crawl under the car to find the filter. Mazda, however, didn’t just require crawling under the car to reach the filter on the third generation RX-7; you have to disassemble the rear suspension to reach it. Many of these cars lost their engines to owners who just didn’t want to change out that filter – right until it clogged up and leaned out the turbo Wankel under boost.
You can’t make a K-car do everything – While more of a failure of badge engineering than design engineering, the 1986 Chrysler Limousine can inspire just as many questions about what the people behind it were thinking. Combine the pedestrian and ordinary styling of a K-car, a screaming, raucous turbo four banger, and a stretch limo body, and you have proof that Lee Iacocca’s idea of making one platform work for every possible application had its limits.
Cadillac V8-6-4 – Today, a lot of large V8s can conserve fuel by shutting down cylinders. The modern way to do this is to cut off the flow of oil to a hydraulic lifter, making it collapse and close the valve. Cadillac pioneered the idea of individual cylinder deactivation in 1981, but they used a horrifically complicated, solenoid driven linkage to move the rocker arms. This Rube Goldberg contraption didn’t do much for reliability, and the fuel economy wasn’t even all that good.
Worst chassis / engine combination ever– Mazda’s 13B rotary engine is a torqueless little beastie that you have to rev to the moon to make any power. Putting it in a featherweight sports car makes perfect sense. Putting it in a 26 passenger bus does not. But that’s precisely what Mazda used this engine for before they even put it in US-market RX-7s. Named the Parkway Rotary 26, this bus was the last vehicle you’d want to be stuck behind for a drive up Mount Fuji.
Chinese centrally planned safety – This epic fail goes to a Chinese company, Geely, for coming up one of the most dangerous “safety features” of all time. In 2008, they announced a system to sense blowouts – and automatically apply the brakes if that happened. Never mind that a driver can often have very good reasons for wanting to keep up their speed until they can find a safe way to get out of traffic and pull over…
Bricklin SV1 – Malcom Bricklin made enough mistakes in his automotive career to fill several top eleven lists, but it’s hard to top the patently unsafe doors on his “safety vehicle.” Gullwing doors are never the most practical idea, but the Bricklin used electric motors to open its doors, with no manual backup. The doors quickly developed a reputation for trapping people inside.