The World’s Most Infamous Cars
Are They So Bad They’re Good? Or Just Plain Bad?
Some cars are celebrated because of their technological innovations, such as the Tesla and Toyota Prius. Others gain their fame from the beauty of their design, like the Lamborghini Aventador and Porsche 911.
And some cars are remembered because they were such epic failures that they actually became legends. Although their lifespans were short, their names are still remembered. In this article, we celebrate those cars in all their boxy/ill-designed/patently unsafe glory.
Pontiac Aztek (2001-2005)
Pontiac Aztek. Source: Wikimedia Commons
With stone-age tools and primitive weapons, the Aztecs built an empire that lasted for over 100 years. With the latest technology and top-tier engineers and designers, the Pontiac Aztek lasted for only five.
The Aztek was the answer to a question that nobody asked: What would happen if you smashed a full-size SUV into a hippopotamus? The answer: A misshapen, potato car wrapped in plastic that was too edgy for soccer moms but too lame for 20-somethings. The Aztek truly was a car for no one.
First unleashed on an unsuspecting public in the 2000 model year, Pontiac believed that the Aztek would be the car to carry them into the 21st century. They originally wanted to build a muscle car/SUV crossover, but switched to using a minivan chassis, which gave the car its lumpy look.
They set their best engineers and designers to work on creating it and, in some respects, the Aztek is actually pretty well-made. Optional all-wheel drive as well as tight handling characteristics made it a cutting-edge crossover that was strong on freeways but could also get you off-road to a prime camping spot.
But there was one attribute it could never overcome: it was ugly, and as they say, God don’t like ugly, which means he must have really hated the Pontiac Aztek.
Aston Martin Lagonda (1974)
Aston Martin Lagonda. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Since watching my first James Bond movie, I’ve had the dream of evading bad guys while racing through the streets of a European capital in a stylish and sexy Aston Martin.
Just not in an Aston Martin Lagonda.
While Aston Martin has always been known for making sleek luxury sports cars, the 1974 Lagonda looks like it was built with Legos. The body was blocky, the trunk was tiny, and the hood was long enough for small planes to land on.
“I think they’re stunning in a really awkward way,” Brian Stevens, the exhibition director at the Petersen Automotive Museum, told Fair.
“What’s great about them is that they represent to a T the high-design aesthetic of their era. When you look at what true automotive designers were doing at that time in automotive history, they were making things really crisp and wedge-shaped and with really sharp edges and sharp corners and really severe angles,” Stevens said. “The Lagonda was taken to the ultimate extreme, to the point where it’s almost obnoxious.”
What’s funny is that the interior of this car is genuinely cool, at least in a 1970s kind of way. The Lagonda was one of the first cars with a digital instrument cluster, which would have been amazing if it had ever worked. Sadly, however, these high-tech dashboards had a reputation for shorting out only a few months after purchase.
Much like a restaurant where the food is bad and the portions are small, the Lagonda wasn’t just ugly, but it barely worked either.
Of course, only 645 of these abominations were ever created, so at least the damage to the iconic Aston Martin name was minimal.
Amphicar Model 770IT (1961-1965)
Amphicar Model 770IT. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Leslie Kendall, the curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum, summed up both the appeal and the problem of the Amphicar when he described the mindset of its intended customers.
“It says ‘I’m the kind of guy who is so spontaneous that I don’t know if I’m going to drive or swim today and I like to be looked at.’ That car is not for an introvert,” Kendall said. “I think it's a fascinating car; it's just rotten at the two things it's supposed to do.”
The problem is that while the Amphicar was both a boat and a car, it was neither a good boat nor a good car. On land, it handled like a drunk elephant, while on water it handled like a drowning drunk elephant.
“The engineering and the design just never proved to be ideal,” Stevens told Fair. “It suffered from leak problems, so it could sink. And that never works out well for a boat.”
On land, Stevens said, the Amphibicar was underpowered and the handling was poor. And in the water, the car was literally rudderless.
“It was literally just the front wheels and tires guiding the car through water,” Stevens said.
While the Amphicar was “technically” seaworthy, it had some pretty severe limitations. Its top speed on water was 7 mph—and that was only in calm waters. It wasn’t exactly easy on the eyes either, with its snub-faced hood and trunk making it resemble a foot. Only a few thousands of these cars were sold before they ceased being manufactured in 1965.
Of course, the Amphicar may have had the last laugh, since the novelty vehicle is now considered a collector’s item that sells for $100,000 at auction.
DeLorean. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Thanks to a certain beloved film trilogy, the DeLorean may be the most famous car on this list. And, unlike so many of the others mentioned here, it actually looked good. With its stainless-steel body panels, sleek gull-wing doors and rear-mounted engine, the DeLorean was the height of ‘80s cool, and still looks like the car of the future nearly 40 years later.
But while the DeLorean may have looked pretty sweet to your neighbor, its owners knew well that it couldn’t really deliver on its promise of being a true sports car.
Besides being slow and handling like a brick, the car had another significant issue.
“I remember that everyone wanted one, but as soon as you had one it was like, ‘Wait a minute, everyone else’s just looks like mine,’” Kendall said.
Because the DeLorean only came in one color, it was impossible to distinguish yours from someone else’s. In fact, during its brief, early-‘80s heyday, it wasn’t unusual to see the parking lot of a Los Angeles hot spot containing a half-dozen identical DeLoreans.
The car’s build quality was also notoriously subpar. For tax reasons, the factory was located in Ireland, where the employees had no experience building cars and many of the early models had significant manufacturing issues.
Unlike some other cars on this list, the DeLorean did achieve reasonable success early on. It may have been a bear to drive, but its striking looks made it a competitor because, well, sometimes just being hot is enough.
Thanks to the Back to the Future franchise—where the car served as arguably the most famous time machine in movie history—the DeLorean will have a far longer cinematic life than a real one, as it was only produced from 1981 to 1983.
While the DeLorean actually had a chance to become a successful car, that all came to a crashing halt when its namesake manufacturer, car legend John DeLorean, was arrested for drug trafficking, which is probably the most ‘80s-appropriate way for this story to end.
Edsel. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Henry Ford didn’t invent the car, but he did invent how we make them, building the Ford Motor Company into a juggernaut and creating legends like the Mustang, the Thunderbird and the Ford GT.
So when the company decided to create a new car in the late ‘50s and name it after Ford’s son, everyone assumed that the new vehicle would become a massive hit.
Instead they invented a car that has become synonymous with abject failure. The problems started when Ford spent a year collecting data from their customers on what they’d like to see in their next car. They then decided to completely ignore that advice, so that a handful of Ford executives could design a car based on their “hunch” of what consumers would want.
What their hunch told them was to build a famously ugly car, whose bizarre look was defined by a giant vertical grill and massive amounts of chrome. Kendall said that the Ford Edsel was the definition of doing too much.
“That was the height of post-war arrogance: the more chrome, the better. The more creases in the body, the better. The more gadgets, the better,” Kendall said. “The more you could make the dashboard look like a space station control panel, the better. They were all heat and no light.”
It also suffered from severe quality-control issues. The first models off the line leaked oil, had trunks that wouldn’t open and buttons that couldn’t be pressed. It also didn’t help that the Edsel was Ford’s most expensive car.
First put out for sale in the 1958 model year, it was mercifully put out of its misery only two years later.