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20 American Cars That Made People Go: WTF Were They Thinking?

20 American Cars That Made People Go: WTF Were They Thinking?


Americans love a finely tuned, impeccably crafted, and brilliantly engineered car. Cars that are designed in such a way that you can’t help but marvel at their simplicity and applaud their builders. Cars that make you wonder what kind of genius they would have to be to come up with such elegant vehicles. Cars that will always get people’s attention.

You won’t find any of those here.

But there are other vehicles that make you wonder how someone could design such a car. And instead of admiring the genius you’ll be scratching your head in horror at how any automotive professional would ever come up with these things.

Some of these cars came into being because of design by committee while others are ideas that were just, well, bonkers for a lack of a better term. And then some are just downright ugly and misguided. There are even a few cars sold that were nothing more than a deathtrap on wheels. So here are the top 20 American cars that had no business existing in any reality.

20. Camaro Iron Duke


We’ll kick off this list with an all-American muscle car the 1982 Chevrolet Camaro Iron Duke. Or at least a muscle car is what you should be thinking when I bring up a Camero because the Iron Duke was far, far from that description. It featured a tiny 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine with an automatic 3-speed slushbox giving it a paltry 92 horsepower. That bears repeating, this “muscle car” had only 92 horsepower. Weighing in at 2,864 pounds it had a power-to-weight ratio of around 31.1 pounds per horsepower and could do 0-60mph in about 20 seconds. That put it on par with the 1983 Chevette Scooter hatchback that featured 30.3 pounds for each horse. Why anyone would want a seriously underpowered muscle car is bewildering.

19. Chrysler PT Cruiser Convertible


The PT Cruiser started life as the Plymouth Prowler which was a sportster type car whose retro design was inspired by 1930s-era hot rods. When Plymouth was bought out by Chrysler it was discontinued but the sleek styling was mangled into the ugly PT Cruiser which, while considered a compact, was purposefully designed to fit the NHTSA requirements of a light truck. Nicknamed the “PT Loser” it was hard to figure a way to make it worse until they unveiled a convertible version in 2005. Just to give you an idea how little thought was put into making a convertible, that roll-bar served absolutely no purpose and could be seen through the back window when the top was up.

18. 1978 AMC Pacer


For those lovers of 90s movies, the Mirth Mobile from Wayne’s World is one of those cars that instantly brings back nostalgic memories of diners and gets Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” stuck in your head. In reality, the AMC Pacer was an awful, cheap car that no one wanted to be caught dead in. The oddly shaped fishbowl-on-wheels design screamed nerd in the 70s at a time before that word became ironically cool. There was a reason it was Garth’s car of choice and it wasn’t because he was a trendsetter. Sales of the car dwindled quickly and the model was put to pasture after only five years.

17. Pontiac Aztek


Continuing with the current theme of terrible cars made popular in film and television we have the Pontiac Aztek. While Walter White was out becoming a drug dealer in Breaking Bad, he was driving around this grotesque… thing. It turned out that this car was designed by committee that took a good concept and shaved it down to this plastic mess. It was so universally hated that it was the Achilles heel that killed the 84-year-old Pontiac brand. Nothing GM could do would ever have been able to save the automaker after this thing was unveiled.

16. 2003 Hummer H2


Breaking Bad isn’t the only one that is having fun with bad cars from the early aughts. Spinoff series Better Call Saul featured the Hummer H2 which saw the world’s worst drug dealer driving it. Here was an arrogantly militaristic, gas-guzzling truck that was launched after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 — whose causes included America’s thirst for Middle Eastern oil. On top of that, this carbon spewing behemoth also came out around the time GM repossessed all their environmentally friendly EV1 electric cars and sent them to the scrap pile. It was a big middle-finger to everyone and a PR nightmare for GM.

15. DeLorean DMC 12


Rounding off the theme of Hollywood cars we come to the base of one of the most popular time machines: the DeLorean DMC 12. Yes, as loved as this car may be it was also an awful car and possibly even a death trap. The car that was promised by John Z DeLorean wasn’t what was delivered as the only way to attach the stainless steel to the frame was to glue it to a fiberglass body that increased the weight and no engine could be found to offset it with horsepower. The gull-wing doors leaked in the rain and if the car ever rolled over or the electrics failed then they wouldn’t open at all. In the end, the DMC 12 was released late, underpowered, built by untrained workers, and cost more than a contemporary Porche 911. And Mr. DeLorean himself ended up arrested on drug trafficking charges which put the final nail in the car.

14. Fuller Dymaxion


I know what you’re thinking: this thing totally looks like the Planet Express delivery ship from Futurama. Strangely enough, you’re not that far off base. This three-wheeler concept was designed by R. Buckminster Fuller who conceived it as a flying automobile. It is supposed to have inflatable wings for lift and a jet engine for propulsion. The rear single wheel was incredibly wobbly and became very unstable in the crosswinds. This is a case of a vehicle that attempted to be everything and ended up being nothing.

13. Waterman Aerobile


Yes, we totally did hit the flying car part of this list. The Waterman Aerobile was the brainchild of Waldo Waterman who created the Aerobile after aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss casually remarked that he would like to drive away from an airfield. Unlike the Dymaxion, Waterman actually did build and fly a prototype called the Arrowplane back in 1934. The wings of the deathtrap plane folded back like a fly and it has been credited as the very first flying car. Two decades of development later and he unveiled the Aerobile which very few people had any interest in. Only one was built and is on display at the Smithsonian.

12. Briggs and Stratton Flyer


Your eyes do not deceive you, that image you see is absolutely a car. Or an automobile of some sort at least. The Briggs and Stratton Flyer was an attempt to create cheap automobile for the masses by, well, providing very little. There was no suspension, no windshield, no body, and no safety features of any kind. It did feature a two horsepower Briggs and Stratton engine which drove a fifth wheel in the back — so it had that going for it. Which is nice. Unfortunately, the Flyer wouldn’t be the last time a car company would try to offer a no frills vehicle.

11. King Midget


Yeah, you know that after saying the Flyer wouldn’t be the last time a car company would try to offer a no-frills vehicle that it would be followed up with another. In this case, it’s the King Midget which is an atrocious looking car. The whole thing was a $500 home-built car which didn’t even come with the body or engine. You’d needed to find a local tradesman to build the sheet metal body for you from the patterns supplied by the company and source your own single cylinder engine. Surprisingly, there were enough buyers to keep the company in operation between 1946 and 1970.

10. Chevrolet Cobalt


On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be too much wrong with the Chevy Cobalt. It was an uninspiring design that ended up being a good seller in the entry-level compact category. Utterly forgettable, so what gives? The reason it makes it onto this list is that there was a defect in its ignition switch which would cause the car to inexplicably turn off while still on the road. It would also deactivate all the safety systems of the car. Here’s the kicker, GM actually knew about the problem, did nothing, and then tried to cover it up. To date, the defect has claimed 90 lives along with another 163 serious injury claims.

9. Ford Pinto


Speaking of unsafe cars, we’d be amiss to not bring up the infamous Ford Pinto. Marrying the desire to produce a cheaper car along with an absolute lack of care for human life, here was a car that, when rear-ended, would burst into flames. The thing that floored everyone about this car was that not only did Ford know about the problem for years, but they also knew that a $1 part could correct the problem. So why didn’t they just install it? Turns out that reinforcing the rear end would cost $121 million, and that was more than the estimated payout to victims which ranged around $50 million. It was pure, ruthless numbers. Eventually, Ford reluctantly recalled 1.5 million Pintos but not before an estimated 900 people died due to the defect.

8. Ford Mustang II


The Ford Mustang II shared the same problems that the Camaro Iron Duke did. When it came time to redesign a legendary all-American muscle car, Ford cheaped out and made this disaster of a car. Not only was it heavier than the original Mustang but in order to meet the new fuel economy regulations, it featured a 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine that produced just 88 horsepower. Oh, while they were at it, they used the same base as the Ford Pinto. You know, the one they already knew would explode when you rear-ended the car.

7. Ford Model T


The Ford Model T revolutionized the car industry, motorized the entire United States, and created one of the most powerful economies ever. It is arguably one of the most famous automobiles ever. It is also a pile of crap that would kill you. If you thought the Ford Pinto saving $1 over the cost-analysis of savings people’s lives was a one-off then just take a look at the car that started it all. Its safety features were a horn and headlights and… actually, that’s about it. Henry Ford even refused to have front brakes installed on the vehicle just so he could keep costs low.

6. Scripps-Booth Bi-Autogo


I’m not even sure where to start with this one. At first glance, it looks like it could be a motorcycle. But then you notice one sits inside of it and steers with a wheel. Then you might have noticed the inexplicable copper tubing. Or you maybe the training wheels that keeps it upright at slower speeds (they’re raised at higher speeds). What is harder to notice is this motorcycle-mobile contraption weighed in at 3,200-lbs. and featured the world’s very first V8 engine. It was a prototype so only one was ever built, but it may still be a case of one too many.

5. Cadillac Cimarron


At this point, you might have noticed the running theme of normal looking cars that will kill you and so you may think this Cadillac Cimarron is in that category. You’d be wrong. In an effort to combat premium European cars in the ’80s, GM decided to take their cheap Chevy Cavalier and dress it up as a Cadillac they called the Cimarron and jack up the price. That’s it. All so they could try and charge twice as much for it. It’s like the car manufacturer didn’t even know that a premium luxury car is more than a name badge and a price. No one bought it and the Cimarron almost killed Cadillac in the process.

4. Overland OctoAuto


This car started off as a regular ol’ four-wheeled Overland from 1910 before a man by the name of Milton Reeves got his hands on it. Sure, by this time the basics of how a car work had been figured out but Reeves had a better idea — add more wheels. The OctoAuto was an enormous car that stretched 20 feet long and after it was launched at the Indianapolis 500, not a single person ordered one. Reeves must have learned his lesson that people didn’t want eight wheels on a car so the next year he tried to sell a six-wheeled version.

3. Edsel Corsair


“The name Edsel has become synonymous with disaster and failure.” Maybe it’s not fair to start with a quote badmouthing a car, but in this case, it comes from the very first line in the Edsel Owners Fanclub history page. From the absolutely god-awful looking style no one wanted to the poor manufacturing build, there were rumors that some of these cars came with a note explaining that some parts were missing and how to get the dealership to make the car whole. The line only lasted for three years but this automotive flop has become a legend.

2. Dodge La Femme


Here’s quite possibly one of the biggest slaps to the face of feminism. In the 50s, some exec at Dodge thought up the “brilliant” idea of making a car that was just for women. Options included only one paint job of choice (pink and white) and came with a purse and umbrella. That’s it. Otherwise, this was just a Dodge Royal Lancer with the words “La Femme” written across it. While we’re at it, why didn’t they name this after a greek goddess or something? They literally just slapped some paint on a Lancer and called it “The Woman” in French.

1. Horsey Horseless


At long last, we come to the worst idea for an automobile in human history: the Horsey Horseless. Yup, the plans for this thing came from a man named Uriah Smith and called for a regular car to have a wooden horse head bolted to the front of if. This thing was meant to transition people from the horse and buggy to an automobile but I suspect it was more likely to give other horses on the road nightmares. I can’t for the life of me think of a single person who would ever feel comfortable driving a car with a beheaded horse head attached to the front of it. Seriously, Mr. Smith, WTF were you thinking?

Sources: Time, CheatSheet

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