The Top 10 Post World War II Automotive Flops
Every new car launch is fraught with anticipation inside the walls of its maker. Odds are it will find a modicum of success, but there’s always the looming specter of it failing to rub the buying public the right way. And the following ten vehicles failed to connect with the public worse than any others manufactured after World War II. These are the vehicles that bellyflopped onto the market with a deafening “THUD,” seemingly superglued to the showroom floor, washed with nuclear reactor cooling water and finally hand-dried with Ebola-infested towels. Here, in no particular order, are the top 10 post World War II automotive flops.
The early- and mid-1950s were salad days for the American automobile industry, so much so that, during this time, Ford Motor Company decided it needed to add another mid-priced brand to its lineup to fill the price and prestige gap between Ford and Mercury and give the company a more direct competitor for the likes of Oldsmobile and DeSoto. When the autumn of 1957 rolled around, the new division – Edsel, named after Henry Ford’s only son – arrived with 13 models spread across four series: The Ford-based Ranger and Pacer and the Mercury-based Corsair and Citation, plus five Ford-based station wagons, and they were chock full of nifty Jet Age features like a rolling-dome speedometer and automatic transmission selector buttons on the steering wheel hub. It seemed to be a recipe for success…
Alas, as we all know, the Edsel program was anything but a success. Quality control snafus, polarizing styling (led by the “horse collar” grille) and an economic recession conspired to keep first-year Edsel sales well below projections. In fact, for ’59, the line was cut back to two Ford-based ranges (Ranger and Corsair) and a pair of Villager four-door wagons. By 1960, only the Ranger and Villager remained, and they shared more parts than ever with the full-size Ford.
Ford announced it was axing the brand on November 19, 1959, so a mere 2,846 ’60 Edsels were made. Officially, the Edsel debacle cost Ford $350 million at the time, or about $2.8 billion in 2015 money. No automotive venture before or since has tanked harder.
Chevrolet introduced the world to the SSR (short for Super Sport Roadster) Concept at the 2000 Detroit Auto Show, and there was no shortage of people imploring the company to build a production version. So for 2003, Chevrolet dutifully did just that, retaining almost all of the concept’s ‘50s Chevy pickup styling and power retractable hardtop. And…buyers were few and far between.
Maybe it was the steep price (about $42,000 to start), or the distinct lack of usability as a truck in terms of payload, towing and bed capacity, or it could have been the single, rather ho-hum drivetrain combination (300 horsepower 5.3L V8 and 4-speed automatic transmission). Whatever the reason, Chevy dealers soon found themselves drowning in SSRs with a 301 day supply. The replacing of the 5.3L with a 390 horsepower LS2 6.0L V8 and the addition of a 6-speed manual transmission to the options sheet in 2005 assuaged complaints that the throwback muscle trucklet wasn’t very muscular, but the other issues remained, leading GM to pull the plug at the end of a shortened 2006 model year.
You know the eons-old parental admonishment, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” Well, Acura product planners clearly didn’t when they greenlit the ZDX, a fastback crossover four-door coupe thingamabob in the same mold as the BMW X6. But while the Bimmer has been able to coast along on the back of sporty driving dynamics, a decent selection of powertrain choices and the bug-light-like pull of the BMW badge, the ZDX had none of those things. All it really had going for it was solid Honda/Acura quality and engineering and Acura’s robo-parrotfish grille. Production ended in 2013 after a wildly-disappointing, painful-to-watch five year run, but be honest: Do you miss it?
Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet
We’re quite sure a drama series set in the behind-the-scenes machinations and politics of a car company could be the next critics’ darling/ratings bonanza for AMC/HBO/Showtime/whoever. And the plot of one episode would center around the development of a two-door convertible version of one of the company’s popular crossovers because the wife of one of the higher-ups wanted it. Legend has it that’s how the Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet came to be, and whether there’s any truth to that or not, the fact remains that this droptop bombed hard.
It wasn’t particularly practical or good looking (especially with the top up, when the shape required dual rear windows to be able to have even a tiny sliver of rear visibility), but the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was the asking price: $47,200. No, that’s not a typo. If you didn’t see this thing’s cancellation coming 20 miles away, please get your eyes checked.
In January 2001, Volkswagen wowed the motoring world by presenting the Microbus Concept at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Much like the Concept One of seven years earlier (and the production New Beetle that it beget), it was a modern front-engine, front-drive reimagining of an iconic air-cooled model from early in the company’s history, in this case the T1 Transporter (a.k.a. Microbus). The concept’s reception from the public and the media alike was overwhelmingly positive, so much so that the following June the company announced it was developing a production version based on the latest T5 Transporter van.
Unfortunately, the project was delayed and eventually cancelled, much to the disgust of VW’s U.S. dealer body, which was left without a minivan to sell after production of the T4-based Eurovan ended at the conclusion of the 2003 model year. So to fill this gap, Volkswagen management signed a deal with what was then DaimlerChrysler that would see the latter manufacture a restyled, Volkswagen-badged version of its standard-bearer Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country for North American Volkswagen dealers to sell. The Routan, as it was named, looked pleasant enough and was priced competitively, but it had at least three strikes against it: First, there was the fact that you could buy basically the same vehicle (with nifty Stow‘n Go or Swivel’n Go second row seats, which Mother Mopar kept to itself) at a Dodge dealership for a little bit less or a slightly-better-equipped version at a Chrysler dealership for a little bit more. Second, there was the Routan’s rather screwy marketing campaign built around Brooke Shields. And third, by the time the Routan was introduced as a 2009 model, the shine was well and truly wearing off the minivan segment; three-row crossovers were (and still are) where it’s at for American family vehicle buyers.
So how badly did the Routan flop? Well, for the final two years of production that VW was under contract to buy them from Chrysler (2013 and ’14), they were only available to fleet buyers because there was basically no demand from individual civilian customers.
When is a pickup truck not a pickup truck? When someone decides to make a pickup truck that’s completely useless for doing typical pickup truck things, that’s when! That was the fatal flaw of the 2002 Lincoln Blackwood, a crew-cab luxury truck made from a grab bag of full-size Ford and Lincoln pickup and SUV parts. However, the Blackwood’s bed was bespoke. It was skinned in composite with fake wood veneer, while the inside featured stainless steel walls and plush carpeting on the floor. Access was via a power-lifting hard tonneau cover and a pair of swing-out Dutch doors rather than a conventional bottom-hinged tailgate.
Lincoln reckoned it could sell about 18,000 of the $52,500 Blackwoods per anum; in reality, a mere 3,356 left the factory near Kansas City, Missouri before Ford management put the model out of its misery. Turns out not too many people are interested in an expensive truck that’s barely more versatile than a car (Shocking, right?).
Considering the Toyota Prius’ status as the pioneering modern gas-electric hybrid vehicle, a luxury-oriented dedicated hybrid model for sister brand Lexus seemed like a slam dunk. The HS250h (the second “h” standing for hybrid) was based on the Toyota Avensis and Scion tC, but wore a handsome – if generic – four-door sedan body, with power from a 2.4L Atkinson Cycle inline-four and electric motor combination similar to the one found in the contemporary Toyota Camry Hybrid.
Stronger-than-anticipated demand for the HS in Japan (where a Toyota-badged version, the Sai, was also available) prompted Lexus officials to lower the model’s U.S. allocation and sales forecast. Sales during the first model year (2009) were okay, and crested 10,000 units the following year. However, an HS-specific safety recall (as well as the general hysteria surrounding instances of unintended acceleration among Toyota and Lexus vehicles) kicked the model’s already shaky legs right out from under it, as 2011 sales plunged to 2,864 examples. After an abbreviated 2012 model year, Lexus executives yanked the HS from the brand’s lineup, though kept it alive in Japan, where it received a facelift in 2013 and is still available.
The HS’s rather nondescript styling also likely played a part in its inability to resonate with U.S. buyers, many of whom want a hybrid that looks like a hybrid so they can broadcast their superiority (ecological and otherwise) to the world. In any event, the Lexus HS was a rare swing-and-a-miss for the Toyota juggernaut.
Around the same time Mercedes-Benz was rebuilding itself from the ashes of World War II on the strength of premium models like the 300 “Adenauer” and 300SL, BMW was harboring similar aspirations. The Bavarian outfit already had the 501 luxury sedan, and would soon introduce an evolution of it – the 502 – powered by the company’s new 2.6L pushrod V8, but management wanted to woo even more prestige buyers, particularly over here. To accomplish this, the firm developed the 503, a high end 2+2 grand tourer available in both coupe and convertible guise. Power came from a peppier 3.2L version of the 502’s V8, which was matched to a 4-speed manual transmission.
Max Hoffman, the U.S. distributor for BMW (as well as many other European brands) at the time, hoped to be able to sell 503s for about $5,000, or roughly12,000 Deutschmarks. But by the time production began in May of 1956, the cost had ballooned to 29,500 Deutschmarks, or 3,000 more than BMW’s equally-new 507 roadster. At that price, it shouldn’t come as a shock that very, very few 503s found homes, and just 413 were produced over a span of four years. The 503 and 507 programs very nearly bankrupted BMW, and it was only a dealer and shareholder revolt that blocked a proposed sellout to, ironically enough, Mercedes-Benz.
With the last two mainstream automakers still building cars in Australia – Ford and GM’s Holden – set to close their production facilities in the next couple of years, it’s hard to believe that the continent/nation was once home to a red hot new car market. So hot was the Australian market, in fact, that British Leyland developed its own large car – the P76 – to go against the dominant Ford Falcon, Holden Kingswood and Chrysler Valiant. Despite being the right size and being endowed with distinctive styling and a pair of engine choices (a 2.6L Austin inline-six and a 4.4L version of the aluminum V8 Rover acquired from Buick), labor strife and quality lapses – two BL bugbears that infamously dogged the company back home in the U.K. – stymied efforts to ramp up production to the volume needed to keep the program (and, by extension, Leyland Australia) afloat. Planned station wagon and coupe versions never entered production, while production of the sedan petered-out in late 1974 after just two years and 18,007 units. Bugger…
Most people who don’t follow the auto industry don’t seem to grasp just how long the lead times for introducing new production cars are. Even in the current age of computer-aided design and rapid prototyping, three or four years of ‘round-the-clock design and development work is still the norm, which should make it a little easier to understand the unfortunate case of the Kia Borrego. The Borrego, you see, was Kia’s crack at building an American style large-ish, body-on-frame, V8-optional SUV. It had all the ingredients needed to succeed…except timing.
This Korean family trickster arrived as a 2008 model, right when the global economy was starting to defecate all over the mattress and gas prices were on the rise. Sales of traditional big body-on-frame SUVs crashed harder than almost any other segment of the market, dragging the Borrego to an early grave (though it is apparently still available in Russia, the Middle East and a handful of Asian markets).