The Cars That Drove Detroit's Customers Away

Why GM, Ford, and Chrysler can’t escape the lemons of the past

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When I wrote recently about 10 cars that sank Detroit, I was too stingy. Apparently, there are way more than 10.

Hundreds of readers wrote to ask how we could have left the Chevy Nova off the list, or the Pontiac Aztek, or a number of other models that left a long legacy of buyer's remorse.

Many of Detroit's notorious bombs date to the 1970s and 1980s, and the car companies' offerings are much better today. But car buyers have long memories--and many remain unmoved by the current plight of the Detroit automakers. General Motors and Chrysler are now at the government's mercy, in need of billions in federal aid just to stay afloat. If they don't fulfill tough government demands, Chrysler could be forced into bankruptcy by early April, GM by early May. Ford hasn't asked for bailout money, but it's bleeding cash too.

The Detroit 3 have been hoping that Americans will rally to support the home team. But instead, more than half of Americans oppose the auto bailout. One reason is that they feel repeatedly disappointed--even swindled--by the companies now asking for their help. Virtually every automaker, including Honda and Toyota, has produced a clunker or two. But the following cars left behind particularly noxious memories, often because the companies that built them refused to help fix the problems. Here's how some of the owners themselves feel about the cars and the companies that built them:

Chevrolet Vega (1970s). "I had a 1972 Vega. My family struggled to purchase the car for me as their contribution to college, as I was putting myself through school. I loved the car. It was zippy and great for a college student.

“Then two years later, the car simply died. The aluminum-block engine had cracked under heat. I was told I could replace the engine, but lacking resources, I sold it as junk. A two-year-old car!

“I returned to walking and rarely came home from college.

“A small car born during the first gas crisis had great potential, but GM's arrogance doomed it and sent millions of potential buyers to Toyota, Nissan, Honda, etc. Wake up, Detroit!" –Robert Marino, Gillette, N.J.

[See if the Chevy Vega is the worst Detroit car of all-time.]

Ford Mustang II (1970s). "I don't know if this is one of the cars that sank America, but as my first car, my Ford Mustang II certainly sank ME-- and started me on a long road of hating American-made cars. Never mind the oil pump that couldn't pump oil (the valves would routinely grind themselves into oblivion), or how I'd literally find puddles of oil--in the air filter. As I grew older and began to understand the importance of branding and saw the emotional way people bond with their cars, I wondered, did the world even need a four-cylinder Mustang? Clearly, even as far back as 1978, a lot was wrong in Detroit." –Monty Nicol, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

[See who might gain from Detroit’s pain.]

Chevrolet Nova (1970s). "I learned to drive in a ’72 Nova. I love Novas for sentimental reasons. However, I cursed them at the time. No one I knew had one whose radiator didn’t leak. If it wouldn’t put so many people out of work, I’d say good riddance to Detroit.” –John Waldron, Land O’Lakes, Florida

[See why bankruptcy might benefit GM.]

Dodge Omni (1970s–1980s). “The worst car I ever bought. At 200 miles, I had to take it in to get the carburetor gasket replaced. The four-speed shift linkage was held together with plastic clips. After the first clip broke and disconnected the transmission from the shift lever, I always carried spare clips ($1 at the dealer). I went through four or five distributor caps. They would crack, the car would run rough, and the catalytic converter would overheat. It is scary looking at a converter glowing a dull orange-red color! I went through several alternators--the bearings would seize. Finally, at about 80,000 miles, the engine was getting 300 miles to a quart of oil and running hot--and I do take care of my cars. Then a teenage driver hit the car and his insurance company took it off my hands. I haven’t bought a Chrysler car since (except a 1969 Dodge Charger muscle car for fun driving)." –Jim Miller, Lakeville, Minn.

[Tell us what you would do to fix the Detroit automakers:]

Oldsmobile Cutlass and 98 diesels (1980s). "I bought an Olds Diesel in '78. It was big and comfortable and got great mileage. I wanted to keep it forever. But GM made sure this was a car that would not last forever. The engine self-destructed regularly because GM took a gas engine and converted it to diesel. The fuel injection failed. Others had problems with the transmission, which was undersized for the job. I got rid of it and haven't owned an American car since. Toyotas last forever." –Michael Keiser, San Leandro, Calif.

[Read six myths about GM, Ford, and Chrysler.]

Buick Skylark (1980s, similar to Chevy Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, and Oldsmobile Omega). “The original 1950s Skylark was a fascinating design effort. So they hung onto the name and eventually slapped it on a bottom-of-the-line sedan, where they forgot everything they may ever have known about quality. The body-parts fit was terrible (I could slip my finger between the trunk lid and the body). The interior was cheap, shoddy and plastic. The seating was apparently designed by those who never sit down--the front seat was effectively level on the sitting part, which meant you were inclined to slide forward. There was no attention given to those who might drive more than a mile in the thing at a time. It was insulting to the intelligence of the American public.” –Tom Anthony, York, Maine

[See 10 cars that could help salvage Detroit.]

Dodge Neon (introduced in 1994). “The first generation was cool because it was different. Then, the all-new model was introduced in 2000, with a standard three-speed automatic transmission. In 2000! My 1997 Hyundai Elantra commuter car came standard with a four-speed automatic. The Neon also had ridiculous reliability and durability issues, and younger customers were alienated from the lack of a two-door. It's almost as if Chrysler assumed people would buy their cars even though this one was at least a step behind.” –Matthew Boisvert, Windsor, Ontario, Canada

[See one way for Chrysler to exit the scene.]

Chevy Lumina (1990s). “Another ‘futuristic’-looking vehicle that was made of such inferior materials that, while the six-cylinder engine may last forever and the plastic body may never rust, the plastic everything else is constantly breaking. (Who in their right mind would make the guts of door latch assemblies out of plastic? When they break, you can't open the door.). Plus, the glass costs more than the vehicle. If you don't believe me, ask a glass shop what they charge for a replacement 1990 Lumina APV windscreen sometime. The price is invariably three times the Kelley Blue Book value of the vehicle itself in near-mint condition.” –Carl Bibbee, Lancaster, Ohio

[See why America is shunning GM.]

Pontiac Aztek (2001–2005). "Arguably, the ugliest, least desirable vehicle ever designed by GM. They took an otherwise acceptable SUV platform (shared with the Buick Rendezvous), gave it a drooping rear--which served to reduce interior volume and looked dreadful as well--plastered it with plastic body cladding, and then gave it a face only a mother could love. The thing had so many odd creases and bizarre angles, it looked as if it had been in a wreck sitting there on the showroom floor." –Bruce Lindner, Milwaukie, Ore.

Pontiac Montana (late 1990s/early 2000s, similar to Chevy Venture and Oldsmobile Silhouette). “We bought a used 2000 Pontiac Montana in 2003. During the next two years, we poured over $6,000 in repairs into this horrible vehicle. This van had the six-cylinder engine that we were told was the ‘backbone of the GM fleet.’ Two separate times we had to replace the intake gasket, at an average cost of over $700. I sent E-mails to GM about this. It was a problem with the engine coolant. When a GM vice president called my wife, he stated, ‘Well, you do realize that this vehicle does have over 65,000 miles on it?’ GM lost my business for the rest of my car-buying days, and possibly also that of my teenage children, who were amazed at the lack of action on the part of GM.

“I now own an Audi. Why would I ever buy another car from them with so many other car brands available? I often wonder if the executive who contacted us got a nice bonus.” –Don Boyer, Midland, Mich.

Updated on 4/2/09: An earlier version of this story was published before the Obama administration outlined the terms of its auto-bailout plan.