It was hardly surprising as the pages of the calendar flipped over to 1 January 2000, that the world began assembling its Best of the Century lists. From movies to music, advances in science to fashion, and from influential people and the moments that shaped the 20th century, ‘Best of…’ lists were everywhere.
The automotive world wasn’t immune to the charms of Greatest Hits lists, the definitive Car of the Century poll naming the Ford Model T at number one with Alec Issigonis’ iconic Mini just behind ahead of the Citroen DS, Volkswagen Beetle and rounding out the top five, the Porsche 911.
But even as the winners’ ink was still drying, the automotive world looked to another parameter to define the century when the automobile came of age.
As our cover story in Drive of 23 June, 2000 revealed, even as experts the world over were busy nominating the best cars of the 20th century, British motoring writers began assembling the worst. This is their list. RM
Story first published in Drive, 23 June 2000
Britain’s National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, southern England, this week opened an exhibition that brings together the worst and the best cars of the past 100 years.
The biggest battle for museum manager Roger Bateman was finding examples of cars that appeared in the “worst” list – and convincing owners to put them on display.
“That was a bit awkward,” he told Drive. “A lot of these people are enthusiasts and obviously they love their cars and want to defend them, not display them for ridicule.”
Is the museum expecting makers to cause a row? After all, the Jaguar XJ220, McLaren F1 and Volkswagen Beetle appear on the list despite their critical acclaim over the years.
“Not yet,” he said. “But that may change when the doors open. We don’t expect to get any negative reaction from the manufacturers, but we suspect some enthusiasts might not be too impressed.
“Anyway, it’s not us, it’s the newspaper which put the list together.”
The London Daily Telegraph’s motoring correspondents and readers compiled the 100-worst list to mark the new millennium and the end of the first century of motoring – and to deliver a riposte to the much-hyped Car Of The Century promotion, which installed the Ford Model T in the motoring pantheon.
Significantly, the VW Beetle featured in both. Here are some highlights – lowlights? – of the newspaper panel’s bad and ugly list.
The pert little Alfa Romeo Alfasud (1972-83) was a Jekyll and Hyde among cars. It was ominously manufactured in the shadow of a volcano – Vesuvius, on the outskirts of Naples – a site chosen under the Italian government’s regional development scheme.
The Sud was fun to drive but cruelly prone to rusting, like many other Italian cars of its day.
It had a good engine, sounded great but was also handicapped by a rather plasticky interior, dubious reliability and freefalling second-hand values. Canny Sud owners enjoyed a brief, bitter-sweet love affair – and quickly sold.
Short and ugly, overweight and underpowered, thirsty and dynamically dismal, the AMC Pacer (1975-80) inspired a famously scathing UK magazine headline, “We drive the AMC Pacer – and wish we hadn’t”. AMC soon withdrew from Britain.
A square-set, overweight horror, the Armstrong-Siddeley Sapphire (1952-58) seldom achieved better than 17 litres/100km from its 3.4-litre six-cylinder engine and was sarcastically known as “the rich man’s Rolls-Royce”, thanks to notoriously poor reliability and high running costs.
The Asia Rocsta (1994-98) had its strengths, but there weren’t many. It was brilliant at traversing deep lakes and climbing muddy hills. Not many people do this, however, and such abilities are no use when they can’t be combined with mastering level tarmac. A shoddily built, crook Jeep.
The same craftsmanship appeared to be used on the Aston Martin Virage (1988-92). It looked only partly finished, with highly variable panel gaps and strange inset headlamps. Its claimed 230kW felt barely enough to pull it out of its own weighty shadow. Ghastly build quality and dreadful engine installation added to the horrors.
Nicknamed “All aggro”, the Austin Allegro (1973-83) was pitiful. The most charitable explanation for this car is that it was part of a successful Communist plot to destroy Britain’s motor industry.
The Austin Metro (1980-90) conspicuously failed to replace the Mini. It was more spacious and much more comfortable – but it was just as crude and a good deal uglier.
BMW isn’t master of the universe after all. The huge BMW 850 coupe (1989-99) was lacking in most areas; a criminally cramped cabin, lacklustre performance, anodyne handling and all the charisma of wet sand. A second-hand snip, but who’d want one?
A costly mistake for GM, the Chevrolet Corvair (1960-69) was the car that launched the career of safety campaigner Ralph Nader. In extreme cornering the inside rear swing axle tucked under and caused dramatic rollovers. Corvairs are now favoured by collectors, who don’t drive them much.
The Chrysler Viper (1992-) is uncomfortable, badly made, with a cacophonous truck engine and a soft-top that Telegraph motoring contributor David Vivian aptly described as “like a crashed hang-glider”. It’s very quick, but unpleasant to drive and absurdly overpriced.
General Motors had sound reason for dropping the MkII Astra when it did: it was old and it was rubbish. Someone in Korea bought the tooling and dragged the venerable Vauxhall back to life as something else: the Daewoo Cielo (1995-97). It was a mistake.
British taxpayers spent millions on the DeLorean DMC12 (1981-82): conclusive proof that stainless steel is an excellent material for making kitchen sinks.
All Ferraris are good, right? Wrong. The Ferrari 400i (1979-89) was a cynical marketing exercise which betrayed the Ferrari ethos. This was a stumbling nag, not a prancing horse. Too big, too heavy and mostly fitted with a three-speed automatic, it should have been taken to the knackery.
The Ford Capri 1300 (1969-74) was billed as “The car you always promised yourself” – unless of course it was the base model, which had the power-to-weight ratio of a housebrick. It was soon axed – the only quick thing that ever happened to it.
The Ford Edsel (1958-60) was the archetypal motor industry disaster. The Telegraph‘s David Burgess-Wise called it “Ford’s most costly mistake” (estimate: between $250 and $350 million). Less certain is the cause of its failure: was it an economic recession, or the stylised representation on the grille of female genitalia that kept customers away?
With its gaping, ingenuous smiley mouth and its fat, matronly rump, the Ford Scorpio (1995-98), was one of the silliest-looking cars of the century. The sum of idiotic body parts, it was widely ridiculed during its short life, sold miserably and its unlamented early demise is proof that style matters.
Never before has a car that cost so much as the Jaguar XJ220 (1992-94) sounded so awful. For its exorbitant £415,000 price-tag, the ill-conceived Jaguar supercar was a visual firecracker that became a damp squib when its meagre V6 rattled to life.
The spartan Lada Riva (1982-), essentially a Soviet-built Fiat 124, went on sale in 1970 but was known as the Riva from ’82. Rough and rugged are two of the kindest words that spring to mind. The same money spent on a tractor would have delivered a lot more fun.
Build quality in the Lotus Esprit (1976-77) was appalling: under the rear compartment carpet, roughly hewn pieces of plywood were secured by four or five different sizes of bolt, presumably whatever was lying around. It tended to spin violently and irretrievably.
A wickedly slow WWII Willys Jeep replica, and diabolically built to boot, the Mahindra Jeep (1993-95) was so unspeakably bad that the PR man who left the keys in an example in a London car park commented: “Well, who do you think will steal it?”
The Maserati Biturbo (1981-87) was a desperate attempt to build an Italian BMW. Poor quality, vicious handling (especially on wet roads) and kitsch interior contrasted with numbingly bland styling. Silly price, too.
Schoolboys tell you the McLaren F1 (1994-98) is the world’s most amazing car. Grown-ups acknowledge that it’s the world’s most amazing waste of money – and not just because an annual sevice can cost the equivalent of $25,000.
But the F1’s thrusting central throne allows egotistical millionaires to demonstrate amazing car control as they cruise along motorways at 30 per cent of the car’s top speed. The McLaren doesn’t have a sun visor, presumably because owners wear shades all the time. Fair enough: anyone who buys a car this ugly must be blind.
The Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR (1999), like the McLaren a missile designed to win the Le Mans 24 Hours, was as unstable as it was fast. The drivers got the blame on the first two occasions the thing took off and flipped without explanation, so Benz went ahead and raced anyway. The third time it happened, on live TV, the penny dropped. Merc withdrew, later scrapping its sports car program.
Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph
The Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph (1998-), brought to you by “the makers of the best car in the world” (R-R) and the producers of “the ultimate driving machine” (BMW) should be a dream ticket but lacks space, grace and charm – Rolls and Royce would have cringed.
Made, incredibly, of pressed cardboard, the Trabant (1959-90) was the butt of many jokes, the most notable: “How do you repair your S Class after it has hit a Trabby at 240km/h? Switch on the headlamp washers.”
The Triumph Mayflower (1949-53) was an attempt to make a utilitarian version of a large limousine. Tragically ugly, with no handling to speak of and hardly any power. Of 35,000 made, almost all biodegraded, apart from a few in the hands of fanatics.
Basically a roofless Triumph 2000 sedan, the Triumph Stag (1970-77) had a disaster-prone V8 and a T-bar safety hoop, evidently to hold the monocoque body together. The stablemate TR7 (1975-81) was a stodgy two-seater sedan masquerading as a sports car. Its wedge-shaped body was its only distinctive feature.
A distinguished designer, on seeing the TR7 in profile, walked around the vehicle and said: “Oh no, they’ve done it to this side as well!”
Hindsight still cannot explain the popularity of the Volkswagen Beetle (1945-), with its abysmal handling, constipated sewing-machine engine and poor packaging. Clever advertising persuaded millions of otherwise right-thinking people to buy Adolf Hitler’s dream car and call it cute. Ferdinand Porsche stole the original design from Tatra’s Hans Ledwinka – who was jailed for Nazi collaboration; subsequent compensation payments nearly broke Volkswagen.
What do you think? Do you agree with this list from the year 2000? Which cars would you add? Let us know in the comments below.
Rob Margeit has been an automotive journalist for over 20 years, covering both motorsport and the car industry. Rob joined CarAdvice in 2016 after a long career at Australian Consolidated Press. Rob covers automotive news and car reviews while also writing in-depth feature articles on historically significant cars and auto manufacturers. He also loves discovering obscure models and researching their genesis and history.