TCS Daily

Yugos Happen: The Lure of Crap Cars

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - January 12, 2006 12:00 AM

As the Detroit Auto Show focuses on the flash and glamour of a host of new offerings from auto manufacturers this week, it might be time for a little antidote to the hype. Here it is, a fun little book called "Crap Cars," the recent work of Richard Porter, a British automobile writer.

It's filled with photographs and some brief, acid, and sometimes amusing commentary on "fifty of the most craptastic cars ever to hit the American highway."

Some people -- for instance, those who somehow happened to have a good experience in an AMC Pacer or a Chevy Vega -- may be a little hurt as they turn the pages of this book. Even the most pathetic car may attain in some eyes that peculiar aura that surrounds ugly puppies and crooked Christmas trees and wins them the embrace of the few. So, let us stipulate that, yes, to some small extent in the automotive world crap is in the eye of the beholder.

But bad cars generally speak for themselves in a sorry, head-shaking kind of way that is hard to deny. A Yugo is a Yugo is a Yugo. And if Porter's brief commentary on his crap picks sometimes comes off a bit too snarky and sophomoric, the book still teaches an enduring lesson: Crap cars are testaments to what can happen when supposedly smart people somehow get adrift from the market and its realities.

Crappy Renault Fuegos and barely creeping General Motors EV1s are fascinating affronts to our own common sense. How, we ask ourselves, could so many engineers, designers and decision makers spend so many hours, so much money and so much mental capital and still make such horrendous mistakes?

Sometimes it's because of a kind of blind, desperate pride. Thus, Cadillac, over-reacting to an "energy crisis" and down-sizing like hell in the early 1980s, really thought it could blow one past the consumer by infusing the rapidly diminishing prestige of the Caddy name into a lowly Chevy Cavalier. Beginning in 1982, Cadillac "management" stuffed the "Cimarron" with leather, festooned it with "gold packages," hung it with "driving lights" and luggage racks and vinyl cladding, and tried to sell it at twice the price of the pedestrian Chevy it so closely resembled. It took Cadillac until 1988 to finally give up in embarrassment.

Sometimes it's because a mistake can be profitable -- like the legendary cheap razors made not to shave but to sell. The few limping, smoking, heaving little Chrysler K-cars you see on the road today look pretty sad with their orange peel paint jobs and curling plastic chrome trim. But they were cheap and they generally got from point A to point B, albeit with a lot of wind, road and engine noise. They sold well enough between 1981 and 1989 to help pull Chrysler out of the downward spiral that had sent it begging for a Federal bailout.

Porter's book hits most of the predictable examples of craptacity -- the dreadful, "what-were-they-thinking" Pontiac Aztek, the American Motors Gremlin, the truly pathetic and embarrassing Ford Mustang II of 1974, the scandalously chintzy Cadillac Cimarron, and that stainless steel sick joke, the DeLorean, to mention a few.

But some of his picks may surprise or offend some brand loyalists. To Porter, the iconic Volkswagen Beetle is "a dismal Nazi staff car with its engine in the wrong place." He finds that "it's noisy, it's uncomfortable, and it has such a pathetic heater that on cold days you'd be better off setting fire to your hair."

He sounds a little too tree-huggingly political in his dismissal of the Hummer H1. And his put-down of the Pininfarina-designed Rolls-Royce Camargue (1975-86) as "a fat man sitting on a bar stool" is a bit strained.

But all in all he has parted the miasmic mist of the past to recall some lesser-known or thankfully forgotten crapmobiles, like the weird 1991-93 Nissan NX, for instance, a coupe with a sort of snap-on rear end that could convert it to a tiny station wagon. Or, how about that Suzuki X90, and the 1989 Dodge Dakota convertible (that's right, convertible) pick-up truck? When you see either of these on the road you have a distinct sense that something bad has just happened or is about to happen.

And of course the Yugo is here. The Yugo! It made its debut in 1985 selling for $4000. (A tiny, stripped Ford Escort cost just under $6000). It looked like it was made of linoleum. Its electricals were like the wiring on a grade school science project. It turned mechanics and auto parts jockeys into stand-up comedians. (Man walks into auto parts store. "Can I get a carburetor for a Yugo?" Parts man ponders. "Maybe... if you can throw in some cash with the car.") Crap, yes, but the crap of legend.

I think Porter missed some real crappers. One of my candidates would be those shameful vinyl clad hogs that Ford Motors tried to pass off as "Thunderbirds" between 1977 and 1982. But there's plenty here to entertain car lovers and car haters. And almost enough evidence to convince us that maybe Homer Simpson really has been called in by automakers from time to time to consult on new products.



Just so you know I do read your articles
Dad, you neglected to mention that you OWNED one of those Cadillac Cimarrons!

Oh, but maybe that wasn't the point.

Sorry! :)


Great piece
Another good one Ralph.
My crap car was Datson 120Y. My first car though so I loved it.

Build What the Customer Wants and Needs
You hit upon a key point.
Companies need to build what their customers think they want, what they say they want and what they need.
How do they know what to make? Ask them and observe them and be ready to make changes.
And you can still build a crap car. Toyota isn't perfect but they ceartainly seem to make what we need and want.
(Did you see the new Camero? Looks like the new Dodge.)

Cadillac Cinamistake
Dooalot, he also pawned it off on your Mom pretty quickly. Now there's a man that knows his crap!


LOVE my X90!!
I haven't read the Crap Cars book yet but I see from the article that X90 is listed. I have a 1996, have never had ANY problems with it. Check out my way cool ride at

When you get to my homepage, scroll down to link "My Car" :-)

I got the Crap Car book :-)
VERY funny, great photos. He sure picked on my Suzuki X90. I guess I am an "idiot Barbie" LOL

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