A Brief History
On August 10, 1978, 3 members of a family died in a fiery crash when their Ford Pinto was rear-ended. The bolts on the differential were positioned in such a manner that in the case of a rear-end collision, the bolts would pierce the gas tank. Ford had known about the problem but chose not to correct it, electing to pay off lawsuits instead. We used this unfortunate incident to highlight those terrible flaws and features in cars and non-commercial trucks in our previous article, “10 Worst Car Features and Flaws Ever!” and today we add another 10 bad features and flaws of those motor vehicles foisted upon us by the ever benevolent automobile industry. As always, feel free to take exception to anything we listed here, and to nominate your own ideas about lousy aspects of cars and trucks. (For example, how about the cars during the 1970’s that rusted so fast, some actually had holes in their sheet metal while still on the dealers’ lots!)
1. Ford’s “Ignition control module.”
This “genius” little electronic box caused this author major headaches in both my 1985 Mustang and 1987 Crown Victoria. All of a sudden, the car would run horribly, bucking and spitting and eventually no longer running. Cranking the engine would lead to PTSD levels of frustration. On the Crown Victoria, the problem resulted in all the fuel injectors needing to be replaced as well as both catalytic converters. Adding insult to injury, the little black box could only be removed by using a special little thin-walled socket made for that specific purpose. The Ford mentally challenged engineers put the delicate electronics right there on the engine where the intense heat ruined the device, sometimes after a few years and sometimes after a few months. Later, they tried insulating the device against engine heat, with only moderate success. Apparently Chrysler’s experience with “lean burn” (see below) was not sufficient warning. Ford started mass producing this beauty in 1975, causing headaches for Ford owners for the next couple decades, though technology has finally caught up with the idea and such electronics are a vital part of almost all motor vehicles today.
2. Chrysler’s “Lean Burn” engine.
As the country reeled under the shock of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo and the subsequent steep rise in gasoline prices, coupled with ever increasing pollution control standards and then gas mileage standards, car companies went looking for ways to improve the efficiency of their engines, with the goals of improved gas mileage and decreased emissions. Chrysler came up with the first of the electronic spark advance systems in 1976, but unfortunately the technology was just not quite there yet. They persisted with their so called “lean burn” system into the 1980’s, but instead of gaining accolades and ever more customers all they got was headaches and complaints from stranded motorists. The electronics were neither up to the complicated task at hand nor robust enough to withstand the rigors of being in a hot engine compartment in all sorts of weather while jostling around a lot. The many feet of vacuum hoses and multiple sensors involved also created lots of opportunity for leaks and problems, though mechanics were grateful for all the work they received. Some enterprising Chrysler product owners and savvy mechanics simply got rid of the lean burn system and converted the cars to conventional carburetors and ignition, solving the problem of an unreliable car but doing no favors to the environment. Many other mechanics were baffled by problems with a system that did not register as faulty on the diagnostic device, leaving motorists without the use of their car for extended periods.
3. Cadillac 8-6-4 engine.
Cadillac was once known as “The Cadillac of Cars.” Seriously, once the car of choice by Elvis Presley, boxing champions, executives, pro golfers, Mitt Romney’s wife (he said during the 2012 presidential election campaign) and blue haired old ladies that inherited a ton of money, the most prestigious car brand in America became the victim of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy demon, or CAFE for short. In 1980, GM cut down the bore size of the big 472 and 425 cubic inch V-8 engines to make a more fuel efficient 368 cubic inch V-8 powerplant, still pretty big displacement, but no longer braggin’ size. Horsepower dropped to a paltry 145 ponies, hard to believe in 2020 when 4 cylinder engines regularly beat that without even needing a turbo. Then, in 1981, GM felt compelled to take things to the next (lower) level, by introducing the same engine with an electronically controlled system that would deactivate 2 or 4 of the cylinders by not giving them fuel and keeping the valves closed when the car was rolling along and not under load. When acceleration was needed, all 8 cylinders would be firing their little hearts out. Sadly, the system was before its time, and the Engine Control Module (computer gizmo) was not up to the task, as it was too slow and not sophisticated enough for the ambitious duties assigned to it. Topping off the insult to Cadillac buyers, horsepower once again dipped, this time to 140 horses. Performance of the 8-6-4 system on the L62 engine was so bad, dealers frequently disabled the system to allow their customers to have a true, full time V-8 powered luxury car. Despite crowing about their technological superiority, Cadillac ended up losing reputation points on this ill-advised system. Today, many vehicles use something similar, but with much better controls and smoother operation. Before giving up on the system, GM tried 13 upgrades to its ECM in a desperate attempt to make the device work.
4. Cadillac Cimarron.
General Motors was so big they seemed to get complacent and somewhat smug about it, doing idiotic things without regard to what the public needed or wanted, because they said so. In the 1980’s when foreign imports really started snatching a major share of the US domestic car market, GM decided they needed a small Cadillac to compete with the threat from BMW, Audi and other foreign small luxury cars. Hence, they took the Chevrolet Cavalier and dressed it up and slapped a Cadillac badge on it! Built and sold only from 1982 to 1988, the little Caddy even looked like the Cavalier, a car that was half the price! (Note: Looking like an economy car is not why people bought Cadillacs.) The original Cimarron came with a powerhouse of a 4 cylinder engine, a 1.8 liter monster that pumped out an astounding 88 horsepower. Seriously, we are not kidding, a 4 cylinder Cadillac that only had 88 ponies! In 1983, the wizards at General Motors engineering increased the size of the Cimarron engine to 2.0 liters and gave it fuel injection. Yippee! Oh, horsepower actually went DOWN to 86! In 1985, a V-6 was offered, increasing power to 130 horses, but the damage was done. The little Caddy that couldn’t was doomed as an industry joke. In 1987, the V-6 became standard. Too late! If you want to read more about the failed Cadillac Cimarron, just look up articles listing the worst car flops, the worst cars of all time, automotive blunders and the like.
5. Jaguar X-Type alignment.
In 2003, this author made the loving gesture of buying his wife her dream car, an actual, real, made in England 2004 Jaguar! An X-Type with all wheel drive and the larger 3.0 litre engine, the car drove like a dream and went through snow and bad weather without any effort. Unfortunately, the car ate tires. After only a few thousand miles the low profile, high performance tires were badly worn in a highly uneven manner. Distraught to discover this situation, we got the car’s alignment checked and adjusted. A few thousand miles later, after replacing the now shot tires, the same situation developed. (The tires were expensive, at least to us, around $200 apiece.) After several different shops “aligned” the wheels, nothing would prevent terribly uneven wear of the tires. This highly irritating situation turned out to be a common complaint about the X-Type, which we found out by surfing the net. We also foundout the transmission was another problem area, though we did not have any such problems. Articles on the web warned of repair bills in the $6000 range if the transmission went bad. Sadly, we traded in the car in 2010, reluctant to foray into the luxury car segment after this aggravating experience.
6. Radio Antenna embedded in windshield.
We first encountered this feature when we bought a used 1977 Oldsmobile Delta 88. Although it eliminated the annoying aspect of power antenna motors that broke down and having to manually raise and lower the telescoping radio antenna (yes, that is how they used to be) or having your antenna ripped off by the revolving brushes at the local car wash, reception sucked! Radio reception was markedly worse than having an external antenna for your radio, a highly irritating situation, though admittedly not a safety factor. Later, cars came with non-telescoping highly flexible antennas that pretty much solved the problem, and now of course the small fin-like external antenna works pretty good without presenting a problem.
7. Narrow track of Jeep CJ.
CJ, as in “civilian jeep.” After American GI’s fell in love with the mighty Jeep during World War II, it was obvious that a commercial market for the uber useful utility vehicle would be available. Et voila! The Jeep CJ! Willys-Overland had the Jeep franchise from 1944 to 1953 when the nameplate became the sole property of Willys Motors until 1963, when Kaiser-Jeep took the baton and produced the famous 4X4. In 1971, American Motors acquired the rights to make the CJ, and did so until Chrysler Corporation (now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, FCA) took over stewardship of the brand in 1987. (Note: Major Dan drives a 2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk and claims it is the best quality car he has ever owned. Dr. Zar drives a 2016 Jeep Patriot High Altitude, and likewise, it is the best quality car he has ever owned.) The original military jeep quarter ton truck was made with a unit body instead of a body on frame and was deliberately narrow in order to pass between obstacles such as boulders and trees. It was not intended as a road car in the normal sense, and the proclivity to roll over during a high speed turn was not a normal factor in driving the vehicle off road. With a 60 horsepower motor, the military version weighed about 2337 pounds empty. Supposedly capable of 65 mph, you were lucky to get 60 mph out of a military jeep. As the first mass produced civilian 4 wheel drive vehicle, the Jeep CJ had its niche and earned a warm place in the heart of many Americans and other people throughout the world as the most off-road worthy vehicle that was still street legal. Of course, competitors did make an appearance, but being the original, the Jeep brand was something special. Unfortunately, not everyone who owned a Jeep CJ was savvy about operating the vehicle. Jacking the body up to raise ground clearance and putting on taller tires were typical modifications made by owners. Even unmodified, the CJ was prone to rolling over when handled in a sharp turn and was blasted in the press about this unfortunate proclivity, notably in a 1980 episode of the CBS television show, 60 Minutes.. Hence, in 1987 the CJ gave way to the new Jeep Wrangler, still body on frame and still solid axle, but with a lower ground clearance and a wider track to lessen the likelihood of a roll over in a sharp turn. (In 1979, Major Dan, then Lieutenant Dan, was a passenger in a USMC CJ4 when the driver tried making a 90 degree turn at about 50 mph, rolling the Jeep on its side. The Jeep had a hard top and although not seat belted in, the driver, Captain, Major and Lieutenant were all ok, though the gas line ruptured. No fire, but no ride, either. And yes, the vehicle was a CJ and not a regular military jeep.) While still more likely to roll over than a standard type of automobile, the Jeep Wrangler is also made for normally driving on regular pavement and is incredibly more comfortable, luxurious, safer, and sadly, more expensive than the previous CJ type of Jeep.
8. ESS (Engine Start-Stop).
The curse of the ESS is upon us! Many newer cars have this feature designed to save gasoline, but we suspect it is more of a gimmick than a useful feature, a way to “game” the system of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) required by the EPA. When stopped at a traffic light or for some other reason while the car is in “Drive” and the driver has his/her foot on the brake, the engine automatically shuts off, re-starting when the brake is released and the gas pedal is pressed. If there is a more annoying feature in new cars, this author is unaware of it. Car makers claim they use “heavy duty” batteries and charging systems along with “heavy duty” starters to cope with the added stress of a bazillion stop and starts per trip, but seriously, there has to be increased wear and tear on the starting components and engine due to such voluminous numbers of repetitive starting cycles. At least this foul trick on the consumer can be turned off, although in many vehicles you have to turn off the feature every single time you start a car trip.
9. GPS controls disabled when moving.
Many cars and trucks have a safety feature built in their GPS/Navigation systems, that is you cannot fiddle with the controls while the car is in “Drive.” Sure, this is indeed a good feature for a vehicle with only the driver, but is annoying as heck when there is a perfectly good front seat passenger that could otherwise be capable of fiddling with the GPS, searching for a restaurant or changing the destination, etc. All part of the all knowing, all seeing nanny state, we presume…
10. Your Vehicle Spies on You…
The most insidious and irritating of all these flaws and features we have listed in this article (and the previous article), the worst of the bunch is your own car spying on you. With all those computers in your vehicle, technicians can download all sorts of information about your driving history including how fast you were going when you engaged your brakes before an accident, before the airbag deploys, etc. What was your top speed driven in that car? The computer knows and cannot wait to tell on you! You have GPS/Navigation? They can track everywhere you are and have been. The Event Data Recorder (EDR) keeps a rolling record of what the car was doing in the event of a crash. The OnStar feature originally found on premium GM vehicles was perhaps the first to be outed as amassing information about drivers and selling it to insurance companies. (They say they no longer do that. Rigggghhhhttt…) In fact, the accident/emergency feature of OnStar and other systems when activated by hitting the emergency communication button can listen to whatever is going on in the vehicle, including private conversations if the button is hit inadvertently! In one case of accidental button pushing, a drug deal was overheard by the OnStar operator who reported it to the cops! In that particular case, the driver (who became the arrestee) was not even an OnStar subscriber! Obviously, the ability to track a vehicle can be of extreme value to law enforcement, and it appears the Feds at least have been taking advantage of this fact for quite a few years now. Even your beloved and bedamned satellite radio keeps track of you and can be accessed by law enforcement agencies! (Note: In a similar fashion, your cell phone can also be used to track your whereabouts and your comings and goings, and of course it can also be hacked for cops or criminals to listen in on.) Making matters even worse (Is that possible?), many cars and trucks have electronically limited top speed, usually to coincide with the speed rating on the tires the vehicle is equipped with. So much for liberty and freedom! And then there are programmable key fobs supposedly for teenage drivers so that parents can limit how fast the car is driven and other parameters to cramp the youngster’s lifestyle. In fact, husbands and wives can pull that number on each other with such a system, and so do rental companies.
Question for students (and subscribers): What is the single worst car flaw or feature to you? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Chapman, Giles. Worst Cars Ever Sold. Sutton Publishing, 2007.
Porter, Richard. Top Gear: Epic Failures: 50 Great Motoring Cock-Ups. BBC Books, 2015.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by dave_7 from Lethbridge, Canada of a slightly rough looking 1978 Ford Pinto with a V6, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. This image was originally posted to Flickr by dave_7 at https://www.flickr.com/photos/21612624@N00/1333839212. It was reviewed on by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.