Through the nostalgic filter of my rose tinted spectacles it is easy to see the 1980s as an age of extremes. At the time it seemed largely rubbish of course, with rubbish synth bands crowding out the rare indie gems and rubbish clothes, lots and lots of them. Now, 30 years on, it is all quite different. And even the 70s are cool. Whodathought?
One woman, of course, embodied these extremes of good and bad – Mrs Thatcher. Even at the time we either thought she was mad or magnificent. Following her staunchly black and white approach to the concept of doing things well, several car manufacturers in the 80s gave us extremely bad cars. In the decade that fashion forgot – which, in retrospect, may be every decade – we had two types of extremely bad cars. We had obviously bad cars, that we laughed and pointed at, and subtly bad cars that we all bought because those evil marketing bods told us they were brilliant. Damn those wicked, wicked marketeers.
So here is a list of the usual suspects – the obviously bad. Later, when I’ve recovered, there’ll be a subtly bad list.
Compiling this list was like shooting fish in a barrel. The 80s produced so many wilfully bad cars that choosing just 10 is probably the hardest part of putting this article together.
Few cars sum up the 80s quite like the stainless steel wonder from Belfast. It tops the list because it let down every schoolboy in the land. Here was a home-grown, out-of-this-world sports car that wanted to take on the world. It had gullwing doors for goodness sake. None of us really knew why but it did. And yet not only did it all go horribly, horribly wrong very quickly but the car itself was utterly useless. I say this with considerable experience of driving and living with one. Inevitably the DeLorean is a bitza, combining proprietary parts from around the world. You’d have thought that with millions to play with DeLorean could have sourced the best of everything. Perhaps he thought he did. But to my mind the engine out of a Volvo 260, the switchgear from a Rover SD1 and the chassis from an under-developed Lotus don’t spell Best Practice. The DeLorean handles quite well, sounds great and rides well but none of that matters much when you can hardly see where you’re going and you’re worried about it falling to bits. Which it did. When I discovered that the front suspension design was developed with an inbuilt Death Wish that would see it eventually and inevitably collapse I decided never to inflict a DeLorean on anyone ever again. I wonderful experiment in form over function.
2. Yugo 45
The fascinating story of the Yugo 45 is detailed in an excellent book by Jason Vuic but if you haven’t got time to read it here is a summary – rubbish. Yugoslavia wanted exports so it decided to develop a world car, the 45. But first of all it tested the market with a hatchback based on the Fiat 128, which was bad but not shockingly so. The 45 was much more home grown albeit based on a Fiat 127.It was reasonably styled and neatly packaged and some bright spark decided it would sell well in America. The trouble was two-fold. Firstly, the Yugo seemed to struggle with the fundamental concept of staying together – it suffered build quality issues that made contemporary Austins seem like models of Teutonic efficiency. It was also not the ideal place to be in an accident. In fact, jumping out and throwing yourself at the mercy of the oncoming vehicle was probably a safer option compared to actually being inside a Yugo in an accident. Obviously it was cheap, remarkably so, but cheap is no consolation when you’re standing in Tesco’s car park trying to start it. Or dead. The Yugo factory, I think, makes Fiat 500s today. Another small car but a decidedly better and decidedly Teenies one.
3. Reliant Rialto
Regal. Robin, Rialto. Different name, same concept. All unerringly bad. The sheer badness of the plastic pig starts and largely finishes with the fact that it lacks what most people would consider to be the normal number of wheels for a car. This was in order for its owners to avoid having to pass a driving test for cars. Putting people who, to be factually accurate, shouldn’t be driving a car in a car with one crucial element missing seems to me like a recipe for disaster. And it was. As Jeremy Clarkson demonstrated, the Rialto wasn’t strictly stable. It was also slow – slow because it had a tiny engine and three wheels and slow because its occupants feared death at every roundabout. Reliant attempted to remedy this problem by revisiting the drawing board where they identified what might be causing the problem – it only had three wheels. Having had their Eureka moment they gave the world the Kitten, which besides having the worst car name in history did have the saving grace of an extra wheel. In our current safety obsessed era it is hard to imagine just how incredibly popular the Rialto was in the 80s – they were everywhere, usually at the head of a long and increasingly frustrated queue. Today, to fulfil the need to drive a car without legally being entitled to, we have microcars instead, which are equally slow but more conventional in the wheel department.
4. Skoda Estelle
In a way it is sad that Skoda has become just another car company because in the 80s it was so much more. Thanks to the Estelle it was a cultural phenomenon, the source of lots of jokes. What’s the heated rear screen on a Skoda for? To warm your hands when pushing it. How do you double the value of a Skoda? Put petrol in it. It’s not entirely clear why the Skoda earned its rubbish reputation because it was quite stylish and decently screwed together. But in the 80s we weren’t keen on the unfamiliar and a saloon car with an engine in the boot was obviously plan silly. What earns the Skoda its place on this list is its unreliability and propensity to swing into hedges at the sight of any corner, thanks to a roughly 100 to zero weight distribution back to front. Sure, Porsche 911s did much the same but Porsche had a lot of money to spend on advertisements telling us how great drivers learnt how to tame a 911. Skoda didn’t. It did respond with the Skoda Rapide, a stylish coupe claimed by Skoda to do what a 911 could do for a fraction of the cost. Ie. ruin hedges.
5. Dacia Denem
In the 80s we had a bit of an unflux of Eastern European tat. Modern day Dacia might like us to forget this Renault 12-based monstrosity. Giving it a name that tried plaintively to jump on the Nick Kamen 501 jean bandwagon did nothing except kill any chance of it succeeding, which was already slim at best. The first rule of any cheap recycled Eastern Bloc car is surely to start off with rehashing one that was good in its day. The Renault 12 wasn’t. It was a dull, not very good 1970s family Renault. Remaking it, not very well, in the 1980s didn’t improve its chances of global success. Dacia clearly hoped for a Lada-esque success story fuelled by miners spending their redundancy money (that isn’t flippant – it was an actual phenomenon). It didn’t happen and our patience with Dacia wore out faster than Nick Kamen’s endlessly washed jeans.
6. Hyundai Stellar
In the history of car names only the Mitsubishi Carisma pips the Stellar to the Worst crown. Hyundai made some pretty duff cars in the 80s, including the Pony, but the Stellar was its worst. Marketed as the car to fill the gap created when the conservative, boxy Cortina was replaced with the cutting edge jelly mould Sierra – no, honestly – the Stellar was luxuriously equipped and cheap. Taxi drivers loved it because it was also reliable. But it was 80s motoring at its worst – a four wheeled tin box without an ounce of character and a propensity to motor on whilst large chunks of it fell off.
7. Nissan 300C
Because cynical Brits were liable to laugh and point at a car called Cedric, Nissan wisely shortened its name to C and bolted 300 on to make it sound a bit Mercedes-esque. And there was something Mercedes-like about the big 300C executive saloon, from its boxy lines to its bold chrome grille. There was also something distinctly Transatlantic about it too for the 300C had more electrical gizmos, ruched velour trimmings and fake wood inside than your average Cadillac Eldorado Fleetwood Brougham Coupe. For some perhaps this unique mix of European and American design touchstones represented motoring at its best, but it would seem far more of the car buying public didn’t. The big Nissan was aimed at a market that didn’t exist – high flying executives with a desire to be openly ridiculed. And not surprisingly it failed dismally. All of which means current owners can advertise it on EBay using that much-abused term ‘rare’.
8. Lada Riva
Riva is a beautiful town in the Italian Lakes. Visitors to Riva might be surprised to discover that it is neither cheap, ugly or smelly. So it was something of a surprise for 80s observers to watch Lada’s boxy evergreen Fiat 124-based saloon re-emerge blinking onto a brightly coloured 80s scene as the Riva. Ostensibly nothing more than the old car with a shiny plastic chrome-coloured grille and handy headlamp wash-wipe, the Riva was a good example of the emperor’s new clothes. And yet it seemed that Lada had hit automotive pay dirt. It seemed that what cash-strapped Brits did in fact want was a cheap, ancient, Fiat 124 with a brand new suit. That grille and those headlamp washers were the sort of thing that you got on top spec Granadas, like the boss drove, so were surely A Good Thing. It is true that the Lada was excellent value and pretty well built, it’s just that it was so incredibly ancient. Lada put second hand car buyers into a new car ad helped miners burn away their redundancy money. Beyond that it was a seriously bad car that depreciated faster than virtually any other car. And yet, when they stopped importing them a black market in ‘new’ Ladas sprang up as eager buyers carried on trying to get them.
9. FSO Polonez
In the early 1980s FSO took a long, hard look at the UK car market. Their small but crack team of specialist researchers poured over the data looking for the key to success. After what seemed like eternity but was in fact probably no more than 5 minutes they found what Vauxhall, Ford, VW and even BMW had missed. What Britain desperately needed and didn’t have, they discovered, was an ugly Fiat 124 hatchback with massive impact bumpers. And if said car could be made extraordinarily badly, all the better. And that, of course, is what FSO promptly did. The Polonez sounded like a nasal spray but its effects lasted much much longer. Sure it was practical and with its big boot and bumpers vaguely Saab-like, but in all other respects truly awful. Noisy, unreliable, cheap and ugly, the Polonez was the nadir of the much-abused Fiat 124 platform.
The name doesn’t do it many favours, lets be honest here. Powered by an ancient engine whose only saving grace was that it produced so much smoke that you could rarely actually see the car it propelled, the Wartburg was another 4 door Russian monstrosity. It’s heyday was the 70s but it soldiered on into the 80s before the Government, otherwise unbothered by environmental concerns, banned it. Solid but slow and ugly, the Wartburg served only to remind us of the East West divide and of course how much better we all were in our dayglo leg warmers and permed hair (and that was just me).
So, there you have it, the obviously worst cars of the 80s. The list could easily be longer but to do so does feel like kicking a few horses when they’re down. None of these automotive lemons will ever be available to hire from Great Escape – if only because we can’t find any – but if you fancy a spin in one of their infinitely better contemporaries call 01527 893733 or visit http://www.greatescapecars.co.uk.