When car companies went bonkers

As a small boy, little legs burning on vinyl seats, I imagined adults Knew Stuff. As an adult I discovered otherwise. As a thrusting young executive I imagined older, sage-like directors Knew Stuff. Quite quickly, and across several different employers, I discovered quite the opposite.  

Nowhere is the bursting of balloons more evident than in the world of car building. And yet the blind alleys and shocking cock-ups somehow deliver greatness, a sense that the world is just a little better because lots of clever people decided to give us a car called Probe.  Here are my 5 favourite automotive lemons, the own-goals and zaniness that reveal feet of clay. It’s not just a celebration of badness, it’s a fist-punch for wierdness in the midst of conformity. 

Inevitably this list is personal – feel free to add your own. 

1. Aston Martin Lagonda

In the 1970s and 80s Aston Martin made cars for gin-slugging, pot-bellied James Bond wannabes, middle aged chaps who found in the wood-trimmed interiors a familiar echo of the ancestral home. So it was an obvious decision to offer these tweedy traditionalists an uber-modern saloon with design inspired by their cheeseboard. The Lagonda also featured the sort of technology more familiar to NASA than a car company based in a potting shed. That the car broke down at the launch event didn’t bode entirely well, and yet the Lagonda really is brilliant, a life-affirming paean to bonkers Britishness. 

2. MG SV

Sometimes clever people do silly things for the right reasons. Sometimes silly people just do silly things. The MG SV probably fits in the latter category, a purpose-free vanity project by arch-villains The Phoenix Four. The MG SV started as a DeTomaso, became a Qvale and then a MG, suggesting that quite a lot of people around the world thought this dumpy bitza sports car was a good idea.  The SV was meant to give MG a halo car, but nobody wanted a supercar with a MG badge and MG Rover didn’t have the money to develop it. The SV was the product of four vain, silly men convincing themselves that it was a good idea.  It wasn’t.

3. Ford Probe

Quite a lot of time and money was expended by Ford on the laudable idea of giving the world a new Capri. The Probe was a world car that the world didn’t want. Partly this was because it looked awful, a bland attempt to make a car look like a stingray, presumably because some mischievous people in a focus group told Ford it was what we The People wanted. We didn’t. Neither were we that keen on inviting people for a ride in our Probes. 

4. DeLorean DMC-12

Well, obviously. Remarkable as it may now seem, world governments queued up to attract John Z and his new car to their particular patch of impoverished ground. Britain won, presumably fulfilling their wish list for a low-volume, stainless steel, underpowered sports car with weird doors to blow the socks off a market 6,000 miles away. That the DeLorean Motor Company made a pretty good job of flogging the DMC-12 shows how clever some of the people were.  But this was always going to be an oddball car that courted Risk in the same way the Thatcher government courted Conflict.