Explainer: 10 cars we loved to hate

  • Image: Plymouth Valiant
    Plymouth Valiant

    Uptight art snobs periodically work themselves into a lather when a respected art museum decides to host an exhibit celebrating automotive design as an art form.

    Outside the orthodoxy of such rigid thinking, however, it is obvious to most people that the very best automotive design is unquestionably the product of the very best artistic inspiration.

    But what about the worst designs? What of the automotive equivalent of atrocious community college art class watercolors?

    Museums have no space for the ugliest cars, but fortunately, we do, just as a reminder that artistic daring doesn't always have a happy ending.

    Such selections, of course, are subject to debate and opinion. It is impossible to include every deserving offender on our list of 10 of the most egregious cars, so please submit your own suggestions, with a description of why they deserve to be considered among the ugliest cars ever.

    Here is our list, in random order, so take a look and be glad that one of these babies doesn't (dis)grace your driveway.

    — By Dan Carney, msnbc.com contributor

    Vote: Which car do you think is the ugliest?

  • '70-'78 AMC Gremlin

    Image: 1970 AMC Gremlin
    Hulton Archive  /  Getty Images file
    1970 AMC Gremlin

    It may be an unsubstantiated legend that American Motors designer Richard Teague sketched the Gremlin on an airline airsickness bag, but it is a fact that AMC launched the car on April Fools Day, 1970, a fitting arrival for a car with clownish ill-proportioned lines.

    The long hood and near-vertical tail gave the car the aspect of a clown’s oversized shoe.

  • '74-'77 AMC Matador Coupe

    Image: '74-'77 AMC Matador Coupe
    '74-'77 AMC Matador Coupe

    AMC surely deserves some credit for recognizing that even on a limited budget, it could imbue its cars with distinctive styling. Unfortunately, as happens in military campaigns, daring sometimes meets with legendary failure rather than the hoped-for surprise victory.

    So it was for the lumpy Matador Coupe, which looked like a designer’s droopy clay model that was accidentally left in the sun. In an uncharacteristic failure to identify a naked emperor when it saw one, Car and Driver magazine inexplicably named Matador coupe the “Best Styled Car of 1974.”

    Any question of the Matador’s place on this list is put to rest by the ’77-’78 Barcelona version festooned with a padded vinyl top, opera windows and two-tone paint. Earth tones only, natch.

  • '75-'78 AMC Pacer

    Image: AMC Pacer
    Anonymous  /  AMC via AP
    1975 AMC Pacer

    The Pacer really deserved better than this.

    There was true innovation in the Pacer’s fishbowl body, such as the industry-leading elimination of rain gutters to reduce wind drag (now accepted practice), a longer passenger-side door for more convenient back seat access from that side, and rack-and-pinion steering which was uncommon among domestic cars at the time. A planned rotary engine would have truly put the Pacer on the cutting edge.

    But the rotary engine never reached production, leaving the Pacer with AMC’s antiquated straight-six engine, and the unorthodox, bloated styling never got any less shocking to the eye.

  • '80-'83 Cadillac Seville

    Image: 1980 Cadillac Seville
    GM Corporation circa 1980
    1980 Cadillac Seville

    Cadillac designers were apparently not paying attention to the ridicule heaped on the Gremlin for its unbalanced proportions and chopped-off rear end.

    Evidently enamored of ‘70s neo-classics like the Excalibur (a worthy candidate in its own right), Cadillac sought to lend its mid-size model weight of heritage by borrowing the “bustle back” trunk from an earlier era. At least they didn’t attempt running boards or exposed exhaust pipes.

    The ugly styling and a plague of mechanical problems from its new front-drive layout and attempts at fuel-efficient engines dropped sales of the once-popular model in the tank.

  • '58-'59 Edsel

    Image: Edsel Corsair
    Ed Carlin  /  Getty Images file
    A 1959 Edsel Corsair, circa 1959.

    In the 1950s, Ford wanted to establish a new luxury division, so to create this new brand’s prestige bona fides, naturally the company named the new car after Henry Ford’s well-liked but unusually named late son Edsel.

    They then bestowed upon it laughable styling that closely approximated the expression formed by people laying eyes on the car for the first time. This negative first impression of the “sucking a lemon” grille on the ’58 Edsel models was reinforced by Ford’s months-long ad campaign building up consumer anticipation of the big reveal.

    Like a blowout game in a much-hyped Super Bowl, much of America felt tricked when they’d been led to expect something exceptional, only to find something exceptionally ugly.

  • '60-'62 Plymouth Valiant

    Image: Plymouth Valiant
    Plymouth Valiant

    The observant reader may have noticed a trend by now. Most of the cars on this list are the result of car manufacturers operating outside their comfort zones, attempting to enter new markets or entice new customers.

    That is why so many of our ugliest cars are the early attempts at compact car design by domestic carmakers. You can’t get much farther outside the comfort zone than old Detroit trying to conceive small cars when General Motors still held 60 percent of the U.S. market all by itself.

    The 1960 Plymouth Valiant apparently tried to set itself apart with all manner of slashing lines and jutting edges, but the resulting mess earned the car a solid spot on this list.

  • '70-'80 Ford Pinto

    Image: 1978 Ford Pinto
    Ford Motor Co. via AP
    The 1978 Ford Pinto

    Animal forms serve as the inspiration for many automotive designs. The reason is obvious; their organically powerful and efficient lines can be quite evocative.

    Why the Ford Pinto designers thought anyone would be excited by an automotive frog, though, has never been discovered. Especially when finished in the popular dull green of the era, the Pinto looked like it should have been named after its amphibious inspiration rather than wild equine.

    If Ford had been able to use even smaller wheels so it could seal off the wheel wells, the look would have been complete.

  • '74-'78 Datsun B210

    Image: Datsun B-210 from Nissan
    Datsun B-210

    One might think from the earlier entrants that only domestic companies have made ugly cars, but that would be untrue.

    It is just that many of the most ugly foreign cars either never came to the U.S., or sank so fast upon arrival that they didn’t even leave a ripple.

    Datsun’s mainstream, high-volume compact model of the mid-‘70s, the B210, is a notable exception. Its lumpy silhouette, tiny windows and suspect details like the honeycomb hubcaps firmly established Japan as a force to be reckoned with when it came to uglifying American roads.

  • '76-'78 Datsun F10

    Image: Datsun F10
    Datsun F10

    In case the domestic car makers thought the B210 was a fluke, Datsun followed it up with its first front-wheel-drive ugly-mobile, the F10.

    “As with the B210, the F10 is a bit garish, with its GREAT BIG EYES for headlights,” noted Road & Track magazine in 1976.

    The absurd headlights and taillights bookmarked an absurdly high beltline that squeezed the side windows to squinty proportions, and raised the rear hatchback to the height of a rear sunroof.

  • '01-'05 Pontiac Aztek

    Image: 2005 Pontiac Aztek
    2005 Pontiac Aztek

    Though bankruptcy was still a decade away when General Motors was designing the 2001 Pontiac Aztek, the same desperation that led American Motors to build its verge-of-bankruptcy atrocities in the ‘70s had Pontiac executives willing to risk anything on the chance for a breakout hit.

    But while consumers have at times embraced cars with unorthodox styling, like the original Volkswagen Beetle, there are no recorded instances of popular cars which violently defile basic standards of design decency, such as the enduring appeal of balanced, flowing lines.

    Instead, the Aztek was a contrived, hunch-backed, trying-too-hard, plastic-clad abomination and its failure was certain before it even rolled off the assembly line.

    Vote: Which car do you think is the ugliest?

    Readers agree: The Aztek wins no beauty contest


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