Thursday, January 17, 2013

The worst car in the world

Like many folks, I've always been kind of a sucker for lists. Especially those that state "the best" and "the worst" of any variety of things. I'm a little bit of a car guy, too, so it's no surprise I was drawn to an online article on a financial information website called thestreet. com that discussed the "10 Worst Cars of All Time" as rated by Edmunds, a top automotive magazine and site.
Hmmm. Interesting.
Especially since I owned two of them.
Now, two out of ten might not seem too bad. But the fact is, both of the lemons I drove actually finished in the top five of that list. And both were absolutely, positively infamous in terms of engineering and quality, even when I owned them.
First on my personal worst list was an early 70s Chevrolet Vega. Its ghastly color should have been a dead giveaway, as what Chevy called "Midnight Blue" was much, much closer to "Pukey Purple." And, unfortunately, the color was just about the best thing about the wretched vehicle.
It was slow. It was bumpy. It was loud.
The steering wheel was off-kilter, aiming left when the car was (kind of) going straight.
But the most memorable thing about the car that Popular Mechanics claimed "nearly destroyed General Motors" was what it taught me about automotive engine oil.
It is sold by the gallon, not just quart-sized cans.
Thanks to an aluminum-block engine with unlined cylinders that warped in short order, the car consumed oil like a hungry Swede at a Christmas Eve smorgasbord. We had bought the car used when a front-end accident left us in need of a vehicle in a hurry, so we had no warranty and no recourse except to keep it running by putting in oil.
So constantly, in fact, that we finally gave up checking it in the conventional manner, and just kept a gallon jug of 30-weight in the hatchback and waited for the oil light to flicker. While driving at highway speeds, this happened frequently, bringing new, true meaning to the old punch line, "Fill 'er up with oil and check the gas."
But at least the Vega was a kind of mainstream car choice; a car that quite a few folks liked and purchased. A car that even won a couple of awards before its serious flaws came to light. So, at least a lot of people made the same mistake.
My next automotive faux pas was absolutely spectacular, both in terms of bad judgement going in and constant buyer's remorse for the entire period we owned it.
It was a Yugo.
But wait, I have an excuse.
Maybe not a good one, but an excuse all the same.
You see, my father once got the undivided attention of the entire city of Galva when he bought a 1959 Volkswagen. It was the first beetle in town, and was his "second" car, teamed up with his pride and joy, a glorious, royal blue 1951 Packard, a vehicle so big and bountiful that you could have raised an entire family of four in the back seat, with room for a litter of puppies in the rear window well.
"You gonna keep that in the trunk for a spare, Keith?" was the kind of response dad got from the Galva wits when they got a look at his new purchase. Truth be told, I'm positive my quiet, modest dad didn't buy the car to attract attention. Rather, I'm sure he thought it would be fun to drive, economical for the weekend trips he took to see my uncle in Moline, and, at just under 2,000 bucks brand-new, entirely affordable. In exchange, he got a thrifty, well-engineered little vehicle with, other than a slide-back canvas sunroof, absolutely no frills. No radio. No air conditioning, of course, and not much in the way of heat, either. Not even a gas gauge (you had to measure it with a stick or switch to an auxiliary tank when the engine started to sputter.  Dad had a lot of fun with the little coupe, which later served as a "first car" for both my siblings and me. We really missed it after it was gone.
My reasoning for buying the Yugo seemed at least partially sound at the time. I was driving a big, old Mercedes Benz at the time, a behemoth of a car I had bought cheap from a Peoria banker just because I thought it would be cool to own one. It was, but I soon discovered that while my car was pretty much a "beater Benz," it cost every bit as much to repair as a newer, nicer model. More, maybe. When the new Yugos suddenly appeared at a Quad Cities car dealer, I was reminded of dad's purchase of the VW. After all, like the Volkswagen, the Yugo was small, economical, and, with a sticker price under 4,000 bucks brand-new, pretty darned affordable for the late 80's.
That, unfortunately, was where the resemblance ended.
There was an actual line of people waiting to test drive the tiny hatchbacks when we got to the dealership, which just served to frantically enhance the "gotta get one" urges bubbling through my pea-brain. Finally, it was our turn. I should have probably taken my money and run as soon as the salesman began his "sales pitch."
Me: It's kind of squeaky.
He: What do you expect for $3,995?
Me: Can you adjust the steering wheel?
He: Not for $3,995.
...And so on.
I admit, I just kept thinking of my dad and his Volkswagen. So I did it. I bought the Yugo. A yellow one. With an optional roof rack that somehow, I thought, made it look more substantial.
"It can't be that bad," I reasoned.
Yes, it could.
Almost from the get-go, the car began literally falling apart around us. Mostly, it was little stuff, like the driver's-side windshield wiper flying off during a hard rain or the fold-down back seat refusing to fold back up again. Rattles got louder and the ride grew even rougher. But things took a dramatic turn for the worst when the engine blew sky-high near Rockford while my wife's sister was driving the car.  A blown head gasket caused the tiny, tinny engine to overheat almost immediately, reducing it to the melted slag from whence it came before she could maneuver it off the interstate highway.
"At least it's under warranty," I thought when I got the frantic phone call from my shell-shocked sister-in-law.
Or not.
The happy folks from the Yugo warranty department insisted the damaged had been caused by "operating the vehicle in an overheated state," while I countered that the problem had been triggered by a part failure. The back-and-forth debate could have gone on indefinitely, I guess. After all, what was I going to do, sue them?
Well, as a matter of fact, yes.
A couple of the things ad agency guys had in those days were good business directories and a multitude of connections, so it wasn't all that tough to get ahold of the direct phone number of the poor sap who was then president of Yugo America, a job that must have been just about as precarious and uncertain as king of one of those remote little nations you see on movies that deposes and beheads its rulers every three days or so.
She: Mr. Smith' s office, may I help you? (name changed because I don't remember it)
Me: Yes, my name is John Sloan. I'm in the process of suing you, and I wanted to know if I have the spelling of Mr. Smith's name right. Then I gave her a few details.
She: Can you hold, please?
Now, I'm not quite sure what happened next. Maybe Mr. Smith really did think I somehow had the resources to go head to head with a giant Yugoslavian company. Or maybe he was just tired of being sued that day. In any case, the next voice I heard was that of the warranty guy, who was suddenly quite obsequious.
Yes, he said. Yes, of course they'd fix my car. Yes, the warranty would fully cover it. Yes, yes, yes.
I traded the little yellow car in not long after I got it back from the repair shop. And frankly, I seldom think about it except when the subject rolls around to crazy automotive experiences and really bad cars.
Then I'm kind of proud.
Because whenever I hear other guys talk about how bad their baddest car was, I know this undeniable fact is true.
Mine was worse.


  1. The "shell-shocked sister-in-law" still remembers this with horror and a truly awful sensory memory of the SMELL of someone else's car melting on her watch....

  2. Yes, I believe the whole experience was tougher on you than me.