How bad can a car be? While serious reliability problems in modern cars are usually limited to low production models, there have been a few notable times when bad cars have derailed entire companies and set back the adoption of new technologies. Here are the three biggest such disappointments of all time. Do you think you know of some lemons worse than these? Add the cars you think are even bigger lemons in the comments section below. We’ll feature some of them in future posts.
Mazda may have made the rotary famous, but it licensed the design from NSU. NSU went into mass production of the rotary in 1967 with the RO80. Features like front wheel drive, an independent suspension and an aerodynamic body were years ahead of anything on the market, but with the company near bankruptcy, the RO80 had to be rushed to market without road testing. The result was a car with an engine that needed to be rebuilt every 30,000 miles. NSU struggled, selling a small number of RO80s over a decade before parent company Volkswagen finally closed the brand.
Chevrolet Series M Copper Cooled
Chevy promised their new “Copper Cooled” air-cooled engine would lead the way in a total replacement of water-cooled motors when it debuted at the 1923 Detroit Auto Show. However, the passive cooling system was plagued with overheating and pre-ignition problems in hot weather, making the car unreliable and potentially dangerous. Just 100 of the initial 759 vehicles reached consumers, and all but two were recalled and destroyed. The Series M received a traditional engine for the rest of its run, and GM’s air-cooling experiment was quietly abandoned.
Oldsmobile 350 Diesel
GM had Oldsmobile design a diesel engine in the 1970s as a response to tightening emissions regulations and oil crises that were strangling gasoline V8 sales. They hoped to match the success of Mercedes-Benz, then selling half their U.S. imports with oil burners, but wanted to keep costs low so the engine could be used in everything from Chevy trucks to Cadillacs.
Although mistakenly thought to be based on a gas engine, it only shared the Olds small block’s head bolt pattern to reduce tooling costs. This wasn’t enough to withstand the diesel’s higher compression, which meant any mechanical problem could result in coolant leaking into the cylinders, causing engine-destroying hydrolock, usually in less than 50,000 miles.
With over one million cars built with this engine, it had the biggest effect of any lemon. Diesels have only recently shed the engine’s reputation in America while legislators were pushed into creating the first lemon laws to cope with the deluge of angry customers.
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