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Cars That Could Have Been Great, But Missed

hpmctorquehpmctorque Posts: 4,192
edited April 2010 in Chrysler
Gosh, where to begin? Two of countless could've/might've/should've been home runs that, sadly, weren't, are the Chrysler and DeSoto Air Flows of the '30s and Chevy Vega.

Although the Airflow had a significant influence on passenger car designs, and sparked awareness about aerodynamics, it flopped in the market place. As we know, its design was too far ahead of its time for the public. Would things have turned out differently if the Air Flow's advanced design had been introduced over two model generations, instead of all at once? Maybe. I think probably. With the new design language trickling down to Dodge and Plymouth by the second Airflow generation, that might have propelled Chrysler Corp. to overtake Ford Motor Co. in the late '30s and '40s. Actually, didn't Chrysler outsell Ford briefly anyway some time in the '30s or '40s? I seem to recall that it did, but don't remember which year(s).

As for the Vega, what's there to say that hasn't been said millions of time? The only thing that was arguably great about that car was the timing of its introduction. GM's reputation was only beginning to be tarnished, but it was still the world sales leader, by a wide, wide margin. The demand for small cars was growing, and would later explode with the oil embargoes. Detroit desperately needed good small cars to meet market share.

Beetle sales were soon to peak and wane when the '71 Vega was introduced (in Spring of '70?), while the other mass market European brands were a small and receding factor in the marketplace.. Toyota, Nissan and Honda had only recently begun to gain traction, but were no match for GM financially or in productive capacity, dealership count, consumer acceptance, and more. It could have been Detroit's great opportunity to drive the imports back to their shores. But, it wasn't meant to be.

Your turn.
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Comments

  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 21,906
    I think Chrysler corporation as a whole tended to outsell Ford as a whole pretty consistently from the mid-30's to the late 40's. While Ford division was a strong seller, Ford had nothing in the middle range to compete with Dodge, DeSoto, and the cheaper Chryslers. That changed when Mercury came out, but that brand really didn't take off until 1949.

    The Airflow was probably painful too look at in the eyes of the time, but another problem was that it was released as a medium-to-high-priced car at the peak of the Great Depression. I'd imagine that nobody in those price classes was selling very well, and buyers of larger, more expensive cars probably didn't want to buy something that would draw too much attention to themselves during such economic strife. They probably opted for something more conservative. That and, to be fair, the Airflows really aren't very attractive...to me, at least. Very modern, yes...they brought the American Automobile kicking and screaming out of the horse and buggy days, and put the passenger cabin down between the axles, rather than a good portion of it hanging out over the rear axle.

    One thing I'll say for the Vega, is that it spawned some pretty nice looking offshoots, like the Monza, Sunbird, Starfire, and Skyhawk. And even the Vega itself wasn't bad looking. That baby Camaro style sure made it look a lot sportier than the Pinto and the bulk of the Japanese competition at the time...but a 240Z it wasn't!

    Strangely enough, for all the bad press it got, the Vega always sold pretty well. Even in 1977, its final year, it managed to move about 100,000 units, despite competition from the Chevette and Monza. And by that time, big cars were starting to sell again.
  • hpmctorquehpmctorque Posts: 4,192
    edited April 2010
    I'm among the few that actually likes the styling of the Airflow, within the context of its time.

    As for the styling of the Vega and its offshoots, I agree with you completely. GM got the styling right.

    Interesting how well Vegas continued to sell even after word got out about its problems. I gues it's a testimonial to Chevy's extensive dealer network, and to the Bowtie's brand equity in the '70s. But, just think how many Vegas they would have sold if that gotten repeat sales, at a time when a lot of people traded their cars in every 2-3 years, like clock work. It's hard to imagine anyone trading his '71 or '72 for a later Vega once it was known that the bad ones weren't just lemons. The '71s and '72s were all bad, and the '73s were only marginally better.

    For all the serious issues the Vega had -- rusting, overheating, head gaskets, manual transmissions that locked a gear up so that you had to reach under the car to unstick the linkage, to name some -- my brother managed to nurse his '73 just past 100,000. Of course, he spent some money on it to keep it going, and the body was totally corroded by the time the engine just quit.
  • fintailfintail Posts: 33,587
    edited April 2010
    I like the Airflow too, 30s streamlining is cool. The first series cars, with the pure waterfall front end, are the best. I think the earlier models also had quality issues.

    GM has a number of cars that "could have been".
  • lemkolemko Posts: 15,149
    Two recent "could've beens" are the Pontiac Fiero and the Cadillac Allante. If they had been as good in their debut years as they were the year they were droppped, their stories would've been completely different.
  • texasestexases Posts: 5,536
    Another might be the Neon - if it had decent quality from the start the good sales that would have resulted might have let Chrysler in a different direction.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright CaliforniaPosts: 44,576
    edited April 2010
    The Fiero maybe, but I think the Allante was already completely outclassed within the market it was trying to reach. It was a doomed enterprise IMO, from the get-go. Cadillac built a 1990 car to compete with a 1973 Mercedes Benz.

    MODERATOR

  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 21,906
    Oh I agree completely on the Neon. I remember when it first came out, I was really impressed. My first thought was FINALLY...a small car I can fit comfortably inside! And they were pretty peppy even with the base engine, which put out a decent 132 hp. I'd imagine that some of the competitors were around 100-115.

    But, head gasket problems were common, and I think transmissions were pretty iffy, which is sad because that tranny dated back to the 1978 Horizon, so they only had like seventeen years to get it right! Sad thing is, that 2.0 the Neon used dated back to the old Mopar 2.2/2.5 4-cyl, which debuted in 1981 and was designed by the same guy who did the Slant Six.

    They did improve the cars as the years went by, but it wasn't enough, and then when the 2000 came out, it just seemed way behind the competition. 3-speed automatic, the same 132 hp 2.0, which suddenly didn't seem as impressive. No optional engines (although that would come later). No more coupe model. And, while it's a fairly minor thing, who the hell makes a 4-door car with power windows up front and crank windows in the back?!

    I think they should have kept the Neon around though, and improved upon it, rather than dump it for the Caliber. That would be kind of like Toyota dumping the Corolla and relying only for the Matrix in this market.
  • lemmerlemmer Posts: 2,676
    I wanted to say a Fiero, but it was incredibly outclassed by the MR2. The Allante was front wheel drive, slow and had a cheap looking interior. It was DOA.
  • lemmerlemmer Posts: 2,676
    edited April 2010
    I am with Andre on the Neon. The Neon had tons of potential. The Caliber was just brilliant, no? Who would buy a Civic when you can have a big, crappy, clunky rental car with plastic glued all over it? It was like a '95 Grand Am and a '95 Explorer had a baby.
  • fintailfintail Posts: 33,587
    edited April 2010
    Power windows in front and manual windows in back...a number of cheaper Euro cars had that, in the home market. But decontented to a level that would never have existed in NA.

    Regarding the Allante, yeah, it never really had a chance. Upon arrival it was already outclassed by a 15 year old MB, and when the new SL came out for 1990, it was flatly destroyed. XLR suffered the same fate about 15 years later.

    I think had Ford put appropriate R&D money into keeping the Taurus competitive, it could have been something that didn't wither off and die into fleet-land.
  • texasestexases Posts: 5,536
    Not any one car, the whole brand? Seemed like a great idea, got off to an OK start, then just died. And who thought the Ion was a good car? It's like GM went brain-dead at that point...
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright CaliforniaPosts: 44,576
    Big problem with the Fiero is that it drove like a truck. It felt about 8 feet wide and 22 feet long. I still don't know how GM managed to do that with a small car.

    MODERATOR

  • lemmerlemmer Posts: 2,676
    I might get attacked for this, but Corvettes feel the same way to me. Most of my recent experience is with a C5. The power is invigorating and the grip is incredible, but somehow they made a car that is lighter than a contemporary 911 feel about three times as big. At least I can fit in a C5, unlike a C4.
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 21,906
    Big problem with the Fiero is that it drove like a truck. It felt about 8 feet wide and 22 feet long. I still don't know how GM managed to do that with a small car.

    Isn't that sort of a trademark of GM? I even notice it with cars like my Dad's '03 Regal and my '00 Park Ave. While most people wouldn't classify either one as a small car, to me they just drive "bigger" than what they are. My 2000 Intrepid was bigger than Dad's Regal, yet felt nimble in comparison. The Regal at least is easier to park in tight spaces though because you can see better where the car ends.

    And the Park Ave feels about how my grandmother's '85 LeSabre, a car a foot longer, would have felt with some low-profile tires on it.

    I kind of understand what GM is trying to do with these bigger cars...they're trying to engineer in that "big car" ride that they think people still want. They probably started that in 1985 to get buyers to accept those shrunken Electras and Ninety Eights and DeVilles.

    But most people buy a small sporty car because they want something that feels, well, small and sporty! I don't see the point of making something like that feel bulkier and clumsier than it is.
  • jlflemmonsjlflemmons Posts: 2,240
    A Fiero with electric power steering. Never had power because of issues with the pump being so far from the rack, among other things.
    Tweaked 3.8L w/supercharger. Six speed stick. oh, yeah ...

    Misses? FWD Cutlass, take your pick of models. That was a major seller for GM, but to spread the name out all over the place was stupid.

    Cutlass Classic, RWD
    Cutlass Supreme, FWD and RWD
    Cutlass Ciera, FWD
    Cutlass Calais, FWD and RWD
    Cutlass Supreme Brougham, FWD and RWD
    Cutlass 'S', FWD and RWD
    Cutlass Salon, RWD

    But the biggest, dumbest thing a bean counter ever came up with at Oldsmobile ...

    FWD, 4cyl, 442. Knew the end was coming when I saw that one.
  • lemkolemko Posts: 15,149
    I don't know about the Ion, but I thought the Sky was nice in a sort of baby Corvette way. The Aura was nicer-looking Malibu.
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 21,906
    For some reason, the Cutlass Ciera didn't bother me. I guess I just never made the connection that it was supposed to be a "CUTLASS", and my mind could differentiate between it and the "real" Cutlass.

    Even the Calais didn't bother me, even though it was originally a trim level in the RWD Cutlass lineup. At the time it came out, I didn't realize that, I guess because what they had been calling the Calais, I knew it as the Salon. However, once they started calling that little N-body the CUTLASS Calais, I thought they were getting stupid.

    Had the forecasts of scarce, $3.00/gal gas come to be a reality, those 1985 N-bodies were going to be the replacement for the Monte Carlo, Grand Prix, Regal, and Cutlass Supreme. But then once bigger cars began selling again, GM decided to keep the RWD G-bodies around, so they had to come up with a different name for the N-bodies. Maybe that's why they picked names like Grand Am, Somerset Regal, and Calais...names that in the past, had been associated with the RWD cars.

    Speaking of misses, I think the W-body, or GM10 when it first came out, was a miss. By the late 80's, it was obvious that personal luxury coupes were on the decline. The Taurus was a smash hit, and GM's A-body Celebrity et al was starting to look dated. GM should have focused their efforts on a top-notch Taurus contender, but instead, they chose to focus on a replacement of the RWD coupes. They actually had modest success for a few years, as the Grand Prix, Regal, and Cutlass Supreme were decent sellers initially. They'd never reach the heyday of the 1970's though, and the Regal/Cutlass Supreme never even matched their RWD counterparts' best years of the 1980's. And I'm sure losing the Monte Carlo didn't help out Chevrolet much. Finally, in 1990, the 4-door models debuted, as well as the Lumina. It took them FOUR years to respond to the Taurus, and their response really wasn't so hot.
  • texasestexases Posts: 5,536
    I think the Aura and Sky might fit the 'GM tried to fix it when it was too late' idea. The basic idea of Saturn, 'a new kind of car company' got off to an ok start, but when they replaced their bread and butter car with the Ion, a car that couldn't compete with Corollas or Civics, they just lost it, in my opinion. Too bad. Just think what all those billions (if spent well, a BIG if) could have done for Chevy?
  • lemmerlemmer Posts: 2,676
    I think we are in danger of turning this topic into "Let's name all of GM's screwups."

    I'll try to get us back on topic - VW Rabbit, especially the GTI. The Rabbit was good and the GTI was incredible...if you could keep them running. If they only had decent reliability, perhaps they could have held off Japanese from taking over the small car market.
  • lemkolemko Posts: 15,149
    ...not only was the Caliber a bad idea, but putting Soviet bloc interiors in the Sebring and Avenger was the kiss of death for Chrysler. Haven't they seen a Camry, Accord, Altima, Fusion or even a Malibu?
  • hpmctorquehpmctorque Posts: 4,192
    edited April 2010
    Yeah, I agree, lemmer. The Rabbit comes close to being as coulda/mighta/shoulda, but, sadly, didn't as they come, in my opinion. About on the par with the Pinto, maybe, in terms of lost opportunity.

    I'd say the Pinto damaged Ford's brand equity more than the first generation Rabbit damaged VW's. That's because, as far as I know, virtually all Pintos (and Mercury Bobcats) were sold in North America. So, Pinto became synonymous with bad small car. Maybe not the worst, but bad, nevertheless. By contrast, I think the Golf (Rabbit for non-North American markets) was generally perceived in a positive way. That's probably due to some combination of Americans' less diligent maintenance habits, and driving style. Also, the Rabbits produced in VW's Pennsylvania plant probably had more quality problems than the Rabbits made in Germany. I have no data to support this last point, but I'd bet on it.

    The Rabbit and the Pinto are trumped by the Vega, though, both in terms of lost opportunity and damage to the brand.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright CaliforniaPosts: 44,576
    I remember the first US Rabbits---they were, of course, heralded as the "new VW bug for the modern era" and in a way, that was entirely true. They were spartan all right--in fact, TOO spartan---the word "cheesy" comes to mind. They had none of the well-built aura of the original Beetle.

    Furthermore, it soon became apparent that despite all the jollies offered by the GTi, the Rabbit was, sadly, about as reliable as a Trabant (on a good day).

    In hindsight, the GTi could have been the BMW Mini, 20 years earlier, but it couldn't shake the reputation of the Rabbit, despite upgrades. The Mini wasn't an "upscale" anything, it was a brand new car.

    The Rabbit was in the driver's seat when it first came out in the USA, and could have easily dominated the small car market up to the present day--but VW seems to have lost interest in the car for America and pumped the Jetta and New Beetle instead.

    I could have seen the Rabbit evolve into today's MINI and Scion line.

    MODERATOR

  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 21,906
    When I was 9 years old, the neighbors had a red VW Rabbit. First time I think I had ever seen one up close. I thought it was neat just because it was so different from everything I had ever been accustomed to. And at that age, I was small enough that I wouldn't gripe about lack of interior room!

    I remember though, when they took us kids to the Kings Dominion amusement park, we went in their brown Ford Torino Elite. I'm sure it's because, even though that Elite was anything but space efficient, you could still pile more people into it than the Rabbit. But, maybe there was something else at play...like the Rabbit might not have made it that far without breaking down! :P
  • texasestexases Posts: 5,536
    I know I was very lucky - my '83 GTI never left me stranded in 12 years. My friend's Rabbit, on the other hand, did repeatedly...in Anchorage...in the middle of the winter :sick:

    With its early use of fuel injection the Rabbit should have led VW to great things. Still waiting for that, but the newest GTI still has me interested, and I fit in it!
  • omarmanomarman Posts: 697
    The main problem I had with the Rabbit in the 70s was value. Cheap econobox for a base price around $4k when introduced. At the same time Datsun and Toyota both stamped out cheap imports for $3k.

    The last time I looked at a new Rabbit in a VW showroom was in 1978 and the price had jumped to $5k. And still, the Japanese were selling base models about a grand cheaper.

    Westmoreland never found "the answer." Who has? What country has effectively countered Asian import cars? By "counter" I mean effectively "compete with."

    Without tariffs or other import trickery, what country has beat the Asian imports with open borders, toe to toe on the currency and quality which adds up to the best value for the consumer?

    I'm honestly not trying to be a smart [non-permissible content removed] here, but if there really is a non-Asian champion why isn't it gobbling up market share in the U.S. right now and for the last 30 years? Be it Detroit or import from Europe?

    PS-Not making any excuses for Detroit. Nada. Chickens do come home to roost. But more car makers than the Big Used-To-Be have lost ground. And lots of it.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright CaliforniaPosts: 44,576
    Without protections within its borders and import taxes, no automaker in my opinion would survive against the Japanese, toe to toe, free market.

    MODERATOR

  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 21,906
    What about the Koreans? Can't they do it cheaper than the Japanese?
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright CaliforniaPosts: 44,576
    I don't think they can field the market range. They are very good but not too broad, at least not in America. I really don't know about Asia.

    MODERATOR

  • 0patience0patience Posts: 1,542
    The Vega's downfall was the aluminum 4 cylinder block.
    When I was in high school, we used to pick up vegas for $50, yank the 4 cylinder aluminum block that was always warped and dropped in a V-8.

    Loads of fun, power of a muscle car on a beer budget.
    The only thing you had to be careful of is that you didn't get on it too much, as the subframe didn't hold up too well. :blush:
    My favorite was a 72 vega wagon. You could fit a bunch of people and supplies for a good weekend.................uh........picnic. Yeah, that sounds good. ;)
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 21,906
    My neighbor used to do that. When I was a kid, he used to race Vegas. He'd yank out the existing engine and throw in a 350. He was good at welding, bodywork, etc, so he probably stiffened it up as well.

    A guy in one of my Mopar clubs had a Vega, once. And he said he didn't have too much trouble with it. I forget what year he said it was, but I think he had it for about 90,000 miles, and the only major thing was getting a cylinder sleeved.

    He also said he had a Pinto that was fairly reliable. In fact, both cars were more reliable than the 1994 Chrysler Concorde 3.5 he had, which had problems with the water pump, timing belt, and air conditioning all before it was 3 years old. :blush:

    Y'know, that's another one that could have really been great, if the quality had been there...the 1993 Mopar LH cars. They had a lot of promise when they first came out, And some of their components were actualy pretty good. The standard 3.3 V-6, for example. It was just a pushrod, but pretty good as pushrods go, and put out good power. I think it had 161 hp in those days. In contrast, Ford was only getting 140 out of the Taurus's 3.8, and I and I think GM was only getting about that out of their 3.1, although I think the Buick 3.8 was up to around 165-170 by that time.

    The big deal though, was the 3.5 OHC engine, which put out something like 214 hp...pretty impressive for a fairly mainstream 1993 car. And even more surprising, the 3.5 was one of those pushrod-to-OHC conversions that was actually reliable! It was basically the 3.3/3.8 block converted to an OHC setup and sporting a 3.5 CID displacement. GM tried a similar route with their 3.4 DOHC, which was based on the 2.8/3.1 pushrod block. It was pretty strong, but proved to be troublesome.

    Unfortunately, those early LH cars had transmission problems galore, plastic fenders that warped, paint that peeled, sensors that would go bad, water pump issues with the 3.5, a/c issues, and so on. My understanding is that by 1996-97, they improved them considerably, and the redesigned 1998 models were better still. But, alas, the damage had been done.
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