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Cars That Could Have Been Great, But Missed

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  • hpmctorquehpmctorque Posts: 4,120
    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.
  • MrShift@EdmundsMrShift@Edmunds Posts: 43,661
    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.
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 21,594
    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: 5,424
    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: 676
    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.
  • MrShift@EdmundsMrShift@Edmunds Posts: 43,661
    Without protections within its borders and import taxes, no automaker in my opinion would survive against the Japanese, toe to toe, free market.
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 21,594
    What about the Koreans? Can't they do it cheaper than the Japanese?
  • MrShift@EdmundsMrShift@Edmunds Posts: 43,661
    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.
  • 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: 21,594
    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.
  • jrosasmcjrosasmc Posts: 1,704
    My vote on this topic has to go to the 1986-91 generation of the Cadillac Eldorado/Seville. When these were first introduced, sales took a dramatic plunge because they looked too much like lower-priced GM models, and they were saddled with the problematic HT4100 V-8 engine, as well as many quality and reliability problems. Take a look at an '86 Eldo, and then at a Pontiac Grand Am of the same year, and you'll see what I mean.

    GM, to its credit, did improve this generation somewhat, giving the Eldo and Seville improved looks and an improved V-8 by the end of the run. The damage was done, however, and sales never improved to their pre-1985 levels.
  • fezofezo Posts: 9,195
    Kind of funny early in the topic seeing teh comments about the Vega leading to nice looking Monzas, etc. Well, certainly the one problem the Vega didn't have was looks. You could have the nicest looking little car to be stranded in the middle of nowhere in! My brother had a 72 Vega. Amazingly, with one head gasket replacement, he took it to 110K.

    I had a 1980 Rabbit. Nowhere near that kind of luck. Was a fun little car when it ran but that wasn't very often. To this day I'm skittish about VWs. Thirty years down the road I've yet to buy another VW.
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 21,594
    I think the biggest problem with those shrunken '86-91 Eldo/Sevilles, and the Toronado and the Riviera (although that one got lengthened for '89) was that they were designed for a future that never materialized. Like the N-body, which was originally intended to be a second wave of downsizing for the Cutlass Supreme, Grand Prix, and such, design on these cars first started around 1982-1983, when gasoline was getting scarce and expensive. $3.00/gal gas was forecast at coming in the near future (nevermind the fact it took us about 25 years to actually get there).

    If that timeline had played out, I'm sure those cars would have been a hit. But as it was, the fuel started flowing again, and prices dropped, and big cars came into favor. And oddly, even in some of the darkest days of that 1980-83 economic cesspool, GM's big cars continued to sell well. I have an old MT or C&D from early 1982 that tested a Caprice with the 305. They mentioned that these cars were going out the door for well over MSRP, while cars like the Celebrity, which was supposed to point the way to the future of the family car, only sold with deep discounts. However, part of that could have just been that the competition was drying up. Pontiac and Mopar left the big car market after 1981. And GM might have purposely cut back on production of the Impala and Caprice, figuring they wouldn't sell, and that might have inflated demand.

    Back to those shrunken Eldos and such...once word got out that they were going to be downsized, people flocked out to buy the big ones while they could. As a result, 1985 was a very good year for not only the Eldo/Seville, but also the Toronado and Riviera. The LeSabre and Delta 88 also had a very good year in 1985. That would be the last time the Delta 88 was in the top ten selling cars. And the LeSabre was popular enough to hit #18. Although for some reason, the LeSabre did take to downsizing better than the Delta 88 did, and managed to maintain its popularity.

    Looking back to that time, I remember my grandparents wanting to get a new car to replace their crappy '82 Malibu wagon. A guy in our church had an early 80's Electra coupe that my Granddad really liked, and he wanted to get one of them. But they had just downsized them, so Grandmom and Granddad made sure to run out and get a LeSabre before that one got shrunken, too!
  • hpmctorquehpmctorque Posts: 4,120
    edited April 2010
    Speaking of Mopars, what about the Dodge Aspen/Plymouth Volare. In many respects they were better than the Granada/Monarch. Whoops, that's faint praise. Let's just say they drove and rode much better than their Ford counterparts. The only thing that the upscale compact Ford twins had over the Mopars was quality. The quality was less bad.

    Moving beyond that dumb comparison, the new for '76 Mopars were in a market with great promise, the upscale intermediates. With memories of gas lines and high gas prices still fresh, the idea of an upscale compact (I think that's how they were categorized in those days) was very appealing to a lot of folks. These cars combined relatively good fuel economy for those days, or, at least, the perception of it, while being a step up from the previous generation of compacts. How could brand spanking new models with that positioning fail? Well, we all know the answer.

    What's interesting about the Aspen/Volare is that they really had no direct import competition. Volvos and Audis were more expensive, and the Japanese brands had nothing as large in North America. Of course, the same could be said of the upscale trim level '73 Maverick(LDO?)/Comet, Granada/Monarch, and '75 GM compacts.

    Oh, I've got to comment on the Granada/Monarch. I think Ford had a brilliant marketing idea; Combine the faux styling of a brand that enjoyed universal respect and "wanna have" appeal -- Mercedes -- and sell it for half the price. So what if it used a Maverick suspension and running gear? Heck, those dumb Americans won't know the difference. And you know, sorry to say, most Americans didn't, or it didn't matter much.

    Those early Granadas actually drove and rode worse than Mavericks, but they sold like hot cakes. The ads were also spot on. Never mind that those cars were a poseur's delight. They looked good in the driveway. In the lower income neighborhoods they looked important. In the middle class neighborhoods they flashed the message, "smart buy/smart owner." In the upscale neighborhoods they were understated, yet elegant. To some neighbors, at least, they whispered, "he can afford a Mercedes, but he doesn't want to be showy." The upshot was that Granada/Monarch made owners feel good, whether it meant feeling successful, having good taste, being a smart shopper or frugal, or whatever. And hey, isn't buying a car largely an emotional experience. Well, those Ford twins sure pushed the right buttons.
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 21,594
    yeah, I can agree on the Aspen/Volare. Chrysler called it the "family car of the future", which one of my old car books said was hyperbole worthy of P. T. Barnum. But overall, I think they were a better effort than the Granada, although the 1976 and early 1977 Aspen/Volares were very troublesome...mainly rust, torsion bars that would crack or pull loose, and the Lean Burn.

    The Granada was a marketing success, but IMO, there's no escaping the fact that it's a tarted-up Maverick. It's narrow inside, has a huge driveshaft/transmission hump, and just isn't roomy in general. And, what they tried to pass off as "luxury" in the interior, for the most part was just tacky.

    In contrast, IMO, even though the Volare was marketed as a compact and a replacement for the Dart/Valiant, I'd really consider them midsized cars. Truth be told though, an argument could be made that the Dart was really a midsized car, too. Heck, my '68 Dart had more useable room than my '76 LeMans. And the '68 Dart sedan had more front and rear legroom than a '68 Impala...a fact Consumer Reports was all to quick to point out.

    Now the Volare coupe, which was on a shorter wheelbase, was cramped in the back seat, but the sedans had legroom, both front and rear, that rivaled most midsized and even some full-sized cars! They also had large windows, which helped make the interiors seem more open and airy, and the sides didn't curve in too much,which also helped with making the interior feel roomier.

    The Volare also wasn't a bad copcar. In 1979, Chevy switched their "small" police package from the Nova to the Malibu, and the Volare pretty much whipped its butt. With a 360-4bbl, the Volare police car would do 0-100 in 22.7 seconds, a time that's actually competitive among police cars today. The 3.9 Impala, 3.5 Charger, and 4.6 Crown Vic with the 3.27:1 axle tested around 22.5-23.5, according to the Michigan State Police. The Crown Vic with the 3.55:1 axle was around 22-22.5 seconds, and the Charger Hemi blew them all away, with 0-100 of around 14-14.5 seconds.

    Oddly though, the 1978 Nova was considered a great police package. So you'd think the newer Malibu would have been even better, but somehow it came off worse.

    The last offshoots of the Aspen/Volare played out their last act in 1989, as the Gran Fury, Diplomat, and 5th Ave. And considering how little the cars had changed in later years, they were still pretty good, although a bit of a throwback. Chrysler let them languish by not adapting them with fuel injection or 4-speed transmissions. But, they did have air bags! My '89 Gran Fury was the first car I ever owned with an airbag.
  • jlflemmonsjlflemmons Posts: 2,240
    edited April 2010
    AMC Gremlin. The little American was a solid little car, but the Gremlin had to be one of the weirdest cars made. At least until the Pacer came out. :surprise:
  • lemkolemko Posts: 15,071
    A college roommate had a 1977 Dodge Aspen SE. I thought it was pretty plush inside for what it was. My Dad bought a 1978 Ford Granada coupe, but I don't think he was deluded into thinking it was a substitute for a Mercedes. His 1972 Ford LTD Country Squire was such a gas pig, he got the Granada with the inline six for better fuel economy. That Granada was extremely easy to work on. I'd say its underpinnings were even older than the Maverick. They went all the way back to the Falcon.
  • MrShift@EdmundsMrShift@Edmunds Posts: 43,661
    I'm going to respectfully disagree with that view of the Grenada, although it is a very well thought-out one. Perhaps we're both right in that initially it might have been what seemed like a shrewd marketing ploy, but after a short time, it only added to the Big Three's image of automakers with no competence to produce a car anything like the foreign competitors. This "faux luxury" might fool some people, but it didn't fool the automotive press, and certainly didn't fool anyone who wanted a foreign car. In terms of how it drove, and the cheesy switchgear and pillowly seats and suspension, it was the same old thing. It was the Santa Claus you instantly recognized as your neighbor Mr. Davis.
  • texasestexases Posts: 5,424
    True about the Granada, but it's not a 'car that could have been great'. Not much you could have done, except come out with an entirely different car. How about the Fairmont? That was supposed to be Ford's answer to the Accord, right? And it did have its good points. I remember CandD gushing over it, initially.
  • MrShift@EdmundsMrShift@Edmunds Posts: 43,661
    I think the automotive press were so desperate for a credible response to the foreign invasion that they would *lunge* at anything that looked hopeful. But after a few months in the field, these cars turned out to show their true colors----same old....stuff.
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