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Blunder Road

Whether through disinterest or design errors, these notorious cars crashed and burned on the market.

July 30, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are names living in automotive infamy. Tucker and Crosley. Bricklin and DeLorean. For all the rascals, there were equally notorious motorcars. Corsair and Corvair. Pinto and Cimarron. And Yugo.

Some of these men and machines were innocents, simple victims of impossible visions or public disinterest. Others fell greedy from grace to be disheveled by courts and government. The rest were casualties of careless engineering or myopia in the marketplace.

Such as that Crosley, a 1939 micro-car powered by a 15-horsepower Waukesha engine modified from an orchard insect sprayer. This two-place midget convertible sold for $325 but brought little fame to builder Powel Crosley and found less favor among Americans who liked their cars big and powerful.

En masse, these automobiles and their makers constitute a rogues' gallery on a wheel of misfortune. Also the theme of this month's automotive quiz.

Grading will be on the honor system, with five points for each correct answer--50 to 40: you probably have John DeLorean's pager number; 40 to 30: you've turned back an odometer or two in your time; 30 or lower: psst, wanna buy a classic 1968 Plymouth Valiant?

Answers appear on W15, except for that one, tough, final answer that could win you a Highway 1 commuter mug.

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1. Or maybe you wanna buy a classic Corsair, Citation, Ranger or Pacer, the four models that made up the 1958-60 lineup of Ford's Edsel, named after Henry Ford's son. Motor Trend gave the Edsel good marks for power and handling. Designers applauded its use of Fifties Forms--swoops, angles, scollops and tricolored paint jobs. So why did the Edsel fail after only two years?

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2. Poor Ford. In 1976, no maker offered a more complete line, reaching from the subcompact Pinto through the full-size LTD and Thunderbird. Then, five years into its production cycle, the Pinto went plop. Why?

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3. Stutz, Auburn, Duesenberg, Cord, Pierce-Arrow--all were innovative, custom-crafted, exquisite American automobiles of the '20s and '30s that were treasured collectibles when new. So why did they disappear almost overnight?

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4. From 1978 to 1985, Detroit was embracing diesel engines. In fact, one of every five Oldsmobiles sold was diesel-powered. What burst their bubble?

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5. The gull-winged, stainless-steel DeLorean sports car was conceived in the United States and elevated to a position within global politics when Britain subsidized its production in troubled Northern Ireland. But by 1982, John Z. DeLorean and his company were more than $60 million in debt; deliveries of the sluggish, overweight, unreliable, overpriced car had stalled; and DeLorean Motor Cars went under. But why did the U.S. government go after DeLorean?

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6. To many, John Zachary DeLorean was Preston Thomas Tucker incarnate. In 1948, Tucker built a revolutionary rear-engined sedan with safety features extraordinary for its time--disc brakes, seat belts, independent suspension and a windshield that would pop out in a collision. How else were Tucker and DeLorean soul mates?

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7. In 1974, Philadelphia-born entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin opened a factory in St. John, Canada, and built the SV1, a fiberglass, gull-wing sports car powered by a 5.7-liter Ford engine. Why did sales fail after only one year?

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8. Another overnight failure was the Fiat-birthed Yugo 55, exported to the United States by Zavodi Crvena Zastava of Yugoslavia in 1985. Yugos were boxy and wimpy and shed pieces on the rare occasions they moved. They entered the lexicon as a synonym for mechanical caca, and became the subject of parody for artists. What American importer was responsible for this atrocity?

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9. Corvair. A cute, temperamental and inherently unstable compact from Chevrolet that was introduced in 1959 and buried in disgrace 10 years later. This rear-engined, air-cooled coupe and convertible was tagged by Car & Driver magazine as "one of the nastiest-handling cars ever built." Who was the man who almost single-handedly destroyed the Corvair and found lifelong fame within the debacle?

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10. Cimarron. A 1982 offering from Cadillac designed to appease green consciences in search of downsizing and fuel economy. Dismal sales proved that stereotypical Cadillac owners cared less for four-cylinder engines with manual transmissions than they did for the environment. They also cared nothing for the GM car lurking beneath those Cadillac badges. What was it?

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And here's the contest: Highway 1 commuter mugs go to the first 50 readers who mail correct answers to Highway 1, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Entries are due by Aug. 14, Maine residents are not eligible to enter, and this contest is void where prohibited by law. Ready?

The question

In 1952, close to bankruptcy and desperate to cut costs, Kaiser introduced a radical new coupe called the Virginian. What white lie lurked beneath the Virginian's promotional smoke, mirrors and sheet metal?

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