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Nuts & Bolts

A decade of dubious designs

August 25, 2007|Martin Zimmerman;Joni Gray | Times Staff Writer

What was it about the '70s and American automobile design?

Did Watergate, the Carter presidency and "The Bionic Woman" somehow convince Detroit that mediocrity and failure were what the public demanded?

That would be the logical conclusion to draw from the list of the 10 "most questionable car designs of all time" compiled by Hagerty Insurance, a leading provider of coverage to automotive collectors.

Six on the list are disco-era discards, led by the AMC Pacer, a glass-heavy blob derided even in its heyday as resembling a "pregnant roller skate."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, August 29, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page News Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Nuts & Bolts: An article in the Business section on Saturday about vehicles that have starred in the HBO series "Entourage" said a single Aston Martin DB9 had appeared. Three DB9s have been in the show.

This particular hall of shame, the result of a survey of 2,500 of Hagerty's car-collector clients, was intended to focus specifically on misguided design concepts.

In the end, though, "it almost became a list of cars that people like to make fun of," said McKeel Hagerty, chief executive of the Michigan-based insurer -- and, by the way, a proud owner of a 1976 Pacer.

The preponderance of 1970s models on the list reflects the U.S. auto industry's unsuccessful effort to deal with a triad of new design problems: environmental regulations, new safety requirements and consumer demands for better fuel economy.

"There was a combination of factors that they never had to react to before," Hagerty said, "and the first four, five or six years they had to do it, the products weren't great."

Also on the list is -- inevitably, perhaps -- the '60s-era Chevy Corvair, which almost single-handedly launched the auto safety movement after Ralph Nader declared it unsafe at any speed.

The only post-2000 vehicle to make the top 10 is the Pontiac Aztek, an early crossover SUV that found many fans among consumers but few among reviewers and design critics who gagged at its unintentionally boxy contours.

As General Motors product boss Bob Lutz reportedly said, "We'd fire the guy who greenlighted the Aztek if we could find anyone willing to admit it."

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Auto stars are part of 'Entourage'

Product placement is an old game in Hollywood, and cars have always been big stars in movies and TV shows.

Think Steve McQueen's 1968 Mustang GT 390 in "Bullitt" or James Bond's Aston Martin (which Q at one point figured out how to make invisible) or the trio of Mini Coopers in "The Italian Job." Or Thomas Magnum and his red Ferrari.

But the multiple car placements in the HBO series "Entourage" can make your head spin. And your wallet.

In its four seasons to date, the show has burned through a pimped-out 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible, a Maserati Quattroporte, a Aston Martin DB9, a BMW 745, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, a Lexus LS 600H and a Bentley Continental GT convertible. Oh, and four Ducati motorcycles.

So, does it make the cash register ring? Aston Martin Vice President and General Manager John Walton said yes but added that the company was really looking to the future.

"We manufacture only a few thousand of these cars per year, so sales numbers don't factor into the equation. It's more about gaining cachet for the brand with a younger audience," he said. The question is whether the members of the younger audience will ever be able to afford a DB9, which comes with a $180,000 price tag.

"The very thing that makes them exclusive also makes them less attainable," Walton acknowledged.

-- Joni Gray

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The bad and the ugly

1. AMC Pacer

2. Yugo

3. Ford Pinto

4. Pontiac Aztek

5. Chevrolet Vega

6. AMC Gremlin

7. Chevrolet Corvair

8. AMC Matador

9. Edsel

10. Chevrolet Chevette

Source: Hagerty Insurance

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