How bad, really, are the cars we are continually told were rubbish?
All 10 in our list of misunderstood motors get a regular roasting, but in reality many were no worse than their contemporaries – they just ended up as the fall guys through either bad luck or bad press.
Sounds like it’s time to set the record straight, then…
It’s easy to confuse the misguided conception and embarrassing failure of Ford’s Edsel project with the product itself.
The idea was reasonable: in the face of competition from GM, with its plethora of different brands and market coverage, Henry Ford II saw the need for a supplementary marque.
Exclusively V8-powered, the Edsel range came with all kinds of wondrous power-assisted options to tempt increasingly prosperous Americans.
But, despite a massive advertising campaign, sales were disappointing from the start and the myth of the Edsel as the ultimate automotive lemon became a self-fulfilling prophecy; who wanted to be seen driving a failure that had lost its makers an estimated $350m?
All of which is slightly unfair on the Edsel machines themselves: with the exception of the divisive frontal styling, these cars were no worse than most other late-’50s Detroit land yachts.
2. De Tomaso Mangusta
Like almost anything connected with Alejandro De Tomaso, all kinds of intrigues surround this car. It seems to be so full of contradictions, compromises and bad design that it is hard to reconcile its fabulous Ghia shape with its alleged shortcomings.
Mangusta was Italian for Mongoose, the Cobra’s only predator, and the idea of using a Ford V8 in a backbone chassis was not unreasonable.
The plan was to sell the cars in the USA for $11,000 – $10,000 less than a Lamborghini Miura – and it duly did reasonable business, despite getting a mauling in the American specialist press for its build quality, heavy clutch, poor rear vision and cabin space.
Less forgiveable was the Mangusta’s suspect handling, although it is hard to dig out anything definitively damming.
Tyre choice, a flexible chassis and unfavourable 32/68 weight distribution were cited as the reasons for a tendency towards unpredictable snap oversteer; specialists have since found that the explanation is more likely to be that the rear wheels toe out undesirably in ‘bump’ for the lack of a rose-joint on the top link of the rear uprights.
Drive a sorted one today and you will be impressed.
3. Austin Allegro
The Austin Allegro has become a lazy shorthand for everything that was badly designed and shoddily built in Britain the 1970s.
Certainly it was not a great car (or even a fairly good one), but it was far from uniquely terrible to drive or look at: can you honestly say a Renault 12 or Simca 1100 is that much prettier?
The Allegro was simply not as good as it should have been, failing to foresee the standards set by cars such as the Volkswagen Golf.
OK, so it had a square steering wheel (now a much-prized item) and, allegedly, the rear screen popped out when they were jacked up, but surely it is time to find something else to pick on? The awful Morris Marina is a far more deserving case.
4. Ferrari 400
For them, it commits the dual sins of being both a four seater and having sharp-edged, three-box style that doesn’t conform to the modern idea of what a Ferrari should be: a noisy, bright red ‘supercar’ for wrapping around a lamppost in a ‘Ferrari Driver Fails’ video on YouTube.
The suave 1976-’90 400 (and its 400i and 412 successors were born to a different world: a world where Ferrari was neither a branding opportunity nor a common sight on the road.
Instead, the 400 was a grown-up and truly usable GT car with proper rear seats, a decent boot and (horror) an automatic gearbox.
With four cams, two distributors, twin alternators and dual air-con systems, they aren’t for the faint of heart today, but formidable running costs were not an issue for the tycoons who could afford Ferrari’s most expensive flagship V12 model.
5. Chevrolet Corvair
Spurred by the success of the VW Beetle the 1960 Chevrolet Corvair was a genuine attempt to make something different by a giant corporation not noted for taking chances.
It took the rear-engined, air-cooled formula and scaled it up to American tastes with six cylinders and a five-seater saloon body that was good looking and unfussy.
It was intended to be a cheap second car for suburban use, but ‘enthusiast’ drivers took the fun-to-drive Corvair to their hearts, its ‘youth appeal’ predicting the success of the Ford Mustang.
But while its rear engine gave the Corvair traction, insufficient differential between front and rear tyre pressures could lead to difficult cornering situations that the ‘average’ driver couldn’t sort out.
Soon, a young consumer rights activist called Ralph Nader noticed the number of fatal, one-car accidents that seemed to involve the Corvair and made it the convenient lead villain in his crusade against the American auto industry and its seeming indifference to matters of safety.
His book, Unsafe at Any Speed, made him a national figure and to this day Nader is intrinsically linked to the demise of the Corvair.
It remains many people’s idea of an evil-handling death machine, despite the fact that in 1972 the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration exonerated it.
6. Lancia Beta
With the Beta, Lancia squandered a reputation for excellence that had been 75 years in the making.
All was going to plan post Fiat takeover – until reports of rusty subframes ‘falling out’ of early Betas began to hit the headlines.
Rather than brush the matter under the boardroom carpet, Lancia offered to buy the suspect cars back in, and even provided generous discounts against newer Betas while the older cars went to scrap.
All very honourable, but soon Lancia became such a potent byword for rust you’d have thought they had invented to process.
The Beta was, in fact, one of the better mid-range saloons of the ’70s, spawning a whole family of front-drive vehicles conceived around Fiat’s twin-cam.
No, it wasn’t the connoisseur’s car that the ’50s and ’60s Lancias had been, but it was considered fast, capable and – uniquely for Lancia – profitable.
7. Austin A90 Atlantic
The A90 Atlantic was a shocking departure for the normally dour men of Longbridge: a big, bold convertible offered in a variety of ritzy Jewelescent colours.
That wasn’t all. The export-only Atlantic had a rev counter, built-in jacks plus the unimaginable decadence of power windows and roof as options – in 1948!
Good for 95mph (it was one of the fastest British early post-war production cars), the Atlantic garnered warm words from the likes of LJK Setright and Alan Clarke, yet its lack of success made it a lazy metaphor for misplaced post-war optimism and bad market research. A sort of British Edsel if you like.
Now, 70 years on, the Atlantic seems to have found its place at last, as a rare and valuable prize in the world of early post-war British classics.
This car’s only real crime is that of being too successful.
A pretty sports car that was also tough and reliable, the MG B and its GT sibling are classic examples of a model which, had it been rare or foreign, we’d all be fawning over.
The truth is that if you want a classic that’s easy to live with and work on, endlessly tweakable and surprisingly cheap, the B roadster and B GT are hard to beat.
A huge following continues to attest to all of the above – and you don’t even have to have a beard and a bobble hat to own one.
9. Rolls-Royce Camargue
Styled by Pininfarina to be the ultimate Rolls-Royce ‘personal car’ the Camargue was the most expensive regularly price-listed vehicle in the world for most of its 11-year production run.
Each car was six months in the making and priced at roughly double the cost of a Silver Shadow – a policy that had the effect of boosting sales of the Shadow, because it suddenly looked like a bargain.
The shape was always controversial, but in the right colour these are cars with huge presence and are probably the nicest to drive of all the Silver Shadow-based models.
As a rare, super-luxury coachbuilt Rolls, the Camargue should, logically, be set to follow in the pricey wheeltracks of the Bentley Continentals of the ’50s and ’60s.
10. Leyland P76
BMC’s Australian outpost had always struggled to produce cars that were man enough to endure the country’s brutal heat and rough terrain, or big enough to cater to the local taste for brawny American-style sedans and station wagons.
The 1973-’74 Leyland P76 was a final throw of the dice and a brave attempt to build a car bespoke to Australia on a limited budget.
Styled by Michelotti in the big, boxy fashion of the locally produced Chrysler Valiant, Ford Falcon and Holden Kingswood, it was a substantial four-door saloon with a wedge profile that was powered by either a 2.2-litre straight-six or a 4.4-litre V8 developed from the 3.5-litre Rover engine.
Sharing its strut front suspension, rack and pinion steering and a well-located live axle with the yet-to-be-launched Rover SD1, the P76 was considered a more capable car than the local Detroit-derived barges and, famously, could even carry a 44 gallon drum of sheep dip in its enormous boot.
Alas, the combination of strikes, poor quality and the fuel crisis killed off what was a very promising and truly Australian car and its early demise, after 22,000 sales and a year in production, took the entire Leyland Australia enterprise down with it.
The P76 was Australia’s Edsel, then, but like the Edsel, it is now a cult object with a passionate following in its home territory.