GM’s Embarassments

Noise, Vibration & Harshness

What’s the most embarrassing car ever made? Where does one even start? Collectively, the world’s carmakers claim centuries in business, and with that comes hundreds of years of quality blooper reel chronicling products that pan the complete range of mistaken chance and pointless endeavor, human failure in all its multifaceted glory.

From three-wheeled death traps to Pontiac Azteks, the industry’s closets are jammed with the skeletons of automotive turkeys, machines that have risen above the mediocrity and banality of their age to become known as they really and truly were: awful.

It’s easy to pick on Subaru 360s and Austin Marinas. Many know the limits of Bricklins and Yugos. No need to give the 411 on the Volkswagen 412 and the Plymouths, Cricket and Sundance. We’ll never get bored of the Fords that brought the greatest shame upon Henry’s house – Pinto and Bronco II – but could anything top the Edsel?

General Motors, once America’s biggest and best carmaker, is also a strong candidate to have built the industry’s biggest embarrassment. We recall the self-destructing Chevy Vega and the Oldsmobile diesel, whose disastrous design led it straight from the drawing board to the courthouse. Speaking of class-action litigation, you can be sure someone still regrets the Cadillac engine that deactivated cylinders to save fuel – the infamous V-8-6-4 setup. It would more accurately have been known as V-8-6-4-0, on account of the tendency of Cadillacs so equipped to stall while rolling down the highway (an ingenious fuel-saving measure not sufficiently appreciated by the claimants). Very embarrassing.

I hear many of you crying for the head (cracked and ready for welding) of GM’s infamous Corvair, but I call this unfair. The rear-engine, air-cooled Chevy may not have been perfect, but history misunderstands it if it sees this car as GM’s greatest embarrassment. Always a handsome vehicle, the Corvair became a decent one after its second-generation redesign. It was technically advanced in ways that GM products had not been for years. Ralph Nader actually praised the second-generation Corvair in the very same book in which he excoriated GM for the first. But no one was listening, including GM, which had proven to itself the hard way what the bean counters had already said – that technical innovation was a money-wasting mistake.

The Corvair represented a line of outside-the-box thinking that had begun and ended at GM precisely once before, when the company built its first embarrassing car, interestingly enough, also air-cooled. We speak of the 1923 Copper-Cooled Chevrolet, beloved of GM’s most famous engineer, Charles “Boss” Kettering. The founder of Delco and the inventor of the automotive starter, he would be the dud’s chief advocate and protector for many years.

The theory seemed OK. An air-cooled engine – containing fewer parts than a conventional water-cooled one – would be less expensive to build, enabling GM’s low-priced Chevrolet division to compete profitably with Ford’s absurdly cheap Model T. Kettering boasted that his air-cooled engine would be “the greatest thing that has ever been produced in the automobile world.” But he was wrong.

Unlike the Corvair, which soldiered on for ten years, the Copper-Cooled job (named for the copper cooling fins welded to its cylinders’ external surfaces, a process that never worked very well) barely made it off the launchpad. It fact, it proved so unreliable that, after four years of research and development and millions of dollars, it was yanked from production after GM had only just begun building it. Kettering would protest that problems with the car’s all-new chassis, designed away from his GM research labs’ control, did it in, and he saw a political dimension, claiming fratricide at the hands of competing divisions and technologies.

Those that were built were swiftly recalled, and GM unveiled a quietly developed backup plan: a new, conventional, water-cooled Chevrolet had been designed to be built in its place. It was a total dis, and the Boss resigned. GM president Alfred P. Sloan refused to accept Kettering’s resignation, but innovation at GM would be on a short leash from that point onward. The new Chevy outsold Ford in years to come.

But hope springs eternal. Shortly before his death in 1958, Kettering visited the Corvair development lab, where he was not only gratified to see what was going on but reportedly suggested to Chevy’s CEO, Ed Cole, that the new air-cooled engine he was working on might be borrowed to power a new generation of affordable, private aircraft for commuters. Corvair commuter planes? Sorry, Charlie – that would have been embarrassing.