Friday, February 26, 2010

Worst cars of all time...and the Zephyr

Peter Cheney is an auto writer in Canada with the Globe & Mail. He put together his list of the 12 worst cars ever built.

People obsessed with cars will have far more insight into each of these vehicles than I would. Cheney wrote, "A bad car can be the product of inadequate engineering, questionable taste, or poor manufacturing quality."

The complete story - with pictures of the offending vehicles - is here.

His list: The AMC Gremlin, AMC Pacer, Bond Bug Three-Wheeler, Bricklin SV1, Chevrolet Chevette, Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Edsel, Ford Explorer, Ford Pinto (just that name makes it sound like a horrendous car, although that might simply be because it's so similar to the name Punto, meaning the car's probably scrappy but ultimately horrible), Pontiac Aztek, Subaru SVX, and the Trabant, an East German car that apparently proved the country could mass produce strong female swimmers but not a decent vehicle.

Readers provided their own top 10 list, which is here:
Lada, Chevrolet Vega, Chrysler K-Car, Ford Mustang II, Rolls-Royce Camargue, Volkswagen Beetle, Hyundai Pony, Cadillac Cimarron, MGB Mark IV and the Hummer.

They're both impressive lists, though I believe there's one glaring omission: the Mercury Zephyr. I'm not sure what year my Zephyr was - early '80s - but it came into my life in 1991, just after I passed my driver's test with a superb display of parallel parking. My parents gave it to me as a gift, and I think it set them back about 500 bucks. The old girl was blue and anyone who drove it or rode in it felt that way.

Still, it was my first car, a momentous occasion for any American youth. We parked it on the curb outside our house on the first day it came into the family. Our neighbor - a classmate - wandered over, looked the car up and down and pronounced, "Nice wheels." The compliment was not a sarcastic one coming from him, as compared to the three- and four-wheeled vehicles that often died and decomposed in his family's yard, the Zephyr could be classified as nice wheels, primarily because it had four working ones.

The car had its strengths. Like, I don't know, in two years I never died in it. Other than that, the car struggled in its second decade of existence. You couldn't go above 50 miles per hour without causing violent shaking from the car, the same thing the space shuttle goes through when it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere. The gas gauge didn't work. In two years I never had any idea how much gas was flowing through the Zeph. I'd put about 8 bucks in it and ride that as long as possible. The idiotic plan failed once, when it rolled to a quiet stop outside a house about 10 blocks from our house. I trudged home, retrieved a gas can, walked down to the local Budget Mart, filled her up and made the humiliating walk back to the car. Thankfully, no girls saw this shameful procession.

Like its owner, the Zephyr wasn't good with numbers. Fifty, as in miles per hour. And seventy. It had a tendency to not run if the temperature rose above 70 degrees. Like many cars it struggled in the Minnesota cold - although anything below 25 degrees was trouble for the Zeph - but even in ideal conditions it had a temperamental spirit, like a young stallion that refuses to be broken, minus that horsepower. One summer night the Zephyr died outside a Baskin-Robbins in nearby Mankato. I knew it had enough gasoline, there wasn't a cloud in the sky and it hadn't been acting strangely. So what happened?

I knocked at the door of a nearby house, ready to play my role in a recreation of every bad horror movie that includes a scene of a stranded motorist being killed and possibly served for dinner by deranged homeowners with a grudge against teens. An older couple lived in the house, which might have been labeled a garbage house if anyone from the county had ever been welcomed inside. Tens of thousands of baseball cards littered the floor. They probably could have bought a summer home by selling the collection. The man of the house sat on the floor pawing them, apparently searching for that one card he misplaced sometime in the early '70s. Nice people. They let me use their phone and served me some water. I called my dad and he made the 20-minute drive to pick me up.

We called our local, trusty mechanic, who eventually diagnosed the problem, vaguely declaring that it would apparently always have difficulties in warmer weather, which he defined as anything over 70. This made no sense, but damn if it wasn't pretty accurate.

The Zephyr didn't just damage psyches, it vandalized school property. I drove to a football game senior year and left the Zephyr in a parking lot next to the school, which was one of our biggest rivals. After watching JWP receive a thorough thrashing on the field, we walked back to the blue bomber. Little did I know that the school had just planted the patch of land where we parked. As we tried driving out on the rainy night, the Zephyr refused to budge. Again, temperamental. After a momentous struggle, I finally fired free from the land, tearing it up in the process as we hauled ass out of town, at a comfortable 48 miles per hour. I kept waiting to read a story in the paper about the damage.


But the Zephyr escaped. For my defense, I would have simply pointed at it and said, "Sir, look at this car. Do you think this car could do that damage?"

I almost lost the Zephyr the first summer I had it. Birdseye called me in for work. Pouting, I took a back road to Waseca. I lost control, swerved, hit the gravel and went into the ditch. Thankfully the car didn't roll and simply bounced into the ditch before stopping. A fellow Birdseye employee drove by and pulled the car out, helpfully telling me I'd still be able to make my shift in time.

Unfortunately, the accident caused one of the Zephyr's headlights to shoot light about 80 feet up into the air. To me, this was just another humiliation heaped onto me by the Zephyr, though certainly I was more to blame for this one than the car's engineers. Still, whatever chance there was to get a girl inside the car died about the same time the psychotic headlight came to life. My cousin Matt delighted in the development, as in his mind it simply added to the Zephyr's lore. He wanted to make a cutout of a bat signal and put it against the light, meaning, in theory, this bat signal could be broadcast over greater Waseca County, perhaps warning the sheriff that I needed to meet with him on a rooftop. I vetoed his plan, refusing to let the Zephyr's legacy be tarnished anymore than it already was by simply existing. The Zephyr wasn't there to be used as a reliable vehicle, but it sure as hell wasn't going to be a prop.

I ditched the Zeph after high school graduation, trading up for a Beretta. We sold the Zephyr to a construction worker for about 100 dollars. Over the next few years, we spotted it occasionally at various worksites, marveling at the car's durability. The car stayed alive, defying all expectations.

It might not have been the worst car ever built, but it at least deserves to be in the conversation.


Jerry said...

But you also had the Beretta - the only car I have ever heard of a dog running into and damaging. It also died a slow an dpainful death, didn't it?

Mike said...

Since my wife and I had our first date in the Beretta, it makes it a special car. The hour I spent before the date cleaning out the skittle wrappers, pop cans, and cheeseburger wrappers that accumulated from the driver was well worth 10 years of marriage and 4 children that I now have. However, the Zephyr was a complete pile, it made 'ol blue look like a corvette. The passenger in the Zephyr (and this is no exaggeration) could actually see the road moving underneath their feet through a rusted hole.

Dad said...

A couple of years ago Lincoln started selling a Zephyr again but there was no way I could ever drive one with the blue beast haunting it.

Shawn Fury said...

And let's not forget, Mike, that your love life also led to the Beretta getting banged up on a cold, snowy St. Joseph night, as I was retrieving you from St. Ben's and later listening to Yaga vomit. The Beretta did die slowly, mostly from the inside out (the dog certainly didn't help the door). But I got a lot of miles out of it and many drives between St. Cloud and Janesville.

Lisa said...

I saw Brian K. at the bb game last night. Told him about your blog - he didn't know you had one. I told him he would be reading for a few days to catch up.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, I had forgotten about "the slowest crash in the history of auto accidents." I think the dog did more damage to the Beretta actually. The funniest part (if there was a funny part) was the other driver was furious because they had just gotten pulled out of the ditch 2 minutes prior to hitting the Beretta after a 2 hour wait for a tow truck. Also funny, the girlfriend of the driver got out of the car and exclaimed to me, "hey I danced with you at the barn dance when we were freshman!" Her last name was actually pronounced stool fire or fire stool, I can't remember which.