Thursday, October 16, 2014


It's what we call cars that just won't function. Sometimes it's right off the lot, sometimes it's a used car that looks good and seems solid on the test drive. It might be just that one, or there may be design flaws, but whatever the cause, it's a perfect storm of problems. Sometimes you get out early, sometimes you double down. It's when you dig in and think you want it fixed that it really bites you.

American auto manufacturers went through a design flaw phase starting in the mid-seventies. Plastic parts where steel should have been, smog controls that gave you acceleration that could measured with a sundial, and reliability issues that defy belief.

My dad had been a Ford man. Fords as far back as I can remember, and Fords before that in pictures that I have seen. I remember a Galaxy with a 351, a '69 XL fastback with a 390 (0-60 in 9.7 sec), a station wagon that probably got 9 miles to the gallon, a gigantic LTD that must have weighed a couple of tons. Those cars all had something in common. They ran. They were running when he traded them.

I think it was the LTD he traded for the Grenada. Gas prices were up, we were in the first belt tightening as the USA headed into decline. He bought a brand new 1975 Grenada, six cylinder, smog control. It had 75 horsepower. When it ran.

It wouldn't start, I think from the first week we had it. It spent more time behind the tow truck than it did moving on it's own. And it accelerated faster while being towed. My girlfriend at the time had a Chevy Vega, It would do 0-60 in about 15 seconds , the Grenada took 21. (I looked all the numbers up)

I drove this car. It was so slow it was scary.  Highway ramps were a challenge because you needed to be going merge speed at the bottom of the ramp, you were not speeding up later. Pressing the pedal down made things noisier, it did not influence your velocity in real time.

It drove like a pick-up, noisy and mushy, transmitting the road to the steering wheel like a feature.

The front end wouldn't stay true, so it pulled, and wore the tires. 

I was in school so sometimes I would go with the tow truck to the dealer. The dealer would get it started, replace some part, tinker with the carburetor, and give it back. After the first dozen times, no one thought it was fixed, just that it was running. Once while I was sitting around the shop waiting, I went out and looked at used cars. I tried to talk my dad into trading it for a 5 year old Torino. I still believe to this day he'd have been much happier.

In the end, it broke him on Fords. He traded it for a Chevy Monza, which was worse on the front end and tires, but better because it started reliably in the morning and it would do 0-60 in 12 sec (he bought the V-8).

My first car was Japanese.

I thought of this car as I looked at the comments on the previous post, and began to think about what I would say about them. There were things about that Grenada that were design flaws, the lack of power, the front end issues, the way it drove. There was something extra wrong with that particular car, the underlying problem was that kept it from starting, and it ruined the car completely.


David aka True Blue Sam said...

The EGR valve dumped too much exhaust back into the intake manifold on those engines. The easy fix was to unhook the vacuum line to it, and then the car would run just fine.

Comrade Misfit said...

I test-drove a Chevette once. The dealer's demonstrator was missing interior panels. And it accelerated at a speed that could be measured with a calendar.

I ended up with a Mazda GLC. Which wasn't a great car by any stretch of the imagination. But it was better than a Chevette.

Dave H said...

I guess I was lucky. When I bought my first few cars all I could afford was old 60s Detroit iron, and while they left trails of rust everywhere, they ran reliably. By the time I could afford a car made in the same decade things were improving somewhat. (Although I test drove a Ford Tempo that proved they weren't completely there yet. It was like dogsledding in molasses.)

Probably the biggest lemon I ever owned was an early Ford Escort station wagon. My family was growing and the Pinto wasn't big enough any more, so we "upgraded." But the previous owner had tried to install aftermarket air conditioning, with a backhoe from the look of it. I had more vacuum and overheating problems on that car than on any three other cars combined.

Anonymous said...

I've never had trouble with any brand of auto. The 70's vehicles were pretty abysmal, though. My dad had a '76 Ford F100 with a six cylinder 300 and never had a bit of trouble with it, and he absolutely LOVED both of his Ford LTD's- first a '68/390 2V, then a '72/400 2V. Lousy by today's standards, but both worked great for his family. I nearly got skinned for squealing the tires on his '72 while driving on ice. He killed me, but not until I died from it.

Goober said...

Worst lemon I ever owned was an '89 chevy half ton pickup, a truck that had no business whatsoever being a lemon, since those trucks were super-reliable.

Throttle body injected 350 V8? Seriously? Was there ever a more ubiquitous and reliable engine ever built?

I went through 3 rebuilds on that same engine, until I s-canned it and bought a GM longblock to replace it.

The only thing I can think is that the block was warped or badly cast, because that thing ate main bearings every 20,000 miles, like clockwork.

The replacement engine ran strong until the day I sold it, and I still see that truck occasionally, since the guy that bought it lives nearby.

Overload in Colorado said...

The US car fleet is older than it's ever been. It's not an economic thing, it's that cars last longer today than they have in the past. I remember 100,000 miles being a lot when I was a kid. Today, it's expected that cars will rack up a lot more miles.
Even when I bought my first new car, a 1990 Ford Probe, I thought it would last longer than the used car it replaced (It didn't. The 75 Chevy Chevelle Malibu Classic lasted 15, the Probe 10) The 2000 F-150 Lightning is still going strong. My 06 Dodge Charger is also doing well, but I'm planning on trading it in soon.