Some bad designs are not immediately apparent. A material that works in the lab may take a couple of years to show to fail in the real world, or a safety flaw may only be obvious when a car gets crashed in a very specific way and catches fire. But sometimes, automotive designers come up with an idea so harebrained that you have to wonder how it didn't get nixed the first time it was shown to a boss, a coworker, or even a five-year-old kid. Here are eleven of the craziest designs to make it into production.
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Chrysler's Botched 1980s Fuel-Injection System
Putting nearly all the EFI components on the intake manifold and air cleaner, including a mass-air-flow sensor and the engine control unit itself, certainly made installation easier, but it also put a delicate '80s-era computer right where it would be exposed to lethal amounts of heat and vibration. Chrysler, of all companies, should have known that you need to test new electronics unmercifully before releasing them into the wild — the company offered the world's first automotive EFI in 1957, only to have to recall all of the engines and convert them to carburetors when 1950s-era components weren't up to automotive use.
Photo Credit: LMW Automobile Literature
Oldsmobile "Turbo-Rocket Fuel"
Not only was it the 1962-1963 Oldsmobile Jetfire the first production turbocharged car, it was also the first production car to sport water injection. Olds dubbed the fluid, a mix of alcohol and water, "Turbo-Rocket Fuel," and housed it in a container in the engine bay. While the technology itself was not the simplest — or the most reliable — the insane part was asking owners to keep it topped up. Let's face it: The average American driver won't check his oil until the low pressure light comes on. On the Jetfire, running out of Rocket Fuel was supposed to trip a valve that limited turbocharger boost, but it didn't always work, and engines often died because of it. Buick later considered reviving the idea for the Grand National but decided against it.
Photo Credit: Kit Foster's Car Port
German Engineering: The Communist Way
There are a lot of good materials for making car bodies –- steel, aluminum, fiberglass, and carbon fiber have all worked out pretty well. The Trabant is the only car to have its bodywork made from plastic-coated fabric scraps. Passenger safety wasn't particularly high on the East German government's priority list.
Photo Credit: Autos Carros.com
British Wiring Cost-Cutting
Apparently, part of British Leyland's effort to be profitable included omitting any fuses the management thought unnecessary. There were only three fuses in the entire wiring system of a stock Triumph Spitfire, in an era where American cars often had three or four times as many. (Some systems, like the headlights, didn't have any fuses at all.) Lucas Electrics earned the nickname "The Prince of Darkness" for a reason.
Photo Credit: Mozul, flickr
Biodegradable German Wiring
In the 1990s, Germany's Green Party passed a law requiring a certain percentage of the parts in an automobile to be biodegradeable. You'd think that manufacturers would have tried to satisfy this requirement by making biodegradeable seat cushion foam, or door panels, or something else that would only be mildly annoying if it started to rot while you were driving it. Mercedes-Benz, however, decided to rely on biodegradeable wiring insulation to meet these requirements. There's nothing like a wiring system that simply devolves into a mass of jumbled, short-circuiting copper after a set period of time, is there? (And you thought forty-year-old British electrics were bad.)
Photo Credit: MercedesClub.cz
How to Ruin Your Car's Reputation With Just a Fuel Filter
A smart designer puts the fuel filter in a location where you can just reach over and replace it with no hassle. A bad designer makes you crawl under the car to find it. With the third-generation RX-7, Mazda didn't just require crawling under the car to replace the filter; you had to disassemble the rear suspension to get to it. Many of these cars lost their engines to owners who just didn't want to change out that filter –- they put it off and put it off, right up until the filter clogged up and leaned out the turbo Wankel under boost.
Photo Credit: PicsDigger.com
You Can't Make a K-Car Do Everything
While more of a failure of badge engineering than actual engineering, the 1986 Chrysler Limousine still inspires a lot of questions. Combine the ordinary, pedestrian styling of a K-car with a screaming, raucous turbo four-banger and a stretch limo body, and you have proof that Lee Iacocca's idea of making one platform work for every possible application had its limits.
Today, a lot of large V8s conserve fuel by shutting down cylinders. The modern way to do this is to cut off the flow of oil to a hydraulic lifter, making it collapse and close the valve. Cadillac pioneered the idea of individual cylinder deactivation in 1981, but the GM division used a horrifically complicated, solenoid-driven linkage to move the rocker arms. This Rube Goldberg contraption didn't do much for reliability, and the fuel economy wasn't even all that great.
Worst Chassis/Engine Combination Ever
Mazda's 13B rotary engine is a torqueless little beastie that you have to rev to the moon to make any power. Putting it in a featherweight sports car makes perfect sense. Putting it in a 26-passenger bus does not. Still, that's precisely what Mazda used this engine — long before it appeared in the American-market RX-7. Named the Parkway Rotary 26, this bus was the last vehicle you'd want to be stuck behind for a drive up Mount Fuji.
Chinese Centrally Planned Safety
This epic fail goes to a Chinese company, Geely, for coming up one of the most dangerous "safety features" of all time. In 2008, it announced a system that would sense blowouts and automatically apply the brakes to slow the car. Never mind that a driver can often have very good reasons for wanting to keep up their speed until they find a safe way to get out of traffic and pull over...
Malcom Bricklin made enough mistakes in his automotive career to fill several lists, but it's hard to top the patently unsafe doors on his "safety vehicle." Gullwing doors are never the most practical idea, but the Bricklin's heavy doors were operated hydraulically. There was a manual release, but it required pulling out a pin and lifting the heavy doors by yourself — a feat Car and Driver likened to "climbing out of a manhole while a semi-trailer is parked on the cover." Not what you want if you're stuck in an accident and wounded, or even if you're just a bit weak in the upper body. The doors quickly developed a reputation for trapping people inside.
Matt Cramer is one of the super-smart tech-support dudes at DIYAutoTune, the fine people who brought the world the MegaSquirt electronic fuel-injection system. He's also the author of the upcoming Penguin book Performance Fuel Injection Systems. Check it out.