The question obviously only applies to classic cars. Whether you’ve been burdened by a bit of a lemon of a VW Phaeton doesn’t count. The question was presented at a small car meet just recently, and most there found it surprisingly easy to answer with a high degree of precision.
One person promptly answered: “Everything British, French and Italian”. What a load of rubbish I quietly thought to myself, as that would really only leave German, Japanese and American cars as the worthy ones. I considered countering his prejudice by nominating the old VW 1303 which I owned for a short period as my personal worst car. It was an entertaining and cute little car, but also terribly troublesome as the rust had managed to get a strong hold of the little Beetle and seemed quite intent on erasing the car from the surface of the earth. To make matters even worse, the previous owner had seemingly been on some sort of a mission of negligent maintenance. The German charmer proved more than just a little challenging to keep on the road. Other VW owners however praised the Beetle for just how easy it was to own and how much pleasure it subsequently gave them out on the road. That just wasn’t my experience with my green VW.
Next up I considered the only American car I’ve ever owned: a Jeep Cherokee S from 1974. They hit the market back then with promises of being sporty, but quite frankly, the handling was so unprecise and lively that it bordered on being dangerous. Admitted, the huge 7.2-litre V8 engine was rather seductive with both power and soundtrack to make the hardest of men go weak in the knees. Those qualities didn’t come for free though, as it guzzled fuel like nothing else. But what truly marred the Cherokee was its technical inadequacy. Big isn’t always better and double as big most certainly isn’t double as good. Everything in that car seemed too big, too clumsy and too poorly assembled. It rattled and creaked like it was being paid to do so, and the assembly tolerances were to a standard you would have only expected to find in a Soviet car from the Cold War. It’s a very handsome design, but in my opinion, already back then, comparing the Cherokee with a Range Rover was like comparing day with night.
My final nominee was my Citroën SM. It was put into this world to be a technical and innovative tour de force. Every little component in the car had been scrutineered vigorously by a team of French engineers to ensure the most ingenious solutions. And yes, it was indeed very exciting when you peered into the complex engine bay or for that matter under the dashboard of this hugely impressive grand tourer. Very few things looked like it would have done on any other car, and it was always a pleasure to show visitors at my workshop the luxurious French spaceship. However, that same pleasure never materialised when it came to turning the key and enjoying the SM out on the road. I kept a small notebook and a pencil in the glovebox so I could keep track of the issues which needed attention as I strived for perfection. The list grew exponentially as perfection disappeared over the horizon. I never tired from admiring the SM’s beauty, but in practical terms, ownership provided me with more hardship than it did pleasure. Another SM owner who had similar experiences explained that production numbers were exactly the same as the number of SM prototypes built – approximately 12,000 cars. To date, my SM provided me with the most deflating automotive experience of them all.
I suppose none of my worst cars needed to be such horrid experiences. I’m convinced that proper maintenance or a more thorough pre-purchase inspection could have turned things around. But sometimes, classic cars just find their way into our lives – almost like a stray cat which drops by and then decides to stay. In a moment of weakness, we take a car in which we really should have given a pass. But that’s all part of the emotional charm which comes with being a classic car enthusiast, and with it follows the occasional disappointment. Do we learn from our mistakes then? Do we get any wiser? Well, probably a little bit, but never enough to entirely prevent similar mistakes from happening as another set of classic car keys finds its way into our pocket.