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Eye of the beholder

Here’s a jaded look at some of the worst – yet somehow desirable – cars of all time

In this era of affordable luxury, when even some of the priciest cars seem all too attainable, what can true car snobs do to set themselves apart?

The answer, it seems, is drive a restored model of one of the ugliest, least-appreciated cars of all time. Why motor around in that Lamborghini when numerous other well-heeled buyers can too? After all, how many can boast having a revived 1976 Mercury Monarch in the driveway?

At least that’s the take of McKeel Hagerty, CEO of Hagerty Insurance, the nation’s largest provider of insurance to classic-car collectors.

With a well-trained eye for classic-car prices, Hagerty has seen the values of ugly 1970s-era cars rise steadily over the last few years.

The cars enjoying the most substantial bump-ups in value seemed to be the era’s biggest jokes – cars like the Ford Pinto, Chevy Vega and AMC Gremlin. Hagerty, himself the owner of a green 1976 AMC Pacer that has inexplicably appreciated substantially beyond the $2,300 he paid for it in 2004, was intrigued.

So earlier this year he launched a survey of Hagerty Insurance policyholders, and asked them to dredge up their memories of the worst car designs of all time – and name them. The results shouldn’t surprise anyone old enough to recall the hideous models that populated the American automobile landscape at the dawn of the disco era.

Tellingly, just about all the cars in this dubious Top 10 are American-made. Only the Yugoslavian-built Yugo GV, which placed No. 2, heralded from foreign shores.

Here’s a look at this group of losers-turned-winners 30 years later:

• AMC Pacer. This 1970s model showcased one of the oddest designs ever committed to sheet metal. The Pacer looked like someone had plunged an air pump into the side of a normal-sized hatchback and inflated it to just about the bursting point. Years later it had a featured role in the two “Wayne’s World” movies, and Toyota would turn out a similarly top-heavy subcompact called the Echo, a vehicle labeled “the clown car.” Yet the Pacer made the Echo look stately by comparison. Hagerty doesn’t mind the jokes, calling his Pacer “cool,” though it regrettably lacks an eight-track stereo for blasting Foghat and Grand Funk Railroad tunes.

• Yugo GV. This 1984-92 sedan hailed from Europe and was the lowest-cost car sold in the U.S.; as a result, only those whose financial fortunes were lacking purchased one. Most Yugos fell apart not long after taking to the road and had virtually no resale value (one used-car dealer in Chicago actually had a “buy one, get one free” sale on them). The Yugo GV was valued by one segment of the driving public: Comics found it a surefire four-letter punch line.

• Ford Pinto. This was one of a wave of subcompact cars Detroit began cranking out for the 1971 model year, just as Japanese subcompacts were gaining admiration. Despite a long nose and blunt hatchback, the Pinto gained buyers, but suffered from a design flaw that made its gas tank susceptible to an explosion from a rear-end collision. Jokesters quipped the car should have been called the “Fireball 500” or “the barbecue that seats four.” The laughing stopped when a Goshen, Ind., rear-end collision resulted in three teenage girls burning to death – and threw Ford into a protracted court case.

• Pontiac Aztek. This one wasn’t from the 1970s, but looked like it should have been. Launched in 2000 and discontinued only a few years later, the Aztek crossover SUV was ugly from the word go. One Hagerty Insurance survey respondent stated: “There must have been a front-end design team and an rear-end design team. And the two teams never spoke to each other.” It was said some called the Aztek “the warthog.”

• Chevrolet Vega. The Vega is a classic example of ugliness that went way beyond skin deep. Though nicely sculpted, the Vega was so rust-prone that one could predict where corrosion would do the greatest damage, which generally was around the hood and near the tires. Some said the Vega rusted even while sitting on showroom floors. It was the aluminum-block engine, however, that owners found truly ghastly. Design flaws led to the engines overheating and burning quart after quart of oil after about only 30,000 miles.

Many Vega owners saw enough smoke spewing out of their tailpipes to alarm the Environmental Protection Agency. Though it drew acclaim from the automotive press upon its introduction, the Vega generated such negative word-of-mouth that Chevrolet abandoned it in favor of the subcompact Chevette by 1977.

• The Remaining 5. Bringing up the back half of the Top 10 are the AMC Gremlin, a boxy and unreliable subcompact that offered a denim seat-cover option; the Chevrolet Corvair, which launched Ralph Nader’s career by being lambasted in his book “Unsafe at Any Speed”; the AMC Matador; Ford’s Edsel, a name synonymous with failure; and the aforementioned Chevrolet Chevette, which was derided at its introduction for offering a backseat as an option.

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