Hey, they can't all be Corvettes!
If you're around for 100 years, it's impossible not to sprinkle some flops among the success stories
Photo credit: GM CORP.
In a century of attempts, Chevrolet was bound to churn out some products and ideas that just didn't make it. The mishaps include an early air-cooled engine in the 1920s, defect-ridden compacts in the 1960s and 1970s and a minivan that was compared, unfavorably, to a household appliance. Here are some of the brand's notable flops.
The first big idea from Charles Kettering, General Motors' head of research, was a flop. The "copper-cooled" Chevrolet launched with an air-cooled engine with 135 cubic inches of displacement and 22 hp.
In 1921, Kettering got the green light to develop both a four- and a six-cylinder air-cooled engine.
Kettering: First big idea flopped
"The air-cooled engine offered an attractive prospect. It would get rid of the cumbersome radiator and plumbing system of the water-cooled engine and promised to reduce the number of parts in the engine, its weight and its cost, and at the same time to improve engine performance," wrote Alfred Sloan in his 1964 book, My Years with General Motors.
The engines went into production in the spring of 1923, and the few copper-cooled Chevys on the road were riddled by "a large number of reports of troubles, indicating that they were still experimental, unproved, and in need of further development," Sloan wrote.
The engine was so unreliable that after building 759 units, Chevy killed the project.
The Chevrolet Corvair died because of quality problems and a campaign waged against the innovative compact by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who wrote in his 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, that the car was dangerous and prone to flip.
The Corvair, produced from the 1960 to 1969 model years, was the only car with a rear-mounted air-cooled engine made by a domestic volume brand. Its mechanical problems included poor handling, oil leaks and a heater that sometimes wouldn't turn off.
The rear-wheel-drive Chevrolet Vega went on sale in September 1970, meant to compete with the Ford Pinto and Volkswagen Beetle. Although nearly 2 million Vegas were sold, Chevy killed the car in the 1977 model year because of mechanical and engine problems.
The Vega had a long list of problems, including premature rusting, oil leaks, engine overheating, excessive engine shaking and the occasional engine fire.
Envious of Chrysler Corp.'s success with the new people carriers called minivans, Chevy launched the Astro as a 1985 model, a smaller version of its large van. Sales peaked at about 155,000 in 1988, compared with about 422,000 combined sales for the Chrysler and Dodge minivans.
But the Astro, which stayed in the Chevy lineup until 2005, had rear-wheel drive. And GM also wanted a more carlike front-wheel-drive model more similar to the fwd Dodge and Chrysler vans.
The 1990 Lumina APV minivan was another attempt that lasted for six years. The Lumina was quirky looking with a downward sloping front end that earned it the nickname "dustbuster" after the hand-held household vacuum. Former GM product boss Bob Lutz said the Lumina van "was a bad idea."
"They said: 'Let's just do one that's very close to the highly successful Chrysler minivan.' The trouble is they targeted that last old boxy Chrysler minivan."
Meanwhile, Chrysler came out with "the great big, second-generation, curvy ones with the low sweeping glass," Lutz said.
In its best year, sales of the Lumina APV were just over 63,000 units. The vehicle was discontinued after the 1996 model year.
The Chevrolet Uplander came in 2004, and its best sales year was 72,980, in 2005. The 2008 model was Chevrolet's last minivan, although crossovers continue to fill much of the minivan's role.
The Colorado small pickup went on sale in 2003, replacing the S-10. Its future had been in doubt until GM confirmed this month that it plans to build and sell a new Colorado in the United States.
The Colorado has been criticized for its Spartan interior and bumpy ride. David Champion, director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports, gives it low marks in several areas: "It has a weak engine, terrible ride quality and is awful to drive. It is uncompetitive even with a 15-year-old Ford Ranger."
The HHR, an imitator of the popular Chrysler PT Cruiser, attempted to capitalize on the short-lived retro craze. It went on sale in 2005 and lasted only six years. Chevy stopped making the HHR for retail customers on Dec. 23, 2010, and for fleets in May. The reason wasn't a surprise -- "decreased demand" and buyers moving on to larger vehicles such as Chevrolet's new Equinox crossover.
Champion said the HHR didn't succeed because it was based on the lackluster Cobalt compact car "that was not particularly good in the first place."
He said: "You couldn't see out of it; the driving position was awkward, and the fuel economy was even worse."
What? No 'Chevy'?
In addition to some bad vehicles, there were some bad ideas along the way.
Jim Campbell was general manager of Chevrolet for eight months in 2010. His short stint was best known for an internal memo he and sales chief Alan Batey signed that was leaked to The New York Times. It urged GM people to use the name "Chevrolet" instead of "Chevy," even in casual conversations with friends and colleagues, as part of a strategy to build a consistent brand identity.
The news sparked an outcry from Chevy enthusiasts and marketing experts. Some even suggested it was such a bad idea that it might be brilliant -- a ruse aimed at generating free publicity.
GM promptly issued a press release saying it wasn't banning the Chevy moniker.
Mike Colias contributed to this report