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As many of you will know, it is unusual for me to write a book review, although admittedly it is far less unusual to find me writing about cars.
Well then, what moved me to write a review about this innocuous looking little "pocket" book?
Seeing this book on the cheap book stand in our own (for the time being still open) local Post Office, I could not resist but to pick it up. Cheap? Oh yes indeed, the Selnews Bargain Books sticker proclaims:
"SAVE £8.00 - PUBLISHED PRICE £12.99 - OUR PRICE £4.99".
Sorry, didn't mean to shout - their capitals not mine!
I parted with my £4.99 for two reasons, primarily that having flicked through it I knew that I would have fun reviewing this book, and secondly that it contained many cars from my formative motoring years, the 70's and early 80's.
WHAT THE PUBLISHER SAYS
Please note: I have copied this verbatim, the cover of the book clearly contains the word "THE" in the title, there is another book by an entirely different author with the following title. The description is however of the book being reviewed - all errors are the publisher's - not mine!
"World's Worst Cars
The annals of motoring history are riddled with heroic failures, duds and disasters. The World's Worst Cars takes a detailed look at these motoring tragedies - old and new - and asks: Why did they ever reach the showrooms? What went wrong? Why were they so unreliable, and what kind of person actually bought them? From the deadly Ford Pinto to rusty Lancias and plastic Nissans, this book features more than 150 of the cars we love to hate, illustrated with annotated photography and archive images from the car's heyday.
Format: 120 x 161mm (4 ¾ x 6 1/2")
Illustrations: 300 col photos
Text: 35000 words"
WHAT RICHADA SAYS
Having gotten this far, I am already worried about the contents of this book, before even opening it. That my copy has an Amphicar on the front cover and a Reliant Kitten on the rear, does however show some promise. Both the supposedly amphibious (Amphi)car and the four wheeled version of the famously dubbed "Plastic Pig" (Reliant Robin) were truly bad cars, no argument from me there! However, it is what fills the space between those two hard covers that counts.
Do we "love to hate" these cars - does it indeed even feature over 150 different cars?
THE AUTHOR - CRAIG CHEETHAM
There is no photograph of Craig Cheetham, and the rear flap information about him is very sparse indeed. We therefore have no indication of his age, where he comes from, or indeed just what his background in the motor industry - or greater world of cars - is. All it informs me is that he is an experienced "motoring journalist and author" and has "contributed" to various books including "The Encyclopaedia of Classic Cars, Hot Rods & Custom Cars and American Cars", none titles that I have heard of. He apparently works for the motoring magazine "Auto Express" testing and writing about new and second hand cars.......
......He has my dream job then I guess!
As the book tells us little or nothing about the author, indeed, he does nothing to introduce us to himself in the rather optimistically entitled "INTRODUCTION" I had to resort to various internet searches on the man - and still discovered very little!
What is evident is that Craig Cheetham's main area of expertise appears to lie in American cars and the "Automobile" industry there. He has certainly written very many books on the subject as well as on "Hot Rods".
The introductory pages explain that he has attempted to make the book as "global" as possible, in terms of the variety of manufacturers represented here, that may be the case - in terms of the dialogue used, I found that, from the outset, the whole volume had a far too Stateside bias to it for my liking. Terms like trunks and hoods I find intensely annoying.
THE STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK
The World's Worst Cars is presented in five chapters, according to the categories into which the author believes that a particular car falls; Badly Built, Design Disasters, Financial Failures, Misplaced Marques and Motoring Misfits. Looking at those chapter titles I am already getting a flavour of the repetition that is to occur throughout the book. After all, a badly designed or built car is going to be a financial disaster anyway, misplaced marques and motoring misfits often appear one of the same here too.
What I do actually really like about this book is the page format, it is clear and consistent in its' presentation. Each car is given a two page spread. The first page has the title, dates of manufacture (no production numbers unfortunately), country of origin - represented by the national flag (so you'd better know your world flags!) a mini-specification panel, plus brief and pithy text attempting to justify that particular cars inclusion here.
Americanisation creeps into the specification table here again, no hp or bhp figure is shown - merely a "ci" (cubic inches) figure which is not explained, nor does it have any meaning to the average European. The specification panel is all too brief and skimpy, engine types for example are described as simply V6 or in-line four, no mention even being made on the type of fuel used or number of valves. The last line of the specification box I find particularly ironic and confusing: "Mileage", an American term used for fuel consumption is then expressed in litres of fuel consumed per 100km (European metric fashion) with miles per gallon in brackets afterwards!
The second page shows a good sized photograph - or manufacturer's cutaway drawing which is even better - of the car, with annotations showing specific weaknesses, further attempting to justify that vehicles inclusion in the book.
LET THE ARGUMENT BEGIN
To be fair, the author is well aware that this is a personal choice of "duffers" and that the cars included here are his personal choices. All opinions expressed are the author's own and all that......
......well I would hope that indeed they are, just as we express our own personal opinions on review sites!
I could argue at least 50% of his choices until the cows come home - the remaining 50% are such obvious candidates that they will fall easily into the pages of any such book. In this case it seems hardly fair to poke fun at them - and yet here it is done in such a superficial way that I could even argue against the likes of the terrible Yugo 45 being included - not because of its' inclusion, but because of the misguided and misunderstood reasoning behind its inclusion here.
My main beef with this whole book, and the comments made within, are that the author is attempting to compare thirty five year old design and manufacturing techniques with those of today. This, primarily, is where the lack of knowledge about the author casts a shadow over the whole book.
THE CASE OF THE HUMBLE MORRIS MARINA
Was he around, more importantly DRIVING around in a 1977 Morris Marina? And before you ask, YES I WAS! In 1980, I learned to drive on one! Compared to a 2007 Ford Focus Saloon (the closest equivalent I could think of) it is very easy to rubbish everything about the Marina. However, during the 1970's it was a staple family car, many thousands of company representatives were also issued with them. It was very much what the middle classes of the day expected from their personal transport. Was the Marina really any worse than the equivalent Ford, Hillman or Vauxhall of the day?
Mr Cheetham's justification for including the humble Morris Marina in this book is that it was "Badly Built". In our experience, our Company owned probably a dozen of these cars during the 1970's, they were far better built than their close cousin, the front wheel drive Austin Allegro which fully deserves its inclusion and panning here. Apart from replacing plenty of wheel bearings, the Marina was so simple - reliable too in the case of our abused reps examples - it was the ideal company car IN ITS DAY! That does not mean that in 2007 it would be acceptable in the same role.
I actually remember, in 1971, as a nine year old boy the Marina being launched, it looked ultra modern compared to its competitors. I even had a lime green Corgi model of the two door Coupe version - such a shame I have not got it today, it would be worth more than an actual life size car!
The Marina's driving characteristics are also panned by the author, who refers to "Journalists advice to British Leyland to modify the cars suspension". Yes it was simple, crude even - having effectively been developed from the Morris Minor, but so were most other simple rear wheel drive cars at that time.
I thought that my being a novice driver caused the vibrating rear end and dreadful propshaft noise when taking off from rest.......
......until, when my driving instructor drove me home after the first lesson, it behaved exactly the same way for him! No, I would not wish to go back to 1971 or 1980 and be driving a Morris Marina, neither if I saw a pristine example for sale would I buy it as a classic toy, but that certainly does not make this one of the world's worst cars.
Continuing on the Marina theme, I am going to use it as an example to show the rather tedious repetition in this book, proving conclusively that there are NOT 150 bad cars listed here! We are presented with......
......the Morris Ital! A Mk3 Morris Marina by another name. This car, very clearly, even from the published photograph, a Marina, gets a second kicking due now to being a "Misplaced Marque". Having said that, the Ital was by any standards an awful re-design and I may have included that in a list of my own four wheeled horrors.
WERE ALL BRITISH CARS THAT BAD?
There is something of a theme to this and it tends, for whatever reason, to be rather biased towards the British cars of that era - the 1970's and 80's. The three separate entries for the Austin Princess, Wolseley Six 18 / 22 Series and Austin Ambassador stretch this to the limit. All three cars were badge engineered versions of the Princess, the Ambassador being a face-lifted and hatchbacked version, the only survivor in an originally much larger range of cars. Also given the same treatment, the Austin Allegro and Vanden Plas 1500, the VP1500 being the luxury model of the Allegro. Not that luxury and Allegro sit very comfortably in the same sentence!
I have to say here, that were I to draw up a list of the worst cars that I have driven, the Allegro would be in number one or two spot, I could never at the time make up my mind which terrified me the most, a 1750cc Austin Maxi, or an Allegro with a twin carburettor version of the same engine. We had both Allegro's and Maxi's on our fleet at the time - both were awful to drive and made the Marinas look and feel good by comparison.
THE BASIL FAWLTY LINE
You may well remember that classic BBC comedy show of the time, Basil Fawlty, Torquay hotel owner, handing his resident, the dotty Major, the morning paper, regularly commenting on the car workers being on strike. Again, it was the era, unions called the shots in the large car factories located here in Britain, however can you really use the political card to claim that the cars themselves were bad?
With the exception of the ultimate luxury marques, Bentley and Rolls Royce - one of the same at the time - any car, with the extraordinary exception of TVR, that came from a British car factory between 1970 and the mid 80's appears in this book. Many of them were world beaters, voted Car of the Year in the case of the 1976 Rover SD1. As usual Britain led the world in terms of design, but due to manufacturing processes of the day, sloppy quality control and yes, even labour relations, the cars finished up giving their owners grief as they could not be constructed in the way intended by their designers.
BEAUTY IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
Believe me, in my days as a single man, during the 1980's and 90's, I read a lot more of the motoring press than most, it was something of a passion I suppose. Reading "The World's Worst Cars" my eyebrows involuntarily rose when I read that the press dubbed the inoffensive (and vastly better than its predecessors) Austin Maestro "The Popemobile", due to its glassy styling. Honestly that was the first time that I have heard that expression applied to this car.
For whatever reason, Mr Cheetham really does not like this particular car. Our experiences as owners - of several - were completely at odds with his comments. They did not have "awful engines" did not have an "awful paint finish", and in total contradiction to his conclusion (it's hard to believe how bad the Maestro actually is....) they were popular with their drivers. Compared to previous British Leyland products we found them cheap to run, very reliable and surprisingly well built.
I probably should not mention this, but the identical, apart from the badge, MG Maestro also comes in for a separate lambasting, as does, separately again, the Montego saloon version, all rather tedious as they are, or more accurately were, basically the same car.
Beauty being in the eye of the beholder, there are several cars listed here that, should I have the time and a little cash to spare, I would be more than happy to purchase as restoration projects. One such is the Triumph Stag, a car that I never particularly liked when I was younger, but now find myself being particularly drawn to for its undoubted style and practicality.
From the same era came the rather more rare Jensen Healey, which Cheetham pans for its use of humble drivetrain and suspension components. Completely missing the point, that it would have been far too expensive had the whole car been bespoke, those shared parts are today much more easy to source than the Jensen bits.
IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR EASY TARGETS THEY ARE NOT HARD TO FIND
I have a very good friend, who describes himself as an Alfaholic. Well, for you and all the Alfisti out there, take my warning, do not touch this book!
Personally, having had many years of very expensive experience with the marque, I am not its' greatest fan. A lot of that can actually be directly attributed to the dealers and Alfa Great Britain's attitude towards its' long suffering and extremely loyal customers.
That does not mean that every car produced by the firm deserves a place here. One of them, the Alfasud, would top my personal list of "the greatest car to slip the net", a car that I always wanted to drive and never managed to. The main reason for it being included in the book is that it rusted - appallingly.
No argument from me on that one, but was that the car's fault? Indeed, did not EVERY Italian car of that era succumb just as quickly? Which begs the question as to just why not ONE Fiat from that era appears in these pages?
In fact, the Italian marques generally fare badly here, three Lancia's appear, an Iso (he does not like the styling), Lamborghini Espada, Maseratis - all are condemned using typical Italian car clichés, yes, easy targets indeed.
HORSES FOR COURSES - YOU DON'T RACE SNAILS AT AINTREE
Apart from the repetition, the heard it all before clichés and the suspicion that the author has driven very few of these cars, the thing that annoys me the most is that he makes no allowance whatsoever for the "purpose" of these cars when originally designed and sold. With very few exceptions they all come from an entirely different era, the world was a different place. A place without MP3, ABS, Internet Cafes, and in many parts of the world, proper road surfaces.
In automotive terms there was actually far more choice. A Skoda, joke or not, was a Skoda, a Volkswagen was just that. Countries designed cars less for a world market and more for the consumers that they knew best, the ones on their own doorstep. Mr Cheetham may knock the Austin 1100 / 1300, but middle England took to them in their droves. Interestingly he does not include with them the Mini - a car that earned far less money for its makers than did the very good and attractive little 1100.
To this day, cars that work well in America fail abysmally to do so here, no matter how "Europeanised" their manufacturers claim them to be. Does that make them bad cars though? That depends on which side of the pond that you are reading this I guess.
Take this argument back three or four decades, the period on which this book appears to major. I would argue that it is probably just long enough ago for most readers to have forgotten the realities of the age, and therefore be unable offer constructive analysis on its content. That does not make it or its content completely factual though.
Joining this section to the last, the easiest targets of all have to be the products of the Eastern European manufacturers. There was an Iron Curtain separating East from West. Yet, audaciously, the likes of Lada, Skoda, FSO/Polski Fiat, Wartburg and even Yugo tried desperately to earn foreign currency for their cash strapped communist regimes by exporting their cars to the west. Here in England in the 1970's they were universally regarded as sub-standard, bad even, cars. That they should all, along with Trabant, never imported here, appear in this book is the most predictable thing of all.
However, put yourself in the shoes of a family in the Eastern Bloc. You have little or no choice in the model of car that you can buy. You have to drive it on appalling roads, even to this day some main roads in Russia are without metalled surface. You need a car that is strong, has good ground clearance and is easy to fix on the roadside when it breaks down. Naturally it has to be as cheap to buy as possible too. A ten year old, tried and tested ex-Fiat design (Lada 1500 or FSO 125P) then starts to make perfect sense AND, in your eyes compared to the limited or non-existent choice available, is a good car!
Whilst being able to understand the reasoning behind making such a book light and easy to read for a global market, I cannot help but feel that only those like myself, who have an above average interest and knowledge in the subject, are going to pick it up in the first place. This being the case, unless you are a young teenager, preferably an American one at that, the "The World's Worst Cars" is just as likely to insult your intelligence, as indeed it did mine.