10 Automotive Ideas That Didn't Pan Out

From flying cars to early aluminum engines, here’s a peek at some of the auto industry’s most ignominious failures.
  • Automotive history is replete with vehicles, features and predictions that backfired.

    Flying cars, for example, have piqued the imaginations of designers for nearly a century, without success. But the list goes far beyond that. Engineers and executives have miscalculated thousands of times over the past century, often with embarrassing public results.

    Here, we’ve collected images of prototypes and predictions that died miserably. From early aluminum engines to front-loading doors, following is a peek at some of the auto industry’s most ignominious failures.



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  • Engineers dreamed of flying cars long before the film Back to the Future popularized the idea. As far back as 1933, legendary inventor Buckminster Fuller proposed the Dymaxion, a vehicle that could “hop off the road at will, fly about, then, as deftly as a bird, settle back into place in traffic.” The vehicle featured a lightweight hinged chassis, rear-mounted V-8 engine, front-wheel drive propulsion and three wheels. Fuller believed the Dymaxion could be made available to the general public with little improvement.

    His idea had backing, too. Fuller received interest from Chrysler, Ford, Packard, Studebaker and Curtiss-Wright, but he built only three experimental prototypes before the idea faded away. (Image source: Wikipedia, by Starysatyr )

  • The egg-shaped, BMW Isetta was a so-called “micro-car” offering easy ingress and egress, thanks to its use of a refrigerator-type door in its front end. Not surprisingly, Iso SpA, which built the Isetta for BMW in the mid-1950s and masterminded the front door, was a manufacturer of refrigerators.

    Powered by a 300-cc, single-cylinder engine, the Isetta was said to be the first vehicle ever to reach a fuel efficiency of 3 liters/100 km (about 78 mpg). At one point, it was top-selling single-cylinder car in the world, reaching sales of 161,000 between 1955 and 1962. Still, the concept of front egress was eventually abandoned, partly because it required occupants to exit through the sunroof in the event of a crash. (Image source: Design News)

  • Designed by aviation engineer William Stout, The Stout Scarab was supposed to bring new levels of luxury to the auto industry. With a small card table and swiveling seats at its center, the Scarab was viewed by Stout as a combination office-and-dining-car on wheels.

    Those concepts were an evolution of Stout’s previous experience with Stout Airlines, which had been credited with introducing the idea of flight attendants and in-flight meals to the aviation industry.

    At $5,000, however, the Scarab’s price was deemed too high, especially for a vehicle that many consumers of the time considered ugly. (Image source: Wikipedia)

  • Automaker Albert Augustus Pope may have been 130 years ahead of his time in his promotion of the electric car, but he was dead wrong about the public’s acceptance of internal combustion engine. Indeed, while EVs have caught on, his take on engines did not.

    In the early 1900s, the manufacturer of bicycles and electric cars declared, “You can’t get people to sit over an explosion” as a way of explaining why the internal combustion engine would never take off. (Image source: Wikipedia)

  • On November 16, 2010, The New York Times reported that then-CEO Carlos Ghosn predicted Nissan Leaf sales “would hit 500,000 units a year in three years. Mass production, he explained, would lower costs enough to make the car a sales success without subsidies sooner than once expected.” Nissan sold 22,610 Leafs in 2013. Subsidies are still in place today. (Image source: Nissan)

  • One of the selling points of the 2001 Pontiac Aztek was that a bicycle could fit inside its oddly shaped rear end. The problem was that the oddly shaped rear end made for terrible views when drivers looked in their rear-view mirrors. Worse, there were apparently not enough bicyclists who wanted to buy reliability-challenged Pontiacs, so sales tailed off.

    Industry analysts now say that the Aztek almost single-handedly served as the final nail in Pontiac’s coffin. (Image source: IFCAR, Wikipedia)

  • You could say that Chevrolet was ahead of its time when it put a diecast, all-aluminum engine block in the 1971 Chevy Vega. Consumers of that era, however, weren’t concerned about foresight.

    Conceived by GM engineer John Z. DeLorean as a subcompact powered by a lightweight futuristic powertrain, the Vega was plagued by a leaky, buckling block. For a few years, its sales were strong. But its reputation for poor quality caught up with it, and history has not been kind to the Vega.

    Many engineers insist that the Vega gave the aluminum block a black eye, delaying its eventual success in the automotive industry. (Image source: Wikipedia, Chevrolet press release photo)

  • The claims of battery makers have always been notoriously overblown, but even in the battery world, Energy Conversion Devices’ claims in the 1990s were considered grossly inaccurate.

    In a 1993 letter to The New York Times, company founder Stanford Ovshinsky claimed his nickel-metal hydride battery “permits a range of 250 to 300 miles, lasts the car's lifetime, has the power to accelerate the sportiest automotive models, recharges in 15 minutes, uses environmentally safe materials, is easily manufactured and has a cost in production that allows the car's operation at one-third a gasoline engine's.”

    Range at the time was actually around 100 miles and recharge was measured in multiple hours. Nickel-metal hydride enjoyed success in hybrids, but has since been displaced in battery electrics by lithium-ion. (Image source: Wikepedia, Glenn Triest)

  • As far back as 1901, Thomas Edison developed nickel-iron batteries for use in electric vehicles made by such companies as Detroit Electric and Baker Electric. Edison claimed the batteries were far superior to the era’s best – the venerable lead-acid battery.

    But nickel-iron failed to launch an electric vehicle era, and lead-acid has since continued as the mainstay chemistry for vehicle starting. Chrysler tried to resurrect the nickel-iron battery in its all-electric TEVan in the early 1990s, but range was again limited and vehicle cost exceeded $120,000, so Chrysler ended up producing only 56 of the vehicles before giving up. (Image source: Wikipedia)

  • Concerned over such issues as cost, servicing and lack of consumer interest, General Motors decided to call in its leases on the all-electric EV1 and crush the remaining vehicles in 2003. The idea failed to pan out the way GM executives had hoped, however.

    Crushing of the remaining EV1s outraged the electric car community and ended up as the focal point of the 2006 film, Who Killed the Electric Car?, resulting in a corporate black eye for the giant automaker.

    Late last year, GM rolled out the Chevy Bolt, which is its first all-new electric car since the demise of the EV1. (Image source: Wikipedia, Plug In America)




Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 33 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.


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