5 Cars That Became Metaphors (deserved or not)

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1. Edsel= Failure

The Ford Edsel has become a metaphor for commercial marketing failure. It was manufactured from 1958 til 1960. The failure of the Edsel brand is attributed to a combination of factors: an overhyped premiere, the perceived high price, an economic recession in 1957, ambiguous consumer targeting, the consumer shift toward smaller, fuel-efficient cars, and the perception of the car and its name as "ugly." Future Secretary of Defense Robert McNamera, a Ford executive at the time, changed the Edsel design and slashed its advertising budget, eventually burying the program. Due to its commercial failure, the Edsel was perceived for a time as a "lemon", but the car was as well-built as its contemporaries at Ford. The brand lost money, the equivalent of $2 billion in today's dollars, but the Edsel didn't damage Ford's overall profits.

2. Corvair=Unsafe
435_1960 Corvair.jpg

The Chevrolet Corvair was produced from 1960 to 1969, in response to the public's demand for smaller cars (the demand that helped derail the Edsel). The car (avialable in several models) was a sales success, selling over 200,000 units its first few years. In 1965, a little-known consumer advocate named Ralph Nader published a book entitled Unsafe at Any Speed. The book charged the American automobile industry with active resistance to the incorporation of safety features in cars, such as seat belts. The Corvair was only mentioned in one chapter of the book, but its reputation and sales slumped as a result. GM improved its design after the book was published, but also investigated and harassed Nader, who later sued. Only 6.000 Corvairs were produced for 1969, the last model year.

In what may be the automotive industry's greatest irony, NHTSA, the federal agency created from Nader's "consumer advocacy," investigated the Corvair and issued a report in 1971 clearing the car's design, two years after the car went out of production.

3. Pinto=Volatile
435_1971 Ford Pinto_jpg.jpg

The Ford Pinto had a tendency to explode. Forbes Magazine included it in their list of the Worst Cars of All Time. Two million Pintos were sold between 1971 and 1980, and 27 people died when the gas tanks ignited in rear-end collisions. The magazine Mother Jones wrote an expose on the Pinto in 1977. The real scandal stemmed from the Pinto Memo, which calculated the cost of fixing the known design problems in the fuel tank area at $121 million, versus the cost of projected lawsuits, estimated at $50 million. The Pinto's reputation became so bad that it is used in pop culture as a reference for something ready to explode. In the movie Speed, Sandra Bullock's character was asked if she could drive a bus filled with explosives. She replied, "Oh sure, it's just like driving a really big Pinto."

4. DeLorean=Overhyped
435_DeLorean.jpg

The DeLorean has such a wild story that it became more than one metaphor. Built from 1981 to 1983, it was the dream project of John Z. DeLorean. A Detroit native and engineer and executive at GM, DeLorean founded the DeLorean Motor Company with the help of high-profile investors and huge financial incentives to build his factory in Northern Ireland. Only 3,000 of the strange-looking and expensive cars sold the first year, nowhere near DeLorean's projections. Trying to pull the company out of British government receivership, DeLorean became involved in a cocaine-smuggling scheme and was arrested in 1982. He was eventually found not guilty due to entrapment, but the damage to his reputation, and to his car, was already done.

260delorean.jpgThe car starred in the Back to the Future movies as a time machine. The DeLorean was chosen because it looks like a UFO. In the first film, Doc said he used it because it was stylish, but Marty was puzzled at the choice because the car was a commercial flop. Around 6,000 DeLorean models survive today, and you can get one for less than its 1981 selling price of $26,000. Parts are hard to find.

Update: Two sources of DeLorean parts (from the comments) are DeLorean Motor Company (Texas) and DeLorean Car Show.

5. Yugo=Shoddy
435_yugo.jpg

The Yugo was sold in the United States from 1984 to 1992. Priced under $4,000 at its US debut, the car sold very well until UN sanctions against Yugoslavia forced the end of the import program. The Yugos manufactured for export to the US had higher standards than those for domestic use, but the Yugo still gained a reputation for shoddy construction and unreliability, earning Car Talk's Worst Car of the Millenium survey. The Yugo is still sold today in the former Yugoslavia under its European name, Zastava Koral.

Could you suggest other cars that could be metaphors?

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July 12, 2007 - 2:48am
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