Well, we’ve been seeing movies about it for the better part of 50 years, but it’s finally here. If you you live in a state with a larger population than say, Montana, your governor has probably issued some kind of an order to stay home, to stay out of the bars and restaurants, to not attend gatherings of more than 25 people and -- for the love of all that is holy -- to wash your hands. It got us thinking about the vehicles we drive and whether or not they’re exactly suitable for this kind of emergency. A lot of us drive cars that others actually like, and wouldn’t mind being seen in. Here are 10 cars that are going to have others keeping their distance.
Everybody’s go-to ugliest car is the Aztek, but for our money, the most hideous vehicle Pontiac ever produced was the Trans Sport. It was based on the GM U-platform, which also provided the guts for the Chevrolet Lumina APV, the Oldsmobile Silhouette (the “Cadillac of Minivans” from the film Get Shorty) and later on, the Buick Terrazza, Chevrolet Uplander and Saturn Relay. They were all heinous in their own ways, but the Dustbuster-like Trans Sport looked like it was used to keep a door open. Run one of these, and other people won’t even make eye contact, let alone get close enough to breathe on you.
The Free-Way was a tiny vehicle from the 1970s intended to combat the gas crisis. It had a 12 or 16hp gas engine, along with a significant case of the uglies. It looked like the kind of thing you’d build out of fiberglass in your basement, aided by nothing other than a 1974 issue of Popular Mechanics. And if its sheer lack of style wasn’t enough to keep plenty of social distance between you and your fellow germy Americans, it only had room for one.
The Mitsuoka Himiko is a seven-year-old’s idea of what a rich person would be driving. Under the skin is the Mazda Miata, which should’ve just been left alone. Instead, designer Takanori Aoki put a body on it that looks sort of like a Jaguar XK120 if you left your glasses at home. This is the kind of car that only an old bald guy with jorts and white New Balance sneakers would drive, unaccompanied by anyone else.
The Lancia Beta isn’t a great social distancing car because it’s ugly. It’s rather gorgeous, actually, especially from an era that wasn’t known for turning out beautiful cars. No, the reason it’s perfect for social distancing is because the entire world knows how massively unreliable it is. Initially it was called a “driver’s car” with a lot of character. Unfortunately, a lot of that character was extended to the driver, who built his on the frequent cold walks home. If you had the choice between getting an important meeting in a friend’s Beta Coupe or an Uber that smelled like microwaved fish and 87 Little Tree air fresheners, you’d take the Uber every time.
We’re starting to have a soft spot for “C3” Corvettes, even the ones produced deep into the Malaise Era. The idea of owning a 1980 Corvette, though -- and specifically those destined for California -- is still a prospect as exciting as a water heater replacement. Everything about it is awful. The styling is overwrought, it was only available with a three-speed automatic, and these California-bound cars were throttled with rudimentary emissions controls so that they only churned out 180hp, about what you could expect from a contemporary Buick LeSabre. If it’s social distancing you’re after, people will stay miles away.
“It’s like three engines in one,” the early promotional material said of the standard engine in all Cadillac models for the 1981 model year. Truth is, the V-8-6-4 engine was like a half a good engine trying to be three. Cylinder deactivation happens in just about every full-size truck with a V-8 today, but the vehicles we drive now have more computing power in the infotainment system than what we used to send Buzz Aldrin hurtling around the moon. The engine management computer in Cadillacs in 1981 was the kind of walnut brain you’d find in a brachiosaurus, capable of only rudimentary commands such as “die here” and “leave driver stranded.” These engines set cylinder deactivation back 35 years, to the point when it was reintroduced in the 2000s, nobody over the age of 60 trusted it.
You know whose help you really want to enlist when your car company is about to smash into the earth like a civilization-ending asteroid? The French. In 1983, a bunch of suits pinned all of their hopes on a partnership between the people who were known for automotive punchlines like the Pacer, the Rambler and the Gremlin, and the company who gave you LeCar. The Alliance was the product of this unhappy marriage. Car and Driver famously awarded it a 10Best award the year it was introduced, and two decades later made a public apology for it, writing “The Alliance proved that Wisconsin workers could assemble a Renault with the same indifference to quality that was a hallmark of the French automotive industry.” Truly a car that will leave great distance between you and any other human.
The Compass/Patriot debuted in 2007. It/they was produced on the same GS Platform that gave us about 907 other Jeep / Chrysler/ Dodge / Mitsubishi /Fiat / Citroen / Proton crapcan products that nobody will ever remember. These were the worst, though. Nobody can sufficiently explain why Jeep needed not one but TWO mind-numbingly terrible vehicles of exactly the same construction and size. They were small, indescribably awful inside, and wildly underpowered. It was bad enough when they had a six-speed automatic transmission. When they went to a Jatco CVT, they became flat out dangerous on the highway, unable to cope with a crosswind with any more bluster than an octogenarian wheezing out the candles on a birthday cake. The only way another human would get inside with you is if they were trying to collect on their life insurance.
Owning a Triumph Stag is what it must be like to produce a movie starring Lindsay Lohan: It sure looked great, but immediately it showed up late, acquired an worldwide reputation for unreliability and fell apart at the least opportune moment. The problems with the Stag ranged from at least three separate causes of overheating to cam chains that stretched and allowed valves to make contact with the pistons, to civil unrest in the factory where it was built. You know a car is truly bad when the company that manufactures it decides to pack it in completely not long after the last one rolls off the line.
We’re not even going to talk about how bad the Dauphine was. All we’re going to mention is the ad campaign for the car that followed it. Renault took out a two page spread in newspapers around the United States to introduce the Renault 10. One entire page was devoted to the words "The Renault for people who swore they would never buy another one." The facing page of the ad must have 750 words and the copy doesn’t even mention the new car until the top of the second column. The entire first column is an apology to everyone who bought the Dauphine. That’s the kind of car that is going to leave quite alone in this time of social distancing.