When talking about automotive debacles, the Edsel and the Yugo are low-hanging fruit, but I want to write about some flops that actually deserved better. These five were good, even spectacular, cars, but they were ahead of their time, too expensive, wrongly timed — or all of the above.
In part because these cars didn’t sell well — and their greatness is now recognized — all of them are now highly valuable collector cars. Had we possessed a crystal ball, we could have bought examples of each way back when and retire on the proceedings now.
1927-1933 Bugatti Type 41 Royale
This Royale, in the collection of the French National Auto Museum, has a gorgeous Park Ward body. If it looks imposing, that's no surprise; it's the biggest production car, ever. (Photo: Wikipedia)
What an amazing flop! The Bugatti Royale was doomed from the start, but it’s the pinnacle of automotive achievement today.
Here’s Jonny Liebermann in Jalopnik:
"Designed at the height of the jazz age by Etorre Bugatti to be the most magnificent car ever created, the Type 41 was a beast of a machine specifically intended to humble the Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Hispano-Suizas and Delahayes of the day. And boy, did it. While records are made to be broken, at various points over the last 80 or so years, the Royale has been the biggest, most powerful (with the biggest engine) and most expensive car ever created. Adjusted for inflation, the ultimate Bugatti would have set you back $700,000."
Here are a few numbers: The gorgeous Type 41 Royale (no two are the same) is the biggest production car ever, ever, with a wheelbase 12 inches longer than the humongous 1976 Cadillac Fleetwood. It was heavier than that particular Standard of Excellence, too by 3,000 pounds. The wheels are 24 inches, and the 300-horsepower (awesome for the period) straight-eight engine displaces 12,763 cc. Yes, it’s more than 12 liters, and again the biggest engine in any car. It’s so massive it was also used to pull trains.
Was it a hit? No! Only six were officially built, though others have since been assembled from parts. I’ve seen three of them, including an example in what is now the French National Auto Museum in France. I also visited the Royale then owned by the Domino’s Pizza guy, Tom Monaghan, in Michigan. And the Henry Ford Museum’s Royale, which I’ve also seen, has a truly remarkable history. Owned by a refugee from the Nazis, it was shipped to Italy, then Shanghai, and finally to New York.
The city did not provide a safe haven. Sitting on the street during a cold winter, the car’s engine block froze and it ended up in a scrapyard, where Charles Chayne — later an engineering vice president at General Motors — bought it for $400. Let’s let that sink in for a moment — the car is worth many millions today. Chayne donated the car to the Henry Ford Museum (maybe because GM has nothing comparable) and that’s why I could kick the tires decades later.
Only the very rich could afford a Royale, and even they were having hard times in the early 1930s. And so the Royale never put Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces in their place. But what a magnificent failure.
1934-1937 Chrysler Airflow
The Chrysler Airflow was ahead of its time. That translated to no sales in the mid-1930s. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Walter P. Chrysler thought he had a hit on his hands, and thus the aerodynamic, ground-breaking Airflow was offered by all the company’s divisions — DeSoto, Chrysler and Imperial all had Airflows. At a time when cars had a cookie-cutter design, the Airflow challenged convention with headlights incorporated into the streamlined nose rather than standing up on separate pods.
Other innovations on the Airflow include six- and straight-eight engines located directly over the front axle (common today; uncommon then), a Borg-Warner automatic overdrive transmission (its first appearance on an American car), and four-wheel hydraulic brakes with a vacuum booser.
Rivals spread rumors that the Airflow was unreliable, and that’s one reason customers went elsewhere. But the Airflow was just too much, too soon. It was history in four years. In 1937, with the Depression still on, Chrysler sold only 4,600 Airflows.
1936-1937 Cord 810
Another Depression casualty, the Cord 810 was even more innovative and otherworldly (to 1936 eyes) than the Chrysler Airflow. Imagine a car of that era with disappearing headlights, front-wheel drive, a disappearing convertible top and a supercharged V-8. Then add styling that anticipated the vehicles a full two decades hence. The result: A total flop.
Cord was part of the innovative Indiana-based conglomerate that also included two other fabulous marques, Duesenberg and Auburn. Cord, named after founder Errett Lobban Cord, innovated front-wheel drive with the sporty and expensive L29 of 1929. That one didn’t sell either (the $3,000 price made it expensive for its day), but front-wheel drive lived on in the 810.
The “coffin nose” design — one of the most Art Deco cars ever produced — is attributed to Gordon Buehrig, a former Duesenberg stylist who was actually at General Motors when he penned it. But GM hated it, and Errett Cord loved it. Buehrig was brought back in-house, and the car became the 810, available in both sedan and convertible (with two or four seats) versions.
In 1937, the mostly similar 812 added two long-wheelbase models and — for ultimate coolness factor — an optional supercharger, whose piece de resistance was a pair of chromed exhausts that popped out of holes in the hood (a great gimmick also used on Auburns and Duesenbergs). Looking at the 810 and 812 today, it’s hard to imagine buyers skipping it over, but despite Cord’s hopes of selling 1,000 a month, only 3,000 people took the plunge in the two-year lifespan. Too weird, I guess. And it was a flashy car in the wrong time.
By the way, cowboy star Tom Mix had a Cord, which he tricked up with western gear. Any publicity from that was probably muted by the fact that he also died in the car (following a one-car accident).
1956-1959 BMW 507
The BMW 507 was fast, but no Ferrari. Arguably, it was prettier than anything from Modena. (Photo: Wikipedia)
The 507 roadster, designed by German Count Albrecht Goertz, is my favorite automobile design, ever — it looks perfect from every angle. It’s far better looking than the Shelby Cobra. Why don’t replica makers clone a version of it?
Everyone loves the two-seat 507 now, but its $9,000 price in the mid-1950s meant (like all the cars here, come to think of it) only a few wealthy people bought one. Just 253 were built, with about 200 surviving. If you find one — good luck — prices start around $500,000.
“The 507 revived [BMW’s] reputation for producing fast, durable, superbly engineered road cars,” says auto writer Dan Jedlicka. Celebrities, including Elvis and New Orleans jazz musician Pete Fountain, had 507s. I saw one driven by a villain on a "Columbo" episode.
The Porsche Speedster and the BMW 507 were both dreamed up by U.S. importer Max Hoffman. Both are revered, but neither were the hits he predicted.
The 507 didn’t just look good. The aluminum V-8 (adopted from the earlier, and dumpy, 503) came in 150- and 160-horsepower versions, mated to a four-speed manual, and sported dual carbs, hot cams and a high compression ratio. It was fast, though no match for a contemporary Ferrari — more of a boulevardier.
"It was a showstopper when it debuted at the 1955 Frankfurt auto show in Germany, with styling years ahead of its time. The car looked so good you couldn't change a line of it without hurting its appearance."
Hoffman had told BMW he could sell a few hundred 507s annually, but that was with a price tag of $5,000. A Corvette was $3k then. This buggy was $9k.
The amazing thing is that, decades later, BMW built a homage to the 507 called the Z8. In 2000 you could buy one for a cool $135,304. It was gorgeous, fast, and offered state-of-the-art engineering. Did it sell? No! BMW had exactly duplicated the 507, including its impracticality in the market.
1964-1967 Gordon Keeble
If you’ve never heard of this one, you’re not alone — few have. But the Gordon Keeble (the name always makes me think of Keebler crackers) had it all: a very pretty design by the great (and then just starting out) Giorgetto Giugiaro, a lightweight space frame, a big Corvette-derived 5.4-liter V-8 offering 140 mph, and a very suave James Bond-eligible British interior.
The Gordon Keeble is the only car here that wasn’t too expensive — in fact, it undercut all its rivals. But that was fatal, too, because the company, based in the Hampshire town of Eastleigh (where Benny Hill was once the milkman), couldn’t make any profits or ensure an adequate supply of parts.
James Bond didn’t come calling; the car’s only film appearance is in some lousy racing film called "The Green Helmet" that nobody saw. This car didn’t get the breaks. Bankruptcy was declared as early as 1965, though production continued for two years. Only 99 were made, but 95 survive and are much sought-after.
Other cool cars that, believe it or not, failed to chart when they were new: Mercedes 300SL, Shelby Cobra, BMW M1, Ford Thunderbird (the original 1955-1957 two-seater), Stout Scarab, Volvo 1800ES.
Here's great video of Elvis' derelict BMW being unloaded for display (and, presumably, restoration) at the BMW Museum in Germany: