Journal: Which Cars Have Earned Reputations They Don't Deserve?

Which Cars Have Earned Reputations They Don’t Deserve?

By Alex Sobran
August 3, 2018
17 comments

A recent reader submission in the form of an early orange 928 and its owner’s well-reasoned approach to the idea of automotive favoritism got me thinking about how we form our opinions on cars that were built before we were. So many people call the 928 a maintenance nightmare that was overly engineered or worse poorly so, but who are they? And to put it simply, what do they know? Do they speak from experience, or from memory of a persuasive rant that somebody else posted on a forum once upon a time?

If you weren’t around in 1978 when Porsche released their front-engined GT,  everything you know about the car’s place in its period is secondhand information or just cold stats with no context. Reputations are increasingly skewed over time, and the most vocal crowd tends to be the one in control of them, and since those who speak loudest and most often are likely to carry the strongest opinions, the true story can get lost between the extremes. This goes both ways, negative and positive, and even for one model—the E30, and the M3 especially, has a yin and yang reputation of being the carriage of deities and among the biggest letdowns in hero-meeting history—and with classic cars these myths can be very hard to undue. Not because they’re necessarily well-founded, but rather just deeply-rooted in time.

Think about a journalist who test drives a new car from a brand that competes with his favorite (nobody is purely objective). Maybe he also had food poisoning the night prior and found some eggshells in his omelet the morning of. Now his review gets read over the years and it becomes something of a reference point, even if it was biased. The point is, who knows? Does Alfa Romeo deserve its reputation of building pretty cars with wonderful engines with temperaments fickler than a puppy? Why don’t we ask the Milanese police about curb-hopping and powersliding around the city grid or the Malaysian force about the Alfetta’s capability as a pursuit and escort vehicle? The durability of an Alfa Romeo can refer to an aluminum skin wrapped on a thin-gauge jungle gym or a sedan that didn’t mind getting sent down a set of stairs if need be, it’s just that it’s more fun for people to think of them as charmingly temperamental beauty queens rather than robust service vehicles.

Surely many marque and model reputations have their basis in fact, but it’s likely they’ve been exaggerated and need some reigning in. Which examples come to your mind? Better yet, which cars best defy the stereotypes of their makers? The Corvair comes to mind.

Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

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Alan Cooper
Alan Cooper
3 years ago

Absolutely Lancia Beta, yes they did rust but so did many others at the time. Lancia were screwed over by Ester Rantzen for doing the right thing, no other manufacturers bought back affected cars. Brilliant design by the way that lacks recognition even now due to this media crucification.

Zama
Zama
3 years ago

I hate how anything twin turbo from Maserati is tagged as a mechanical disaster, Yes the early Bi turbo’s were bad but that was well addressed by the time of the 430 having had a 4V and Ghibli of that era, they were awesome, had no mechanical issues in 8 years with regular service. Only problem in all that time was a broken pin in the passenger door when someone tried to open it at the same time as the central locking was unlocking. These later series engines which formed the basis of the Maserati 3200 were near bulletproof.

Harv Falkenstine
Harv Falkenstine
3 years ago

Alex, your statement: “surely many marque and model reputations have their basis in fact. ”
While even some will defend the reputation of some British cars as ill-deserved, my personal experience as a young GI purchasing a new Triumph TR7 in 1977, lived up to every stereotype assigned to that #$% of a car. I picked the car up in London, where it was presented at a “diplomatic” delivery center. By the time I returned to my duty station in Neu Ulm, Germany, the wipers had quit working, the driver’s side mirror had fallen off the door and one headlight stayed up. When I shipped it back to the land of the big PX, it continually ate starters and blew head gaskets. After moving to Virginia Beach, it lived at the dealership where several times I would go to pick the car up after a service and it would not start. It was difficult to keep it running long enough to unload it. A quick search for TR7s online typically produces advertisements for cars with descriptions like low mileage, needs some work, etc. Some stereotypes are correct.

John Roth
John Roth
3 years ago

The maintenance nightmare/reliability myths cut both ways.

Mercedes om617 turbo diesels are terrific engines and will go a long way between rebuilds provided oil changes are kept up to date, valve adjustments are performed on time and timing chains and tensioners are inspected occasionally. The “indestructible” myth should read “very reliable when properly maintained”…but they rarely are. Indestructible gets translated to neglect-able.

My 70’s Lamborghini stranded me several times but never because of Lamborghini engineering, always because of poor repairs during the dark years when it was a used car and repaired to absolute minimum standard. It’s taking a while to work through the years of hacks but it’s revealing a tough, fast for the day, competent GT car that is better than its reputation.

Odd Goderstad
Odd Goderstad
3 years ago

Ferrari 348…. When I finaly could afford a Ferrari, I researched and tested several 308, 328, 348, 355, and 360’s . Almost everywher i read references to how twitchy the handling was, and how bad the quality was. But I landed on a 93 F348 ts. Still have it 5 years later, have changed timingbelt twice myself. Nothing has broken, actualy it seems quit robust. I love the handling (I use it also on trackdays) . For me, it is better than the rest I tried.

Rick Danger
Rick Danger
3 years ago

Having owned both an 85 Alfa Romeo Graduate and an 88 E30 M3, I have strong opinions regarding the preceding reputations of both. My Alfa Romeo, which was my daily driver for almost three years, was the only car I’ve ever owned, including new cars, that never let me down. Rain (or snow) or shine. It wasn’t always easy to start, but it always started. My M3 was also a daily driver for the first five of the 20 years I owned it. And while the performance doesn’t measure up to modern performance sedans, the fun factor is unmatched in my view. None of these cars are suitable for lazy owners, and they all require compromises, but sometimes that’s the foundation upon which a worthwhile car/owner relationship is built.

Alexandre Goncalves
Alexandre Goncalves
3 years ago

If I were to believe the demons luring in classic automobiles I would never have gotten into them…

No matter what car you decide to go for, don’t take other’s opinions as the rule – just read as many articles about it as you can (and in theses days of the internet, that’s quite easy to do), and base your decisions on that (Not on preconceived opinions of “pseudo”car connaisseurs)!

Witawas Srisaan
Witawas Srisaan
3 years ago

I also owned many Alfettas (3 sedans and 2 GTs) in the 90’s and they were great; none costing more than $1500. I badly abused them (delivering meals and hauling grocery for a restaurant) for many years and all I did was adding Marelli plex and changing oil, guibos, and brake pads. Since they were so cheap, I just sent them to junk yard when the time came. I wish I still have one or two of those cars.

Clayton Merchant
Clayton Merchant
3 years ago

The best example of this subject is the constantly regurgitated stories of Lucas electrics on British sports cars, usually from people who have zero experience with them but think it somehow makes them sound like a true knowledgeable gearhead to recite the stupidity.

I’ve owned British cars for over 30 years among other German, Japanese and American cars and can say with both knowledge and experience that their electrics are NO worse than any others of their eras and are much easier to work on than others. Lucas problems nearly always boil down to improperly maintained grounds or hacked and bodged previous fixes by people who had no idea what they were doing.

Yes, the Lucas jokes will continue, told by people who think they know what they’re talking about to people who think the joke teller MUST be an automotive guru and so the myth continues to be perpetuated.

Martin Philippo
Martin Philippo
3 years ago

It is my guess that Lucas earned its reputation as King of Darkness in the days most of their stuff was still 6 Volt while their Japanes counterparts already worked with 12 Volt systems which of course give much more light.

Clayton Merchant
Clayton Merchant
3 years ago

Martin, I’m not sure what year you may be referring to by saying:
“the days most of their stuff was still 6 volt while their Japanese counterparts already worked with 12 volt systems”, but by the mid-’50s most British cars were 12 volt systems, they just wired two 6 volt batteries in series to produce the 12 volts.

This is another example of a misconception that is widely accepted but untrue or undeserved. Many people believe that because 6 volt batteries were used, that the electrical system was a 6 volt system.

Martin Philippo
Martin Philippo
3 years ago

Well, I was more thinking of motorbikes actually. Quite sure my old Norton Dominator had a 6 Volt alternator. Cars could be a different story indeed.

Jim Levitt
Jim Levitt
3 years ago

Being at the height of my Porsche ownership when the 928 came out I just “had” to have one.
I bought the first one in LA with leather (those first few had the black and white houndstooth interior, not in fashion back then). My love affair lasted about 6 weeks when the engine blew up! (Really, very un Porsche like) but it did. The engine builder forgot to install a retaining pin on the con rod!. The car never impressed me anyway so I didn’t want it back.
Beverly Hills Porsche gave me my money back and I bought a 78 Turbo instead. I sold my 76
930 and bought a Benz for my daily driver which the 928 was supposed to be for.
And to Bill below, my most reliable cars back then were my Pontiacs!

Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer
3 years ago
Reply to  Jim Levitt

I forgot to mention my bullet-proof Dodges with the slant six and an E350 Econoline….couldn’t kill ’em no matter how hard I tried.

Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer
3 years ago

Alex, this is a great subject! So much of the “conventional wisdom” on the reliability of various cars is based on anecdotal blather and subjective non-experience.

I’ve been driving enthusiast cars for over 50 years. None of my English, Italian, or French cars EVER left me stuck on the side of the road. Three of my “reliable” German cars gave up on me and my only Honda Accord conked out on the way home from work one time. All of the above were well maintained and never neglected.

Does this mean English roadsters from the 60’s are more dependable than BMW or Honda? Nope. What it means is ya just never know….. There is so much BS floating around from folks who have no practical experience but plenty of preconceived notions. ARRRRRGH.

George Millwood
George Millwood
3 years ago

In ’78, I had a ’74 Alfetta saloon that made me think that the Italians had ways of making plastic rust. it was a wonderful drive. Perhaps the best sedan I ever had but it rusted. Smack bang in the middle of the bonnet (hood) it broke out in rust. Broke my heart.

joshgtv
joshgtv
3 years ago

I had a ’78 Alfetta saloon as an impoverished student in about 1994/95. It never received a lot of maintenance but it gave me fantastic service and a whole lot of fun for a few years. It’s the reason I’ve owned another three Alfas since. Aside from Suds and 33s, most old Alfas are far more robust than most people who’ve never owned one think.