Lifestyle

Revenge of the Nerd Cars


The 1970s were infamous for disco, Watergate, and some of the ugliest cars ever. But now Pacers and Pintos are becoming collectors' items

McKeel Hagerty began noticing the trend a few years ago. As chief executive of Hagerty Insurance, the largest provider of insurance to classic-car collectors, Hagerty could see that the so-called "nerd cars"—the ugliest of automotive beasts—were nonetheless increasing in value. Ford Motor's (F) Pinto and American Motors' Pacer and Gremlin—cars that were punch lines from the decade of disco—suddenly seemed hot. They weren't increasing by much, Hagerty admits, from maybe $500 to a few thousand dollars. But still, money is money.

Hagerty couldn't resist. He plunked down $2,300 for a dark green 1976 Pacer three years ago. "I happen to think it's a cool car," he says, even though it came without an eight-track tape player, which must have been an option when the car was new. "How am I going to listen to Foghat?" he asks.

This year, Hagerty decided to take his research a step further. He surveyed his policyholders and asked them to vote for the worst car designs of all time. Car geeks are generally an outspoken group, and they really put the pedal to the metal this time, sending in nearly 2,500 responses.

Must've Been on Drugs

Here's what one car connoisseur had to say about the survey's top pick, the AMC Pacer: "Zero to sixty in four-and-a-half hours. AMC's only conceivable excuse for this stylistic horror would be if their design crew was tripping on massive quantities of acid, and even then it wouldn't be a good excuse."

In all, three AMC cars from the 1970s made the all-time top 10 worst list—the Pacer, the Gremlin, and the Matador—a station wagon that was frequently used by police departments. Little wonder AMC didn't survive the decade as an independent carmaker. It aligned itself with Renault (RENA) in 1979 and was bought by Chrysler eight years later, where it exists mainly via the Jeep line.

Hagerty says the Pacer's position at the top of the list is purely coincidental. "If anyone thinks I'm picking on Pacer owners, guess what—I am one," he says.

Can't Give 'em Away

Comments about the No. 2 worst-designed car—the Yugo—show that collecting is always a question of timing. "I used to work for a dealer and the last one on the lot was an '88 model that never got sold," one Hagerty customer wrote. "It was there until 1991 when it was given away as a promotional gift on a radio show."

The Yugo was manufactured by Yugoslavian carmaker Zastava Koral and imported into the U.S. from 1984 to 1992. You can still find a few for sale on ebaymotors.com, ranging in price from $500 to $1,500.

What follows, in BusinessWeek's slide show, are the top 10 worst-design picks with some of the survey comments from the Hagerty customers who participated.

Palmeri is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau.

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