Automotive journalists often ponder which cars deserve to be on a list of “best” or “worst” vehicles of all time. Here’s a different spin: which models were the most dangerous?
All relevant accident, death, dismemberment, and other data was thrown into The Four Wheel Drift’s proprietary DataCruncher3000 machine. Since the DataCruncher3000 was built by the same group that created 1997-2004 Corvette steering column locks, it seized on us…so we’re pulling these ratings out of our bums.
What we looked at to get our top five: where available — accident, injury and death rates; insurance ratings; historical reports…then we analyzed the way the vehicles were marketed in an attempt to discern if vehicles were safe or dangerous given the intended primary usage in the hands of the largest projected buyer segment.
5. Chevrolet Corvair / Porsche 911 (tie) – What list of dangerous models would be complete without two air-cooled rear mounted engine marvels? Corvairs through 1964 are the only real offenders, simply because the too-slow steering and swing axle geometry were addressed for 1965.
As for the Porsche 911, a wheelbase stretch for 1969 helped alleviate the tail-out happiness, as did wider wheels in the 1970s and 1980s. But in reality it wasn’t until Porsche Stability Management (yaw control) debuted in 1998 that the cars were safe in the untrained hands that tended to buy them. Heck, they don’t call them “doctor and dentist donors” for nothing.
In all honesty, while the pre-65 Corvairs were prone to uncontrolled oversteer in even the best hands, the 911 was always very predictable, provided the driver understood the dynamics. Even in the wet – hit the corner and if the tail starts to wag, counter-steer and hit the gas. Tragically, American drivers would panic and lift-off the throttle, causing the rear to fly away like a Barry Bonds steroid-induced home run.
4. Suzuki Samurai – Whoever decided it was a smart idea to make a 65-inch tall vehicle on a sub-80-inch wheelbase should be shot. The fact that despite a 66 hp engine, the Samurai could still easily achieve speeds at which it was prone to rollovers is a statement of how dangerous that thing was. In Suzuki’s defense, the Samurai was still statistically much safer than any of the company’s motorcycles.
3. Mercedes 300SL “Gullwing” – It’s one of the most prized collector car in the world. The 300SL stands out for many industry firsts – first use of gullwing doors, first true production car to use a complex tubular space frame, and first production car to use fuel injection. Compared to contemporaries, the 300SL was one hell of a performer.
The 300SL, however, had a dirty little secret. The rear swing axle suspension was located in a way that made oversteer almost impossible to control under certain conditions. Racers usually relocated mounting points to address the concern, but wealthy owners of street cars were generally caught off-guard. Zsa Zsa Gabor, who rolled her 300SL in the Hollywood Hills, wasn’t the only one to realize that when the 300SL was upside-down, it was impossible to get out!
2. Ford Explorer – If it were just Firestone’s fault, nobody would have actually died when tires on these SUVs separated. Due to horrible suspension geometry and a high center of gravity, however, any type of mid-to-high speed disruption resulted in a rollover.
Profit hungry Ford also knew damn well that in the case of a rollover accident, the Explorer could not withstand its own weight. Instead of spending some money to ensure the safety of its buyers, Ford continued to sell a vehicle that would most likely kill one of the front seat occupants in a rollover accident when the roof buckled to one side under impact.
The company knew that the Explorer would roll in accident avoidance maneuvers at speeds above 35 mph, yet they did nothing to remedy the situation. Call it pure greed, because the Explorer was selling like hot cakes – the most popular SUV in America. Ford marketed it as a safe family vehicle for daily transportation, when in reality, it was a rollover waiting to happen.
After the rash of deaths, Ford finally redeveloped the Explorer with independent rear suspension, which helped stability immensely. Of course, at the same time the company added a third row seat option to maintain competitiveness against larger SUVs. Considering that the Explorer continues to be identical in size to Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys – how safe does it seem to put loved ones in that third row seat that occupies the same space as a Camry or Accord trunk? Either the vehicle has a crumple zone in the third row, or it transfers a rear-ender crash energy to all passengers – there’s no way around it!
Numero Uno — Dodge Viper RT/10 and GTS — How such an amazing sports car can wind up as the number one most dangerous car of all time is a testament to the lack of driving skill of American drivers, as well as the amazing ego of automotive executives. But here’s the bottom line: in an effort to create the most bad-ass sports car since the Cobra, Chrysler Corp executives brought to market a vehicle so dangerous that it is nearly impossible to find an example that hasn’t been spun into the ditch at least once.
The first generation RT/10 and GTS were monster sports cars. Capable of low four-second 0-60 mph dashes and nearly 1g on a skidpad, these snakes would seem to be a great ride for the performance enthusiast. But here’s where it gets interesting: In making the Viper, Chrysler decided that “purity” came at the cost of safety. Antilock brakes were not offered for over a decade of production, so reigning in the speed often resulted locking-up the wheels. Similarly, traction and stability control systems were not available.
With so much torque on hand, the average driver simply was unqualified to keep the car out of harm’s way on public streets. BMC Software in Houston, TX bought an RT/10 that was intended to be awarded to the sales person of the quarter as an ongoing incentive. After the RT/10 was wrecked three times in less than a year (once in the company parking lot,) the car was sold.
This isn’t an isolated occurrence. Just yesterday a Viper owner told how her husband rolled their first RT/10 and wrecked the GTS that replaced it. It was the same story – too much power coming on too fast, and a handling imbalance making the car impossible to catch when the tail violently broke away.
Even on the track, Vipers have always been too much to handle even by experienced sports car drivers. Despite high skidpad numbers, Viper racers often find themselves spinning uncontrollably as the cars break loose with vengeance. With some modifications and in the right hands on the suitable track, however, Vipers are perfect production race cars.
And that’s the problem – Vipers are essentially race cars, but they are marketed and sold to anyone as drive-anywhere production street cars. It was simply foolish of Chrysler Corp to allow the cars to hit the market without dialing-in more understeer, plus adding ABS, traction control, and eventually stability control to ensure that people didn’t kill themselves. Bob Lutz wanted to beat Corvette…and he did — at least on this list.