Since MOTOR started way back in 1954 we’ve seen the humble car evolve into a masterpiece of technology and engineering. But don’t think there weren’t a few sneezes along the way. Here are the top 10 fails in car tech.
This feature was originally published on 10th December 2014 and was updated on 23rd March 2020
01 | Aquatic Cars
There’s been a few, but we best remember the MX-5 butchered into the 2004 Gibbs Aquada you see here. For just $240K (ish) it came as a three-seater, like a McLaren F1, and could do 50km/h on water. It was the first MX-5 able to tow a wakeboarder. Pray be it the last.
MOTOR feature: Bob Hall on the MX-5
02 | Hydrogen Combustion
Though hydrogen-burning rockets got us to the moon, burning hydrogen in a reciprocating engine didn't get us very far, as BMW demonstrated with its experimental hydrogen-fueled cars of the early-2000s. The 6.0-litre V12 in the 300.175km/h H2R concept might sound mighty, but it only produced a mere 210kW.
Not only that, for hydrogen to be stored in a practical density for a car, it requires either compression to 810 bar (11,748psi) or chilling it to a liquid at minus 253 degrees. Even then an experimental Hydrogen 7 BMW could only eke out 200km from its 8kg tank of hydrogen. Yikes, thank goodness scientists are working on more efficient and less bombastic fuel cells.
03 | Jet-powered Cars
Chrysler spent 30 years toiling on a jet-engine car and has spent the last 50 trying to forget it. The 1963 Turbine Car’s small, under-bonnet jet engine made 97kW/576Nm and could burn through anything flammable. Which unluckily included pedestrians walking past its exhausts.
The idea of turbine engines would resurface decades later as a compact and smooth-running power-generator alternative for plug-in hybrids to the conventional piston engines, as seen in the initial version of Jaguar's sensational CX-75 concept car. Unfortunately challenges such as putting such an engine into production and noise levels saw the concept being grounded once again.
04 | Carbon-fibre mainstream cars
2013 was an exciting time for coveters of carbon fibre, as the arrival of the realistically-affordable Alfa Romeo 4C and BMW i3 - with its carbon-fibre monocoque construction - was thought to have heralded the arrival of the black weave as the future of car construction. Soon, the futurists would have you believe, even your mom would be able to commute in a space-age lightweight car.
Sadly, that dream never materialised as building a car out of carbon-fibre remains hugely time and labour intensive in a business where volume and automation matters. Recent advancements in metals and engineering too have whittled away any cost/weight advantages carbon-fibre promised, leaving the possibly of its widespread usage as intangible as the weight of the material itself.
05 | Nuclear-powered Cars
The 1958 Ford Nucleon concept was like a ute with a nuclear reactor in the tray. Ford imagined its core could last 10,000km and be swapped at a servo like a Gas ’n’ Go cylinder. Spent fuel rods? They didn’t imagine that bit. Or accidents.
06 | Cars that Talk
The 1981 Datsun 810 Maxima came inbuilt with a female American voice that would announce six maddening messages like “fuel level is low” and “left door open”. Soon owners learned the only feature they cared for was the off switch.
07 | Rotary-powered Cars
Good on Mazda for putting fingers in its ears and pushing on in the face of all logic. The rotary, bless it, won Le Mans and powered some of Japan’s greatest performance cars. But we’re unlikely to hear an angry wasp fire up again given the emissions serpent has strangled it, it seems.
classic MOTOR: 40 years of Mazda's rotary in Australia
08 | Cars with Toilets
We're still waiting for a car with a functioning flusher but about the same time MOTOR was launched, long-distance driver and unwitting futurist Louie Mattar managed to drive his 1947 Cadillac 10,000km non-stop thanks to, in part, its innovative onboard throne.
09 | Hovering Cars
All that time and money wasted on the S-Class’s Magic Body Control. Merc could’ve just made it hover on a curtain of air. Looking like a slipper and with all the manouvreability of a hockey puck, the 1959 Curtiss-Wright Air-Car proved it could be done. Sort of.
10 | Cars that Tilt
Seems like a good idea right? Cars that lean offer all the sensations of riding a motorcycle without the fear, grave danger and peril generally associated with two-wheeled transport. However, the whole idea is extremely complicated, ridiculously expensive and a bit weird.