The Americans probably invented badge engineering, as a means of building a huge catalogue of cars for not much money.
It’s a brilliantly simple idea. A manufacturer with a portfolio of several distinct brands – General Motors, for instance – develops a single bodyshell that each brand can add their own styling and trim details, engines and running gear to. So you get a Chevrolet, Buick and Pontiac that appear completely different, but are in fact largely the same.
Down the years there have plenty of brilliant badge engineered cars, like the Holden/Vauxhall Monaro. But there are many more than were absolutely terrible, even downright weird. Only Motors picks five of the worst and weirdest badge engineered cars.
Above: A modern classic of badge engineering: a European Vauxhall Insignia, lightly restyled and rebadged to become the American Buick Regal.
The original Chevy Nova lasted from 1961 to 1979, through four generations. None of them were particularly good, but endless tuning possibilities mean it has a certain following today.
After a five year absence, the Nova badge was reintroduced. But absolutely nobody cares about that iteration. Why? Because it was, in fact, a rebadged Toyota Corolla. Introduced in ’84, it was the first product of a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota that lasted until 2010.
Apart from slightly different front and rear styling and interior trim, the Nova was completely identical to the Corolla, including the 72bhp 1.6-litre engine and five-speed gearbox. For some reason, it was more expensive, though, and had to be heavily discounted to get it rolling out of showrooms. Chevy was disappointed, but it actually sold just as well as the Corolla, which was, by most standards, a roaring success.
But don’t let sales success fool you into thinking the Nova was in any way a good car. It wasn’t. It was dreadfully dreary. It died in ’88, but GM persisted selling rebadged Corollas under the Geo brand.
Remember the Renault 21? I do, but only because my grandad had one. It was a good car, easily giving the Vauxhall Cavalier and Volkswagen Passat something to think about. Between 1986 and 1995, over two million were sold.
Back in the Eighties, Renault had a partnership with American Motors Corporation, giving the French marque a Stateside outlet for its cars. So an Americanised version of the 21 was developed, with altered styling (notably, the enormous bumpers), and the 2.2-litre engine from the bigger Renault 25. The resulting Renault Medallion was introduced in ’86, built in France for export to the USA.
It was well received in the States, but machinations behind the scenes scuppered its chances. Barely a year after launch, Chrysler bought-out AMC. Chrysler added the Medallion to its Eagle brand, but a long-standing partnership with Mitsubishi was in place, so it didn’t really want a French car in the line-up.
Marketing was pretty much non-existent and the Medallion was iignored in favour of the Honda Accord and Chevrolet Cavalier. It was quietly dropped in 1989. It deserved better.
General Motors developed a habit of reviving once-popular names on awful cars in the Eighties. We’ve already seen the Chevy Nova, but the ’88 Pontiac LeMans really took the biscuit.
If the LeMans looks familiar, that’s because it was, fundamentally, a Mk.2 Vauxhall Astra. But it was actually a rebadged version of the Korean-made Daewoo LeMans, which was a not-very-well re-engineered version of the Astra.
So what started out as an alright little car got progressively worse with each new badge. In fairness, it probably wasn’t as bad as the Plymouth Horizon or Ford Escort (the USA got a different one than Europe), but it was the LeMans name that caused the problem.
You see, it had previously been attached to what many would argue were some of the greatest muscle cars of the Sixties and Seventies. And it was revived for a European/Korean hatchback? Nope, not having that…
Now this is an unexpected one. Did you know that the Brazilian arms of Ford and Volkswagen once formed a joint venture? Nope, me neither.
The Apollo was the sportier and more expensive to the two, powered by VW’s own 1.8-litre engine. It had a new dashboard as well, but apart from that, the Verona and Apollo were identical. Performance was okay, though it suffered from the same dodgy rear suspension design as the Orion. It was dropped after three years in ’92.
It’s been completely forgotten, but the Fiat 128 was a fantastic little car. Yugoslavian manufacturer Zastava got its hands on it in 1971 and butchered it.
Zastava did at least add a hatchback, making the Skala marginally more practical, but it was badly built, noisy and uncomfortable. UK sales ran from 1983 to 1990, under the Zastava/Yugo 311 name, and its ridiculously low price did fool a fair few people into buying one.
At least the second-hand market recognised the 311’s flaws and used ones soon became literally worthless. That, thankfully, consigned most to an early grave.
Unbelievably, this sorry excuse for a car was on sale in Serbia as late as 2008. With a price of EUR4,000, Zastava reckoned it was the second most affordable car in the world. I dread to think what the car that beat it was like.
Images: carrosinuteis.com.br (Volkswagen); Motorauthority.com (Renault); Favcars.com (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Zastava)
By Graham King