Sunday, November 8, 2009

Downsized- GM in the Eighties

This post was commissioned for the 2009 Great Autos "Totally Eighties Weekend" Car Show. It was the center spread of the program.
1981 Chevrolet Citation
The eighties began early for General Motors. It was spring of 1979 when GM launched its all new front wheel drive X-Body compacts. The 1980 Chevrolet Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, Oldsmobile Omega and Buick Skylark models were received with wild acclaim. They were over a foot shorter and several hundred pounds lighter than the models that preceded them, based on a state of the art front wheel drive platform. And they were a vision into GM in the eighties.
Downsizing had started off well for the General. The full sized models of 1977 had been a huge success. When the intermediates followed a year later,they were slightly less surprising but equally well received. Both full and mid size models remained rear drive, perimeter frame offerings, so in essence they simply made the parts smaller. The X cars would be their first foray into compact front wheel drive offerings. It was the first step in an ambitious program that would, by mid-decade, revolutionize the family car.
The introduction of the X Body established what would be a common shortcoming of the 80's products to come from GM. They weren't quite ready for their close up, Mr. De Ville. Rushed to market before fully ready, the Citation and it's sisters suffered an embarrassing seven recalls before calendar year 1980 even began. One of these was for brakes, and there would be two more subsquent for a total of three recalls for braking system. The teething pains had little effect on demand initially, but over time tarnished the public's interest in the X body cars.
1982 Chevrolet Celebrity

The first derivative went slightly larger. The front drive intermediate A-Body was introduced in 1982. The Chevrolet Celebrity, Buick Century, Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera and Pontiac A6000 were introduced in early 1982. Larger and heavier than the X-bodies, these cars were spared the teething pains of the X bodies and went on to become sales successes for each division. The Olds and Buick versions were produced for so long, some wondered whether the cars were old enough to legally drive themselves.

The compacts arrived next. Nicknamed the J cars, the four siblings were produced based on a European platform borrowed from Opel. They arrived with premium content levels, and premium prices. The Chevrolet Citation and Pontiac J2000 were launched first, in late 1981. They were joined in the spring by the Buick Skyhawk and Oldsmobile Firenza.
The 1984 Cadillac Cimarron

The late fall brought a fifth - the highly contented and contentious Cadillac Cimarron. It was the smallest postwar Cadillac ever built, and the first Cadillac since 1953 with a standard manual transmission. And the fact that it was a Cavalier in a dress (albeit a really pretty dress) tells you a lot about the psyche of the General at that moment in time.
It's hard to pinpoint the exact time that represents the darkest moment, but I think I could narrow it down to the 1985-1986 time frame. During this time, the largest GM products were phased out and replaced with front wheel drive unibody successors. The C-bodies came first, the Buick Electra, Olds Ninety-Eight and Cadillac de Ville front drive offerings arrived as early 1985 models in the summer of 1984.
They were attractively styled, well received, and full of teething pains. Little "customer dissatisfiers", like power windows that crashed to the bottom of the door and shattered, serpentine drive belts that flew off at highway speeds, climate control systems that set themselves to 72 degrees and auto fan no matter what the customer had selected, a fuel pump that was louder than the optional Bose stereo, and most of all a newly engineered automatic transmission that did everything but shift. Workers joked that they were installed with velcro, but it wasn't funny. Customers bought those cars in good faith, but were driven away by all of the nightmares. I spent many hours on the phone listening to frustrated and angry owners.
These luxury triplets were followed up with family sedans a year later. The Delta 88 and Le Sabre and Bonneville all arrived with a year, and then that same year the highly profitable E/K body personal luxury cars were replaced with the most unsuccessful products ever launched by General Motors.
The 1986 Buick Riviera T-Type

Very small and stylistically undistinguished, the Buick Riviera, Olds Toronado, and Cadillac Eldorado and Seville were designed with the premise in mind that gas would be three dollars a gallon when they made their debut. The resulting design theme called for the smallest possible exterior dimensions. They arrived into a world of $1.19 per gallon gasoline, and American car buyers who liked some size and distinction in their luxury products. They did not sell. To be fair, they were very highly contented cars that drove well and were full of bells, whistles, and computers. The Buick had a fully integrated CRT information center in the dash and a price tag of almost $20,000. There was even a letter to Buick dealers suggesting that they not park the Riviera too close to the Somerset Regal on the showroom floor, as they looked too similar.

The Leader who Couldn't- Roger B. Smith

One man takes the credit or blame for General Motors at that time- Roger B.Smith. Smith, who was named by CNBC as one of he worst American CEO's of all time, was head of the company from 1981 to mid-1990. Or from 46% market share to 34%, depending on how you care to view things. He had joined GM in 1949 as a junior accountant, and had become the company's treasurer by 1970, and vice president the following year. In 1974, Smith was elected executive vice president in charge of the financial, public relations, and government relations staffs. He ascended to GM's chairmanship in 1981.
Smith quickly started putting his stamp on the company. He dismantled the divisional staffs and threw their operating autonomy in the trash, instead creating two large divisions: C-P-C, the Chevrolet Pontiac Canada Group, and B-O-C, the Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac group. The immediate result was organizational paralysis due to confusion. Suddenly the nameplates that sold the cars no longer had control over the design of them. One of the by-products of this was standardization (cheapening) of the components, so that two year old cars had exhaust systems falling off and collapsing springs.

The first major product of Roger's reorganized GM was the GM10 mid size car, which began development in 1982 for a 1988 debut. By the time his vivisected engineering team brought the product to market, it had cost seven billion dollars. Initially offered as only a trio of two door coupes (Buick Regal, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and Pontiac Grand Prix), they were nicely styled but woefully underpowered.
The 1990 Pontiac Trans Sport SE, aka Dustbuster

It would be two years before four doors were added, along with a Chevy version, the Lumina. This platform was also the basis for GM's first Minivan, a plastic bodied offering nicknamed the Dustbuster. These vans had dramatic styling but very limited practicality. Most women would not reach to even wash the windshield at a self service station. And interior room was surprisingly limited for a minivan. They GM 10 program became successful once it was past its initial shortcomings, but never really justified its development costs.
Small but not cheap- the 1986 Cadillac Eldorado

Certainly no division saw more change during the decade than Cadillac. Cadillac had been extremely successful in the 1977 downsizing of its core products, and the restyled 1979 Eldorado was a smash hit. They began the 80's by introducing the very controversial razor edge Seville, which was both revolutionary and significant for sharing no body panels with other GM models. As a statement of the times, it was introduced with a Diesel engine as standard equipment, but was offered with the V8-6-4 in 1981 and made standard with the disastrous HT-4100, the high tech "little engine that couldn't" in 1982. That year also saw the debut of the Cimarron, which, although a marketing mishap was actually the very nicest of the J body compacts. Then the second round of downsizing hit, with the downsized FWD De Ville and Fleetwood of 1985, and Eldorado and Seville of 1986. It is difficult to hold a 1986 Cadillac brochure without openly weeping.
Fortunately, once realizing their circumstance, they elevated their sights and engineered their way out of it. The 4.5 Litre engine introduced in 1988 was a good long-life engine. The slighly upsized and handsomer 1988 Eldorado/Seville and the much larger 1989 De Ville were highly successful. And while it never sold in numbers, the Italian bodied Allante was a prestige boost.
It would be a disservice not to note that the 80's were a very challenging decade. Fuel prices and supply threats caused the General to attempt to make changes in a moment's notice and rush programs to market, but rushing is something giant seldom does well. And especically amidst the platform conflicts and infighting created by Roger Smith, it was something that GM ultimately proved incapable of.
Many of the issues that launched the crippled automaker into bankruptcy in 2009 began back in the 80's under the incompetent eye of Roger. That General Motors even survived the decade is testimony to it's hard core devotees that continued to love her, even as she erred.


  1. Very good commentary.

  2. I bought my last two GM products(a Chevrolet Citation X-body and a Chevette) in 1979 before leaving Flint, MI for my new job in NJ. In early 1980 I pulled on the Citation's emergency brake to set it and it came off the dash in my hand. If that plastic junk part wouldn't have let go when it did, the whole car would probably have rusted out anyway in another 8 months. I headed for the nearest Toyota Dealer where out of mercy they took the Citation as a low price trade-in. The Chevette also fell apart starting with the door window rollers and rust, within another two-years. Also traded in for a Toyota. With such a bad taste in my mouth for Chevys, I have never looked back at a GM product since and probably became one of the many who involuntarily contributed to their final dimise.