Friday, March 30, 2012

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 financially 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.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Fabulous 1961 Buick Flamingo- Made of Recycled Parts?

1961 Buick Flamingo Motorama Car

Recently I showed you Bill Mitchell's Buick 1956X Century, which had many custom touches including lowered suspension, wire wheels, a two tone metallic special paint scheme and special floating bucket seats including a passenger seat that rotated 180 degrees. I've been in touch with the current owner of the car who reports that it was found quite intact except that the bucket seats and rear seats were missing. In their place were conventional bench seats front and rear with the S. O. number of the 1956X on a tag underneath.

But where did the bucket seats go?

I don't have an answer yet, but I have an idea.

Enter the 1961 Buick Flamingo Motorama show car. Created for the final General Motors Motorama, It's basically a 1961 Buick Electra 225 convertible finished in a special Flamingo Pink color, with two tone pink leather interior and...floating bucket seats including a 180 degree swivel on the passenger side.

Were the 1956X seats recycled into the Flamingo?

Can't say for sure, but there is a precedent.

In my old files from Buick, I have most of the correspondence regarding XP-810, Mitchell's original Silver Arrow, S. O. 40210. Here is a quote from a memorandum of october 15, 1962, concerning the interior of the car:

"Astra" front bucket seats to be installed. These will be furnished by making use of the seats being removed from the 1962 Buick Skylark Convertible advance interior car (S. O. 40224). The existing six way adjuster on the driver's seat will be reworked to fit the Riviera underbody conditions, while the passenger's seat is to remain as a stationary seat.

The memo goes on to stipulate that the entire interior is to be retrimmed, so the appearance of the seats could change completely.

While I'm not claiming that the 1956X seats were used in the Flamingo, I'm entirely convinced that they were replaced with conventional bench seating and the floating bucket seats were retained for reuse in another car, whether it was the Flamingo or another car of the era.

I guess General Motors caught on to the idea of recycling before the rest of us did.

180 degree rotating bucket seats in the 1961 Flamingo Motorama Car

1961 Flamingo on its Motorama Display Stand

Were the rotating bucket seats adapted from Mitchell's 1956X Century?

Monday, March 26, 2012

1956X- A Special Century for Mitchell

 I've written before about GM's Bill Mitchell and how his job was even better than being King, because he got GM to build him special cars whenever the mood struck. Lots of cars surface with claims of Mitchell in their provenance, but this one screams authentic. The car in these photos is a 1956 Buick Century convertible known as the "1956X" with a host of modifications- the owner says it was a car for Mitchell. The first clue that supports his claim is that the building in the background is the General Motors Styling Center- brand new at the time!

Lots of special details are visible in this shot. Start with the special color- Eldorados had metallic aqua in 1956 but Buicks did not. Moldings are Roadmaster in style and the hood and trunk color break is custom. Wire wheels and side exhaust are special touches. Rear CENTURY lettering is unique and name badges on the sides are relocated. Bumpers have color inset and a ribbed and bright applique. Tail lamps are custom.

See the note that says Madler? Neil Madler was a GM Photographer and he took this picture on August 20, 1956. The paint on the other side of this wall was scarcely dry then. This profile shows off the lowered suspension and the custom rocker molding with exhaust outlet. Note hard boot, a'la Eldorado. Wire wheels are wearing narrow whitewall tires, which GM is showing on Motorama cars this season.

Special paint break moldings on the hood as well. Note the 1955 style hood ornaments now on the fender tops and the standard 1956 bombsight is removed. Undercarriage and wheel wells are Dante Red. The highlight of the interior are those special bucket seats with power headrests. The driver's seat swiveled 90 degrees, the passenger seat rotated a full 180. The seats are very similar in style to those in the 1956 Buick Centurion dream car. 

The car exists today in an unrestored state. The seats were no longer with the car when it was discovered but otherwise it is described as being largely intact. We have requested photos of the car as discovered and will share them when we receive them.

Do any of our readers recognize the car? If so, please leave a comment or drop us a line. 

Cross Posted on the Reynolds Buick GMC Blog

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Chevy Centennial: "My Dad's Car," Part III

Herb Younger meets retired GM Designer Blaine Jenkins, who is responsible for the interior of the '65 Impala.
 More fun today from the Sweet Chevy story that not only keeps on giving- it's becoming the Energizer Bunny of Chevrolet commericals. You'll recall that I wrote about the Chevy spot "My Dad's Car" last fall, the story of a father being reunited with his long lost '65 Super Sport after a five year search by his sons.

It's one of the best Chevy spots I have ever seen, and if you haven't seen the commercial yet, grab a tissue:

I had the pleasure of meeting Herb and his family at the LA Auto Show Press Day and talked to him about the car and how touched I was by the story. I told him I had showed the ad to my neighbor who had designed his car's interior and how he recognized the special door panels right away. Herb commented that he would like to meet him some time.

There at the Press Conference, they showed the long version of the commercial with backstory:

Now my neighbor turns out to be retired GM designer Blaine Jenkins, who was responsible for the interiors of some of the most successful Chevrolets of all time. He created the Corvair Monza and the original Caprice, along with the Mako Shark and yes, the 1965 Impala, including Herb's Super Sport. Just last month he was featured in a tribute by Automobile Magazine called "The Inside Man" and it's highly recommended in case you haven't seen it, but anyway Blaine loved Herb's Chevy commerical and agreed we should all try to meet up.

Some times these things happen and some times they don't, but this morning we all got together for breakfast in Palm Springs. I picked Blaine up in an immaculate original 18,000 mile 1965 Impala Sport Coupe (to set the right tone, you know) and off we went for breakfast and car talk. The man who owns the most famous '65 Impala on record met a member of the team who designed it.

Herb brought a the '65's Photo Album and his article in Muscle Car Review and Blaine brought his tribute in Automobile, and we talked about the automobile as more than the sum of its parts, the link they help create between generations, and of course the 1965 Chevy Impala. It was a great time and we hope to see Herb again. After breakfast, we drove around Palm Springs for a few minutes and somehow ended up in front of the Kaufmann House, Richard Neutra's 1947 masterpiece.

Is it hard to figure out why I love it here?

Blaine Jenkins inside the 1965 Impala Sport Coupe

Blaine Jenkins surrounded by his work

Two classics- the 1947 Kaufmann house by Neutra and the 1965 Impala Sport Coupe

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Casa de Cadillac- A Mid Century Masterpiece

Here's an architectural treasure, on the road to Bel Air, in the San Fernando Valley.

Iconic Casa de Cadillac opened as Don Lee Cadillac in the spring of 1949. Designed by Randall Duell, a USC trained architect who also designed motion picture sets, the two story polished glass box showroom with attached lanai courtyard looked like it came out of a movie. Within a year, the agency was sold and renamed Casa de Cadillac, a name it wears to this day.

Casa is a spectacular late example of streamline moderne with an iconic monument sign and eighty two feet of white neon spelling out "Casa de Cadillac" in exactly the same font as the fender script of a 1949 Cadillac nameplate. Irreplaceable.

Adjacent to the dealership once stood the Casa de Cascade Car Wash and the Casa de Petrol Gas Station, all under the same ownership. An iconic photo of James Dean and the Porsche 550 was taken at Casa de Petrol. Both buildings still exist.

Casa is still in use today, and in very reasonable condition. Preserved by neglect to a degree, but thankfully has suffered only minimal alteration since construction. Presented in period photos from construction, 1953, 1956, 1960, and 1966. I find the Holiday photos especially charming.

Ladies and Gentlemen, take a look back at the history of Casa de Cadillac:

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Riviera Goes Topless- Almost

Many early Riviera enthusiasts have long wondered why no convertible version was ever offered to supplant the coupe. The prime competitor, Thunderbird, was offered as a convertible and so it would seem to make sense that Riviera be offered in one as well.

Now comes a series of photos that suggest that, not only was Buick thinking about such an idea, they were taking the idea very seriously. These photos were taken on the GM Styling patio in the summer of 1962 and show a Riviera convertible prototype that had been the subject of considerable planning.

Retired GM stylists recall the car clearly and note that it was not a fiberglass mock-up, but rather a body in white that arrived from Fisher to be converted by the craftsmen at the Styling buiding. In other words, this was a high level exercise.

The convertible top has been carefully styled to mimic the crisp look of the hardtop as closely as possible. Note the sharp upper rear corner- no descending bow as was so often the case on GM convertible tops- and note the sharp corners of the rear quarter windows. They look like they were taken directly from a coupe.

Look carefully at the top- it's the parallel arm top that was first created for the 1960 Cadillac Fleetwood four door convertible prototype. This will allow for a full width rear seat and side panels similar to the coupe.  The top will be utilized on the 1971 full-size GM convertibles. Also notice the top deck (a'la Corvette) which mates brilliantly with the rear seat back and provides a beautifully finished look with no separate top boot. Clearly they had paid attention to the T-Bird.

This rear 3/4 view shows how carefully the top had been styled to mimic the coupe version. It lacks the slight curve of the roof where it meets the rear deck, but otherwise mirrors the coupe lines beautifully.

Here is the convertible in profile with the top lowered. Those who saw the car say that without the crisp, formal roofline, it simply lacked the dramatic presence of the coupe and in all likelihood explains why it was not approved for production- a convertible should never be less exciting visually than the coupe from which it is derived.

So the convertible was not produced. An interesting footnote above however shows a Hatch roof as photographed on a 1963 Coupe, also on the styling patio. This photo suggests that even after the convertible was killed off, stylists were continuing to explore open air themes for the Riviera luxury coupe.