From Car of the Year to Laughingstock

The Chevrolet Citation

7w ago
16K

Twice before, General Motors had failed to tackle import competition.

In 1960, the Chevrolet Corvair was launched to rival the Volkswagen Beetle, but it developed an undeserved reputation for being unsafe. Things went better with the Japanese-rivalling 1971 Chevrolet Vega, thanks to a Motor Trend Car of the Year win, but it was known for poor reliability.

In 1979, there was great internal excitement surrounding the new front-wheel-drive X platform, which would underpin the Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Omega, and Pontiac Phoenix to rival the Honda Accord. Lancias were purchased and dissected to teach GM how to make a proper front-drive platform, but intense pressure to get the car to market as quickly as possible meant that the development process was shortened as much as possible.

The most famous car to use the X platform was the 1980 Chevrolet Citation. Nearly perfect, hand-built preproduction examples were delivered to the press, who raved. Both the 5-door and 3-door hatchbacks were practical and spacious, and the X-11 coupe could reach 60 MPH in under ten seconds. 811,540 were sold in the first year, which was over three times that of the Vega in 1971. However, while the press received good examples of the cars, customers didn't.

Before the second year of ownership started, rust appeared on most cars, and trim, bolts, and clips freed themselves from the interior. Neither of the Citation's engines were quiet, so the front subframe was attached to the body with rubber to drown out the noise, which gave the car a flimsy feeling. The transmissions were prone to leaky hoses that resulted in engine fires and a recall.

Furthermore, the rear brakes were frighteningly prone to lockup, with resulting crashes being reported to the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). The government pressured GM to perform a recall, but GM resisted and "repaired" cars continued to spin during emergency stops.

In 1983, after approximately 240,000 cars recalled and thousands of complaints filed, the US Justice Department filed a lawsuit against GM, forcing the complete recall of every 1980-model-year car. 1981 sales were nearly half that of 1980 sales, and 1982 sales were about one-third that of 1981 sales. Production ended on 21 June 1985 and a total of 1,642,587 were sold; half of the production run was completed in 1980.

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Comments (34)

  • It always amazed me how US car companies for so long seemed to have their collective heads in the sand. The Japanese absolutely destroyed them in the 80’s. Could they not have just bought a Camry or Accord to see how they could have improved a bit?

      1 month ago
    • Set the wayback machine to 1979. Camry didn't exist, and the Accord had just come out. It was tiny compared to the Citation, which was a replacement for the Nova (which is a bit bigger than today's Camry). Japanese cars in general were just...

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        1 month ago
    • Japanese auto makers were putting out the most reliable cars on the planet in the 1980's, revolutionizing the industry. American cars in the 80s were an embarrassment, in almost every way.

        1 month ago
  • The second generation Corvair of 1965 was a vastly improved car, but the damage caused by troublemaker Ralph Nader (who didn't even have a drivers license) was too much and sales plummeted. Interestingly, in 1972, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association did it's own study of the car and disputed Nader's allegations. Too bad the study wasn't done while the car was still being built!

    As for the Citation, it was typical GM arrogance at the time thinking they could do no wrong and ignorance of what the public actually wanted which added to the dim fate of the X-cars. By 1984 and '85 they had pretty much worked out all the bugs though. The Iron Duke 4 was always on the rough and noisy side, but the 2.8 V6 was used right into the 90's and improved several times along the way.

      1 month ago
  • GM is responsible for its own demise. It had 50% market share in the US in the late 70's, and gave it all away purely of its own accord (pun intended). I interviewed with Oldsmobile in 1984, with a freshly minted engineering degree from a prestigious school, having restored a Toronado the previous summer, but couldn't get a job because I had the audacity to say, just copy the Accord, you'll be ahead of where you are now, and can use the exercise to catch up - an obvious observation, unallowed in GM's halls. My recollection is different than others here, the 1976 Accord was a revelation, roomy, zippy, great on gas, and jewel-like in quality. The Toyotas weren't bad either. In the 80's those cars had import quotas on them, successfully lobbied for, and squandered by, the US domestic auto producers. US consumers have subsidized GM so much over the years, and they still can't get it right (combusting Bolts).

      1 month ago
    • In 1985 when I needed a new car, my choices from US vendors was the Chevette, the Dodge Omni, and Ford's US-version Escort. All pieces of sh*t. I bought a Honda Civic hatchback instead, it was far superior, more than enough to justify the...

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        1 month ago
    • Also, Detroit talked the Reagan administration to putting quotas on Japanese cars. So everything was shipped fully loaded and they made a fortune. Then they realized they could take on Caddy and Lincoln (not really that hard to do); next...

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        1 month ago
  • Both of my “Le Cars” were vastly superior to the Citation, but that was a very low bar.

      1 month ago
    • A guy in high school had a Le Car. In the middle of the day , in the parking lot, the fan would come on; hours after he parked it. Just like a Tesla in a parking lot today.

        1 month ago
  • I’ve driven two and both of them steered like a kid’s red wagon with a bent wheel.

      1 month ago
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