17 November 2011

Five Epic Turds that Drove Once-Invicible General Motors Off a Cliff:

Ah, back when GM ruled...

As a car-crazy American kid in the late 70s, only GM cars were cool to me, except Mustang or a 'Cuda maybeI myself had a 
'75 Camaro and then a couple Firebirds, and when I was in high school, if your dad drove a new Olds Cutlass Supreme (America's best-selling car at the time) or Pontiac Grand Am/
Grand Prix, that meant you had sporty style and class- very cool. We simply weren't into imports, and Ford and Chrysler did not have fresh designs on the same level as GM in my mind... more like parodies of the General's best. And I'd have stayed loyal the GM for the rest of my days... 

Alas, that was just about the time that company's product quality really started to tank.  And it wasn't just built-to-a-price materials and typically indifferent Detroit assembly... now we were talking major design flaws and shortsighted engineering that cost the company -and it's customers- dearly.

My next Firebird -a '79- had frail door handles made of pig iron and the new, feeble lightweight (in every sense of the word) Pontiac 301 V-8... it's weak performance and mediocre reliability enough to scare me towards a German-built Volkswagen for my first new car out of college in the mid 1980s.

And you know what: I still tried to consider a new Pontiac Sunbird instead... that is, until the eye-opening experience of driving it back-to-back vs the Jetta, simply no comparison, particularly in handling and refinement: disappointingly, the 'J-car' '87 Sunbird just felt clumsy and crude. Fact is, an engineer ran VW, while an accountant like Roger Smith could always be found in the captain's chair at GM... it showed in both cases.

But as corporate morass, an insatiable UAW, and clueless bean-counters slowly eroded GM engineers' ability to put a quality product on the road, this was more readily apparent in some designs than others. Seems penny-wise-pound-foolish engineering was first made obvious to the public by the early 60s Corvair, but here's five cars that really destroyed GM's reputation and eventually scared away millions of customers... most unwilling to step inside a General Motors showroom again as long as they live:

1978-85 Oldsmobile Diesels

A crash program to develop an economical engine for large GM passenger cars had Olds engineers basing their new Diesel engine on existing gasoline block, rather than a from-scratch design as would normally be the case. Extensive modifications weren't enough to bring the (ultra high-compression) engine even a modicum of reliability, and at a measly 120 hp, the (largest-available) 350 V-8 version was extremely underpowered for two-ton Detroit sleds like the 88 Royale and 98 Regency.

In the end, they shouldn't have even bothered if they weren't willing to do it right. Unfortunately for other GM divisions, they too sold product "powered" by troublesome Olds oilburners, with midsize cars offering a sickly 85 hp V-6 Olds Diesel that broke every bit as much as the eights.

Eventually a class action lawsuit against GM -along with horrible press- brought hapless buyers of these lemons 80% the cost of a replacement engine. How foolish of the company to bully them legally and force them fight for it so publicly when everybody and his dog knew those motors were junk long before anything ever went to court.

Chevrolet Vega, 1971-77

The plan sounded good enough, like Ford and AMC, General Motors was entering the econo-car business to confront the imports with it's own compacts.  And GM was aiming to produce a more advanced design than the competition, with a state-of-the-art aluminum engine block, among other features. The mini-Camaro styling was handsome, and actually, for the few years -in  the midst of a gas crisis- they sold like crazy.

But besides numerous design flaws caused by an under-developed rush to market, the vaunted 60 cars/hour production rate at Lordstown, Ohio brought what could be described as crap assembly quality. Thousands of unfinished cars languished on lots awaiting back-ordered parts, yet none of the car's numerous troubles -including rusting so intense you could hear it on a quiet night... or trunks that filled with rainwater- could amount to the damage to public perception caused by the Chevrolet Vega's horrible engine.

GM's skinflint management had them making a block that distorted, heads that then leaked, and engine cylinders that got scraped 'cuz they skipped steel cylinder sleeves to save a little dough... what a good idea! 

And engines with warped blocks and scoured cylinder walls tend to make lots of smoke and blow up... pretty much what Vega owners learned to expect with certainty, and somewhere well-south of 50,000 mi.

Chevrolet Chevette. 1976-87

Learning precious little from the Vega debacle, the battle-weary General's attempt to compete with the Japanese and VW's advanced fwd Golf (Rabbit in the US) in the mid 70s actually ended up with outdated rear wheel drive so as to utilize as many existing parts from Vega and other Chevys as possible... to cut costs, of course. The result was poor handling, a cramped interior with unwelcome drive-shaft tunnel... not to mention mediocre performance by any measure.

Plenty were sold through the '79 gas crises and beyond, that's for sure. But the car's main attributes were simply low cost of purchase and operation, and the Chevette was outclassed by almost every single rival: with 53-70 hp, it could barely get out of it's own way, while the quality of the drive could be described as 'agricultural'. 

The business argument is often made that manufacturers need to maintain a presence at the entry-level -even if not making money- as to build a base of future customers. But how can that possibly apply to a car like Chevette... anybody I ever knew who had one longed for anything but a Chevrolet after spending a couple of years in an automotive purgatory like this.

1981-84 Cadillac V8-6-4

The concept was sound: a computer-controlled fuel injection, valves, and ignition system that cut-out two or four of the Cadillac V-8's cylinders when cruising speed was reached, downhill, etc. My buddy's dad had a new one in 1980, and we went and beat on it for fun when we could. It had a trip computer that read out instantaneous MPG on the dash all the time, I recall we thought it was cool to coast at 99 MPG then stomp on the gas and drive it to 2 MPG, lol.

But while such selective firing engines are sold today -including by GM- the concept was far ahead of the 1981 computer technology, thus the Cadillac V8-6-4 was a lemon, BIG time. Even when it was working properly -and on all eight cylinders- the 6.0 liter V-8 still made only a pathetic 140 hp. And all this trouble and weak performance in an expensive, top-of-the-line luxury car?

GM 'X-Cars', 1980-1985
(Chevrolet Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, 
Oldsmobile Omega, Buick Skylark)

They were supposed to revolutionize how GM cars were engineered and built, and although the design was spacious and well laid-out -and an incredible amount of money was spent on their development- the 'X-cars' were a quality nightmare: there had never been a General Motors car with so many recalls in history... and there's never been since.

The monumental failure of such a large-scale, vital GM program like this one really shook confidence of many who once felt the company's market position to be unassailable. Although sales started out briskly, by the third year they had all but collapsed as the platform's quality woes became legend.

A friend of mine's family picked up one of the first Oldsmobile Omegas as a third car when they first came out. Really nice little sedan, like a mini-Cutlass, comfortable with tons of room... but indeed this brand-new (and not inexpensive) car was always in the shop.

As I recall, this is when most started to wonder if the General had lost the touch...  sadly, it had- and in today's iteration as 'Government Motors' imo GM still wanders in the dark:

Pontiac Firebird Formula, Chevy Citation, Cadillac V8-6-4, Olds Diesel,  Chevrolet Vega, Chevrolet Chevette