By on June 16, 2009

Good morning, class. Welcome to GM’s Deadly Sins 101. In this seminar we will review and analyze some of the most critical blunders GM made over the decades, focusing on the ill-conceived, unreliable, ugly, and just plain mediocre products that destroyed the company. I struggled mightily with the decision as to the first example, given all the boners available to me. But here it is, GM’s Deadly Sin #1: The 1986 Buick Riviera.

Please take a close look at the image on the overhead projector. You see two very similar looking cars, both Buick coupes from the year 1986. They are very close in size, concept, shape, and even surface details. They share the same basic engine. There’s only one really material difference: the price. One of these two cars cost more than twice as much (125% more) than the other one.

The car on top is a Somerset Regal coupe, which appeared in 1985 and competed with such other august GM compact products like the Pontiac Grand Am and the Olds Cutlass Calais in the popular priced segment (approx. $9K ($18K adjusted)). The fact that it was fairly difficult to distinguish these N-Body cars from one another will undoubtedly be the subject of another GMDS.

The car below it is the Riviera, which GM released in this form one year after(!) the much cheaper Somerset. Its list price started at $20,000 ($39,000 adjusted). Since all of you spent $249 to buy my mandatory Curbside Classics textbook and DVD, you undoubtedly remember the chapter on the 1964 Riviera. It was one of the finest, if not the ultimate, post-war American cars. The Riviera and its stable mates Olds Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado were a belated response to the category that the 1958 Thunderbird first defined: the premium personal coupe.

While the T-Bird eventually lost its way and morphed (several times) into something else, the GM coupes came to own that market segment and generated healthy profits as well as the halo effect for the premium divisions. The success of the Riviera, Toronado and Eldorado were one of the key vital signs of health in GM’s far-distant profitable past.

That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges presented by the changing times, especially the energy crises. While the Riviera started out a reasonable sized 208″ length, it suffered the same obesity crisis along with all of GM’s cars. By 1974, the boat-tailed Riviera was up to 223″. But the successful downsizing of 1979 resulted in a fairly handsome coupe, now with FWD and an available turbocharged 3.8 V6. It wasn’t as stunning as the original, but stunning is hard to replicate. But it was back to the original size, at 206″ overall, and substantially more efficient.

It sold well, too. In its last year, 1985, Buick moved 65k Rivs, the all-time high. And then, disaster arrived. The downsized E-body coupes for 1986 were the knock-out punch after the set up of the 1985 C-body sedans, shriveled shadows of the former DeVille, Electra and 98. Sales of the C-body sedans dropped considerably, and Lincoln’s proud RWD Town Car quickly surpassed the DeVille. But that was nothing compared the the E-body nightmare in the making.

All three of GM’s former cash cows suddenly developed cold cow syndrome, with the Riviera’s udders drying up the most. In its first year, 1986, sales were down a stunning 70%. And the drop didn’t stop; by 1988, unit sales were a mere 8,500, an 87% reduction from 1985. I challenge all of you students to find a comparable or worse drop in sales in direct response to a restyle, not economic conditions. Keep in mind that these years were during an economic growth cycle.

The Eldorado gave the Riviera a good run for the money in the first year sales drop, with a 69% reduction. But after another small drop in ’87, Eldo stabilized, for a while anyway. And Toronado came in third, with a mere 62% drop in ’86.

But all three models were mortally wounded by the mummified 1986 re-design, and the ludicrous efforts in subsequent restyles to add overhang to the front and rear of these dwarves became ever-more embarrassing. Bill Mitchell must have been mortified in his retirement.

Buick made a last-ditch attempt to revive the Riviera with the dramatic 1995 model. The G-platform was shared with Olds’ Aurora, but they were one-year mini-wonders, at best. After a brief wave of interest, their auto-pilots were programmed to terminal dive mode. The 1999 model managed just 1,956 units, before the breathing tube was finally pulled on the Riviera.

It wasn’t only the loss of sales of these once glorious coupes that was such a mortal blow. It was what these cars once represented: GM as a purveyor of excellent design, desirable image, decent build quality, and a stranglehold on the mid-upper premium market segment. All these were utterly destroyed. Olds is long gone, Buicks are driven once a day to the senior special at God’s Waiting Room Café, and Cadillac is trying to start from scratch.

We’ll see you again for GM’s Deadly Sin #2. Any questions or comments? Class dismissed.

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104 Comments on “Curbside Classic: GM’s Deadly Sin #1: 1986 Buick Riviera...”


  • avatar
    86er

    As someone who floated serenely by this debacle with family cars a la Panther, this is a “required course”.

    Many were probably under the impression that GM would’ve observed the crash and burn of the ’62 Dodge/Plymouth downsizing disaster, but no, they were pushing towards the brave new future as they started to plan these platforms in the late 70s/early 80s and found out consumers weren’t quite ready for it.

    And when I say ready for it, I mean honestly thinking they’d pay twice as much money for an identical-looking car.

  • avatar
    Bruce from DC

    What a coincidence . . . reading your latest post and my having as a renter an ’09 Buick Lucerne CXL (as I am on a business trip and I thought I would check out what my tax dollars are keeping alive . . an ’01 Z3, an ’02 Saab 9-5 aero wagon and an ’08 Honda Pilot are my personal vehicles). Unlike the model you trash here, this one I am driving is pretty nice looking inside and out (if you can overlook certain things like the vestigial Buick ‘portholes’), the build quality is pretty good and the interior stuff works well. But even now, no one sweated the details of the basic quality of what makes a car a car . . . how it moves down the road. This is a car that I found myself subconsciously not wanting to drive at the speed of the prevailing freeway traffic here in LA (about 70). Repeatedly, I found myself slowing down until I noticed that lots of drivers were passing me . . . and I noticed that I was doing something like 60. This is a car that is work to drive at 70, even in an unchallenging environment like an LA freeway without much traffic. The steering is so numb that constant corrections are needed to follow a straight line or maintain a constant radius in a curve. The car floats on its suspension, threatening to change direction when it comes back to earth. The tall gearing of the 4-speed autobox (1750 rpm at 70 mph) and the modest engine power combine to produce an anemic throttle response until the engine kicks down into 3rd, at which point rpms go up by nearly 1000 with an accompanying increase in NVH and some additional thrust.

    Sadly, this car drives worse in every respect than my Honda Pilot, which is basically a truck (and, no, I don’t have any problem being comfortable driving the Pilot at 70 or higher).

    I don’t understand why a car that is not a stripper (as this car clearly isn’t) has to suffer with such stupid gearing on the trannie (or, better yet, do without a 5-speed) or without speed-sensitive power steering (recognizing that the car’s target market no doubt wants very low effort steering for the parking lot) or why the shock valving can’t be just a little more damped.

    GM is busy advertising the “new, improved” ’10 version of this car, but how many decades has it been since GM got something right the first time?

  • avatar
    baabthesaab

    The 1964 Riviera was one of the finest, if not the ULTIMATE, post-war cars. Please check the definition of “penultimate”.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    Did the trim fall off the door of the Somerset Regal Coupe or what the door replaced in an accident? On the Riviera, why does it appear that the fuel filler door stands proud of the fender?

    That’s two other reasons why GM is where it is. Back when these cars were sold, people, who are now in their 40s, may have looked at them and thought the cars were falling apart, right before their very eyes.

    And so they bought Toyotas and Hondas, and thus, the Accord Coupe is the Buick Regal and Riviera of the early 21s Century.

  • avatar

    I was just reading an old ’80s issue of Car and Driver the other day, and they had an article about the revised and lengthened Toronado. All they did was add sheet metal behind the rear wheels. Sounds like a typical GM solution to me.

    How many luxury coupe buyers want a bigger trunk?

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    The problem with the N/E-Body of that vintage, is its awkward stance. Cab-forward by all means, but the greenhouse seems to be pushed too far ahead, it looks ungainly. The C-post has its visual balance forward of the rear wheel, at the same time that the rear wheel seems pushed back and up into the body. The rear deck seems to low, according to the wheel well. That and the long front overhang vis á vis the distance from the door to the wheel makes it look really awkward. It’s like it had to break really hard from full speed, shifting the weight of the entire body and actually moving it forward towards the front wheels.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    baabthesaab: Oops; fixed.

    Bruce from DC: the same transmission was in this Riviera!

  • avatar
    geeber

    Very interesting article on a major GM debacle.

    GM dramatically downsized its full-size cars because it believed that gasoline would be $3 a gallon by 1985 (and in 1981 dollars).

    Ford didn’t have enough money to anything that drastic. It was forced to “make do” with the Panther-based cars and the Fox-based Thunderbird/Cougar/Mark VII. All of which allowed Ford to capture these market segments by default.

    By 1988, the Ford Thunderbird had more presence -and arguably more prestige – than the Cadillac Eldorado!

  • avatar
    63CorvairSpyder

    The early Rivs were sweet rides. I owned a ’66 and to this day would rank it as one of the best and beautiful cars I ever have owned.

  • avatar
    kken71

    Based on my experience as a lot attendant for an Olds dealer in the late 80s, the drawback to the Somerset/Calais was that if you parked them in the sun, the glue holding the dash down would fail and the dash would pop up. There’s one reason to opt for the Riviera!

    (How could the engineers possibly have anticipated that some people might park their cars min the sun?)

  • avatar
    no_slushbox

    Moving to transverse FWD in the 1980’s finally killed GM.

    GM was a pioneer with longitudinal FWD (in the US, other than the US market footnotes of Cord and Citroen) in premium coupes like the Toronado and Eldorado, but cheap transverse FWD has no place in premium cars. Even Audi knows this. And GM’s large sedans were too big for FWD period.

    Moving its premium cars to cheap transverse FWD platforms was the ultimate expression of GM’s “The customer is too stupid to notice” attitude. Except that the customers, to Lincoln, BMW and Mercedes’ benefit, did notice. Maybe they actually understood the mechanics of RWD, maybe they noticed the cars drove worse, or maybe they just noticed that the proportion were ruined.

    In doing some research on a 1971 Fleetwood 75 factory limo that I found for $1000 on craigslist I found this rather interesting perspective on the FWD switch, claiming it killed GM’s profitable factory limo business (Part III, second to last paragraph):

    http://www.ridedrive.com/blast/limousine-1-401.html

    And if you want a Cadillac 75 factory limo for $1K (a very cool car, an American Maybach that cost $12-$13K in 1971, but I don’t have the time to mess with it and my GF won’t let me park it my back yard):

    http://chicago.craigslist.org/chc/cto/1213304659.html

  • avatar

    Aesthetically, the Riv was the most successful of the 1986 E-Bodies…the others were even worse. The rushed revisions did improve the appearance of all three cars, and sales did pick up a bit.

    The odd thing about this radical downsizing is that fuel economy didn’t improve much.

  • avatar
    Stingray

    What will be next? Vega? Cimarron?

  • avatar
    Brendon from Canada

    Hmmm… my father had an ’87 (I think) Oldsmobile Toronado Troféo with the FE3 package (suspension), which I think was probably the best of the bunch from an aesthetic perspective; I found the overhangs on the other models a little long; the tight proportions of the Olds were almost Germanic in styling. It was also an extremely enjoyable vehicle to drive – fairly tossable (for it’s time) with the upgraded suspension, yet still quite comfortable for cruising. My father put a good 100k miles of trouble free driving on it before trading it on another GM product, a Buick Riviera Coupe…

    carguy622 – was it the 4th gen Toronado? The overhangs were significant shorter on the Toronado vs. the Buick…

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    GM went way too far in there 80’s downsizing program on both the H/C body full size models and these E-body cars. They were as dramatically downsized as the 1977 and 1979 models before them.The worst part was that GM put most of there eggs in the FWD V6 basket. Only one Cadillac was left after 1985 that was RWD in the shape of the full sized Brougham with anemic 140HP 307 Olds V8 and Chevy did thankfully keep the RWD Caprice Classic around in big car form with optional V8 power until 1996 when our favorite car company pulled another GM and discontinued all 3 full sized BOF cars and instead convertedthe plant over to trucks and SUV’s.
    Personally i’m not seeing massive long overhangs on the E-body cars of 1986-1991 vintage. If anything they look pretty stubby. If you want to talk large overhangs take a look at the 70’s versions of these cars. Driving one of those looked like you had a mile of hood in front of you. I always found the 1995 style Riviera far more pleasing and distinctive and it also had a larger interior and a SC 3800 option that was lacking in the 86 derived previous gen models.

  • avatar
    mburm201

    I drove an ’87 Riviera to 290k miles. While I agree that the styling was too understated and similar to cheaper products, the Riviera had a lot of good qualities. The ride with the rear air struts is smooth, controlled, and not at all “floaty” like traditional Buicks. The seats are exceptionally comfortable. The engine, unlike what the article states, was not shared with the Somerset. The only engine available was a multipoint fuel injected 3.8 V6 with distributorless ignition, about as high tech as GM got in 1986. While not the smoothest, it provided good low end torgue, 150hp, and decent fuel economy. I averaged about 23mpg, getting up to 27mpg on some trips. The same engine was used in the LeSabre and Park Avenue. While the touchscreen control center in the dash drew mixed reviews, I loved it and could access most of the functions without even looking. Similar screens (now LCD) were offered in other company’s luxury cars a decade or more later. The size was quite practical for a personal luxury coupe, being comparable to the foreign models that everyone argues GM should have copied. Still the size and bland styling offered too little for customers being asked to pay top dollar and wanting something that would stand out.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    ponchoman,

    By overhang, we mean past the front or rear wheel line. Yes, the 1986-88 didn’t have much, but then GM extended the overhangs to make the cars look longer. It’s the proportional amount of overhang that looks excessive; yes some of the old cars may have had more, but they also were more balanced overall.

    mburm201,

    The 3.0 V6 in the Somerset had a shorter stroke, but otherwise was the same “basic engine”. And a total of 15 hp difference: 125hp in the Somerset; 140 in the ’86 Riviera. Not a good return on the extra cost, eh?

  • avatar
    tirving

    Vega next. My first new car 1974 Vega wagon. POS. And the reason I never have and never will buy a GM car.

  • avatar
    NN

    ohhh baby…great topic!

    I always thought the last generation Riviera (95-99) was a gorgeous vehicle. It still is.

    Clearly, there are many choices for the GM Deadly sins series. For a more modern version, try the Saturn Ion…the car that ruined America’s hopes for Saturn, which was actually a great concept (and a good car) when first started.

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    This class is just too depressing. Where’s the drop and add line ? I think I’ll take the class in Seppuku 101.

  • avatar
    snabster

    I only vaguely remember these cars from high school. I wanted an Audi 4000Q at the time.

    What’s funny to me is that I can see the difference between the two cars. Wheels, handles, trim, discrete badging, etc. I’ve been so well trained by Audi and BMW that I can see why you can charge more for, say, a clear side blinker rather than a yellow one.

  • avatar
    TomH

    Alex Taylor did a much more effective Problem with GM Fortune article in the late ’80’s. He too used the the N-Body (Regal) E-Body(Rivera) comparo, but his was a nose-to-nose picture of a Cadillac (E) Eldo and an Olds (N)Calais spread over two pages with a challeng to readers to pick the $13K versus the $30K offering. At the same time, Lincoln was ridiculing GM’s look-alike luxury sedans with an ad that had mass confusion at a valet parking stand due to look-alike Electras, 98’s, and Deville’s versus a Town Car.

    GM’s “miss” in downsizing was nothing, if not consistent with their persistent belief that there was no money to be made in smaller cars.

  • avatar

    The E Bodies also had pretty crappy quality.

    My mom had a Cutlass Calais from that vintage and I was looking at a Toronado Trofeo on the showroom floor. I worked for DuPont at the time and was shocked at how many visible paint defects the Toronado had. The car was like a textbook on paint problems: orange peel, fisheyes and even debris in the paint.

  • avatar
    bobkarafin

    I have a couple suggestions for your “Deadly Sin” series (although they may be too far back in the past for your taste):

    The late 70’s: Putting Chevy engines into Olds Cutlass bodies w/o telling the customers; only ‘fessing up when a lawsuit was filed….

    The really late ’70’s: The Olds Diesel 350; a (way too cheaply) converted gasoline engine…

    Around 1980: The infamous Cadillac V8-6-4. ‘Nuff said…

  • avatar
    Monty

    The revived ’95 Riv is one of GM’s best styled cars. Ever. Period. Definitely the high water mark of the 80’s and 90’s styling wise. The original ’64 was awesome, but for my money it’s the ’95 by a mile(and I would like to add that the Olds Aurora, which the ’95 Riv was based on, was also a stunner, looks-wise, and 15 years later still looks contemporary).

    I have a friend who bought one of these new, and she will likely die before she parts with it. “They’ll have to pry my cold dead hands from this car.” was how she put it. Her’s is pearlescent white with a white leather interior. It’s absolutely freakin’ beautiful.

    Sad, isn’t it? When GM did it right, they really did it right. Why couldn’t they ever learn from that?

  • avatar
    tirving

    TomH:

    I think Time or one of the other mainstream news rags did a story with cover photo of the mid-80s GM cars, all maroon, that were difficult to distinguish from each other. Tried to find it but failed.

  • avatar
    geeber

    tirving: It was Fortune, and the magazine used the Celebrity/Ciera/Century/6000 on the cover.

  • avatar
    ajla

    So if you were a Buick customer in 1986 you could either buy a Grand National or this Riviera.

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    I think that the top picture is really a Calais, not a Somerset. But I digress.

    These cars are pathetic. In GM’s defense, though (gad, did I really say that?) these cars were being put on paper shortly after the birth of CAFE regulations. GM’s decision to comply with the regs so as not to pay any gas guzzler taxes can be second-guessed today, but these cars are as much a product of the government as they are GM. Also, it wasn’t just GM. Remember the Chrysler K-based New Yorkers of this era? Yeeeech!

    Recall that the only decent larger cars of the mid 80s were those from the 70s that the companies couldn’t kill because demand rebounded so stongly after 1983. Ford picked up a lot of GM customers with Crown Vics and Grand Marqs in the 80s. Still, they were pathetically underpowered due to CAFE.

  • avatar
    Caffiend

    Back in ’86, my friends mom had the Rivera. At the time, it was pretty fantastic. It had a touch screen for HVAC, etc., that was incredibly high tech for the day. Of course it was an actual tube in the dash, but it worked.

    I moved right after that, so I’m not sure how it worked out for her. But new, it was a pretty impressive ride.

  • avatar
    grog

    This family of vehicles (Buick or Olds) from the product run are alive and not-so-well here in Flyover Country as the car of choice (or only car we can afford) of the region’s TT. I’m constantly amazed that whenever I see one on the road, it’s not shedding parts like a zombie.

    Next up? As mentioned, the Vega’s a good one but I’d posit that the Chevette is a better case study. Like the POS shown here, many people who today wouldn’t be caught dead in a GM vehicle can trace that antipathy to a Chevette. Or a Fiero or most likely anything else GM built during the entire decade of the 80s.

    Never say never tho. I owned a 1970 Maverick, another POS and swore I’d never own a Ford again. I eventually purchased a 93 Explorer and it’s been a great vehicle.

  • avatar
    TomH

    Paul,

    You can point to a lot of cars that were big disasters for GM including Olds Diesels, Chevmobiles, Azteks, Cimmarons, Vegas, Caprices, Avelcades, and a whole bunch of others, but as this purports to be a list of GM’s Deadly Sins, I think you missed the opportunity to lead off with the #1 Sin, Hubris.

    For too long, decades actually, GM acted as if they were the only game in town and that they were the only guys that really mattered. How else do you explain continuing the practice of pattern bargaining oblivious to the increasing presence of non-union automotive assembly, or failure to seize the opportunity afforded by the VRA and instead raising prices dramatically in the face of hobbled competition. (Ironically creating a price umbrella for their import competitors and a favorable economic climate to incubate foreign manufacturers setting up shop in the US and moving upmarket into the luxury and truck watersheds of GM profitability.)

    Hubris allowed the GM board to sleep through the loss of over half their market share and blame their circumstances on external forces right up to and through the bankruptcy filing. In the past 7-8 years, hubris helps explain how Maximum Bob could claim that GM had “world class” (no excuses) products while upstart Hyundai was quietly waxing them in product and marketing innovation. It was hubris that enabled Rick Wagoner to do his best “steady as she goes, keep doing what we’re doing lines for GM NA” so it’s safe to say that he either didn’t see it coming or was incapable of dealing with it if he did. (As defined by our former President, i.e. whatever “it” is.)

    Finally, the best evidence that Hubris is #1 is found in Wagoner & his board successfully diminishing what was once “the standard of excellence” down to such a wretched mess that a team with zero automotive experience feels capable of calling the big moves and dictating the strategic direction for the company.

    So, when can we expect the next installment?

  • avatar

    I’m pretty certain these cars always came with a heavy factory smoked-in scent. That interior just sucked up cigarette smoke like none other.

  • avatar
    Slow_Joe_Crow

    @carguy622
    How many luxury coupe buyers want a bigger trunk?

    (jalopnik mode on)The ones who need to carry more dead hookers (jalopnik mode off)

    Seriously, this looks like the model Car & Driver had as a long term test car that GM repo-ed after they gave it a bad review. Proving that stupidity has a long history at GM. My mother had GM stock for years that was a gift from her grandfather and the anger in her voice when she said “they had a 54% market share in 1962″ says it all. That and the fact that the only GM car she ever bought was a Saturn.

  • avatar
    windswords

    My girlfriend had a used Riv. Hers was the revised version with the extended trunk. What a difference. The problem with the Riv in the pic is that the trunk abruptly ends. There’s no style to it like you would expect for near lux coupe. The revised one was much better looking and all in all it wasn’t a bad car, but I don’t understand why GM didn’t know right off the bat that that chopped off trunk was hideous. Who approved this design?

  • avatar
    Bimmer

    Monty,

    have to agree with you. Last generation Riv and 1st generation Aurora still look good today. And friend of mine ’98 Aurora is very reliable. Only thing changed being radiator. He’s very handy with tools, but prefers to pay to mechanic to change his spark plugs, as two of them are very hard to reach.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    Other GM deadly sins:
    The Vega aluminum 4 banger
    The Caddy 8-6-4 in 1981
    The Caddy HT 4100 V8 with 125 HP to move around 2 ton full sized sedans and coupes in 1982
    The Olds Diesel of 1978-1985 vintage
    The Buick 3.8/4.1 liter carbureted V6 of 1975-1987 vintage that went in everything from Monzas to Cadillac Fleetwood Broughams
    The tech-IV 2.5 clatterbuckets that went in 1982 Camaros and Firebirds with but 92 HP.
    Installing Chevy engines in Olds Delta 88’s, Pontiac engines in Buicks and so on

    This is the era I grew up in and it must be noted than much of what is seen here was not as big a deal back then as it is now. Other manufactueres were installing low calorie V6 and V8 engines in there big cars. Other manufacturers were experimenting with different engine technologies. But it was GM that produced the most numerous follies and made the wrong predictions about consumer buying habits. Even with all the mistakes I still really enjoyed growing up with the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s cars. Each car manufacturer had a nice full line up of coupes, convertibles, compact/mid size and full sized sedans, station wagons and trucks. They offered vibrant interior color schemes which are totally lacking today, tons of choices when it came to options and engines/trannys etc and had oodles of character. There were highs and lows galore but it was always interesting. Todays cars sadly lack much of the magic of those time eras.

  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    Next column:

    1988 Chevy Lumina/Olds Cutlass Supreme/Buick Regal/Pontiac Grand Prix

    Let’s compete with the Taurus and Japanese models by offering ONLY 2-doors, crummy interior styling, choking door belts, and an underpowered engine from who knows when!!!

    When they lost the family car market, they lost the game. The SUV boom covered up a lot of sins but the writing was always on the wall.

  • avatar
    Runfromcheney

    This article makes it no surprise that Portfolio voted Roger Smith one of the worst CEOs of all time.

    http://www.cnbc.com/id/30502091?slide=9

  • avatar
    mburm201

    Sorry Paul, you are right about the 140hp V6 in the ’86 Riviera. It went up to 150 in ’87. Still, while the 3.8 only offered 15 more horsepower than the 3.0, it offered 50 more pound feet of torgue (200 vs. 150), making it a good fit in heavier cars like these.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    “Seriously, this looks like the model Car & Driver had as a long term test car that GM repo-ed after they gave it a bad review.”

    That sounds like an interesting story. Has anyone written anything on that?

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    Save a couple of deadly sins for –
    >Paying H. Ross Peugeot ;-] to leave after buying EDS, and
    >Paying Fiat $2Billion to go away after signing contracts to BUY them.

  • avatar
    geeber

    The long-term test car was a quality and reliability nightmare. If I recall correctly, GM took the car in a huff before the review could even be finished.

    The early and mid-1980s were a very bad time for GM. I remember Car and Driver long-term tests of the new Camaro and Corvette, and both cars experienced several major, serious mechanical malfunctions.

    I’m not taking about a malfunctioning idiot light or an annoying rattle under the dashboard – with one car, the entire rear axle had to be replaced!

  • avatar
    TomAnderson

    I remember reading somewhere that early on in the planning process, the ’86 E-bodies were to have been even smaller, three-cylinder models. But I guess gas prices started to drop, and they were made slightly larger and fitted with larger engines, but the econo-car styling remained.

    So I guess things could have been worse, but that’s not saying much.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    jpcavanaugh :I think that the top picture is really a Calais, not a Somerset

    It really is a Somerset.

    TomH:as this purports to be a list of GM’s Deadly Sins, I think you missed the opportunity to lead off with the #1 Sin, Hubris.

    I’ve written a number of GM Death Watches here over the years on that subject. This is Curbside Classics; we stick to the actual cars, not mindset.

    Thanks for the various suggestions. GM’s Deadly Sins will appear from time to time, as I am inspired/revolted by what I find parked on the street.

  • avatar
    Captain Tungsten

    You people realize this was 23 friggin years ago, and you are picking at it like a fresh scab? The demo on this site definitely skews old (and bitter)…

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Captian Tungsten,

    Old: yes (can’t help that); bitter: no, because I never bought a GM product. But I suppose those that did and ended up with a POS have reason to be bitter. It’s not possible to buy such shitty cars anymore, fortunately. But those that went through that era need (and deserve) a support group to work through the PTSS. Thanks for putting up with us.

  • avatar
    ashtheengineer

    Am I the only one who giggled when Mr. Niedermeyer mentioned the “boners available to [him]“? God, I’m immature.

    I’ve seen a few of these around the Northeast a few years ago. I could never get the styling. Looks like something I drew as a kid.

  • avatar
    Lokkii

    You people realize this was 23 friggin years ago, and you are picking at it like a fresh scab?

    Uhm no Captain… not picking a scab. Performing an autopsy on a dead automotive giant.

    The indications are death by suicide.

  • avatar
    hD

    Throw the Cadillac Catera in there with the rest of them.

  • avatar
    dolorean23

    “So if you were a Buick customer in 1986 you could either buy a Grand National or this Riviera.”

    Outstanding point, one that GM never got. The ’86 Grand National with its turbo 3800 was one of the few truly great cars GM produced after the 60s. It ranks right up there with the ’91 GMC Cyclone. For $15K you could buy the Cyclone complete with turbo 4.3, AWD, lowered sport suspension and Corvette tranny and brakes that was reported to go 0-60 in 5.1 secs and stop in 110 feet. GMC sold all 1500 and 2500 of the Typhoon (S-10 Blazer body) but never produced them more than one year. Fast forward to 1998 and the introduction of the S-10 Extreme which had the body styling of the Cyclone without the goodies or the price, but I digress…

    Please add the lackluster ’00-03 Grand Am GT. In Supercharged form it produced exactly 5 extra ponies at nearly $3K extra over the standard V6 GT! And the truly awesome ’03 Supercharged Monte Carlo “SS” that could muster a whopping 240 HP that blazed to 60 mph slower than a four banger Honda Accord for a larger price (before steep rebates)! What a bargain, thanks GM!

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    GM’s first big “deadly sin” was the infamous ’65-’71 engine mount recall, then a world record 6.5 million cars. What made it deadly was GM’s don’t-give-a-bleep attitude toward its customers, coming up with a quick fix (for a safety defect that had caused multiple deaths) and then charging their (surviving) customers for it. Any discussion of GM having lost its way has to begin there.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    ashtheengineer:Am I the only one who giggled when Mr. Niedermeyer mentioned the “boners available to [him]“? God, I’m immature.

    No you’re not; I’m at the age where I welcome all boners available to me, GM’s or otherwise, although I do have my preferences.

    Edit: I realize this may have come off misunderstood. Don’t get the wrong idea.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    And yet another miserable GM car built and designed during the reign of former GM CEO Roger Smith rears its ugly head. While worse cars were built before and after he was heading the company, I don’t think any single CEO can be credited with so many debacles. If it weren’t for at least giving Saturn a shot, Smith would absolutely be listed as the worst GM CEO, ever. Wasn’t GM’s market share effectively cut in half from when he took over to the time he retired ten-years years later?

    geeber: “The early and mid-1980s were a very bad time for GM. I remember Car and Driver long-term tests of the new Camaro and Corvette, and both cars experienced several major, serious mechanical malfunctions.”I remember the long-term test on an ’82 Camaro Z28. It was sub-titled “A 25,000 Mile Tale of Woe.”

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    rudiger, I happen to think Smith’s Saturn mistake was one of his worst, and I thought that at the time, not with hindsight.

    The idea of starting a new company to build what the old one was incapable of building is insane! He should have just thrown GM into Ch.11 right then and start over.

    Regardless of whether you think the early Saturns were any good (I don’t think they were), they were marketed brilliantly by Hal Riney Associates. But it was a self fulfilling exercise in futility.

  • avatar
    capdeblu

    From the 1950’s to the 1970’s my parents almost always had a Buick in the driveway. They were mostly the dull ones (cheap ones) like the Skylark or Lesabre. Never anything good like the Wildcat or Riviera.

    In the mid 1970’s they were shopping for a Century or Regal. And on the lot we came upon a red Riviera with a white vinyl top. I thought it was beautiful and elegant and begged my parents to get it. It didnt take much prodding and they bought it.

    Well it was beautiful alright but it was totally unreliable. It would kill dead at intersections for strange reasons. The a/c went south and the transmission went north. Three rebuilds. Oddly they kept this car for over 10 years.

    Needless to say that was our last Buick.

  • avatar
    Bearadise

    My brother recently sold his mid-90’s Riv to a guy with several of them. He loved it but his needs changed. Got a Buick Terraza to replace it. I always thought the last Riv looked much better coming than going. Back end was much too bulbous, especially when compared to the Aurora.

    Local talk show host says if you’re coming up to a stop light and in the left lane is a Buick and in the right lane they are moving a house, get in the right lane, you’ll get through the light faster. Also says it’s amazing how many Buicks he follows with no driver in them. Just a pair of gnarly hands sticking up from somewhere down in the seat and grasping the wheel in a death grip.

  • avatar
    akear

    I always thought the Trofeo and Riveria were decent looking cars. They were also light years ahead of the crap that GM produced before.
    Also both these cars were the first production cars to have with what we today we call a graphic information center. Back then they were called CRT displays. A black 1988 Trofeo was an imposing looking car with its smoked glass rear horizontal tail light and hidden grill head lights.
    Despite poor sales ,Consumer Guide called it one of the 50 best cars for sale in North America. The Aurora was the next step for Oldsmobile after this car.

    Pictures are below – judge for yourself.

    http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.cbtgarage.com/trofeo/trofeo.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.cbtgarage.com/trofeo/trofeo.htm&usg=__cyZCduC_pmRj63N0kpmhlXqaMGA=&h=463&w=618&sz=56&hl=en&start=7&um=1&tbnid=yktHWdzBMW1hvM:&tbnh=102&tbnw=136&prev=/images%3Fq%3Doldsmoble%2Btrofeo%26hl%3Den%26rls%3Dcom.microsoft:en-us:IE-SearchBox%26rlz%3D1I7ADBR_en%26sa%3DN%26um%3D1

    Below is the supercharged 88 Trofeo. To me it looks better than the bland G8 and GTO. This is probably the best Tornado ever.

    http://www.theautoshop.net/SuperchargedTrofeo.htm

  • avatar

    Brendon from Canada: The 4th generation Toronado was revised for the 1990 model year and added about a foot to overall length. Most of it behind the rear wheels.

  • avatar
    akear

    Smith was never asked to step down by the President. Wagoners lost GM an astounding 9 points of marketshare. Wagoner’s and Putz’s failings have made Roger Smith look better in hindsight. How was Smith responsible for flops like the ION, Astra, G8, GTO, Aztec, and G6.

    Did Smith cancel the EV1 electric car that put GM in a technological hole. The EV1 was just the kind of gimmick car Smith would have loved.

  • avatar
    Jaywalker

    Hard to believe the number one spot could be taken by anything but the Fiero, the Exploding Plastic Car. The crank factory manager was paid bonuses on tonnage shipped, and not “tonnage that stayed together at speed.” Even GM stated that “65% to 90% of the cranks were good,” leaving us to conclude that 10% to 35% would come apart, penetrating oil and fuel lines and presenting the driver with an interesting combination of smoke smells as it melted into the tarmac.

  • avatar
    CamaroKid

    If we are looking for a ‘winner’ to a total ‘loser’ We will need a review of the 2005 STS

    Other deadly sins/WTF cars and trucks to consider include:
    SSR, new GTO, 4th Gen Camaros (especially after the mid model refresh) and ALL of the 1988-96 W’s

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    You people realize this was 23 friggin years ago, and you are picking at it like a fresh scab? The demo on this site definitely skews old (and bitter)…

    I never darkened a GM doorway since my incredibly crapastic Trans Am turbo, bought new but shared possession with the dealer for 6 out of 14 months of ownership.

    Fool me once….

    GM had decades to get their shit together. I nominate the model-confusion slide started when all GM brands started offering luxury models of their big cars (mid 60s).

  • avatar
    TomH

    OK, since this is actually a list of Cars that Killed GM here is my Top 10

    1. Chevmobile
    Putting SBCs in Delta 88’s when buyers expected Rocket V8s. The SBC is a terrific motor, but GM’s inablity to understand the damage to the brand that was selling ~1M cars per year was devastating
    THM200 Transmissions – THM200s had a failure rate that was several times the usual THM350. The problem was that customers didn’t get the chance to specify which they were getting, as transmissions selection was a function of other option choices. This was closely related to the Chevmobile issue, as the LM1 Chevy motors were most often equipped with the THM200 transmission. When customers surmised that the THM200 was a lesser transmission than the THM350, it only reinforced the sense of betrayal on the hidden substitution of the Chevy motor

    2. Chevy Vega
    The animosity between GM and the UAW hit its apex in the Lordstown Ohio plant that built the Vega. The signature moment was the discovery that workers were hanging parts in the doors to intentionally create rattles and warranty expense. Not that the Vega needed any help in dinging GM’s reputation, as the innovative aluminum block was initially a disaster. (GM eventually sorted out the issues and the technology evolved into what we see today in the Gen-III V8.) In the end, GM had sunk enough money and effort into making the Vega a nifty ride, (e.g. Cosworth Vega) but by then they had killed the brand and pissed off a whole generation of customers.
    Olds/GMC Truck/Chevy truck 350 V8 Diesel – On the heels of the first gas crisis Olds shipped their new V8 Diesel into a market that wasn’t ready for them. (Yeah, there were Diesels being sold in the US by Mercedes and others, but Olds volumes were an order of magnitude greater, as they sold more Diesels on an annual basis than M-B’s entire US sales.) Every other gas station converted at least one pump to Diesel, but they were not equipped to handle water filtration or the need in norther climates to transition to “Winter Diesel.” Until Olds got into the Diesel business, pass car drivers generally drove to truck stops who had experience handling the stuff. The combination of a jerry-rigged pass-car Diesel fuel delivery system and the poor fault tolerance of the GM fuel pump design was a disaster. Since customers had been on long waiting lists and paid b-i-g premiums for the privilege of driving a Diesel, boy were they pissed when it stranded them on the side of the road. To understand the magnitude of the frustration, you have to appreciate the number of customers who paid to have gas motors swapped into their cars. Americans have never looked at Diesels the same way since.

    3. X-Cars
    Let’s just say that there were eleven recall campaigns that had to be corrected before the invoices were released to dealers for the initial production. No surprise that Toyota, Honda, and Nissan had some of their big growth during this period and Ford was gaing small car share with the Escort.

    4. V8-6-4
    The real world performance of the initial version of this technology was so bad that GM couldn’t kill it fast enough and this happened while Mercedes was making their big moves on Cadillac owners and Cadillac repeat buyer loyalty

    5. B-C-E Bodies from the mid ’80’s ’til the death of Oldsmobile – GM was learning how to do platforms at the same time they were dealing with a
    whole raft of new occupant protection and EPA mandates, the result was a bunch of look-alike cars that diminished the brands at the precise moment Acura, Lexus, BMW, and M-B were amping up their focus on the near luxury market. (Thank you VRA!) Bad timing perhaps, but the market is an unforgiving mistress.

    6. The Angry Toaster (AKA Aztek)
    GM took all the wrong lessons from the total failure of the Aztek. Aztek was the poster child for GM’s new “Go Fast” product development approach and its failure sent GM back into its historic unacceptably slow and terribly expensive pace.

    7. The New “A” Bodies (c.1988)
    The cars consumed ~7 years and ~$8B in new product development resources by the time they hit the market. (Part of the delay was the ground breaking Ford Taurus that sent GM (literally) back to the drawing board.) One of the buff rags (Car & Driver?) got wind of the time and schedule and remarked about the Lumina: “Seven years and eight billon dollars and this is the best they can come up with?” These cars also launched with the This is not your father’s Oldsmobile” line that alienated that division’s core buyers while failing to live up to the quality and performance expectations of the new buyers GM was after.

    8.Avelcade (AKA Avalanche / Escalade EXT)
    Props to GM for trying to innovate the P/U market, but unfortunately, their Angry Appliance Urethane Team was given free reign to give it the looks to drive people out of showrooms. Worse, Cadillac felt the need to get into the truck business and suffered the brand dilution of badge engineering. (Similar to the mid-size SUVs that were badged as Chevys, GMC’s, Subaru, and Saab)

    9.Cavalier/Sunfire
    Cars that went head-to-head with GM’s Saturn brand and reinforced GM’s bi-polar personality on small cars i.e. Good and Cheap, pick one. Cavalier was allowed to go without any real investment from the late ’90’s to 2005 while Toyota, Honda, Hyundai/Kia, and Ford all launched superb small cars. GM now has to figure out how to get these lost buyers back into the fold. Good luck!

    10. Chevy Volt
    What’s up with that? GM put so many of their eggs in this effort that they starved many of the near term technologies that could have kept their customers from bolting to competitors who could deliver green alternatives before 2011. Sure, their fleet could handle E85, but so could everybody else and for a big part of the country, there is no E85. The Volt makes the list because it is the poster child for GM’s chronic tendency to take their eye off the ball while customers are deserting them in droves for relevant products.

  • avatar
    MattPete

    Two things I remember about GM cars from that era (mid-80s through 90s). The 1st is the enormous wheel-wells with tiny [relative to the well] wheels and relatively high-profile tires. You can see what I mean if you follow akear’s link.

    I don’t know what that was about, but it looked bad. Real bad. You could see all of the ugly mechanical underpinnings that are normally hidden.

    The other things I remember is that there often was no, or a very little, bodywork below the rear bumper. If you were behind a GM car, you could see the exhaust system, the hangers, sway bars, and other dirty filthy mechanical bits.

    This is the wrong angle to get the full effect, but it gives you some idea what I’m talking about:

    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chevrolet_Cavalier_rear_20070518.jpg

    this one is a little better:

    http://static.howstuffworks.com/gif/chevrolet-cavalier-26.jpg

  • avatar
    BDB

    Will there be an entry on the Celebrity/6000/Cutlass Ciera/Century in this series?

    My Dad had a mid-80s Celebrity Wagon growing up. My grandparents had a mid-80s Century Wagon. Waaaay too similar.

  • avatar
    NickR

    I think I am going to enjoy this.

    Yes, these cars should never have worn such hallowed names. Funny, GM changes names left right and centre…but never when they should have.

  • avatar
    CPTG

    Everyone has a GM ‘burned story’. My uncle Neil has a Cadillac 8-6-4 ‘burn story’ where his cylinders would stick whenever he was passing). My dad has a 1980 Buick Turbo V-6 ‘burn story’ where the motor seized after 12,000 miles and every 30k miles. Having twice replaced the engine (out of warrantee), he bought a Honda Civic and vowed never to buy American again. My friend Tim has a 1971 Chevy Vega ‘burn story’, I have my 1998 Chevy Blazer ‘burn story’, etc.

    Yes, once upon a time America made killer cars 1964 GTO, 1955-7 T-Bird, 1957 Chevy Bel Air, 1964 Rivie, 1967 Buick Skylark, 1964.5 Mustang, 1961 Caddy even my beloved 1985 Chevy Sprint (50mpg on a peppy 3 cylinder engine!!!). The problem is, for every ‘Good tyme’ memory, consumers have three or more ‘burned stories’. Poisoned memories can’t be fixed with rebates or sexy tv ads.

  • avatar
    NickR

    No article about GM of this era is complete without mentioning the fabric (hat tip to BlueBrat).

    We had an 84 Malibu Wagon, burgundy on burgundy (with a 267 V8, an engine about as exciting as a Coleman lamp, and less useful). I used to do my neighbours a favour and take their Golden Retriever with me on hikes in the country and fishing trips. That fabric soaked up dog smell (you ever notice that some dogs smell like boiled cauliflower?) like no one’s business. Every walk was good for a week of open windows.

  • avatar
    akear

    The E-bodies where the first GM luxury cars that offered European drive and handling characteristics. GM tried to keep this cars roughly the same size as their German counterparts. They were the first GM luxury cars that did not make you nervous in the turns.
    The previous generation Riveria and Tornado were simply awful driving cars. The less said about their 60s and 70s counterparts the better.

    The 1986-92 Riveria and Trofeo paved the wave for the more modern GM cars like the Aurora, STS, and CTS.

    Original Trofeo ad.
    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_L8BTRutV0uk/SY27jUjBfkI/AAAAAAAAKDQ/lBYLDaUfzuo/s400/Oldsmobile+Toronado+Trofeot+Ad+1987.jpg

  • avatar
    MadHungarian

    At least the Riviera had a reasonably reliable engine. The ’86 Eldorado had the infamous HT4100. Not as slow as it was when installed in the big RWD cars 1982-85, but still prone to conducting experiments on mixing oil and water.

  • avatar
    TomH

    akear :
    The E-bodies where the first GM luxury cars that offered European drive and handling characteristics. GM tried to keep this cars roughly the same size as their German counterparts. They were the first GM luxury cars that did not make you nervous in the turns.

    And for the longest time ~50% of E production was being sold to fleet and rental thus killing the retail biz. (At that time rental companies were turning cars on 4-6 month cycles creating an alternate distribution channel of “almost new” cars that later evolved into today’s CPO biz.)

  • avatar
    BuzzDog

    @MattPete: Two things I remember about GM cars from that era…is the enormous wheel-wells with tiny [relative to the well] wheels and relatively high-profile tires…I don’t know what that was about, but it looked bad. Real bad.

    I recall that from GM cars of the era, as well, and remember one of the car rags commenting that GM had a fetish at the time for making certain that all of their passenger cars could accommodate the installation of snow chains.

    Which was totally meaningless to the 80% or so of U.S. drivers who never, ever used chains, nor had any need for them.

  • avatar
    mattstairs

    Wow, I can’t wait for the rest of this series.

    Ah, the memories. My ’84 Olds Cutlass Ciera (passed down first car POS) had the same ugly arse wire spoke wheel covers as the Riv. They were heavy as hell and the brackets that kept them on broke. After losing one I replaced them with cheesy plastic wheel covers (poor college student at the time).

    I would have been 11 when these Buicks were built. Somewhere along the line the Somerset Regal (not sure why the Regal name was used on multiple models, a’ la Olds Cutlass Calais, Salon, Ciera, Cruiser, Supreme) became the Skylark, but I digress. I remember thinking that GM had too many lookalikes that only differed slightly in size within brands and slightly in looks between brands.

    1988 Chevy Lumina/Olds Cutlass Supreme/Buick Regal/Pontiac Grand Prix

    Where I lived, you couldn’t sneeze without hitting the previous RWD versions of those cars, with the Cutlass the dominant one. When the new GM-10’s came out, there was great disappointment.

    Not your Father’s Oldsmobile

    Without a doubt, the worst marketing campaign ever. The third best selling brand in the US in 1986 was wiped out. Olds had its problems (e.g. the diesel fiasco) but GM destroyed it through badge engineering. First Olds looked like a slightly cheaper Buick, and then they were overly body cladded a’ la Pontiac. By the time GM got Olds’ styling turned around (Aurora), it was too late.

    The Lumina was awful, I still see those mammoth body panel gaps and horrendous paint jobs on occasion.

    Bottom line: GM kept ceding great chunks of territory – first small cars, then the big midsize market. Their entrants in those segments were uncompetitive fleet queens to say the least. Without the truck and SUV craze, GM would have gone Ch.11 ten years ago.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    Paul Niedermeyer: “Regardless of whether you think the early Saturns were any good (I don’t think they were), they were marketed brilliantly by Hal Riney Associates. But it was a self fulfilling exercise in futility.”I’m afraid I have to agree. Smith’s genius with Saturn wasn’t so much with the product itself but getting a really good ad agency to market what has never risen above being essentially just another mediocre GM vehicle.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    Captain Tungsten: “You people realize this was 23 friggin years ago, and you are picking at it like a fresh scab? The demo on this site definitely skews old (and bitter)…”Someone has obviously never owned a GM product built after, say, 1970 (unless maybe it was built at the NUMMI plant). For the last 39 years, GM could not have alienated and permanently pissed-off more American car consumers if they had tried.

  • avatar
    akear

    The Trofeo is becoming a popular collectors car. I am glad the Reatta made it, which is another E-body car. This is one of my favorite GM vehicles.

    Top Twenty five collector cars.

    1. The 25 Most Collectible Cars of the Last 25 Years
    2. 1985 Dodge Omni GLH
    3. 1986 Buick Regal Grand National 4. 1987 Cadillac Allante
    5. 1988 Buick Reatta
    6. 1989 Ford Taurus SHO
    7. 1990 Oldsmobile Toronado Trofeo
    8. 1991 GMC Syclone
    9. 1992 Dodge Viper 10. 1993 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon 11. 1994 Pontiac Trans Am 25th Anniversary 12. 1995 Oldsmobile Aurora 13. 1996 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport 14. 1997 Plymouth Prowler 15. 1998 Lincoln Mark VIII Collector’s Edition 16. 1999 Mercury Cougar V6 17. 2000 Ford Harley-Davidson F-150 18. 2001 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 19. 2002 Ford Thunderbird 20. 2003 Mercury Marauder 21. 2004 Lincoln LSE V8 Sport 22. 2005 Chrysler 300C 23. 2006 Pontiac Solstice 24. 2007 Saturn Sky Red Line 25. 2008 Pontiac G8 GT

  • avatar
    CarnotCycle

    This is actually a pretty good pick for turning points of sorts. 1986 I think was the year Acura showed up. The Japanese studied the badge-engineering school quite well, and figured if GM could lipstick a N/E-Body into a “luxury coupe” no one would notice an Accord 2-door being marketed as such either. And they were right…

    Indeed, within four years of GM augering the Riv in, a whole new lux-brand called Lexus shows up with the SC400 V-8 powered RWD luxury coupe…that car was a template for what the Riv and T-Bird shoulda been, and actually HAD been at one point. Talk about some writing on the wall…ouch.

    The Trofeo is becoming a popular collectors car.

    I actually have a line on one of these things in utterly mint condition. Needs a new headgasket, has needed a new headgasket for eighteen years, hasn’t moved in that time, still sits under a tarp in a shed. How ironic.

  • avatar
    skor

    I recall a comparison test of sports cars done by one of the car rags back in the early 80’s. Various Japanese and European sports cars were tested; the Corvette was the American entry. On the first day of track testing, the Vette, blew it’s engine. The auto rag scribbler claimed that the Vette’s engine let go because improvements to the Vette’s suspension and tires produced such great cornering forces that oil slosh in the sump starved the engine of lubrication. Um,… yeah, whatever. In any case, the Vette was the only car tested that blew its engine.

  • avatar
    donkensler

    I was a Ford employee through this whole period (1978-retirement at the end of 2007), and I can remember thinking even in the mid-’80’s “GM can’t be this stupid can they?”. Well they were and never really learned.

    For many years I enjoyed renting non-Ford products when on vacation, just to see what the competition was like. I remember distinctly renting a Buick Century in ’92 that didn’t even have power mirrors. This at a time when probably the only Ford product that didn’t have power mirrors was a stripper Escort. After wasting several minutes adjusting the right mirror (you remember the drill right?) I decided Ford really had nothing to worry about from GM, and we should just concentrate on Toyota and Honda.

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    Here are a few golden eggs that GM threw away:
    >Engine and transmission interchangability. Go to junkyard and get a big-block for your GM car/truck. Or a small-block. Or tranny. Or go to the parts store and buy an alternator cheap. Or MOST parts. Yeah, I know they abused this one with rat motors in Oldses. But it was a good thing, cost wise.
    >Original Chevy small-block. 1955-1991 absolutely bulletproof. And simple. Same with the turbo-hydramatics.
    >Brand identity. A Buick was a Buick. A Caddy was a Caddy. Etc. Not just different badges. Different cars. Each division had a different philosophy.
    >Harley Earl. Bill Mitchell. Other designers that had style. And engineers with the clout to get things built. Kettering. Duntov. Car guys. No freaking comittees. It shows.
    And calling all of your cars G3, G5, G6, and G8 shows that YOU don’t care about your cars. When that happens, your customers don’t care about them either.
    >Oldsmobile. America’s oldest car company. Over 100 years old. Nuff said.
    >Pontiac. The only division besides Chevrolet with enthusiastic customers.

  • avatar
    reclusive_in_nature

    How about a post where we can share our import burn stories. I know I have a few.

  • avatar
    Canucknucklehead

    When present day GM fans rush to tell me “how much GM cars have improved” I can’t help but laugh because of how many times I have heard the same line from the Good Old General. That and GM’s latest “import fighter.” What a joke!

    The seeds of GM’s demise were indeed sown in the ’80s. I have never in my life seen such awful cars, boxy, crappy styling, horrendous build quality and horrible reliability. These were the days that GM actually built cars, not trucks, for the mainstream buyer. And they were bloody awful. This is because GM never learned how to do anything other than front engine/rear drive with a big V-8. They basically gave up a huge segment of the market to foreign completion with nary a good bye.

    GM lost so many customers in the 1980s it will never recover. Droves of buyers went and bought Toyondas and got good, reliable and well built products and actually paid more for them! What is so absolutely flabbergasting about GM is they always claimed they could not make a reasonable profit on smaller cars when Civics were selling at like a 50% premium over a Caviler. Duhhh, didn’t it ever occur to them if they built a better car people would pay more for them? It never seemed to register with them. I doubt it ever will, either. Their latest “import fighter,” the Cruze is itself an import, designed by Deawoo. There is no way on God’s green earth this thing will ever compete with a Civic and make money doing it.

    They still don’t get it.

  • avatar
    Ronman

    Can there be more than One Deadly Sin?

    IF the 86 Riviera was the First One, surely the Second you insinuate is the first nail in the coffin…

  • avatar
    big_gms

    @ MattPete:

    “The other things I remember is that there often was no, or a very little, bodywork below the rear bumper. If you were behind a GM car, you could see the exhaust system, the hangers, sway bars, and other dirty filthy mechanical bits.”

    I’d like to point out that 1) you picked stripper Cavaliers to demonstrate…yeah, it’s ugly and cheap looking, but not all GM cars looked quite as bad as that; and 2) there are some non-GM cars that look the same way. The exhaust systems on early ’90’s and newer (about 2003 or so) Toyota Camrys are very visible and hang quite low. There are plenty of other non-GM examples of this, but the Camry was the first one to come to mind. It’s just so damned noticeable.

  • avatar
    big_gms

    There’s no question that the 1986 Riviera was truly mediocre at best, at least as a personal luxury car. No style whatsoever, too stubby looking. Even the tremendously bland 1977-78 Rivieras (which were just warmed over LeSabre coupes) at least looked dignified; the ’86 didn’t even have that. The extra length that was tacked onto the back for the 1989 model year worked wonders to improve the looks. The 1989-93 models are how the 1986-88 models should’ve looked right from the beginning. And yet, for as bad as the ’86 Riv was, its Cadillac Eldorado cousin managed to be even worse. Even worse than that was the 1986 Seville. Damn, was that a fugly car! The proportions were just so wrong. I recall reading that GM designers actually didn’t want to make these cars that short, but were forced by management to keep trimming more and more length off to make the cars lighter, or something to that effect.

  • avatar
    MattPete

    BuzzDog: We must have read the same magazine (Autoweek?) because I remember the “snow chains” explanation for the gaping wheel wells.

    I also had a flashback to the introduction to the Beretta/Corsica, with Automobile magazine at the time claiming that people stopped them on the street asking if it was the new Camaro. Yeah, sure.

    Actually, the Z26 wasn’t a bad looking car at the time. But the Lumina? That was a horrible looking car, and you could spot the gaps from a mile away.

    I remember my dad and I rented one back in 1992. As we drove away from the airport, we couldn’t help but laugh at our ability to do simple things, and the shear lack of ergonomics of the dashboard design. Everything was cheap, flimsy, and uncomfortable. We drove Hondas and Mazdas at the time, and couldn’t figure out why someone would ever opt for a Lumina (other than for it’s size or for patriotic reasons).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Front_cabin.jpg

    And what’s up with the huge amounts of black paint around the rims of the windows on many GM cars? I know that many brands do it, but GM does it to such a huge extent…it makes you wonder why they can’t engineer thinner pillars like their competitors.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:2004-2005_Chevrolet_Malibu_MAXX_LS.jpg

  • avatar
    Whuffo2

    Aw gawd, someone had to mention the Reatta. I guess you could say they looked OK in a generic GM sort of way – but mechanically they were awful. Really terrible.

    I restored classic cars for quite a few years and I’ll never forget the Reatta that was the source of so much misery. I can’t decide if it was the German anti-lock brake system or the Delco version 1.0 electronics that ran everything. Or maybe it was just that lousy transverse V6 that had no business being in a car of that type.

    If you have one of these cars, I feel sorry for you – you should send it to the junkyard before it causes you any further pain. If you’re thinking of buying one, seek professional help (for you, not the car).

  • avatar
    Lokkii

    In 1986 after having been out of the country for several years, I returned and needed to buy a car.

    My first thought was to buy a Chevy Nova – which by then was really a Toyota Corolla built under license in the NUMMI. I figured to save a few hundred dollars by capitalizing on GM’s horrible reputation(well established by then) on the theory that most people wouldn’t know the Nova was really a Corolla.

    Well, the Chevy salesman refusedtwice my specific request to see one.

    He said, “Son, there just ain’t no room to move on them small cars”. He tried to sell me a Cavalier.

    On the way out of the dealership, I saw the new Eldorado… It made me furious. THAT was supposed to be an Eldo? Although I couldn’t possibly have afforded one, it was the final “stay away from these fools” warning. The management just clearly had no understanding of cars.

    Interestingly enough, I ended up with an Acura Integra. The Acura name was unknown yet, and the salesman was starving… A great car… You’ll still see an old one from that era on the road now and again. The Cavaliers? Not so much.

  • avatar
    Power6

    1. The 25 Most Collectible Cars of the Last 25 Years
    2. 1985 Dodge Omni GLH
    3. 1986 Buick Regal Grand National 4. 1987 Cadillac Allante
    5. 1988 Buick Reatta
    6. 1989 Ford Taurus SHO
    7. 1990 Oldsmobile Toronado Trofeo
    8. 1991 GMC Syclone
    9. 1992 Dodge Viper 10. 1993 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon 11. 1994 Pontiac Trans Am 25th Anniversary 12. 1995 Oldsmobile Aurora 13. 1996 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport 14. 1997 Plymouth Prowler 15. 1998 Lincoln Mark VIII Collector’s Edition 16. 1999 Mercury Cougar V6 17. 2000 Ford Harley-Davidson F-150 18. 2001 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 19. 2002 Ford Thunderbird 20. 2003 Mercury Marauder 21. 2004 Lincoln LSE V8 Sport 22. 2005 Chrysler 300C 23. 2006 Pontiac Solstice 24. 2007 Saturn Sky Red Line 25. 2008 Pontiac G8 GT

    Get out of here with that $#!+. Only a few of those will be collectible. Many of those might be “interesting ” but not collectible. Even the Omni GLH isn’t sought after, the GLH turbo is interesting, but only the Shelby built “GLHS” is collectible.

    Of course the GN, Syclone, and Turbo-TA are assured, though the supply of GNs has always been pretty good as they sold over 20k in ’87. The GNX is the real collectible there.

  • avatar
    Power6

    I also had a flashback to the introduction to the Beretta/Corsica, with Automobile magazine at the time claiming that people stopped them on the street asking if it was the new Camaro. Yeah, sure.

    Keep in mind this was a time where Ford almost went FWD with the Mustang(remember the Probe?) I don’t think it is that far fetched that someone seeing a sleek new Chevy they have never seen before might ask that.

    I have experience with the Beretta/Corsica, a bunch of them. My Dad had the early ’88 Beretta GT with the original “Z51″ suspension that GM softened for ’89 when they realized they went too far on the sporty side. Giant sway bars, hard bushings, and steering with only 2.5 turns lock to lock…this car had a feeling I can only identify today as “Evo-like” long before there was an Evo to compare it too. Of course the harsh suspension rattled the atrocious interior to no end, brittle plastic parts fell off daily.

    Plus the drivetrain was troublesome. My sister put 2 transaxles in her V6 Corsica before she gave up. Funny the 4 banger version she had before that was supremely reliable…

    The redesigned interior in 1992 was much better, and the Quad 4 GTZ was a high-water mark for FWD performance for GM.

    Amazing what the GM engineers could do with a crap platform that came from the ’82 J-body…

  • avatar
    BDB

    rudiger–

    I’ve never owned a GM product, and my family only owned one when I was a child. Just Ford and Mazda, and as bad as the hand-me-down Tempo that I drove in HS was, the Cavalier must have been worse since I’ve seen the kind of hate it inspires!

  • avatar
    rudiger

    akear: “10. 1993 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon”The ’94-’96 would be a better choice for collecting since it got the stump-pulling, detuned, pushrod Corvette LT1 engine. It’s truly the last of what could be considered GM’s traditional full-size cars and the last with big-inch, kickdown-passing torque on a RWD chassis. The 1996 Roadmaster Estate was the final, most memorable car GM would ever produce that was available to Joe Average American.

  • avatar
    Power6

    as bad as the hand-me-down Tempo that I drove in HS was, the Cavalier must have been worse

    No, the Tempo was that bad.

  • avatar
    supremebrougham

    I remember back in I believe it was 1987 I was with my parents at our local Buick dealer. We were having our ’85 Skylark serviced and while waiting we decided to walk around the lot. I’m sure it was around spring, so I wasn’t yet 12 years old, but I had a keen eye for all things automotive. A quick history: Buick’s N-body coupe was called the Summerset Regal from 1985-1987. The sedan version that debuted for 1986 wore the Skylark name. The coupe didn’t adopt the Skylark name until 1988. Now, having gotten that out of the way, I’ll continue. We naturally had a salesman tagging along with us as we were looking at the cars. We came upon a Skylark sedan. The salesman pointed to the badge on the rear fender and said “This is a Skylark” (duh). I then looked through the window and noticed that on the dash is said “Summerset Regal”. I pointed this out to the salesman. He replied, “Oh, it’s a Summerset.” I then pointed to the badge on the rear fender. He then said “It’s a Skylark.” I then said, “It can’t be both, so which is it?” Needless to say, the salesman began to mutter something to try and change the subject while my parents giggled and winked at me for having such a keen eye.

    FWIW I always thought that the N-cars were rather attractive in their day. The E’s, not so much.

    Ah, memories of the “good old days” at GM. But, I do have to say that the 1987 Cutlass Supreme I owned many years later was a very good car!

  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    Power6 – you beat me to that one!

    GM was SO F’N CLOSE with that damn Quad4. The H.O. models, including one I almost purchased in the Calais 442 with the H.O. Quad4, could have been the start of some serious competition with the import brands. It made 190 screaming (literally) horsepower and had some torque down low.
    But no one really needs to repeat the total lack of vision GM has to fine tune their products not named Corvette and Silverado.
    That Quad4 H.O. really did sound like a blender full of nails at high revs, the 5-speed was notchy beyond belief, and the interiors of the cars that engine drove were nowhere close to a sports-like environment the Integra (to name one) had.
    I remember the sad day when they dropped the H.O., added balance shafts to the base 4, and dropped the HP to 150 I believe.
    To this day, I wish GM would have purchased some Honda 4-cyl engines and have torn them apart to see how to get high revs combined with a smooth experience. Instead they still are about a half-generation behind everyone in that area.

  • avatar
    BDB

    Ok: if someone put a gun to your head and you had to choose between a stripper 1988 Tempo and stripper 1988 Cavalier, which would you choose?

  • avatar
    supremebrougham

    BDB
    Ok: if someone put a gun to your head and you had to choose between a stripper 1988 Tempo and stripper 1988 Cavalier, which would you choose?

    With the exception of the lousy steering and those awful motorized seat belts, the ’88 Tempo was definitely the more modern feeling of the two cars.

    In 1988 my uncle in Tennessee bought a brand new Cavalier coupe. The only options it had were AC, cloth seats and a pretty good stereo with tape deck. He still drives that car every day, and refuses to ever get rid of it, says it’s the best car he’s ever owned.

    That stereo still sounds pretty good in it…

  • avatar
    IronEagle

    How about the 1996 Corvette Grand Sport LT4? Got one and GM didn’t send the letter about the defective roller rockers on the LT4 until after mine was in at the dealership with a valve seat through the oil pan. Had like 13k miles on it.

  • avatar
    bennysecor

    Great article and great comments.
    I am shocked to read nobody commented on the infamous a-body debacle of 78-79. Do you remember the uber ugly fast back Buick’s and Oldsmobile’s? They dared to make one into a 442 cutlass. The 4-door models were even more disgusting than the two doors. The shape reminds me of a dog wiping his butt on the ground.

    http://imcdb.org/vehicle_98871-Oldsmobile-Cutlass-Salon-1978.html

    GM discontinued that model in a hurry, then hapily reintroduced them as the smaller brother front wheel drive x-platform hatchbacks (because they were so popular before).

    http://auto.howstuffworks.com/chevrolet-citation4.htm
    I guess the ford offerings for ’78 werent much more inspiring. Mustang II comes to mind. When is the last time you saw one of those on the road?
    Going back a little further, to the colonade bodies of the 70’s I remember turned to rust dust after about 6 years.
    I don’t agree with the most collectable cars baloney posted earlier, who would even want one of those Reatta’s? I think Chrysler jumped on that two seater bandwagon also, and with similar results.
    “You can polish a turd, but all you have is a shiny piece of crap”

  • avatar
    bomber991

    The 1986-1993 Buick Riveria is THE reason I will never buy any American cars.

    Now I was only about 6 but my dad bought a 1988 used Riveria in 1990. I thought that car was cool as hell when we first got it. The dash was digital, but what was really neat was the little touchscreen computer control system. I mean wow, It’s 1990 and we’ve got a freakin computer in the dash of the car!!!

    Well, about 6 months after we had the car, we went to go watch a movie at the theater. When we came out from the movie, it was snowing outside. We get in the car and turn it on. Uh oh, wtf, the digital dash didn’t come on that shows you the speed. Uh oh, WTF the computer screen didn’t come on either. This is the screen that you control the HVAC system through. So we couldn’t turn on the heater, and more importantly we couldn’t tell how fast we were going. It turned out a fuse went out and that was all that needed to be replaced to fix it, but leaving the movie theater at 11pm when it’s snowing outside is no time to diagnose a car problem.

    Later that car had engine problems. When I say later I mean a few weeks after that movie theater experience. When I say engine problems, I mean the car had to be towed to the shop to get fixed. I think he took the car there to the shop 6 times over a year before he decided to get rid of that pos. It turns out that the car had been in an accident before he bought it, so that might explain the reliability issues there.

    After that car, he went with a brand new car. So now there’s no reason to be reliability problems from a previous accident. He got a 1991 Lumina Z34. Nice car, but that thing was in the shop a lot the last few years of the 6 years we owned it.

    Both of those experiences taught me that GM builds unreliable cars, and in my little mind as a kid GM = American Cars so I told myself when I was 12 I’m never gonna buy an american car.

    It makes sense today too. If you know Brand X and Y make reliable cars, why would you even bother experimenting with another brand? Everyone knows how reliable Hondas and Toyotas are, so maybe they think the same way.

  • avatar
    spiceyweasel

    As a proud owner of a used 86 Riv, I won’t be going along with your assessment of the car. Perhaps it WAS a bit pricey in it’s day, but I paid $1900.00 for mine and got a lot more than I paid for. For one, it had a Buick Grand National GNX engine in it, chipped, balanced, and tricked out for unholy horsepower. The guy who sold it to me tried to back out of the deal three times before finally relinquishing the keys under the baleful eye of his mini van wanting wife. I have modified the interior with a modern touch screen and sound system as well as having the seats recovered in lambskin leather. My Riviera is feared amongst the local gearheads. It destroys Mustangs, Camaros, Corvettes, and Supras with equal aplomb. I understand you were referring to a general reduction in size and stature in your article, but I have benefited grandly from the car and still love looking at her as she sets in the drive at sunset, glowing in the ambient light. Not many people can claim to have such a loving relationship with their daily conveyance, but I am among them. It’s a really great car.

  • avatar
    John Franklin Mason

    Paul Niedermeyer, there are those who have made comments at GMInsider who trend to disagree with your assertion “the successful downsizing of 1979 resulted in a fairly handsome coupe,” or the downsized 1977-1985 full sized General Motors cars. They have expressed their opionon that the designs were rather “mundane.”

    I created the design images used on the 1977-1990 big bodied Cadillac Deville’s/Brougham’s and Chevrolet Impala/Caprice’s. Also the big bodied 1977-1985 Buicks and Oldsmobile’s as well as the 1979-1985 Cadillac Eldorado, Oldsmobile Toronado and Buick Riviera.

    The Award Winning Chevrolet Impala/Caprice was also Motor Trends 1977 Car of the year.

    I drew dozens of copies each of most images and hundreds of copies of the 1979 Toronado (my personal favorite) that were lost and are likely to have survived. Those drawing are very valuable and I am trying to locate them.

  • avatar

    I always thought those ’95-’98 Rivieras had a lot of class. My mom bought a ’92 Roadmaster wagon, which was an absolute whale, but is was incredibly comfy and actually reliable. It had close to 300,000mi on it when it got T-boned by a van with my brother behind the wheel. Along with the Impala SS, I have a little soft spot in my heart for those three ’90s GMs. Slightly off topic but oh well.


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