By on July 27, 2010

It’s called “convergent evolution”, and it refers to cases in which two unrelated, or distantly related, animals evolve to similar shapes or capabilities due to the pressures of their environment. Examples can be found here, with the most interesting one being the “pronghorn antelope”. It really isn’t an antelope, you see. It turns out that when there is pressure in an environment, animals will eventually all adapt to their optimum form for that environment.

While there are many unforgiving environments around the world, from the Sahara to the Arctic Circle, few are as murderous as the American automobile market. It turns out that the aforementioned “optimum form” appeared some time ago, and everyone else has been evolving that way ever since..Don’t worry. You may not believe in evolution, let alone the Mitsubishi Evolution, but I will serve as your John Scopes in this auto-Darwinian voyage.

When General Motors “downsized” their A-body family sedans in 1978, they were really just returning them to the size of the original Chevy II from the Sixties. The 1978 Cutlass, Century, Malibu, and Grand Prix rode on a 108-inch wheelbase, stretched the tape to between 192 and 200 inches in length depending on body style, and weighed about 3300 pounds. Power came from a 3.8-liter V-6 in most cases.

These A- bodies became the most popular vehicles of their era, often combining for a million sales annually. From 1978 to 1980, the Cutlass was the best-selling car in the United States, clocking over 500,000 units a year. As a child, I rode in dozens of these A-body sedans, wagons, and coupes, including my father’s ’81 Century Custom wagon. They were, truly, right-sized for American families. Mom and Dad were comfy up front, with an optional munchkin sitting between them, and the rear seat held three kids easily.

The Accord of the same era was far smaller than these “gas-guzzling, oversized” GM midsizers, with a 93-inch wheelbase and a weight in the 2400-pound range. The ’77 Accord could hide behind a modern Civic with room to spare, and it was pure magic to drive. I was lucky enough to get behind the wheel of a few first-gen Accords before the Japanese Metal Termites killed them all in the Midwest, and I was enchanted. My car-loving friends used to talk about how great it would be when everybody gave up the fat domestic cars to drive these wonderful Accords and Mazda 626es.

Eventually the Accord, and then the Camry, wrested the title of “best-selling” car away from the fat domestic cars… which weren’t so fat any more. Of the FWD American cars sold during the Nineties, only the Chrysler LH-platform entries were 200 inches long. More interestingly, each generation of Accord and Camry seemed to get a little bigger. As they grew, so did their sales. It would appear that Americans weren’t really that interested in buying “small Japanese cars” regardless of their merits.

Which is how we come to the mid-size sales chart for the first half of 2010 and the leader of that chart, the 2010 Toyota Camry. Compared to the 1978 Cutlass sedan, the Camry is slightly shorter but exceeds the Cutlass in all other dimensions, including weight. It is available with a 3.5L V6, although the four-cylinder model represents the bulk of Camry sales.

The 2010 Accord is non-trivially larger than the Camry, although it’s lighter. The Altima and Mazda6 are within a few inches in every dimension, the Altima being smaller and the Mazda being close to the Accord. These are no longer “small cars” in any sense of the term, unless your sense of the term dates from 1958.

They are also all built in the United States, while many of the “domestic” entries are built in Canada or Mexico. A slightly inattentive alien, observing from a spaceship at an angle which prevented him from seeing badges on cars, might conclude that the current Accord and Camry “descended from” the Cutlass and Ford Fairmont, and that the 1977 Accord was an evolutionary dead end. To him, a car like the Ford Fusion, originating from Mexico and smaller in virtually every dimension, would be an impostor, a false branch on the tree.

Speaking for a moment in somewhat controversial terms, I do not think the Camcords of today represent “Intelligent Design”. Nobody at Honda or Toyota set out to replicate the 1978 Cutlass in order to capture its title as the best-selling car in America. Rather, it was the “blind watchmaker” of consumer demand and changes in response to that demand. A 1977 Accord is too small for a two-child family unless that family is prepared to make some serious sacrifices of room and utility. The “compact” template laid down by GM in the Sixties and perfected in 1978 is the right one. And if the modern cars don’t have the rear-wheel-drive and live axles of the 1978 Cutlass… remember convergent evolution is about form, not underlying “biology”.

Once you swallow this rather silly, but compelling idea about convergent evolution, it’s easy to see it everywhere in the market. The full-sized trucks sold by GM and Toyota resemble each other more than they resemble their Seventies ancestors. The New Beetle, New MINI, and New Fiat 500 are more like each other than they are like any of the original variants. Each market segment determines what it wants, and then the manufacturers are forced to adapt or die.

The new Explorer is a perfect example of this. Slowly but surely, we are moving back to the family-wagon template laid down by the B-bodies and A-bodies in the late Seventies. Each new “SUV” or “crossover” comes closer to traditional wagon packaging. The Highlander, Pilot, Explorer, and Endeavor all have “ancestors” that are body-on-frame SUVs, but they are migrating back to becoming simple mid-sized wagons with third-row seating.

If there is any complaint to be made about the process, it’s simply that evolution is an imperfect copier. In many ways, the 1978 Cutlass Supreme is still superior to the modern Camcord. It’s easier to fix, it’s more spacious inside, and it possesses cleaner, more tasteful styling than any modern mid-sized car. If you can snag a drive in a solid example of any GM A-body, it’s worth doing. Not only will you learn a bit about this country’s automotive past, you’ll obtain a rare glimpse into its likely future.

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114 Comments on “Darwin, Transplant Automakers, And The Invisible Hand of the 1978 Cutlass...”


  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    In many ways, the 1978 Cutlass Supreme is still superior to the modern Camcord. It’s easier to fix, it’s more spacious inside, and it possesses cleaner, more tasteful styling than any modern mid-sized car.

    It’s also an unreliable, dog-slow, gas-sucking pile of crap that would kill you in an accident. You’d better hope it’s easier to fix, because you’d be fixing it a lot more often.

    Rose-coloured glasses and all.

    The Camry and Accord have one huge advantage over these cars, and that is reliability. There is a reason people moved away from cars like these, and it wasn’t handling, fuel economy or space. It was because they broke down too often for too many people who received little, if any, help from the manufacturer when it came to repairs.

    • 0 avatar
      John R

      Can I also mention they were dog ugly? Yech!

      Cutlass:
      http://tinyurl.com/2b5lh9h

      Accord:
      http://tinyurl.com/32akhuw

    • 0 avatar
      Monty

      +1 Psarhjinian – most notably this:

      It was because they broke down too often for too many people WHO RECEIVED LITTLE, IF ANY, HELP FROM THE MANUFACTURER WHEN IT CAME TO REPAIRS.

      This is a lesson that Detroit, specifically General Motors, still has yet to learn completely. It wasn’t the crappy cars that turned customers to the imports, it was abysmal customer care. The stories are legion; you can’t log onto an internet blog or forum without reading tens of thousands of horror stories from previous GM owners.

      My best man at my wedding purchased a brand new Celebrity; as a car it was no better or worse than the many other choices he could have made, but when things went wrong, the Chevy dealer made it even worse. He has probably bought fifteen cars since the Celebrity was dumped. Not one was a GM product; several were domestic, but he finally settled on Honda about eight cars ago because of the phenomenal dealer service and support. He’s not a car guy, he’s just a guy who wants an a reliable appliance and doesn’t want to go to war with his local dealer to get warranty repairs performed at no cost.

    • 0 avatar
      ponchoman49

      Funny, I have owned a total of 8 A/G body cars, my folks owned 2, my grandparents 3 and litterally everybody in the day owned some varient of these cars and I never remember them breaking down constantly like your saying or being horrible cars. In fact they almost always seemed to hold up better than most of the competing cars of that time period. Service was the key here. If you just got in and drove the piss out of them and never took care of these cars then they deteriorated quickly as with anything else. the biggest problems these cars had in advanced age were rear frame rails that rotted out in snow belt regions, rear backing plates that were too thin on 1978-1981 cars, some came with the undersized 200 metric tranny and the rear windwos didn’t roll down on sedans and wagons which did suck. Sticking with a tried and true coupe with a V8 and 350 or 200 R4 automatic made for a nice reliable car in my experience.

    • 0 avatar
      Monty

      Ponchoman – I didn’t say the A-bodies were a bad car; they weren’t any better or worse than most of what was on the road at the time.

      My point is that GM and it’s dealers pissed away an awful lot of customer goodwill over warranty problems – when other companies were not only making more reliable cars, but were also fixing them under warranty.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      Ponchoman, my family’s experience is very much like yours. We had an ’81 Cutlass V6 which was in fact dog-slow. Yet, with the upgraded suspension it handled quite well for its time. When the crappy factory tires were replaced at 50K, real performance tires made it even better. it had GM’s CCC feeback carb which when spot-on, it worked well. It tended to drift in and out of adjustment though. Which is when it went back to the dealer, who, surprise of surprises, bent over backward to be helpful. Quite different than the Chrysler dealer from the same time period who screwed us every chance they got. Build quality was good, but not stellar. All in all, it was a good car. Typical of the era. And the 200 series trans was never replaced.

    • 0 avatar
      bugo

      This is untrue. We had a 1978 Monte Carlo, 305 V8 and it was dead reliable. If we still had it in the condition it was in, I would trust it on a long trip just as much as I would trust a 2010 Camcord. It was a great car. Stylish and reliable.

    • 0 avatar
      NoChryslers

      Plus, they were butt-ugly. Especially the Buick and Olds “fastback” body style. WTF were they thinking? Was GM being operated from a crack house or what?

    • 0 avatar
      Jimal

      psarhjinian said”…that would kill you in an accident.”

      I’m going to have to disagree with you on that one. As one of the few remaining body on frame cars at the time, the A-bodies were pretty stout. My mother was involved in a pretty serious accident with her ’81 Cutlass Cruiser wagon back in the mid-80′s. Mom and brother were not injured and with a little frame pulling and some new sheet metal the car was back on the road.

      I will agree with you on the dog slow and gas sucking. Ours had the V-6 and it never ran right. I took auto shop in high school and one of my projects was trying to figure this thing out. We replaced the E-PROM and the computer itself. It ran great for a couple weeks then reverted back to its bumbling, stumbing low powered ways.

    • 0 avatar
      slyall

      I had a ’78 Regal for a few months in ’88, I found that pulling the fuse for the electric choke made the car accelerate smoother and eliminated the stalling problems that plagued it ever since my grandfather bought it new in ’78. The thing was still dog slow though and I traded it for an ’80 Colt RS twin stick.

  • avatar
    Da Coyote

    This was a great article. I must agree with psarhjinian that the quality of GM was abysmal during that time. It was my purchase of a ’76 Seville and ’78 Pontiac Grand Am that concluded my relationship with GM. Junk, junk, junk. I sold both and bought – two Accords, which I loved. That time period was the mountain pass before which GM ruled and after which GM was doomed to engineering insignificance.

  • avatar
    wmba

    Boy, I’ve ridden in enough of these dogs to not want to try it again, thanks all the same!

    Your article carries on the myth that these cars weighed only 3300 pounds. Look up the fall issues 1977 of C/D, and you’ll find that they weighed on average only two hundred pounds less than the full-size ’77 Chev, which was so far superior in every way, it wasn’t funny. C/D complained about it at the time.

    More room inside? Really? My miles and miles in an ’80 Grand Prix would argue against that. That owner found my ’81 Audi Coupe superior in every way when he drove it.

    +1 to psarhjinian’s comments. In three years the aforementioned GP had the interior door padding falling off, it rattled like hell, tracked like a crab and had a V8 suffering from advanced asthma, with steering that was approximate at best.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    I think we’ve been down this road before. I’d say there’s an “optimum” size for Mr middle-of-the-road. Not too large, not too small, decent hauling capacity, decent towing capacity, decent fuel consumption, and decent looking on the car parking lot at work. Of course, if you take away the extreme ends of the spectrum, most of the people will end up with something that fulfills most of their needs most of the time. It’s a cost/benefit equation that optimizes the needs to cars of a certain size.

    Cars that have been talked of before in this “optimal sized” class of cars are the 55´ Chevys, the slant six Valiant, the ´78 GM A-body, the Volvo 240 and the other Volvo bricks, the Taurus, the Camcords. I´d count the Fox-body Fairmont, perhaps some other cars as well.

    What’s interesting to me, is what binds these cars together, what do they have in common? Price, size, quality, commonality?

  • avatar
    Episode26

    The Mitsubishi Endeavor is mentioned. How does that happen a vehicle that the marketplace has nearly forgotten even exist. But then it is placed in the same sentence with an and not with a but or if. As if the vehicle is thought of, purchased in or had been purchased in the same amout as those others mentioned.

    Just think if trend continues either the Civic will be the same size as that Cutlass or the japanese manufacturers in ten years will be making wonderful crap.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Well, the constant here is the size of the human body . . . and the size of the human family unit. In our early married life, my wife and I actually owned a 78 Accord two-door hatchback, and it was a sporty little car for two young marrieds. (We were a one-car family at the time.) However, when we started a family, we knew the Accord wouldn’t do, so, in 1980, we bought an Audi 5000 sedan, which apart from the terrible mechanical execution, was very much a right-sized car, and probably was close to the specs of your beloved GM A-bodies. When we added a second child in 1984, the Honda was traded on the then-new Jeep Wagoneer, a right-sized 4-door station wagon that happened to have 4 wheel drive. With the AMC 2.5 liter 4 cylinder and a manual transmission, both performance (in the era of 55 mph speed limits) and fuel economy were reasonable. We looked at the Fairmont and rejected it as a crudely-built car.

    Of course, as Psarhijinan notes, the execution of the A-bodies was pretty bad. The engines of that era were temperamental, thirsty and weak, as were the brakes and handling. It’s not fair to judge their crashworthiness by today’s standards, and by the standards of the era, I doubt that they were anything but average. It’s the reliability and execution that fell down.

    It was Volkswagen that really showed the way forward in that area, in the 1960s. The VW Beetle certainly showed its pre-WW2 design roots, but the execution of the design, and the reliability, was tops. People bought a lot of them. And the folks in Detroit just didn’t get it. The Japanese did. They understood from Volkswagen that you could sell an antique in the US market, if it was well-put together and reliable. So that’s what they did, even if the sheet metal was pretty thin.

    But the larger point of your “convergent evolution” is that there really is a “right size” for a car, and cars bigger or smaller than that will probably not find long-term success in large volumes.

  • avatar
    Episode26

    The Mitsubishi Endeavor is mentioned. How does that happen a vehicle that the marketplace has nearly forgotten even exist. But then it is placed in the same sentence with an and not with a but or if. As if the vehicle is thought of, purchased in or had been purchased in the same amout as those others mentioned.

  • avatar
    thesal

    I have to agree whole heartedly on the “return to the station wagon” bit. It was a long road with a lot of beating around the bush. Egos needed pacifying, stereotypes needed avoiding, so the “trucks” kept getting softer, more car like, lower…and in another 5 years, the wagon should make it’s return!

    A friend of mine was in the market for a vehicle for his wife. He’s a bit of a car guy, leaning towards an A6 Avant. He was vetoed by his wife who didn’t want to look like an old lady in a wagon…GLK350 with 20” rims and summer tires was the end result.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      A large part of the reason for the death of the wagon is cost. Why spend the money to make an expensive unibody wagon when you can just slap a cover on a pickup truck?

      SUVs were sold to the customer on the grounds that wagons weren’t sexy, but the reason they were pushed so heavily is because there was a serious benefit to the manufacturer.

      The other reason is that no one, save for car designers, really likes low-roof cars, station wagons included. From the inception of the automobile until about 1950-something, cars were tall enough for people to step in and sit as they would in a chair. Then the fifties hit and we suffered a half-century of long’n’low. SUVs fed into a need people had to get away from ass-on-the-floor-mobiles.

      Crossovers and “tall sedans” are a return to more practical roots.

    • 0 avatar
      Richard Chen

      IIRC, those A-bodies don’t have roll-down 2nd row windows, there wasn’t enough space and the big part of the window is fixed. That little windowlet pops out, and wasn’t remedied until the FWD replacements came out – Chevy Celebrity and their ilk.

      As for fitting 6 people in a mid-sized wagon: car seats happened. Bigger vehicles make it far easier to install them. A vehicle that can fit 3 car seats across in the second row is rather large.

    • 0 avatar
      EChid

      @ psarhjinian: We seem to agree on a whole lot of things, psar, including this rather unique observation (nicely phrased). Whenever my dad gets in a car he pumps up the chair so he can more readily see the hood and the corners, its just more comfortable for him. Most sedans/wagons/cars don’t let you see much of the hood. I frequently find my Mazda 3 too low for everyday purposes. Not only visibility, but also curb clearance, pothole, entrance/exits. Its just not that functional, and your right, early cars weren’t that low.

      When I stepped into a Murano I immediately felt more comfortable (again, I mean psychologically). The car has plenty of clearance, but I could clearly see its curvy hood and more easily determine its size while parking. I get crossovers.

  • avatar
    tced2

    I drove a 1978 Olds Cutlass Supreme Brougham 2-door with the Olds V8 (260 cu in?). It was a decent car and the size was perfect. (Last V8 car I have ever owned).
    Today, I drive a 2005 Acura TSX, about 180+ inches in length and 3300 lbs in weight and of course an I4 engine. A much superior car to the Olds except perhaps style.
    Between these two cars have been an assortment of smaller (GM) and larger (Chrysler) cars. The GM J-cars burned me off from GM for good. GM “bottomed-out” in the early to mid 80′s as far as I am concerned.
    But you are on the mark about the optimum size of the car.

  • avatar
    PeriSoft

    This is absurd! Surely you can’t be telling me that my Saab 9-5 just came from a 1904 Oldsmobile Curved Dash. It’s clearly impossible!

    Sure, maybe a given car will have a facelift now and then, but I’ve certainly never seen a ’57 Chevy turn into a 2008 Malibu! It’s obvious that all cars were created at once, in their current form, in 2005, with the rest of the world’s manufacturing industry. After all, they require intelligent design.

    The histories of other cars are just a theory – sure, they say that a 1949 Buick ‘turned into’ a 1955 Buick, but have I seen a 1952 Buick? I don’t think so!

    It’s about time we started teaching our children alternative competing ideas of automotive history instead of indoctrinating them with these so-called theories.

    *ahem*

    • 0 avatar
      thebeelzebubtrigger

      OK, you have a point or two but Intelligent Design? Surely the Designer(s) have, in more than 80% of cars, shown themselves to be functionally retarded.

      Seriously though, the GM “A” bodies were horrible cars. Rattles, squeaks, drivelines felt like rubber bands, the freaking rear windows didn’t even go down! Cheap, nasty, crapmobiles cynically foisted upon the “rubes”, as GM clearly considers us all.

      I really hate it when people go on about the “A” body cars as if they were somehow something worthwhile, some people have even compared them to the ’55 Chevy (!).

      One thing I refuse to do as I grow older is romanticize the past, because it inevitably results in spewing nonsense. Sorry Mr. Baruth, I usually love just about everything you write but this one was just plain silly.

    • 0 avatar
      PeriSoft

      I figured somebody would bring up the intelligence bit, but I couldn’t change it without ruining the elegance of my analogy.

  • avatar
    JT

    I would give some soft parts of my anatomy to have my ’77 Accord back. [It was also a victim of Metal Termites and returned to its essence at 175,000 miles
    in \'86.]

    Light, efficient, comfortable and fun, it was ahead of its time then, and just right for the times now.

    Honda needs to get its groove back. Soon.

    • 0 avatar
      thebeelzebubtrigger

      No car maker can get its groove back in NA. The law requires all cars sold in the US to be as idiot-proof as possible, which means we’ll never again see decent small, light, efficient, affordable cars. What made cars like the original Accord so great was the simplicity and efficiency, which is now legally banned from our shores.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      What made cars like the original Accord so great was the simplicity and efficiency, which is now legally banned from our shores

      Honda will still sell you a Fit. Toyota will still sell you a Yaris, etc, etc. These are light, simple, cars, exactly like you’re asking for. Heck, if you don’t like the Fit, the Civic DX is pretty bare-bones for a modern car and also about the same size as many older Accord.

      Why aren’t you beating a path to their door?

      Oh, right. It turns out that people don’t actually want small, tinny little cars. If they did, it would be the Fit selling 400K/year instead of the Accord.

      People bough the Accords of that era not because they were small, fast, agile, etc, etc, but because they weren’t horrifically unreliable like the Americans, or horrifically unreliable and hideously expensive, like the Europeans. Had Honda made the Accord the same size as the A-Bodies, people would have bought them instead.

    • 0 avatar
      thebeelzebubtrigger

      “Honda will still sell you a Fit. Toyota will still sell you a Yaris, etc, etc. These are light, simple, cars, exactly like you’re asking for.”

      No, they are not. All things being relative I can see how a lot of people would think that way though. But the truth is that due to the modern obsession with “passive safety” they are extremely bloaty and overweight compared to what is technologically feasible. There is no excuse really for 33 MPG highway out of an “economy” car. In this day and age, technology being what it is there is just no excuse for an “economy” car that barely beats the mileage of a 13 year old full-size car (1998 LeSabre, 25 MPG highway in real life driving).

      But you’re almost right about one thing: I don’t want a smaller car. Not unless there’s a significant benefit, that is — like 60-70 MPG. That’s the number we should be seeing from economy cars. The original VW Beetle was good for about 32 MPG highway, and it was a pre-WWII design!

    • 0 avatar
      srogers

      So which is it?
      Small size and light weight, or fuel economy?
      Buy a Fiesta, Mazda2, Yaris, Fit for both light weight and economy. Or if they don’t get good enough mileage, buy a Prius.

      But if you’re just tilting at windmills, nothing’s going to satisfy you like memories of the ‘gold old days’.

    • 0 avatar
      thebeelzebubtrigger

      “So which is it?
      Small size and light weight, or fuel economy?”

      Holy false dichotomy, Batman!

      Obviously small and light are about efficiency which in turn yields better mileage. And I did say (ahem) 60-70 MPG, but I guess you missed that somehow. In the EU Audi has a huge, ultra luxurious boat of a car (Audi A7 and A8) which can get 44 MPG with the right engine. Here in NA there won’t be any 44 MPG A7s though. And obviously, if Audi can get 44 MPG out of a ginormous luxo barge then there is, per my original point, NO EXCUSE for 33 MPG being considered “economical”.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      No, they are not. All things being relative I can see how a lot of people would think that way though.

      Explain it to me, then? I’ve been in old Accords and Civics and the Fit has more room and goes faster.

      But the truth is that due to the modern obsession with “passive safety” they are extremely bloaty and overweight compared to what is technologically feasible.

      No, they’re not. Again

      In terms of useful passenger space, they’re actually quite trim. The mass in a modern car is mostly engine, frame, seats and soundproofing.

      There is no excuse really for 33 MPG highway out of an “economy” car.

      The reason is gearing and aerodynamics. The Fit has a sizable frontal area and revs at 3500-4000rpm at highway speed. Honda does this so that people don’t need to shift, and it has the shape it does to fit a pile of stuff.

      I own one, by the way, and highway driving is a chore.

      In this day and age, technology being what it is there is just no excuse for an “economy” car that barely beats the mileage of a 13 year old full-size car (1998 LeSabre, 25 MPG highway in real life driving).

      So what’s the city mileage of that Buick? I know my Fit manages 7L/100 in city, and I know that your Buick might be lucky to manage twice that.

      Highway mileage is a poor statistic for measuring economy because it really is limited by aerodynamic drag and, save for certain, aerodynamically-optimized vehicles, most cars plateau at about the same mileage on the highway because they all do the same thing: barely touch the engine, use a tall overdrive and lock up the torque converter. That technology really hasn’t improved much.

      City mileage tells a whole different story. Many, many cars that are highway mileage queens utterly suck in-city. Here’s where you see not just weight rear it’s ugly head, but transmission inefficiency, engine size and more.

      And it’s here where a car like the Fit, Versa or Civic, which are still safe and yet holistically better cars than a 1980 Accord.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      In the EU Audi has a huge, ultra luxurious boat of a car (Audi A7 and A8) which can get 44 MPG with the right engine.

      44MPG on the European cycle, on the highway. Are we talking Imperial gallons, too?

      Let’s be clear: that’s a big car with a tiny little engine on a test that sees a Prius hit 65mpg; a test that in no way reflects how North Americans actually drive.

    • 0 avatar
      thebeelzebubtrigger

      @psarhjinian:
      In other markets, there are cars that get 50+ MPG. In the USA we are not FREE to buy them. Think about that. Motorcycles are still legal (knock wood!), but I’m not free to buy a kei car, for example, ostensibly “for my own protection”. What kind of crap is that?

      I’m glad you like your Fit and all, it’s a nice car for what it is. But it gets about the same fuel mileage as a VW Beetle that was designed 80 years ago. Think about that.

      BTW, highway mileage is THE statistic for the millions of us who live 20+ miles outside the nearest major metro area. As you might guess I have not the foggiest notion what the LeSabre’s city mileage is because I rarely drive in the city. Thank the gods! :)

      You complain about my example of the A7. OK fine, shave 11 MPG off and it’s still a luxobarge that gets the same mileage as an “economy” car. If you don’t see something wrong with that picture, I give up and we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

    • 0 avatar
      thebeelzebubtrigger

      “Your comment is awaiting moderation.”

      Well, that’s one way to stifle a discussion I guess…

      EDIT:
      Since that seems to be taking forever, but oddly this one posted no problem I’ll just edit and paste it here. :)

      @psarhjinian:
      In other markets, there are cars that get 50+ MPG. In the USA we are not FREE to buy them. Think about that. Motorcycles are still legal (knock wood!), but I’m not free to buy a kei car, for example, ostensibly “for my own protection”. What kind of crap is that?

      I’m glad you like your Fit and all, it’s a nice car for what it is. But it gets about the same fuel mileage as a VW Beetle that was designed 80 years ago. Think about that.

      BTW, highway mileage is THE statistic for the millions of us who live 20+ miles outside the nearest major metro area. As you might guess I have not the foggiest notion what the LeSabre’s city mileage is because I rarely drive in the city. Thank the gods! :)

      You complain about my example of the A7. OK fine, shave 11 MPG off (I’m so generous) and it’s still a luxobarge that gets the same mileage as an “economy” car. If you don’t see something wrong with that picture, I give up and we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

  • avatar
    Pig_Iron

    I’ve sometimes wondered if the 3 big CAD programs; CATIA, UG/NX, I-DEAS, created a design constraint that drove commonization. I remember a little poster that said “This is your workstation on CATIA (picture of a PT-Cruiser), This is your workstation on UG (picture of an Aztec). That poster was at a CATIA station of course.

  • avatar
    pb35

    My best friends parents had the Pontiac version back in ’78 with the 305. His dad drove it back and forth to JFK every day. That thing must have had well over 200k on it. It would power brake wonderfully as well as carry the family/cargo.

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Kluttz

      In 1978 Pontiac was still using their 301, unless you were in California. Friend of mine had a black SJ that year and it was a 4.9 litre, or Pontiac 301. This was in NC.
      And I seem to remember the console rattling and shaking when the car was new. That 301 sounded good, but it was still a POS. I did away with GM when my 1982 Trans Am (now with the 305) was a huge disappointment. When the transmission (3-speed THM 200 metric) started upshifting out of first only when the engine was at 3700 RPM (redline was 5000) on normal takeoffs at 55000 miles, I think I got the message from Toyota and leased a 1985 Corolla GT-S. The rest of my car history is history.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    I was with you right up until the assertion that a 1978 Cutlass was superior to a modern family car. Hmmm, the modern Fusion, Accord, Sonata, etc. will out corner, out stop and out accelerate a ’78 Cutlass while burning less fuel and emitting fewer pollutants. It’s A/C system will likely be going strong, untouched, years after the Cutlass’ has consumed kilo-bucks worth of repairs. The owner can expect it to get to at least 150k miles with by-the-book maintenance and a handful of repairs to wear items like struts, brakes and such. If said owner lives in salted road country they can still expect to have a solid car a decade after the Cutlass will have died of rust worm.

    Late 70s ‘merican cars were by a large a nightmare of inefficient design, horrifically implemented emissions controls and see-no-evil manufacturing management regimes. The Never Again buyer’s strike started in those years and continued building momentum for decades. Those were dark days, and I don’t want them back.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      I don’t mean this as a criticism, but just an observation: Mr. Baruth does not seem predisposed towards of Asian cars, and certainly not of mass-market ones.

      A lot of people aren’t, especially enthusiasts, because they don’t like the direction such products are pulling the market.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      John – I might agree with you if I could actually buy an Accord/Fusion/Sonata/etc WAGON. Until then I’ll keep looking to Europe. I’d gladly take a big Euro-wagon with a turbo diesel four cylinder getting 45 mpg in mixed driving.

    • 0 avatar
      Bimmer

      joeaverage,

      you can get a ‘fancy Accord’ aka Acura TSX as a wagon in not to distant future. No diesel, thou ((

  • avatar
    forraymond

    And on the seventh day…

    good grief

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    Let’s look a generation later, the front-wheel-drive A bodies of 1982 to 1990. (Think Chevrolet Celebrity, Pontiac 6000, Olds Cutlass Ciera.)

    An mid 80′s Chevy Celebrity Wagon weighed about 2800-2900 lbs, less than a current Mazda3) was about 192 inches long, and could seat 8. It was looked at as being a “big” car.

    • 0 avatar
      thebeelzebubtrigger

      +1
      The FWD A bodies were a bright spot of the ’80s and several orders of magnitude superior to the previous model. I remember driving a borrowed ’86 Pontiac 6000 with 160K miles on it a few years back and was quite surprised at how well it had held up and at how favorably it compared to more modern cars. Back in the day the local Chevy dealer could hardly keep Celebrities in stock, they sold so well. And the dealers all cried when the Lumina replaced it. Speaking of the Lumina, it’s revealing how few of those you see still on the road…

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      I thought you couldn’t be right about that weight, but looks like you are. Damn, that’s not much more than a new Mini Cooper! Why are modern cars so frickin heavy?

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      @beelzebub: Even to this day, I know people who will only look at 80′s A-bodies for their cars, although many of them buy them for their kids. My daughter’s friend has a 90-ish Buick Century, which wouldn’t look bad, except that she parks by feel…

      As for the Lumina’s, I guess it depends where you are. This part of Michigan is lousy with them. (I can send you a couple if you like.) A buddy of mine has a 1992 Lumina (Eurosport, no less!) w/275K miles on it, and like my metal cockroach-of-the-road J bodies, it won’t die…

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      The Luminas are cheap taxi material around here. Still seeing dustbuster vans too. Around here the Luminas were a bright spot of durability for GM. My mother had one and it was troublefree for many, many years and over 100K miles. 200K miles is the measure I use for durability but then my parents won’t dare keep cars that long.

      I never warmed up to the Lumina styling though. Wide body, narrow track – but not as bad as some other GM products.

    • 0 avatar
      friedclams

      Chalk me up as a satisfied (late run vintage, after they got the bugs out) A-body customer. My Celebrity made it to 238K and my Ciera is still kicking around after I gave it to my dad. They are a high point of GM’s automotive packaging.

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Kluttz

      The 1982-1995 A-Bodies were (and are) nothing more than stretched Citations. Just as abysmal build quality. But boy, were those Fisher bodies tough. They could actually take a lickin’ and keep tickin’, but you couldn’t say that about the engines and transmissions, nor the rattles and squeaks. (Spoken from experience with BOTH A-bodies, unfortunately.
      Oh, yeah, the GM minivans (Montana, etc.) are also A-bodies, as is the HHR. Look it up if you don’t believe it, idiot GM fans and (even more) idiot purchasers of same!! They actally believe they are getting something up-to-date from GM. I would say the new LaCrosse is on that platform, too, but I could be mistaken. Knowing GM, I’m not. (I know it’s the Epsilon platform, and that’s not even originated by GM…it’s Saab. All you sucker Malibu buyers who think you’re getting a Chevrolet. Geez, ignorance must be bliss, all the way up to that first repair visit, which should be about a week after the purchase.)

  • avatar
    marlin66

    “The 1978 Cutlass, Century, Malibu, and Grand Prix….”

    Just to keep your analogy correct, I would have said “LeMans” rather than “Grand Prix”, since you didn’t also mention “Monte Carlo”…

    “Power came from a 3.8-liter V-6 in most cases.”

    While the Buick 231 (cid) engine did power a significant number of these cars, there were so many other engines available that I don’t think it’s accurate to say that most of them had it… I’d say a significant number also had the Chev 267/305, the Olds 260 and the Pontiac 301 V8′s….and other V6′s…

    These were pretty good cars, despite the fact that the rear-windows did not go down!?! However, the frames (in particular) always eventually rusted at the body mount directly behind the rear wheels. That’s one reason why they’re almost all gone now, here in Nova Scotia…

    • 0 avatar
      ZekeToronto

      marlin66 wrote:

      “However, the frames (in particular) always eventually rusted at the body mount directly behind the rear wheels. That’s one reason why they’re almost all gone now, here in Nova Scotia…”

      Wow, your comment hit rather close to home. I junked my mother-in-law’s 1978 Malibu in the late 80s for this very reason. It had less than 100,000 kms (60,000 miles) on it, but after ten Nova Scotian winters there was nothing left to attach the rear suspension to!

  • avatar

    If there were anything like evolution going on in the car business, the top management of GM, Chrysler and the UAW would’ve been eaten by Moon bears with laserbeams coming out their eyes centuries ago and Zahi Hawass would now be digging up their fossilized bones and screaming a fusillade of Arabic obscenity at the dig spectators.

    .
    It would make for great reality TV, a few interesting additions to the Dinosaur Exhibit at the Museum of Natural History; -and a few more puns in the next ‘Ice Age’ movie.

  • avatar

    I’m surprised no one mentioned the “Metric” Turbo Hydra-Matics found in most of those downsized A-Bodies. Bad, BAD tranny…perhaps GM’s worst automatic ever. Many tranny shops simply re-fitted those cars with TH350s.

    The 1978-era A-body revision was a huge improvement on the bottom-feeding 1973-77 generation. And they outshone the 1982 FWD GM cars that assumed the “A” mantle (and the 1978 generation became the “G” body). Compared to what had come before, they had plenty of room, drove well, handled well, stopped well, felt tight…again…when you’re comparing to the ’73-’77 models. No wonder an increasing number of these are becoming collected and hot-rodded.

    Problem is if you got a good one, you loved it (tranny issues aside), but a lot of buyers got bad ones…and on the heels of bad experiences with their predecessors, went foreign at this point.
    Several years down the road came serious rust issues: rotting frames and the like.

    The concept was there. Had the execution been more consistent, the seventies (pre – ’78) might have been seen as just a bad chapter in GM’s history rather than The Beginning Of The End.

    • 0 avatar
      texan01

      I’m not sure they are a huge improvement over the 73-77 cars. I own a ’77 Chevelle, and a buddy has had a string of 78-87 El Camino/Monte Carlo/Malibus over the years. My parents bought a ’76 Malibu Classic brand new and I grew up riding around in that car as well.

      Lighter they were, but not by a terrific amount, my ’77 Malibu Classic weighs in at 3800 pounds, and the comparable ’78 Malibu Classic sedan weighed in around 3400. Style wise they are a mixed bag, by the end of the 73-77 run, they were throwbacks and very tacked on styling compared to the clean 73 and 74 designs. The biggest difference in ride came from the not-soggy spring rates in them, they were not as stiff as the previous body style, but I’d compare them to the 68-72 A cars for chassis rigidity and handling (which they don’t unless you really do something to them)

      I always hated driving my friends car because it felt really cheap compared to my ’76 or the current ’77, and the ergonomics were just weird, nothing was really within easy reach of the wheel, the gauges were cramped and hard to read, the A/C felt ineffectual, you hit a bump and the whole car would quiver nervously which GM fixed in the G-special cars with additional bracing. To me they always felt like 3/4 scale cars.

      The ’77 I have now is as box stock original as one can get. right down to the unmolested 305 and 2 barrel carb. It’s not particularly fast off the line, but once you get it rolling and overcoming the 2.56 rear ends lack of assist in town, it’s got plenty of go, though most cars now will leave it in the dust. Its got enough power to top the 100mph speedo out and then some, if you dare push it on the 300 pound-inch rate springs. The only thing I’ve done to it as far as handling goes, was replace the original rubber sway bar bushings with poly, and add in a cop-car rear bar, which makes a BIG difference.

      Real world mileage isn’t any different than the 78-up cars, I get 14-15mpg in town, and 20-ish on the road, about on par with the smaller A-bodies with the 305. Space efficency flat sucks in the 73-77 cars, with a 15cuft trunk, a two week vacation was something to pack lightly for for a family of 5 (we took our 76 from Texas to Canada for two weeks in ’81) The smaller cars had more usable trunk, but still more usable than the 68-72 cars.

      Little known fact on the 73-77 cars and the 77-96 cars since they share virtually the same frame, John Z. DeLorian (yes that guy!) designed the suspension to handle much better than the shopping car handling of the previous cars. I’ve compared my friends fully restored ’71 Chevelle to my straight from the dealer lot ’77 and it sticks a lot better than the ’71 does, despite sagging springs, no rubber in the control arm bushings, and 34 year old rubber elsewhere (except tires)

      The 82-96 FWD A-cars were good cars for their time as well, I owned an ’86 Pontiac 6000-STE right after the ’76 bit the dust in 2001. It had nearly identical measurements for interior space as the ’76 did, was almost as fast with the 2.8 V6, and had a bigger trunk, and could show the ’76 its taillights in a winding road, where it felt nimble, the ’76 felt like an elephant on roller skates, where the ’76 would quiver from impacts, the 86 would shrug them off. It was quieter, and more comfortable as well. It was far far better built than any 78-87 A/G body could hope for. It did have its problems though, in the two years I owned it, it caused me more grief than the 8 years prior of teenaged me driving the snot out of the ’76. It had morning sickness in the power steering, the creaking engine cradle, the raspy 2.8 let you know it was there, I actually blew up the 2.8 two days after I bought it, and learned that not only was it really really worn out at 90,000 miles, but the factory oil pump should have been replaced from the factory.

      Where the Pontiac disappointed me, was with its fuel economy. It didn’t get any better than the ’76 did, (17 and 22mpg) a port fuel injected V6 getting the same economy as a 2 barrel (designed in the 50s no less!) V8 did.

      I traded the Pontiac for a 1995 Explorer in 2002, and promptly drove the snot out of it, and still am. It’s vastly more nimble than the 76 was and the ’77 is. has the same amount of passenger room. but despite having a 20hp advantage in the 4.0 v6 over the 5.0 V8 and nearly identical torque peaks, it feels so much slower, and is measurably slower than the ’77 is. Its truck underpinnings really show when you hit a rough road, where the 77 glides over it.

      The 78-ups werent bad cars, but they weren’t good cars, even back in the day. I remember my parents shopping for a new car in 1984, we looked at a Delta 88, an Impala, and a Cutlass Supreme. Mom and dad both thought it was cheap and flimsy, where the Impala/88 were better built cars. We wound up with the Delta 88 after the Chevy dealer didn’t want to deal with mom and snubbed dad’s questions. That Delta 88 had the sucktastic THM-200 behind the Olds 307, and it couldn’t get out of the way of its own shadow. It also didn’t last nearly as long as the car it replaced, despite our best attempts to keep it going. We sold it off with 120,000 miles and minus 3rd and reverse for the 3rd time.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    My ’81 Olds Cutlass Supreme is still one of favorite cars. Anyone that says these cars were junk is completely clueless. My ’78 Buick Sklylark was junk. The 260 V8 in it was indestructable, smooth, and quiet. It would cruise effrotlessly @ 75 MPH on the highway and still give me 20 MPG. Reliable, mine had 197K on it and was 11 years old when I got rid of it. Only sold it because it wasn’t much for towing boats or snowmobile trailers on snowy roads. Although I did use it for that for a couple of years. Loved how the car rode and handled. The perfect size, not too big not too small. Reliable, easy to work on when something did break, and parts were cheap. If I would have owned my own home at the time I would have kept it after I bought my new truck.

  • avatar
    sfdennis1

    Have to agree with others posters that there is practically nothing about the ’78 Cutlass that is superior to a modern Camcord…Even with neither Honda nor Toyota at the top of their game recently, a 4cyl Camcord will out accelerate a V8 Cutlass, outhandle it by a large margin, be multitudes safer, as well as far more reliable and get far superior fuel economy…as well it should after 30 years of technology and engineering progress. (Of course, a 2010 Malibu would similarly shame a ’78 Malibu in just about every catagory. Mom had a ’78 ‘bu briefly, I still remember it as a decent but boring ride.)

    Hell, remove the badges and put it in a time machine, and a 1978 car buyer could probably be convinced that a new 2010 Malibu was a mid-size Mercedes from the future, the inprovements have been so comprehensive over the years.

    That said, by contemporary late 70s/early 80′s standards, the GM midsizers were a major advancement from the 73-77 generation, and overall, a decent car for the needs of the time…remember, engineers had barely a fraction of the CAD/CAM capacities of today, and being able to chop off almost a foor of length & 500-600 lbs. of weight while preserving interior space and smooth ride and handling dynamics was a genuine acheivement…

    The unfortunate truth was that was not enough…indifferent build quality, spotty reliablity, and tepid performance were far bettered by the Japanese…it was about that time (late 70′s/early 80′s) that the Japanese realized they could eat Detroit’s lunch if only they’d make products BIG enough for the average American buyer…and the feeding frenzy began at Detroit’s expense and continues to this day, with the Koreans now, and soon the Chinese entering the frey.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    How many can we sell?

    That is the question of the Invisible Hand of the Market.

    When the Cutlass was created, there were enough families shopping for this kind of vehicle for GM to earn enough profits to keep making cars. It was the tail end of a generation that knew how to reproduce and valued families enough to sacrifice for them.

    The next generation was unwilling to do that. We see a decline in the birth rate during the next generation. We see an incline in divorces, a focus on self-fulfillment, and homes with Master Bedrooms, but with dungeons for any kids who might have showed up. Naturally, a Cutlass wagon would have found fewer buyers, because there were fewer children.

    Well, we now have a new generation. We have a baby boom. We have families again. Folks who had to deal with divorced parents, are back to focusing on families. Our vehicles will reflect our need for four baby carseats, pack-n-plays, toys, diaper bags, coolers, Goldfish, sippy cups, Baby Einstein DVDs, strollers, pillows, blankets, coloring books, and STUFF! So – we need wagons!

    While minivans have for a generation signaled “family”, today, they say “MOMMY!”. Toyota’s TV campaign targets Mommy. “Mommy likes!”, is the tag line. When Mommy wants a new minivan – I’m sure she would be interested in another damn minivan.

    But if we’re talking a “family vehicle” today, we are including the big sweaty hairy guy with the Y chromosome too. We want wagons! We want trucks!

    The 2011 Ford Explorer? “DADDY WANTS!”

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      When the Cutlass was created, there were enough families shopping for this kind of vehicle for GM to earn enough profits to keep making cars. It was the tail end of a generation that knew how to reproduce and valued families enough to sacrifice for them.

      I don’t think that’s quite accurate. The total number of family vehicles sold has been going up, but we went from three vendors with 95% of the market (and one who had almost 50% of it) to ten-plus vendors with 20% maximum. We’ve also learned how to make very different products for a customer’s needs without requiring high upfront costs and significant bespoke engineering.

    • 0 avatar
      PeriSoft

      The 2011 Ford Explorer? “DADDY WANTS!”

      My wife detests minivans and, for some reason, wants an Explorer (or other suitably unsuitable SUV).

      My favorite justification from her was the one for her wanting a Land Rover. I pointed out that we don’t do a whole lot of exploring the African bush, and she said, in a pleading voice, “But it roves the land!”

      No argument there, I guess.

      She’s an actor, so I think she’s made a few characters up for herself. This one is pretty funny because she knows it’s so absurd.

      All of this, and her favorite car was her 1993 Ford Escort, which while it would presumably be panned by this site’s denizens for its modern-car bloat and overwrought safety features, is the polar opposite of a Land Rover in every possible way.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Hmmmm – I hope you are right about self-sacrifice and kids from divorced families focusing on family again b/c most of the kids I know from divorced families are headed down the very same path as their parents. Maybe it is a regional thing…

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      Oh really? Sure doesn’t seem to be happening in New England. I’m in my early 40s, and very few of my peers have children. Most are not interested in having children at all. I’m certainly not. Must be a fly-over state thing.

      After all, the world does not have a resource shortage problem, it has a human over-population problem. Why contribute?

      But as to the premise of the article, I think Jack is spot-on. Well, other than the thought that those GM pieces of doggy-doo were in any way decent cars.

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    One of the posters made an excellent point about weight. After the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74, GM launched its own “Manhattan Project” to reduce weight and improve fuel economy on its entire fleet. They succeeded with reducing weight on the full- and mid-size cars by 500-700 lbs.(let’s not rehash the X and J disasters).

    That needs to happen all over again if these automakers are to meet a 35mpg standard. That means reducing size and mass. Will the next-gen Camcord/Fusion/Altima/Malibu weigh 2900-3100 lbs., be 5-7 inches shorter and be motivated by a 125-hp base fours? If not, why not? Equalizing hybrid/gas pricing like Lincoln or holding on to heavy designs with trick engine technology isn’t enough. Design has to evolve, too – in this case, by learning from past history.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    “the Japanese Metal Termites killed them all in the Midwest”

    Them termites wasn’t Japanese, they were sprinkled on the highway by ODOT in a weather related ritual.

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    Jack is right on target about the sizing of the ’78 A-cars compared to today. As for the execution? Nope. Let’s face it, the good old days were meh.

    In my family, we had a “good” A-car – a ’78 Buick Century aeroback sedan with 3.8 V-6 that went 150K on its original engine/trans, A/C compressor, etc. While it was reliable for its time, stuff broke a lot, it rattled, the hood shook at speed, the brakes were never better than OK, the electrics were trouble, and I never remember it getting better than 17 mpg in town or 23 mpg on the highway. Driveability on that era’s emissions technology was awful. While we avoided the rust worm, others weren’t so lucky.

    Please remember that up until maybe 20-25 years ago, mid-size daily cars like these were jalopies within 5-7 years. An A-body’s condition at 150K was awful compared to what a 1998-model Toyota, Honda, Nissan or even GM mid-sizer with 150K is like today. Even the best of cars spent more time in the shop or under the shade tree than most of today’s mainstream cars.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Of the FWD American cars sold during the Nineties, only the Chrysler LH-platform entries were 200 inches long.

    Maybe I’m failing at reading comprehension here but the Aurora, Ninety-Eight/Regency, Lesabre, Park Avenue, Bonneville SSE, Continental, Deville, Seville, Fleetwood, Lumina, Monte Carlo, Imperial, and possibly others were all FWD American cars from the Nineties which were 200+ inches long.

  • avatar
    silverkris

    Oh, yes, I remember the 1980 Buick Century sedan we had for many years. Recall that the rear windows were fixed (except for the flip out quarter windows), which took some time getting used to, though you did get a bit more elbow room. Got decent acceleration and fuel economy was something like 19 mpg city, 26 highway, which wasn’t bad for the car’s size and weight – it had the venerable 3.8 liter V-6.

    It was actually pretty reliable – though the handling wasn’t anything special, especially after driving other more sportier cars. My brother took it on a cross-country trip and overheated the engine, causing over $2000 in repairs back then. Basically got a rebuilt engine, and it ran very well for years after that.

    Now I recall that we were actually thinking of getting the X-car Citation or its other stable mates, until my uncle (who had a 1978 Regal at the time) suggested instead that we look at the Century, Cutlass instead. Glad that we did afterwards hearing all the problems with the X-car later.

  • avatar

    I agree with a number of the comments that mention how the late 70′s A-bodies represented a big improvement over their predecessors. It’s easy to evaluate them based upon current standards of performance, safety and reliability, only to find them lacking. However, back in 1978, they were as good as it got. Now, as some have noted, in that era, cars had a MUCH shorter life span — components were much less reliable and the bodies were much more susceptible to rust. If you got 5 years on a car, it was a victory. That all has changed in the intervening 32+ years. But it’s unfair to make the comparison to today.

    That said, things often look better in the rear view mirror. GM’s A-bodies (and the B-bodies the previous year) were the company’s best effort (and probably the American industry’s best effort) to respond to the conditions of the time. It wasn’t enough. But, unlike a number of other models that followed (hello, remember the K car), it was an honest attempt to get things as right as possible with very limited resources.

    Time proved all of the Big Three (or Four back when AMC was alive) wrong. But the point remains, designing a car to meet the needs of real people isn’t all that different now. Hwoever, now we have lots of subgenres in cars, the way we have subgenres in music. We live in a much more fractured world and technology sometimes leads us, as opposed to following our needs. But perhaps GM was on to something by trying to design something mainstream for mainstream people. I give the company credit, even if they were wrong in the long term.

  • avatar
    msquare

    Basically right on, though a few factoids were left out.

    First, the Cutlass Supreme was a top seller even in its larger previous generation. And the ’77 full-size Chevy, which had dropped down to roughly the same size it was in 1961, was a record-breaker.

    All cars in the 1970′s had crap reliability and durability compared to today. Thank the crude emissions technology of the time for the poor performance, even among the imports. And whatever edge the Japanese had in build quality, they sacrificed in poor materials. And everybody had lousy fit and finish back then except the Japanese and Mercedes. Even Volkswagen quality took a hit in the transition from Beetle to Golf/Rabbit.

    And the first of the then-Big Three to see the light in proper sizing of their cars was actually Ford with the Granada/Monarch twins in 1975. By ’77 they were Ford’s top-selling line. The Aspen/Volare, flawed as they were, hit the spot as well one year later, although the issues they had (rusty fenders among them) nearly killed Chrysler in the late 1970′s.

    Ford called the Granada “precision-sized,” slotting it right under the Torino/Elite/LTD II/Montego/Cougar intermediates and eventually displacing them. And yes, it was very close to the A-bodies in most dimensions.

    First-generation Accords were always subject to waiting lists and were the darlings of the magazines, but sheer volume was still relatively low compared to the big players. They did, however, increase sales by a factor of 10 from 1976-1980, from about 18,000 to 185,000. And they were still hard to get.

    Compare, though, the perfectly sized, poorly executed cars from Detroit versus the smallish but perfectly executed Accord. That’s what built Honda’s reputation.

    • 0 avatar
      bomberpete

      msquare is totally right about Cutlass and Impala sales, the crap reliability of Seventies cars of all nationalities, and how quickly Honda grew back then at Detroit’s expense.

      However, I don’t think it’s legitimate to claim that Ford was ahead of GM in downsizing with the “precision-sized” Granada/Monarch twins. Yes, they did make a huge sales impact in 1975-77. But it wasn’t nearly as huge a gamble as the one GM made. They were really just a Maverick underneath, with roots that could be traced back to the 1960 Ford Falcon (and first-gen Mustang).

      Come to think of it, wasn’t Ford just applying the very successful Mustang options formula to those cars, bringing transaction prices way higher than any Maverick or Comet would sell for? Ditto the Aspen/Volare, which really were the Dart/Valiant/Duster underneath.

      Look, I’m not claiming the 1977 GM B-cars were revolutionary. As rear-drive, live-axle, V-8 sedans, they were not. They were little different in concept than the mid-size ’73-’77 A-bodies they were sold alongside of for that one year. But as a design, they were a fresh sheet of paper, as were the ’78 GM A-bodies. To me, that’s something neither the Granada/Monarch or Aspen/Volare can lay claim to.

  • avatar
    SomeDude

    I remember one of the cons mentioned in the article on the original Ford Explorer dichotomy was that “it was a bad product that drove good products off the market.” I’d say that this applies more to the Camcords rather than the Explorer.

    The Camcords nearly killed all of the automotive diversity in North America. Mediocrity became the new king and did it ever rule! Paying a premium for a privilege of driving a mediocre car which is completely indistinguishable from millions of others… Funny how many people, even enthusiasts, talk about the reliability of the Camcords as their raison d’etre. BS. The last reliable Camcords were built in the 90s. What you’ve got these days are sticky pedals and failing brakes. Funny, I’ve known people who actually bought lemons from Toyota and Honda but still live in denial and think of those as reliable cars.

    • 0 avatar
      Truckducken

      Yeah, yeah, it’s the perception gap! Sorry, Dude, I wasn’t quite baked enough back in the day not to notice the difference between the Camcords and the domestic designed-to-fail junk. Thirty years later, the reliability gap (for those of us who go by data instead of hearsay) has narrowed from an order of magnitude to nearly a dead heat. I thank the Camcords – including mine with the very distinguishable and not at all mediocre 5 speed – every day for that.

      Oh, I can’t let the indistinguishability thing drop yet. Might you be one of the folks who thought that the ‘Custom’ logo that Buick slapped on most of their ’70′s cars made it distinguishable from all the other identical Buicks with the same logo? My Buick salesman uncle used to laugh his arse off at the premium he got for those ‘Customs’. Made ‘em so much more individual than the identical Oldses they sold down the block.

      Last thing, I promise. When the Japanese invaded bigtime in the 70′s, the US was a 2.3-automaker market. (I’ll give 0.1 to VeeDub). Now it’s what? I’m pretty sure the choices have increased, not decreased. Or are you saying the domestics don’t even count anymore? Even I wouldn’t say that.

    • 0 avatar
      SomeDude

      @Truckducken

      “Might you be one of the folks who thought that …”

      No, I am too young to be one of those. But, back in 2000, I bought a 1996 Dodge Stratus. An ex-rental with around 100k on it. Even though I paid almost nothing for the car, all my friends went like: a Dodge? A former rental?? What are you, nuts???

      True, the Stratus was no BMW and the interior was crap. But it felt rather nippy and steering had a lot feel to it. More importantly, between 2000 and 2007, when I sold the Stratus and bought a new Mazda, the only thing that broke was the EGR valve. Which I replaced myself. On the other hand, the all new Mazda hasn’t fared that well. It has been back to the dealer several time already, including electrical problems and unstable idle rpm.

      So talk about perceptions…

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    On evolution of the auto in general:

    I’m not a religious man, but when I look at my ’98 Ranger it’s hard to believe in evolution. The new ones at the Ford dealer don’t seem to have evolved much. I suspect they’ve been encased in amber all these years.

    The new Explorer is a perfect example of this. Slowly but surely, we are moving back to the family-wagon template laid down by the B-bodies and A-bodies in the late Seventies. Each new “SUV” or “crossover” comes closer to traditional wagon packaging. The Highlander, Pilot, Explorer, and Endeavor all have “ancestors” that are body-on-frame SUVs, but they are migrating back to becoming simple mid-sized wagons with third-row seating.

    It is interesting that beak size changes with rainfall. Rainfall having an effect on the size of plant seeds, which in turn favors large or small beaks.

    I suspect that environmental pressure will bring us back to the ’84 short wheelbase Chrysler minivan, and for all the same reasons as before – it’s clearly more fit for transporting a family and all the family’s gear. In terms of space utilization, the traditional wagon (e.g. sedan with large visible trunk area) is unfit for it’s purpose. Those vehicles that have taller roofs, sliding doors, and chair-height seating will be able to carry more stuff for a given length of vehicle, and do it more conveniently. They are more fit for their purpose.

  • avatar
    msquare

    Already happening in Europe. The Renault Scenic, Opel Meriva, Citroen Picasso, etc are somewhat smaller than a short-wheelbase Caravan, but hit the same marks. The Fiesta isn’t a minivan, of course, but you can certainly see the influence. And of course, there’s the Fit.

    I grew up the youngest of six children, so my family always had a big wagon, a ’64 Chevy Impala and a ’70 Buick Estate Wagon among several company cars my dad drove. Always felt that if we were all 10 years younger, we’d have had a minivan at some point. Remember those early Doug Henning “Magic Wagon” commercials?

    By the way, you could probably add the BMW 5-series and Mercedes E-class to the A-body “right size” category. Both are seen as more important to their companies’ fortunes than the smaller models.

    Those A-bodies, even in the era of Chevy and Buick engines making their way into Oldsmobiles, were still sufficiently differentiated that magazines still tested them against each other. The divisions still had some control over interior trim, styling elements and suspension tuning, which resulted in the F41-equipped Malibu, the Pontiac Grand Am and the Buick T-type turbo being considered the elite of the bunch. One last thing: the stationary rear windows were gone by 1981, as were the aero-backs.

    The B-bodies were revolutionary only in the way they were designed, among the first to be done exclusively with computers, and remain highly regarded.

  • avatar

    This is irrelevant to Jack’s piece, but I feel obliged, as someone with a biology degree who writes about science, to correct the following statement, specifically the part about convergent evolution:

    >>>The “compact” template laid down by GM in the Sixties and perfected in 1978 is the right one. And if the modern cars don’t have the rear-wheel-drive and live axles of the 1978 Cutlass… remember convergent evolution is about form, not underlying “biology”.

    Convergent evolution can absolutely be about the underlying biology, or about any other aspect of an organism that evolves. For example, distantly related creatures living in extremely cold climates might have developed similar mechanisms for staying warm, such as heat exchange systems that result in blood coming from the core heating blood that’s been on the periphery. Mammal species living at high altitude independently develop a greater density of red blood cells than those at sea level.

    There are probably a few good examples of convergent evolution at the molecular level, but if they do’nt exist, it’s because most of the fundamental molecules of life evolved in their present outlines very early in the history of life, and although many were refined, they were never replaced.

  • avatar

    Americans are bigger, on average, than they used to be, which changes the optimum size. When gas becomes permanently more expensive, that will change the optimum size.

  • avatar
    msquare

    Just want to clear the air on one thing that seems to be prevalent among this thread. GM’s full-size and mid-size cars in 1977 and ’78 were sales home runs and right on target with the changing market. Record amounts of money were spent on their development and their long lifespans rewarded the company handsomely.

    The only mistakes were the stationary rear windows and aero-back Buicks and Oldsmobiles, quickly corrected. Even the much-maligned X-cars were well received initially. The J-car was actually a huge step forward in quality let down by excess weight and insufficient power, the latter corrected as well. Still no Accord, but nobody really had an answer to it until the second-gen Camry in 1987, and maybe not even then. The failing of the J-car was that its European counterpart was redesigned twice before the American version even got a restyle. It stayed in production way too long.

    What hurt GM was what came after. Homogenized product, marketing misses and failing quality conspired to erode market share. Don’t blame these cars for GM’s demise. If anything, they helped keep it alive.

  • avatar
    Austin Greene

    I have a lot of experience driving the A bodies. My father had a ’78 LeMans four door stripper with the rare 200cui / 3.3L six. It was the first small block six and, due in part to persistent intake leaks, it shook like a paint shaker. Fortunately it was backed by THM350 trans and was pretty much trouble free. According to the door sticker it weighed 3,300 lbs. With 95 HP and a 2.73 rear end it was slow, taking about 16 seconds to reach 60 mph. After ten years of service the corner garage owner bought it for his son. It had almost no rust and continued in service for another four or five years.

    I also drove extensively an ’80 Malibu four door with a Buick 3.8. Although a touch more refined it ran fairly similar to my father’s ’78.

    I also drove extensively an ’80 Cutlas four door with a small V8 as well as an ’82 Regal with a small V8. Both drove similar to each other but completely differently than the previous two.

    I liked driving that generation of A body because to me they were easy to work on and reasonable to park.

    I have a ton of experience driving the B bodies of that epoch as well, but that’s a story for another time.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      3.3L / 200 cu. in. six? My Mustang had that engine. Are you sure? Did not know GM made an engine with the same displacement as the Ford.

    • 0 avatar
      Patrickj

      Yes, my father had a ’79 Malibu with that engine. Drove it about 15 years in NYC, then my brother used it for a couple of more years as a station car on Long Island.

      Rust aggravated by marginal body repairs made replacing the transmission a bad idea when it finally failed.

  • avatar
    rjones

    My Dad had a 1978 Lemans wagon when I was 11. It was two months old when we took it on a family trip to Vermont. I recall three things about that trip:
    1. It was hotter than hell in the backseat because the windows didn’t roll down.
    2. It rattled like a bucket of bolts, which is exactly what my father called it when he was in a good mood. (He called it a piece of shit when he wasn’t)
    3. It nearly killed us when it stalled (as it always liked to do) and wouldn’t start again while turning on to a highway. A transport was heading right for us. My Dad never bought a GM product again.

    Oh, and the paint looked like shit two years later.

  • avatar
    supremebrougham

    I’m on vacation in Florida, so I’m a little behind in posting…

    I once had a 1987 Cutlass Supreme Brougham coupe (from where my screen name comes), and all I can say is that it was a wonderful car. What made it so special to so many I think was that it felt as smooth and luxurious as the larger B bodies, but in a trimmer package. For me there was never a better cross-country cruiser. Several days on the road in that car and nothing hurt me after getting out.

    If only cars today had the style and luxury of that Cutlass, I’d be trying to sell everything I had to get my hands on one…

  • avatar
    Waxenberger 6.3

    I’m sorry, but A-bodies were as cheap and horrible a car as ever came out of post ’72 Detroit (when the dark time began). Their hideous styling (padded vinyl roofs, coach lights, dorky front overhangs and stubby profiles), cheap, pie-plate trim and tacky, rattly, Vegas interiors make me wonder what fans of these automotive mistakes are smoking.

    These things managed to be both slow and thirsty. Heavy and cramped. I remember when they came out with back windows that didn’t even roll down. GM tried desperately to spin that transparently cheapskate move by telling consumers it was so great because they’d have more elbow room. Sad. Sad. Sad.

    However, back in 1978, they were as good as it got.

    Really? My mom still drives the 280TE she and my dad bought in Italy in 1979. It looks new and has run reliably for thirty one years and 324,000. That’s more like what I call as good as it got.

  • avatar
    TomH

    Jack,

    Sorry to be so late to the party, but it is not an Invisible Hand that is driving convergence, it is the very visible effects of regulatory frameworks. As new occupant protection, fuel economy, and emissions regulations consume product development budgets it is not surprising to see automakers rallying around “known good” solutions. Over time there is more divergence/innovation as the design/engineering communities get smarter on their solutions.

    Having worked for the General when that H35 wagon pictured in the article was made, I can tell you that the 260 V8 motor was a dog and part of a powertrain that is inferior to its modern counterparts in every way.

    PS,
    Part of the reason newer cars don’t feel as roomy is the presence of airbags, knee bolsters and padded surfaces so that you don’t hit terminal velocity before smacking into a hard surface in a crash.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    I recently took my buddies 1979 Cutlass Calais coupe out for a spin with 115K one owner original miles and was floored at what a nice car it was. It has the 260 V8 and THM 350 tranny which is bulletproof. New belts and hoses, flushed radiater and every fluid changed, removing the stupid spark advance delay, rebuilt carb and she runs far better than the the day it left the factory. The FE2 suspension is still tight and corners quite well, the bucket seats are far more comfortable than most cars today, the trunk is huge with a wide opening, the A/C blows ice cold still and the cars skips right along going 80 all day long on the thruway. I have owned numerous other examples including a 1981 4 door Supreme with 231 V6, 1981 2 door 260 V8, 1985 coupe with 307 4BBL V8 and 1987 black 2 door Salon coupe with 307 and 4 speed automatic. Not one of these cars ever lost an engine or tranny or left me stranded but the 1981 4 door did need new backing plates due to road salt. The 1985 and 87 coupes were by far the best going well over 150K miles without ever needing much other than routine maintenance and the 307 was an excellent engine with about the same or better mileage compared to the smaller 231 and 260 engines. I remember these being superior to some of the other cars out at the time especially my dads 1979 Fairmont which litterally fell apart with 60K miles with windows falling down in there tracks, plastic interior door handles breaking, dash rattles and buzzing, blown rear end and tranny at 66K and an engine that leaked oil everywhere and never seemed to run quite right despite numerous tuneups and carb rebuilds. It’s a testament to these cars that I still see loads of them driving around with high mileage despite the snow belt. Can’t say the last time I saw a 70′s or 80′s Honda or Toyota on the road.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Because the Asian cars were all used up and tossed. Everyone I knew put their 150K to 200K on them and tossed them away. The domestic cars were numerous enough around here anyway that a person could go to the junkyard and find plenty of low mile parts to keep their own bucket of bolts running. Another reason was that the Asian cars were hard to work on compared to the simplistic Detroit vehicles. People knew ways to get around those air pollution devices tacked on 60s engines. With the Asian cars the drivetrains were complicated enough that once they broke and an expensive computer controlled carb was needed the cars were sold off quickly and cheaply.

      The imports also seemed to rust quickly with few galvanized panels. My VWs and my parents’ Toyotas from the era relied on plain old PAINT to keep the rust at bay. Once that was line of defense was broken by gravel marks or similar – some of these import cars rusted quickly. If you could keep them rust free, and didn’t let the repairs stack up too much and used a quality repair part then they were easy to keep on the road for hundreds of thousands of miles. The key was GOOD maintenance, GOOD parts, and a GOOD owner that drove the car reasonably.

      The same could probably be said of any brand vehicle though. Treat them right and get good service. I’ve often wondered how many vehicle models were undermined by the types of customers they attracted. Attract a cheap-skate and the car is bound to break and stay broken. Attract a Duke boy wannabe and the car isn’t going to last much past the payments.

    • 0 avatar
      Patrickj

      In rust-free Southern California, you can’t look anywhere without seeing a 70s or 80s Honda/Toyota, often in decent exterior condition.

  • avatar
    msquare

    Funny thing about the larger GM product lines is that few people in the media complained that they were uncompetitive in their market segments. Nobody liked the build quality issues, naturally, but the commentary could be narrowed to two things: get the sport suspension and they weren’t as sharp as BMW 5-series cars that cost twice as much. Kind of silly, but I remember a Car and Driver comparison test where a Pontiac Grand Am measured up rather well against a 528i.

    Remember, too, that Japan Inc. did not compete in the larger segments until the “voluntary” import restrictions forced them to go for the bigger margins. Detroit got hammered for missing the mark with the X and J cars, not to mention the front-drive Escort, which was an embarrassment compared to the Euro version, and again not giving us the redesigned front-drive Chevette replacement when it came out in Europe as the Opel Kadett D/Vauxhall Astra. Interesting how the old rear-driver continued to sell well in the 1980′s despite its obsolescence.

    The Japanese were really scoring more against the Europeans than the Americans, who still had some safe haven in their traditional markets. The Big Three lost market share in the smaller segments, for sure, but the real victims were the British, French and Italians. All of them were blown clean out of the U.S. market by the far superior Japanese makes. Even Volkswagen was pushed to the brink.

    The Accord, however, got bigger and bigger with each successive generation, moving up the sales charts. The first real competitor for it was probably the 1992-96 Camry, and it moved up too.

  • avatar
    bufguy

    Although I hated them, a much more revolutionary car was the Fairmont and the “Fox” body. It was as roomy as the A bodies but was lighter, unibody and had a strut suspension. It also appeared in 1978 and spawned dozens of other cars including the mustang.

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    I’m with you on the Fairmont/Fox platform. They still had that one going through the 2004 Mustang.

  • avatar
    bodegabob

    I think I’ve witnessed the next in a series of semi-bombastic odes romanticizing something that no one who really experienced it would ever romanticize.

    The A (then G) body cars were well-sized for their times, but indifferently manufactured, poorly supported, barely developed, and generally shitty. Aside from their less-than-elephantine proportions, there is nothing to recommend or remember them for. And what is that really saying? That these cars were remarkable for being not so remarkable as their gross forebears.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that in the mid-80′s the top selling domestic car was the Olds Cutlass Supreme (up until the GM10 downsizing in ’87). GM continued making a mint on these bland, dated, ill-fitted pieces of crap for almost 10 years after they were first introduced, and with only minimal investment to keep them current. That in itself did more than anything else to feed the domestic complacency machine that can really be blamed for the downfall of the US manufacturers. The people who bought these things generally thought they were helping America with their purchase, when in fact an opposite argument can be made.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      The complacency machine example still worries me today. Maybe it would have been better to let Detroit go completely broke and then work themselves out of their hole recently. Dunno if their gov’t bailout scared them enough.

  • avatar
    postjosh

    jack’s point is that there is a natural size and layout of automobile that americans will naturally gravitate towards. i think he is dead on right about that. the cuv’s that are currently popular are getting closer and closer to the old fashioned station wagon. the problem is that we want our cake and to eat it, too. how do you cram all wheel drive, electric seats and multiple cameras, not to mention all the electronic devices into the same sized auto template of the gm “a” body? i for one miss the spacious interiors and front bench seats of yesteryear.

  • avatar
    joeveto3

    “The 1978 Cutlass, Century, Malibu, and Grand Prix rode on a 108-inch wheelbase, stretched the tape to between 192 and 200 inches in length depending on body style, and weighed about 3300 pounds. Power came from a 3.8-liter V-6 in most cases.”

    I tend to agree. My 4Runner has a 109″ wheelbase, a length of 189″, a curb weight of 4300, and a 4.0 Liter six that has 236hp. It might be taller and heavier, but it has 4wd, more power, and seats 7. Also it gets better mileage than the Cutlass Wagon and is dead reliable. All good stuff (and very much a benefactor of the times and many of the advances we take for granted)

    Dimensionally, inasmuch as a perfect size…I believe the comparison makes sense. I agree. If either were larger, it would lose its feel. If either were smaller, it would lose it’s usefulness.

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    Thanks to both PostJosh and Joeveto3 for keeping things in perspective. I re-read Jack’s article and realized that I may have missed his point. Perhaps I got confused by all this convergent evolution stuff. It isn’t for us to debate the merits and faults of the 1978 A-cars. That’s for the history books.

    The question is whether the 15-17 foot, 3000-4000 lb. vehicle (whether sedan, wagon, CUV or whatever) represents the sweet spot, an optimal size for Americans. To me, Jack’s 100% on the money.

  • avatar
    msquare

    If anything, it explains why the cars sold so well *despite* their obvious flaws. The answer is that there wasn’t much better out there in that optimal size for less than twice the price.

    When the Accord and Camry reached that size and started topping the sales charts, that’s when the domestics started relying more and more on SUV sales. Meanwhile GM made three different attempts to replace the A/G cars — the front-drive Celebrity/6000/Ciera/Century A-bodies, the “full-size” H-bodies (Bonneville/LeSabre/88) and the W-body/GM10′s. Of these, the H-bodies were probably the best.

    Used to be just having something to sell in the segment was enough, once the Camcord started dominating it, it wasn’t.

    So you could make the argument that Detroit kept running away from the competition until there was no place left to hide.

  • avatar
    samm

    The Evolution of the ‘D’ – by J Baruth and R Dawkins made a great read. The real interesting thing is that something similar has happened in many other parts of the world – with differing ‘optimal’ sizes, even in emerging markets like East Europe and India.

  • avatar
    BuzzDog

    It always amuses me that people lambaste GM for omitting the roll-down rear windows when it introduced the four-door A-body intermediates for the ’78 model year.

    While the uproar is justified, my amusement stems from the fact that you rarely hear negative comments about the elimination of roll-down rear windows from the two-door “Colonnade hardtops” that were introduced five years prior. I often wonder if GM saw this as a way to make elbow/shoulder room close to that of the prior generation, and justified it on the basis that coupes lacked this feature.

    One interesting footnote: I recall seeing quite a number of ’78 and up Malibus as city police vehicles, but never used by the state police. State police officers hated them; many radar units of the time required that an external “horn” be hooked to the top of of a roll-up side window. For several reasons it was preferable to mount it on the rear-door window, but the Malibu required it to be mounted to the driver’s door glass.

    • 0 avatar
      DweezilSFV

      For some reason it was more acceptable on the 2 door cars of the period from the VW and Maverick on up. 2 doors were many times seen as “sportier”.Plus the popularity of the “Opera window” and “formal roofline” that became the vogue back then made it livable with customers from a styling standpoint.

      Four doors were seen to be more practical for passengers than two doors. Fixed rear windows took away some of that practicality but didn’t offer any benefit in the styling dept and the extra shoulder was probably an accident of cutting the cost of the window opening mechanisms than it was about passenger “comfort.

      Additionally one of the TTAC B&B who worked on the design said that it was an oversight, that once they had the design locked in there was no room for any window winding mechanism.

      It’s an asinine idea on all levels anyway and one of the reasons I will never own a 2 door or any sort of car with fixed rear windows again. A pet peeve, but a peeve nonetheless.

  • avatar
    DweezilSFV

    Mr Baruth: I think the comparison would legitimately be with the 64 Chevelle, not the 61 Chevy II. Chevy’s compacts have been about 180 to 183″ long [exceptions being the \"compacts of the 70s with their federal bumpers and late 60s Nova].For example: Citation 176.5″,88-05 Cavalier 180-182″,Corvair 180″, Cobalt 180″,Corsica 183-185″.

    And I am not sure the Nova weighed 3300 lbs when it cane out. More like 2600. The Malibu was clsoer to 3300.

    The 64 Chevelle [and 62 Ford Fairlane] were both hailed as a return to cars of the “right size” standards of the 50′s: 55-57 Chevrolet and 52-56 Ford.

    The Chevy II always competed with the Falcon in size, weight and performance and was a response to Ford’s success with totally conventional car [IIRC 183\" long and a 108\" wheelbase]unlike their revolutionary compact Corvair.

    The direct descendant of the Cutlass would be the 61 F-85, about the size you are referring to [192\"-200\" long] and part of the basis for GM’s “mid-size” cash cow lines : Tempest, Skylark,F-5/Cutlass, Chevelle/Malibu.

    Olds didn’t get it’s real Chevy II/Nova clone till the Omega of the early 70s: a direct of the original Chevy II.

    But your point is well taken: this seems to be the “popular size” to which public migrates. It’s just about “right” in size room and practicality. I would bet that same size and weight popularity would follow through the 30s and 40s as well.

    Personally I am probably overly hair splitting on this, as a car of about 176-180″ is the size I prefer and feel that the ION I drive currently at 184.05″ is too large for a compact and a “mid-size” between 192 and 200″ is a “monster”. Yes, for me: “size does matter” and smaller is more in keeping with my needs so I keep track. Anything more than I need is wasteful. But that’s my own personal quirk, but why I am so aware of the #s.

    The Cutlass may be the “right size” for the vast majority, though and that makes your theory spot on. Great job of writing.

  • avatar
    rsmith317

    Bottom line? The cars GM built were built because there was still a demand for them. Were they great driver’s cars? For the most part, no. Were they competent point A to point B appliances? Yes they were. As far a quality is concerned, they were designed to run (albeit not perfectly) with a nod towards the typical appliance owner’s neglect in mind (Like they say, “GM cars run badly longer than most cars run at all”). True, the quality of the rest of the car depended on the day it was built, and GM customer service left a lot to be considered back then (hence the lack of reminders for bring in your car for service, unlike the constant reminders from Toyanda to bring your car in for service…remember owner neglect), but I will tell you I see far more old GM A/B bodies than their contemporary Camcord competitors driving around.

    The lack of a roll down rear window was touted as a “child-proof” and further justified by the fact that there was air-conditioning so only a vent was needed in the back. I remember riding in the back of an ’82 Regal 4-door when I was 11 wishing I could break the damn thing open to feel a breeze. I had already subscribed to the big 3 car mags (C&D, R&T, and MT) for 3 years at the time so I wasn’t just a passenger, so I paid attention to acceleration, ride, handling and all that other stuff the magazines looked for. The Regal was a decent family car that didn’t really excel in one area and it knocked down about 24 MPG on the highway (i was given the odometer mileage, gas receipts and a notebook to shut me up for the trip).

    My mother was so impressed with the car that she immediately went the the Buick dealership after we got back to order one. However, she ended up with an ’83 Century instead…now if you want to talk about crappy GM cars…

  • avatar

    Old cars like this are a piece of Americana whether you like it or not. Believe it or not, people do some restoration on the older Cutlass’, 76-77 being the most popular. At http://www.fixmyrust.com we sell some of these panels but only a few a year. Let’s face it, who wants to pimp out their grandpa’s old car! The fact is that these older style cars have much more charisma and nestalga than most of these newer space aged vehicles ever will. Don’t dwell on the fact that they are big and bulky, ugly, weigh too much, or even that they get 4 miles per gallon; instead think back when you were a kid and the sorta good times you had with your family on your “vacations” together. Think back how you had to hold your urine for 15 hours straight because dad refused to “waste time” by stopping!

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    Interesting comments, and I was interested to see the comment panning the THM200 “metric” automatic as one of the worst GM had ever built.

    You’re forgetting the “Slim Jim” 3 speed Hydramatic from the late 1950′s through about 1964, which regularly blew-up (always outside of the pathetically short warrantee of the day, as well). They’d only got 30,000 miles between rebuilds….

    I also think the new 1978 GM A-body cars were actually more close to the orgiginal “large-compact” GM cars from 1961 rather than the 1962 Chevy II / Nova. The 1961 cars included the Pontiac Tempest (which morphed into the LeMans and GTO later), the Oldsmobile F-85 (which morphed into the Cutlass, later) and the Buick Special (which morphed into the Skylark later).

    The 1961 cars actually had some interesting things going for them, including lighter unit-body construction (rather than frames), advanced-for-1961 aluminum block V8′s for all 3 (though less than 1% of Pontiacs were so ordered, instead buyers opted for the 1/2 of a Pontiac V8 four cylinder, which was standard – and rough as a proverbial cob). This rush-job was because Pontiac was originally slated to get a version of the Corvair and declined to accept that car, so was instead forced to use the Corvair transaxles since the production capacity for same was already baked in to the program.

    (The Corvair and the “large-compact” BOP cars were in fact related)

    This is why the 1961-1963 Pontiac Tempest/LeMans cars had independent (swing axle) rear suspension ala Corvair, and a rear transaxle – NOT because engineers had a brilliant idea and wanted a better ride. It was politics – as always, it was politics. Corporate politics, yes, but politics.

    Other problematical GM transmissions included the Chevrolet Division Turboglide built from 1957 through about 1963. Massively inefficient and abysmally unreliable…..

    Fast forward to the Corporation demanding weight reductions on A-cars and you’ll find that V6 cars had THM 350 and 375 (350-based version) automatics as their options, while most V8 cars (even B-body cars) had the smaller, less strong metric THM 200 units! I believe the reasoning was that the basic weights of the base model V6 cars was always published with the standard 3 speed on the tree (which virtually NOBODY bought), and the V8′s pretty much had to have automatics only (except for the few sold with 4 speeds in Monte Carlos, etc). This made it seem like the cars were lighter than they really were as usually sold, in the case of the V6, and kept the weight down for the EPA test in the case of the V8′s.

    Trouble was, putting the power-sucking bigger (but stronger) automatic behind the wimpy V6 sapped efficiency and performance, and putting the too-light tiny automatics behind the V8 meant they were typically exploded at a rate which hadn’t been seen in GM dealerships since the days of the Slim Jim and Turboglide…..

    I could go on for hours on the poor decision making that GM had done over the years, which let to their demise (and pardon the Pontiac Pun but Phoenix-like “revival” as Government Motors).

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    The ideal GM “Disastermobile” would combine the wonderous attributes of the swing-axle Corvairs (1960-1963) and Pontiac Lemons – I mean LeMons, from 1961-1963; the slim jim, turboglide or THM200 automatic, the front disk brakes from the GM10 cars, the Cadillac 4100 V8, the build quality (oxymoron) of the Vega, the paint finish of the blue Suburbans of the 1980′s, the Saginaw rack & pinion power steering as sold to AMC for the Pacer, and the styling attributes of the Aztek….

    Mustn’t forget the piston-slap of the 1990′s GM (Chevy truck) V8′s, the rustproofing of 1958 GM products (non-existant), and the typical slipshod dealer network which generally ignored you once you’d bought the car and refused to properly perform warrantee work (even as late as 1999, when I LAST had the misfortune of having a GM product).

    Can anyone guess that I massively resent the spending of MY taxpayer monies on bailing out this failure?

  • avatar
    JSF22

    My father owned a twin to the Cutlass Cruiser in the picture. I will grant you the size was perfect and I will even agree the styling was less than handsome but better than inoffensive. Everything else about it (performance, reliability, durability) was shit and he never bought another GM car.

  • avatar

    My mom had one of these in two door trim, Landau roof, and crushed velvet seats. The wheel covers were “wire wheels”. We called it the “Supremely Gutless”, not Cutlass Supreme. The 3.8 six was the single worst engine I’ve ever suffered through. Luckily it was a company car and “went away”. Oh, and it broke down a lot. Handling was a non issue…there wasn’t much.

    This is the car that turned my entire family into “import buyers”.

  • avatar
    RandomDudeUSA

    As a Bio major I can see a superficial correlation between Darwin’s theory and the G-body cars. Spending many summers on vacation in the back of the lightblue/peeled fake woodgrain 78 Buick Century wagon, I can attest to the pros and cons of these cars. As a kid the fact the rear windows would not go down was a big minus, lucky you could still get R-12 for $3 a can at the K-mart in the mid 80′s….that helped until the A/C compressor would inevitably seize up and you would have to pry off the fan belt if it was not already shredded.

    Anyway the 305 v-8 seemed to be a pretty solid engine in this car as I know my old man would wind it out and push the needle around 85 back to 0 or 10 mph….

    Did seem to stall out every now and then, but with the 2bbl carb and a couple miles of vacuum tubing rotting away under the hood who knows what the culprit was.

    Overall a pretty good car and contrary to many of the postings here, Illinois salt didn’t kill the car. There was some spots low on the body when we got rid of it in 89, but not really a rust bucket.

    However the 85 Ciera wagon that replaced it was missing half the rear doors when it was junked at about 10 yrs of not so reliable service.

    Which brings me to the A-body. These cars were a mixed bag as well. Still see quite a few on the road and since there was no real fundamental redesign in the size/shape of these for 14 years they seemed to have ironed out some of the issues over the decade and a half. Seriously this is the ford ranger of the car world.

    I think engine choice had a lot to do with how well these cars held up. Many who didn’t do the research wound up with the Buick 3.0 2bbl V-6 which I think they had thru the mid 80′s. What a junk engine that was, those with the fuel injected versions faired better with the 3.8 and later 3.3 and then 3.1.

    Anyway fast forward to present time and it would be nice to have some sort of wagon in the G-body size right now. GM would be well served to get something between a Traverse/Acadia and Equinox/Terrain that seats 6-7 comfortably. When we went looking for a new family “Wagon” we liked the Acadia, but it was a bit too big…think Buick Estate Wagon when we wanted a size smaller. The Equinox is a nice size, but not much of a cargo area and no 3rd seat. Anyway came away with a Cx-9 and still a little big, but a nice amount of cargo area and not as cumbersome as the large GM CUVs

    Maybe now that GM is run by the government one of those dope smokin’ darwin fish on the back of their Prius government appointees will design an eco friendly runs on rainwater evolutionary developed transporter that will be perfect for everyone….or so they will tell us.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    We are discussing a family vehicle, designed for men and women with children. The fact that it can also be used to carry non-family items doesn’t offset the fact that the vast majority of buyers understand the consequences of having genitalia, and enjoy those consequences enough to have more than one. The vast majority of buyers of this vehicle took into consideration their wisdom and experiences as parents and used that in determining this vehicle’s suitability to those needs.

    Obviously, you wouldn’t understand, anymore than you would understand how to live in an igloo north of the Artic Circle.

    If we were discussing a vehicle designed to accommodate a sterile pessimist who looks down on those with parental responsibilities, then you would definately have some credibility to spout off.

  • avatar
    Headroom Tommy

    What a great article.

    My dad had a 80 Cutlass Cruiser for a nuber of years. Bought it with 70K, the diesel went to 180k, the ’73 350R he replaced it with went to 225 before he sold it. Yes, with the 350R it was a fun car :)

    A handsome car in its’ own right, black paint, tan ‘premium’ vinyl. It was comfortable and reliable, but of course we’re talking about a guy who magically managed to get 185k out of a ’73 Plymouth Satellite wagon with a 318 without much work. Mechanical work anyway.

    Thanks for the memory. I’d drive one in a heartbeat.

    Tommy


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