By on July 14, 2011


When GM finally decided to muster its vast resources and engineering talent and build a front-wheel-drive compact car… well, things didn’t go so well. The sclerotic GM bureaucracy described a few years earlier by John DeLorean in On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors produced a car that looked like a fat Chevette, got its power— if that’s the word for it— from the rough-as-a-crab’s-backside Iron Duke pushrod four, and suffered from very public reliability problems from day one. GM sold quite a few Citations, but the “First Chevy of the 80s” is a rare find indeed today. Here’s one that I spotted in a Denver yard a few days ago.


Can you feel the optimism?

Bob Lutz, in his recent book, goes on a lengthy tirade about GM’s frantic rush into front-wheel-drive during the Malaise Era, making the case that a bunch of tree-huggers put a gun to The General’s head and forced him to build half-baked front-wheel-drive designs. Maybe so, but was the Iron Duke (and the later 60-degree pushrod V6 family) the best that the company that (barely 20 years before) R&D’d their way to the groundbreaking small-block Chevy V8 could do?

The Citation did fit as many passengers as the old Nova and got much better fuel economy, and it wasn’t unpleasant to drive (when it was running). It would probably be remembered fondly today, if not for the terrible reliability and build-quality record.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

69 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1981 Chevrolet Citation...”


  • avatar
    NN

    what a commercial…you’d think Joe Isuzu would be the only one to do such a ridiculous stunt such as that boat-pulling charade.

    The early, formative years of my childhood were spent in the back seat of one of these Citations. Ours had blue vinyl seats. This was back when short shorts were the norm. One of my earliest memories is the hot mid summer days riding in the back seat of that car, searing my lily white skin on the vinyl seats and stainless steel belt buckles that had been cooking in the sun. The short 5 minute ride to the neighborhood pool in July was a character-building experience.

    My Dad replaced this car with a Honda Accord.

  • avatar
    tced2

    And this fiasco had a redux – the J-car. I never owned a Citation but I had an early Cavalier. I traded it within a year due to very bad engine issues (the 1.8L OHV unit). GM 4-cylinder engines were junk for years. They didn’t work well. And to add insult to injury, they weren’t reliable. I can just see the executives in the board suite smoking their cigars – “put out some cheap little cars so that we can sell them some real (bigger) cars later”. Well it backfired, their small cars were so bad, I left them pretty much for years. Only today (5 cars or 20 years later) will I even consider them.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      “Well it backfired, their small cars were so bad, I left them pretty much for years. Only today (5 cars or 20 years later) will I even consider them.”

      That, my friend, is why I became an AMC/Chrysler/Ford fan and divorced GM for over 25 years! Now we’re re-married since 2004!

  • avatar
    Jimal

    Cue sycophantic comments about Citations…

    I vaguely remember this ad (I would have been nine years old at the time).

    My grandfather had two Citations; an ’81 and an ’85, both with the 2.8 V6. The older one eventually spun a rod bearing while in the care of one of my aunts (160k miles, I tried working on it in our High School Power Mechanics class but decided it wasn’t worth it) while the newer one had an engine replaced after my grandfather ran over (ironically enough) an old engine that fell off a truck in front of him on a highway during one of his many cross-country trips. Both cars survived multiple trips cross country to visit family (it seemed that my grandparents were always on the road while they still could.)

    Citations were definitely not enthusiast vehicles and they did have their issues, but not every single car was a dud.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

  • avatar
    geeber

    The reliability and build-quality woes of these cars are well known. But I can’t criticize the styling. I’m not seeing an obese Chevette. The Citation was very clean and neat (particularly the front, which carried the Chevrolet styling cues quite nicely). The sedan is nice looking for a four-door hatchback, and the two-door club sedan was quite sharp with the appropriate wheels.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      I’m not seeing a fat Chevette either, but a scaled up version. The Chevette had exceptional room for its size, and the Citation had excellent space utilization. It might be that the best way to design an efficient compact or midsize car is to start with a well thought out subcompact and scale it up.

      As for the mechanicals, GM had years of FWD transaxle experience with the Toronado and Eldorado, and a pushrod iron block engine should be fairly reliable. GM apparently skipped the lesson learned by Chrysler with the slant-6 and A727 auto: keep it simple and make the critical bits robust.

      • 0 avatar
        Jimal

        Apart from the rear quarter windows, you’ll find more Malibu than Chevette in the styling of the Citation. In fact, across the board the X-cars took their styling cues from each divisions A-body cars (Malibu, Cutlass, Regal, Le Mans).

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      My little brother definitely saw it. In the late nineties, my father brought home a 2.8L ’84 Citation in very good condition that he had acquired cheaply. My brother immediately exclaimed that it looked like a “big, fat Chevette”. My father found this amusing, so he named it “Fat Boy”. I can still remember the transparent blue keychain inscribed in Sharpie marker with the nickname. It became my brother’s primary conveyance and hot box headquarters, as I had already claimed the much nicer, Iron Duke-equipped ’87 Grand Am from my father’s discount rotating car collection. The Citation had a fairly strong engine and was reliable other than some hard starting issues, but it stalled on an uphill bridge one day and was totaled a few minutes later when some kids in a small car somehow didn’t notice the flashing lights of Fat Boy’s big sedentary ass coming up in front of them at the end of a long straight bridge. The brother was uninjured and the car was written off, awarding my father another few hundred bucks in beater car profit.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I’m curious to know how the car would have sold if it had been a paragon of reliability. CITATION has to be one of the worst car names ever.

    Hey man I heard you got a new car, what’s it called?

    I got a Citation.

    A ticket with your new car already? That’s too bad man, but what’s the name of the car?

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      cue rim shot

      • 0 avatar
        golden2husky

        There was an ad built around the cop and Citation thing. A trooper pulled over a car and he says to the driver that he’s going to give him a citation. The driver is in a Ford Fairmont, and he tells the cop about all the advantages over the Citation. The ad ended with the guy saying to the cop “next time you see a Citation, pull it over and give them a Fairmont”…

        Too bad the Citation was the hands down better car, had it been tested properly and assembled correctly. One can only wonder what GM would be like today had they embraced the Toyota way instead of fighting it…

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      The name didn’t hurt sales much. GM sold 811,540 1980 Citations. Each one of them probably cost GM 3 future sales. Chevy sold over 413,379 the following year. Word was getting out and sales were down to 165,557 in 1982, followed by 92,184 in 1983. Sales rebounded all the way to 97,205 with the introduction of the Citation II in 1984, but were all the way down to 62,722 for 1985, then it was over. 811,540 1980 Citations is an illustration of just how much market power GM had in 1980. They used most of it up by giving their faithful customers X cars and J cars. This was on top of the frangible Vega, the disintegrating Monza, the Oldsmobile Diesel, and the V8-6-4 Cadillac(here comes the HT4100!). Scrap a lemon, we’ll make more!

  • avatar
    jmo

    Citation is a great name – it always makes me think of huge engines:

    http://www.cessna.com/MungoBlobs/867/809/cit_x_EXT06_1280x1024,0.jpg

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    When I was in high school, these were quite popular in my neck o’ the woods (I date myself, yes, but that just means I speak from experience). My life was filled with X-bodies: good friend had the X-11, girlfriend had the Pontiac Phoenix, and my boss, the plain old Chevy Citation.

    And here’s the thing…we thought they were just fine. Good even.

    In retrospect, the car doesn’t stack up with anything on the road today, and in some cases, to many upstart Japanese cars of the day. But at the time, they delivered what we expected them to. Four people fit comfortably, the rear was big enough for plenty of stuff, the mileage was decent, front-wheel drive was still somewhat of a novelty and amazed us with its snow traction, and reliability and build quality was no worse the Dodge Aspen or the Ford Grenada.

    Sure, it’s fun to pick on Xs now. But let’s comment with a sense of historical context.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      No offense, but they really didn’t deliver what people expected. That’s why sales were in free fall as people got to know the cars. Citationa sales fell by almost 50% in the second model year, over 60% the year after that, followed by another huge drop. Citation went from 811,540 sales in 1980 to 62,722 sales in 1985 because it delivered much less than most buyers expected. The arrivals of the Celebrity and the Cavalier were factors, but the X-cars went from runaway sensations to the butts of jokes in a year.

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      When these cars debuted (in April 1979), the old Granada had been effectively replaced by the Ford Fairmont, which was head-and-shoulders above any X-car in reliability and build quality. The old Granada lingered on for another year, until it was replaced by the Fairmont-based Granada for 1981. Most people at that time would have compared the X-car to the Fairmont or Mercury Zephyr.

      The X-cars were heralded as the wave of the future, with their front-wheel-drive layout and compact dimensions. The Fairmont seemed outdated with its rear-wheel-drive layout. Front wheel drive was the new big thing…all of those ads for various Hondas and the VW Rabbit told us so. Purchasers of the X-cars, however, would have been better off with a Fairmont.

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @geeber: I wouldn’t exactly hold up the Fairmont/Zephyr twins as paragons of virtue for FoMoCo. Maybe against the disaster that were the FWD X cars, but speak to anyone who owned the 4 cylinder versions, they were awful (ask me how I know). Slow, hard on fuel and with all of the drivability issues you would have expected from any of the domestic makers of the 70′s. Those smog controls were the worst on small motors. And the later turbo models really didn’t fix any of the issues, either. And I am a Fox body fan…

        Like the Falcons of a generation before, the major thing that the Fairmont/Zephyr twins had going for them was simplicity. Outside of the OHC Pinto engine and (maybe) the MacPherson struts, there was little new ground broken.

        Credit where credit is due, the VW A1 Rabbit (Golf) is what pushed the big three and others to adopt FWD and small motors in a big way. Too bad GM didn’t just outright copy them instead of reinventing the wheel.

      • 0 avatar
        geeber

        geozinger,

        Didn’t most Fairmonts have the straight six, which was pretty robust and offered acceptable performance for the time? The 302 V-8 was reasonably quick for the time, although it was pretty rare in these cars. Buyers didn’t have to take the four-cylinder engine.

        And while the Fox-bodied cars didn’t break new ground for the industry as a whole, I do recall them as being pretty well-executed for the time. I’d rather have a good execution of a familiar package than a terrible execution of new technology (new technology for Detroit, at least).

        As I remember the late 1970s and early 1980s, virtually EVERYTHING was a dog in performance, and complications from emissions-control equipment weren’t limited to Fords.

        My parents had a 1976 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale Holiday sedan with the Olds 350 V-8, followed by a 1982 Delta 88 Royale sedan with the 307 V-8. Both of them could barely get out of their own way. The 1976 Olds would often stall at intersections in cold weather. They were at least reliable.

      • 0 avatar
        VanillaDude

        Kudos to Ford on the Fairmont.
        It did not have to make them. The Granada was a luxury Maverick and pulling in pure profits during this time. Issuing a new compact car when it was already earning compact car profits with the Granada was an odd move. Why?

        Because it wasn’t about the Fairmont – it was about the new Fox bodies. Although Ford was still making money from it’s old cars, they saw that they needed a new modern design in that market which could be adaptable in other markets as well.

        With the Fox bodies, Ford was able to dump the old Thunderbird/Mark IV, the old Mustang II, stop importing the old Capri II, dump the old LTD II/Torino, dump the old Cougar XR7 and replace all of them with new cars using the same Fox platform.

        Since the Fairmont was the quickest easiest way to introduce the new Fox platform – the Fairmont and the Zephyr were the first out the door. These cars were like Falcons, but were reversed Falcons in that the Falcon was five year old Ford, and the Fairmont was the basis of Fords five years into the future – and longer. Both the Fairmont and the Falcon were stripped to it’s basics, but got their by different routes.

        Ford already had their FWD Escort in the works when the Fairmont was introduced, and Ford had a bigger need to update and replace all their old RWD. The Fox platform save Ford billions and essentially became their K-car during the 1980s.

        Before I had my Citation experience, I drove a Fairmont for a year over the same territory. The Fairmont was better than the Citation in every way and I missed it all the time, especially when I was stuck in the Rockies in the wilderness waiting for help with that damn X-car!

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @geeber: 2.3L Lima motor was standard on almost everything. I remember when they came out with the new body Granada station wagon, thinking what kind of load can I put in a wagon with a 4 banger in it?

        3.3L six was an option. The V8′s were rarer than hen’s teeth. I’m not 100% sure if the Fairmont Futura & Zephyr Z-7 was six cylinder at the start of production, but I believe it eventually had a 2.3L on the list somewhere. Back at that time, all of the domestics were scrambling to meet CAFE for the first time.

        Like I’d mentioned earlier, everyone had trouble with the emissions controls. Probably the best running 2.3L in our family’s “fleet” was in my mother’s 1981 Mustang Ghia, but it was still getting gas mileage in the mid teens in town. And that car was a flyweight, comparatively.

        She would have been better served to hang on to her 351 Windsor-powered 1974 Mercury Montego. It sucked fuel, but at least it could (mostly) get out of it’s own way.

        I like reminiscing about the cars of that era, I just don’t want to drive them.

      • 0 avatar
        geeber

        geozinger,

        Does anyone have a breakdown of exactly what percentage of Fairmonts were eqiupped with the four cylinder versus the six and the V-8? Given the attitudes of people at the time – there was still some mistrust of four cylinders among buyers of domestic compacts – I would think that most people would have upgraded to the six.

        Also, by offering the four as standard equipment, Ford could sell a few to boost its CAFE ratings (and advertise high EPA mileage ratings), and make some extra money when buyers decided to upgrade to the six. In those days, the manufacturers made a lot of money from encouraring buyers to upgrade with various options. By today’s standards, virtually EVERYTHING was optional on domestic cars smaller than a full-size car.

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @geeber: I’m sure there’s some way to divine what engines sold in what bodies. Google is our friend. However, I don’t doubt for a minute that once people drove the 4 bangers and were offered the six as a low cost option, they would have gone for it.

        I also wouldn’t doubt that like today, the dealers kept sixes on the lot and explained that a four cylinder car was a “special order” and would take a minimum of six weeks to arrive. That’s exactly what happened with my brother’s Mercury Zephyr ES. And then after the wait, that car was a real POS.

        In my family (including cousins and others), we all drove (multiple versions) of the Fox bodies during the 70′s & 80′s and into the 90′s. We were some kind of Luddites, not trustin’ them furrin’ front wheel drive thingies…

        I had three Fox bodies over ten years, and I really liked them (why else would I buy three of them?), but the earlier versions had their faults. Many of the drivability issues were solved with EFI. Compared to the Citation and X-clones, they were better.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    This car and the early J-bodies are the seminal “cockroaches of the road (TM)”. As geeber and the OP mentions these were really pretty well designed cars but with tremendously bad execution. I never owned a Citation, but spent plenty of time in them as many friends and relatives had them back in the day. At the time they were something of a paragon of packaging efficiency, and got pretty decent mileage.

    Collectable Automobile has done an article on the genesis and life of the FWD X cars in the current newsstand edition. It’s a fairly kind piece, they really don’t get into detail about all of the problems with the car in any depth. It is worthwhile reading to understand the design and engineering issues the engineers had while working on the car.

    In my part of the midwest, if these cars lived to 5 years old, they all developed scabrous rust spots and ran poorly generally. They seemed like they should have belonged to a “Mad Max” movie set, and the (usually) low rent owners of these cars should have looked like extras on the movie set. In reality, they were just people, but the fastback shape of the cars reminded me of cockroaches…

    EDIT: I went back and saw the old commercial (finally, lousy ISDN service…), wow what a trip! I love the old disco-tinged music and the boat trailering demo. Don’t try this at home kids! But, at the time the concept of FWD was still rather new to most folks. Man, that jingle will be stuck in my mind all morning now…

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      @geozinger:

      Wait a minute…Citations were junk from the get-go. Only Cavaliers are/were the “Cockroaches of the Road”©!

      ©geozinger

      I still owe you a beer!

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @Zackman – Thanks for the beer, I’ll need it. I’m back to work after bad storms blew through the area and wiped out our power for three days!

        Truly, the J-bodies are the “cockroaches of the road (TM)”. But the idea really was spawned by seeing the multitude of rusty, dying Citations plying the roads in and around Akron/Canton/Cleveland/Youngstown Ohio, my stomping grounds at the time.

        I guess the upside to this was that the Citation line didn’t continue on and assume the mantle of cockroach in as many people’s minds as the later J-bodies did.

      • 0 avatar
        Zackman

        Glad you’re O.K. I hope your family and home is as well.

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @Zackman: We’re fine. I lost another 60 year old (red) oak tree, though. With these darn storms, I’m losing all of my shade trees!

  • avatar
    mikey

    I worked with a farmer, that commuted 30 miles from farm country everyday. He drove a Citation for years, he even named it “Cy”

    Being a resourcefull dude,he would buy junker Citations. {lots to choose from} Then he would park them behind the barn,and pick parts.

    I don’t think “Cy” ever saw a wash cloth. However the dude poured used motor oil from the tractor, and combine, into every nook, and crany. Old Cy, was dirty, and ugly, but no rust.

    I lost track of the guy,but I would see old Cy in the parking lot up until the mid nineties.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      Mikey; an old friend’s father had his own repair shop for many years in north St. Louis.

      Pretty much the same type guy, except his Chryslers (that’s all he ever drove) were always spotless. He did use copius amounts of kerosene (and cursing) to keep things clean though, including all the windows of his shop. At least his cars never rusted, much to my chagrin!

      Old Joe charged as much as dealers did, too, but it was good work.

  • avatar
    brettc

    Wow, GM is going to save me money! Next time I buy a set of tires, I’m only getting 3 and I’m going to permanently have a trailer attached to my car. That video clearly shows that I don’t need all 4 tires with a front drive car. Thanks GM!

    Neighbours of ours had an old Citation. I remember that it was maroon and beige two-tone. I don’t remember much else though, they didn’t have it long. In 1986 they replaced it with a brand new Mercury Sable wagon (quite a car for the time).

  • avatar
    newfdawg

    I recall an article I read about the “iron duke” in Car & Driver ( in 1977 I believe)when the engine was installed in the Pontiac Astre (Pontiac’s version of the Vega). It was based on the old 4 cyl engine that was originally used in the Chevy II in the 60′s and was essentially the old Chevy stovebolt six shorn of two cylinders. It was known as a device for converting gasoline and air into noise and vibration. In 1970 GM sold the engine and tooling to GM of Argentina and then repurchased it a few years later when the aluminum engine used in the Vega imploded. GM management handed it off to Pontiac to redesign where it magically became the “iron duke.” Why use this antique? Because the tooling was long amortized and it was cheap!

    • 0 avatar
      Omnifan

      The Iron Duke is often confused with Chevrolet’s Stovebolt-derived 153 from the 1960s Chevy II, but the engines are entirely different – the Iron Duke’s intake manifold is on the passenger side, as opposed to the driver side.

      • 0 avatar
        Russycle

        Even still, the Iron Duke was getting pretty long in the tooth by 1980 and was never much of a motor even on its best day. The fact that GM kept it around and used it in the car it hyped as revolutionary is pathetic. Even worse, they spent most of the 70s and tons of cash trying(and failing) to develop a Wankel engine for the Corvette, instead of coming up with a competitive 4-banger to fight the imports that were killing them in the low-end market.

        My dad had a Citation and I still think it was a great design as far as cramming useful space in a small, lightweight platform, but the engineering and quality control were horrendous.

  • avatar
    barkdog

    We owned a 1980 Citation which I inhereted when I was 16. Looking back, that car had some real personality, with the grey two tone paint and AM Radio going for it. The hatchback hydraulics went kaput so the trunk turned into a guillotine, the AM Radio was true hi-fi, and the red vinyl heated up to 200 degrees on a summer day.
    I was glad to have it as a teenager and thankful I didnt get the Chrysler LeBaron as a hand me down. After that my parents never bought domestic…go figure.

    Viva Citation. (We pronounced it Ki- ta – tee – on)

  • avatar

    I remember those very well, here due to our high temperature summers Citation and X11 were very prone to overheat issues, therefore head gaskets and bent heads.

    I wonder why weren’t they along with the Pacer and Gremlin
    as the very bad villain cars on the Cars 3 movie… lol

    Best regards from Mexico

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    I had the Buick version, overheating, misaligned body panels, CV joints quickly wore out, otherwise a fine car.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    I don’t recall thinking, at the time time they came out, that the Citations were all that bad, in appearance or packaging efficiency or performance (by the standards of the time). I don’t recall any four-cylinder engines of more than about 1.8 liters displacement that didn’t run pretty rough. Like almost all cars of the era, the emission controls were crude and poorly executed, resulting in rough running, hard starting and relatively low power.

    The one big problem with the Citation (my brother in law owned the “hot” X-11 version) was that there was either no front-rear brake proportioning valve, or the one that was in place didn’t work well. Given the tremendous front weight bias, the result was a car that would quite easily lock up its rear wheels under hard braking, putting the car in a terminal spin.

    That was pretty nasty.

  • avatar
    Forty2

    Oh god, thanks for dredging that POS out of the memory vault. Mom bought a 1980 X11, V6, auto, loaded. That thing spent more time on tow trucks and at the dealer than in the driveway. When everything worked it actually drove pretty nicely; the X11 handling upgrade made it pretty responsive and the 2.8 V6 was decent if thrashy. But SUCH a POS… She sold it and bought a Camry in 1985.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    When I got the keys, my new 1981 Citation had only seven miles on the odometer. My company bought a fleet of them. I got the fanciest one since I was on the road continually. Since I was gone from the office for ten months of the year, continually – I first thought I got a lemon. Only months later was I told that the entire fleet of Citations were lemons and that the company was returning all of them, including mine. I had the car one year.

    In that one year, the front door sprung so that the door no longer sealed, the engine broke all it’s mounts trying to climb hills, smashing the water cooler, all the dashboard knobs lost their identification stickers, the transmission blew a pin, all the chrome peeled off the grille and headlight bezels, the distributor cap cracked shutting down the engine whenever it got hot, the engine knocked and pinged like a popcorn popper when you accelerated up hills, and I ended up being towed somewhere in the Rockies once or twice a month to the nearest Chevy dealership, then bussed back to the office in Denver.

    The company worked out a deal upon returning the fleet and replacing them with brand new Cavaliers. The company decided to give me the top of the line car, which was the one Pontiac J2000 Sunbird. It was another very poorly made car, but better than the Citation. I think the J2000 Sunbird’s lighter weight over the weight of the Citation, helped keep the Pontiac on the road.

    By the end of that year, the Company decided to not longer buy an entire fleet of one model. This freed me up to try a Ford Escort. After the Citation and the Cavaliers and the J2000 Sunbird, the Escort was an absolute delight.

    On the plus side of my Citation experience was the fact that the car was roomy, got great gas mileage, was my first front driver which I discovered I liked, and had a humongous cup holder – my first! – that was indispensible living on the road. I thought the Citation was attractive in a geeky functional way, but the biggest piece of junk I ever had the curse to drive. Many of my cars were not perfect, and most I would never want to own again, compared to what I drive now, but these cars put me off on GM for twenty years.

    Many drivers today cannot imagine just how bad new cars were back in those days. We did not expect dependable cars. We expected problems. We never had dependable cars before, so the bar was set low for car manufacturers back then. When we say that the X cars from General Motors was bad, remember that this criticism is coming from people who did not expect their cars to start and drive every day. For us to say that the Chevy Citation and it’s siblings and cousins, the J cars, were the biggest pieces of junk we ever drove – this means that today’s drivers would have to come up with an entirely new vocabulary of hatred and disgust to explain their fury should another Citation – like vehicle be sold today. The worse cars sold today are light years better than the cars we drove back in the 1970s and 1980s.

  • avatar
    The CHZA

    This is the only place those horrible cars belong.

  • avatar
    mjz

    I was stupid enough to order a loaded X-11 when they first came out. Fortunately, there was a supplier issue and after a two month wait, I canceled the order. Unfortunately, I then went out and bought a Plymouth Turismo, another paragon of reliability from the Big Three! Unloaded that on the unsuspecting Toyota dealer (had to stop every couple of miles going to the dealer to put water in the radiator to keep it from overheating), and bought a bullet-proof Corolla.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      Unless you owned a Monza or a Vega, how stupid was it to order an X-11? The enthusiast rags were printing stories heralding it as one of the best cars of all time. It would have been a disasterous purchase, but you could only go with the advice available and your own experience. Car and Driver said the one mentionable problem with the car was the lack of reclining seats, only admitting to perilous torque steer and locking rear brakes after 7 year olds were talking about it.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    Someone should compile a book containing everything written in the automotive media about the X-cars from 1978 to 1981. They’d find that praise was heaped upon this program from day one. These cars rendered Rabbits and Accords obsolete. They had road manners that made BMW’s 320i a complete waste of money. They were state of the art, and they moved the bar of what constituted a good small sedan out of reach of the quaint competition. The X-car was greeted with much more fanfare than any of the current generation of ‘turn-around cars’ from Detroit. It wasn’t until many years later that various ‘journalists’ involved in selling millions of X-cars ‘revealed’ that they’d been duped by specially prepared press cars that were better than those delivered to customers. It doesn’t fly when you consider that they were still holding the X-car up as a triumph for GM until newspapers were full of recall stories.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      That was Car and Driver, IIRC. They were snowed by GM big time. They wrote a story about it and GM said the big difference between the test cars and the cars for public consumption was shaved tires…

  • avatar
    George B

    I remember riding is a Citation X-11 going triple digit speeds down I-35 in Oklahoma. For it’s time the X-11 with the V6, 4 speed manual, and suspension upgrades was ok. I don’t remember it being ugly, but the X-11 seemed to be trying too hard to look like a performance car.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chevrolet_Citation#X-11

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    You said that the motoring press lied to us. We knew they were lying. But we all wanted to believe. We wanted to believe that a company as big and American as GM could beat Toyota, Nissan and Honda. We were tired of the Malaise Era already by this time. We all stood up and started rooting for our home team for worldwide success! We were tired of being cynical. Those journalists weren’t much different from the rest of us. We all wanted to believe in ourselves again!

    So the Citation fiasco was like the Challenger Explosion to a lot of us. It showed that the big US companies can totally blow it as bad as the Carter Administration could blow it – even when we were all cheering them on. The Citation reminded us once again that the people in charge didn’t know what the hell they were doing, even in the private sector.

    The Edsel failed during the Recession of 1957-58. So to a lot of people, the Edsel reminds them of losing their jobs and being shaken up by the first really big economic implosion after WWII.

    To us, who survived the Malaise Era, the Citation and GM’s X cars reminds us in a similar way. They remind us of a whole lot more than unreliable transportation.

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      The buff books weren’t lying. It is my understanding that they received carefully prepared pre-production cars that masked some of the flaws (particularly the problem with brake proportioning) inherent in regular production models. Their chief crime was being naive.

      It is true that we did want to believe, but it’s important to remember that GM had scored home runs in the late 1970s with the downsized 1977 full-size cars and the all-new 1979 E-bodies (Eldorado, Riviera and Toronado). Our faith in GM hadn’t been completely shattered in the spring of 1979, although the X-cars would ultimately play a large role in achieving that dubious goal.

      Plus, unlike today, there were wild swings in build quality even with seemingly identical cars, and this was exacerbated by the large number of body styles, trim levels and engine options. I remember Car and Driver commenting on the differences among the X-cars it had tested in regard to overall solidity and build quality – a level of variation that doesn’t exist today even among GM cars.

      We’ve been spoiled by the dramatically improved quality control practices, production techniques and engineering practices that the Japanese forced on an ungrateful domestic industry. In the bad old days, one car on the lot could be a peach, while the seemingly identical one next to it could be a complete lemon.

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        As I alluded to in my earlier post, the real benchmark for these cars was the VW Rabbit from 1974. FWD cars came before and after, but these set the standard for packaging and fuel economy that two of the Big Three copied, one slavishly, the other reinventing the wheel in the process. I guess the FWD Escort was another reinvention of the wheel, too…

        The Accord and the (not clown car sized) Civic came out after the Rabbit, and the Rabbit was used as the template for the upcoming FWD revolution that was going to smack us in the heads in the mid malaise period. The Datsuns and Toyotas of the times were RWD rust boxes with the sophistication of the pickup trucks whose parts bins they scavenged. (sarcasm off)

        I too, would agree to the fact that it was total crapshoot as to who got a “good” car. And that over thirty years of competition and increasing advances in materials and quality control practices have spoiled us greatly. I can remember my father buying a car in the mid seventies and commenting after six months of ownership that he didn’t have to take it back to have the dash bolts re-tightened…

      • 0 avatar
        VanillaDude

        Front Drivers –

        Mini was 1959.
        Honda Civic was 1973.
        Volkswagon Golf/Rabbit and Dasher were 1974.
        Accord was 1976.
        Chrysler Ommi/Horizon was 1978.
        Toyota Tercel was 1978.
        GM X-Cars were 1980.
        The Escort was 1980.

        So, the Golf/Rabbit wasn’t as Earth shattering as you remember it.

        What made the Rabbit Earth shattering was the fact that the beloved car company adored by millions finally had a Beetle replacement. VW had more credibility at that time then their cars deserved. VW built crap between 1970 and 1974, but Americans gave the company a break by the time they were ready for a new car. American Beetle owners believed in VW more than they did with Honda at that time, even though the Civic was a better car than the Golf in many ways.

        • 0 avatar
          AKADriver

          Subaru had ‘modern’ FWD cars starting in the late ’60s, as well. And sold in equally insignificant numbers in the US, the Omni/Horizon was preceded by a Chrysler Europe (Simca) product that was FWD, developed around the same time. But just try to find an example of either one.

          The Simca 1100 actually had a lot of influence on the design of the Golf, while the Subaru Star was the progenitor of basically every Subaru since (watercooled longitudinal boxer four in a boxy little sedan). Influence far beyond their individual sales.

          Also the Saab 99 came out in ’68 and pretty much established the modern image of the brand, and sold pretty well (better than the old two-stroke stuff, which was also FWD going back to the original Saab 92 in 1949).

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @VanillaDude: Re-read my earlier post.

        It may be that the US gave VW a pass on less than stellar equipment at that time (and even lately, too), but that car had the consumer’s acceptance and set the new standard for small cars. The Mini (not MINI) along with the original Honda 600 (I confused the 600 with the Civic), were too small for most Americans. The other, later cars were in development during the time the Rabbit was making waves in the US market.

        The Accord was a bigger, nicer Civic but not the standard setter the Rabbit had been. Everything else came later. Whether or not they copied the Rabbit, the die had been cast. Maybe on the West Coast the Honda had a bigger impact, but I believe the Rabbit was much more popular in the Midwest and the East Coast.

        None of the malaise-era cars were really much to crow about. Remember the vacuum hose diagram of the CVCC motor that was featured on here about a week ago? Those were fun to read. Even more fun to get the car to run right again.

      • 0 avatar
        mcs

        Plus, unlike today, there were wild swings in build quality even with seemingly identical cars,

        I remember with the X-Cars that there were variances in the line speed at the assembly plants. At one particular plant I think we started out at 60 cars per hour and they would then push up to over 80. Then maybe drop back – I can’t remember exactly. I think the goal was to run at well over 80. Production meant everything back then. I’m guessing the better cars were built at one of the lower line rates.

        There was a fair amount of automation, but there was room for human error and I know first hand that the robots screwed up as well. The plant I remember best is Oklahoma City Plant and can remember details about a fair amount of the line.

        My favorite part of the process was in the body shop when the left and right sides of the vehicle were joined together with the center section. Flashing yellow warning lights would go off on the aisles to the left and right of the line where the main body was located. The left and right assemblies would then sweep across the aisles from their lines simultaneously and then where welded to the main body by workers. You didn’t want to be on that aisle when those fixtures swept across.

      • 0 avatar
        VanillaDude

        No – In 1973 the Honda Civic was the same Civic they made from that year until the early 1980s. Not the old 600. Not the teeny tiny Honda with that sealed back window and tiny tires – 1973 was the first year for the four person Honda Civic that propelled Honda to great sales successes.

        It beats the Rabbit by a year.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    Oddly, that junked Citation doesn’t look as though it had spent years behind the barn before it went to the junkyard.

    I still had and liked my 1975 Monza V8 4-speed fastback when I took a test drive in a new 1980 Citation. I don’t remember what engine and tranny the car had, but I do remember walking away from the car shaking my head in wonderment at its general crappiness, and feeling just fine about leaving the car lot in my Monza.

  • avatar
    Jim Fekete

    Don’t know if anyone else noticed, but the spokesman in that Citation ad is John McElroy of Autoline Detroit.

    I bought a new Citation in April 1979. Big mistake.

  • avatar
    AKADriver

    What’s most amazing about the Citation, given its crappiness, is that this car was the proverbial Adam to generations of GM cars, some of which are still in production (the Impala and LaCrosse). Looking at that engine bay shot, just the shape of the strut towers and the design of the front upper engine mount say “GM!” as loudly as anything else on the car. Check out a 2011 Impala – still there, along with the diagonal strut-tower-to-front-upper-support braces which were added first for the Citation X-11. It wasn’t until GM started naming platforms with Greek letters that they actually started building new non-X-car-based front wheel drive platforms in the US (though even Epsilon can ultimately trace its roots to the J-car, which Opel brought in as the Ascona, then replaced with the Vectra).

    It’s not as direct as some of the more famous lineages (like the K-cars, or the Fox Body, which both arrived in Detroit around the same time), but it’s there.

    • 0 avatar
      VanillaDude

      You are right. That is one of the reasons I did not shop GM for a generation. Knowing that there was X blood still flowing through the veins of most GM front drivers kept those cars off my shopping list.

      • 0 avatar
        Zackman

        I’ve said it over and over again, but I need to repeat this: I’m sooo happy I had my mom buy a 1979 AMC Concord after seeing these – er – “things”.

  • avatar
    msquare

    The Citation and its X-body siblings were acceptable designs let down by the same GM Assembly Division that ruined many other cars. The J-cars had much better build quality but initially suffered from underpowered engines and too much weight for their size class.

    And were they any worse than anything else coming out of Detroit at the time? Probably not. But Honda and Toyota did beat them on quality, which of course led to their growth over time, rust problems notwithstanding. Hondas, at least, were well-built cars with cutting-edge engineering. Toyotas and Nissans were just well-built. And don’t forget those early Rabbits and Sciroccos had horrible quality problems, many of which continued to plague VW for years to come.

    Quality is what did Detroit in, not design.

  • avatar
    newfdawg

    A big part of my decision to buy a 1980 Skylark was the tremendously enthusiastic reception given the vehicles by the automotive publications. They were all over themselves about this vehicle; after a couple of GM lemons I thought (naively as it turned out) that GM had finally got their act together with small cars. In retrospect, what a mistake. When I test drove it, the torque steer was so bad I thought the wheels needed alignment. Applying light pressure to the brakes, I could feel the rear brakes engaging before the front brakes. And the recalls started almost immediately. The vehicle was relatively trouble free until the warranty expired, then the problems began.
    Obviously through the entire development and design process the bean counters were trying to get every nickle out of costs they could. But then GM has throughout its entire history regarded small cars as toys to keep the native happy while management pursued its grandiose plans of putting a Cadillac or similar vehicle in every garage in the US.

  • avatar
    y2kdcar

    The first new car I ever bought was a 1981 Citation with the Iron Duke 4-cylinder and an automatic transmission. It wasn’t terribly quick, but it got great gas mileage for the era and, surprisingly, was a very reliable and long-lived car. I ran it for 8 years and 145,000 miles in the Rust Belt. When I sold it, the car had never required major engine or transmission work and still had its original starter, alternator and battery. The lady who bought it from me put new tires, brakes and exhaust on it and ran it past 280,000 miles in the next few years. She then handed it off to the guy she was dating, who took it past 300,000 miles before scrapping it. Not bad for a car that’s frequently criticized, at TTAC and at other Web sites, for its poor reliability and short service life.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Whoa, that is one seriously over engineered stove pipe! You could club a baby seal with that thing, unlike the hopelessly flimsy aluminum heat shields and accordion-fold heat pipes which dominated that era, and would crumple if you gave them a nasty look.

    Augh, I just watched that old commercial. Time for some period-correct Vollenweider to flush that jingle from my musical memory.

  • avatar
    KitaIkki

    It’s got excellent visibility all around, with reasonably thin A-pillars, and black painted border on the rear window only (the chrome-molding-less window mounting was a GM innovation introduced on the 1979 Eldo/Toro/Riv) …

  • avatar
    supremebrougham

    I remember some older cousins of mine coming up to Michigan from Tennessee to take delivery of their new 1980 Citation directly from the factory at Willow Run (we lived just a few miles from the plant). They packed my family and themselves into it (it was a two door hatch) and we took off to Tennessee in it. Even as a four year old, I couldn’t figure out why they ordered it without AC. We didn’t have any problems on that trip, and they kept the car until 1986 when they traded it for the new N-body Skylark.

    My parents bought a brand new 1985 Skylark sedan in fall of 1984. It was their first new car. At 14k the head gasket blew, and the car never ran right again. That car stayed in our family for far longer than I thought it would. It went with us when we moved to Florida, and eventually became my first car. Despite it’s um, issues, I loved that car. It was roomy, reasonably comfortable, and it had a lot of memories in it. I shed a tear when my dad made me sell it in 1993.

    You know, despite the engine being crap (the 2.5) the body integrity on that thing was impressive! The doors always closed with a solid ka-thunk. Plus, it survived being smacked in the rear twice and never got a scratch on it.

    In 1998 I found it in a junk yard, the owners after did NOT take care of it (I babied the car). And despite all the abuse they gave it, the doors still had that solid ka-thunk to them. It brought a smile to my face…

  • avatar
    nova73

    When Dad bought me my ’73 Nova in the summer of 1980, the salesman told us that it was owned by an old lady who traded it in on a Citation. I didn’t think about it too much at the time. But by mid-1981, when the Citation had acquired its reputation for abysmal quality, I felt really bad for her. I’m sure the Nova outlived the Citation, and brought much more happiness to its owners.

  • avatar
    smlfox

    Did anyone else notice the sign in the window that says “vehicle starts?”

    I see some irony in that. A Citation in the junkyard with a sign stating that it starts, when 30 years ago they would barely start in the driveway.

  • avatar
    TSlothrop

    For it’s time, the Citation was a great design. It was miles ahead of anything the rest of Detroit was building. My first car was an ’81 X-11. It performed very well and provided a lot of great memories – including one in which I’m watching the alternator belt in the rear view mirror tumbling down the highway in flames.

    As a first effort they were good, and revolutionary for GM. Development started in 1974, so they weren’t rushed to market. GM just really didn’t have any concept of quality at the time. No American manufacturer did. They spent the 70s fighting with the government over emissions, fuel economy and safety while Honda, Toyota and Nissan were busy engineering good solutions. The X-cars were the sole exception, and their execution was absolutely pathetic.

  • avatar
    grandprix

    Had a 6 cyl Fairmont wagon that looked sharp but ran rough because of
    carburetor problems. On the other hand, I had a ’88 Celebrity with the 4 cyl Iron Duke that ran flawlessly and had adequate power. But it was fuel injected.


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting

Recent Comments

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Authors

  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Faisal Ali Khan, India