By on May 27, 2016

1981 Chevrolet Citation in Colorado Junkyard, LH front view - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

The Chevrolet Citation is so frustrating mostly because it was such a great opportunity for General Motors to own the 1980s; if it had worked as well in reality as it did on paper, it would have obliterated the competition. A roomy, modern, front-wheel-drive car with fuel economy far superior to the primitive late-70s Chevy Nova it replaced, and it was pretty good-looking in a genuinely American way …

… but it ended up being as much a humiliating disaster for GM as Operation Eagle Claw was for the Jimmy Carter presidency.

Citations aren’t easy to find now, but strangely well-preserved examples keep showing up in the self-service wrecking yards I frequent. Here’s a very clean ’81 I found in Denver a couple of weeks ago.

1981 Chevrolet Citation in Colorado Junkyard, fender emblem - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

So far in this series, we’ve seen plenty X-bodies, because I can’t refrain from photographing them when I find them. We have this ’80 Skylark, this ’81 Citation, this ’81 Citation, this frighteningly rusty ’81 Citation, this ’82 Citation, this ’82 Citation, this ’83 Citation, this ’84 Citation, this ’84 Omega, and this ’85 Skylark.

1981 Chevrolet Citation in Colorado Junkyard, radio - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

This one was loaded up with most of the luxury options, including V6 engine, full gauges, two-tone paint, air conditioning, and AM-FM Delco radio. That radio was a $100 option, or about $283 in inflation-adjusted 2016 dollars. Compared to the dark ages of the early 1980s, factory car audio today is a steal.

1981 Chevrolet Citation in Colorado Junkyard, front seats - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

There’s no way to tell the true mileage of a Detroit car of this era, due to the 5-digit odometers used then, but this Citation sure looks like a low-mile car that got babied by conscientious owners.

1981 Chevrolet Citation in Colorado Junkyard, idiot lights - ©2016 Murilee Martin - The Truth About Cars

Yes, you could still get a car with a CHOKE warning light as late as 1981.


Perfect Couple and their Perfect Dogs dug the Citation.

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51 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1981 Chevrolet Citation Hatchback...”


  • avatar
    tomLU86

    These were great cars! The worlds first transverse FWD V6! …peppy, good looking.

    I think the problem was the owners…lol!

    We would have been among them, but my father was not going to pay full window sticker in 1980, and he got a new Fairmont instead. It turned out to be a good car. In 1980, the idea that a Ford would be less troublesome than a GM car seem far-fetched….by 1985, the reverse was true.

  • avatar
    CaptainObvious

    A friend’s parents had one of these – bought new. For the time it was fast, especially for teenage boys hooning around.

    • 0 avatar
      Johnster

      As I recall, the V-6 models had zero-to-sixty times of under 10 seconds, even with the automatic transaxle. Models with the base “Iron Duke” 4 had zero-to-sixty times of around 12 seconds with the automatic. And that was pretty good for the time.

      They were surprisingly roomy for their time.

  • avatar
    makuribu

    The water soluble cars of the 70s and 80s did not last long in places where road salt is used. GM’s quality was pretty awful, too. My brother’s x-body (olds, I think) of the time had a short in the overly complicated stalk switch for turning on the lights/turn signal/wiper whatever, leading to his steering wheel suddenly bursting into flames while he drove. I wonder if that would cause your Takata airbag to go all ninja assassin on you, these days…

  • avatar
    GTL

    Friend of mine bought one new. He explained how he was enamored of the new technology it represented and didn’t want to get saddled with a dinosaur.

    Although it drove good when new, it was a horrible, wretched car.

  • avatar
    energetik9

    I wasn’t even driving when these were out, but I always remember them being the butt of jokes.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    One of my earliest memories and my first memory where I knew what the car was was my mom’s green 4-door Citation.

    For as many of these sold, I don’t really remember seeing them on the road growing up. The other GM versions yes, but not too many Citations.

    • 0 avatar
      Drzhivago138

      For me, it’s the other way around. I’ve seen plenty of Citations (mostly 5-door hatchbacks like this), and some Skylarks (all sedans), but I’ve never seen a Pontiac Phoenix or Olds Omega in the metal.

      • 0 avatar

        Believe it or not a friend of mine picked up a Phoenix 5-door hatch (I think it was an 82) a couple years ago. It was an Oregon-original little old lady car which meant low miles and no exposure to road salt so no rust to speak of. It even had the original blue on marigold plates and served him well until it was lightly rear-ended. A newer car would have been repaired but that one is now, as Mr. Martin likes to say, so many Chinese washing machines. I’ve got a picture of it somewhere….

    • 0 avatar
      Carfan94

      I was born in 1994, and I don’t think I have ever seen a Citation on the road (at least since I’ve been paying attention to cars). The first the time I ever heard of the Citation was in a worlds worst cars book.

      • 0 avatar
        Drzhivago138

        I say “plenty” as a percentage of all the X-cars I’ve ever seen, which has been low. About 60% of them have been Citations, 40% Skylarks, no Omegas or Phoenixes.

    • 0 avatar
      mobes

      The first and only Citation I’ve ever seen on the road was a faded yellow-ish pile of shit that literally had patches of sheetmetal missing followed by rust. Oh yeah, it was also probably the loudest vehicle I’ve ever heard. I heard a noise way off in the distance that I thought was some kind of prop-plane, but it grew so loud that it literally shook the windows on my house. I’m pretty sure someone put open headers on it just for the hell of it. And it wobbled as it drove, I would imagine the suspension was on it’s last legs considering the reputation the Citation has for wet-noodle suspension. If there’s one thing about the car I’ll give it credit for, or really the engine, it’ that the little Duke under the hood was still happily (if lazily) plugging along. It was almost comical that with all the other problems the car had that the Duke didn’t even hiccup or leave smoke in it’s trail.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Great idea. Incompetent execution. GM fell prey to their own hubris believing that the faithful would buy what they offered because they were GM.

    They did not factor in that their faithful might leave the domestics entirely.

    A ‘full size’ 4 door hatchback is an idea that should be resurrected.

    As should this car. Almost pristine and with all the options, it should become a garage queen brought out in all its glory to show off to youngster who do not understand what we consumers lived with in the late 70’s to late 80’s.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      The Citation wasn’t full size. It was slightly smaller than a 2011 Toyota Corolla. It was about 178″ long, 68″ wide, had a 105″ wheelbase, and weighed 2600 lbs. with the V6 and automatic – all less than a Corolla except the wheelbase! Compared to a 1981 Corolla, it was “yuge”, though.

      • 0 avatar
        ToddAtlasF1

        1980 was an odd time to be categorizing cars by size in the US. The Citation replaced the Nova. The Nova was a compact when introduced, but it looked large compared to GM’s new midsized cars by 1979. The Citation was certainly smaller though, so I guess it was back to being a compact by contemporary standards. So many people were using subcompacts as family cars at the time that it seemed relatively large compared to a Rabbit, a Corolla or even an Accord.

        Advertising of the day emphasized interior room, and the new cars were generally claimed to be larger inside than the much more massive cars they were replacing. GM seemed particularly proud of how big, heavy and space inefficient cars like the Monza, colonnade, and Nova were, at least based on their advertising. Nobody at GM appeared to have asked what the customers were to make of their last cars seeming to have been intentional practical jokes.

        Does anyone know if any country other than the US has intentionally downsized its cars? Youngsters are wondering what I’m on about, when you can now play Jai alai in the back seat of a Camry, a car once classified as a compact. In actuality, US cars grew from the ’50s through the mid ’70s. It’s funny to think how short a period that really was, the time when American cars were a source of pride. Then, CAFE meant that cars had to be lighter at any cost, so they shrank. Full sized cars were replaced with models spun off of old mid-sized platforms, and in Chrysler’s case an old compact platform. Mid sized cars seemed redundant for a while, since the new full sized cars could barely do their jobs. Compacts became confused attempts at keeping familiar cues on cars that needed more utility than ornamentation. The result was lots of import conquest sales. As technology caught up with CAFE requirements, cars went back to growing and advancing. The question is did any other country intentionally hobble its domestic auto industry by mandating down-sized and inferior cars?

        • 0 avatar
          Kenmore

          Your windup is getting more elaborate but the pitch is still your same old “gummint ruint evathang” slobber ball.

          • 0 avatar
            Lorenzo

            Well, he’s basically right. It’s not government itself, but the people running it.

            The spoils system at least replaced old crooks with new crooks regularly, so nobody settled in.

            The civil service system installed career crooks who are less blatantly dishonest, but look for ways to justify their jobs so they don’t get axed when budgets get tight.

            The result is departments writing up new rules and then looking for real/imagined violators.

            If you’ve lived long enough, you’ll recall members of Congress, even liberal stalwarts like Senator Diane Feinstein, calling press conferences to announce that the law(s) they sponsored were not intended to be applied the way those civil service lifers were applying them.

            That’s the core of complaints about intrusive government, and they’re well-justified. Whole Federal departments are refusing to accept congressional oversight or supply information on their operations.

            Congress has had to resort to impeaching department heads like the director of the IRS. He didn’t even bother to show up for his own hearing!

          • 0 avatar
            Kenmore

            Lorenzo, are you referring to “intentionally hobble its domestic auto industry by mandating down-sized and inferior cars”?

            What benefit would there be for any government lifer to “intentionally hobble” a primary sector of the economy that feeds him/her?

            Defending and expanding their turf in all the usual ways regardless of real world collateral damage, sure, but it’s the targeted *evil conspiracy* nature of that claim that says flake to me.

    • 0 avatar
      Kenmore

      I can’t recall a similarly baffling example of a car turning up to an important market fight with all the seemingly needed advances, aimed at exactly the right demographic and so much in the nick of time as the Citation and its stablemates.

      Beginning in the era of the 5-door hatch, it should have given the Camry an Accord-Taurus type of rivalry for at least a decade. I well remember the huge enthusiasm and plethora of glowing reviews at its launch when even the most jaundiced of us Rustbelters still held out a last gasp of hope for American heavy industry and our jobs within.

      Then… *pud*

      In retrospect I view the ’80-’85 X-platform as a lesson in the primacy of a true kaizen manufacturing culture and that you can’t simply jump into battle with companies that have spent the previous 30 years inventing, perfecting and imprinting kaizen onto their very genomes, although Ford came close.

  • avatar
    Joss

    Or how two nuclear bombs taught the reality of America…

  • avatar
    agroal

    I have fond memories of the Citation. I was in one the very first time I ever made love. I was all alone at the time. Thanks. You’ve been a great crowd.

  • avatar
    energetik9

    “Yes, you could still get a car with a CHOKE warning light as late as 1981”

    How does a choke warning light work? I understand the concept of a choke, just not sure what purpose a choke light serves.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      I believe it cautioned the driver that the choke plate was still partially closed, meaning a) the engine was still not warmed up, and b) power would be limited by the restricted airflow through the carburetor.

      • 0 avatar
        Arthur Dailey

        My wife’s 1981 Honda Civic had an actual manual choke.

      • 0 avatar
        Silence

        I couldn’t tell you. My light never worked….even when the carburetor itself was nearly dead.

      • 0 avatar
        JimC2

        Yes, the choke warning light was just a reminder light. It worked the same way the parking brake reminder light works. If the choke handle is pulled out a little bit or a lot, a little switch makes the light go on. Just like if the parking brake handle is pulled out a little bit or a lot.

        It was an emissions thing too. If you drive around with the choke on then you’ll pollute more.

        I can’t remember if the light actually did anything in the Citation or if it was there just because the lights were a standard part.

  • avatar
    Silence

    I was second owner of one of these in high school. It was an ok car*. It had the 4cyl engine, so I couldn’t get into trouble with speed. It had acres of room in the back. It was fun to drive, only because I didn’t know any better.

    It was pretty well taken care of, yet *it turned into a real heap of malfunctions at 70k miles. It was junk yard material shortly thereafter.

    I got a 1982 Honda Civic to replace the Citation, and I thought I’d been transported to a different reality. It had 80k miles on it, and felt new-ish. I I drove it without a single problem until I sold it at 125k miles.

    Just a small list of things that were replaced at about 55k miles: transmission, brakes (calipers, rotors/drums), carburetor, catalytic convertor, heater core…these things cost almost as much as the car did.

    The Honda didn’t break a single time, and I sold it for what I paid for it.

    • 0 avatar
      Kenmore

      “I thought I’d been transported to a different reality.”

      Had the same experience, same year Honda. Not a lot of pivotal life experiences involve merely switching between brands of manufactured product but ’80s Japanese car conversion was as close as I’ve ever come to accepting religion.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    That car could be restored – it’s nearly pristine.

  • avatar
    NotFast

    It’s appropriate that it had a choke light because that’s pretty much what the X-body cars did…

  • avatar
    banjopanther

    Saw one of these last month on the highway in Oregon, surprised there are any still running.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    “This one was loaded up with most of the luxury options, including V6 engine, full gauges, two-tone paint, air conditioning, and AM-FM Delco radio.”

    And a split-back front bench seat! Oooooooooh, such luxury used to be found only in cars that cost thousands of dollars more, but Citation has it for you!

  • avatar
    countymountie

    Too bad it doesn’t have a red interior. I need a couple trim pieces along the headliner for my 1980 Phoenix. In 2004ish, I bought an 81 2.8 Citation from a buddy and gave it to my sister as her first car (she still kind of likes me). Drove it across the Oklahoma panhandle with the cruise activated by twisting two of the three bare wires together that were hanging from the end of the turn signal lever. Had to untie them to stop the car. In retrospect I was a fool to drive that car 700 miles through barren wasteland but it made it fine and held up for years. Was pretty reliable after swapping the E2SE carb for a non computerized 2SE from an 80 model. After finally dying, it served as dad’s tool shed for several more years.

  • avatar
    StevetheStater

    I bought a brand-new 1980 2-door green Citation with the v-6 and manual transmission. I thought it was one of the most comfortable cars I’ve ever owned. Howsomeever, yeah, it had problems. No matter which transmission you selected, it was trash. I lost the 2nd gear synchro after about 8 months of use. I remember seeing a phalanx of Citations on lifts at the dealership with their transmissions being pulled out. I’m thinking: “Uhht-ohh.” It got worse. The right rear brake would use more force than the other three brakes and would lock up prematurely in wet or slick conditions. This is what killed the car. My wife was driving in the winter back in Omaha and she tapped the brakes while on I-80. The right rear brake locked up and spun the car into the ditch. The car was “fixed” by the insurance but I traded it in on an ’83 Ford Van (one of the best vehicles I’ve ever owned).
    One note on the manual transmission: I thought the clutch pedal was wayyyyyy too small and wayyyy too close to the brake pedal. I had to use the tips of my feet at an awkward angle to avoid hitting both pedals at the same time. This was the worst arrangement I’ve ever seen.
    Bottom line: a comfortable bad car.

  • avatar
    tomLU86

    Seriously, for all the issues the car had, IF one bought a BASE X-car, without A/C, Power Steering, or automatic, AND the rest of the car and parts were built on ‘good’ days, I bet it would have lasted a long time.

    Those accessories were not ready for prime time–downsized and crammed into a relatively small space (for that era).

  • avatar
    2KAgGolfTDI

    Did my Driver Ed road time in a 1981 Citation. Brand new. It was a great car, only because it was a car I was allowed to drive…

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    *Dogs hop in car*

    See? They fit easily. *Smug*

    *Closes hatch, no dogs in car.*

    Ergo, Citation eats dogs.

  • avatar
    fishiftstick

    I drove the Pontiac version back in the day. What a POS–the only worse car I ever drove was a Morris Marina I bought with some friends for 50 quid. My next car was this one’s predecessor, the Nova, which was far superior in quality and driving dynamics.

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    My ’82 was a la cart. The premium interior, the F41 suspension, air conditioning, std 4-speed, I opted for not ordering tinted glass recommended with the AC. They even built it with an interior/exterior color combo not listed in the catalog. I liked a la cart optioning.
    The seat comfort, quiet interior, and the AC delivering tons of air with very little noise, and the frequencies of repair were all superlative.
    It had a weird tail-happy handling quirk that none of the subsequent FWD cars I have had do not. I lost control on slick surfaces a few times. Once on a rain slick road that resulted in exiting the pavement backwards onto the right shoulder. A cop behind me was not amused. It was the only pull over (I have had way too many of those) where the officer lost his temper, and his partner admonished him to calm down. Another time I rounded a snowpacked bend, the tail broke lose and I ended up sideways in front of an oncoming bus which did stop in plenty of time. Talk about embarrassing, humiliating and scary! That might have been one FWD where the snow tires should have been on the rears only
    Such memories!

  • avatar
    redapple

    Gentlemen

    I had a new white X -11 while I worked for the General (hint> and therefore a GM fanboy). It was the biggest POS ever made. I made more trips to the dealer than I did to GMI.
    My brothers navy blue non X11 was in the shop even more.

    Next up was a honda civic— a revelation. 3 Hondas and a Nissan SE-R followed.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    US auto makers made indestructible interiors in the late 70s and early 80s — sans the headliners.

  • avatar
    carsofchaos

    I’ve had a couple X-11s in the last 3-4 years. There not so bad. The base Citations….ehhh not so much.

  • avatar

    My folks bought a 1980 Citation as a dealer demo with a few thousand miles on it in late 1980. Off-white, red velour, Iron Duke/automatic, no A/C. I learned to drive on it in 1985. Bounced it gently off a guardrail in the snow, but apparently all that hit was the wheels… it popped both wheel covers off that side but I wasn’t able to find any other damage. I did take out the passenger side headlight and front fender a few months later when someone in front of me stopped short in the rain. Put a junkyard fender on it and rattle-canned it back as close as I could get to the right color and it was good to go. I think I had 9 or 10 people in it one night too, with the rear seats folded down and everyone crammed in the hatch. Good times.

  • avatar
    maserchist

    My best Citation story:
    I was working in a tire shop when the little old lady cruised in asking for her “water” to be topped off. The LIQUID rust that barely passed as “coolant” was my first warning that this car would be a hard case to rectify. After adding a half gallon of genuine antifreeze/water to the rusted radiator & recovery bottle, she was happy. I was too, for about 2 weeks. She showed back up, overheating bigtime.
    After the blown head gasket diagnosis & the cost for the repair, she sold me the car for $200. So I became the owner of a real pretty 82(?) V6 a/t a/c p/b p/s car. Dismantled the engine & discovered the liquid rust had settled/accumulated in the block to the point where barely a quart of coolant surrounded the cylinders. DUG out the iron oxide with a long screwdriver, replacing block plugs which were going to fail next, put it all back together. Ran fine as a daily driver for 3 more years, until I sold it to some other person who needed wheels worse than me. Sold it for $500.
    Turns out the little old car killer had been having her WATER topped off for years before I ever even 1st saw the car.
    Moral of the story; cheap car maintenance ALWAYS comes back to bite azz…


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