The Truth About Cars » X-car The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Tue, 01 Sep 2015 18:20:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars » X-car Curbside Classic: 1980 Chevrolet Citation – GM’s Deadliest Sin Ever Tue, 21 Dec 2010 18:01:17 +0000 The greatest crime in ancient Greece was hubris. And the perpetrator that carried out the sins as a result of their hubris inevitably faced great shame and retribution, most often fatal. So for the sake of this CC, we’re going to drop the Citation’s X-Car moniker, and call them the H-Cars. And just in case […]

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The greatest crime in ancient Greece was hubris. And the perpetrator that carried out the sins as a result of their hubris inevitably faced great shame and retribution, most often fatal. So for the sake of this CC, we’re going to drop the Citation’s X-Car moniker, and call them the H-Cars. And just in case you’re not convinced that the Citation truly was GM’s greatest sin rather than the Vega (coincidentally numbered GM’s DS #2), let me cite you the incontrovertible evidence:

Of course numbers don’t tell the whole story, but I challenge you to find another newly introduced car that did so well in its first year and whose sales collapsed so spectacularly thereafter. And that 811k in 1980 doesn’t tell the whole story: the Citation was so popular, supply couldn’t keep up with demand. Folks waited months for their deadly sins to be delivered, and Chevy might well have been able to sell a million in 1980 if they could have made them fast enough. But they were so poorly built, the drop-off was almost instantaneous. By its fourth year, the Citation had dropped some 90%. And in 1985, it was all over.

Having jumped ahead to the final outcome of GM’s hubris-mobile, let’s step back a bit and consider the setting for this tragedy. For the third time at the beginning of a new decade, GM was determined to take on the import competition. In 1960, it was the VW Beetle, and GM countered with the conceptionally similar (rear engine) but bigger Corvair. It failed at its intended mission for a number of reasons, but there were no egregious issues with its quality or durability (for the standards of the time). But GM cut corners, and had make a series of improvements to its suspension to save face, including a substantially redesigned second generation, even though the Corvair was by then already doomed.

In 1970, it was Toyota and Datsun, as well as a few fading European imports that GM countered with the Vega. Despite them all being highly conventional rwd cars, Chevrolet bungled the Vega’s engine and rust-resistance. And although build quality was certainly not up to the Japanese competition’s level, it was not atrocious, in terms of what was yet to come.

For 1980, GM had the revolutionary Honda Accord in its visor, as well as the goal of redefining the compact American car in an all-new fwd package. The Citation and its H-Body brethren from Pontiac, Olds and Buick (we’ll get to them in more detail in another CC) were the closing number of GM’s overly-ambitious downsizing drama in three acts, which had begun three years earlier.

Make no mistake: this mammoth undertaking that would result in the 1977 Caprice and the rest of the full-sized line up, the 1978 Malibu and the other midsized cars, and the 1980 Citation and friends was no less than the biggest single corporate industrial re-investment ever up to that time. GM was betting its whole future here, and we all know how it turned out: the eighties were GM’s worst decade ever in terms of market share loss, and the Citation not only kicked it off, it also set the template for almost all of its sins from then on.

GM’s biggest act of hubris was in even thinking it could execute such an undertaking, given its history. And clearly, the results got worse with each act. The fact that the Citation would be GM’s first ever-front wheel drive mass-market car didn’t help. As well as GM’s perpetual obsession with the next quarter’s profit. The mega-billions GM committed to its downsizing was taking its toll on the bottom line, and the Citation was behind schedule. Switching production facilities and suppliers over to a completely new generation of cars was taking its toll.

Typical for GM, the Citation looked best on paper, or to the automotive writers who were suckered when they drive the most un-production-like “ringers” ever hand assembled and wrote breathless reports on the Citation’s spectacular “better than a BMW” abilities.  The current issue of C/D has a brief mea-culpa by Patrick Bedard about how they fell for GM’s bait.

The Citation’s basic body package was highly modern for the times, with a very roomy interior, a practical hatchback (a notch-back coupe was available but never popular), lightweight (2500 lbs), and featuring a new transverse engine/transaxle arrangement. Unfortunately, GM’s greatest industrial re-investment didn’t include a new four cylinder engine. The noisy, crude and rude “Iron Duke” 2.5 L OHV four was adapted for its new east-west orientation, and shook 90 hp from its crankshaft.

But GM was a bit more ambitious with the optional engine: the immortal 60-degree V6, still being built in China, and only just recently departed from the US GM line-up. In its first incarnation here, it had 2.8 L and 115 hp (110 beginning in 1981). And in 1981, the sporty X-11 Citation was graced with a bumped-up HO version, which churned out 135 hp. Just the ticket to fully display the Citation’s truly prodigious torque steer and other entertaining characteristics, some of them quite genuine, especially in later model years.

Since quietness was always disproportionately high on the list of criteria for GM cars, and because neither of the Citation’s engines were intrinsically quiet and smooth, extreme measures were taken to isolate them from the passenger compartment. The front subframe that carried the drive train and front suspension was attached to the body with very soft rubber mounts. This led to a remarkable sensation during acceleration.

It felt as if your favorite H-mobile was composed of two separate components (which it sort of was), or to take the analogy further, it felt like the body was a semi-trailer hooked to the back of a semi-truck. Floor it, and the truck started heading one direction (left, if I remember correctly) while the trailer both followed as well as tried to keep the truck from running off the roadway. Amusing, sort of. I had the chance to do it several times a day, in my Skylark company car. And I got quite good at it: kind of like crabbing an airplane. I did used to wonder if one day my car’s front sub frame would just fully detach and head off into to the median by itself; it sure seemed to want to very badly.

One might eventually get used to that, and if you had a good running V6, these cars could feel pretty lively given their light weight. But what goes fast must slow down, eventually, especially in LA traffic. And that’s where the fun disappeared, in a cloud of burning rubber. GM made almost the same penny-ante mistake with Citation as with the Corvair. Then, they left off a $14 camber-compensating spring. Now it was a $14 (?) rear brake proportioning valve. Drivers complained, NHTSA sued GM, which GM ended up winning in 1987, way too late: the perception/sales battle was then long lost. My Skylark with wider tires and wheels wasn’t too bad that way, but I once drove a four cylinder Citation that was highly prone. Let’s just say that my old Peugeot 404 had a very effective ride-height sensing rear proportioning valve even though it was rwd, and the Citation didn’t, with 60% of its weight on the front.

That was just for starters (and stoppers). In between, a seemingly endless rash of maladies made these cars recall kings and queens. Transmission hoses that leaked and cause fires. Various driveability issues: fuel injection was deemed too expensive; meanwhile the two-barrel carb on the V6 was the most complicated and expensive fuel mixing device Rube Goldberg was ever commissioned to design. (A replacement cost  over $1000 in today’s money, as I well know).  Shifting the manual transmission was like sending messages to a distant cohort in secret code via carrier pigeon.

The Citation interiors were hard and cheap. Sundry pieces of trim were prone to suddenly disassociating themselves from the rest of the car, in shame perhaps. Starting on day one. General build quality varied greatly, somewhere between miserable and mediocre. Cost cutting resulted in skin cutting from rough edges. Within one model year, the word was out and the jig was up: the Citation was a lemon.

In a truly cynical move, GM found the pennies to add a “II” suffix to the Citation in 1984, even though anyone would be hard pressed to see any difference. Enough fools fell for the Citation II to bump sales by 5k units that year, before they realized that it was just a Citation Too.

What really must have burned GM with the Citation’s flame out was that Toyota was dealing with the exact same challenge: to convert its rwd Carina/Corona lines to fwd. The all-new Camry appeared in 1983, just as the Citation was crashing. Ironically, the Camry had a distinctly Citation-ish look to it too, especially the hatchback. But looks can be deceiving. First year Camrys are considered as utterly solid and fool-proof as this year’s, if not more so. I can think of no better example of the contrasting state of affairs that predicted their makers’ respective trajectories in 1983 than these two similar and yet so different cars. GM’s Death Warrant Exhibit A.

Perhaps we should just leave it there, but there is a relevant postscript to the Citation: it became essentially immortal, in new garb. The Chevy Celebrity and its A-Body kin were nothing more than a Citation inner body and platform with a new exterior suit. The magic of a restyle and a little attention to working out the most blatant kinks resulted in a long-lived career (through 1996), at least for the Olds and Buick versions. And eventually they got fairly reliable…just too late.

But the A-Bodies are just the most obvious genetic offshoot. Let’s face it; just about every fwd GM car built since the first Citation torque-steered its way off the assembly line has X-chromosomes in it, to one degree or another. The Citation was GM’s starting point with the fwd car, as well as the true beginning of its end.

More New Curbside Classics Here

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How To Be An Automotive Journalist, Part III: Pathetic “Platform” Prose Mon, 27 Sep 2010 14:40:09 +0000 There are times I really wish I had half the brains, knowledge, and skill of the average print-rag journo. Today is one of those times. You see, in my not-so-spare time, my race team and I have designed a lower control-arm brace for the first-generation Neon. It’s a neat thing, looks very industrial. I’m making […]

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There are times I really wish I had half the brains, knowledge, and skill of the average print-rag journo. Today is one of those times. You see, in my not-so-spare time, my race team and I have designed a lower control-arm brace for the first-generation Neon. It’s a neat thing, looks very industrial. I’m making it right here in Ohio, using 5000-series aluminum for corrosion resistance. The parts are laser-cut, and we have some semi-sophisticated CAD modeling tools involved to ensure it’s as strong as possible for the given weight. I’ll have the first batch of fifty in my hands this upcoming Friday.

Now here’s the big question. Will this brace fit the second-generation Neon? For the last decade, I’ve been reading various assertions by “automotive journalists” that the “PL2000″ Neon is really the same “platform” as the first-gen car. If that’s really true — if all Neons are the same under the skin — this brace should bolt right up and we won’t have to go back to the CATIA screen to design a different one. We could sell a lot of them to owners of the newer Neons and SRT-4s. What do you think? Would you double your planned production run based on what you’ve read in Car and Driver? Of course not. Instead, we’re heading to the junkyard with a prototype to measure and check.

What the hell is a “platform” anyway? Once upon a time, a “platform” was called a “chassis”. Many early motorists ordered a chassis and engine from one manufacturer and had it “bodied” elsewhere. Nearly all of the automobiles built before the Second World War could be driven around without their bodies. The use of a Model T sans body as a kind of hillbilly proto-ATV was particularly popular. As late as 1966, Rolls-Royce had two different “coachbuilders” create unibody Silver Shadow coupes. James Young created a Shadow Coupe with a straight beltline; Mulliner Park Ward built a dipped-waist variant that became the Corniche.

Don’t rush down to your local Ford dealer and ask to buy a “D3 chassis”, because there’s no such thing. We are deep in the unibody era now and you couldn’t put a Flex body on a Taurus sedan floorpan without the assistance of a dozen expert fabricators and hundreds, possibly thousands, of labor hours. Same goes for making a Highlander out of a Camry, or a Flying Spur out of a Phaeton.

A platform is really a concept. It’s a set of shared measurements and designs. It’s a way to avoid doing some obscenely expensive first-principle engineering. Example: Honda designed a solid, well-proven suspension, engine mounting system, and set of “hard point” locations for HVAC/electronics/seat mounting for the Accord. By beefing-up those designs but keeping the same basic principles, they could make them work under a minivan, thus the Odyssey. And once you have those pieces in your inventory, why not build an SUV with them? It’s entirely possible that someday, somewhere, somebody will assemble four-wheel-drive, jacked-up Accords using Pilot components. If they bolt together, that is. The only way to know for sure is to measure it out and then do it.

Thirty years ago, the American automakers were under pressure. From Wall Street, to churn quarterly profit. From the government, to be “responsible”. From the public, to turn out a halfway decent product. Chrysler and General Motors decided to very publicly discuss the “X-body”, “K-car”, and “J-platform” when introducing their new vehicles. Doing so satisfied Wall Street: it was obviously cheaper to have a common underlying platform. It satisfied the governmental authorities, who not-so-secretly yearned for the day they would be able to mandate a single kind of car for everyone. And it satisfied the public that all the new cars, whether they were Citations, Skylarks, Omegas, or Phoenixes, had the latest engineering. But did anybody stop to ask if it was true?

I’m serious. For all anybody really knew, the Cimarron and the Cavalier could have been totally different under the skin. Sometimes the “platform twins” really were different, even if they had the same nameplate on them. Try swapping doors among the “G-body” Regal, Cutlass, and Malibu. They don’t always fit. Some critical dimensions were changed for the different assembly plants. What I’m getting at here, though, is that in automotive “journalism” we assume the manufacturer is telling the truth, unless it conflicts with our preconceptions.

Every automotive journalist in America implicitly accepted that the 1981 Aries and Reliant were the same car. Nobody measured them out. Nobody swapped parts just to check. They just took Chrysler’s word on the subject. Nothing’s changed in the past thirty years. All the babbling in the press about, say, the new Explorer, is just that — babbling. Nobody’s done the work to see just how different the Explorer is from the Flex under the skin. We all took Ford’s word that the two are related. What else can we do in the space of a hour-long test drive along a pre-planned route?

This leaves journalists with a problem, namely: If I get all my “platform” information from the manufacturers, how can I sound more insightful than my peers without actually doing any work? The answer is to make stuff up. I won’t link to examples of these assertions, particularly since a few of the links would have the same basic URL as found in this article, but how often have you read statements like:

  • The Cavalier was “fundamentally the same” throughout its 23-year run, and the Cobalt uses the same basic platform as its predecessor?
  • The Ford Panthers are “the same car underneath” from 1980 to 2010?
  • The (insert name of full-sized truck or van here) hasn’t “really” changed since (1970-something)?
  • The Chrysler 300 is just an old W210 E-Class “in drag”?

All of the above assertions are exposed for the garbage they are the minute you look underneath the vehicles in question with any kind of tape measure or caliper, but they sound very knowledgeable when you read them on a website or in a magazine. It’s lazy journalism at its finest, spouting ridiculous, uninformed assumptions as loud as humanly possible.

Note that I used American and/or German manufacturers for the examples above. The reason I did that? The Japanese aren’t stupid. For a long time now, they have carefully controlled the information they dole out regarding platform-sharing. That’s why the Civic and Corolla are always called “all-new” by the sycophantic press and the domestic subcompacts are always “carryover” this and “reused” that.

As someone who has raced a few Hondas and worked in a race garage with a few more, I can tell you from firsthand, turn-the-wrench experience that there are tremendous similarities between any two consecutive generations of Civics. Why is the press silent on this? It’s simple. Honda doesn’t think they have a need to know about commonalities, so Honda doesn’t tell them, and there’s obviously no way these fat-ass buffet hounds will find out on their own. It’s a brilliant strategy.

For more than thirty years, the Motor Trends of the world have swallowed and unthinkingly repeated the ridiculous idea that Japanese automakers effortlessly clean-sheet their entire lineup every four years while the domestics and Germans drag “platforms” out for decade-plus life spans. Two hours in a garage with a few tape measures would have exposed the falsehood — but who’s gonna do that when there are free drinks available at the hotel bar?

The irony of this is that Honda’s relentless determination to reuse critical dimensions, designs, and even bolts is a key factor in ensuring their famous reliability. It also allows NASA Honda Challenge race teams to “LEGO-set” some pretty neat cars. Want to put a Cobalt SS turbo engine in an ’02 Cavalier? No freakin’ way, not without a plasma torch. Want to put a Prelude engine in a CRX? Check out HondaSwap for the instructions. Those people know how similar most Hondas are, but they aren’t writing the “Wheels” section in your local newspaper.

The manufacturers are all wising-up to the fact that autojournos are too stupid to do their research on platforms. During the recent Cruze introduction, Chevrolet PR people repeatedly made semi-misleading “platform chat” assertions to link the Cruze with the Opel Astra, forgetting to mention that, while the Cruze is a “platform mate” with the Astra, it’s also a near-complete twin of a Daewoo. The recent Scion tC launch barely mentioned the Toyota Avensis, and furthermore, the Toyota PR people absolutely refused to speculate on whether the tC was a refreshed first-gen Avensis platform or a second-gen Avensis platform, or even if said two Avensis generations were different in any substantial way.

This isn’t stopping my fellow journalists from boldly forging ahead with new platform-based diatribes. One fellow recently wrote that the 370Z was a “converted truck”, citing the commonality with the Infiniti FX. That’s in-your-face writing, and it sounds quite knowledgeable. I wonder if the author of that piece could list any common pieces between a 370Z and an FX50? If he can, do you suppose he also knows if the lower strut brace I tested on my 1995 Plymouth Neon will fit a 2004 Dodge SRT-4?

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