When Did the General Motors Death Watch Begin? For Some, X Marks the Spot

Brad Kozak
by Brad Kozak
when did the general motors death watch begin for some x marks the spot

As TTAC’s GM Deathwatch approaches the mid-century mark, its detractors continue to justify their scorn by mocking its episodic tally. I look forward to GM DW 1346, they scoff. Others of us understand that this chronicle would have reached that number already if RF had begun when some of us first realized GM was doomed. For me, that recognition arrived via the GM X-Body.

My first car was a two-door 1965 Ford Galaxie 500, which sank in a lake (don’t ask). My second was a Ford Econoline-150 van (go figure). When I dropped a rod in the L6, it was time for a new set of wheels. As I earned my daily bread by playing drums, I needed transportation for same. To choose a suitable steed, I started reading.

In 1980, the buff books were all a-twitter about GM’s fabulous X-Body platform. From its front-wheel drive and transverse engine to its “sleek styling” and “intelligent hatchback design,” they were deeply smitten. Even Popular Science did a multi-page spread, complete with foldouts. I hadn’t seen that kind of print-gasm since Hugh Hefner put a staple in Marilyn Monroe’s navel.

So I bought one: a white bread 1980 Chevrolet Citation.

At first, I loved it. I waxed it weekly, parked it carefully and drove if with what was known at the time as TLC. Like grains of sand in a Speedo (not that I’ve ever worn one, but you get my drift), little by little, little things started to annoy me.

When TTAC launches its Ten Worst Automobile Dashboard Designs Launched Ever, the Citation’s vertically-mounted radio will top the list. The rest of the Citation’s interior defined cheap for all time. But my real problem with the X-Body lay with that overlooked part known as a heater core.

I was returning from a gig in the wee hours, just behind an elderly couple in the inside lane. A van was weaving towards us. I took evasive action: brakes, steering, the works. The van hit the other sedan head-on at about 40 MPH, in an age before airbags. I ran up over the curb to avoid the collision. The van’s driver tossed a cooler aside before passing out. The whiskey it contained soaked into the grass.

I ruined two tires and rims. Little did I know that my troubles were only beginning. Anti-freeze began dripping onto my front seat passengers' feet.

Let me pause a moment to give you some salient facts about GM X-Body heater cores. First, they were made of plastic. Second, when they broke, they dripped anti-freeze on your passenger's feet (you may have guessed that already). Third, you had to pull the engine to replace them. Fourth, they cracked if you looked at them cross-eyed.

My post-accident heater core replacement was destined to be the first of THREE heater cores I had to insert in that… that… car. Either GM never issued a recall/service bulletin or Mr. Goodwrench decided to keep those encoded Ren Cen messages to himself.

What’s more, my slavish devotion to maintenance did nothing to stop the Citation’s body from rusting out after just three years. It looked like a chemo patient with bedsores.

As a young, struggling musician, my budget didn’t include frequent car repairs. What I once regarded as an engineering marvel, I eventually realized was a poorly-designed, poorly built (but exquisitely marketed) steaming pile of crap. I was a step beyond “leading edge,” early adopters. I was a “bleeding edge” pioneer.

Eventually, the early 80’s economy turned south. I had to relocate and find a new line of work. I was hired by a multi-national corporation as a medical diagnostic machine installer with a six-state territory. They gave me a company car.

I thought, “This is it! My chance to finally get away from GM’s misbegotten products!” Yes, well, my boss ordered a 1984 Chevrolet Celebrity station wagon.

My Citation sat idle for a year while I drove the snot out of the Celebrity. When my job was “downsized,” I relocated, driving my Citation through a Texas gully washer. The X-body finally gave up the ghost in Fort Worth, where I had it towed to a service station.

I replaced the Citation with a used Chrysler K-car (hey, I’ve always been a sucker for an American sob-story). Unsurprisingly, I forgot all about the Citation. One day, the service station called and asked me if I wanted it fixed or sold for parts. I told them to sell it and send me a check if they made any profit.

I never heard from the gas station again. And GM never heard from me– or a million other me’s– again. I knew then that any car company that would dare sell such a poorly engineered automobile would only survive as long as people didn’t know that someone else made a better product. They do, so it won’t.

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  • Thebaron Thebaron on Feb 16, 2009

    Having owned three citations: one '84 and two 85 x-11. The 84 was zieberted and it was very rust free for a rustbelt car. I'll be most of the people bitching about rust never washed the salt off their cars during winter. My 85 x-11 was from florida and it had rust on the roof. My second one has a few rust areas that will be taken care of, but not bad for a non-zieberted rustbelt car. It will receive all the parts from the other car that are needed. I replaced almost every part in my 85 x-11 and it ran great until that pothead hit me! I'll bet a lot of people don't change their fluids at all or enough for certain engine issues. Tune up seems to be a largely skipped need! Not that they don't have lemons the car builders put out, but a lot of issues can be avoided.

  • 1981X-11 1981X-11 on Apr 03, 2015

    There is actually a Citation X-11/GM X-Body Facebook Group page. Almost 500 members, over 1000 pics, and every-year X-car dealer brochure in the Photo Albums section. Ha! https://www.facebook.com/groups/chevycitations/

  • Max So GM will be making TESLAS in the future. YEA They really shouldn’t be taking cues from Elon musk. Tesla is just about to be over.
  • Malcolm It's not that commenters attack Tesla, musk has brought it on the company. The delivery of the first semi was half loaded in 70 degree weather hauling potato chips for frito lay. No company underutilizes their loads like this. Musk shouted at the world "look at us". Freightliners e-cascads has been delivering loads for 6-8 months before Tesla delivered one semi. What commenters are asking "What's the actual usable range when in say Leadville when its blowing snow and -20F outside with a full trailer?
  • Funky D I despise Google for a whole host of reasons. So why on earth would I willing spend a large amount of $ on a car that will force Google spyware on me.The only connectivity to the world I will put up with is through my phone, which at least gives me the option of turning it off or disconnecting it from the car should I choose to.No CarPlay, no sale.
  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.
  • Tassos The Euro spec Taurus is the US spec Ford FUSION.Very few buyers care to see it here. FOrd has stopped making the Fusion long agoWake us when you have some interesting news to report.