By on June 3, 2007

chevycitation.jpgAs 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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87 Comments on “When did the General Motors Death Watch Begin? For Some, X Marks the Spot...”


  • avatar
    ronin

    The sad story of the Citation is one millions of can share with [fill in the GM model here]

    For example, I can talk about the 73 Vega whose A pillars transformed into R (Rust) pillars within 18 months, unable to hold up the windshield. And we shall not talk about ‘quarter panels’ on the vehicle.

    Hard to single out GM, since as though by mutual assent even Ford’s Mustangs and Cougars and their sweet 351 Cleveland blocks were no match for their body panel disappearing acts.

    It makes little difference that the quality of the domestics today is world class. It may well be so (after all, it has been a lot easier for them to declare so for the last few decades than to actual deliver on the declaration).

    But I’ll even grant quality parity. So what? Too many of us spent too many fruitless hours in the 70s trying to bondo body sections that had nothing around it to bondo to.

    No apologies from the makers deliberately and cynically foisting crappy designs on us (and let’s not even think about compensation).

    And consequently, no apologies from the millions of carbuyers who lived through the 70s and 80s and will never buy domestic again.

    The imports never ever had a chance until the domestics began putting their loyalists through hell, and in so doing cutting their own throats.

    And why should those loyalists believe now that the domestics are equal in quality? After all the domestics were making the same claims when they introduced your Citation….

  • avatar
    inept123

    My GM sob story was an Olds Cutlass with the 350 “dieselized” V8 and the THM (aka rubber band) 200 AT.

    My current affliction is a MB C320. After 2 replacement ECMs, and replacing every electric windo lift, sunroof and seat motor, it still lights up like a Christmas tree. The tranny’s next.

    I always wanted a little joy with my cars but now I’d be happy with reliable — avoding angst has overcome seeking joy.

  • avatar
    UnclePete

    I’d agree that many of the ’80s GM cars pushed the marques downhill. The X-body? Nasty — while I didn’t own one, I had ones for rentals.

    No, my mistake of that period was buying a J-body. I bought a 1982 (1st year) Cavalier 3 door hatchback for commuting. I believe that the hatch was a short-run body style. While I remember it as an fair car as far as ergonomics went (better than the Chevettes the rest of my family owned – yes 3 Chevettes in one family – yikes!), it was poor as far as running gear went. The personnel that worked on the car were no better. For example, the reverse lights would stay on. After 4 trips to the dealer, where all they did was grease the switch (and the center console, seats, floor, door panel…) I gave up and replaced the switch myself. This being one of the first “Torx” screw cars, I had to use my brother-in-law’s computer field service kit to take the console apart. There were several other fit issues, mostly with getting the passenger door and the rear hatch to close 100% of the time.

    The final straw with that car was the rear oil seal leaking at just over 14,000 miles. GM refused to replace it for free since the 12,000 mile warranty expired, but after arguing with the local GM rep, they said I would pay the first $125 and they would pay the rest. The cost of repair? $130.

    I sold the Cavalier, bought a Toyota diesel pickup (anyone rememeber those?) and didn’t buy another new GM product for 20 years.

  • avatar
    ponytrekker

    In 1999, 5 years after I bought 1989 Pontiac LE 6000 for $1500 which proved to be indestructable and was still going strong (and therefore discontinued) I looked for another similar GM for a second car We found a 1994 Grand Am. We bought it for less than $4k in May,

    Fast forward to November 1999. Airconditioner clutch, motor mounts, seat braces and a host of other problems totalling nearly as much as the car with the transmission, thermostat and AC system all nearing death led me to get rid of it and get a Corolla.

    Wouldn’t touch another GM with monopoly money. Love to avoid these things as rentals too.

  • avatar
    Terry

    Hello! During all the X-Body magazine hype in ’80,A GM official(sorry–I no longer have the magazines) disclosed that the pattern for the X-body was… Lancia Beta sedans and Rover 3500S. It appears GM bought 3 copies of each, dissected them, and used them for ideas.
    ’77–79 I worked at a Subaru/Fiat/Lancia dealership. The Lancias had a life expectancy of a Black Cat firecracker, but none of the “boom”.
    ’79–’81 I was at a Subaru/SAAB/JRT(Jaguar-Rover-Triumph) dealership. The Rovers were smooth, quiet… and self-destructed like the tape on “Mission Impossible”
    GM picked the worst 2 examples of goofball engineering to pin their hopes on for the new decade. Add to that nonchalant execution and it’s easy to see why the domestic car industry is in the shape it’s in.
    3 years later, the rear wheel drive Toyota Corona is put to rest, and this new-fangled front wheel drive Camry appears. I wonder if it’ll catch on…LOL

  • avatar
    NickR

    My current affliction is a MB C320 I can relate.

    Now back to GM. Establishing GMs turning point is hard to pin down, although the X body is an excellent candidate. I too remember the automotive press’ hyperbole about this car. I remember a blue Citation featured prominently on the cover of Road & Track along with excited statements about it being ‘Faster to 0-60 than…’ and ‘Faster through the slalom than…’. When I drove my sister’s Pontiac Phoenix, my cynicism about mainstream automotive journalism was born. It was, by a large margin, the coarsest, most unrefined vehicle I had ever driven going all the way back to 60s era Detroit iron. I agree that interior quality set a new, low standard that probably remains unmatched.

    I also think this was the all time low for GMs badge engineering (Citation, Phoenix, Omega, Skylark).

    Hard to believe that the 2.8L V6 introduced at this time is still with us in 3.5L guise. I don’t really know how good a motor it is.

    All that being said, I might still favour GM10 as being the ‘x’ marking GMs descent into ruin.

  • avatar
    windswords

    “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.”

    Let’s be fair – all cars (or it seemed like all cars) had rust issues at this time, including the Japanese. I have heard this story but cannot confirm it so maybe someone here can comment. During the 70’s govenment mandated pollution standards meant that all the best engineers were working on that problem and because of the 2 oil shocks gas mileage was also a priority. So to save gas the cars were built with the thinnist metals possible. The engineers that could have done something about corrosion protection were busy with the emissions work. Don’t know if it’s true but does make sense because the stuff that Detroit made in the 60’s as a rule did not rust (maybe the rust prone parts like trunk floorpans – but I never saw a 60’s car that was taken care of with A or B pillars rusting). Then come the 70’s and everything is rusting.

    Some have said that’s also the time when quality took a nose dive. This looks like a topic worth examining – what effect did government regulations have on auto quality (and now mileage- it seems that todays cars are so heavy because of mandated safety equipment)?

    Mr. Kozak, you said you had a Celebrity company car that you “drove the snot out of”. Did you have better luck with this vehicle?

  • avatar
    windswords

    My brother in-law bought one of the first Citations. I remember how easy it ran over the packed snow in our NJ neighborhood – like it had snow tires. This was my first introduction to FWD.

    GM, 800 lb. gorilla that it was, got all the media attention for the FWD cars but Chrysler was first the year before with the Omni and Horizon, which was also based off a Euro design (Simca I believe). Many of us at the time thought it was re-badged VW Rabbit because of the similar design and the VW sourced engines that were used for the first few years of production.

  • avatar

    My first car was a 1981 Chevy Citation X-11, the performance variant. Fun to drive, and not all that unreliable (all I recall going out now was the clutch), but probably the most unrefined car I’ve ever driven. You had to slam the doors to get them to shut all the way. Ride quality was abysmal. And the feel of the four-speed’s cable shifter made even the unit GM currently puts in the G6 feel decent.

    I didn’t have a problem with the ergnomics of the IP. The HVAC and audio controls were oriented vertically, with a knob at the top and one at the bottom rather than on the left and right, but this enabled all controls to be very close at hand. For the driver at least.

  • avatar
    htn

    1982 Ohare airport January. About 10 degrees out. Rental agency gave me a citation with 320 miles on the ODO. Drove up to the toll booth leading out of the airport and when I rolled down the window to pay my toll the window fell out of its’ rail and down into the door. Formed my opinions about GM products at that moment and they haven’t changed. Rented some G6s and they didn’t seem bad but would never buy one given what is out there. Fool me once etc.

  • avatar
    mikey

    Can anybody name a car from the late 60s to the late 80s.
    domestic or import,that didn’t rust?
    A Honda civic?you could watch them rust,great engine lousy body.How about a Toyota Celica?Goes like shit and dead nut reliable.However about 5 southern Ontario winters or so say. good bye to the shock towers,and shortly therafter, the whole car.
    Lets go upscale now, how about a Mercedes they could make a 69 Galaxie,look like a rust free car.
    I was never a big fan of the x car and and I agree it was ,and is a black time in GMs history.
    But I don’t think it was a great time, for any car company.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    I have another 80s GM story: my Dad’s beige ’81 Monte Carlo.

    Loved the hairy chested styling, even if it was terribly slow and thirsty (even with a V6). The catalytic converters melted after 20,000 miles (bad design, or bad gas?) and the car could only go 15mph as it stumbled back to the dealer. The doors always had to be manhandled, the windows rattled and leaked after a few years of ownership. Don’t even think about going through a car wash in this car!

    The best part was the handful of interior parts that dried out. Towards the end (this would be 1988) I started making abstract art on the chalky C-pillars with my fingernails.

    Those G-bodies were terribly built cars with lousy performance (save straightline in a Buick GN) but otherwise they weren’t unreliable. But they still turned plenty of people off.

    Aside from the Corvette, I doubt my Dad will ever be very interested in a GM product again. Can’t blame him.

  • avatar

    My dad was a subscriber to R&T, C&D, etc. I would devour them as soon as they left his hands. I distinctly recall them all talking up the X-body GM cars like they were the Second Coming.

    Even though I only had a learner’s permit at the time, I thought they all had lost their minds. The cars were just, plain, UGLY. Not to mention shoddy piles of crap. Even I knew that. Being but a boy I didn’t think of payolas, or similar coercions. My parents had a 1979 Buick Le Sabre that served as my steel cocoon as I learned to drive. I turned 16 in my Junior year in High School (late birthday) and that Buick was the last GM car I ever drove (other than Rental cars of course.) It was dead before I was 18. My parents replaced it with a VW Rabbit, which they handed over to me midway through college.

    The “cheap but good” quality expressed by that VW, not to mention the 50+ MPG I was able to get out of .65¢ Diesel fuel while everyone else was paying $1.30 for gasoline, cemented my relationship with Dr. Diesel and those engineering elves in Wolfsburg.

    –chuck

  • avatar
    pb35

    My X car Xperience was an 83 Olds Omega aka “Slomega.” I bought it from a grad student as a beater in 1993 upon moving to Ann Arbor. Yes, the floorpan was rusted right where my right heel went, the check engine light would flash on and off intermittantly, but hey, it was only $400 and it ran. It had the 2.8 and I always made sure to wear my seatbelt, just in case. I think the local Ford dealer gave me $350 in trade for a new 93 Escort GT (not a bad ride).

  • avatar

    When talking about how the mags raved about the X-body, I think it’s important to remember the context. This was 1979, just three years after Consumer Reports declared the Aspen/Volare to be the greatest thing to happen to cars since the invention of the accelerator pedal. Granted, in the case of the Big Mags we can’t rule out the possibility of what we on the web called “sponsored content”. But remember what else Detroit was offering — big steel sedans with V8 engines. In the late 70s, the Nova was still considered a compact car, the Caprice and Sedan de Ville were still notable for their succesful downsizing.

    The fact that General Motors — which, don’t forget, still dominated the automotive market with its traditional RWD cars — would introduce a vehicle with front-wheel-drive, new compact tranverse-mounted 4-cyl and V6 engines and manual and automatic transmissions, and a hatchback body style was pretty remarkable. Don’t know when any of you last sat in a traditional Detroit full-sizer, but I own a 1969 Dodge Polara sedan and I can tell you there isn’t as much rear-seat legroom as you might expect; those cars are all hood, trunk and width. The FWD layout yielded lots of legroom for its size. Remember that at the time the Toyota Corllla and Datsun 210 were still using rear-wheel-drive, and the FWD Camry was 4 or 5 years away. For GM to adapt this European style of car architecture was more than amazing; it was a minor miracle. The fact that it was designed like crap was something that wouldn’t come out at the press junkets in ’79.

    It’s easy to look back and say that GM’s slide began with the X-Body. But at the time, it made perfect sense to look forward and say that GM was embracing the future. The X-Body was GM’s acknowledgement that the types of cars that had brought them to their position of prominence were not going to sustain them forever, that the car market was changing and that GM was ready to change with it. And they were right. Within half a decade, all their major car lines were smaller FWD designs. It just so happens that the Japanese did it better.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Again, I’m going to have to go with the minority opinion on this one.

    The folks who made those decisions 25+ years ago are either playing golf, making the most of GM’s health care plan, or pushing up the daisies. To blame GM now for what happened then is like blaming today’s Russian government for Chernobyl.

    A lot of the industry literature also runs counter to what everyone says here. How many of you realize that the Ford Windstar beat out the Odyssey, Sienna, and all other models for 3 year durability according to J.D. Power? The same is true for the Buick Century vs. the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. How many would believe that GM and Ford actually took more honors for dependability than Toyota back in 2005?

    http://www.jdpower.com/corporate/news/releases/pressrelease.asp?ID=2005089

    GM and Ford also did very well in the 2006 dependability studies as well.

    http://www.jdpower.com/corporate/news/releases/pressrelease.asp?ID=2005089

    Buick and Cadillac beat out Toyota for 2005 and 2006. That’s not an accident. It has to do with a lot of facets that are generally ignored by the mainstream media and glazed over by nearly everyone else.

    1) Demographics: For every conservative Buick owner, there is a Toyota customer with similar leanings. I would hazard to guess that the overwhelming majority of these new 2002 & 2003 customers performed routine maintenance at the dealer, and abstained from aggressive driving. The mainstream models for both brands at that time (Camry, Corolla, Regal, LeSabre, Park avenue) are far into the ‘conservative’ camp.

    Then you have brands like Mini, Pontiac, Hyundai and Suzuki that had a younger and more aggressive customer. Mini is built by BMW, Pontiac shares a lot of powertrains with Buick, Hyundai has the strongest warranty in the industry, and Suzuki.. well… they build really good motorcycles. All of these models were below average for dependability. Although the customers don’t explain the entire answer, they are more or less the pitchers in this game called quality. Aggressive drivers will lower the overall score. Conservative drivers will drive it up.

    2) Model mix: A manufacturer that sells lower end models will tend to have a lower score. Kia & Suzuki continually occupying the bottom tier should be no surprise given who their typical customer is. The counter to this is that a lot of European brands dwell in the lower tier as well. That’s true, and a sad reality to boot.

    3) Lending practices: Kia & Suzuki are poster children for the long-term dangers that come with selling cars to folks who are bad risks. Both firms were VERY aggressive when it came to financing potential customers at that time. In fact, one of primary clients during that point, Capital One Auto Finance, actually stopped providing financing to these new car dealerships because the risk of default for these vehicles was simply too great.

    I remember my first auction for COAF was in Birmingham, Alabama. Out of the first nine vehicles I sold at the sale, eight were Kias. All of them were two year old or newer models. Juxtaposition this with the fact that the only time you typically see a Buick, Cadillac, or Lexus sold by a finance company is when the owner has died. Again, the reason why these differentials exist has mostly to do with who ends up purchasing the vehicles.

    4) NVH: I would say that the primary differential within the industry exists in the NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) department. Toyota still leads in this category. When you get into a Camry or Corolla these days, it’s the ‘quiet’ that really opens your eyes. The interior materials and exterior design may be no better than anyone else. But when you drive down the road and the experience is as smooth as ice, you’re going to be viewed favorably by the overwhelming majority of customers. This is where models like the Camry, Corolla, and Accord have absolutely dominated the competition. It’s also where Lexus makes it’s home for 80+% of the cars it sells in North America. GM’s current pick-up and SUV lines offer similar qualities. Although Toyota has closed the gap and pulled ahead in certain cases.

    GM’s brand(s) identity and the anti-Detroit attitudes in the media are really hurting the company. Then of course you have the massive pension and health care obligations in North America that result in the cost disadvantages of today. It’s interesting to note that back in the early 80’s the same cost issue was rearing it’s head in the U.S. vs. Japan debate. Back then it was the cheap yen and cheaper labor force. Then, in the 90’s, the cost differential eliminated due in great part to the aging Japanese population and (former) lifetime employment pracitices.

    Today the domestic automakers are in a similar boat as the Japanese were back in the mid-90’s. Unlike most of you though, I don’t think GM will see Chapter 11. However, I do believe that Chrysler and Ford will definitely visit it for a time and the reforms that are generated from that episode will enable GM to become a much stronger company in every respect.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Material quality, from steel thickness to interior plastics, started a noticable decline around 1970. The real reason was inflation: the second half of the sixties saw steady growth of inflation due to the govt. funding of the Vietnam War.

    Meanwhile, wages were growing faster than the rate of inflation: hourly wages hit a peak in 1970. The Big Three threw in the towel on holding the line on quality, and started looking for shortcuts.

    This happened incrementally. GM’s all new ’71’s were bigger, but noticably cheaper.

    CAFE and emmission regs put huge demands on engineering. That really shifted priorities.

    The sturdiest cars of the seventies/early eighties were the ones designed in the sixties, like the Valient/Darts of the seventies: they were still solid, simple and lasted.

  • avatar
    ronin

    Cars that did not rust out nearly as terribly as the 1970+ Americans include Datsun and Toyota.

    How on earth do you think those cars ever even got a toe hold?

    Come 72 with the brand new Honda car- imagine Honda thinking they could make a car!!

    (This is from the standpoint of one living in the great lakes states- California car owners may have different body disintegration experiences)

  • avatar
    skor

    The GM Death-watch series drags on, but it sure looks like Ford will be the first to go tits-up.

    Ford market share has built up unstoppable downward momentum, while GM actually seems to be making modest and steady gains.

    Sorry folks, but it looks like Ford is DOA and GM may actually pull through.

  • avatar
    Nemphre

    GM quality was poor well through the 90s. I had the misfortune of owning a 2nd gen Chevy Lumina. When I think back, I honestly can’t think of one good thing about it. Well… the styling wasn’t bad. I don’t think any of the W bodies ended up being worth a damn thing.

  • avatar
    Nemphre

    The GM Death-watch series drags on, but it sure looks like Ford will be the first to go tits-up.

    The biggest indicator of this is the new Focus in my opinion. They’re obviously very hard up for money. The Euro Focus is still too expensive, so we get another refresh of the 2000 model. No more hatchback either. I feel sorry for them, as I would much prefer to see them succeed rather than GM.

  • avatar
    labrat

    When the X-Cars first came out, my neighbor bought a Buick Skylark; the upscale model with fancy cloth seats, woodgrain dash trim, and 2.8 liter V-6. His son and I promptly took this thing out and put it through the proper paces. At the time, I was reasonably impressed. The acceleration seemed to be on par with my mid 70’s Cutlass (350-4V), although he was getting about 20 mpg to my 13 mpg. I was also impressed by the roomy interior space for a relatively small, light car. This car scored low on the desirability meter, but seemed like a sensible ride during tough economic times.

    This ride met its demise as the owner spun it 180° during a panic stop. Over the years, I have met many people who had this happen to them, including my wife before I Knew her. I believe this was the reason this car was removed from the market after only 4-5 years in production (maybe someone can verify this). The X-Car, if done right, could have kept Honda and Toyota at bay during the 80’s. Instead, it was another lost opportunity. Sigh….

    Steven Lang – Thanks for saying what I’ve been thinking for some time now. Nice post.

  • avatar
    Mervich

    I completely gave up on GM after a 9 month negative experience with an 1979 Olds Delta 88 Royale. I dumped the Olds and bought a ‘79 Datsun 280ZX that was probably the best car I’ve ever owned, followed by a 1983 BMW 5 series that had multiple reliability issues after year three (after the warranty expired)…neither the Datsun or BMW ever had any rust problems and were both very good and fun-to-drive vehicles. The BMW gave its life for me…rear-ended by a Nissan Maxima going 60 MPH while I was stopped in traffic…I escaped without a scratch and actually drove the car away (every body panel was bent to some degree and the driver’s seat was ripped right out of the floor)!

    Just before the BMW, I WAS smitten by…ummmm, I think it was an 82 or 83 Corvette. It belonged to a local leasing company and I felt it was a logical step-up from the 280ZX. I drove the Corvette for about 5 days and sent it packing because, even brand new, it was falling apart and was also leaking around every window!

    Addendum: It was a 1982 Corvette “Collector Edition”; silver with the big honkin’ graduated, gradient stripe down the side …the first model with a pop-up rear window (that leaked like a sieve). One of the most annoying features was the automatic transmission that would drop into high gear in city traffic and the car would begin lurching and loping along in time with the camshaft.

    That was the end of GM in my garage.

  • avatar
    brettinlj

    Don’t worry about having too many GM Death Watches. As a lurker of this site for a couple years, I consider them a staple of your blog. I have been ancy the past few weeks because there hasn’t been a new one. I appreciate the variety of other editorials, but please keep the GMDW entries coming!

  • avatar

    No snow or road salt in Florida so we rarely see rusted out cars. My guess is this may be why I never heard any complaints about Toyotas or Hondas from the 70s about rust. This is probably true for California too.

  • avatar
    AGR

    Does anyone remember the concept of planned obsolescense? Rust, the ability of any car to almost rust out in your driveway was an important lever of the planned obsolescense mouvement of the time.

    In Eastern Canada early Honda Civics, which from the urban legend were made from the rusted hulks of domestic cars shipped to Japan. These Hondas were notorious for rust and corrosion.

    Every manufacturer has experienced “dark moments” with product that should have / could have / would have but developed into notorious POS.

    The movement across the automotive industry to save money, to cut costs, is adopted by all manufacturers. The plastic parts covered with a layer of chrome do not have the durability of the old metal parts that were chromed. The metal part used to rust, the plastic part the chrome coating curls up like old paint. Is the plastic part less money, NO.

    Edmunds reported that May showed an increase in subsidy, and incentives. Are consumers buying or leasing good cars or finance rates.

    Product “X” on a 36 month lease, at a 0% rate, with a strong residual. Does the customer really care about the quality and durability of that car?

  • avatar
    AGR

    Steven Lang makes a good point, auctions are looking at the “back side” of what transpired when that vehicle was sold new in most cases.

    Just looking at the vehicles from the various manifacturers gives an indication of the demographics of the first customer.

    Some makes and models are inherently in better condition than other makes.

  • avatar
    homeworld1031tx

    I’m sorry, but I had to ask for its comical value: how did you manage to sink your car? I always love funny car crash stories (at least when no one is hurt)

  • avatar
    Mervich

    I’ll bet I can guess…the Galaxie was parked very near the lake, probably backside toward the water, it popped outta park and slowly rolled in. Had a friend in High School with a 64 Galaxie 500 XL convertible…we’re in the boat, 50 yards from shore, as we notice the Galaxie, top down, ease into the water and sink! That’ll put a damper on your outdoor activities!

  • avatar
    mrdweeb

    Was it the x-body where you had to loosen an engine mount to change one of the sparkplugs on the v6?

  • avatar

    Steven Lang just a reminder that that the quality problems were well documented in the 70s a decade prior to the X cars. The public was well aware of the quality problems.

    The problem is that GM itself and detroit defenders have been proclaiming for over 25 years since the X cars that “our cars are every bit as good as imports now”. “This time its different, you’ll see” GM and the other domestic car makers problems also are well documented well past the X car in recent times.

    Honestly I can clearly remember articles including ones on the X cars proclaiming This time its different, we get it now. These cars are state of the art, they are import beaters.” I even remember Motor Trend taking a gaggle of X cars to Europe on tour. They did the same thing when the J cars came out and with virtually every major new car introduction since.

    The problem is that if the automakers, the magazines, the dealers, and loyalists proclaim this time its different this is an import beater and then the car turns out to be yet ANOTHER TURD, customers tend to listen less and less to those sources.

    The fact that the people responsible for the X car are gone means nothing its the same dirty corporate culture. Rick Wagoner is a GM insider who is a company man. If the board of directors had cleaned houes maybe I would have believed them.

    The same song and dance I hear now I heard back then. Back then they were proclaiming the 80s cars were not the POS of the 70’s . But I am suppose to believe this thime they are telling the truth as opposed to the last time they said the same thing and lied and the time before that and the time before that and so on.

    If anyone still has their old MT or CD magazines from the late 70s and early 80s go ahead and re read them. The GM engineers are in full force proclaimingthe cars are every bit as good as the imports. The ads also do it and the readers also do it.

    But this time its different honest

  • avatar
    Mervich

    mrdweeb:
    “Was it the x-body where you had to loosen an engine mount to change one of the sparkplugs on the v6?”

    That was actually a bit before the X body…mid 70’s Chevy Monza/Olds Starfire/etc. Had one of those too…mine was bright orange/white interior Olds derivative! LOL

  • avatar

    I know alot of you 30ish-50ish year olds had very bad experiences with General Motors when it was a monopoly and could treat people like shit. Today that is certainly not the case, modern cars from all companies, don't mechanically breakdown. American cars have some of the cheapest maintenance fees and are fairly simple compared to some Japanese products and all German products. So this sob story that hearkens back some 30 years ago is just that, an anecdote not a reality. By the way if this where to happen today it would be covered by GM's warranty which is the best in America.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    The folks who made those decisions 25+ years ago are either playing golf, making the most of GM’s health care plan, or pushing up the daisies. To blame GM now for what happened then is like blaming today’s Russian government for Chernobyl.

    Chernobyl was a terrible accident that brought a tidal wave of change and public scrutiny about nuclear power throughout the world. GM’s slide into (what seems to be) bankruptcy is a slow burn. Big difference.

    You can’t blame current GM folks for the X-car, but you can still blame the overpriced upper-management types for their inability to face problems that they acquired.

    Management types (GM, Ford, UAW, etc) are paid to fix problems within an organization. Heads in the sand or ignorance isn’t an excuse. At some point, people need to be accountable.

    Product quality isn’t a freak accident, they are measured and monitored. GM and the rest of Detroit has been collectively asleep at the wheel for some time now.

    FWIW, didn’t Brock Yates or someone at C/D call the Citation a “shitbox” in print?

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    Before the Citation, there were the late 70’s Chevy Monza and a slew of badge engineered derivatives. A girl friend of mine had one.

    I remember the Monza Sport’s abysmal fit and finish of the body. Chevy offered a V-6. You had to be a contortionist to replace the rear spark plugs or starter. Even worse, this sports model drove like a sled.

    It sounds like GM bean counters up the ante on the Citation.

  • avatar
    Joe ShpoilShport

    Looks like you struck a nerve here. Nice article. For whatever reason, when those things came out, in the heals of Vegas and Monzas, I smelled trouble.

  • avatar

    windswords:

    Mr. Kozak, you said you had a Celebrity company car that you “drove the snot out of”. Did you have better luck with this vehicle?

    I drove the Celebrity for just under one year, and put 50,000 miles on it. I was a “Field Applications Trainer” (yeah…I know…”FAT”) for the Ames Division of Miles Labs, and covered a region from Texarkana, Texas South to Orange, Texas, East to Panama City, Florida and North to Jackson, Mississipi. As you can imagine, I drove…a LOT. I probably went through a dozen oil changes, and quite a few service calls. The best thing I can say about it in those 50,000 miles was that the heater cord did NOT break when I had a choice of hitting an Interstate bridge rail or running over a railroad tie in the road at 60 MPH around 2AM heading north into Jackson, MS. ( I chose to hit the railroad tie. As a result, the tires, rims, and joints were not so lucky.)

    The Celebrity was a better car than the Citation – but that’s akin to saying “I’d rather die of a heart attack than a stroke.” I wouldn’t wish either vehicle on anyone.

  • avatar

    homeworld1031tx:

    I’m sorry, but I had to ask for its comical value: how did you manage to sink your car? I always love funny car crash stories (at least when no one is hurt)

    In retrospect, it probably is a funny story. The only thing that died was my car. If there’s some interest, I’ll write a piece about that incident. Suffice it to say that it involved launching a fishing boat, a safe boating film, two wreckers, a scuba diver, and a set of drums.

    The really sad part? The Ford sinking was the SECOND sub-marine experience I’ve had with an automobile.

  • avatar
    qfrog

    Brad, Great article… I love it!

    I work with one fellow who is a devout Chevy guy. He daily drives a Saturn (his family loves the plastic Saturns) and has a tweaked Camaro as his toy. This guy’s father is a GM guy too with some 60’s big block Chevy drag car at home, they’ve got that handed down genuine Americana automotive tradition going on. Honest kid, I think he’s a decent guy and I like working with him too.

    One day last week he gave me some crap about my project car not running yet so I felt like prodding him a tad bit. What better to bring up than the Chevy Celebrity, the smile instantly evaporated from his face and I remember he replied “we don’t talk about the celebrity” as if I had reminded a politician of some egregious failure of a foreign policy. To that response I was required to query “dark chapter in GM history?” he affirmed “dark very dark”.

    So thats about all I need to know about the celebrity… if my GM loving co-worker has it in his head it was a heap… I’m willing to bet the farm that it in fact was.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I moved back from the City in 1985. I bought a Celebrity Eurosport with a V6. I enjoyed driving it. and it did last for 9 years until it was totaled, but, IT STARTED TO RUST LESS THAN TWO MONTHS AFTER I BOUGHT IT.

    That was the last GM car I ever bought.

    I have owned Chryslers, Fords and Hondas since then, and none of them rusted.

  • avatar
    FunkyD

    Ah yes, the Citation was, as those incessant commercials put it, the “First Chevy of the 80s”, but not the first piece of crap to wear the bowtie. GM’s slide definately started before the X-cars. The Vega was the pioneer for GM malfescience and poor execution. The rot then spread throughout the rest of the 70s. The X-body predecessor (Nova and its cousins) beginning with the 1975 model year were notorious for dog-tracking due to subframes that were substandard. Add in the unbelievable cheapness of interiors (compare a 1972 with a 1978 Nova for example) and you can see the decline was well underway before the X-cars took it to the next level. I believe the whole X line was cancelled after the 1986 model year, IIRC.

    The best summation came from C&D (I think) when they said…

    “GM’s X-cars taught the company a lot about making an FWD automobile. It’s too bad that the lessons came at the expense of thousands of disgruntled owners!”

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    I wouldn’t put J.D. Power into the category of ‘Detroit Defenders’. If you have a lick of evidence that they are favoring GM over any other manufacturer, I’d be happy to hear it.

    Otherwise you’re trying to defend a biased viewpoint on an event that took place well over a generation ago. You know what? I don’t blame you for it. But in my business, it’s just not that simple.

    The fact is… Buick and Cadillac have outranked Toyota for 2005 and 2006 according to J.D. Power’s Dependability Study. They have enjoyed higher residuals at the auctions as a result of that quality.

    The fact is… a large number of Detroit models have been top ranked, and in recent years they have outnumbered the Japanese makes. In 2005 GM had double the number of models than Toyota. In the auto remarketing industry, this statistic really is not a surprising one.

    The fact is… I really do like your story. I also see plenty of parallels between GM’s problems during that time and today. I documented a few of them in my write-up. But to say that GM is still selling “yet another turd” contradicts the feedback that I have in front of me.

  • avatar
    210delray

    Someone said Consumer Reports wrote very favorably of the Plymouth Volare and Dodge Aspen when they came out in 1976. I kind of doubt that, but I do know that Motor Trend named this duo “Car of the Year,” just like the Vega, Mustang II, Monza V8, Omnirizon, and the X cars! Ah, the power of advertising!

  • avatar
    210delray

    Interestingly, my mom bought a new 1981 Citation 4-door hatch. I helped her pick it out. The car seemed like a luxury car compared to the ’79 Rabbit I was driving then. I do recall when I checked out the car, the rear hatch struts seemed to be on the weak side.

    She actually had the car for almost 12 years but only 50K miles. There were no rust problems, but the car was garaged, and probably never saw much salt even though she lives in Pittsburgh. Overall, there weren’t too many problems with it, but it did develop the “morning sickness” (no power steering assist when first started), some oil leaks as I recall, and sure enough, she had to carry a broomstick in the back to prop up the hatch!

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    One of my brother’s friends had an X-11. It wasn’t so much of a bad vehicle, as it was an ungodly ugly one.

    There are certain models that are just inexplicably bad from that time period. The Toyota Corolla Tercel, the Buick Lesabre Coupe, the mid-80’s Lincoln Continental, the Subaru XT.

    Seriously. I can’t understand how some of these vehicles ever became popular. There must have been something in the water.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    Was it the x-body where you had to loosen an engine mount to change one of the sparkplugs on the v6? – mrdweeb

    Changing the three rear spark plugs on the 1990-96 GM dustbuster minivans requires removal of the air cleaner, unbolting and tilting the engine, and discarding anything else that is in the way. Bonus, the spark plugs tend to seize.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Steven Lang, in re JDPower… If the Windstar is a segment winner for long-term reliability, JDPower should be investigated for fraud. No one I know who owned a Windstar (5) enjoyed the experience. Most merely had failed transmissions but the winner Windstar threw a rod.

    By the way, those links go to articles about a 3-year survey, not a 5-year survey.

    As regards the X-Car, I was mightily impressed with it when it came out. I didn’t buy one but I rode in a few. They were nicely appointed (for their day), lively enough with a 4-banger and quite roomy (I’m tall). The styling was clean and functional. I liked them a lot.

    Luckily, I never bought one. My Dad found it difficult to keep his Citation running (ditto a Skylark he later bought). My brother owned a troublesome one for a time and I had the opportunity to drive it. When driving it, the most impressive thing about it was the torque steer (how do you get that much torque steer out of an engine with very little torque?).

    Great idea, badly executed.

    But we also owned an ’82 Cavalier that treated us mostly pretty well for 80K miles and 10 years. Probably partly thanks to its innovative clear plastic coating on the lower rocker panels, it lasted 10 years with almost no rust (just in the dings and scrapes). The inside plastic, however, did start to oxidize agressively (no window tint and parked outside most of its life). It had very good brakes and, for an American car, very good handling. Awesome fuel economy (I routinely hit 40+mpg at 70mph). Power, however, was barely adequate (even for me and I’m not real fussy about power).

    The biggest problem, though, was dealer service – it was crap. And the car was not trouble-free (the radiator rusted out and we had some other problems), so dealer service was something you’d notice.

    At the time of purchase, too, the quality of the GM had it all over the K-car. The vinyl in the seats was noticeably thicker, the interior was generally nicer and several things in the K-car we test-drove were already broken.

    In its day, it was a pretty good car. If GM had kept advancing their small cars from the ’82 Cavalier (and improved the reliability), Toyota and Honda would be also-rans.

    But they didn’t, the Cavalier would run unchanged for about 10 years before a makeover and then another 10 or so before morphing into the Cobalt, which really isn’t much of an improvement over the ’82.

    In any event, I don’t think the X-car was the beginning of the end (if, for no other reason than the later J-cars were better). The X may have been troublesome but so was every other GM car (we also owned a Monza – gaaa!). THe problem with the X was that although it was a breakaway design, it wasn’t a breakaway build. New design (and unfamiliar to the dealers, so you knew there’d be trouble in the shop) but same old quality and it didn’t live up to its promise.

  • avatar
    HEATHROI

    “Hard to believe that the 2.8L V6 introduced at this time is still with us in 3.5L guise. I don’t really know how good a motor it is”.

    I really shouldn’t ask this but this motor wasn’t the same thing powering early base model Cadillac CTSs was it?

  • avatar
    Mervich

    There have been several posts here suggesting GM’s quality has improved in the years following the x-body. There may be a few supporting arguments for this line of thought, but there are a multitude more in support of the opposite…many of which have already been discussed. Another fine example of GM’s ever increasing quality was the use of a lesser grade of recycled steel in the doors of many mid to late 80’s models, resulting in outer door panels often rusting out in less than five years in nearly any climate.

  • avatar
    Steve_K

    It’s really too bad that GM relatively botched the original X-body cars, which were rear-drivers produced until 1979. The later wrong-wheel drive models have no relevance. I have owned two 1977 Olds Omegas, the first of which came to me out of necessity for a cheap ($550) college ride, and the second ($400) I acquired after developing an odd fascination with the car. It’s rare to find a person born before 1980 who hasn’t owned or known an owner of an original X-car. I believe there has been a huge segment of the auto market missing ever since: a cheap RWD car available as a coupe or sedan with THREE engine options (I-4, V6, V8) each available with auto or manual! I may be dreaming, but it seems such an offering would have tremendous reach in today’s auto market.

  • avatar
    Vetteman

    My career was spent working for a large Chevrolet Buick Cadillac Dealer and after 35 years being on the inside looking out I could write a book. My early years in the seventys and eightys was spent as parts manager a job I truly loved. Thru advancements I had the title of service manager , service director , and finally General manager. I really love the car business but i got to tell you it was sad watching Gm flounder around year after year. In thirty five years I have purchased and driven many new GM cars and trucks. To me 1973 was the start downhill. New cars would hardly run because of newly mandated emission controls. Catalytic converters came in 1975. All the manufacturers were stretched trying to cope and other areas of the vehicle suffered. The eightys were a real nightmare with Gms ill concieved diesels. 4-6-8 Cadillacs and overdrive transmission that failed way too soon. As for quality any friends or family who bought a new car from me I strongly recommened an extended warranty as I knew they would more than likely need it. My own experience has been mixed. I have had really great service from my chevy trucks and suburbans but the GM cars I have owned have been dismal. The last two Cadillac STS sevilles were really bad. Both cars were constantly in for warranty and I kept each three years and both had around fifteen warranty repairs. These ran the gammut from warped disk brake rotors, failed window regulators, water leaks, heated seat failures, steering intermediate shaft clunking, oil leaks, tie rod ends that were too loose, Tail lamps that filled with water, seat belt problems , well you get the drift. Oh by the way these leased cars were turned in with less than 25 thousand miles on them. I wisely leased them because I knew to buy one is inviting a bloodbath on depreciation. Of course I was loyal to GM products partly because I worked for a GM dealer and I do like a lot of their vehicles. After I retired my wife needed a new car and I decided we would for the first time in our marriage look at all brands not just GM. It was fun shopping with out a bias and after months of doing our research ended up with a new Lexus GS. A key reason for the Lexus was it reputation for quality. I gotta tell you this car is amazing. Not one problem in two years. Three oil changes and one tire rotation. I love this car. I now don't have the wife telling me every six to eight weeks about some new obscure problem. We just drive it . I wash it and put gas in it and the wife is a happy camper. The quality in the car is excellent. Fantastic fit and finish. Paint is flawless something Gm can't say. Ride quality, smoothness , lack of vibration, steering feel wind noise , door fit, all light years ahead of our Cadillacs. I cant get over how the doors close. Just a solid thunk not a mixture of mechanical sounds and vibration. And no ater leaks in the trunk or headlamps or tailamps. We used to joke about GM's water cooled headlamps and tailamps. In my humble opinion GM in its current form is doomed primarily because it has spent all its assets on twenty years of launching new vehicles that have really failed in the market place and with the customers. To me the most telling sign now is the utter lack of confidence most new car buyers have in a GM product but even more serious a lack in confidence in the company itself.

  • avatar
    jurisb

    there is a certain engineering comlexity level which becomes unsurpassable for some countries or attitudes. gm run the benchmark in chrome and massiveness and design( muscles, carnivore dominance). but after customers got taste in gizmos and fit and finish ( agility ,adaptation makes the natural selection, dinosaurs fail), gm started to fail and wither. they always sleep on laurels as long as they start rotting. whenever a japanese company offered advances in fuel economy or quality, gm bragged even more about chrome, and called japanese cars `water distillable kit- scale models.` today japanese have surpassed that technological edge to which Gm is even able to. I speak of lexus. that`s why gm uses so many foreign parts and suppliers, because the management and engineering culture and attitude doesn`t allow gm to manufacture such things themselves. that`s why american space and aviation industry is withering too. the engineering challenge is too high to be met by domestic means. that`s why you have motorola enginnering units in japan and intel factories in japan. what do japanes have better than americans? brains? NO. just 3 seemingly tiny things. ATTITUDE,SENSE OF ACHIEVEMENT AND PRIDE( how many japanese managers commit suicide after failing a company? how many american managers commit suicide after failing a company?). And guys I am not talking here about lions or fags. THERE IS A UNIVERSAL JUSTICE, AND THE EYES OF TRUTH ARE ALWAYS WATCHING YOU.( ENIGMA, return to innocence album).

  • avatar
    windswords

    HEATHROI:
    June 3rd, 2007 at 11:35 pm
    ‘ “Hard to believe that the 2.8L V6 introduced at this time is still with us in 3.5L guise. I don’t really know how good a motor it is”.

    I really shouldn’t ask this but this motor wasn’t the same thing powering early base model Cadillac CTSs was it? ‘

    I can’t say for the car engines, but my experience with a GM 2.8 in an S-10 pickup was very good. The engine never quit. I got the truck with 143k miles on it and sold it with 228 (it’s still running today). All I did was reg maint and replace the clutch (5 spd) and the ignition coil somewhere around 180-200k miles (it was the original coil – don’t know about the clutch).

  • avatar
    Gerry T

    GM DNA, Muscle Cars all the way
    The other day I walked into my nearest Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Cadillac dealership. Since GM hasn’t made an Oldsmobile since 2004, I guess the dealership didn’t have enough money to change the sign.

    Looking over the horror of hardened chewing gum and plastic, I approached an Impala SS. As I was admiring the coil near plug, pushrod technology, a salesman immediately pounced upon me and said “You like?” I was struck by the irony of a Japanese guy who barely spoke English trying to sell me a product from a American manufacturer who barely knows how to make cars.

    “303 horsepower!” he says. Hmm, I think “lots of torque steer”. I tune out the salesman. I haven’t been to a GM dealership in a long time. I ponder how similar the cars in this showroom are to the GM products I owned over a 20 year period.

    I read that the Impala SS has:

    “Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) – ETC replaces the mechanical link between the accelerator pedal and engine with drive–by–wire electronic control. This allows for remarkably smooth acceleration.”

    I recalled the GM Envoy Epic SL (for Super Luxury) I owned about 30 years ago. I had also invented a mechanical link between the accelerator pedal and engine; it was “drive-by-extension cord” technology. The throttle linkage on this Epic would separate from the carburetor if you hit a bump too hard. I found this out when, like GM is today, I was 1000 miles from nowhere. I tied one end of an extension cord to the carb, ran it out the hood, through the window and activated it with my left hand. (It worked well until the cord got wedged under the hood with the engine at full throttle). Good thing the famous GM horsepower kept my Epics terminal speed slightly faster than my little 5 year old Welsh Corgi dog can run.

    Seeing this bit about GM’s new “ETC” technology I wonder, should I send a note to GM thanking them for causing me to learn how to rebuild carburetors?

    While I never owned an Impala SS I did own an Impala. The transmission in my Impala convertible went while I was towing a boat. I will never forget the tow truck got better mileage towing my Impala and the boat than I got on my own..

    I wonder, should I send a note to GM thanking them for causing me to learn how to replace automatic transmissions?

    The interior of the Cobalt SS looks surprisingly similar to the Chevette I used to own, except the one in the showroom still had a floor. My Chevette came with a biodegradable floor. I recall that I spent a considerable amount of time researching how to replace it.

    I wonder, should I send a note to GM thanking them for causing me to learn how to weld?

    I don’t know why, but the HHR reminded me of my Vega GT. The Vega came with a remarkably self-destructive motor. With this car, I learned about aftermarket additives that mask “piston slap” and “bearing knock” and how synthetic oil doesn’t smoke when you are trying to sell a car that uses 1 quart of oil per tank of gas.

    I wonder should I send a note to GM thanking them for causing me to learn how to rebuild motors.

    I walk by the 2007 Corvette with poorly fitting panels and remember that I couldn’t drive my Cutlass 2 door more than 65 miles per hour without the drivers side window popping out. I understand that new Corvette owners are discovering that their car comes with a “roof popping out” feature.

    When I looked at the Chevy Tahoe I was reminded of the last GM vehicle I bought, a GMC ¾ ton. I looked at the engine, drive train and the interior. I saw a lot of familiar parts.

    I wonder should I write a note to GM thanking them for causing me to go back to night school for 3 years to learn how to fix EVERYTHING on that piece of shit truck.

    Since I stopped buying GM products, my automotive diagnostic and repair skills have deteriorated. Because my post GM vehicles have not required repairs, I am not getting regular workouts. I spent 20 years muscling around 60 pound warped heads, bench pressing 250 pound transmissions on my chest, and powerlifting 400 pound engines from cars. Come to think of it, most of GM’s line up are “muscle” cars.

    So I wondered as I left the dealership with the Japanese sales guy practicing his English on a customer at the parts counter, should I send a note to GM and ask them if I should join a fitness club or buy another one of their “muscle” cars?

  • avatar
    partsisparts

    On the other side of the coin, my aunt bought a 1980 Buick Skylark X body. One of the first ones off the line.She drove it for 8 years and never had a problem except for recalls. Go figure.

  • avatar
    NN

    My Dad was a Chevy man growing up, and I remember his old Citation (I think it was an 83′). I don’t remember too much of the car, except for the vinyl seats that seared my legs and ass during hot summers and coming home from the neighborhood pool. In 1986, my Dad got rid of the 3-year old POS Citation, and bought his first Japanese car, a Honda Accord. When it comes to cars, he has never gone back…he now drives an Acura TL. He still has some faith in Chevy trucks, however…he’s got an 01 Tahoe that is a great vehicle and has held up well. It seems GM only pours enough development money into a few products to make them decent…Corvette, Tahoe/Suburban, Silverado, CTS, Lambda CUV’s. Everything else is done on the cheap. My wife is looking for a small CUV, so we dropped by over the weekend and checked out the Equinox. What a miserable piece of garbage that vehicle was compared to the offerings from Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai.

  • avatar
    Steve_S

    Most of the cars made in the 70’s and 80’s were crap. I had a 1979 Toyota pickup as my first vehicle and it was crap (granted it was 8 years old when I got it). Trash interior, it shook at anything over 60 which took 20 seconds to get to and I could see the road going by under the car if I cared to lift the ratty carpet.

  • avatar
    yankinwaoz

    Can I point something out? On the “GM Death Watch” we get post after post of examples of poor GM quality, both in the past, and on current models. Yet that the same time we get post after post telling us the new GM cars are beating the pants off Japanese and European cars in surveys (JD Powers, et. all).

    Perhaps the problem is that since GM makes vehicles across a very wide automotive spectrum, the problem is that some of their brands and models are great, and some are dreadful.

    I will use Dell Computer as an example. I buy and use Dell Latitude laptops and I could not be happier. Rock solid, reliable, and awesome service. Yet I run onto customer after customer who bitches about the problems they have had with Dell. I had me puzzled. How is it that for over 10 years and many computers I’ve had nothing but fantastic luck with Dell? So I started asking questions whenever someone bitched to me.

    I discovered the problem was that these customers where buying the inexpensive consumer grade Dells. These machines compete on price to sell to very price sensitive home users.

    Now in my case, my computers are my livelihood. So quality and reliability is my number one purchasing criteria. A day without my computer can cost me hundreds of dollars in business. So saving $50 on a laptop is not worth it to me. Thus, I buy their business workhorse Latitudes. They are not cheap.. almost twice the price of a similar speced home model.

    Now getting back to GM. Dell, like GM, sells products across a broad spectrum of clients. And like Dell, perhaps their problem is that some of their product lines suck, and some are awesome.

    Thus, the poor consumer needs to ignore the GM label and instead focus on a particular line and model.

    Now to credit Toyota, they have managed to make sure that all of their lines have a good reputation. They aren’t hit-n-miss like GM and Dell are. So to the defenders of GM products, please keep in mind that GM needs to win all the battles, not just some of them, to regain our trust.

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    After reading the horror stories, I think it’s fair to put in a positive word in between.

    I bought a four year old, low mileage, 90 model Chevrolet 2500, 3/4 Ton truck back when I needed a something built for towing. I drove it all over a tri-state area for nearly 5 years.

    It was reliable as dirt. It only needed normal maintenance, a serpentine belt, brakes, a clutch master cylinder and a starter during the time I owned it. That’s not much to complain about for 70,000 miles of service.

    The worse thing I can say about that 3/4 ton was that it was white and the paint began to peel off. The local dealer put in a warranty claim with GM and it was approved.

    Needless to say, should I need another full size truck, I’d gladly settle for another GM , as long as it comes with the venerable 350 cast iron engine and a manual transmission.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I know I’m dating myself, but back in college (mid>late ’70’s) GM were the shit! Whether it was a Monte Carlo, TransAm, Camaro, Cutlass, or even the Skylark, they were head and tails above everyone else as far as lust-a-ability.

    In ’78 I bought a TransAm, but it spent 5 out the 18 months I owned it visiting the dealer. I traded for a Mustang Cobra in ’80, which also couldn’t cut the cord to the dealership. Aggravated, I looked over the Fiesta and Escort, both being touted as the “next level”. The Escort was crap, but the Fiesta was interesting since it was German-flingable….but I was leery of a European car (remember the Renault Fuego?? Fiat Brava? Friends had both, and wept daily). Finally, in ’81 I bought a Celica, which provided 180k and 10 years of trouble-free motoring.

    Haven’t bought an American label since, although several intrigue me…the Mustang, Covette, Ford 500, Saturn Aura….but to be honest, after 5 Japanese branded vehicles between my wife and I that have all easily reached 100k+ miles (200k+ on two of them) without major trauma….why change?

    The final nail in the coffin was the campaign after 9/11 – however honorable it was to get America rolling again, GM led the way to becoming a discount car company with the endless promotion, culminating in employee discounts for everyone. They haven’t recovered fromt that, nor will they.

    Sadly, though, I have to agree with several submitters – I think Ford is going down first. I say sadly because it always seemed despite some of the crap they foisted on us, they were always trying new angles in design and ultility.

  • avatar

    Speaking as one who dumped a 98 Buick due to plastic engine parts, I can say, huh, plastic heater core in 1980? Doesnt’ the General ever learn?

    John

  • avatar

    While I can relate to all those who have had problems (I owned a Vega GT after all), I must chip in with a positive GM story. In August 1985 we purchased a 1986 Chevy Celebrity Eurosport sedan. Lousy name, great car. Died one week after I bought it, we found out that the fuel pump was installed upside down. Once fixed we had no more problems. I still have it almost 22 years later. Original 2.8l V6 engine, steering rack, tranny, everything. Still looks fairly good too, despite salty Canadian winters. There are a shocking number of these A-body GMs around, lots make great winter beaters and cheap wheels for students. The GM A-body cars were derived fromt he X-body cars, so maybe GM learned something from the X-body experiment. They forgot those lessons when they went to the W-Body Lumina, Gran Prix, etc. The Celebrity was followed up with a 1999 Pontiac Montana minivan – it went 6 years with zero repairs. GM has had some success stories, just no consistenly enough as someone else pointed out.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    Perhaps the problem is that since GM makes vehicles across a very wide automotive spectrum, the problem is that some of their brands and models are great, and some are dreadful.

    That’s not a bad observation. I’d say this:

    -These highly reliable GM cars are few and far between. Out of its stable of nameplates in North America (last I checked, roughly 70 vehicles), only a few get particularly high marks for reliability. It’s hard to build a brand reputation for quality when most of your vehicles are lacking.

    -Those few GM cars that are highly reliable are not very desirable to most of us. When put side-by-side against an Accord or Camry, not many buyers (aside from National Rent A Car) is going to want a rapidly depreciating, dull and unattractive Malibu, for example. And there’s not much reason to buy a larger Buick in a market where tastes are largely moving toward sports sedans, and away from the sofa-on-wheels that once comprised a large part of the market.

    -Most specifically, JD Power has two surveys: its Initial Quality Survey (IQS) and the Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS). The IQS is done at the 90-day mark, while the VDS is done at the 3-year mark. Accordingly, neither survey provides much data about long-term reliability or how well these cars age beyond the warranty period, which is often when the complaints begin.

    What the Domestic Defenders often miss is that while reliability is important to many buyers, reliability is not the only feature that consumers want. The transplants are generally more appealing on many levels AND they typically carry the benefit of greater reliability, which makes them preferable in the minds of many buyers.

    To win in the marketplace, it isn’t just matter of making a more reliable mousetrap. The mousetrap also has to be more desirable and better at meeting consumer needs, and GM clearly struggles with this.

    In any case, there is still a quality gap. Even if the gap is shrinking, the fact that there is a gap at all makes the Big 2.5 purchase more risky and pushes consumers to make other choices. This press release from JD Power summarizes it well:

    Neal Oddes, J.D. Power’s director of product research and analysis, says there is still “a pretty large gap between Asian and domestic brands, but that gap is closing,” he says, explaining that in the consultancy’s 2003 durability study the gap between domestics and Japanese brands was 40 problems per 100 vehicles. He says it is now at around 26 problems per 100 vehicles. He says domestics are making progress on improving quality at a quicker pace than Toyota “because it’s harder to make improvements in leaps and bounds when you are already doing so well [in terms of vehicle quality and durability],” he says.

    http://publications.mediapost.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=59024

  • avatar
    50merc

    Another possible reason for the X-cars’ troubles is that not only was the design quite different from the typical American car of that day, it was built in a brand new plant. Many of the workers at the Oklahoma City assembly plant transferred from other GM factories, but a hefty percentage of the workforce must have been new to that kind of work.

    A quarter-century later, OKC Assembly ranked high in quality and productivity, but that wasn’t enough to save it. Now it’s another grim reminder of GM’s better days.

  • avatar
    homeworld1031tx

    Brad Kozak:
    homeworld1031tx:

    I’m sorry, but I had to ask for its comical value: how did you manage to sink your car? I always love funny car crash stories (at least when no one is hurt)

    In retrospect, it probably is a funny story. The only thing that died was my car. If there’s some interest, I’ll write a piece about that incident. Suffice it to say that it involved launching a fishing boat, a safe boating film, two wreckers, a scuba diver, and a set of drums.

    The really sad part? The Ford sinking was the SECOND sub-marine experience I’ve had with an automobile.

    I would love to read a short story on this, you could start you’re own Auto-biography segment like Paul.

  • avatar
    shrique

    You know over time all the GM cars I’ve owned have been a royal PITA. Like others before me have said it’s not that they would fail complete it’s that they would annoy you into hating them.

    At the VERY LEAST GM has made nothing but insanely mediocre cars for almost their entire career. I had an 81 Buick Regal. That car alone made me not buy another GM.

    I later gave Saturn a try. Very reliable car but absolutely the worse interior design/materials ever. I realize that Saturn was supposedly a non-GM car but they sure are GM now.

    I guess my point, if I had one to begin with, is that maybe they are at least as reliable in the short term as other brands but that doesn’t make them good cars.

    What’s that old quote, something about lipstick on a pig? (GRIN)

  • avatar
    confused1096

    I’ll admit I’m middle of the road on GM. As for the Celebrity mentioned by various posters. The 2.5 4cyl model was junk, I know from painful and expensive experience. I’ve talked to people that owned one with a V6 and were not too disapointed with it. I know, damning with faint praise, but whatever.
    I’ve owned GM cars that were pretty good and others that I could have cheerfully emptied a clip into.
    They’re claiming that they’re just as good as the imports (”This time we mean it, really!”) now and maybe they are. I just keep going back to test driving that Uplander when we were minivan hunting in October ‘06. I was beyond disapointed. I was offended that the thing was of such blatant, dismal quality. When Kia smokes you in fit and finish… They might be improving, the Equinox company truck I had last year was nice (repeated problems with the wheel-bearings, but nice). But after driving that sorry excuse for a minivan I believe they have a ways to go.

  • avatar
    naif

    how about it started in the very early 70s when i noticed paint coming off of hoods, roofs and deck lids.

  • avatar
    supremebrougham

    My first car was a 1985 Skylark, the last of the X cars. It was the first new car my parents ever had, they bought it when I was nine years old. I remember being facinated with certain features of the car, such as the floodlighting on the dashboard, and the electronic tuning radio with digital display. And the room!!! How could a car that small be so roomy??? I remember the worst thing about that car was the horrid 2.5 liter engine. At 14000 miles, it blew a head gasket. After that, it never ran right. When I was in my teens we moved from Michigan to Florida and took the Skylark with us, and when I got my license, I asked for the car, and I loved it. The car itself was built like a tank, it survived two rear endings and one front ender with little more than a scrape on the bumper. The doors always closed with a solid thunk. I cried when my dad made me get rid of it, (even though the right front brake locked up and caught fire) and got me a Corolla. Five years later I found the Skylark in a junkyard, in a condition that I would have never let that car get into. Aside from getting a few emblems and the other original set of keys from it that day, I had to smile when after I opened one of the doors and closed it, it still closed with the same solid thunk it did the day my parents drove it home from the dealer. It’s a shame that GM didn’t do better by that car, because I thought it had tremendous potential. Granted, in some ways it was a turd, but I loved that car, and to this day, whenever I have a dream that I am driving somewhere, I’m always in that little Skylark, and it’s a good dream. :)

  • avatar
    nino

    “Hard to believe that the 2.8L V6 introduced at this time is still with us in 3.5L guise. I don’t really know how good a motor it is”.
    I really shouldn’t ask this but this motor wasn’t the same thing powering early base model Cadillac CTSs was it?

    The early CTS engine was the 3.2 liter, 54 degree Opel V6 that was in the Catera and Saturn L300 (as a 3 liter V6).

    When Cadillac went to a “high value” 3.6 liter, 60 degree V6, the base engine became a 2.8 liter version of the 3.6 liter engine.

    None of these overhead cam designs have anything to do with the 2.8 liter pushrod engines in the “X” cars or the later 3.5 (and 3.9) liter engines sold by GM today.

  • avatar
    davey49

    My brother had an 81 Citation X-11. It was mechanically unreliable but I think it was due to him trying to “mod” the car. He installed a 500 CFM Holley 2 bbl(way to big) with a manual choke on the 2.8L. Body wise it held up pretty good. A lot better than the Hondas we owned. They both rusted so much the strut mount popped through the hood!
    The truth is, only 3 brands of cars were any good through the 80s. Volvo, Audi and Mercedes Benz.
    Everything else was junk in some way.

  • avatar
    nino

    The problem as I see it with GM then and now, isn’t so much that the GM cars back then were bad (they were) or that the GM cars now are better (they are), it’s that when you DO have a problem, GM and its dealers could give a rat’s ass about it. GM’s definition of customer service is to exasperate their customers to the point where they just go away.

    One of my favorite excuses given to me by a GM dealer when I was having a TON of trouble with my 1986 Trans Am was, “Sir, do you realize that a modern car has over 10,000 parts in it? Even if the car was 99.9% perfect, it would have 10 things wrong with it.”

    To which I replied, “Maybe so, but you’d think even an idiot would’ve changed all those parts in the 4 FREAKIN’ MONTHS YOU’VE HAD THE CAR FOR SERVICE!”

    Got a nice settlement at arbitration.

  • avatar
    nino

    This website has all the info on the GM “family tree” of 60 degree V6 engines

    http://members.shaw.ca/betterthanyoutoo/60degreetree/60degreetree.htm

  • avatar
    jthorner

    This website has all the info on the GM “family tree” of 60 degree V6 engines

    How any website can claim to chronical that engine family without making mention of the horrible intake manifold gasket failure problems they enjoyed for almost two decades is a bit of a mystery!

  • avatar

    I had a similar experience with my 1987 Bonneville SE. After about 1000 miles the camshaft sensor disintegrated, taking the camshaft with it. The car was mostly reliable until the warranty ran out, when it seemed as if the engine recieved a signal to start making parts fly off. Water pump, transmission, sensors (ALWAYS the oxygen sensors), something would brak every single month, to the point where I was spending more on repairs than I had on payments.

  • avatar
    nino

    How any website can claim to chronical that engine family without making mention of the horrible intake manifold gasket failure problems they enjoyed for almost two decades is a bit of a mystery!

    Well, to me it looks as though that website is sort of a “homage” to the 60 degree GM V6.

    I only posted it so that anyone who might be confused about which GM V6 engine went into what,
    could see for themselves.

    But I do believe that originally this website was linked to a V6 high performance website that did cronicle all the faults of the 60 degree V6.

  • avatar
    whynotaztec

    I hate to pile on but I must. My horror story starts with a 1991 z34; very quick, but a permanently misaligned and squeaky front end, which culminated in the right front wheel falling off in traffic. My story ends with a 1999 montana and the infamous 3.4 gasket failure and eventual blown motor at 60k. I won’t bore you with how the dealers treated me, suffice to say I love the Solstice and Sky….but NO WAY.

  • avatar
    Sigivald

    Mikey: My 31 year old (76) Mercedes only started rusting at all last year, because of cracked roof paint.

    I think the problem you’re seeing is due to road salt, not rust-prone cars. Rust-prone cars rust even without salted roads, which Ontario has.

    No (ferrous metal) car can withstand years of salt; but some cars rust out horribly even without them (International Scout, anyone?), is the thing.

  • avatar

    My parents actually did very well with an ’87 4cyl Celebrity wagon. They traded it when it was 10 yrs old with 140k. My brother had the same year Celebrity wagon with 6cyl. Nickeled and dimed him to death, and he got rid of it at shy of 100k.

    Parents also had an ’80 Citation. I don’t think that car made it much past 100k. But it wasn’t nearly as bad as Brad’s.

    Wonderful story.

  • avatar

    Steve_S:
    Most of the cars made in the 70’s and 80’s were crap. I had a 1979 Toyota pickup as my first vehicle and it was crap (granted it was 8 years old when I got it). Trash interior, it shook at anything over 60 which took 20 seconds to get to and I could see the road going by under the car if I cared to lift the ratty carpet.

    My first car that I bought (as opposed to inheriting from my father) was an 8 year old ’77 toyota Corolla w/ 91k. It too had a trashy interior, and when you floored it (which I did all the time) it felt like another person was pushing. But it was sturdy. There was a windy road in DC that went over a brook several times with bridges that went up and down sharply. I used to enjoy getting the thing airborn. I drove it for 8 yrs, to 161k. It was cheap and reliable. I spent 10k on everything for that car, down to parking tickets

  • avatar
    capdeblu

    What a great article. My first new car was a Dodge K car. Well it was a disaster and as I was very young and broke I never had the extra cash to trade it in. And I owed more on it than it was worth. Luckily after 4 years it was in an accident and the insurance paid it off.

    Oddly the engine and transmission held up well but everything else broke. The computer (several times) A/C, radiator, alternator all went out. I once called a local dealership for service and they told me there was a 6 week wait. Chrysler headquarters was no help when I found out this “NEW” car had been wrecked before I bought it. And the odometer had been tampered with.

    So even though I like the 300 It is unlikely I would ever buy another Chrysler. Too many headaches.

  • avatar
    Tommy Jefferson

    How many of you realize that the Ford Windstar beat out the Odyssey, Sienna, and all other models for 3 year durability according to J.D. Power?

    “3 year durability”? Really, Are you serious?

    Do marketers not even realize that to promote such nonsense as a “3 year durability rating” is insulting to consumers?

    “Look! Our car is as good as anybody’s for the first 3 years”!

    Imagine if Craftsman Tools, Maytag, or Smith & Wesson employed such ridiculous marketing.

  • avatar
    andreweku

    I'm not sure when GM's downward slide started, but I am sure that it's not out of its slump. My family, for some reason, has owned a string of GM products, and none of them have been enjoyable experiences. It started with a 1999 Oldsmobile Intrigue, with the 3.5L V6. That was the first year for the 3.5, and we should have known better than to chance it, but my parents loved the styling and the way it drove, so off we went. Shortly after we got it, the problems started… random stalling, hard shifting-transmission, suspension clunks and groans, vibration problems, a few minor electrical issues, exterior fit-and-finish issues (chrome strips over the doors kept coming loose), the camshaft sensor(s) had to be replaced 3 times, and the engine was burning oil. All of this happened within 2 and ½ years and 30,000 miles. My dad was too afraid to keep it any longer, so he traded it in on a 2002 Impala. We had nearly constant trouble with vibrations in the front end, and the head gasket was blown at 19,000 miles. Although I told them to stop buying GM vehicles, a few thousand miles later they traded the Impala in on a base 2005 Grand Prix with the 3800 Series III. If they were absolutely going to buy another GM product, I assumed they were safest with the Grand Prix, since it had the supposedly rock-solid 3800. Oh boy, was I wrong. This is the worst car I’ve ever encountered. This is a list of repairs that have occurred in the 2.5 years and 40,000 miles we’ve owned the car: the fan switch died, so my parents had no fan to defog the windows on a rainy trip of about 150 miles, a piece in the Onstar died, and we waited 3 months for the part; the A/C compressor was replaced at about 30,000 miles, and the new one is now roaring louder than the engine; a clogged catalytic converter, a disappearing display on the instrument panel; intermediate steering shaft clunk; warped brakes; constant vibration issues in the front end; the transmission also acts strange… it shifts to top gear as fast as it can and holds it relentlessly until you have to basically stomp the gas pedal, which produces a dramatic and harsh downshift… then it's back up to top gear as soon as possible, with the car bucking a surging along the whole way; and finally, to the problems related to that piece-of-crap 3800 engine… the whole time we’ve had it, sometimes the car will jerk, stutter, and misfire like something crazy, but as soon as you turn the car off and restart it, the problem goes away…. the PCM has been reprogrammed no less than 3 times, it’s been hooked up to the diagnostic machine more times than that, and there’s still no fix for the problem… they said that it might be the computer, but I can’t get them to actually REPLACE it…. the dealer is totally and completely unwilling to do anything more than look at me and say “They all do that” or “We couldn’t get it to do that while we had it.” It’s totally and completely infuriating, and although I’d dump this car in a heartbeat, we’re so far upside down in debt from trading all these cars that we’re going to have to keep it for years to come just to get the debt to equal out to the value of the car! I also think that the completely horrible chain of GM dealers is responsible for turning people away from the company. If you feel like you’re being taken seriously when you have a problem, it goes a long way toward making you calmer and more relaxed about your car’s situation. However, if you’re treated like an idiot, and nobody can give you a decent answer about why your car keeps screwing up, it’s going to alienate you from the brand altogether. I have sworn that I will never, EVER buy another GM product ever again, and I won’t let my parents do it, either. I can’t get over the number of times that I’ve heard “Oh, they all do that” or “well, it’s not really bad enough to warrant replacement right now” or some ridiculous statement like that. The X-bodies might have started GM’s decline, but the W-bodies are keeping the tradition alive.

  • avatar

    I’ve tried to like domestic cars, really I have. Now, they can make trucks like nobody else, but cars? Not so much.

    My father is a bullet-dodger. He fell for the hype of the X bodies and wanted one badly. He also wanted a Renault 18i. Luckily, neither of those came to pass. I take his automotive desires as a warning sign to stay away now.

    Anyhow, I was lucky to grow up in a household of imported cars. When I got married, I inherited responsibility of my wife’s purchased-new 1989 Cavalier 2.0 automatic. I tried to like that car, really I did. Changing the oil filter was easy only after chopping a hole in the fender liner. The engine, which probably wasn’t that bad, lost all of it’s power somewhere inside the slushbox transmission. It handled pretty well, and was unstoppable in the snow. But the interior was cheap, the window regulator broke, the bottoms of the doors started to rust and the clearcoat began to crack on the top surfaces. While the car didn’t actually break, it certainly didn’t inspire confidence in the 55,000 miles she kept it. I finally pointed out the impending doom to her and we dumped it for a same year VW Jetta GLI with twice the miles. While it wasn’t perfect, at least it was fun to drive and didn’t depreciate like a stone.

    I worked on my neighbor’s Focus wagon and replaced a broken window regulator, and was appalled at how poorly made it was. I was actually considering buying one.

    OTOH, I’ve had numerous dull fleet Fords over the years that have provided good service (Contours, Tauruses, Ranger) but then one of my co-workers tells me his Five Hundred not only took a transmission in the first 30,000 miles but also caught fire and burned last week. I think I’ll stick to imports for now.

  • avatar
    GeoKrpan

    I think GM lost it in the mid 1960s.
    My yardstick is the number of Impalas for sale on Hemmings Motor News.
    1964 has the most, 49, and then it drops off steadily.
    GM lost touch with the car buying public long before the Citation
    There are zero Citations for sale on Hemmings.

  • avatar
    thebaron

    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.

  • avatar
    1981X-11

    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/


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