By on November 18, 2010

Between the years 1988 and 1993, GM decided to use Americans in a mass experiment, in which I found myself  an unwitting participant. Seemingly unable to determine on its own whether Korean-made cars would pass muster here, GM just sent boatloads of them over and slapped on the storied Pontiac LeMans name, no less. Then it looked for suckers/participants, both long and short term. Oddly enough, one actually had to pay to play. I ponied up for a week’s worth in the summer of 1990, and put it through the most difficult torture possible to try to kill it, in revenge for having been drafted by Hertz to do GM’s work. I hereby submit my results, in the hopes of getting my money back. Oh wait; that was the old GM. Well, someone’s going to pay to hear my evaluation, twenty years late or not.

I’m assuming the overall experiment didn’t go so well even without my input, because GM and Daewoo broke up in 1992, right about when the US-LeMans experiment was ending. It wasn’t the first time Daewoo got kicked out of bed for a poor performance, having previously shared sheets with both Toyota and Datsun.  Daewoo then went through its brief independent single era, which ended in tears and bankruptcy, and back in the General’s loving arms in about 2002 or so, despite the LeMans experiment, or maybe because of it. They were obviously meant for each other.

It was a particularly rude choice of GM to inflict the LeMans onto Americans via Pontiac, since historically the once-proud Indian brand occupied a notch above Chevrolet in the corporate pecking order. And Chevy/Geo was selling some quite decent Japanese cars at the time, both the Corolla-clone Prizm, as well as the Isuzu-built Spectrum. Saturn was also still in its heyday. So why dump this on poor Pontiac?

I suppose one could argue that Pontiac was already the GM cesspool of small cars at the time. Its Chevette-clone 1000 began rotting before it was introduced almost ten years earlier, and the Sunbird was no gem. And there was the not-so Grand Am. How’s another piece of crap dumped on Pontiac going to hurt it? It’s not like it’s going to go under or anything like that.

The Daewoo LeMans actually had some pedigree. It was heavily based on the Opel Kadett E, the lead member of GM’s global T-Platform that found its way around the world. But something go lost in the translation into Korean, because the real McCoy Kadett/Astra was generally able to give the Golf a reasonable run for its money on its home turf.

In the summer of 1990, my younger brother and I both needed a break from our jobs and young families. My parents were heading to the mountains of Colorado for a vacation, so we played hookie and joined them. My rental was a 1990 LeMans four door. It was almost brand new, but felt like it had already spent a lifetime being abused: the steering was sloppy, the suspension felt like all the bushings and shocks were worn, the engine moaned like it was about to die. And the interior was deadly. “Use Me – Abuse Me” was etched all over its thin paint.

With a 74 hp 1.6 L four hooked to a three-speed automatic, the LeMans was feeble enough at Denver’s altitude; but we were heading to Leadville, the highest town in the continental US. Taking the Hwy 6 bypass at the Eisenhower Tunnel to Loveland Pass took us to 12,000 feet, and the Daewoo was already wheezing and staggering with altitude sickness. But that was just the warm up act.

We came here to climb the 14,000 ft. peaks of the Collegiate Range, but my seventy-year old father needed a one day break between hiking, and my mother couldn’t hike at all. So on alternate days, I took them mountain climbing in the LeMans. There are numerous old wagon and mining roads all over that part of the Rockies; I can’t remember exactly which ones we took, but if they were headed up, so did we.

These rough rock and gravel “roads” that sometimes reach 13,000 feet or so are normally the exclusive domain of genuine four wheel drives. In the old days, tall and rugged two-wheel drive trucks were adequate, and I had conquered a few with my old VW Beetle. But a rear-engined high-clearance 15″ wheeled VW is not a low-squatting, FWD LeMans. Just for the record, a light FWD car with four adults aboard on a very steep grade is the worst drive train configuration possible, except perhaps a rear-engined car with front wheel drive, which I don’t remember ever being built (please, someone prove me wrong).[Update: the Dymaxion]

But we gave the LeMans the spurs, and it scrabbled its way up most everything we could find, although I seem to remember backing down one at some point when the wheels just couldn’t find traction anymore. I might have tried going up backwards; if necessary; that’s the way to go up a too-steep hill in a FWD car. We got high enough as it was, and the boulders we scraped on its bottom were fortunately well inside of the rocker panels.

My mother took and sent me the picture above, which was taken on one of our “climbing expeditions”. On the back, she wrote: “this was taken on one of the lower peaks we reached. A triumph for the car and your driving, Paul!” Aw shucks, Mom! I was just doing my job for GM! But I’ll pass on the compliments belatedly.

Since I’ve already hijacked the main LeMans thread, I’ll share another brief story from that trip. My father, a medic, was captured by the Allies near Normandy during WWII, and likely owes his life to being one of a fairly small number of POWs to be sent to the US, where he was well-fed. In the the large POW camps in France, he saw his weight and health decline precipitously, and attended to many starving POWs. Since the war was as good as over by then, his group was sent to various military camps to tear them down. One of them was here at Camp Hale, also near Leadville, where the famous 10th Mountain Division trained before heading to Italy. Here my father stands at the foundations of the buildings he helped dismantle forty-five years earlier. And we got there courtesy of the LeMans.

OK, so the LeMans never gave up regardless of what I dished out. Getting there is one thing, how it feels getting there is what makes the car. And what really put the LeMons into perspective was that my father’s rental was the all-new Mazda 323-based gen2 Ford Escort. The difference between the two was huge. The Escort felt so buttoned down on the (paved) winding roads; it was a pretty impressive small car for the times. Of course, he wouldn’t dare let us compare its climbing abilities to the Daewoo, so that aspect will be forever unknown. But then Ford wasn’t asking us to be their guinea pigs.

Even if Americans didn’t end up embracing the Korean LeMans, it has found a more loving home elsewhere. And a more enduring one too. They’re still being made today as the UzDaewoo Nexia in Uzbekistan (insert Borat joke here).

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56 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1990 Pontiac LeMans – The Lows And Rocky Mt. Highs Of GM’s Deadly Sin #12...”

  • avatar

    I spent a week on a business trip riding around Sao Paulo Brazil in the back seat of the 2-door version in 1996.  It was not a Pontiac (a Daewoo perhaps? or Isuzu?).  I never drove the vehicle but the air conditioning was satisfactory.

    By 1988, car buyers had figured out the J-cars weren’t the answer. I know from experience because, I owned two and they were bad cars. I guess GM decided to give Daewoo a try.

    • 0 avatar

      The brazilian version of the Opel Kadett E was the Chevrolet Kadett (3-door hatchback only). The wagon was the Chevrolet Ipanema (first as 3 door wagon, later as a 5-door).

  • avatar

    I used to have one of these. I had a white 4-door with a (IIRC-5) speed manual. It was one tough little SOB and when it did break you could fix it with common gardening tools and feel like McGuiver in the process.

    I never got in a crash with it, thankfully, as I doubt it (or I) would have survived very well. I taught my 12 year old son to drive a stick in it and we had it until 2002. It was decently reliable and rather unrefined. A cheap sh!tbox whixch actually was a pretty good second car.

  • avatar

    In Canada they were marketed as a separate brand. ‘Optima’ if I recall.

    • 0 avatar

      Perhaps you mean the Chevy Optra?

    • 0 avatar

      They were still called the Pontiac LeMans here in Canada, although they were first called the Passport Optima and eventually re-branded as “Asuna” for a short time.  I actually considered one of these as my first new car.  I went with a Saturn instead, thankfully.

    • 0 avatar

      Yup, they were. They were the only Passport branded car to come out of the dealer network of the same name:
      Canada didn’t have Geo until later (and never the Prism, for some reason – though we did have the Corolla-based Chevy Nova, woo!)

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Hey don’t forget that the advertised top speed was 108mph!  Which leads me to a motoring story from my life.
    One of my high school arch-rivals, Jay (guy was a real a-hole and just got under my skin, we had a palatable dislike for each other) had one of these crap boxes (sedan, automatic) as the 2nd car he owned.  (His father worked for GM and Jay had an 1985 A-body Cutlass Ciera V6 as his 1st car.)
    My ONLY car in high school (earning my license in 1993) was a 1982 Chevy Celebrity, a family hand me down.  Deep brown and tan two tone paint with a rust colored interior, mighty Iron Duke 151 CI 4-cyl and three speed auto on the console.  Jay and I were both on the high school golf team which lead to many epic back roads of Ohio races to practice at “Pike Run Golf Club.”  (Jack would understand.)
    The Cutlass with it’s V6 power completely kicked my little 4-cyl a$$.  Remember both the Chevy and the Oldsmobile were loaded down with 4 adolescent corn fed Midwestern males during these impromptu races, along with 4 golf bags in the trunk.  (Which the A-bodies handled very well.)  I could get the Chevy to tap the 85mph indicator on the speedo but superior hp and torque carried the Olds right past me ever time.  (BTW my cornering and decision making were superior, but more power covered his mistakes.)
    Eventually he beat the Olds into an early grave, and his GM employee father bought him a new LeMans.  Finally I thought I had the bastard.  That little Korean crapbox wasn’t going to beat good old American Iron.  I thought I had him at least evenly matched with 92hp vs his 70+.  I don’t know if it was good gearing.  But even driving hard enough to get the old Chevy airborne (if my mother reads this, forgive me, if dad reads it, I’ll have that beer with you soon) on a long straight stretch his top speed carried him past me.  :(  Still raises my blood pressure to this day.
    The LeMans was an abomination as a Pontiac, just like the G3, but it was still just good enough to give my nemesis the upper hand.
    Oh well, I bet when I go the high school reunion my woman will be younger and prettier than his.  :)

  • avatar

    A friend owned one of the UK market Daewoo Nexia badged versions of these second hand about ten years ago.
    All I really remember of it was that it developed a drive train fault of some sort (transmission if memory serves) and the parts reportedly had to come from Australia (presumably from a RHD Pontiac LeMans). Daewoo UK were defunct by then and the Nexia’s drive train wouldn’t take parts from the remains of a (far more widely available in scrap yards at the time) Vauxhall Astra / Opel Kadett.
    One possible explanation for its dynamic shortcomings compared to the Astra/Kadett could be that the Kadett E which it’s based on was retired in 1991, so the Koreans were building a warmed over 1980s car for GM to sell as a 1990s model.

  • avatar

    Liked the parts about the car. Not so much about the conspiracy theory. Next time you link to a wikipedia article about a book you are purporting to be factual you might want to make sure that the bulk of the article is not dedicated to refuting all of the claims made by the author. I came to this site only recently, namely following Mr/Ms. Murilee Martin, but if I can expect thinly backed defamatory and unbacked accusations I may need to reconsider. Hopefully though this is not what you intended and the joke is on me…

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      frijoles; I specifically linked to the article because I agree the facts on the numbers that died are very questionable. Having said that, my father, who was a doctor, was convinced that the diet they were being fed in their French POW camp would not sustain his life for very long, and he attended to many victims of malnutrition and disease likely exacerbated by the diet.
      I have no desire what so ever to debate or re-fight these old issues; I’d rather leave that to others. I’m simply retelling his own experience, and what he saw. But to avoid further misunderstanding, I have removed the link and amended the text.

    • 0 avatar

      Grandpa’s brother-in-law didn’t make it back from a Russian POW camp until 1950. That fun family fact reinforces the point that was being made (namely: Grandpa was lucky to be a POW of the USA) far better than any book could.

    • 0 avatar

      Liked the parts about the car. Not so much about the conspiracy theory.

      I really have to agree. Paul, to casually toss off an accusation of that magnitude, which is so blatantly absurd as to defy belief, demands a retraction and a formal apology.
      Yes, American POW camps were not bastions of perfect fairness. No, American policy did not deliberatly murder hundreds of thousands of disarmed prisoners, and to suggest that they did is reprehensible.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Steve65, What Accusation?? What conspiracy theory? Please spell it out for me, because I must be mighty dumb to not be getting what you’re accusing me of.

    • 0 avatar

      You accused the Allies of staving 1 million German POWs to death, linked to an article of a debunked book making that claim, and then when called out on it, erased the text and called it a misunderstanding.
      Sorry, this is not a “misunderstanding”. It was an outrageous accusation, and it remains so even now that it’s been hiddsen from view. Next time (if I stick around for a next time), I’ll save the text so it can’t be concealed.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Steve65: Please carefully re-read my earlier comment above. By including a link to a controversial subject does not mean that I thought it was true. I was referring to it, not stating it as fact of personal conviction. I removed it because it became apparent that (a very few) were misinterpreting it. I am beginning to wonder why you are so personally invested and overly sensitive to this issue.

  • avatar

    I don’t know if this is actually a Deawoo…It seems like an exact copy of the Opel Kadett we had in Europe from something like 85-91 until the 1st Astra came around. I can tell cause we had one when I was a kid (it being Europe, it was a ‘Caravan’, which means it was a stationwagon) and the interior in the pictures is exactly the same from what I remember. Later on there WAS a Deawoo sold here as well (Nexia?) that was based on the E Kadett long after the ‘E’ was discontinued but it was late 90s IIRC. It had some other (korean looking) headlights and some of the edges were made softer, plus the rear lights didn’t have the grooves in them anymore. I think it also had a different interior. Of course it was heavily outdated by then and was only sold cause it was cheap and had aircon and some other amenities at a low cost, but obviously you’d regret it if you bought one.

    I’m thinking you might have the wrong car in mind? This seems to be based on the Opel and then later a Korean version got made…

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      JJ: I assure you this car is a genuine made-in-Korea Daewoo.
      It’s a Kadett E in sheet metal; the fine details of suspension tuning, etc. as well as component quality is what separates them.  GM stopped importing genuine Opels in the seventies, because of the exchange rate (Saturn Astra and current Regal excepted, of course).

    • 0 avatar

      Ah, ok. So Daewoo made these first, then later went ahead (or rather back to the future) and gave the world the Nexia. My bad…I guess the culture shock of seeing this car of my childhood having been copied by the Koreans and sold in the US as a Pontiac clouded my judgement. My grandfather had an Opel Kadett E hatchback as well at the time after he got fed up by his previous Alfas rusting away. The real Opel Kadetts were indeed hugely popular at the time in the Netherlands (also due tax reasons, but still) and helped Opel become the number 1 seller for 30+ years until they were overtaken by Veedub in I would say the late 90s early 00s. Last year they were 5th (down from 3rd) after Veedub, Toyoda, Ford and Peugeot, so it’s not going great for them.

  • avatar

    I always liked the looks of the 2 door and wanted one in a weird way to beat up on…kind of in the same manner that I wanted a Suzuki X90.  Great story, Paul.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    “except perhaps a rear-engined car with front wheel drive, which I don’t remember ever being built”

    Ford played with that idea in the 1930s, but I don’t think they ever got around to building a prototype.

  • avatar

    Having grown up with a fair number of Opels in the garage, this was an absolute embarrassment to anything remotely related to Opel.  When I first saw pictures of the Lemans, I was excited thinking that we’d get some decent Opels back in the USA…boy, was I wrong.  At least fast forwarding now GM didn’t do “too” much to dilute the Astra (other than, know…not really doing much to promote it or make it stand out heads above the competition)…

    • 0 avatar

      I drove Italian spec Kadetts in ’91-’94 as patrol cars for the Naples NSA Navy base. We flogged those cars and I generally had a good opinion of them. We ran them at the red limit, we ran them at top speed (~110 mph as I recall), I did a smoky e-brake slide on the main street of a nearby small village once as were recalled for an emergency. Missed a pole by -> <- that much. We ran it all the way back to the city at top speed. The a/c was welcome in the summer heat. Back then a/c was pretty rare in the class of cars were were given to drive. I flogged one across town one night on rain soaked cobblestones to a bad, bad accident. Wen the whole way in 3rd and 4th wound as tight as it would go at times knowing that there just wasn’t any power to be had beyond say 5K but steering and braking was more important than shifting.
      They helped form the positive opinion I have of Opels today. An Italian friend is a small Opel dealer to this day. He had the three door with a brakes/wheels/cam/Borla exhaust upgrade and took myself and another Italian friend on some amazing high speed trips north on the Autostrada. ~125 mph plus for hundreds of miles.
      I left the USA surrounded by guys who admired the Mustang GT and arrived in Italy to witness so many little hot hatches that I thought might have offered the domestic hotrods a real race. The Opel 3 door (don’t remember the performance designator), the Renault Clio 2.0, and the Calibra which I believe could be had with a turbo and AWD were the cars I aspired to own had I married an Italian girl and stayed in Italy… GRIN! (I had no plans to marry an Italian girl or even date one, too complicated). That Calibra was a long, long way from the Cavalier which had similar proportions.
      When I got back to the states I was hopeful we’d get more Opels after seeing a LeMans and until I read this article – I thought the LeMans and the Kadett were blood cousins. The LeMans and later the Catera both exemplified all those things that I saw GM doing wrong in the USA with their potential Opel imports.
      To this day GM has some great world products. We get so little from GM’s other divisions except the Daewoos. When we do get them (aside from the Regal and Astra) they are warmed over and “altered” (as in neutered in both performance and styling). Now we only get the Buick/Opel Regal which belongs in another tax bracket from what I’ll spend on a new car. It ought to be a $25K car. They’d sell a bunch of them I think. Gone was that brief moment we were offered the Astra – not even promoted in this part of the USA.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Did you read the entire Wikipedia entry that you linked to regarding the “million WW2 German POWs that were starved to death in US POW camps”?
    Just curious.

  • avatar

    @Paul- so you’re going to complain about a rental car you had 20 years ago, and it STILL did the job you asked it to?
    I think you’re ignoring the environment in which that car was launched. It was right after the advent of the Yugo and the Hyundai Excel, and GM and Ford (remember the Kia-made Festiva?) were again playing catch up. It was like they had to get in on some sort of Korean Kar Bonanza. In reality, it was just a way of procuring cheap cars (in more ways than price alone).
    I can remember these cars at launch and thinking WTF? The real WTF moment for me was in 1991 when I was working as a salesperson at a Toyota store, seeing some poor bugger trying to trade in his 1990 Pontiac LeMans on a Tercel. He was told he would only get $600 in trade on the car (KBB value, really!), at which he admitted he had been to other dealers trying to get rid of the car and had been offered similar money.
    That’s when I knew that I would not be considering a Pontiac LeMans as any kind of car I would pay real money for. If he had done the deal, I would have snapped up the car before the management would have wholesaled it, but no way would I buy it on time.
    Regardless, looking at your post, it looks like the car did what you asked it to do. We’ve all got horror stories about rental cars. So it wasn’t as nice as the 323 cloned Escort. I’m pretty sure that the LeMans was cheaper and you definitely get what you pay for at this price level.

  • avatar

    The Dymaxion, designed by Fuller, was rear engined and front wheel drive… It’s drivetrain was cadged from Ford… and then turned bass-ackwards. I took a long look at one at the Guggenheim a while back … staring and scratching my head… This can’t be, I said. This is lunacy! Or genius.

  • avatar

    I knew a kid in high school who had one of these, ’92 vintage. This was in ’93. That’s right, in just one year the car had depreciated enough for a high school kid to be able to afford it. In every respect it was [an unmitigated piece of junk] poorly engineered.

    On an unrelated topic, I spent a week up in the mountains this summer building a section of trail for the Continental Divide hiking trail project out near the Collegiates  (Tin Cup Pass to be precise.)  What a beautiful area!  Just imagine how much more negative your impressions of the LeMans would have been without that magnificent scenery to distract you.

  • avatar

    Paul, during the Panther appreciation week I remember you were commenting you are not a great fan and added:”can we do an Opel Kadett appreciation week sometime?”and now during the Korea week you managed to find a place for an Opel Kadett after all. Applause all around!
    Btw, the Kadett E had a reputation of unbelievable rust problems but also indestructible forever running petrol engines.

  • avatar

    I’ve always been amused at how cars which are fairly well built and fairly well respected in one part of the world can get themselves rubbish reputations in another. About a decade ago I spent a few days bombing around in a friends 1990 Vauxhall Astra (same car as this) and it was actually quite a hoot to drive and was very hard to kill. He eventually killed it by driving into a ditch/tree/hedge combination at 40+mph.

    • 0 avatar

      Trust me, they only looked the same at a distance.  The quality of construction of the interiors was like hugely different.  The seats, suspension and controls were fairly solid in Germany but totally flimsy and cheap in the US version.  I’m going with they built two assembly lines and stamping plants from the same set of designs but then filled the shells with totally different parts from different sources.
      Sorry, the US version was typical small car crap from the US of the era, whereas the Opel was going to be sold against the Golf, Peugeot, etc in the euro market.
      I came away feeling quite “shorted” in this one.

  • avatar

    “a rear-engined car with front wheel drive” =

  • avatar

    Loveland Pass? Lord, that where just conducted a test of heavy-duty one-ton pickups from Chevy and Ford carrying over 94% of their GCWR. If there’s a tougher place in the U.S. to test a wheezy Korean econobox’s mettle, I haven’t heard of it yet.

  • avatar
    The Wedding DJ

    My sister bought one of these POS’s new in 1990.  She came over so we could see it, and my reaction was “A Korean car?  What the hell did you buy THAT for?”  She pointed out the Pontiac nameplate, which meant nothing.  I told her if she didn’t want to buy American, at least the Japanese know how to make cars, and if I had been at the dealer with her, I would have done everything I could to talk her out of it.  She, and the rest of my family, was pissed at me for some time, and I guess i don’t blame them.
    Well, within four years and several extended stays at the dealership, the car was used up.  The final straw was when the camshaft snapped in half, exactly what it was designed to do.  The only value the car had was for scrap.  $7000+ down the drain in 4 years.  No, I didn’t say “I told you so” or anything like that, I felt bad that she had been ripped off like that.  Even I expected that thing to last longer than it did.
    She now has a Solstice, so the experience didn’t sour her on GM.

  • avatar

    Shoot! I wanted to forget these things! AND the J cars.

  • avatar

    I learned to drive in my parents’ (German built) 1985 Vauxhall Astra, the UK deriviative of the Opel Kadett.  Ours was a 5 door hatch and had the thrilling 1.2litre OHV engine churning out 55hp through a 4 speed manual.  It was a step up from the 1980 Vauxhall Chevette they had previously.  The Astra was replaced by another one in 1989, this time a (UK built) 75hp 1.3litre OHC 5 door, which I subsequently bought from them some years later.  Apart from the fact that the 1.2 was very slow (0-60 in 17secs, the 1.3 lopped about 4.5 seconds off that), viewed in the context of its day, it was an OK small family car -this was Europe, it held its own against the Golf and Escort of the day, nothing exciting, but nothing to be ashamed of either.  I’m always surprised at how poorly these translated to the US.

  • avatar

    I remember these cars vividly, because of a rental experience…… I was living out of the country at the time, had been for several years, and wasn’t paying much attention to GM’s antics.

    I had to fly into the states for a business trip and arrived in LAX late at night.  I went to the rental car counter, where the girl put down her magazine and told me, “Sir, we’ve reserved a brand new Pontiac LeMans for you tonight”.   My first clue that something was wrong was the look she shot me when I said “Oh, good.”  You see, I didn’t know what GM had done to that proud name, and I thought that I’d been upgraded because all the low-end cars were already taken.

    I hope I cleared up her low opinion of me as a masochist of some kind when I came back into the building and told her that there were only little sh*t-box economy cars out there – where was my LeMans?.

    When I finally got into my car, and started it, the headlight knob came off in my hand. 

    I have to tell you that this episode did not leave me with a good impression of GM or Daewoo. I’m thrilled to report that a recent encounter with an Aveo did nothing to alter my opinion of either company.

    I don’t wish ill on either company, but mainly because it would be a waste of energy – bringing coals to Newcastle.

  • avatar

    I tried to take a Ford Aspire over Rollins Pass west of Denver in 1996, unaware the road wasn’t open due to a cave-in or that it would be snowing in late October above 10,000 feet.  It did float over snowdrifts pretty well.
    Compare that to the rented Malibu I tried to take up the pass a few years later in the summer; the tire split across the whole tread.  But yes, it was smoother even with the mickey mouse spare.

  • avatar

    Had a roommate in college get a 2dr Le Mans new in ’88. He was a dork and so was his car.

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    I bought a one-year-old two-door LeMans GT, back in 1992.  That model had the 2.0 liter engine, and a much nicer interior (weird, can’t find any pics of the GT anywhere)  I found it to be fun enough to drive, and it had an ice cold A/C and a killer sounding stereo.  GM should have imported all LeMans in this form, it would have done much better in the market.

  • avatar

    Here it arrived as Daewoo Racer circa 1993. Then they facelifted the thing with what I think was the front end of your 93 LeMans. That was more or less 1995-6
    My father bought one, brand new in 1996. It was a decent car, he sold it 2 years later to buy mom’s Fiat, which is still in the family. I remember it having the indian arrow in the steering wheel and the grille.
    The Cielo (or Nexia) was launched near 1996, and then in 1998-1999, as Daewoo launched the Lanos, Nubira and Leganza, it got “simplified” and cheaper. At that time the government launched a program for replacing old taxis, and the Cielo became the de facto taxi choice until 2002 when GM pulled the plug.
    Those things are nearly bulletproof, cheap and easy to fix and even after much more than 500K kms and being beaten to hell, many of them are still in duty as taxis.
    When we went to Italy in 1996, there was a lot of Kadetts in my father’s town. This year, there were still some of them, even in Rome. I was amazed.
    GM and Daewoo recycled many of its components for other cars: the Corsa 2, the Astra, Lanos, and who knows what’s still being produced from those bones.
    I think the Kadett, or the first FWD T-body doesn’t deserve Deadly Sin status. It’s one of the cars that GM really did right.
    And between 1990 to 1993, Geo got the Storm, which was Isuzu built.

  • avatar

    Oh, man, I had one of these as a rental in Denver myself. Fall of 1989. This was the first time I’d ever flown anywhere, and the first time I’d rented a car. It could barely get out of its own way at a mile high — I can’t imagine driving it at two miles high! To this day, every time I rent a car I think (not fondly) of that POS.

  • avatar

    One of my coworkers bought a new one in 1989 against our group of friend’s wishes. She wanted a Pontiac, and she thought the LeMans was the right car for her. We had been buying Hyundais, Tercels, Festivas and Civics and told her that the LeMans didn’t meet our criteria of a decent set of new wheels. But she was stubborn in her own special way and we loved her for it. She paid a thousand dollars more for her LeMans, than I paid for my fully loaded Festiva LX. Wow. What a complete waste of money!

    She had problems with it right away. I remember that within six months, she didn’t want the car anymore. It had electrical shorts in the dash, the engine sounded too loose to stay in one piece, and she had gotten over her need for a Pontiac, and started hating her car. It made her miserable and whenever she got into one of our cars, she would complain about how she ended up with the LeMans instead of the Tercel or the Civic or the little Ford. We were all well aware of every flaw in the car by the time she dumped it.

    We were all pretty happy for her when she showed up with a little Honda and was told that she took a major hit financially with the LeMans by trading it in, but didn’t care by that point.

    By the time I went to university in Germany, I hadn’t seen one of these cars until I saw older ones plodding around Niedersachsen with Daewoo written on their hatches. I didn’t have a car while I was there and sometimes wished I had – but I was awfully glad not to have one of them. Whenever I see a LeMans I think of all the bitching and moaning and complaints coming from my old acquaintance and what a torture chamber it was for her.

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    As to Camp Hale, Leadville, Climax, and WWII, I have more faith in the recollections of a father’s stories to his sons, than anything some dumb-ass professor-researcher dug up in a library. What goes into research texts doesn’t replace real life experiences. Generations of family stories have taught us how to listen to recollections, how to put the recollections into context and how to value it.

    The stupidity displayed here is the misunderstanding of what is an autobiographical experience being recollected, and a book or report. Autobiographies are about a person’s perception of an experience. Honestly, they do not have to be factual. That is not their point. Autobiographical recollections are about human emotions and thoughts. They are valuable because we are humans with emotions. Too often we are seeing autobiographies fact-checked as though they are supposed to be telling us something factual. Those who do this are frankly stupid and ignorant because they are failing to understand the purpose of this information.

    So, a big thank you for sharing with us your father’s recollections. Sorry for those who don’t know how to comprehend them. I have read this blog enough to know that your father’s stories display a man with culture and intelligence. I believe what he said to you. As someone with German heritage and a little German education, (actually a lot), I understand what he is saying on a level beyond mere facts. I know you don’t need to be told this either because as your father’s son, you have also repeatedly demonstrated a level of intelligence and honesty that shouldn’t be questioned with your sharing of these stories. As men we know how to listen to other men, especially our male family members regarding male stories. It takes wisdom to listen and understand, something other bloggers fail to have.

    Many in our culture so desire the unattainable, they refuse to listen to experiences that counter their fantasies.

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    Anyone ever notice how a 2 door Pontiac/Daewoo LeMans and the Pontiac Aztek resemble each other ? Tail lights, shape, like someone had taken a LeMans and pumped air into it’s tailpipe ?

    Still: the 4 door is a better looking car than it’s mechanical reputation proved. Sad case.

    Sat in one at the L.A. Auto Show when it first appeared and it seemed like the narrowest interior of anything I had ever experienced. “Why?” kept running through my brain……

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    And GM still didn’t sell the wagon version here… GRIN!

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    I drove the Opel version a few hundred miles in Germany when it first came out.  I recall it being spartan but well suspended, and in the german way, solid until it ran out of power, which occured somewhere around 140 kph-a tiny engine with a five speed.
    I later rented the Pontiac version, and was stunned…bigger engine with automatic, but overcooked pasta for suspension.  The interior was built like crap, not “simple but stout” like the Opel.  It was kind of like a fourth hand photocopy.  The comfortable and supportive seats were gone too….replaced with covered lawn chairs.
    I came away with a sense of missed opportunity, especially as if the bigger US engine version had the euro suspension and interior quality, they’d have had something. Instead, they took the Opel design, removed all of the solidity and quality, and built it to a price….probably $500 for the whole car.
    Oh, yes, I forgot….here in the US, a small car is what you buy when you can’t afford a big car…and the big 3 will remind you of it every day….(Aveo, anyone ?)

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    Oh man, Paul, this post brings back some horrible memories. In the fall of 1990, I was a freshly-minted college graduate with little money and an immediate need for a reliable set of wheels. A neighbor offered to sell me his 1988 LeMans with 19K miles for the “bargain” price of $2,500, and I went for it like a lamb to the slaughter. Fortunately for me, however, the previous owner had the foresight to buy an extremely comprehensive extended warranty (with free rental coverage, natch), and in the next four years, I suspect I singlehandedly bankrupted that warranty company. I spent an average of 3-4 days per MONTH at the mechanic, and probably drove rental cars as often as I did the LeMans. Among other things, the warranty paid to replace the entire a/c system (compressor, condensor, lines) three times, the entire wiring harness, the dashboard gauges, faulty fuel lines, the master cylinder (twice), head gaskets (three times), most of the manual transmission components, a timing belt that mysteriously snapped at 30K miles, the power steering pump, the seat belts, the entire ignition system, and a million other minor things. The kicker to all this, though, is that I managed to squeeze 109K miles out the thing before it finally died for good. If it hadn’t been for the warranty, I probably would have pushed the s**tbox off a bridge.

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    I’m amazed one of these has survived

  • avatar

    Here is an image of the Chevrolet Kadett GL 1.8, with scale, adjustable pulley, lowered head and beaks of S10.

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