By on May 29, 2015

Incredibly Rusty Chevrolet Citation - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin

This is the third week in Themed Junkyard Find Week Madness. We started with 21st Century Junkyard Find Week, then had Volkswagen Junkyard Find Week, and now we’ve staggered right into Rusty Junkyard Find Week. Next week, I might return to ordinary jumbled-up Junkyard Finds, or I might subject you to an entire month of Chrysler LH Junkyard Finds.

For now, though, let’s finish up our third Themed Junkyard Find Week with a case of genuinely puzzling rust.
Incredibly Rusty Chevrolet Citation Detail 1 - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin

Unlike most of the interesting cars I shoot in junkyards, this ’81 Chevy Citation is represented here by just a single photograph. I was visiting the yard just before closing time, to grab a Dodge D100 pickup fuel gauge for my get-it-done-today A100 instrument-cluster rebuild project, walked past this Citation, and shot a single cellphone photo.

Incredibly Rusty Chevrolet Citation Detail 2 - Picture courtesy of Murilee Martin

So, we’ll look at details from that single photo, like conspiracy theorists studying a single frame of the Zapruder Film. This car had some rust all over, but the vertical surfaces of the right side of the body had terrifying and weirdly localized rust. How? Why? There’s no evidence of a fire burning off a patch of paint, so perhaps the car spent several years lying on its right side in the manure pond of a western Kansas pig farm?

Let’s time-travel back to 1979, when “the first Chevy of the 80s” hadn’t yet hit the streets in large numbers and existed mostly in the minds of Americans who were hoping that the gloom of the previous decade would be washed away by a car that showed that the days of bad Chevrolets were over.


Well, long-term-wise, that didn’t work out so well, with the Citation merely ushering in a decade of brand-damaging disasters and puzzling attempts to compete with German luxury marques. Today, we laugh at the Citation, though there was a time when they were as commonplace as are Malibus today.

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63 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1981 Chevrolet Citation, Rock Salt Sandblasting Edition...”


  • avatar
    VW16v

    GMs rust bucket version of the VW Rabbit.

  • avatar
    Joss

    GM’s Renault 16 fourteen years late?

    Starboard to the waves?

  • avatar
    Zackman

    My eyes! Get this think outta here! It was cars like this that began my “hate” for all things GM for over 20 years.

    Thanks a lot, MM.

  • avatar
    pbr

    Parallel parked for years rusty-side out on a street that got snowplowed frequently? Roost from the plow full of cinders and salt accelerated the rot. RF fender must have been repaired or replaced …

    • 0 avatar
      Land Ark

      This was my thought. I wish we could see the other side.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      I’m thinking this is what happened too. I’ve encoundered many cars perpetually parked under those conditions that show horrible rot only on the affected side.

      • 0 avatar
        zamoti

        But it’s the wrong side. I don’t know a lot of place where you can park on the wrong side of the street without getting a ticket. Maybe a one-way street, but still…

        • 0 avatar
          KW1

          One way streets it is. In old urban areas it’s not that uncommon. It was weird parallel parking on the left side of the road the first few times I did it.

          • 0 avatar
            AmcEthan

            i had a dakota that i bought from the east coast that had been parked for years. they lived a few blocks from the ocean and the passenger side faced the ocean the whole time it was parked and that side was destroyed with rust but the drivers side was nice

  • avatar
    65corvair

    My parents had a 1980. Great car on paper, GM stopped when it was 90% done.

    Lots of GM cars of that era had paint failures. It just came off at random locations. Rust started under the paint. GM took some short cuts.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      This. Brilliant design (mostly), terrible execution. True about the paint, my buddy’s parents had a Chevette that GM repainted for free. My dad’s Citation had paint flaking off in a few spots when it was a couple years old.

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        I’m happy to see others realize this was a terrific design, midsize interior space in a compact body. The execution was possibly much worse than terrible, with thinner gauge metal, no increase in rustproofing, inner fenders that weren’t rustproofed at all, transmissions lacking in robustness of key internal parts, and the wretched iron duke. Another year of drive train development and refinement of assembly processes, and this platform could have been highly ranked as a watershed design.

        • 0 avatar
          Volt 230

          The idea and design was never an issue, it was execution that was missed completely, from the body to the power train, it was one huge disaster, the A body, which derived from this, was a much better car in so many ways.

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        My dad insists that around this time GM started using recycled steel, and they failed to purify it properly first, so that’s why the cars rusted so badly and so fast.

        Is any of that true?

  • avatar
    danio3834

    My mother had the Pontiac version of the Citation, the Phoenix. She really liked the car. The hatch back, the “powerful” V6 engine, good (for the day) handling. However, she ditched it after about 5 years because the floors rusted out due to a water leak from a missed spot weld in the A-pillar. She didn’t think that was particularly terrible after owning a Mazda 808 prior which had rusted *completely* out after 5 years. Dark times.

    The Phoenix was replaced by a then new and wonderous 1985 Topaz which ran for many years thereafter until totalled by a dump truck.

    • 0 avatar
      CobraJet

      I orderd an Oldsmobile Omega in early 1980 and waited on it for almost 12 weeks. We shopped the Pontiac version, but the wife wanted one with a trunk and not a hatchback. We got the top of the line trim with the V6. We kept ours for 5 years and had not trouble with rust, being in the south. The paint was actually very good. We got rid of it when I got a new company car, 1985 Cutlass Ciera. The Ciera was a dramatic improvement in handling and comfort.

  • avatar
    spreadsheet monkey

    “or I might subject you to an entire *month* of Chrysler LH Junkyard Finds”

    No complaints here if you do that!

  • avatar
    shaker

    You should have grabbed those gas cylinders supporting the hatchback – they seem to be the only part of the car that was over-engineered. (edit: unless they’re rusted in place – heh)

    You have to admit that the layout of the car was pretty advanced for a domestic of the time, but, poorly executed.

    In fact, only now are the domestics within “spitting distance” of Japanese brands; took a long time, eh?

  • avatar
    energetik9

    This car came out when I was in grade school. I remember then that is seemed like a cheap car…

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    This car began GM’s downward decline into near death. I wonder if those responsible still have any regrets or they just don’t give a damn?

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    As a GM hater, I never hated the Citation.

    As for the rust, this is why I detest road salt.

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      Save some hate for chemically treated sand. When wet, it sticks to the underside of your car in the most inaccessible places and slowly transfers the metal melting properties of the chemicals to the floorpan, steering, and suspension parts. The car will be damaged beyond repair while you’re still cleaning and polishing the exterior.

  • avatar
    2drsedanman

    Had one of these in blue with the 2.5 4 cylinder and manual transmission. Gear spacing sucked with that transmission; I think it would run 60 mph in third gear. The verticle placed radio was a cool conversation piece with my friends. I remember the doors being really heavy, typical GM doors of the era. Anyone who has ever had a GM two door car from the 70’s-80’s knows what I’m talking about; you either slammed the door or done the “lift and shut” method. Only so much you can ask out of a door hinge I guess.

    Speaking of door hinges, those on the early Lexus coupes could probably support the entire weight of the car on those over-engineered babies.

    • 0 avatar
      bunkie

      The vertical radio was an attempt to thwart the aftermarket. It was introduced along with 4×10 speakers (although, to be fair, the 4x10s were designed to fit in the narrower rear parcel shelf of the trunked versions of the -body cars). The EIA (Elecronics Industry Association) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over this as all the Pioneer in-dash stereos and Jensen parcel-shelf speakers of the time were horizontal or in the 6×9 form factor.

    • 0 avatar
      Featherston

      The Lexus SC’s door hinge actually gets a mention in a caption in Ate Up With Motor’s history of that car: “Note the very long front doors; they have unique dual-pivot hinges to enable rear passengers to get in and out in confined spaces.”

  • avatar
    rpol35

    “Let’s time-travel back to 1979, when “the first Chevy of the 80s” hadn’t yet hit the streets in large numbers and existed mostly in the minds of Americans who were hoping that the gloom of the previous decade would be washed away by a car that showed that the days of bad Chevrolets were over.”

    The gloom was just starting, being lead front and center by this turd (with all due respect to the Vega).

  • avatar
    its me Dave

    My dad was a AC/Delco/Hughes engineer and somehow felt obligated to buy whatever GM’s flagship weird car du jour was for the family’s 2nd car. So that means we had a first-year-production Corvair, Vega, Chevette, Citation and Fiero. Citation was the worst of the lot. Choke opened way too soon (to meet emissions), weird clutch linkage impossible to engage smoothly, always popped out of 3rd thanks to weird shift linkage and torque steer that had to be fought even on wide-radius freeway curves.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      We had a V6/4-speed, I don’t recall the clutch being especially bad or any popping out of gear. Could be you got a lemon, although admittedly, it’s hard to tell with a Citation.

  • avatar
    Fordson

    Very funny rust pattern…the rockers are almost untouched. That thing rusted from the outside in, not the other way around – that’s not from driving on salt-covered roads.

    I remember the Iron Duke having a 2.5-quart oil capacity and a tiny-ass filter. Great design.

  • avatar
    Crabspirits

    The right side of the car is always prone to more corrosion, as road salt gets kicked to the shoulder/curb due to road crown. There is just more of it there. Other possibilities:
    -Car was “made on a Monday”, and not rustproofing was shoddy on that side only.
    -Water leak
    -Something got on the sheetmetal there prior to painting, undermining the finish.
    -Parked with that side constantly in the sun.

  • avatar
    turf3

    My guess would be that the right side of the car (except the front fender) was repainted (maybe due to minor damage down the length of the car, like scraping a bollard) and the repaint job was poorly prepped. It almost looks like some of the semi-remaining areas of color are rather thick, as if what you are seeing is paint underlying a skim coat of Bondo, that hasn’t yet flaked off like everything around it. Maybe the RF fender was missed in the scrape incident, or maybe it was replaced altogether? Oil on the DA sander disk used to prep the rest of the car?

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    I have distinct memories of the ad copy (I could dig into my ancient magazine collection and find it, in fact) bragging about all the corrosion protection they were building into their brand new X cars.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    I remember seeing the first one of these in the late 70s at the GM Proving Grounds in Milford. A guy said “that styling is going to take some getting used to.”

    I had one with the V6, it had a problematic hybrid electronic controlled carburetor, the Rochester varajet.

    • 0 avatar
      Lack Thereof

      My mom drove a red 4-door Citation for a short time in the early 80’s, with the carbureted V6, automatic, A/C, and a veritable parade of options.

      My dad had bought it used, running on 5 cylinders but with a beautiful body. It turned out to have a flat lobe on the cam – a common failure for chevy V6 & V8 engines at the time. He torched an access hole in the passenger side inner fender so that he could pull the cam out of the engine while it was still installed in the car. Once it was running on all 6, though, it started suffering from vapor-lock in Dallas/Fort Worth traffic with alarming regularity.

      When the family moved out of state a year later, we left it behind in Texas and replaced it with a Maverick at our destination.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      Apparently when designing the X-Car they used, no joke the Lancia Beta as test prototypes. You can see the influence in the styling in particular the 5 door.

  • avatar
    Marko

    I regularly see a Citation driving around Pawtucket, Rhode Island! It was driving around yesterday, in fact. It’s a baby blue four-door, driven by an elderly gentleman. Somehow it doesn’t seem to have too much rust on it.

    I would genuinely be interested in hearing from the owner about how he’s kept such a “lemon” in good condition and on the road for so long.

    • 0 avatar
      319583076

      In the production run of Citations, one will be the absolute worst example sold and one will be the absolute best example sold. Maybe the baby-blue four door is just a statistical outlier, three standard deviations above the mean, teasing us all with what GM might have done…might have been…

  • avatar
    mikehgl

    As a early teen, I so wanted the “Citation X10” for some reason that escapes me now, I just thought that it was so kewl. Thankfully I wasnt driving age. I believe the X10 had the 2.8 liter boat anchor if I remember correctly.
    Along our local rail-trail here in Mid Michigan is a yard with a collection of Citations and a Phoenix or two, all sitting out in the front yard of this rural home. They appear to be unmoved for many months, having sunk into the ground.
    Just goes to show you that their is a collector for any make or model. One mans junk is another man’s treasure.
    I admit that I must look whenever I go by.

  • avatar
    mfgreen40

    No one has mentioned the ( morning sickness ) rack and pinion failure which went on for years.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      That was endemic to GM steering racks in the Xs (I think), and certainly the As (Olds Ciera, Buick Century, Chevy Celebrity, Pontiac 6000) and the Js (Cavy, Pontiac Sunbird, Olds Firenza, Buick Skyhawk, Caddy Cimarron). (My 1984 Sunbird being an example — probably came close to breaking my right hand (or putting it through the windshield) while shoving the steering wheel left for all its worth, then having the assist kick in at the last second! Good times! :-) )

  • avatar
    Geekcarlover

    Lawnmower blast. Weeks, or months, of being hit with sand and small rocks would cause pits. Not immediately detrimental, but over time this is where the exposed metal would start rusting.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    Typical for GM, these were a good design executed horribly. I drove many X-bodies when I worked for a GM dealer in the 80s. For their time they were quick, nimble, and as a hatchback very versatile. But, the brakes were junk, the motor-mounts were junk, the paint was junk, the carbs were junk, the clutch-cables were junk, etc.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      IIRC, the brake-proportioning wasn’t sorted correctly, and the rears would lock under anything over normal conditions, which may have caused a recall or two, and may have even caught the ire of Consumer Reports.

      (Again IIRC, these cars took the crown of the most recalled cars of all-time from the other symbol of the Malaise-Era riches-to-rags stories, the Aspen/Volare from Fiatsler. However, GM got things somewhat sorted out by 1984 or so (when the Citation was renamed “Citation II”) but as we say here, the damage had been done, and the A-cars went on to best these in every way.)

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    One can’t help but wonder what would the auto world would look like today had this been reliable and better built. 800K sold in the first year and even that could have been higher. Half that the second year. I concur that the X cars really were Deadly Sin #1.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    My neighbor had the Olds Omega 2 dr in the same tan/beige they bought in 79 when the all-new X-cars were first introduced. After a few years the sail panel, C-piller started getting blistered and pock-marked just like this car. It must have been faulty paint since they parked in in the driveway everyday, away from the plows and road salt.

    My 80 Toronado and 81 Monte Carlo had decent paint after a decade but you could see some places where the paint as thin and shabbily applied in the factory.

  • avatar
    Geekcarlover

    I noticed that too. Possibly protected by a bush or trashcan? I believe the doors and body were rustproofed and painted separately, so this can’t (entirely) be blamed on GM. I’m certain whatever happened it was after leaving the lot.

    I had an 82 Omega. For all its many problems, rust wasn’t one of them. Though the paint was definitely not top quality.

  • avatar
    Superdessucke

    Actually, with GM water based paint coupled with the steel they were using back in the early 1980s, most of them looked like this by 1987 or so. This one must be a low mileage example that was only driven on the occasional rainy day.

  • avatar
    a1veedubber

    Dammit, I would LOVE to have the bumper fillers off of this car for my 81 X-11. They are IMPOSSIBLE to find unbroken. Could use the sideways radio too!

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