By on September 7, 2021

Born at the turn of the Eighties during a very lackluster period in the American automotive landscape, the Chevrolet Citation was a successful entry into the hot compact segment. It debuted to immediate sales success as a budget used car buy and won a major award. Could it be the ultimate economy car for the Eighties?

It’s Citation time.

By 1979 Chevy’s Nova was at the bitter end of its rear-drive X-body life. Front-drive was the efficient way forward, and what the Japanese were doing in their compact cars. GM started work on the Nova’s replacement in 1974 but needed a little inspiration on how to proceed forward with such an ambitious new design. General Motors turned to Lancia’s durable Seventies front-drive cars for X-body engineering techniques. After reverse-engineering said Lancias, GM decided to go with a similar transverse front-drive layout.

For 1980 GM debuted the new X-body, which took the form of the Citation from Chevrolet, the Pontiac Phoenix, and the Buick Skylark. The new car was supposed to be ready for 1978 (like the Omni and Horizon were) but there were supplier delays as GM’s go-to companies were not quite ready for the production of front-drive parts. It was GM’s first attempt at a small front-drive car, with prior experience only in large personal-luxury coupes. During the delay, the new car’s name was changed from the original one – Condor.

Citations were built in New York and Oklahoma in the US, and additionally in Mexico at Ramos Arizpe Assembly. Citation was most often seen in its three- or five-door hatchback guises, though there was also a two-door notchback coupe. Buick and Oldsmobile siblings were not offered with a three-door body style. The two-door Citation was very unpopular and was withdrawn after 1980. It mysteriously returned midway through 1982. Citation was larger than, but looked similar to, the rear-drive Chevette that went on sale in 1976 and would in fact outlive the Citation by two years.

The Citation sourced its power from four uninspiring engines: The 2.5-liter Iron Duke, and three different versions of GM’s brand new 60-degree 2.8-liter V6. No need to consider fuel injection here, it wasn’t available until the very end and on one engine. Transmissions were two, a three-speed automatic or four-speed manual.

Buyers were hungry for anything front-drive, and the Citation was immediately successful. Citation was the best-selling car in the US in 1980: General Motors sold 810,000 examples of the Citation alone. It was immediately awarded the Car of the Year award from Motor Trend. Surely it was smooth sailing from there, right? A quality, no-nonsense small car for the Eighties! Not quite. More next time.

[Images: GM]

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98 Comments on “Rare Rides: The Chevrolet Citation Story, Part I...”


  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    I noticed a spot of rust forming in the bottom right of my monitor while reading this.

    They weren’t rare at the time, but by the late-1980s, when the Japanese really took over the small car market, these were getting harder to find. By that time, I think most of them had been converted into highway guard rails or crushed under one of Bigfoot’s tires.

    • 0 avatar
      eng_alvarado90

      One of my uncles had a Citation back in the early 90s. It was a survivor for sure.
      Even if it was a CA car, there were some rust spots due to years of sea breeze and the interior was crumbling to pieces.
      He eventually traded it in for a 91 Caravan

      • 0 avatar
        theflyersfan

        We still kid around with my Dad about his selection of cars through the 1970s and 80s. Before that, he drove a GTO and then I came long and you all know what the side effects infants can have on sports cars! After that started a long series of total disasters: Pinto, Vega, Citation, Omega. Every single of them was (in his words) a total [deleted]can. Rust, wretched build quality, loud, rust, breakdowns, and did I mention rust? I still remember seeing the road through one of the rust holes at the bottom of the door. But he was ride or die with American cars until he broke down and bought that Nissan Stanza I’ve written about before – otherwise known as the car that would not die.

        That list of cars just goes to show what kind of disasters were spit out by the Big Three in their half-hearted attempts to build a decent small car.

  • avatar
    jmo

    I’m curious how different the various x-bodies were. Looking at the c. 1981 pricing a Citation and a Skylark were priced roughly akin to a Honda Civic and a Acura ILX. In terms of sound deadening, standard features, interior materials, etc. were they about as different as a Civic and ILX? In terms of the B-Bodies was an Electra about as different from a Impala as a Avalon from a Lexus ES?

    • 0 avatar
      la834

      They were more similar than an ES is to an Avalon, but not quite clones either. The 2 door hatchback was Chevy exclusive. All four brands got a two door notchback, but Chevy’s had a different roofline. Chevy and Pontiac got a 4 door hatchback; Olds and Buick had 4 door sedans.

      Each brand got their own front and rear fenders, hoods, trunks, and rear quarter windows. Chevy and Pontiac had one set of door skins, Olds and Buick another. Pontiacs and sport-trim Oldsmobiles had Endura bumpers rather than chromed metal. Each car got its own dashboard (with design cues from each division’s large or mid-sized cars), steering wheel, and seat and door trim. Citations without upgraded interiors had cheap molded plastic inside door panels of an exclusive design.

      Mechanical bits were mostly shared, including the drivetrains.

  • avatar
    wjtinfwb

    My first impression of the new Citation was my friend Ken’s new company car. It was a gold 4 dr. Hatchback, tan vinyl interior and the Iron Duke under the hood. First impression was a good one. 4 guys on a golf trip to central Florida, the little Chevy swallowed the 4 of us and our golf bags plus duffel bags with ease. THe hatch was a tremendous feature at the time and allowed the clubs to slide in sideways which allowed three bags to lay flat. Passenger room was equally commendable. I didn’t drive his car at all but the Iron Duke wheezed it’s way up to highway speed where it settled into a distant but persistent thrum. He got a new car every 2 years back then, the Citation held up well enough that he received a Buick Skylark X-body as his next company whip, which was a much more plush package, plus that car had the 2.8L V6 a much smoother and refined engine if not much more powerful than the Iron Duke. Another friend hot a Citation X-11 after a few years with the H.O. 2.8L and a manual, an even better car but by that time the cheap GM interiors were becoming uncompetitive and in his, the pop-up sunroof leaked like a sieve. Good design, lackluster engineering and horrible quality control plagued the X-cars until GM put them out of their misery with the A-body cars, themselves stretched and better assembled X-bodys at their roots.

    • 0 avatar
      redapple

      >wjtin…..

      I bought a new X 11 when I was going to college. Fast. Roomy. But had a brutal level of torque steer and torque tightening. And the quality- horrible! Driving from Buffalo to Flint it threw an AC belt in St Catherines. Car was still operable. By the time i got to Strathroy – it starting puking coolant. (this was before the 402). Stranded by the side of the road at 7 PM on a Sunday, some nice gent saw me and brought me 2 gallons of water. Made it to Flint that night. Nicest people in the world- those Ontario folks. He really saved my bacon. Wouldnt take the tenner i offered him.

      Other things popped up every month. I dumped that POS after 10 months of ownership. Took a massive $ hit.

      My classmates had New Accords. A lightbulb went off.

  • avatar
    Verbal

    Among their many sins (and they are legion), the X-cars were known for their weak body structure.

    Back in the day I remember talking to the mechanic at my local garage when we heard a loud boom come from the cinder block wall in the service bay. We went around to the back of the garage where there was supermarket parking lot. Someone had pulled out of a parking space, gotten their sandal stuck under the gas pedal, and had rammed into a parked Citation, pushing it into the outside of the garage wall.

    The front and rear damage to the Citation was not that bad, but the middle of the body around the B-pillar was visibly crumpled at the roof and floor levels. It looked as though if it had been hit any harder the passenger cabin would have accordianed.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    My brother in law had the “sporty” x-11, with the 2.8 liter V6. For the era, it was reasonably quick; and remember, everyone was stuck with the 55 mph national speed limit, which at that time was being pretty uniformly enforced.
    The car did offer reasonable room for 4 adults. Its greatest sin, in my recollection, was the lack of a front-rear brake apportioning valve. So, given the front-heavy weight distribution, a hard application of the brakes when the car was lightly loaded would lock up the rear wheels and usually put you in a spin. This, of course, was before the days of ABS. A lot of front-engine rear drive American cars of the time (and earlier) had this tendency as well, but the Citation’s front-heavy weight distribution made it much worse.

    Oddly, the proportioning valve was a simple mechanical device actuated by the amount of rear suspension compression; and was pretty effective.

    • 0 avatar
      Superdessucke

      The 1981 Citation X-11 was actually quite a car. Quicker than the Z28 of the same year and not far behind the Corvette. They neutered it a little for ’82 (perhaps for that reason) and then a lot for ’85 when it was only available with the 2.8 EFI with automatic.

      • 0 avatar
        olddavid

        My favorite was a two-tone silver Pontiac Phoenix SJ. The four speed seemed anachronistic, but was still reasonable even at highway speed. I’ve noticed when discussing this car, the statement that success has many fathers, failure an orphan, or whatever the euphemism actually is (where is Baruth when you really need him?) scrolls through my mental monitor. If you actually compared, I believe that they were all built to a price point, and in 1979-80, quality was a distant goal way down the list. I remember when tooling in one of the “comparables”, a particular 320I was sharp as a tack on River road, but still tinny and not particularly refined in feel, not even as plush as the Mazda 626 of the time, a rear drive coupe that wasn’t appreciated. I guess I’m a little defensive as I got sold down the river along with several hundred thousand of my compatriots when the X arrived. Luckily, I managed to avoid a repeat of Act II as I was gone by the time the J-2000 arrived. Which, by the way, they sold to management by saying “this time we’ve got it right”. GM was in my rear view mirror for life.

        • 0 avatar
          Superdessucke

          I had a 1980 citation with the 4 cylinder in the mid 1990s and it was actually a good car. Not great but it got the job done as a city commuter and it was actually adequate in terms of acceleration. I never had any mechanical problems with it over 2 years.

    • 0 avatar

      My dad finally bought his first brand new car in 1980 – an X-11 2-door coupe with the 2.8 and the 4-speed manual. He sold insurance, so he drove it EXCESSIVELY on his collection route. I drove it throughout high school until I got my own ’82 3-door hatch. We never really saw any of the problems with the X-11 that are so famous, except for the rust – and that wasn’t even visible. The issue here was the floorboards would rust through, so he just kept patching them up. Being a 4-seasons daily driver in Ohio, I guess these kinds of things are expected. The car was bulletproof for probably 12-15 years, and well over 200,000 miles.

      My ’82 was a V6 with the 3-speed auto, and it was not a beacon of reliability. Lots of carburetor issues, and eventually the transaxle decided to forget it had a second gear, so it had to go.

  • avatar
    Vae Victis

    This link provides some understanding of how miserable an engine the Iron Duke was: https://www.gmpartscenter.net/blog/iron-duke-worst-engine
    Certainly the Iron Duke did its part to turn legions of GM loyalists to abandon ship forever.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      That’s a very lame article. “The Iron Duke is bad because they put it in a Camaro and the Fiero”.

      No one is going to write a song about it but I don’t think the Iron Duke is even in the top 20 of things that sent GM to bankruptcy.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        Well, if you’ve ever driven a Camaro with the Iron Duke – and I have – you might qualify that statement a bit.

        I’d say the engine itself wasn’t a factor in them eventually going broke, but the “f**k the customers – they’ll never notice” mentality that put it in a HUGE range of GM vehicles was. If nothing else, introducing the Fiero with this engine destroyed it right out of the gate.

        The engine itself wasn’t so bad, I suppose – it was certainly durable – but it was only really suitable for the cheapest, most basic entry level stuff imaginable. Meanwhile, Japanese makes were introducing OHC, multivalve engines that were better in every imaginable way. But, again, GM decided customers wouldn’t notice, and kept up with the Iron Duke.

        Not GM’s worst sin, but it was defintely a serious one, and a sign that they were WAY out of touch with the market.

        • 0 avatar
          ajla

          GM shouldn’t have offered an Iron Duke Camaro but why was anyone buying it in the first place? It isn’t like GM tricked buyers, everyone knew that it used the 90Hp engine shared with the economy cars.

          Honestly, the relatively weak performance of the ’82 Z28 seems like a bigger issue than its lame base engine while something like the Northstar headbolts was a *way* bigger problem for the company as a whole.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            I think you’re missing my point – I’m not talking about that engine per se, but the corporate attitude that you could put that nasty thing in practically EVERYTHING until the ’90s and customers wouldn’t care. That was emblematic of a basic disrespect towards their customers, and it showed in that lame ’82 Z28 and the self-destructing Northstar engine you mentioned. Ditto for having the balls to stick a different grill on a Chevy Cavalier, give it leather seats and a nicer radio, and trying to sell it as a Cadillac. GM thought their customers were suckers, and wow, were they wrong.

            The Iron Duke was just a symptom of a far worse problem that eventually DID land the company in BK court.

          • 0 avatar
            ajla

            “the corporate attitude”
            “That was emblematic of a basic disrespect towards their customers”

            I don’t disagree, but I still wouldn’t put the Iron Duke in my top examples of it. YMMV.

            “stick a different grill on a (Chevy), give it leather seats and a nicer radio, and trying to sell it as a Cadillac.”

            Did they stop doing that?

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            “Did they stop doing that?”

            Considering that the two vehicles that consistently sell for them today (the XT4 and Escalade) are heavily based on Chevys, I’d say they haven’t. And that explains a great deal of their plight, if you ask me.

            Far as the Iron Duke is concerned, was it an important factor in the company’s decline? I’d say so, even it it was tangential. Let’s say it’s 1987, and you’re shopping a GM A-body – a Cutlass Ciera, for argument’s sake – and a Honda Accord. The Olds has the Iron Duke and the Honda has a modern OHC engine. Which car drives better? It’s the Accord, hands down, and I know because I shopped the Accord, and had a ton of GM A-bodies as rentals.

            Not coincidentally, this period is when GM really started to lose out to the Japanese makes. Might a better engine have given them a competitive advantage? Absolutely. But they declared the Iron Duke “good enough” when it wasn’t. The market spoke accordingly. Forty years later, the Camry and Accord are still around, and still selling, while the only GM four door you can buy is the Malibu, which doesn’t sell. Tells you a lot. This stuff does matter in the long run.

          • 0 avatar
            ajla

            “Might a better engine have given them a competitive advantage?”

            So change the Iron Duke to a Ciera 3.8L or the car to a ’87 Quad4 Calais. Does that alter your conclusion at all?

            I just think the base 2.5L wasn’t really the issue and I *really* don’t think OHC engines is what had people going to Honda/Toyota. Buyers were leaving GM because of bad build quality and durability.

          • 0 avatar
            FreedMike

            The Iron Duke wasn’t “the” issue, but it was definitely part of it. Quality was another issue, but then again, was the Taurus/Sable really THAT much better made than the GM stuff of the time? I’d say it was somewhat better, but no quantum leap (and certainly nowhere near as well made as the Japanese stuff). But people bought those cars in HUGE numbers. Part of their appeal was how they drove, and the engine played a part in that – the base Ford four was nothing to write home about, but the Iron Duke felt like something out of a tractor. I certainly noticed the difference, and so did a lot of other buyers.

            If GM stuff was at a disadvantage quality wise, then they could have done themselves a serious solid by making it drive better. It’s not like GM didn’t know how to make a good driving car (example: the Pontiac 6000 STE); they just didn’t do it. And equipping every base model with Iron Duke was part of that disadvantage. Could you upgrade to a six and solve that? Yes. But you didn’t have to do that with the Taurus/Sable, or the Japanese brands. The sales figures reflect how all that played out.

            This stuff matters.

          • 0 avatar
            ajla

            I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one.
            I don’t consider it a proud offering in the company’s history but I still don’t believe the Iron Duke hurt GM enough to be notable. If anything I think the later use of the 122ci was the bigger gaffe. Then they couldn’t unf*ck the Quad4 until ’96.

    • 0 avatar
      Imagefont

      The Iron Duke was not a great engine but at least it was durable and reliable. No chronic problems. Short stroke with long rods to try and minimize vibration, I remember that the X-body cars had special motor mounts to allow the motor to be rate away in its own little world and those cars idled smoothly. The motor mount disintegrated rather quickly though. The Iron Duke was also about torque at low rpm driving an automatic, it was not a sports car motor. Like all large 4’s, it needed the balance shafts that Mitsubishi was about to come out with.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    And you thought your Golf was bad news…

  • avatar
    Mike A

    Amazing that the V6 hatchback weighs only a little more than a modern MX5. Certainly shows the weight gain over the past forty years.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    I was previously unaware of the connection to the Lancia Beta 5-door, and honestly only had the barest recollection of what that car looked like.

    https://tinyurl.com/jdjzae48

    I’ll be damned if the Citation isn’t a darn good crib.

  • avatar
    bufguy

    “The Citation sourced its power from four uninspiring engines” The 2.8 liter was actually a decent engine and allowed GM to stand out from the competition from Japan and Europe who did not offer a 6 cylinder in a car in this price range. The 2.8 was a brand new engine from the ground up that used a 60 degree angle between cylinder banks to create a naturally even firing engine. It wasn’t just a shortened V8. It was still an OHV engine, but OHC V6 were pretty rare and expensive requiring 4 cams. Pretty exotic in the 70’s. The engine was praised in the Citation X1 and later tin the Pontiac 6000 STE. It also had a great sound in HO versions. The Iron Duke was uninspired crap

  • avatar
    EspritdeFacelVega

    You have no idea what a big deal it was when these were introduced. They arrived with such promise. GM even had much touted plans to make them best sellers in Europe. In the early 80s I worked summers for Avis car rental as YVR so drove every possible X-car variation, all of which had their pluses and copious minuses. The Skylark, especially in luxe Limited sedan form, was probably the nicest of them all. But, still…I don’t know where to start – agricultural Iron Duke engine (unless you got the horrid V6 offered on some), plasticky fall-apart interiors, myriad problems with electrics and brakes, and just an overall frailty and cheapness. Pluses: they actually handled decently – don’t forget people were cross-shopping these with Fairmonts and Volares (and then K-Cars),they looked modern and “European”, FWD was still very novel, GM dealers were everywhere, and they were relatively cheaper than any comparable import (and then from 82 Japanese imports became far more expensive (and desirable!) because of import restrictions in the US, which skewed the market in Canada as well)….A few years later I recall C&D had an article (by Yates?) about the X-Cars called “X is for Excruciating”, and for at least two of my Dad’s friends these were the last GM or Detroit cars they ever bought (another one, in California, traded his luxe Omega “up” on a Cimarron, and then became yet another Honda convert after the inevitable….)

    • 0 avatar
      la834

      Another plus was that they were quite roomy inside for a car its size. Likewise the cargo area, especially on the hatchbacks. None of the similarly priced Japanese competition, mostly still RWD, had stretch-out room in back or a large trunk.

    • 0 avatar
      dukeisduke

      @EspritdeFacelVega

      I had a lot of hope for them when they came out, but they were let down by the poor engineering and build quality. The brake system was dual-circuit, but not front/rear split, but instead diagonal split. The brake system was one of the most problematic thing about the 1980 models, leading to a 240,000 vehicle recall to fix problems with the proportioning valves which were causing rear wheel lockup.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      Good point about the plasticky interior. GM interiors in the 80s were horrifically bad. Orders of magnitude worse than the 90s, and that’s saying something.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Compared to the stuff being produced by GM/F/C in the late 70s, the Citation looked like a spaceship when it appeared.

    The styling seemed to loosely follow the earlier H-body rear-drive Monza, available in hatch and notch designs as well. I was always impressed with the Citation’s interior room.

    Look at those curb weights; a similar car today weighs 1000 lbs more and does everything better.

    These came out just when I began driving, and working at a full-serve gas station. Checking power steering fluid was harrowing – I remember often being burned by hot engine components as the PS pump was buried low between the engine and firewall.

    The 2.5 Iron Duke wasn’t designed for a front drive package. I believe the 2.8 V6 was, but it was very, very tight under the hood.

    Few mfrs were doing fuel injection back then, so when the carbureted engine systems began to fail these cars felt no better than the turds of the 1970s. A friend had an 81 Citation V6, and by 85 I was already rebuilding the carburetor and installing new front struts for him. Even the engine dogbone strut went bad, and the paint peeled off. The car just fell apart.

    Rear brake lockup was a known – and serious – issue. His car would skid the rear tires in the snow – at walking speed.

    Despite the troubles with the X-bodies, generations of better GM cars share DNA with them. Unfortunately, every X-body buyer was a beta tester for future designs such as the A-body.

  • avatar
    indi500fan

    The TH125 automatic was definitely troublesome. Lot of transmission shops made a good living in the 80s rebuilding those (along with the 200-4Rs from the rwds). As with many things at GM they got it right eventually, but too late. It evolved into the 4T40 which was one of the most reliable automatics transmissions ever built.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    How bad was this car? The sales numbers tell the tale.

    1980: 811540
    1981: 413379
    1982: 165557
    1983: 92184
    1984: 97205
    1985: 62722

    And add this context: this car came out during AWFUL economic times that featured (then) sky-high gas prices. On paper, it was perfect – plenty of room, plenty of features, good gas mileage, and affordable. The market for a car like this was massive, and GM brought it out at just the right time. But sales literally fell off a cliff.

    Yes, I’m sure some of this had to do with the fact that the Chrysler K-cars and Ford Escort came out in 1981, but enough to drop sales by 80% in two years during a huge economic downturn? Nope…word of mouth killed this car FAST.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Wow – good summary.

      In addition, the dramatically improving US economy of 1981-85 meant people could afford better quality stuff. Inflation dropped from 12% to 4% in that period of time.

      https://inflationdata.com/articles/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Misery-Index-1980s.jpg

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        I don’t think the major improvements really began until late in Reagan’s first term. 1981-83 were AWFUL years economically. Two things happened to change that: 1) oil supply finally increased, and 2) lending rates dropped. Both things went hand in hand.

        OPEC began pumping oil again around 1983, and gas prices dropped accordingly.

        https://www.energy.gov/eere/vehicles/fact-915-march-7-2016-average-historical-annual-gasoline-pump-price-1929-2015

        Before that happened, the Fed had to keep a very tight lid on the money supply because of inflation. Borrowing rates were literally ridiculous in the early ’80s – we’re talking 10-15% for a mortgage, believe it or not.

        https://www.valuepenguin.com/mortgages/historical-mortgage-rates#hist

        Car loan interest rates were similarly awful. But with fuel prices taken out as a component of overinflation, the Fed could make money a lot cheaper to borrow, leading to the “boom” in the mid-’80s.

        All of this meant that all through the early ’80s, GM should have had a MAJOR hit on its’ hands with the Citation – it was a perfect car for its’ times.

    • 0 avatar

      You are revealing Pt II!

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        “Citation sales went down harder than the Hindenburg” isn’t much of a spoiler, you know. But I’m sure you’ll have all the other legendary Citation Fail lore next time. That’ll be fun. My particular favorite is the whole MT “COTY” bit, which is a hilarious bit of Journalism Fail.

    • 0 avatar
      indi500fan

      Don’t forget the Celebrity and Cavalier came out in 82.
      I’d bet those took sales on the low and high end of that market.

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        Very true, but sales this car dropped almost ***650,000 units*** in two years. Something was VERY wrong and this series will make it totally clear what the problem was.

    • 0 avatar
      tomLU86

      Freedmike

      Agreed that the numbers tell the tale. Some additional considerations:

      The X-car started appearing at dealers in May/Jun. The famous (or infamous) May 1979 Car & Driver “X-Car: GM blows the imports into the weeds” was at news stands April 15. So “1980” had a solid three months more sales.

      The X-car probably cannibalized some Malibu/LeMans/Cutlass mid-size sales, with it’s better mileage.

      Anecdotally, in Feb 1980, car shopping with my dad, he was told “full sticker, every other dealer is doing the same”. We could buy a Malibu for less. My father wound up buying a Ford Fairmont.

      1980/81 were horrible years in terms of auto sales.

      They started rebounding in 1982. But GM’s new (overpriced!) A-cars were not selling so well. So around 1985, GM shifted them down market. They took some X-car sales, and GM really had no reason to keep the X-car, which had a bad reputation. Just like an 1977 Vega was a “Fixed” 1971 Vega, the 85 Citation was a “fixed” 1980.

      I don’t remember exactly when the K-car came out. It took a few sales. I remember, teen car geek that I was, I went to the local Chrysler Plymouth dealer to see the new K-car. They had a manual trans in the show room. The clutch pedal was “collapsed”. Well, it was a Chrysler product. Contrary to other views here, the Citation’s interior, even with the dumb vertical radio, looked better than the K. The Skylark/Omega looked MUCH better. The k-car and Fairmont looked (and were) cheap.

      But on paper, and initially, the X-car was touted by everyone!

      It is very reminiscent of another really slick new product making the rounds and these days and being pushed by everyone. The timeline is shorter, but, as with the X-car, the flaws are coming out….

  • avatar
    Imagefont

    My father bought a 1980 Pontiac Phoenix (4-door hatch), my grandmother bought a burnt orange Citation (4-door sedan) and a friends mother bought a 4-door Buick Skylark sedan, red on tan, looked very nice. Not sure all the years. All had the Iron Duke. All were plagued with problems, motor mounts and CV boots disintegrated rapidly. None of those cars were kept very long, all were disappointing. 185/90-13 tires standard!

    • 0 avatar
      la834

      185/80 R13 tires were standard, 205/70R13 was optional and included with sport trims. The latter size has been unavailable for a long time; the former is mostly made for trailers now.

      • 0 avatar
        Imagefont

        80 is correct sir! Typo on my part. I had a friend with a Pontiac Sunbird coupe, 1979 I think, used the same tires and the same 151 Iron Duke. Man that thing was slow. He found some 195/75-13’s to put on it, they at least looked better.
        The Fiero also used the 185/80-13 as standard, GM did everything humanly possible to make that car suck.

  • avatar
    jeffmete

    When I left GM to go back to grad school I bought myself a brand new 1980 2 door, notch back, Pontiac Phoenix, V6, 4speed. I loved that car and put about 160,000 miles on it. Body was still good when I sold it, after spending its life in Michigan. It was two tone, black and silver. The paint job was a little marginal, but it looked good all polished up. At the same time I bought my mom a 4 door Citation, she drove it 14 years! I was working at Saginaw Steering at the time, and we had just tooled up to make the axles.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Debate: K Cars were superior to X Cars.
    Anyone taking the opposite view?

  • avatar
    theoldguard

    I had an ’81 X-11. It was the worse car I have ever had. Service dept. said, “it is leaking oil in every place it possibly could.”

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I have the receipt for my mom’s new 1981 Pontiac Phoenix. It was green and she bought it on January 12 1981 from Frank Yanko’s Pontiac Cadillac at 1631 Elm St. Manchester, NH. It was the first car I have a memory of being in.
    The VIN was 1G2AY6853BT106349 and the price was $8,489.19 plus the title fee of $4.00 (!) and L.S.I. (?) of $6.50.
    It came with:
    Z-Bart
    Z-Gard
    Z-Glaze
    P-A-T
    Sport Stripes
    Body Side Moldings
    Door Edge Guards
    and Factory equipment per window sticker

    She got $3,289.00 in trade for her maroon 1977 Dodge Aspen wagon – VIN NH45D7B148892

    Total price: $8,499.69
    Deposit $10.00
    With trade: 6,904.32
    Payments: 48 months at $143.84
    Total payoff after last payment: $10,203.32

    She traded it in on a brand new, still on the truck, 1982 Camaro Berlinetta. I wish I had that one.

    • 0 avatar
      ToolGuy

      Since you are looking at the receipt which includes all the dealer add-ons, I am going with ‘Lender’s Single Interest’ insurance (also known as ‘Vendor’s Single Interest’ or ‘Blanket LSI/VSI’).

      http://lendersrisk.com/index.php/what-is-lsi-and-why-do-you-need-it/

      https://www.leeandmason.com/insurance-services/auto-consumer-lending/blanket-lenders-single-interest/

  • avatar
    conundrum

    “The most thoroughly tested new car in Chevy history” says the ad.

    Probably was. Doesn;t mean it was competent testing and development, just the most. Design up till then mainly was: select an engine, suspension and brake parts fom the bin, pick a banjo axle, and Bingo! Yet another stolid RWD standard GM car, occasional Corvair hiccups and Vega crap engines aside. The average Detroit iron was RWD whose mechanicals had improved as fast as molasses oozes, and then regressed with pollution controls. No wasting $35 on fuel injection for those steely-eyed accountants to negate wheezy useless performance, or any attempt to produce an actual decent car, it was styling that sold. Lowest common denominator parts that could be foisted off on the buyer at the lowest cost was all you got, and GM pocketed the profit. Been that way since the late 1930s. It was the American Way. Bizness. Excellence was not expected because the public was trained to accept mediocre. With flash and geegaws as a disguise for the mundane engineering and sloppy assembly.

    FWD meant the development boys had to pay attention, and obviously they couldn’t be bothered. Deadlines loomed and that was that for actually modifying anything to make it good. Sign it off and make it. And look! 800,000 people were conned into buying the X-body that first year, assuming incorrectly it was as competently engineered and tested as GM claimed. It’s impossible to believe that nobody noticed the rear brake lock-up problem before production but GM gave not a crap. If you wanted (slightly) better, buy a real (RWD) car, and the full size B Body was actually pretty good.

    Picking the ’70s Lancias to copy for the Citation is a story I’ve never heard of before. Sounds like something some writer assumed from sheetmetal profiles rather than anything to do with the mechanicals and then everyone copied that WAG, like today when you google something and 25 articles in a row are lazy copies of the Wikipedia entry.

    ’70s Lancias were a complete rustbucket joke, being the first Lancias that were Fiats under the skin following the takeover. But least they were great to drive and had nice engines, DOHC aluminum head fours that eventually stretched to 2 litres and as much power as the GM V6. The cars themselves were so rust-prone it made the regular European media as a running joke, and you can find many stories about that schemozzle on the internet.

    Rented a Citation shortly after they came out. Entirely unremarkable with a crap interior and vertical tune radio — Wowee. Making an engine that cost more than a few hundred bucks in parts meant no sweet-running Fiat DOHC or even that metallic tappy Opel Cam-in-head engine, either of which made the Iron Duke seem like a steam engine.

    The subsequent Citation was also a crap car, just barely beefed up strategically so it wouldn’t fall apart, but no standout on the world stage. Completely uncompetitive outside North America. A rattling bucket of bolts and body flex that somehow stayed together. Viewed in that way, clever, I guess but never an aspirational car except to customers who knew no better and were incurious to explore alternatives. Trained seals.

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      I had read the Lancia story a few years ago. It kind of dawned on me when you look at the proportions of the Beta hatch and the Citation.
      If only GM at the time had the sense to design a DOHC like the Lampredi motor the X might have been better regarded. GM didn’t have a decent modern OHC-4 until the Brazilian 1.8/2.0 turbo and the Ecotec 2.0/2.4.
      Ironically GM did buy a piece of Fiat in the 90’s and there’s probably a lot more Betas on the road or at least running as collectibles than X-cars.

  • avatar
    KOKing

    The #1 thing I remember about Citations as a kid was rust, even here in LA. I also seem to remember a commercial with the tagline ‘Citation… Excitation!’ but I can’t seem to find any proof of that.
    I always thought it had good proportions and generally looked pretty good.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    The more things change the more they stay the same. GM still thinks it can fool all the people all the time.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    I need one X-11 Club Coupe and the LS-4 from the junkyard Grand Prix in the earlier article.

  • avatar
    alexVA

    I think everything that needs to be said about the X cars has already been said. I’ll just note that my uncle had an X-11, which I thought was kinda cool, but that vertically-mounted radio still sticks in my craw..

  • avatar
    mcs

    My favorite GMAD plant was the OKC plant where X cars were built. Got to see it go from getting its floors poured to production in the spring or summer of 79. Can’t exactly remember. One of the plants that ties for my least favorite was Tarrytown, one of the other X Plants. Never saw Flint where the Skylark was made. Tarrytown was a hell hole. Dark and dank. OKC was new, brightly lit, and air-conditioned. The maintenance dispatcher was this buxom blonde that had transferred from Doraville GA. I think her name was Della if I remember correctly. The maintenance console had an early CRT-based touchscreen to display and acknowledge alarms. It used a frame around the screen with photocells. Also had early RF cable modems to communicate with the monitor nodes. They had Ti990/4 computers that the sensors went into. I can go into major detail on that plant. Since it was my favorite, I still remember a lot of the details.

    They did attempt to rustproof the body. The entire body was submerged into a vat and it was electrocoated. Whatever they did, it obviously wasn’t enought.

    • 0 avatar
      eng_alvarado90

      As someone who works in a factory (non-automotive related), I like finding this kind of information from people who has/had worked on assembly plants. It provides so much detail that otherwise would’ve been impossible to find.

      Even the handful of youtube videos inside long gone factories don’t tell enough details but I still love watching them.

      I’ve only had 2 GM vehicles in my life, one built in Janesville and the other one in Spring hill. Did you ever visit any of those?

      • 0 avatar
        ToolGuy

        @eng_alvarado90, Janesville was GM’s oldest operating vehicle assembly plant when it closed, and Spring Hill is GM’s newest – was that intentional? :-)

        I did an internship at Spring Hill (in the offices) while the plant was under construction. I visited Janesville [built in 1919 for Samson Tractor Division] once on business at my last job (was doing pricing on fullsize utilities). Visiting isn’t the same as working there.

        mcs’s Oklahoma City, Tarrytown and Doraville plants [and Arlington, Bowling Green, Fairfax and Oshawa] sent me numbers (using Kermit – shudder) each month at one of my first jobs.

        I have always been intrigued by the wood flooring in the old old plants:
        https://www.hemmings.com/stories/article/i-was-there-4

        Willow Run was 2.3 million square feet – that’s a lot of 2x4x6 blocks.

        • 0 avatar
          mcs

          @toolguy: Yeah, I was in Janesville once. Loved the woodblocks there too.

          Oklahoma City was a good lesson in seeing how a line has a maximum rate and when you exceed it, problems happen. I could even see it on the workers faces.

          Another OKC story. On the X, there was a merge point on the line where the body would stop. then, flashing yellow lights over the aisles on either side would start flashing. Then, simultaneously, fixtures holding the left side of the body and the right side of the bodies would sweep across the aisles to join the center body. You wanted to be clear of the aisle when that happened. Then the fixtures held the sides to the bodies and they were welded together by workers.

          One day when it swept across, one of the women that was welding the side seams had her foot caught between one of the sides and the center. They had to help her limp down the line with her foot caught until the fixture released from the side of the body.

          • 0 avatar
            mcs

            @toolguy: I was in Columbia TN for a few days for non-automotive work when Spring Hill was under construction. Lots of Michigan plates. Road tripped from there to Atlanta afterward with a stop at Jack Daniels for a tour.

  • avatar
    3800FAN

    Im glad youre doing a big bit on the citation because every fwd gm vehicle of the next 30 years had x body elements in it, be it steering, suspension components, the 60 degree pushrod v6s, etc all the fwd gm vehicles a,j,n,w,c,etc had fwd x body dna and look where gm ended up. It wasnt 1 car but just 1 inferior car aftet another that killed gm and it really started with the citation.

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      I wonder if Corey meant the “morning sickness” caused by PS fluid blowby to the steering rack when he mentioned “power steering issues? I know that was common on the A and J-Bodies. (My 1984 Sunbird Hatch had it, but my Dad’s 1986 Century didn’t!)

  • avatar
    Mustangfast

    How could you get through the intro without reverting to some of its ambitious launch claims? “A Chevy like no Chevy you have ever seen! A thoroughly contemporary driving machine!” After all it was “the first Chevy of the 80s!!!” Whatever that was supposed to mean

  • avatar
    SLLTTAC

    My 1983 white Chevy Citation X-11, which I ordered with the four-speed manual transmission, was truly a wretched vehicle. Cheaply made and fragile. At 36000 miles, just after the warranty expired, the transmission failed. The car was no fun to drive. My mother’s Pontiac Phoenix was also junk. I replaced the X-11 with a 1986 Chevy Celebrity station wagon which suffered repeatedly clogged fuel injectors. A year later ordered a 1987 Pontiac 6000 STE, all in all a much better car, except for the convoluted dashboard controls. That was my last GM vehicle. I replaced the Pontiac with a 1989 Ford Taurus SHO which had horrific torque steer, ate clutches and transmissions, was cheaply constructed, and spent many weeks at the Ford dealer. The Yamaha 3000cc v6 was superb; the rest of the car was junk. That was my last Ford vehicle.

    • 0 avatar
      crtfour

      Ha, so have you moved on to Chrysler now or finally on to imports?

      • 0 avatar
        SLLTTAC

        A 1992 Subaru SVX LS-L succeeded the Ford Taurus SHO. Since then, I have had Subarus and Audis, except for a 2012 Acura TL-S, which I leased for two years and a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland, which was satisfying when it worked, which wasn’t often enough. After 75,000 miles and three transmissions, I traded the Jeep in for a 2018 Audi SQ5, a superb vehicle.

        • 0 avatar
          SPPPP

          Your vehicle history reminds me of a certain John Phillips column in C&D. He mentioned he owned a 1994(?) Toyota Camry, and soon realized it was a completely adequate car and would never, ever break or let him down. He got rid of it as soon as possible.

      • 0 avatar
        SLLTTAC

        A 1992 Subaru SVX LS-L, a very pleasing car, succeeded the Ford Taurus SHO. Since then, I have had Subarus and Audis, except for a 2012 Acura TL-S, which I leased for two years and for a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland, which was OK when it wasn’t in the shop, which was often. After 75,000 miles and three transmissions, the Jeep was traded in for my current ride, a 2018 Audi SQ5, a superb vehicle.

  • avatar
    The Snu

    1. Someone said “Citation Excitation?” Yes. That was the ad.

    2. You have to remember the time. It’s not fair to compare a 40 year old car to today’s cars.

    3. I had an 82 4 door hatchback with an automatic, V6, Air, PS, PB and an AM radio. And for the time, it was an amazing car. We are a big (as in height/weight) family, and it sat us all just fine. The rear seat folded down, and you could get 2 fender basses, a 2 x 15″ speaker cabinet, and an amp in there no problem. The mileage was decent, it was reasonably fast.

    There was torque steer, but that was a front drive car in 1982, particularly with a “powerful” engine.

    The interior, well, it was a bit cheap. Plastic-y plastic door cards were the worst offenders.

    The brakes? I remember they weren’t great. I may have locked the rears once or twice. But compared to what else was out there, they were pretty much par for the Course.

    What did the car in was a bad head gasket. I don’t know why my dad sold the car instead of getting it fixed….

  • avatar
    wolfwagen

    I remember that sometime (1981-82) after they dropped the Citation X-11 (which I always liked and still desire) Popular Mechanics did a comparison between the Citation X-11, Volvo 240 GLT, Saab 900 Turbo, and 1 or 2 other “sporty” cars of the time. As much as they praised the performance of the Citation, they knocked the interior and build quality. It was something along the lines of you could buy the citation and improve the seats, the suspension, etc but you would also have something that costs the same as the Volvo. Or you could just by the Volvo.

  • avatar
    spookiness

    My driver’s ed car was a Citation II with the V-6. That’s about all I have to say or recall about Citation. It drove and had styling and design cues like typical GM of the time I thought, just at slightly smaller scale.

  • avatar
    Laflamcs

    Remember that advertising jingle they used for this car? Chevy CitAAAAAAAtion!!

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    My brother bought an 82 Skylark Limited with a 2.5, 4 speed manual, and fuel injection. It was light gray, maroon landau top, with a plush maroon interior with power windows. It was actually a good car and he ran it about 300k miles of highway driving. I drove it from Texas to California and back and from Texas to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and back to Texas with no problems. With a 4 speed manual and fuel injection the 2.5 was a good engine but with an automatic it was sluggish. The Buick Skylark Limited was a much better version of the X car than the Citation and the Phoenix. My brother used Mobil 1 and changed the oil and filter every 20k miles since most of his driving was interstate and the engine never used oil and didn’t leak oil.

    It is much easier to be an armchair critic and criticize the X cars but I remember when these cars were introduced in the Spring of 1979 and they were a big deal just as big a deal as the K cars would be because they were the first front wheel drive transverse mounted engine American made compact car. I knew people that rushed out to buy an X car especially with the Iranian crisis where you had to wait for hours to get gas and there was no guarantee that the gas station wouldn’t run out of gas. My brother’s Buick would get close to 40 mpgs and that was cruising at 75 to 80 mph which was fantastic gas mileage at the time. It was one of the better front wheel drive compact cars at the time but a few years later the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry would be much much better. The Japanese continually improved their cars.

  • avatar
    johnny ringo

    The X cars were absolute junk-I purchased a 1980 Skylark largely on the enthusiastic reporting the auto rags were giving it; I felt GM had finally got everything together-and I was totally wrong. It was absolutely the worst automobile I ever owned-it was rushed through development and testing with the GM bean counters trying to get every nickel out of it they could. A couple of years later the auto rags were trying to pretend they never said all those great things about the X-cars; after that I stopped reading them, as objective sources of information on automobiles they were worthless.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    In the early and mid 1980’s I used to regularly enroll in a night school ‘auto shop’ class held once per week at the local high school. Generally about 10 to 12 students, taught be a licensed mechanic. 3 bays with lifts, 1 bay without and a car wash area. We took turns working on our cars on a pre-set schedule. The ‘instructor’ would supervise then take the car for a drive around the block to make sure that everything was OK.

    Mostly RWD domestics from the mid to late 1970’s. Remember that back then anything 5 years or older or with 80,000+ miles was a ‘beater’.

    However there was one young lady who had a Citation, ‘gifted’ by her parents. When she told the instructor what her car was he cursed. We had that Chev in the bays weekly.

    When my son got his license I decided that we should enroll together in the same type of program. It is no longer offered. Most high schools removed their auto shops. ‘Auto technician’ is now a multi year college program.

    Yet there is a massive shortage of qualified mechanics in Ontario. And very few young(er) ones.

  • avatar
    Fifth87

    I would be very interested in hearing the story of OKC Assembly. I have a pair of Cieras built there that have served me very well.

  • avatar
    Norman Stansfield

    Malaise in car form.

  • avatar
    jkross22

    I’m going to say something nice about these cars – the Skylark version had pretty comfortable seats that felt like you were sitting on a velour couch.

    There. I did it. Everything else about these cars sucked. Everything.

    Cars like this ruined GM for 4 decades. That’s how long GM’s been a damaged brand. And still to this day for a lot of people.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    I grew up not far from the X-body Westchester plant so they were common place. My next door neighbor bought an Omega 2 door in late 79 which was early production in beige. After a couple of years you could see the paint work deteriorate to the point where there were rust scales but not perforated. They were long time GM owners who later went to Nissan and Honda purchased at the same dealership who had expanded their product line.
    A friends dad had a Citation 4 door hatch as a company car which served him well. I had a Citation II 4 door hatch with the Iron Duke as a company vehicle. I thought “Hey it’s the II it’s got to be improved and after all they went through they teething issues” It was ok but the dog bone engine mount became an issue.
    After the X- car met it’s end the same GM plant built the A-body 6000 and Celebrity. The build quality was far better on them and you can see them chugging along. The plant later was retrofitted to build Dustbuster vans until it closed in the later 90’s. The site is now a condo and boating complex.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    I remember going to one of the local Chevy dealers on launch day, to the see the Citation. They had two on the showroom floor; a basic Club Coupe with the Iron Duke and a four-speed, and a four-door the 2.8 V6 and automatic, in a more uplevel trim.

    My sister bought a new ’81 V6/auto Club Coupe as her second car, trading her first car, a ’78 Camaro sport coupe with 350 4-barrel.

    The Citation was definitely a step down, and an awful piece of crap. I remember driving it to the airport once (it was maybe a year old) to pick her up from a flight, and passing a car, I went to accelerate, floored it, and instead of accelerating, it decelerated – I blamed it on the awful THM125 transmission.

    It was traded for a new ’83 Camaro sport coupe with the 305 2-barrel and 5-speed manual. Since then, she’s been through a progression of stuff like a Dodge minivan, a Suburban, Lexus RX400h, Audi Q7 TDI, Range Rover, Tesla Model S, and currently a Mercedes-Benz AMG GLS (hey, she married a doctor).

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    @Arthur Dailey–There is a massive shortage of mechanics where I live and there is a vocational school that is part of a high school that trains mechanics. GM build quality could be hit or miss with my brothers Skylark being better than most X cars. His Skylark was driven hard but well maintained and considering he bought it when it was a year old from Enterprise he more than got his money’s worth. The Bosch fuel injection and 4 speed manual made it a decent car along with the plush velour interior. His was a rare Skylark considering the manual and especially the fuel injection on a 1982. I do know those with Citations that were less than stellar. For a small car the Skylark drove and rode very smooth. As I said my brothers Skylark went about 300k before it started to really need major work and then he got rid of it.

  • avatar
    Dan

    My two takeaway from this post mortem on this are one, this could have easily been a really good car. GM was far and away the largest and richest automaker in the world at the time with all of the advantages that came with that. The deepest parts bin, the longest list of patents, the most experienced engineers. This was tooled up to be a million copy a year car, and in the brief window before the market wised up and stopped buying them they almost got there. Honda at the time didn’t make a million Accords in an entire product run. That economy of scale could and should have made a better car than anyone else, for less than anyone else could make it for, and slammed the door on upstart competition before it ever opened.

    And two, GM didn’t need to do that much. They were the home team in a country where patriotism was still a thing. Honda and Toyota were the people who’d only just bombed Pearl Harbor. GM didn’t need great cars to win over agnostic cross shoppers. All they needed were cars not awful enough to drive their customers away.

    They had their choice and they made it.

  • avatar
    orange260z

    I learned how to drive in my mom’s 1983 Pontiac Phoenix SJ hatchback. Two tone silver and blue, with a blue interior. With the HO 2.8L V6, it was a pretty quick and powerful car for it’s time. I had lots of room in it for my friends, and went on some longer road trips with that car.

    I don’t know if it was the car, or me, or a combination of the two, but it aged quickly once I started driving it. We replaced it a year later with a then-new in Canada 1988 Chev Corsica LT with the MPFI 2.8L V6.

  • avatar
    e46 Touring

    I will never forget my original Citation encounter. My friend’s dad, who worked at GM Lordstown, had one of the first to arrive in town. We went on a drive in the country, and it broke down on the way home. I’ll forever remember pushing that crap-can in traffic with my friend, while his dad steered and looked for somewhere we could park that turd.

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