Rare Rides: The Chevrolet Citation Story, Part I

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
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rare rides the chevrolet citation story part i

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 The two-door Citation was very unpopular and was withdrawn after 1980.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]

Corey Lewis
Corey Lewis

Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Writing things for TTAC since late 2016 from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio. You can find me on Twitter @CoreyLewis86, and I also contribute at Forbes Wheels.

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  • Orange260z Orange260z on Sep 09, 2021

    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.

  • E46 Touring E46 Touring on Sep 10, 2021

    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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