Collecting only dust and rust

Today’s blog for Collector Car Appreciation Day is about cars that are not likely to become collectors, combining two themes from my past — the 1980s, and the cars therein:

I graduated from high school and college in the ’80s. I’m a fan of ’80s music. I think ’80s fashion is generally unremarkable, except for leg warmers and really big hair. I am not a fan of ’80s cars, nor should you be.

I’ve written here before that today’s cars are unquestionably more capable than collector cars, though they lack the soul, for lack of a better term, of collector cars. Cars of the ’80s generally lacked both qualities.

Collectible Automobile found two newspaper ads of the day for those wondering what was available:

The reason I have pleasant memories of my own ’80s transportation will be revealed at the end.

Imagine being a Playboy Magazine writer and having to write this for the October 1983 issue:

OK, the thrill is back. The decade of dullness has come and gone. Cars are exciting and driving is fun again. …

There’s a new breed of machine in the land: the pocket rocket – your basic economy sedan or coupe with a massive horsepower and handling transfusion.

What cars was the writer referring to? The 90-horsepower Volkswagen Rabbit GTI, the 110-horsepower Dodge Shelby Charger, the 100-horsepower turbocharged (!) Nissan Pulsar NX, the 116-horsepower turbocharged Ford EXP Turbo, and the 150-horsepower turbocharged Pontiac Sunbird S/E.

Most of the worst examples of ’80s cars were the result of their design during or immediately after the second energy crisis in the late ’70s. Consumers wanted smaller cars, but Detroit didn’t have much ability to design small cars beyond just making them smaller than the cars they were replacing and putting weaker engines in them. Front-wheel drive was starting to appear in showrooms, but those cars mostly demonstrated that you don’t want to purchase the first iteration of a car.

Experience number one was a 1981 Chevrolet Malibu purchased as an upgrade from the car my father had been driving. The Malibu was part of the second wave of GM’s downsizing, which started in 1977 with the full-size Chevy Impala/Caprice, Pontiac Catalina/Bonneville, Oldsmobile Delta 88/98, Buick LeSabre/Electra and Cadillac de Villes. With rebodying in 1991, those cars lasted until GM (stupidly) killed its full-size rear-drive cars in 1996.

The downsizing of GM’s mid-sized cars — the Malibu, Pontiac LeMans, Olds Cutlass and Buick Century, and their personal luxury companion Monte Carlo, Grand Prix, Cutlass Supreme and Regal — didn’t go as well. The genius of the 1977 B- and C-body redesign was that, even though the cars were smaller and lighter, buyers didn’t feel as though they were buying less car.

1978 Buick Century sedan. In 1978, fastback sedans were not popular.

That was not the case with GM’s A-bodies. If you bought a sedan or station wagon, the rear-seat passengers were unable to roll down their windows. GM’s designers (and I use the term loosely for this decade) removed the rear window mechanisms in order to improve rear-seat elbow room. (That is, for those whose arms fit into the indentation in the rear doors. No, mine didn’t.)

Ford also downsized, with equally bad results, such as the early ’80s Thunderbird, or, as an owner called it, “Thunderchicken”:

Chrysler was trying to bore everyone to death with the Plymouth Horizon/Dodge Omni …

… and the Plymouth Reliant/Dodge Aries:

AMC did so poorly that it imported Renaults, such as the Alliance …

… and Fuego:

Chrysler’s purchase of AMC in 1987 could almost be called a mercy killing.

Engines were dropping in power in those days largely because of air pollution regulations. One solution was to equip them with computers to control spark and various other engine functions. Unfortunately, GM’s Computer Command Control was sent into the world with insufficient refinement, resulting in the Check Engine light going on and off for no apparent reason. (Some things never change.) The automakers also hadn’t figured out that electronic fuel injection was a more precise way to send fuel into the engine than carburetors.

The automakers were starting to figure out that one way to improve fuel economy was to reduce highway RPMs through transmission and rear-end gearing. That’s why cars of today are equipped with overdrive top gear(s). Unfortunately, no one had figured out how to put overdrive gears into automatic transmissions, with the result that rear ends were equipped with tall (that is, numerically low) gear ratios. This was good for highway cruising, but not so good for acceleration from a stop with the three-speed non-overdrive automatics of the day.

Cars of most of the decade also featured a prominent reminder of the stupidity of the Carter administration — speedometers with the top listed speed of 85 mph, and 55 mph highlighted to remind drivers that they dare not drive faster than that.

(I believe this was about the time I started to hate government, come to think of it.)

Tip number one that our experience with the Malibu would not be positive was two days into our ownership experience, when the bratty kid up the street started throwing rocks at it, chipping the black paint. (On the other hand, maybe he knew more than we did about the car.)

Within days of the car’s arrival, we took it on what I dubbed the Rust Belt Vacation, a route that included Chicago, Gary, Ind., Detroit, Toronto, Buffalo, Cleveland and Toledo. (Not that I didn’t enjoy the vacation, because I did, but one could not better plan a better tour of industrial blight than Interstate 94 east from Madison and Interstate 90 coming back.) Everything that happened with the car nicely accidentally symbolized what was happening to the Rust Belt in those days.

On day 2 in Toronto, our car got rear-ended by a driver who gave a false name and address to the Toronto police. (Perhaps the hit-and-runner knew something about our car too.) The Check Engine light went on and off for no apparent reason. The air conditioner started making odd noises, which you don’t want to hear in the summertime. Enough things went wrong that I was commissioned to make a page-long list for the dealer upon our return to Madison. The last thing on that list was the front seat, which broke on the New York State Thruway, leading to the seat’s sliding back upon acceleration (which did not amuse the back-seat passengers) and sliding forward upon braking (which did not amuse the driver).

Similar experiences followed for nearly six years. (On the next vacation, to Florida and Louisiana, the car ran right every other day.) The end came right after my father woke me up one morning to have me take him to work because the Malibu had died one house down the street. I interrupted my father’s streak of, uh, colorful metaphors about the car by asking why didn’t he just get rid of the damn car. A couple months later, he did, succeeding in getting someone else to buy the piece of crap so he could buy a new Honda Accord sedan.

As bad as the GM A-body cars were, they paled in comparison to GM’s next brilliant idea, its first front-drive cars, the X-body Chevy Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, Olds Omega and Buick Skylark. Popular Mechanics explains why “X” stood for “execrable”:

These four awkwardly proportioned “X-Body” front-drivers directly replaced GM’s rear-drive compacts (of which the Chevy Nova was the most prominent) and promised a revolution in how the corporation designed and built cars. Chevy alone sold an incredible 811,540 Citations during that prolonged 1980 model year based on that promise. Unfortunately, the reality was that these four- and six-cylinder cars probably suffered more recalls and endemic problems than any other GM vehicle program.

The problem wasn’t so much the basic engineering of the X-Body cars as it was that no one apparently spent any time doing the detailed engineering that determines a car’s success. So customers complained of disintegrating transmissions, suspension systems that seemed to wobble on their own mounts, and brakes that would make the whole car shudder every time they were applied. There were so many niggling faults and a seemingly endless series of recalls that sales of the car almost tanked by its third year. Still, through 1985, a few million escaped to the public, souring hundreds of thousands on GM.

The father of a girlfriend and our next-door neighbor had one. My father’s bank did too, and he occasionally drove it, and that one apparently wasn’t much of a problem. My experience, though, came as a passenger when the next-door neighbor’s daughter from his first marriage briefly lived with them, resulting in a carpooling arrangement to our high school. I got in the back seat and put my hand on the B-pillar, just in time to have her slam the front door on my hand. The irony was that she had slammed it on three knuckles, and it didn’t even hurt after a couple minutes.

GM had some engine issues during the 1980s, to say the least. One was the infamous Olds diesel V-8, a modified 350 V-8 that wasn’t sufficiently redesigned for diesel fuel’s requirements. Car industry observers claim that Americans 30 years later won’t buy diesel-powered cars because of the Olds diesel. (You can buy diesel full-size pickups from Chevy, GMC, Ford and Dodge — I mean Ram — but you can buy neither a diesel compact pickup nor a diesel car of any kind from them.)

Not to be outdone, Cadillac tried to improve fuel economy with its V-8–6–4, an attempt to disable two or four cylinders on their V-8s based on how they were being driven. It is nearly impossible to find a working V-8–6–4 because nearly every owner had their favorite mechanic disable the controls. Popular Mechanics calls it “one more half-developed, cynically marketed technology that GM just couldn’t make work.”

Cadillac also foisted on the buying public a luxury small car, or so it thought, the Cimarron, which earned, if you want to call it that, the honor, if you want to call it that, of making Time Magazine‘s 50 Worst Cars list:

Everything that was wrong, venal, lazy and mendacious about GM in the 1980s was crystallized in this flagrant insult to the good name and fine customers of Cadillac. Spooked by the success of premium small cars from Mercedes-Benz, GM elected to rebadge its awful mass-market J-platform sedans, load them up with chintzy fabrics and accessories and call them “Cimarron, by Cadillac.” Wha…? Who? Seeking an even hotter circle of hell, GM priced these pseudo-caddies (with four-speed manual transmissions, no less) thousands more than their Chevy Cavalier siblings. This bit of temporizing nearly killed Cadillac and remains its biggest shame.

Time’s list also includes the DeLorean:

By the time Johnny Z. got the factory in Northern Ireland up and running — and what could possibly go wrong there? — the losses were piling up fast. The car was heavy, underpowered (the 2.8-liter Peugeot V6 never had a chance) and overpriced. And De Lorean was having a few dramas of his own, resulting in one of law enforcement’s more memorable hidden-camera tableaux: the former GM executive sitting in a hotel room with suitcases on money, discussing the supply-and-demand of nose candy. The Giugiaro-designed DMC-12 sure was cool looking, though. In August of this year, the Texas company that controls the rights to the name announced it will build a small number of new DMC-12’s. How’s that for time travel?

The ’80s were also a demonstration of the maxim that just because you can doesn’t mean you should. (See “DeLorean.”) If you purchased a 1984–1989 Corvette, this is what stared back at the driver:

The switches to the right of this cluster (I can add four letters to that term to more accurately describe it) allowed the driver to select between oil pressure and oil temperature, and between engine temperature and volts, when most drivers would prefer to be able to see all that information. GM instead felt drivers would be more interested in the Corvette’s fuel economy. And while this Vette had a digital trip odometer, it had a conventional regular odometer. (And a butt-ugly steering wheel.)

You’ll be shocked — shocked! — to know that fixing these instrument clusters drains your wallet quickly, because the circuit board died and the lights would fade. C4 owners can replace the digital gauges with analog gauges, which leaves the owner with the choice of originality or function. (Choose the latter.)

The Corvette was not the only car with an instrument panel of regrettable design. Late ’80s buyers of Chevy S-10s and GMC S-15s had to choose between, as Car & Driver put it, something designed by Playskool …

… or this:

How about some Fun with Fonts:

Detroit wasn’t the only creator of automotive dreck in the ’80s, as MArooned lists:

1. 1988 Suzuki Samurai – I had a friend growing up who traded in a 1983 Pontiac Trans Am, Daytona 500 25th Anniverary edition on a Suz. Worst. Trade. Ever. Not only was the Samarai notoriously underpowered, poorly engineered, and slow; it was also prone to rollover crashes at moderate speeds. Bad, bad, bad.

2. 1985 Yugo GV – this one’s masquerading as a GTI, but failing. What can you say about the Yugo other than, well, you get what you pay for? Manufactured by Soviet bloc comrades, this car was as ugly as a CZ-52 but nowhere near as reliable or durable. …

6. Volkswagen pick-up. Whoever thought of this concept should be dragged off and shot. A front-wheel drive pickup truck? WTF? Uh, guys, the idea of a pickup truck is that you put extra weight in the back. When the drive wheels are in the front, extra weight in the back means that it’s a LOT harder to move… Duh! …

10. Nissan Pulsar. All the aerodynamics of a door wedge. All the frightening raw power of a weedwhacker. Pop-up headlights that broke within weeks. The only way this car could possible have gotten worse would have been to give it a restyle with a modular ass end. Oh, wait, that’s what they did

Two facts about the Yugo: The engines on the first Yugos failed shortly after purchase, requiring a replacement engine that cost a few hundred dollars less than the car. A couple years ago, a caller to WTMJ radio’s Charlie Sykes reported that his parents had purchased a Yugo in the ’80s. When they contacted their bank to get a car loan, the bank told them it would make the loan, but would not accept the Yugo as collateral.

The first car I purchased was a 1988 Chevy Beretta GT.

It was a manufacturer buyback, which should have been my first warning; I assumed that GM had fixed the problem in question. The problem was mysterious indications of overheating; as I discovered, the car’s temperature gauge would peg at H, and the Low Coolant light would light up, even though the car didn’t act as if it was overheating, and it wasn’t low on coolant. Two car dealers and one repair shop could not determine whether or not the car was in fact overheating, and could not repair the problem.

Beyond its generally cheap design, the Beretta (which I think is Italian for “lemon”) developed other problems. The car got into and out of tune to the point where when I pushed in the clutch, the engine would quit, necessitating either starting the car or letting it back out so the momentum of the car reengaged the engine. There were also mysterious electrical gremlins. I didn’t impress my then-girlfriend (now wife) when the turn signals stopped working and I had to purchase a fuse, only to have it immediately pop, in the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa. I was wondering if I brought enough money for replacement fuses, but the second one didn’t pop. I had to replace the exhaust system, the first and only exhaust system I’ve ever had to replace before or since then. The last straw (because I concluded that making simultaneous car and car repair payments sucked),  was when, four years into its life, I had to have the front disc brakes completely replaced because they were rusting from the inside.

It’s amusing to me that any car built in the 1980s can now be licensed in Wisconsin as a collector car … not that you’d want to. Yet I still have fond vehicular memories of the ’80s. That’s because I didn’t own an ’80s car for more than a year of the ’80s. (In fact, I should have kept the car I had, 11 mpg or not.)

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9 thoughts on “Collecting only dust and rust

  1. Nothing about the AMC Pacer. Not only did I have one it was made equally famous in Wayne’s World the movie. Come on, what is better than a spacious little car.

  2. I recently owned a 1983 ford mustang. the first year they produced the convertible again. They did a horrible job with the “fit and finish” of the car and like your Beretta it too had overheating problems. It is hard to believe these major car makers struggled so hard with creating a better car. I think for the most part Ford gets it, plus they are not government funded!

  3. My very first new car was a beautiful (looking at it from a distance, anyway…) 1983 Pontiac (Called it a “Panty-wreck) Turbo Sunbird. Every single major automotive system in the car FAILED. Every one. Tranny, cooling, A/C, Brakes, electrical and it blew TWO heads and destroyed the engine TWICE. No kidding, my repair history notebook looked like a phone book from a small town! The dealer had one of those two-way drive-thru service arrangements with the service writers in a glass enclosure between the two lanes. I became so well known that when I would pull in line and wait my turn, Heads would pop out of the door and look right at me. At this time EVERYONE in that service enclosure would immediately scatter in all directions and whom ever was the last one out had to stay and deal with me! If it wasn’t so sad it would be comical. At the end of my standard warranty I opted to purchase the extended years and came with cash money in my hand to pay for it. The dealer submitted my payment to GM then called me a few days later informing me that they would be returning my money as GM had REJECTED my purchase!!! When The engine blew the second time, I rolled into the dealer (Massive white clouds trailing me…) and traded it for a used Toyota truck. I received $800 in trade. I have had several Toyotas since then and currently own two. Have not set foot in a GM dealer in all these years. And never will.

  4. i bought an 88 beretta off the lot with 50 miles on it. i traded it in 18.5 years later with 244000 miles on it. show me a toyhyunnisda from the same era that did as well.
    and, by the way, 1980 is the END of the ’70s, not the beginning of the ’80s (no number that ends in a zero starts anything), so the Pacer never made it to the next decade. (my mother single-handedly kept AMC in business by buying 3 of those fishbowls on wheels.)

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