General(ly poor) Motors

Former Government Motors chairman Ed Whitacre opined earlier this month:

The Treasury Department should sell every last share that it owns of General Motors—as quickly as possible.

I don’t say that critically, but the government has been an active participant in GM’s management for more than three years, and that’s long enough. It’s time for Treasury to step out of the way so that GM can fully focus on what it does best: designing, building and selling the world’s best vehicles.

I got that far and had to stop reading. Read the rest, and you’ll find ludicrous claims about post-bailout GM, which were rightly slammed in the comments section.

Before the bailout, though, to say that GM designed, built and sold “the world’s best vehicles” is at least as ludicrous. Limiting this list to my own lifetime, I can without too much difficulty note GM examples that are closer to “worst” than “best” on the vehicle design spectrum:

The Chevrolet Corvair wasn’t a bad car for the day, but, as Dan Neil wrote:

While rear-engine packaging offers enormous advantages, putting the vehicle’s heaviest component behind the rear axle gives cars a distinct tendency to spin out, sort of like an arrow weighted at the end. During World War II, Nazi officers in occupied Czechoslovakia were banned from driving the speedy rear-engined Tatras because so many had been killed behind the wheel. Chevrolet execs knew the Corvair — a lithe and lovely car with an air-cooled, flat-six in the back, a la the VW Beetle — was a handful, but they declined to spend the few dollars per car to make the swing-axle rear suspension more manageable.

Nor did GM apparently market the Corvair very well. (You’ll note that rear engines haven’t hurt Porsche at all.)

From the Corvair, GM unveiled the Chevy Vega, of which Car & Driver writes:

It was so unreliable that it seemed the only time anyone saw a Vega on the road not puking out oily smoke was when it was being towed.

That’s not to say the choice of the Vega as 1971 [Motor Trend magazine] Car of the Year didn’t make sense in context. This was the year Ford and Chevy introduced new small cars, and compared with Ford’s Pinto, the Vega at leastseemed better. The Vega handled more precisely, was available in more body styles, and with styling cribbed straight off the Camaro, looked more attractive. The Vega’s aluminum engine block even seemed like a technological leap forward.

However, the aluminum block’s unlined cylinder bores scored easily, and the (usually misaligned) iron cylinder head let oil pour into them. Every element of the Vega’s chassis was built about as flimsily as possible, and the unibody structure’s metal was usually attacked by rust mere moments after being exposed to, well, air.

Another writer claimed that Vegas were made of compressed rust. The same could probably be said of Vega spinoffs, the Chevy Monza (basically a better-looking Vega) and Pontiac Astre (Pontiac’s Vega) and Sunbird (Pontiac’s Monza).

About the Vega’s 140-cubic-inch four-cylinder, Popular Hot Rodding adds:

 At the time, John Delorean was on Chevy’s executive team, and had reportedly commented that the design of this engine resembled a pre-war tractor motor. Though some are not aware, this little “four-lunger” featured silicone-impregnated aluminum cylinders — not cast-iron sleeves, like most aluminum blocks. Early in production, Chevy re-called some 132,000 vehicles to correct the possibility of a carburetor fire. Other design characteristics were displayed as the blocks were subject to distortion, due to overheating, and the cylinders were prone to wear, causing an unusually high oil consumption.

The ’70s were really bad for GM. About the time the Vega/Astre/Monza were heading toward their demise, someone took a look at the diesel engines being sold by Mercedes–Benz and Volkswagen and decided GM needed to get into that trend. It is apparently not correct that GM took a gas 350 V-8 and made it into a diesel. Nevertheless, GM’s work left a lot to be desired, as Popular Hot Rodding notes:

Contrary to popular belief, the engine was completely different than its gasoline brethren, but it did look the same since it needed to go down the same assembly line and fit into vehicles that could be either gas or compression-ignition powered. The block was much sturdier and the crankshaft mains and crankpins were 0.500-inch bigger, measuring 3.00 inches instead of 2.5 inches. The crankcase was heavier and the pistons were fitted with full-floating pins. The block was so good that during that era many drag racers used it to make big power and it was known to stay together.

Then what happened to the Olds Diesel to give it such a poor reputation and the impetus for a class-action law suit? The engine suffered from poor familiarity by the consumer and Olds service personnel along with the lack of a water/fuel seperator and drain in the fuel system. This was compounded by a flood of very poor-quality diesel fuel into the market place shortly after the engine’s introduction. Any moisture or dirt that would get into the high-pressure Roosa Master injection pump would cause some of the parts to hang up. This could have occurred for only a second, but that was enough time of an incorrect fuel inject cycle that would allow cylinder pressure to peak and overcome head bolt tension or break down the head gasket. The driver may have only sensed a slight shudder but the damage was already done. The injured head gasket would then let coolant seep into the cylinder and since there is little quench volume in a diesel, the uncompressability of a liquid was a theory very quickly reinforced. Something had to give and it often was a piston, connecting rod or crankshaft but it spelled disaster either way. In addition, both the dealer body and the consumer often used the incorrect oil for the engine, creating further service issues.

The Olds Diesel, when cared for properly, ran for hundreds of thousands of miles, but only in the hands of an experienced diesel operator. Other than that, it makes a great gasoline race engine block.

It’s interesting that the disaster diesel is blamed largely on failure to separate water and diesel, since it’s widely believed that this diesel has soured American car-buyers on diesels for more than three decades. The Olds diesel also was slow, and GM compounded that problem by creating a diesel V-6 from the diesel V-8. (The diesel engines you find in cars and pickups today are turbocharged, which gives them decent horsepower and pull-your-house-off-its-foundation levels of torque), unless they’re in an Isuzu-powered GMC C-7500 rented by Budget Car Rental. But I digress.)

Those diesels ended up in GM’s B-body and A-body cars of the late 1970s. GM’s downsizing began with the 1977 B-bodies, and that well-designed car lasted until 1996. The next round, the Chevy Malibu/Pontiac LeMans/Olds Cutlass/Buick Century was not designed nearly as well. For one thing, the rear windows didn’t roll down — not an issue with two-doors, but an issue with sedans and wagons. GM’s lame explanation was that not having roll-down windows increased rear-seat elbow room. (Not in any useful fashion, I can attest.)

At least the Malibu and LeMans looked normal. I wonder who at Olds and Buick signed off on the fastback sedan look:

I had a chance to drive two — my grandmother’s 1980 Malibu, a car in which it was impossible to exceed speed limits, and our 1981, about which I have written before. (To call the latter a piece of manure is to insult manure.) The weak V-6 engines (despite having started to sell them in 1957, GM was late to figure out that balancing power, fuel economy and emissions required adopting fuel injection), hampered by their crude computer controls, were further handicapped by a downsized automatic transmission with a converter clutch (instead of overdrive gear(s)) that made the driver think someone had hit his car.

As bad as the A-bodies were, what followed the next year was even worse: The X-body Chevy Citation/Pontiac Phoenix/Olds Omega/Buick Skylark. The Truth About Cars tells the sad story:

GM was betting its future here, and we all know how it turned out: the eighties were GM’s worst decade ever in terms of market share loss, and the Citation not only kicked it off, it also set the template for almost all of its sins from then on.

GM’s biggest act of hubris was in even thinking it could execute such an undertaking, given its history. And clearly, the results got worse with each act. The fact that the Citation would be GM’s first ever-front wheel drive mass-market car didn’t help. As well as GM’s perpetual obsession with the next quarter’s profit. The mega-billions GM committed to its downsizing was taking its toll on the bottom line, and the Citation was behind schedule. Switching production facilities and suppliers over to a completely new generation of cars was taking its toll. …

Unfortunately, GM’s greatest industrial re-investment didn’t include a new four cylinder engine. The noisy, crude and rude “Iron Duke” 2.5 L OHV four was adapted for its new east-west orientation, and shook 90 hp from its crankshaft.

But GM was a bit more ambitious with the optional engine: the immortal 60-degree V6, still being built in China, and only just recently departed from the US GM line-up. In its first incarnation here, it had 2.8 L and 115 hp (110 beginning in 1981). And in 1981, the sporty X-11 Citation was graced with a bumped-up HO version, which churned out 135 hp. Just the ticket to fully display the Citation’s truly prodigious torque steer and other entertaining characteristics, some of them quite genuine, especially in later model years. …

It felt as if your favorite H-mobile was composed of two separate components (which it sort of was), or to take the analogy further, it felt like the body was a semi-trailer hooked to the back of a semi-truck. Floor it, and the truck started heading one direction (left, if I remember correctly) while the trailer both followed as well as tried to keep the truck from running off the roadway. Amusing, sort of. …

One might eventually get used to that, and if you had a good running V6, these cars could feel pretty lively given their light weight. But what goes fast must slow down, eventually, especially in LA traffic. And that’s where the fun disappeared, in a cloud of burning rubber. GM made almost the same penny-ante mistake with Citation as with the Corvair. Then, they left off a $14 camber-compensating spring. Now it was a $14 (?) rear brake proportioning valve. Drivers complained, NHTSA sued GM, which GM ended up winning in 1987, way too late: the perception/sales battle was then long lost. …

That was just for starters (and stoppers). In between, a seemingly endless rash of maladies made these cars recall kings and queens. Transmission hoses that leaked and cause fires. Various driveability issues: fuel injection was deemed too expensive; meanwhile the two-barrel carb on the V6 was the most complicated and expensive fuel mixing device Rube Goldberg was ever commissioned to design. (A replacement cost  over $1000 in today’s money, as I well know).  Shifting the manual transmission was like sending messages to a distant cohort in secret code via carrier pigeon.

The Citation interiors were hard and cheap. Sundry pieces of trim were prone to suddenly disassociating themselves from the rest of the car, in shame perhaps. Starting on day one. General build quality varied greatly, somewhere between miserable and mediocre. Cost cutting resulted in skin cutting from rough edges. Within one model year, the word was out and the jig was up: the Citation was a lemon.

Chevrolet sold 811,000 Citations its first model year, 1980. Chevy did not match that sales number in the next five years combined.

Having failed to combine power and better fuel economy through the diesel, GM came up with another answer: The V-8–6–4, about which Neil wrote:

When the engine is running at light loads, it’s logical to shut down unneeded cylinders to save fuel, like turning off lights in unused rooms. But in 1981, when semiconductors and on-board computers were still in their infancy, variable displacement was a huge technical challenge. GM deserves credit for trying, but the V-8-6-4 was the Titanic of engine programs. The cars jerked, bucked, stalled, made rude noises and generally misbehaved until wild-eyed owners took the cars to have the system disconnected. For some it was the last time they ever saw the inside of a Cadillac dealership.

Around that time came the second iteration of the Cadillac Seville, first introduced in 1976 to fight Mercedes. The first edition, despite coming from a mid-’70s Chevy Nova, did well in the marketplace. Edition number two looked weird …

… while saddling the owner with the diesel or the V-8–6–4 engine choice.

Next on the list is an example of GM’s laziness, and arguably a foreshadowing of Pontiac’s fate. Pontiac’s version of the B-b0dy was the Catalina and Bonneville. For some reason, GM switched the Bonneville nameplate to the aforementioned A-body in 1982, only to decide to bring back the big Pontiac a year later. In Canada, the Catalina was called the Laurentian and the Bonneville was called the Parisienne. The 1984 Parisienne was indistinguishable from a Caprice because it used Caprice sheetmetal. The Parisienne didn’t sell either, so GM reverted to the full-size Bonneville’s sheetmetal (including the big Bonneville’s fender skirts) for its last two years. (And to think GM paid people to make decisions like these.)

Speaking of lazy, or perhaps cynical, there is the Cadillac Cimarron, which made Neil channel his inner Francis Ford Coppola:

The horror. The horror. 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.

GM’s biggest shame might be what it failed to do with Saturn, branded as “a different kind of company, a different kind of car.” The latter certainly was not the case; in comparison to the cars it was built to compete against, the SL sedan, SW wagon and SC coupe couldn’t cut it. (On the other hand, 41 percent of Saturn sales were to owners of GM cars, so other GM brands couldn’t cut it against Saturn.) In the former case, despite supposedly doing things differently from other GM brands, including having a separate dealer network from other GM brands, the only thing that stuck about Saturn was its no-haggle pricing. The last nine years of Saturn were mainly American versions of GM’s European-brand cars, which might have worked as a strategy from the beginning, but that wasn’t the strategy from the beginning.

Finally, there is the Pontiac Aztek, which is apparently seared in Neil‘s mind:

I was in the audience at the Detroit auto show the day GM unveiled the Pontiac Aztek and I will never forget the gasp that audience made. Holy hell! This car could not have been more instantly hated if it had a Swastika tattoo on its forehead. In later interviews with GM designers — who, for decency’s sake, will remain unnamed — it emerged that the Aztek design had been fiddled with, fussed over, cost-shaved and otherwise compromised until the tough, cool-looking concept had been reduced to a bulky, plastic-clad mess. A classic case of losing the plot. The Aztek violates one of the principal rules of car design: We like cars that look like us.

The Washington Post explained what happened:

In the mid-1990s, then-General Motors Corp. Chairman John G. Smale decided to bring the world’s biggest automaker a dose of the give-the-people-what-they-want ethic that had animated Smale’s old company, Procter & Gamble Co. And what the people wanted was sexy, edgy and a bit off-key; in short, a head-turner. General Motors’ culture took over from there. Design would be by committee, the focus groups extensive. And production would have to stick to a tight budget, with all that sex appeal packed onto an existing minivan platform. The result rolled off the assembly line in 2000: the Pontiac Aztek, considered by many to be one of the ugliest cars produced in decades and a flop from Day One. …

The penny-pinchers demanded that costs be kept low by putting the concept car on an existing minivan platform. That destroyed the original proportions and produced the vehicle’s bizarre, pushed-up back end. But the designers kept telling themselves it was good enough. “By the time it was done, it came out as this horrible, least-common-denominator vehicle where everyone said, ‘How could you put that on the road?'” the official said.

Sales never reached the 30,000 level needed to make money on the Aztek, so it abruptly went out of production last year. The tongue-in-cheek hosts of National Public Radio’s “Car Talk” named it the ugliest car of 2005. “It looks the way Montezuma’s revenge feels,” one listener quipped.

I’ll let readers decide which looks better — the concept …

… or the actual product:


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