Mark of eccentricity, or when did this seem like a good idea?

I am a member of several automobile-oriented groups on Facebook, including Cars Modified in Ways That Dumbfound.

While that group has whose vehicles were modified in ways that defy reason …

… this country’s automakers have occasionally sent out into the world vehicles with features, or sometimes lacking features, that make one wonder about the decision process that led up to that dubious judgment.

It seems as though most of those came from General Motors, which by the 1950s was the nation’s largest company in terms of revenues as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, the largest private-sector employer in the world, and the first U.S. company to pay more than $1 billion in taxes.


For all of GM’s innovations — the first self-starter, the Cadillac V-8s, the Chevy small-block V-8, their current automatic transmission design — GM’s major sin has been sending vehicles and technology into the marketplace before they were really ready to be there. One example was the 1980s Pontiac Fiero, a mid-engine two-seater with not much engine until a V-6 was installed. The much more fun driving experience of a V-6 in a light car lasted until the Fiero was canceled three years after the V-6 was introduced. (Apparently publicity about engine fires, a hallmark of the original engine, has a negative effect on car sales.) A much wider example was GM’s 1981 Computer Command Control, which was supposed to improve performance and fuel economy. Instead, it introduced the car-buying world to the yellow Check Engine light.

In 1960, Chevrolet began selling the Corvair, its first rear-engine rear-wheel-drive vehicle after decades of selling cars with the engine in the front and the drive wheels in back. Yes, Volkswagen sold air-cooled rear-mounted flat-engine rear-drive Beetles. Yes, Nash, which became AMC, entered the compact market 10 years earlier with the Rambler. But, for instance, one has to question the utility of a station wagon …

… or a pickup truck …

… or a van …

… where loads have to be placed over the engine. (Each was gone by the Corvair’s redesign in 1965.)

The bigger issue was the Corvair’s handling; engine weight over the rear wheels made them oversteer, as opposed to the traditional understeer of front-engine rear-drive vehicles. The suspension design not only made oversteer worse, it helped make the rear wheels bounce off the road surface, which doesn’t help, you know, controlling the vehicle. A change in suspension design for the second-generation Corvair made them handle much better, but why didn’t GM introduce that design for the first generation? Did GM test the cars in (imitation) real-world use enough to figure out they had a suspension problem?

Shortly after the Corvair debuted, GM’s other divisions (except for Cadillac, which was 15 years away from introducing something that wasn’t the size of an aircraft carrier) introduced their own compact cars on the same unibody chassis — the Pontiac Tempest, whose base engine was half (literally) of a V-8, with a rear-mounted transaxle (later to be seen on the Corvette); the Oldsmobile F-85; and the Buick Special, each of which had as standard or optional an aluminum-block 215 V-8, the basic design of which can be found in, of all vehicles, the Land Rover Range Rover. (The Buick also offered a 198 V-6, the design of which was sold to Jeep a few years later, only to have GM get it back in the early 1970s and use it into the late 1980s.) Chevy, meanwhile, came up with its own compact, the Chevy II, though on a different platform after the Corvair was badly outsold by the Ford Falcon.

The Tempest, F-85 and Special at least were attempts at innovation, which went away by 1964, when the redesigned intermediates were all variations on the same basic design, in part because of a steady increase of buyer interest in horsepower. But GM, and other carmakers, noticed an interest in smaller import cars, smaller even than the Corvair. And so with uncommon (for GM) speed, the company introduced …

The car was styled by Bill Mitchell, so of course it looks good. Ed Cole, who brought the world the modern Chevy small-block V-8, was its designer; he became GM’s president. The lead designer had worked on the Nova and Camaro, the small-block V-8 with Cole, and the Turbo Hydramatic automatic transmission, which has been used by GM for more than 50 years.

And that’s where things started to go horribly wrong. CheatSheet Autos explains:

Nothing had ever been done like this before, and from the get go, it was apparent that GM simply wasn’t up to the task. Dubbed project XP-887, Cole tapped recently-appointed Chevy brand chief John DeLorean to be cheerleader for the new car in the press. Almost immediately, he didn’t like what he saw. In his book On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors, DeLorean recalled:

From the first day I stepped into Chevrolet, the Vega was in trouble. General Motors was basing its image and reputation on the car, and there was practically no interest in it in the division. We were to start building the car in about a year, and nobody wanted anything to do with it. Chevy’s engineering staff was only going through the motions of preparing the car for production, but nothing more. Engineers are a very proud group. They take interest and pride in their designs, but this was not their car and they did not want to work on it.

By late 1968, Chevy had a running prototype, but in a sign of things to come, the front end sheared off after just eight miles of testing.

Fixing the front end meant adding weight, so engineers looked to shed pounds elsewhere. Inner fenders were deleted, as were plastic fender lines to combat rust, saving a whopping $2.28 per car. And instead of an iron block, they used a new 2.3 liter die-cast aluminum block inline-four. GM had built aluminum engine blocks with no major issues before, but this mill was different. Its heavy cast-iron head outweighed the block, and on top of vibration issues that caused the carburetors to rattle them selves apart, high compression caused engine blocks to warp and fail should temperatures climb over 230 degrees.

Strike three for the Vega was the car’s construction. Contrary to popular belief, GM did rust proof the cars, but its design allowed for air pockets to develop between the front fenders, cowl, and firewall during the rustproofing process, leaving the steel in those areas dangerously unprotected. Yet while all these defects were known to company brass, the Vega debuted on September 10, 1970, and just like GM hoped, it was a huge success.

1970 was when Detroit got serious about import fighters. American Motors snagged a Newsweek cover in April with the release of its subcompact Gremlin, and Ford’s Pinto became ubiquitous overnight, famously being described as “the car nobody loved but everybody bought.” Chevy was late to the party, but it hardly made a difference. Two years overdue and well over-budget (GM spent $200 million on the XP-887 project, or around $1.2 billion today), the Vega instantly became the star of the American subcompact segment, with its good looking kamm-tail body and mini-Camaro front end. It was slightly more expensive than the Pinto and Gremlin, but looked better, handled better – and at first, was almost completely unavailable.

General Motors spent $75 million retooling its production facility in Lordstown, Ohio specifically for the Vega, going full speed ahead while labor relations hit an all-time low. The company boasted that the semi-automated assembly line could build 100 Vegas and hour, and fit 30 of them into specially-designed freight cars, a drastic improvement over the standard 18 vehicles per boxcar.

But these advances in automation came with waves of pay cuts and layoffs. Workers at Lordstown briefly went on strike in late 1970, and again for 22 days in 1972, with the plant becoming the focal point of national labor relations as workers intentionally slowed down production and sabotaged cars to retaliate against company policies. As Vega supplies ebbed and flowed, “Lordstown Syndrome” became shorthand for the troubling times in the automotive world. For GM, it was only going to get worse.

The Vega won Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award for 1971, with the magazine concluding, “…the Chevrolet Vega 2300 is Motor Trend’s 1971 Car of the Year by way of engineering excellence, packaging, styling, and timeliness. As such, we are saying that, for the money, no other American car can deliver more.”

But within a year, the car was already starting to lose its shine. By the end of 1972, GM would issue recalls for over 500,000 Vegas to cover defective axles, sticky throttles, and electrical issues that could cause a fire. And once that first winter hit, owners in the Northeast began complaining about their fenders rusting through; by ’73, Vegas in the arid Southwest began to rust too. Engines began to seize, and soon Chevy was swamped with angry customers. The American public had been conned; the Vega was a lemon, and it quickly became the poster child for everything that was wrong in Detroit. GM addressed the corrosion issues with galvanized bodies in ’73 and ’74, and completed an emergency redesign for the car and engine for ’75, but it was too little, too late. …

From 1971 to 1980, Chevy sold over 3.5 million Vegas and other H-body models. Despite their fantastic potential, a litany of recalls and atrocious build quality means that they’ve all but disappeared from American roads. The few that survive have become a symbol for all that went wrong in the American auto industry after 1970. There’s a direct line from the Vega to the Monza to the Cavalier to the Cobalt, and while each of them could be considered a fantastic sales success for the company, their reputations for being unreliable, unsafe, and embarrassing to be seen in ensure that none of them are remembered very fondly.

I have written about station wagons occasionally on this blog. This was another area for strange GM decisions. Before the early 1970s GM had a normal tailgate for its big …

… midsize …

… and compact wagons.

But someone thought it would be fun, or something, to mess with a successful, though conventional, design. And so GM introduced …

… the clamshell tailgate for its full-sized wagons, with the metal half folding into the floor and the glass half moving upward into the ceiling. (Except in cases of mechanical failures.)

For its midsize wagons …

… instead of the aforementioned conventional tailgate (being used by its competitors) GM thought a giant hatchback would be a good idea. (That was the completely opposite direction of the clamshell.)

Neither Ford nor Chrysler jumped on the clamshell bandwagon, nor did either jump on the monster hatchback trend. When GM redesigned its big cars, the clamshell did not survive:

The aforementioned wagon represented the first phase in GM’s three-phase downsizing of most of its cars in the late ’70s.

The full-size B-bodies and C-bodies were a home run in terms of design.

The intermediate A-bodies, well, less so.

Notice the rear door. The window did not roll down. (Nor on the wagon.) The reason was that the engineers removed the window mechanism in order to add elbow room through hollowing out the door. (I can speak from experience that extra elbow room was useless where it was located.)

The A-bodies were the second round of GM downsizing. The third round was the most radical, replacing the Chevy Nova …

… with the revolutionary (for GM, though Japanese manufacturers had them for years before) Chevy Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, Olds Omega and Buick Skylark:

(Side note: In 1977, the downsized Caprice was the same size as the last-year Malibu. In 1989, the downsized Malibu was the same size as the next-to-last-year Nova. One might think GM could have just called the 1977 Malibu a Caprice and the 1978 Nova a Malibu. GM did that with the Pontiac Bonneville a few years later. Bad, bad idea.)

Given that GM had started working on the Citation five years before introduction (in 1979 as a 1980 model), you’d think GM would have fixed its issues before Citations went to dealerships. Instead, the more than 800,000 first-model-year Citation buyers discovered an old-design and crude four-cylinder engine (previously seen in the Vega), a new concept called “torque steer” (front-wheel-drive oversteering upon applying foot to gas pedal), rear brakes that locked alarmingly often (antilock brakes were a few years away), and, by the way, poor build quality and worse reliability. The most radical design GM had attempted to date lasted six model years, though its inclusion on numerous Worst Car Ever Sold lists has lasted far longer.

On to pickup trucks. For the first half-century or so of their use, pickup trucks had one seat. While International offered a crew cab pickup in 1957 …

… followed by Dodge in 1963 …

… Ford in 1965 …

… and Chevrolet in 1973:

The crew cabs had fairly small customer bases — the military, government and railroads. You’ll note that the crew cabs are very long, longer than even the huge sedans of the day.

The same year Chevy and GMC got around to introducing their crew cabs Dodge introduced its Club Cab pickup, which was the first to have a (very small) back seat in a two-door pickup truck:

Two years later, in 1975 Ford introduced its SuperCab:

It only took Chevy and GMC 13 more years to build an extended-cab pickup:

One assumes based on the introduction dates — 1973 for the Crew Cab and 1988 for the extended cab, the first years of new-design pickups — that GM lazily waited until a new pickup design to get around to a new model already being offered by its competitors. (And when the extended-cab pickup came out, Chevy and GMC kept selling their old-design crew cab pickup; GM didn’t get around to a new-design crew cab until four years later.) No wonder Ford has outsold Chevy in pickups for years.

The same cannot be said about minivans, introduced by Chrysler in 1984, GM in 1985 and Ford in 1986. The difference between Chrysler’s minivans and GM and Ford’s is that the latter were based on their compact pickups, the S-10 and Ranger, respectively. (Each also developed a small SUV, the Blazer and Bronco II, respectively, based on the same small pickups.) Lee Iacocca came up with the idea for the minivan at Ford …

… but Henry Ford II wasn’t interested. Upon being fired at Ford, Iacocca took his idea with him to Chrysler, whose minivan was based on the K-car platform. The Chrysler minivans sold much better than their competition, and probably paved the way for more car-like vehicles such as the Honda Odyssey van and Pilot SUV, both based on the Accord sedan.

GM had multiple responses when it became apparent the Astro (and GMC Safari) were losing in the minivan sales race. Its first was the Lumina APV, based on the (by now midsize) Lumina sedan …

… immediately dubbed the “Dustbuster” (as were the Pontiac Trans Sport and Olds Silhouette) for their resemblance to the Black & Decker portable vacuum cleaner.

A few years after the Dustbuster went away, Pontiac came out with a concept vehicle, the Aztek …

… which proved popular enough on the car show circuit to make Pontiac decide to build them. But to prove the old saw about a camel being a horse designed by committee, and repeating its sin with the Trans Sport, which unlike the concept …

… was a warmed-over Dustbuster …

… Pontiac didn’t send that Aztek to market:

So what went wrong? Popular Mechanics explains:

Back in the bad old days at GM, the people in charge of vehicle manufacturing had huge control over how vehicles looked. Designers knew what they wanted GM’s first crossover to look like, but in the convoluted corporate world of the 1990s, GM’s own manufacturing team wouldn’t give it to them. The excuse? It would have cost too much.

That decision cost GM dearly … and not just in dollars.

The hideous slab-sided production horror that debuted in 2001 shares little with the 1999 concept. … Their proportions are completely different. The most visible alteration was to the angular roof of the concept that looked much like the production Chevrolet Equinox.

If the concept had made it to production, the fate of the Aztek would likely have been much different. Instead, the Aztek earned its title as the ugliest car in the world, and helped kill off the Pontiac brand.

Road & Track columnist Bob Lutz was hired from Chrysler to GM right as the production Aztek was introduced:

A bad car happens in stages. The Aztek concept car was a much leaner vehicle. Decent proportions. It got everybody excited. At the time, GM was criticized for never doing anything new, never taking a chance. So Wagoner and the automotive strategy board decreed that henceforth, 40 percent of all new GM products would be “innovative.” That started a trend toward setting internal goals that meant nothing to the customer. Everything that looked reasonably radical got green-lit.

These things require a culture of complete acquiescence and intimidation, led by a strong dictatorial individual who wants it that way.

The guy in charge of product development was Don Hackworth, an old-school guy from the tradition of shouts, browbeating, and by-God-I-want-it-done. He said, “Look. We’ve all made up our minds that the Aztek is gonna be a winner. It’s gonna astound the world. I don’t want any negative comments about this vehicle. None. Anybody who has bad opinions about it, I want them off the team.” As if the public is gonna give a sh** about team spirit. Obviously, the industry is trying to get away from that approach.

Early on, the Aztek obviously failed the market research. But in those days, GM went ahead with quite a few vehicles that failed product clinics. The Aztek didn’t just fail—it scored dead last. Rock bottom. Respondents said, “Can they possibly be serious with this thing? I wouldn’t take it as a gift.” And the GM machine was in such denial that it rejected the research and just said, “What do those a**holes know?”

The danger with the totalitarian management style is that people won’t speak up when there’s a problem. They’ll get their heads cut off or the messenger gets shot. …

One guy I informally interviewed about how the Aztek happened was one of the top guys on the project. And this guy, he looks at me and he says, “I’m proud of it.” Proud of the Aztek? “Yup. That was the best program we ever did at GM. We made all our internal goals, we made the timing, and I’m really proud of the part I played in it.” He had tears in his eyes. It was almost tragic. Everybody wanted to will this thing to succeed, and it didn’t work. All the emotional commitment and pride in the program was that it achieved all its internal objectives. And it was probably one of the great defeats in his life, or in his career.

For a company known for excess bureaucracy — which might explain the tardy introduction of extended-cab or crew-cab pickups, which cost GM lots of money given that pickups then and now are hugely profitable — one wonders how the Corvair and the other design oddities got to market. (“Totalitarian managment” is probably right on.) Every time a business debuts a poorly-thought-out product or service, or rebrands itself in a curious way (for instance, Wisconsin Electric renaming itself “We Energies”), one thinks there was a guy in a room who did not speak up when he (or she) should have about how dumb this idea was. Call him or her Mr. or Ms. Non-Groupthink.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s