The Ford Taurus was a hugely influential and successful American car, there’s no question about it. Its aerodynamic, premium styling was a breath of fresh air in a market full of angular Japanese and domestic family sedans. But it wasn’t the first front-wheel-drive domestic family sedan: both perennial underdog Chrysler and ailing juggernaut General Motors beat Ford to market.
From 1982 until 1990, the Celebrity was Chevrolet’s bread-and-butter intermediate. Its predecessor, the rear-wheel-drive Malibu, stuck around for a transition period before being retired after 1983. The related Monte Carlo had received a slick makeover and took the lion’s share of intermediate Chevy coupe sales; the Celebrity coupe was never a big seller and was axed after 1988. But year in, year out, the Celebrity sedan and wagon were a regular fixture in America’s Top 10 best-selling cars list, peaking at 404,833 sales in 1986. Ford wouldn’t top that production total with the Taurus until 1995, and that was with over 50% of sales going to fleets (although a large number of Celebrities likely went to fleets, too).
Another strong-selling Chevrolet had begat the Celebrity, the promising but disastrous Citation. A huge sales success out of the gates, the Citation was half-baked and rife with reliability and build quality issues. Although the Celebrity and Citation rode the same 104.9-inch wheelbase and basic chassis, it was 11 inches longer and looked completely different. The Celebrity also weighed around 400 pounds less than the Malibu. Engines were smaller too: buyers chose between a fuel-injected 2.5 90 hp “Iron Duke” four-cylinder or a carbureted 112 hp 2.8 V6. The following year, an 83 hp 4.3 V6 diesel joined the options list.
The Celebrity was careful not to ruffle feathers. The styling was clean, conservative and yet another example of the “Sheer Look” that had proliferated through the GM fleet. There may have been some shock at the Celebrity’s sticker price, however. Despite being heavily derivative of the Citation, the cheapest Celebrity was $2000 more than the base Citation. A four-cylinder Celebrity sedan was also $330 more expensive than a Malibu V6, and $30 more expensive than a Caprice Classic V8 sedan! Chevrolet general manager Robert J. Lund had declared Celebrity buyers wouldn’t be sacrificing comfort, space and prestige in the pursuit of economy. Perhaps they didn’t, but they were sacrificing a few more dollars in the process. Chevrolet would make a slight course correction with prices in 1983, dropping MSRPs by a few hundred dollars.
A faint nod was made to sportiness with the 1984 Eurosport, featuring blackout trim and a firmer F41 suspension tune. A handsome wagon also arrived for 1984 which could seat up to 8 and was also available in Eurosport trim. The Celebrity also received an optional four-speed manual and high-output, 135 hp version of the 2.8 V6 borrowed from the Citation X-11. Neither were as popular or as important to the Celebrity line, though, as the optional four-speed automatic available in V6 Celebrities.
Ticking the right option boxes could net you a fairly entertaining mid-sizer. With the F41 suspension, the HO 2.8 V6 and the four-speed automatic, the Celebrity hit 0-60 in just over 10 seconds and handling was responsive and crisp. But a large percentage of Celebrities were humble, Iron Duke, three-speed automatic sedans, considerably less fun to drive and featuring the same aging albeit space-efficient interior.
Perhaps the record high sales of the 1986 Celebrity was on account of the similarly-sized Citation’s demise. One could theorize, too, that the might of the new Taurus likely was to blame for Celebrity sales trailing off each year after ’86. This was despite a neat facelift that smoothed out the Celebrity’s profile. There were also some minor specification improvements including a Getrag 5-speed manual option for the V6, but the sporting Celebrities were generally seen as less polished and cohesive than other sporty A-Bodies like the Pontiac 6000 STE. For 1989, Celebrity lost its stickshift and coupe; for 1990, only the wagon remained, packing a bigger 3.1 V6.
While Chevy had beat Ford to the market with a FWD intermediate, they still ended up playing catch-up. By the end of the decade, the Celebrity’s angular styling was decidedly passé. The 1990 Lumina would bring aerodynamic styling a full 4 years after the Taurus. The Celebrity wagon was replaced by the Lumina APV minivan, with GM hedging their bets on the popularity of the minivan and again playing catch-up: although the Chevy Astro had launched just a year after the Mopar minivans, the APV more closely followed the template set by Chrysler. In all fairness, Ford had a similarly spotty minivan track record but they kept the Taurus wagon around for another 16 years.
Considering how successful the Celebrity was for General Motors, its surprising the name didn’t stick around longer than a single generation. Although quality and reliability wasn’t on the level as the Japanese, the Celebrity didn’t develop an abysmal reputation like the Citation. And although the Celebrity’s run was longer than a single generation of Accord or Camry, GM didn’t keep flogging the car for over a decade as it did with the related Buick Century and Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera.
North America’s roads were once full of Celebrities but now it has been almost completely forgotten. Blame the Taurus: Ford introduced high-style to a traditionally conservative segment, offered up polished road manners across the range, and generally offered greater quality and a more desirable package for private buyers. The Celebrity wasn’t a bad car although it could have used more polish. And it could have used a replacement in 1986 instead of 1990, although that story has already been told. At least the Celebrity can bask in the satisfaction of beating the Taurus to market.