Between the years 1988 and 1993, GM decided to use Americans in a mass experiment, in which I found myself an unwitting participant. Seemingly unable to determine on its own whether Korean-made cars would pass muster here, GM just sent boatloads of them over and slapped on the storied Pontiac LeMans name, no less. Then it looked for suckers/participants, both long and short term. Oddly enough, one actually had to pay to play. I ponied up for a week’s worth in the summer of 1990, and put it through the most difficult torture possible to try to kill it, in revenge for having been drafted by Hertz to do GM’s work. I hereby submit my results, in the hopes of getting my money back. Oh wait; that was the old GM. Well, someone’s going to hear my evaluation, twenty-some years late or not.
I’m assuming the overall experiment didn’t go so well even without my input, because GM and Daewoo broke up in 1992, right about when the US-LeMans experiment was ending. It wasn’t the first time Daewoo got kicked out of bed for a poor performance, having previously shared sheets with both Toyota and Datsun. Daewoo then went through its brief independent single era, which ended in tears and bankruptcy, and was soon back in the General’s loving arms in about 2002 or so, despite the LeMans experiment, or maybe because of it. They were obviously meant for each other, given how things have turned out.
It was a particularly rude choice of GM to inflict the LeMans onto Americans via Pontiac, since historically the once-proud Indian brand occupied a notch above Chevrolet in the corporate pecking order. And Chevy/Geo was selling some quite decent Japanese cars at the time, both the Corolla-clone Prizm, as well as the Isuzu-built Spectrum. Saturn was also still in its heyday. So why dump this on poor Pontiac?
I suppose one could argue that Pontiac was already the GM cesspool of small cars at the time. Its Chevette-clone 1000 began rotting before it was introduced almost ten years earlier, and the Sunbird was no gem. And there was the not-so Grand Am. How’s another piece of crap dumped on Pontiac going to hurt it? It’s not like it’s going to go under or anything like that.
The Daewoo LeMans actually had some pedigree. It was heavily based on the Opel Kadett E, the lead member of GM’s global T-Platform that found its way around the world. But something go lost in the translation into Korean, because the real McCoy Kadett/Astra was generally able to give the Golf a reasonable run for its money on its home turf.
In the summer of 1990, my younger brother and I both needed a break from our jobs and young families. My parents were heading to the mountains of Colorado for a vacation, a long-time favorite Niedermeyer vacation destination, so we played hookie and joined them for a week. My rental was a 1990 LeMans four door; although fairly new, it seemed like it had already spent a lifetime being abused: the steering was sloppy, the suspension felt like all the bushings and shocks were worn, the engine moaned like it was about to die. And the interior was deadly. “Use Me – Abuse Me” was etched all over its thin paint.
With a 74 hp 1.6 L four hooked to a three-speed automatic, the LeMans was feeble enough at Denver’s altitude; but we were heading to Leadville, the highest town in the continental US. Taking the Hwy 6 bypass at the Eisenhower Tunnel to Loveland Pass took us to 12,000 feet, and the Daewoo was already wheezing and staggering with altitude sickness. But that was just the warm up act.
We came here to climb the fourteen-thousanders of the Collegiate Range, but my seventy-year old father needed a one day break after the big climbs, including this ascent of 14,400 ft. Mt. Elbert, the highest peak in the Rockies. And since my mother couldn’t make any serious climbs at all, on alternate days I took them mountain climbing in the LeMans. There are numerous old wagon and mining roads all over that part of the Rockies; I can’t remember exactly which ones we took, but if they were headed up, so did we.
These rough rock and gravel “Jeep roads” that sometimes reach 13,000 feet or so are normally the exclusive domain of genuine four wheel drives. In the old days, tall and rugged two-wheel drive trucks were adequate, and I had conquered a few with my old VW Beetle. But a rear-engined high-clearance 15″ wheeled VW is not a low-squatting, FWD LeMans. Just for the record, a light FWD car with four adults aboard on a very steep grade is the worst drive train configuration possible, except perhaps a rear-engined car with front wheel drive, which I don’t remember ever being built, except for the Dymaxion.
But we gave the LeMans the spurs, and it scrabbled its way up most everything we could find, although I seem to remember backing down one at some point when the wheels just couldn’t find traction anymore. I might have tried going up backwards; if necessary; that’s the way to go up a too-steep hill in a FWD car. We got high enough as it was, and the boulders we scraped on its bottom were fortunately well inside of the rocker panels.
My mother took and sent me this picture, which was taken on one of our “climbing expeditions”. On the back, she wrote: “this was taken on one of the lower peaks we reached. A triumph for the car and your driving, Paul!” Aw shucks, Mom! I was just doing my job for GM! But I’ll pass on the compliments belatedly. Although I doubt anybody there would care anymore.
Since I’ve already hijacked the main LeMans thread, I’ll share another brief story from that trip. My father, a medic in the Wehrmacht, was captured by the Allies near Normandy during WWII, and felt that he owed his life to being one of a fairly small number of lucky German POWs to be sent to the US, where he was very well-fed. In one of the the large POW camps in France, he saw his weight and health decline precipitously, and attended to many mal-nurished and starving POWs. Since the war was as good as over by then, his group was sent to various military camps in the US to tear them down. One of them was here at Camp Hale, also near Leadville, where the famous 10th Mountain Division trained before heading to Italy. Here my father stands at the foundations of the very buildings he helped dismantle forty-five years earlier. And we got there courtesy of the LeMans.
OK, so the LeMans never gave up regardless of what I dished out. Getting there is one thing, how it feels getting there is what makes the car. And what really put the LeMans into perspective was that my father’s rental was the all-new Mazda 323-based gen2 Ford Escort. The difference between the two was huge. The Escort felt so solid, tight, and buttoned down on the (paved) winding roads; it was an impressive small car for the times; certainly the best to wear a Big Three logo, even if Ford couldn’t take all the credit for it.. Of course, he wouldn’t dare let us compare its climbing abilities to the Daewoo, so that aspect will be forever unknown. But then Ford wasn’t asking us to be their guinea pigs.
Even if Americans didn’t end up embracing the Korean LeMans, it has found a more loving home elsewhere. And a more enduring one too. They’re still being made today as the UzDaewoo Nexia in Uzbekistan (insert Borat joke here).